Sunday, November 20, 2022

ACKS: Neo-Clone or Fantasy Sandbox?

I heard the term "neo-clone" used when people talked about Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), and a neo-clone is a game that uses the framework of B/X to create a new experience - and one not afraid to deviate from B/X compatibility to deliver gameplay improvements. You see this in games like Stars Without Number, Mork Borg, Dungeon Crawl Classics, White Star, and a bunch of other great B/X style games that start with what we are familiar with (B/X style rules) and then go their own way.

The retro-clones are games that stick to rules compatibility first. Even if an obvious choice exists to improve gameplay, they do not take it since compatibility with older materials is more important than new experiences or gameplay improvements. Swords & Wizardry, Old School Essentials, White Box, For Gold & Glory, and a bunch of other games fall into this category.

Labyrinth Lord is sort of a particular case; it is a retro-clone since it is backward compatible, but the "system" it emulates is a mix of D&D and AD&D books back when players assumed everything was roughly compatible. We all just hacked it to work together. The game still feels more retro-clone than neo-clone, though the system it emulates did not officially exist other than "this is what we all did back then." The game is based on B/X assumptions and makes a mix of content work well together.

The Castles & Crusades game feels like another system spiritually close to Labyrinth Lord. The system it emulates is AD&D, using a D&D 3-style framework. C&C is compatible with almost everything, but the experience feels like AD&D without much of the crunch and detail. The only other game that does this is Basic Fantasy, which is a recreation of the older B/X games through a D&D 3-style lens. I love these games since they are essentially the "best of" a specific edition but with gameplay improvements.

With strict retro-clones, you need to be sold on the original experience. And once you are in a retro-clone, the experience is about the same in any of them - with a narrow range of differences in mechanics. Castles & Crusades is more of a retro-clone emulator that throws away dozens of tables, charts, and needless cruft and unifying mechanics under the ability score. Of all of them, this is the easiest to run; you do not need a book or referee's screen full of tables, and characters can play straight from index cards.

With ACKS, I keep coming back to this system. It survived being boxed up and put on storage shelves many times, and it keeps finding a way to my "most played" shelves, where I keep the best games and the ones I love reading. One factor helping this game is it is a neo-clone, and while it is like a B/X game - it is not a B/X game in playstyle. There is a focus on the three layers of play: adventurer, conqueror, and king.

This is like one of those great JRPGs where the game starts innocently enough, with you going to shops, buying heal potions and gear for your party, going to nearby dungeons, and grabbing loot. And then, at a critical moment, the entire game changes. You and your friends find yourselves in a middle of a war or uprising, and you become important. The mid-level game starts, and you are finding your place in the world. You begin changing the world. And at the highest levels, you are ruling a kingdom or the world.

D&D 5 and many retro-clones are based on the flawed "adventure until max level" grind. The reason many games stop at low to mid levels is because things are more of the same and uninteresting. So what that your damage doubles and the monster hit points also do? So your loot is now more powerful, but you need it anyway to keep up with the challenge rating? It all gets boring after a while.

Hence this is why you see a lot of monster and treasure books with challenges and rewards that scale to the maximum level of the game. You need higher number-value monsters to fight higher number-value heroes! It all feels like a mobile game after a while, where your level 878 fighter and level 799 wizard are taking on some monster in the high-hundred-number monster rating.

The stories are always better than the rules in these games. I don't doubt that. But the rules with the scaling numbers are often atrocious and unnecessary for fun and only exist to give you that mobile game progression hit.

With ACKS, you have that "first-level" character experience three times during your character's path - once at every play tier. Your character is a beginning adventurer. Then, your character is a beginning conqueror. And finally, your character is a beginning king. The game uses a simple B/X-style system as its design language, but it stops there. It adds a few systems the game needs to deliver on the experience (proficiencies), simplifies a few things (encumbrance), and provides a balance of familiar classes and new ones.

The paths of higher-level pay are also expanded, with rogues being able to establish a thieves' guild, warriors having armies, constructing domains, divine classes gathering power and establishing temples, and magical classes with experimentation, crafting new spells, and creating magic items. There is much to do at higher levels, reasons to spend gold, and many sandbox-style options for changing the world around you. And at the highest levels of play, you are running a kingdom, building settlements, and engaging in epic world-changing adventures of great importance.

The issue with a lot of retro-clones and even newer games is the "adventure to max level" assumption and providing little or no options for sandbox play. You get put in the adventurer box, and you can never escape from it. ACKS feels like a fantasy "Grand Theft Auto" where at the lower levels you are running around a sandbox doing minor missions, and then as you gain influence and notoriety - the nature of the sandbox changes, and you are taking over the map, destroying enemy strongholds, and getting involved in new things to do. At the highest levels, you work towards changing the world, or at least a part of it, and establishing a kingdom or other organization that becomes a part of the world's lore.

And you can play good or evil characters and work towards any goal without the "shackles of the adventurer" being put around your wrists. Your goals are very sandbox-driven. Do you want to be an evil worshipper of the fallen ancient gods, discovering power, uncovering secrets, gaining followers, and destroying good kingdoms? Go ahead. Again, the GTA model applies here, be paladins or bandits, generals or merchants, divine clerics or cultists, rulers or destroyers, and you are even free to join the bad guys' side and rule over orcs and beastmen.

The default assumption of "playing an adventurer" is a lot of games rob players of control and agency. The upgrade tracks and paths in many games make "farming the treasure, power, and spell lists" the entire game. Traditional dungeon games make you the servant of the rules. ACKS is a fantasy sandbox game, and your motivations for "why you are here" comes from you.

And you can start new characters and adventure in a changing world and still go back to your rulers and play high-level adventures of great importance every so often (or set tax rates, deal with bandits and rebellions, and do all that cool 4X stuff). It does not do "lip service" to domain management like some games that merely say "and you can" - it gives you the rules to do all that cool stuff.

And since it uses old-school sensibilities, if you want to change a rule, add a system, or make a ruling on the spot that "X happens," you don't break the game. Does it fit the moment and story? Then it happens. Fun is more important than making something fit into the rules.

It is rare to find a B/X style game that "does it all," but ACKS is that game.

Friday, November 18, 2022

The Safety Brand

As IP becomes increasingly integrated with other brands and popular culture at large, it gets blander and blander. Taco Bell will not want to make the Forgotten Realms Nacho Grande if a game is associated with demons, horror, dark fantasy, or violence.

Welcome to the world of becoming a "safety brand."

It happens to everything that achieves a certain level of popularity in the culture. Bart Simpson used to be an alternative punk symbol and counter-culture icon, but then he started appearing on every product, from candy bars to video games, and became "uncool."

To make the most money with D&D, I feel Wizards must purge any controversial content and massively tone down the violence. I bet  part of the reason you see college life and other nonviolent expansions is because the "brand is changing" and "it needs to move beyond its violent past."

This is not me speaking; these are New York and Hollywood brand managers.

I have worked with these people before. They will come into a company with the "Wall Street agenda" and push to make your brand more like other successful brands, and work to increase the "synergy" and "cross-marketing potential" of your brand so you "play better with others."

And they will change your game, and try to leave their mark on it, make no doubt.

They would sit in those skyscraper conference rooms, put the words "dark and violent past" on a whiteboard under "problems with the game," and then ask the people who run D&D, "how are you going to address this?"

  • Do you have demons and a "Hell" in your game?
  • Your game leverages Christian beliefs in its divine magic system?
  • Does your game show blood or promote violence?
  • Are the spells and powers that take away consent?
  • Does your game have mysticism and magic?
  • Does your game include real-world religious parallels such as druidism, wiccanism, or paganism?
  • Your game includes horror elements?
  • Your game requires players to "kill things" to "level up?"
  • Your game requires you to "steal wealth" to "gain experience?"

China banned video games from using mysticism and magic, so while some of the above seem outrageous, they are not too far off the mark. I know "barbarian" is a frowned-upon word in some circles, and it does not feel too far away from "druid" and "witch" to join those "culturally sensitive" classes and be banned. Even "thief" became "rogue" in some games.

When a game goes pop and mainstream, this happens. It may not be how you and your group play, but the forces and corporate manipulation are always there.

A lot of players use roleplaying as a way to work through mental health issues and conquer fears. I love that games can sometimes dive into mature content to help serve as a "harmless fantasy exploration" of feelings and issues in players' lives. This is why we socialize and have communities - to help each other work through challenging and complicated lives. To ban that from our games is to tell us we aren't allowed to use fantasy to work through real-life issues.

This is also why we have systems to talk about the content in our games, know our players, and talk about things we are okay (or not okay with) within a game setting. But we are allowed to have them, the switches and toggles are there, and the game has not "written these options out."

This is part of why I like the OSR and these smaller indie-game communities. They do not have the smell of Wall Street and corporate meddling in the game's content, nor do they force you to avoid specific topics or exclude content from your game. There are times I feel in some games, the "how to play the game" writing approaches the level of "cultural police," and they put the expectation on players and DMs to "get people in line" or face ostracization from the community.

All in the name of profits.

And "push players to police their games" would be one of those solutions that would get written on the whiteboard.

DMs, please keep your players from doing anything above a PG rating because, you know, we need that Taco Bell deal, and we don't want people to think negatively about the game "we all enjoy."

Don't you want to be a "good" member of the "community?"

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Off the Shelf: Adventurer Conqueror King System

Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) is one of those games I just keep coming back to. On the surface, it is a strange B/X retro-clone with many custom modifications to the classes and spells to make them work better with the game's 4X-style domain management game. This means re-learning is needed, and double-checking magic spells "you thought you knew" to ensure your interpretation matches the game.

But this is B/X, not a new game, so the differences are minor, and the amount of "getting used to" the game is way less than an entirely new set of rules.

The game is also more Middle-Ages than Renaissance, and that is a fantastic thing since you can pull in the conflict between the older "Conan Era" of the world with old magic and the barbaric ways versus the "New World" of the state - with religion providing the counterbalance and driving force to rebuild lost empires into nations and vanquish the evil magic of the ancestors - and they will not go quietly. I love this fight of the barbaric era versus nation-building, which is an excellent background for framing a dominion game.

So why play a variant B/X game?

Because it is one.

ACKS has your standard B/X classes, so you can feel right at home, but where it shines are in the incredible collection of specialty classes and specialized racial classes that make those cultures come alive. Many B/X games (and even 5E, C&C, and Pathfinder 2) do the race + class thing, where you pick a shape and put yourself in a cookie-cutter class mold. Every fighter is the same, but your shape is one of a selection.

ACKS gives the races in the game unique and exciting classes that let these ansecteries do things "their own way." How elves fight and use magic is different than how humans do it. Dwarves have entirely different skill sets and professions than humans. And there is a class design system that encourages you to do the same, take a race, create a custom class for that ancestry, and come up with a new and different "non-human" way of implementing class mechanics the way it should be for an entirely different culture.

5E and Pathfinder 2, and frankly, most of the B/X race + class games? You are an elf-shaped fighter. All fighters work the same, and some games may have class specializations, so you can be one of a few subtypes. Only the older "race as class" B/X games do things similar to ACKS, but ACKS takes the concept and advances it into many race-as-class options - and encourages you to run with it. Old School Essential Advanced Fantasy also does new race as class options, but they typically have "one race per race as class" selection, and ACKS gives you many of them.

I love the base "human fighter" being the "human way of fighting" and other races having their own unique way of doing things. Elves may mix war-dancing or magic into their fighting and not have the "elf being a human fighter" option - but that is cool. The culture has its own way of doing things, and the game respects that.

You have a progressive distaste for colonialism, yet D&D 5 says, "all races do things the same way as humans" with their race plus class options. Forcing other cultures - that may have unique identities - into one "Western-culture-approved" way of doing it - is a form of racial colonialism. Being a fighter is one thing, and all races better fit in this mold and conform.

Why not celebrate differences?

Why can't a race mix how they fight with magic, divine power, or even thievery? And that is how things are done in these lands. ACKS has dwarven machinists, craft priests, delvers - and a whole bunch of dwarven specialty B/X-style classes, and it makes me excited to play them. This inspires me to spin up a dwarven party of specialists and take them through B/X adventures - which is something many B/X games do not inspire me to do. Am I going to play a game with a generic dwarf-shaped fighter or a game with a dwarven fury or vault guard? I will pick the latter every time since that sounds cool.

I feel that many games are copying other games - because that is what people are used to. As a result, we get a lot of bland options with no discernible differences or class options. Background means little, and it is just a shape plus class choice.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

One D&D: No OGL, No Thank You

There are rumors that One D&D is dropping the OGL. This could be pre-marketing hype where they eventually "reveal it anyways" and expect praise, or it could be a trial balloon to altogether drop the OGL.

If they do drop it, I am not buying or covering the game. I will cover 5E alternatives. I will support Pathfinder 2. I will continue to support the OGL.

To have a monopoly on the tabletop RPG market and cut out dozens of third-party publishers, I feel, is selfish, unfair, and downright wrong. You will put hundreds of artists and writers out of work. I feel this is what an exploitative mobile game developer would do, not a tabletop RPG publisher. 

This rumor could be 100% wrong, so take it all with a grain of salt.

They did mess with the D&D 4E license, so this would not surprise me - but we need to give them the benefit of the doubt and wait and see. I just hope they don't get selfish and lock the game down tightly since everything around it - even "let's play" videos, could get copyright struck, and the game (and the community it exists in) is changed forever.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Paizo Honestly Does a Better Job

Honestly, Wizards, I feel Paizo does a better job at inclusivity and sensitivity than you.

I have been gaming all my life, so not a lot bothers me or gets under my skin, and I like for writers to have more freedom and not be second-guessed. If you hire good writers and artists and tell them your audience expects a certain level of tolerance and inclusion, like Paizo, then you will not make these stupid mistakes and need to hire yet another reviewer before your work goes out the door.

Which will add time and cost to all Wizards' products.

And also, frankly, water them down to something worse than AD&D 2e's level of mass-market, safe-for-everyone, non-controversial "pop fantasy" mush.

You wait, demons and angels - removed.

Humanoid races - removed.

Alignments and the notion of evil - removed.

Death - removed.

Even spells like "hold person" will be scrutinized as a "non-consensual interaction" mechanic and instantly become problematic.

Once everything is fixed, these consultants will try to keep their jobs and find new things that are problematic. It does not stop, and it will not stop.

We head down the AD&D 2e road again, folks, and I get this feeling this is a huge mess and possibly the high-water mark for D&D before it begins its decline. Everything will be hyper-analyzed and picked over, not just by consultants but by the public and media. Everything will be potentially problematic. Any release will have problems, and they will constantly be backtracking and revising books.

This feels like the moment we point back to and say, "This was when the game started to go downhill."

But it doesn't have to be that way.

A better team of writers and creative professionals can create a better product and still be inclusive while allowing players to take the training wheels off. And you don't need layers of sensitivity consultants because, guess what, that is what your writers and artists are supposed to do.

Paizo has lots of controversial content in their game, and they do a better job at inclusivity and representation than Wizards. They don't need to publicly shame themselves. I disagree with how far Paizo sometimes goes because I feel it draws in too high of a technology level for a fantasy game, but that is not a slight against inclusivity. It is a nitpick with design and them going "too steampunk" for my tastes. And Paizo gives you the freedom to include "sensitive topics" because - you know - horror gaming is a thing. And Paizo treats the subject maturely and talks about how you can include things like that in your game if your players are cool with it.

And Paizo's fans are highly progressive, and I have not really heard of any controversies with their game and how it is set up. The door is at least open with Paizo to run an edgy game. They still understand adults are a part of the audience and that adults have free will and can make choices for themselves. Paizo feels like the more progressive company that respects freedom and free will better, and Wizards feels like the creative team that needs "detention monitors."


I feel bad for Wizards, because I know where this comes from. I feel Wizards embarrassed Hasbro with Spelljammer. And I feel the company "got them on a call" and "forced them to publicly address the issue."

This happens.

This is Wall Street.

There is no freedom or creativity here, only profits and not rocking the boat.

But honestly, I feel Paizo and Pathfinder 2e do all of this right. And even better, they allow you to turn all the "safety switches" off and let you play the game how you want.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Indiegogo: Amazing Adventures - New Printing!

Very nice, a 3-book set for the Amazing Adventures game? And they are making this more "multi-genre" than "pulp" themed? They are doing new artwork and reorganization, folding in all of the options from expansions, and creating three traditional books (player book, GM book, monster book) for the game.

Since I love Castles & Crusades, I am all-in on this one.

More soon and this is a definite look forward to release!

Castles & Crusades: Play Without the Book

Castles & Crusades is one of those genius games where I do not need to open the book to play. I tried getting back into Savage Pathfinder, and I was amazed at all the supporting rules needed to make the dicing system work. Savage Worlds works exceptionally well, but it does require a pretty substantial framework of supporting rules to keep everything working and to provide enough options to keep players happy. There are many things to keep in my mind when playing Savage Worlds, and it feels like I have to "load the operating system" and keep a ton of things in mind when I play the game.

Savage Worlds is great, but it is a lot to process and memorize, and there are a lot of "minigames" baked into the rules, which require extra toys and items scattered about the table to play. Everything in that game is terrific and works together like a well-tuned game, but at times I just want to focus on the story and characters rather than the mechanics. They are great mechanics, though, but sometimes my mind does not want to spend time working through them.

Give me a character sheet, and I can make C&C sing. I don't need to open a book to play. Everything I need is on my character's notecard. This is not "me knowing the rules"; this is more "there are no rules to reference" - the entire framework and model of the system is built into the ability scores and Siege Engine.

Castles & Crusades is very iPhone-like. A lot is hidden from you, and the best, most configurable parts are exposed to the user. The things you want to change are there. The pointless things people associate with "power users," such as charts, tables, math, and paragraphs of rules, are not.

One of the other games like this for me is Tunnels & Trolls, one of the best "beer & pretzels" RPGs where you grab a bucketful of d6 dice and roll a Saturday afternoon away. This is another game where "no book at the table" is needed, and you can play from your head without referencing rules.

I can play many B/X-style games in my head, but a few B/X games are more "rules-y" than others and require constant book reference. Swords & Sorcery, with its single saving throw, hits my sweet spot, and games like Old School Essentials are great - but at times, I feel B/X is more about your interpretations and inspiration than a well-organized reference book. B/X is not centered around organized A-B-C rules - it is a game where you and your interpretations are 50% of the game. I still love Old School Essentials as a reference guide, but games that slow down and give me a lot of flavor and inspiration call to me more these days.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Too Much OSR?

I have to admit, I have OSR games I bought and don't play. I heard a feeling that there are too many OSR games, and the market needs to be straightforward and provide information about choices. But then again, this is the OSR; it all works together anyway, so there really isn't a problem.

Are there too many OSR games? I don't know. I don't really feel there are, and I have a few favorites - but it is nice to have a choice and for everyone to pick their favorite games. With the 5E world, you have many players but little choice. With the OSR, you have infinite choices and fewer players. But honestly, with 5E you are playing fantasy most of the time.

I do see a lot of niche OSR projects on Kickstarter, and my interest in them has waned just a little. I have everything I need for OSR and games closely aligned with the movement. This is not because my interest in the OSR has lessened, I just have so many OSR games that fit my interests the new Kickstarters do not seem to offer much new - except art and various book formats.

But I am sorting through my collection and boxing up games I don't play. My current best of the best OSR games that have survived multiple shelf shufflings and boxings are as follows:

Swords & Wizardry

Most of my Swords & Wizardry material are adventures played with Castles & Crusades. The base game is still my go-to OSR game since it does all the right things:

  • Magic resistance mechanics
  • Awesome fighters
  • Less reliance on ability score modifiers
  • One saving throw number (genius)
  • Meant to expand and improvise rules
  • Feels like AD&D Lite

Now, Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials are in storage - although I love those games, Swords & Wizardry does it all, feels like classic 0E plus AD&D, and does the job cleanly. I still play C&C instead because that game is more straightforward still and has way more options for the time you invest.

Old School Essentials is an incredible game if you do straight B/X, and highly recommended. Parts of it, I feel, are a little too simplified for my liking and almost too bare-bones in the class implementations. The game has a wealth of options for character types; it is just inside those options I prefer a little more detail to the classes.

Labyrinth Lord is coming out with a 2nd edition (according to the creator and his Facebook page), and I am very excited about that. Until then, I will wait and see and spend the time with other games.

The single saving throw number in this game is a genius-level simplification. It eliminates the odd and arbitrary categories and allows classes and races to specialize in an area with just a modifier (save vs. poison at a +2). It can also be used as a back-door skill system, again with modifiers if you want. You can apply ability score modifiers to a save if needed. If I play B/X and AD & D style games, I want to record as little as possible on a character sheet.

Castles & Crusades

My D&D replacement game for all editions. Is it OSR? Not really, but it does OSR so well it belongs on this list. I spent 3 hours creating a 5E character when I could have spent 3 minutes creating a C&C character and the rest of the time playing an adventure. Seriously, there was a point where I felt I was wasting my time with complex systems that did not return enough fun for the time invested.

Best of all, C&C stays out of the way as much as you want. You can play this "5E style" and do a skill check for every situation, or ignore the Siege Engine and let player actions and referee judgments run the game without dice and do things "OSR style."

Or mix the two.

Mixing classes gives you hundreds of possible multi-class combinations and can express any character you have in your head easily.

This game replaces Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials for me as well since this game does all the classic dungeon action without the saving throw tables, thief percentage tables, undead turning tables, and other strange charts you need to write down on your character sheet.

Save versus wands? Not in this game. Honestly, that is a save versus spells with a bonus to the roll. Not everything in the B/X era is worth keeping around. In 40 years of gaming, my group has never needed to save versus wands, yet here I am writing down save categories for situations that do not cover 100% of the hazards in a dungeon and go too granular with a few cases when a broad stroke is needed.

Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS)

Wait! Is a game with the save versus wands on this list?


This game has survived many reshelving attempts and even being boxed up twice. It delivers on the realm-management promise, which very few other games do. And when you take a deeper look, the game has some deliciously gonzo and crazy treats for mages. Building a dungeon to farm monsters from and, maybe, lure adventurers to their deaths? Check. Creating mutant monster-human or monster-monster races in genetic breeding experiments? Check. Creating golems to fight for your army or crush your enemies? Check. Create an evil thief guild? Check. Make your cleric convert a population to their god? Check.

You could run a Game of Thrones game here with no problem. Good or evil kingdom. Good or evil characters tearing down the opposite side or conquering the wilds and building a new kingdom.

The game is like Civilization VI combined with a B/X roleplaying game, and it rocks.

Dungeon Crawl Classics

I have a small shrine to this game in my gaming room. Yes, there are 3E-style saving throws, thief percentage tables, and all sorts of stuff to write down. Despite all the flaws, it is clearly an S-Tier game.

The game screams in the night for you to break all your preconceptions about fantasy. Fantasy these days is this "uni-genre" and a safe, non-controversial, all-ages, talking cartoon shapes, safe for Twitter, meant to win, bucket list checkbox, fantasy fulfillment game.

And it sucks. It is a gray blob of goo that could be anything. It recycles the same old gnolls, orcs, beholders, ogres, mind flayers, dragons, displacer beasts, gelatinous cubes, cute goblins, blah, blah, blah, same old tired monsters. The spell effects are the same. The classes are the same. Everything is so stereotyped the entire game is a parody of itself.

DCC breaks the perfect box of crayons and tells you that you are never getting them back.

And you end up having more fun without all the junk and "product identity" they tell you "you can't have fun without," and you realize that trademarked and copyrighted content sucks and removes your imagination.

Every DCC module breaks the mold, and they rarely - if ever - reuse monsters or use the "old standards." The bad guy this time? Um, evil hairless and skinless rabbits were reanimated by the gas from a meteorite. What do you think they could do? What special powers do they have? You don't know, and they are not in a monster manual. How about fighting them and finding out?

And at that moment, you feel alive; you don't know what is around the next corner, what this next room hold, what that item does, and the magic and excitement of why you play role-playing games - comes back to you instantly.


You may notice a pattern here in my picks. They are not straight B/X implementations. They all do something unique, are the best in ease-of-use (C&C), perfectly hit all the right notes (S&W), or do something no other games do (DCC & ACKS). I am way beyond the vanilla B/X game.

Swords & Wizardry is probably the closest to B/X on my list. It earned that spot for being the most like AD&D feeling while doing all the right things. The game also pares back out-of-control ability score modifiers and puts player decisions and roleplaying ahead of stats - a refreshing change of pace.

Castles & Crusades is so easy to use, and it makes running 20 characters solo a possibility. It tosses many charts and rules, and you can play this straight from the character sheet like the classic Star Frontiers game. Everything is right there; roll and play. No other B/X games do this, and they are all super reliant on charts and writing down many lists of numbers on character sheets.

ACKS is a 4X game disguised as a B/X game.

And DCC is pure rock and roll.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Freedom is Imagination

One of the best examples of "freedom is imagination" is in Dungeon Crawl Classics. Let's say your level 4 rogue goes to an alien world and finds a green energy flamethrower that does 3d6 in cone or 6d6 to a single target, with a low roll, meaning bouncing the flame back into your face, hitting allies, bringing down the roof, setting the whole room on fire, or it breaking down.

I made that weapon up. It is a silly one-shot fantastic piece of alien tech I made up in my head.

And it is not in the rules, which is the critical point.

DCC encourages you to use your imagination and makeup magic treasure, monsters, traps, settings, weapons, NPCs, and adventures - and just go wild making everything up! They give you a few sample monsters and magic items, and if you read the modules, you will get flooded by custom monsters, magic items, gear, environmental conditions, NPCs, spells, patrons, and all sorts of strange and wonderful stuff. No module honestly re-uses monsters.

My green flamethrower weapon? Same idea. It is something I made up and is probably the rogue's new favorite weapon and toy, and will probably serve the rogue well as long as he or she still is alive to use the weapon.

Does it unbalance the game?


But think about this, in the next game, that weapon doesn't exist.

So I do not really care.

When you play a new module, everything in the other modules doesn't exist (unless a character survived one and carried something from it forward). Anything in those modules that breaks the campaign does not break the base game.

The base game is untouched by all the silly ideas you or module writers can come up with. The reset button gets pressed, and the next group of heroes goes into the world and finds all sorts of crazy loot while that may be "campaign-breaking" stuff, it won't last beyond that game, and the base rules will still be untouched for the next time.

But a lot of games have this assumption, "if it is in one module or adventure, it is canon!"

With DCC and MCC, really only the base books are canon - if you can call them that. They are starting points, and they both make a point of only including a few examples of monsters, magic items, technological devices, and other items - and while they give you a lot, the entire focus of the game is the DIY craziness of your own imagination. If what you create is unbalanced, it won't affect the next game, and you are free to use GM Fiat to break it, make it run out of charges, make low rolls hurt, or have it fall down an infinitely bottomless pit of doom. Most of the time, just leave it be and live with it.

So you broke your game, so what?

That is the amount the freedom the game gives you.


Compare this to 5E.

Don't you dare break Wizard's game!

I exaggerate a little, but you get the point. There is this fear and feeling anything that goes into 5E must be balanced, and it must be put on some "equipment list" for use in the future and anyone else's game. If it is a 3rd party "thing," then some players won't even add it to their game - only official books, please! Please don't mess up my game!

This feels like the complete opposite tone and feeling of DCC and MCC. You are supposed to play "game designer" in these games and make most everything up. You should invent crazy skull-headed laser wands with death rays that can bounce around corners and back into the wielder's face. Mind control helmets. Rings of acid skin. Monsters that are giant tongues with legs. Floating eyeballs with freeze rays. Insta death traps. Is it balanced? Who cares?

The less exhaustive lists and giant bestiaries a game gives you, the more freedom you have. There is a sweet spot of including enough types of different things to give you rough parameters, but there is a point where a game stops being a game, and it becomes a "game of lists" that shackles your creativity.

In B/X or D&D, why do I need to imagine a custom "magic aegis of bird control" sword when that "sword, +2" on the magic item list will do just fine? Lists can also turn your game into a buffet of bland choices and remove any creative input you would have had into the game.

Huge lists? Less freedom.

Since I only play OGL versions of 5E, this feeling affects me a lot less since everything in my game is fantastic. There are players who do not play with anything 3rd party, so there is that feeling in the community.

Low Fantasy Gaming

Low Fantasy Gaming does a little of this DIY stuff with the "every 3 levels" class features where players can invent class powers, and also in the "exploit system" where a damaging hit can add a special effect the player gets to invent. It does all this in the 5E framework, which is frankly astonishing, and it also maintains numeric compatibility with the base game.

LFG also tosses out a bunch of 5E rules the game does not need and tells you to make it up if the rule doesn't exist. It puts trust and "game designer hats" on the referee and players. It is less crazy and gonzo than DCC or MCC, so it sticks closer to realism and believability.

Low Fantasy also does not feel brave enough in "dark and dangerous magic," with most magical corruption effects having a duration and permanent effects being terrible rolls. It feels like a "stater game" when it comes to permanently changing player characters, where DCC and MCC are thrilled to have a wizard grow horns and his skin turn green - permanently. There still is that 5E style of "player protection" in LFG, compared to the "it is okay to toss your character sheet in the shredder" DCC and MCC games.

Having a game go out of its way to protect players is also a loss of freedom.

That aside, I still feel LFG is the most interesting 5E clone out there, and I like it slightly better than Level Up 5E since this game makes an effort to bring OSR concepts into a 5E framework. One could argue that OSR concepts do not need all these "minigame frameworks," and that is a valid point, but the amount of 5E rules tossed in the bin by LFG gives me a new perspective on the 5E engine and how good it could be if stripped down and fine-tuned.

You are Not Your Character

This is also why "seeing yourself in the game" and "playing a version of yourself" is dangerous, and back in the day, we were always warned not to do this. These days, I feel companies are pushing games with identity marketing and making it impossible for a character to die - because I feel they are very irresponsibly pushing the idea that "the players are the characters." Back in the day, we were told this was damaging psychologically, and in a game where bad things could happen to characters, this was something you did not do.

Players should never be characters or self-insert into the game, ever.

And yes, a game that encourages you to "be in the game" also reduces your freedom since there will be "safety rails" built into the rules, and your character options and choices will be limited or more focused on either human or pop-culture-centered lineage choices. And I feel this is also a very irresponsible method of retention and marketing that (in my feeling) could damage players' mental health.

Games of Imagination

Going back to Dungeon Crawl Classics (and also MCC), I have a soft spot for this game. This isn't D&D fantasy, nor is it an "early 1980s D&D simulator." There was this specific subgenre for roleplaying in the late 1970s and 1980s that embraced the culture of black-light felt paintings, painted vans, disco sucks 1970s rock culture, the drug subculture, underground 1970s comix, the hippie culture, adult comedy records like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, CB culture, and a lot of the significant underground subcultures of the 1970s that found their way into roleplaying games.

The culture was a middle finger to big corporations, the military-industrial complex, government, organized religion, the sycophant media, and popular entertainment - TV, radio, mainstream comics, and movie studios (Disney too, who were notoriously litigant against underground comics). Pop culture and pop music was trash. Video games were not a huge cultural thing. If you don't know anything about this culture, take some time and learn about it - this was a fantastic period of culture that brought us so many of the classic songs, movies, and TV shows we love today.

People that made these comix and underground culture were arrested, sued, and jailed.

And the stories and tales - the actual Appendix N stuff - were freaky, out there, and wild, man! This wasn't even like today's anime which, for the most part, has high artistic merit and technical skill - but is still primarily either corporate or a higher form of art. I love anime, but it was nothing like Appendix N source material and the "Hippy and Freak Culture" of the 1970s. The underground was very anti-authoritarian, and yes, this would also be anti-big publisher games from billion-dollar companies.

And this culture emphasizes the individual and creativity.

A lot of the social conformity of this era would be frowned upon.

You are you.

And you - that cool, fun, unique person in the mirror, however you choose to be - are remarkable. And a massive part of this is "making stuff up." Because the stuff you dream up is just as cool too.

Unlike other games where you feel looked down upon for adding your creativity, DCC and MCC require your creativity, celebrate it, encourage it, and make it a part of the game. Players get to imagine, too, as creative and imaginative play is critical for success and pushing those dice up the chain.

Creativity is not storytelling in a tightly-controlled rules system, as 5E would have you believe. Creativity is opening the door to you - the players and referee - to create rules, monsters, magic items, spells, worlds, classes, weapons, and anything else you can imagine in your game.

You get to put on the game designer's hat, too.

And the game doesn't handcuff you by giving you giant lists of "stuff" to clog up your imagination and subconsciously tell you "the game's designers are better than you." Again, I exaggerate, but the feeling is there when a game gives you "too much." You will never use everything in the book, so why should you create anything of your own? The characters are simple, so players are not staring at their skill lists with tunnel vision.

Does the game you play discourage you from adding your creativity to the game? Are your contributions seen as "homebrew" or "house rules?" Do you feel to have fun, you need to follow the rules exactly as written?

Or do you want a game that opens that book of creativity in your mind and tells you to "think outside the book?"

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

False Choices and Why We Play

My exploration of 5E and the OSR alternatives has been fascinating. Along the way, I found solid OGL alternatives to the 5E game, such as Level Up Advanced 5E, and I have also found attractive OSR-style alternatives, such as Low Fantasy Gaming. Low Fantasy Gaming is a fascinating game since they attempt to inject into the game the one thing that 5E tries so hard to remove:


Yes, you have freedom of action - but that is not the freedom to modify the rules, characters, builds, and experience. You get the feeling if you "mod the rules," you will break everything, and this is very true in games like Pathfinder 2. D&D 5 seems the same, and with One D&D making rules for many more actions, I get the feeling these "clarifications" will end up handcuffing players and dungeon masters into handling every situation the same way.

And you will get more "freedom" in designing characters, in that those min-max ability score bonuses can be put where you want, but what is the point of even having them when they feel required? I feel more freedom in character design in One D&D will lead to less since min-max-ing will become the norm, and there will be no choice except the best ones.

An over-reliance on ability score modifiers for classes hurts the game. If they are "required" to play a class, factor them out and focus on classes only. Or eliminate their bonus effects and put all characters in that class on the same level. If a fighter is "required" to have an 18 STR by the min-max character creation system, give all fighters STR 18. If they start with a 16, give them a 16 and increase that as they level. Just don't give me a "choice" when it is a false one.

And I feel the few freedoms players have are being taken away. As the game stands, multiclass exploits are the most fun part of the game for many. How do I create an effective build? How do I twist the rules? Part of me feels that Level Up 5E isn't as popular as it should be, is because the exploits were patched out. What fun is playing a "fixed" 5E?

Is there any fun in a fixed 5E?

I know, story and adventures - but some PC games that are patched and balanced see rapid player declines because "what was fun isn't anymore." Do not discount the power and sway of the serious optimizers, and as influencers, they can make or break your game. I can have fun with stories and characters - and most people do - but for stories and characters, I have far better games to play that handle those things better (and easier) than 5E.

The rules of 5E are not fun by themselves. They do not stay out of the way, and most games feel like taking advantage of them through builds. Like 4E, the rules of 5E "are" the game.

Even in the One D&D playtest documents, you see the designers “rolling back” fundamental freedoms – such as moving roleplaying interactions from the Dungeon Masters Guide to the Player’s Handbook and writing a rule for them. This is likely a reaction to the success of Pathfinder 2, a game that has so many rules for everything that it would not surprise me if there weren’t a breathing action somewhere in there as a free action.

Rules, rules, rules.

The more rules we have, the better!


Not Exactly

5E Started as a fantastic, OSR-style, throwback game – especially in comparison to D&D 4E. As time went on and the game got popular, they shoveled on the rules. The game does not feel as “free” as it once did. Some of the playtest rules seem like they roll back the role of the dungeon master back to that horrid “DM as DVD player” role they had in 4E – shut up, your power is severely limited, put the figures on the map, run the combats, and say the lines we give you in the “read this to players” boxes. One D&D feels like it is “less fun to DM” than 5E, which is a huge problem. It may be easier, but it will not be as fun.

I get the feeling Wizards knows their most significant problem is attracting dungeon masters and keeping them. I do not feel One D&D addresses that problem, and in some ways, it makes it worse. Taking away crits from dungeon masters felt wrong and played into that "DM is a DVD player" feeling. I also feel if Wizards could find a way to do away with the DM role, they would.

Like dungeon masters, the hardcore optimizers are also players who drive excitement and retention. That group is not getting too much beyond the min-max-y ability score modifiers but is also having a lot of exploits taken away. Exploits they rely on and enjoy.

Revisions to a game are bizarre things. Logically - fix the exploits! But there are times when a revised game does not set the world on fire, and what made the game fun gets fixed.