Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Great Unhappening

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Drow, chromatic dragons, and so many other concepts are being weeded out of the Pathfinder 2E revision and, as I suspect, many other games.

Wizards and D&D used to have this "soft lock" on expectations of what constitutes a fantasy world and setting. Therefore, anytime a game repeated the "familiar old things," it was an admission that "D&D would always be the best representation." The "kiss on the king's ring" and a soft admission of loyalty cemented D&D as the mindshare leader. It kept people from making their own video games and online experiences, as they were still determining ownership, yet they were okay to use in printed games.

Kiss the ring.

The drow and chromatic dragons are Creative Commons now - but, as I suspect, Paizo wants to break free from that and plant the seeds of a new license. This means doing away with the legacy concepts in the CC 5E SRD so they have a "clean base" to build upon. They do not want to include the CC content, so it is all being purged. I do see a fork between the CC games (Swords & Wizardry) and the ORC games, and this is likely one of the most significant splits in the community to have ever happened.

This was the ultimate "soft lock" on a mental IP - fantasy gaming - ever. The most critical virtual mind-space would be fantasy gaming and superheroes. Control those mental concepts, and control billions.

Now that everyone is rewriting their games, the D&D mindshare is being tossed into the bin.

This will be the most significant impact of the OGL disaster and one Wizards could have never predicted.

The lore they let everyone use was the lore that kept them the market leader.

Now, all that is gone. People are making their own stuff. The idea of what fantasy "is" will be many different things. The language and concepts will be different. The "open source" monsters and "dark elves" will diverge from "the Wizards versions." These new things will be open, which will be used more and eventually replace the closed source versions.

Don't get mad or depressed; they did this to themselves. It does prove why the current crowd there aren't the best stewards of the game. They lost what is arguably the most crucial jewel in that crown.

The one that made them a king.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Your Anger Will Do Nothing

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

At this point, if you complain about being put over a barrel by price increases on books from games by billion-dollar Wall Street toy companies and other predatory corporations, your complaints are worthless; they will never be heard, and going on social media to complain will get you nowhere.

Years of price gouging by miniature wargaming companies and card game companies have never made prices go down. Sitting on Twitter complaining about the prices of collectors market RPG books will have the same result.

I get the feeling many of those complaining just want to complain. They will never leave the game. Complaining is the last thing they must hold on to and the last sinew binding the frayed community together.

You can choose other games.

But, let's be honest, many just won't.

The desire to be part of an angry community is greater than the fun they have for the game. This is one of the "signs of the apocalypse" for any hobby or community, where more fun is had complaining than enjoying the game. And people will buy the next book, never use it, just to have the "right" to be angry and still be seen as having a "valid" opinion. I have seen this happen with many games; these are the doldrums, the waiting period before the "next huge fad" comes along, and the old hobby is forgotten.

This happened in the waning days of 2E and 3E, when the games were dying off, and people were abandoning ship for card games. You had people that liked to complain more than play and would take any mistreatment by the company as a reason to continue the abusive relationship.

You only have a short time in this world.

Even less can be spent on a hobby.

Why waste it?

Stop complaining; just play.

And if you are unhappy, leave and find something new.

And say, "The old game is dead to me."

I did, and I could not be happier. You have to, or you will just keep getting sucked back into the lure of the hate posters, angry people, and never-ending arguments. The curse of the garbage hot take.

The imaginary fear of "not finding a group or game" is perpetuated by those who cling to the deck chairs and, worse, by those who never play. Platforms like Roll20 and others lock you into a system due to the availability of choice and feature development. Then again, many games don't need all these 'ease of use' tools built into VTTs, and the game should be designed better and not need all this special coding, modules, and extra work.

If I wanted to play any game, even games decades out of print, I could quickly find a community, put something together, announce it, and have a game. There are communities on Facebook for games I have never heard of, and if I announced a game there, one could be set up for the following weekend quickly. I could do this on any platform; even Tabletop Simulator is fine.

With people that love the game and community. Those smaller communities are often better crowds of faithful fans. I would find a new group of incredible people to hang out with in a snap.

It takes a little more effort but would be well worth it.

Or invest in a 5E clone or alternative. Tales of the Valiant, Level Up, Low Fantasy Gaming, Shadowdark, and many alternatives are out there, and the communities would be thrilled to have you. If you like the 5E framework, you don't have to go that far and will be familiar with all the rules. Plenty of OSR games would love to have you, too; C&C, OSE, Knave, and many others are outstanding games with active communities. There are free games too. Pathfinder is doing incredibly well. Outside of that, Cypher System is an excellent game with a great community.

I just don't buy the anger about the book prices anymore.

Yes, you bought books from a lousy company; you can be mad about them lying to you. That is the price of dealing with Wall Street; you will get screwed. There is no other end than that.

But you have choices.

And some companies care about you and want your business.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Grimdark and Pop Culture Jokes

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

When I try and find a great grimdark RPG, I stay away from the sophomoric ones that constantly riff on pop culture. Only a few are purist grimdark fantasy horrors, like Zweihander or Shadow of the Demon Lord. Still, many of the d20 OSR ones just get too silly, full of pop-culture jokes, and it feels like the writers fear the material and need to sugar-coat it in silly jokes and pop-culture references.

I don't want riffs on movies or anime. Dated political jokes. Star Trek references. Willy Wonka. Disco music. Spaceships. Those have their place in gonzo settings, but I don't want them in my grimdark. And gonzo-style themes are the trend most d20 grimdark games take, toss in the anime influence in there, and suddenly we are playing 5E.

My problem with anime-style games is they encourage too much player protection and emotional investment, which counter the goals of pure horror. People get upset when "terrible things happen" to their anime characters because it triggers an emotional response on the level that hurting innocents would have.

Anime characters look too much like cute animals or children to be taken seriously in horror roleplaying. Yes, there are great horror animes, but they are very disturbing to many for that exact reason. You play anime-style games, and that "make the game too easy" player protection follows shortly after. I don't know what it is; perhaps the type of players the game attracts?

And the JRPG tropes of the supersized weapons and 'rule of cool' art are an extension of the anime tropes. Suppose a barbarian is wielding a sword more sizable than himself. In that case, you have already stepped away from reality on a level that anything horrible that happens really can't be taken seriously. I will just hit it with my room-sized sword! My lightning bolt can crack a castle tower in half! I am too cool to be afraid of anything!

You are superheroes now. That much player power is incompatible with horror. I don't know; some unwritten code about anime and the rule of cool games equates that look and style now with player protection and excessive character empowerment. It adds complexity, and those generous "player attractive" design goals are incompatible with horror games.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I like horror games where the characters are grim and gritty and have that initial disposable feeling. You watch a movie like Event Horizon, and you meet the crew. When you first see them, they are average nobodies; who cares? And then you start to care when you get to know them and see their struggles and fears. They make you laugh, and you learn things about them. And then you invest, and the loss of one means something. It begins to hurt.

Gonzo is a different genre. Gonzo is crazy, like Gamma World. Gonzo can get silly because the whole genre is admittedly unrealistic. Gonzo-style horror is difficult to do well; only games like Dungeon Crawl Classics pull it off - mostly with lots and lots of the unknown.

But even in gonzo-style games, I like to limit my pop-culture references. Gonzo-style means that feeling of venturing into the unknown. Having evil versions of the Muppets running around a dungeon may sound hilarious, but I find those gags silly at first and groan-inducing the next time. That sort of thing is more satire, and if a game says satire and starts there, then I am comfortable (since I know what I am buying into).

In a game like classic Paranoia, sure thing, bring on the pop-culture reference and insanity, and that game is a classic mix of grimdark, satire, and gonzo themes. I expect that there. But suppose a game starts with a severe tone and says horror, and the adventures and world go into total Paranoia satire. In that case, there is a disconnect where the game's "adventure culture" takes off in one direction, and something is missing in the original book.

I hate sounding like a spoil-sport, but I am choosy about games with pop culture and silliness. If the game embraces the genre, like Paranoia, I am all in! If a game wants to be grimdark, and I get Star Trek cameos, I feel like I have been misled. Yes, what goes in a game is ultimately up to me, but consistency in theme and feeling is very nice.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Mail Room: Cepheus Deluxe Enhanced Edition

The art is a bit meh, and the layout is an explosion of colors - but I still love this 'best of 2d6' science fiction set of rules. The game is coming into its own, abandoning the random character generation, cleaning up the rules, and focusing on providing that OSR 2d6 science fiction experience.

Why not Traveller?

It is too tied to the Imperium setting, and the system is getting too big. When I think of Traveller, I go back to the original books. I don't want a slick presentation, nor do I want endless shelves full of expansions. The rules should be in one book - which they are if you just stick to the core Traveller book - but the ships and feeling of Traveller are too Imperium for me. I can't see an X-Boat or scout courier and not think of the setting, and they are so closely tied to it that it is like using TIE Fighters outside of Star Wars and expecting people to not think of that franchise.

And the more books you add to Traveller, the more you buy into the official setting. Three books in, and you are not playing anywhere else.

If I want my own universe and a one-book system for 2d6 roleplaying, this is my game. If I want to hex-crawl in space and figure out what is over there in the next star, this will do it without loading a heap of guilt on me that I am not using the official setting.

The hardcover's colors aren't as crazy as the PDF due to printing, which is good. There is also a B&W version now, which I am also considering getting. Are there things that could be improved? I want more alien archetypes or design rules for aliens; more ship designs would be excellent. I would love a plain, B&W, no-art version. But all of these are nice-to-haves and things I can do myself, which is the OSR at heart.

A flawed classic but far better than a lot of the alternatives. The fun-to-play factor outweighs any complaints about art or layout.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Swords & Wizardry Revised Edition

Hail to the king, baby.

My Kickstarter survey came in today, and I got my hands on the PDF for the Swords & Wizardry Revised rulebook. This is a new generation of S&W based on the Creative Commons material, but the game's numbers and "look and feel" are more closely aligned with the original source material.

The beauty of this edition is there is no legal question on "Is this game allowed" or "The rights will be taken away someday." They won't, they can't, and this is a new beginning.

And there are some improvements over even OSE and other games, with the super-handy addition of a mid-book index only for spells (p52-53), listed alphabetically with page numbers - and every entry in this index is hyperlinked (spell and page)! This is a fantastic addition to the PDF and makes finding a spell description the easiest in any digital rulebook I have ever used.

With magic resistance and the classic "advanced" monsters, this feels like the best retro-clone of 1e that is out there today, future-proof, with beautiful retro art, and amazingly laid out and organized.

And the OGL is finally dead.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Cypher System: The Universal Task Mechanic

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

There are a lot of incredible rules in the Cypher System, but none more universal than how monsters are created.

You set the level.

You multiply the level by 3 for hits.

That is the average monster of anything in the game. Now, you can tweak the numbers so everything isn't so uniform, like making a goblin a level 2 creature with 6 hits but making the little guy vicious and force level 3 defense rolls (doing 3 damage) on the characters - now the goblin is weak to taking damage but can put out more damage than an average level 2 critter. Monsters can have many other special abilities and rules, including special attacks and defenses and anything else you could find in a d20 game.

Minus a heck of a lot of rules.

However, what if you wanted to rate a complicated, multipart task where progress is tracked?

Simply make it a monster.

Set the task level, and multiply by 3 to calculate the "hits" of the task. Make rolls against the task as usual, like standard combat. But how much "damage" do you do on a successful roll? That depends on the effort, and you can rate that as a light (2 points, eases), medium (4 points), or heavy weapon (6 points, inability). The player chooses the level of effort (2, 4, or 6) and modifies difficulty according to the situation, assets, skills, and rolls.

Reduce the task's hits (or total effort needed) on a success. On a failure, no effort is gained. On failed rolls, you could reduce a character's ability score pool by the task level if the task is physically or mentally exerting. You could even use that as damage (such as untangling a panicked animal from a thorny briar).

Bonus effects on the rolls (like bonus damage) can be used to reduce the task's hits/total effort.

The atomic pass/fail rolls are still the standard way of doing most everything in the game. Still, this system lets you use the combat mechanics for complex tasks, such as safecracking, where a series of rolls may be needed to open the safe, and the character could mentally exert themselves on a string of failures.

The rules of this game are so easy to hack, and this is one of the best d20 systems out there.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Entirely Social

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

So I did an entirely social game of Cypher System last night, a sort of 'running around town' session that would be a stretch to call 'an adventure.' Any game would struggle to make this enjoyable, but I had a few things going for me outside of the typical "town session" I was beta-testing.

I created a list of locations and gave them "levels" to represent the venue's general difficulty in challenges. Let's say you have a bar where you can find a seat 90% of the time. I rate that bar a 1 since that is a 90% success level. How about a club that always has a line, and is how to some rough customers? That may warrant a 3; you fail the roll, are stuck in the line, and miss the fun. Maybe you still get in, but it is probably late, you missed the cool thing that happened, and the entire visit was meh.

This is the wonderful shortcut Cypher System gives you, throw a level on it and be done. The level can be used for everything from drinking games, games of darts, the level of people in a bar fight, the difficulty of finding a person of information in there, finding a romantic interest, and many other things. The more popular club generally attracts higher skilled people, since it is popular, then it is the place to be seen.

The OSR doesn't do this type of mechanic or relies heavily on 3rd party random charts. Many OSR referees will just "invent what happens" and not need anything in the way of a base challenge-level concept for anything unless you are playing the Cypher System adjacent Index Card RPG, which uses a similar "scene challenge level" mechanic. I would do the same thing there, give a bar a target number and some hearts, and whatever the players did, drink the bar under the table, start a fight, play darts or cards, arm wrestle - target number is the difficulty, hearts are what you knock down, and the special dice are used to gain progress. Reduce the scene to zero and move on to the next story part.

Some like the extreme GM fiat of the OSR, and I appreciate that when running games for others. When I play solo I like a few more mechanics to guide me in these situations. Being able to zero-to-ten anything in Cypher and whittle away with hits with effort is a nice way of resolving actions that may have back and forth. Otherwise, I use pass-fail atomic rolls and let the chips fall where they may.

You can do that with Cypher System, too, since you can derive hits by multiplying the challenge by three and find creative ways to do "damage" to the scene's "hits." Count most levels of effort as medium 4-point attacks unless you're doing something cool or special, then rate it a heavy, 6-point level of effort. Easy things that mirror light weapon attacks ease the difficulty but only apply 2 effort points.

Also, depending on the character's skills, being able to do a medium or heavy "attack" to a scene's hits may have an inability. Going for the bullseye would net a 6-point heavy attack in a game of darts, but I would increase the difficulty by one for most characters. Lose, and that 6-points goes to your "hits" (likely SPD pool here) since you took a big chance and blew it. Use whatever pool as a temporary "hit value" but don't deal actual damage (unless effort is used and points spent).

So if you are in a drinking game, play out the rounds as a defense, and if you win, knock effort of the scene's hits. Drinking that level one bar under the table will be easier than the level three one.

The one thing my setting lacked was any sort of conflict, so it was all very plain and boring. I had lists of GM Intrusions for each location, but all the game became was "visit and intrusion" which felt sort of silly. What my social town setting needs are factions and conflicts to take this to the next level. I need to be giving the characters missions and providing the opposition in their daily activities.

It is too easy to see fail in a playtest and then declare, "The whole game system sucks and I suck!" You need to step back analyze, figure out where you went wrong, and make adjustments. A list of locations with levels and GM intrusions is a great resource, but it isn't a game or a compelling setting. And it certainly isn't a story. After the session, I stepped back and asked myself, "Why did this feel lacking?" My characters were not burning their pools, no combat happened, and nothing felt particularly dangerous or risky.

I realized, no story to drive conflict, and no conflict to define factions. yes, I came at this setting from a low-level and defined a great collection of interesting places in a town setting, but the next step is to "do the homework" and approach this same setting from a high level and write the story, define the conflict, and craft the factions to give the players something to work against. Then I would need NPCs and goals so the players can go on "missions" and feel like they are progressing the story.

A setting is not a story, and it isn't fun by itself.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Way It Was

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

One of the best things about the OSR is it is not copyrighted or trademarked. We can have it "the way it was" without any fears or limitations.

Contrast this with movies, comic books, and video games. Those rights are locked up so tight they will never be ours as a society. They are all but worthless as today's versions of many things get ruined, watered down, used to sell other characters, and mismanaged to the point where I ceased caring about all of them.

Nostalgia these days is a dirty word used by billion-dollar corporations to extract money and anger from people.

I want no part of it.

I don't need stupid manufactured anger - you see this on  BOTH sides. The angry YouTube reviewers and the idiots who work for multinational companies who do things to "own" them. It is a sick echo chamber of anger and nonsense, and both sides should really be ashamed for buying into it.

Oh, is there money involved?

Then I feel ashamed for buying into it.

If I consider certain things I don't like dead to me, I am immune to any negative feelings companies make and the nonsense spewed by those "upset with the changes."

Ownership and the public domain change everything. If we have the right to distribute something, create new things from it, and show the world our version of what we loved about the past, that isn't nostalgia. That is more tradition and culture, and nobody owns those. Companies may try to make "their own version of history and tradition," but those can be ignored.

They are cheap copies. They are marketing speak meant to get your money and wealth. If the idea is owned by a multinational corporation, just give up on it; it is easier and a lot less trouble.

If you only appreciate and care about public domain works or things created by indie creators, then you have nothing to be angry about. Don't like it? Make your own version, cool new things, or support someone who does. Support the smaller markets, the companies with great ideas, and people with dreams.

It is a beautiful world.

The one without all the hate.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Tiny Box Fantasy

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Here are your four classes and four races; now, have fun.

There is a reason I dumped many repetitive and limited class-based systems for games like Savage Worlds and GURPS. Sometimes I would have a cool character concept and then fit it into a tiny box of someone else's idea of what a fighter or a mage is, and it would come out terrible.

I am never happy with being forced to choose between a fighter or a cleric. That one spell at the first level. Even D&D 5 feels like a superhero version of the original, with combat expected and "fun." The same limitations and tiny boxes for ideas are there; they are more mechanically complex.

And the West Coast business model has flaws (Wizards, Paizo). You start with limited options, and they sell you the next few, one book at a time. This is what fantasy has been for the last 20 years or longer. Putting together a decent character doesn't just need one book; now, you need a shelf full of thousands of pages in a library of limited and less-than-ideal options. You have more options when you combine X, Y, and Z - but you are still in those boxes.

Want a few more? Buy the next book, please. The official game designer knows better than you.

And many OSR games miss the point, and many OSR games don't even feel OSR. We combined dozens of games in a Frankenstein version of awesomeness. Today, we have specific games emulating specific game versions of things we frankly thought - back then - sucked and were horribly broken.

We modded and patched those games! We threw Arms Law on D&D. We modded in magic from other games. The real OSR back in the day was this mutant freak of a game cobbled together in custom versions from several games and plenty of homebrew. Having the same version of something we felt lacked fun in the 90s isn't my version of the OSR. You are doing emulation, at best, and nostalgic worship, at worst.

And the competing option is the West Coast model, which still relies on that slow drip of releases and power creep; they never give you a complete game, and in the end, the entire game is this bloated, shelf-busting monolith of overwritten filler.

If you buy into the West Coast model, you are the product and become an income stream.

When the game gets too big, a new edition drops. Time to buy again.

At least the older OSR releases keep games primarily to one book, but I have seen a few newer OSR games venture into that constant drip of releases, zines, and supporting content. New stuff is cool, but I am wary of that model since it can quickly become predatory. A little power creep here and there, and the original game is diminished and becomes unplayable with the newer material.

Yes, I love my OSR games, and they will last forever. But, I understand the pitfalls of the model without new ideas and addressing some of the systemic problems the classic games had - and the retro-clones sometimes enshrine. Creating things that let people play games how they were are great things, but without the understanding as these games are only starting points - you lose the spirit of the old school.

Old school isn't one way to play or one strict set of rules.

It is a hobby where 90% of the game is DIY.

And the classic games are starting points.

The typical saving throw charts are a good example; they cover a handful subset of specific hazards and don't cover everything. What is acid? Freezing? Electricity? A cave-in? Why are magic wands and magic spells different saves? Swords & Wizardry, with its "one saving throw number," is about the best classic saving throw system out there. I can use that with any hazard and modify it as I see fit.

Similarly, playing Cypher System in fantasy has opened my mind to what a character class can be. Yes, there are four basic "archetypes in that game," but they are not set in stone and can be flavored to be like anything else. I have seen a few people try to "emulate" 5E through Cypher, but a part of me says, "Why bother?"

My ideas of what fantasy classes can be far better than any port of 5E ideas. I start with a character idea and build from there. I don't need to fit my ideas in someone else's tiny box. Nor do I need those boxes ported in because I can't think of anything myself. As time passes and I design my heroes, I don't need books full of classes and power lists. I don't need to "wait for the next book" to get one or two new things.

I move towards systems that give me everything in one book and the freedom to build characters from the ground up. Savage Worlds, GURPS, and Cypher System fill that void nicely. I would love a build-a-character, classless OSR system that lets you build whatever you want, combine pieces, and craft characters outside of the "tiny box fantasy" that I gave up on in the 1990s, and now 30 years later, we are somehow enshrining this concept - saddled with iterative predatory consumerism - as a truth.

I grew out of D&D twice now. I bought the complete set of books in four versions. Or maybe one with every edition I played and realized the faults were still the same, only the next time with a new coat of paint and the same set of promises that this time, "We will get it right!"

Another 10 years, a new edition coming, nothing new or revolutionary.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Cypher System: Fantasy

So I tried spinning up a few fantasy characters, loosely modeled after Pathfinder iconic characters, using the Cypher System plus the Godforsaken PDF.

I am in the notoriously-delayed Backerkit for this book, but I got the PDF since I am sick of waiting. I understand they likely have supply-chain issues getting that many books printed since the campaign was huge (OGL-disaster-related game refugees). The game is great, so I don't mind grabbing a PDF of something I am getting a little early. Also, not having this was holding me back, so it was either buy now or keep waiting and let my ideas go stale.

What struck me about my characters was how many options I had to create what I wanted. I did not have to "wait for the next Paizo or Wizards book" to get more options - I have more than I could ever imagine using, with plenty of options that were incredibly cool. The characters were built without any problem, and the ideas translated from concept to rules exactly how I wanted.

And the characters came out better than I ever imagined. They are better than the Pathfinder iconic characters, and all of a sudden I was imagining dozens of other cool combinations.

The rules do not limit my imagination, and it feels like a GURPS, Champions, or Savage Worlds, I have infinite pieces to build characters with. I can flavor those options however I want. Also, since the characters are built out of pieces like plastic building blocks - my ideas and concepts of "what is a fantasy hero" get dramatically changed, and my entire view of "who can be a hero" changed.

Do I want a mage who throws seeds and instantly grows mushroom minions? I can do that. A teleporting battle paladin who zips around the map? That can be done. An acrobatic gnome thief with magic? That works. A rock and roll bard who rages? That works.

If you play too much D&D, Pathfinder, and OGL - your view of "what fantasy can be" narrows down to this tiny box. We can be fighters, mages, thieves, or clerics. All our ideas have to fit into those boxes. We are not really allowed to color outside the lines or invent things. Clumsy constructions, such as multi-classing, need to be invented just to patch the game's problems and give players more options (and these get exploited and broken quickly).

Unlike the business models of Paizo and Wizards, I am not waiting for books I need to buy just to have the next few "approved" options. That is another terrible limitation of following games built around those business models, and the retro-clones that seek to emulate them. Why do I want to emulate a 1980s business model that forced me to buy more books? Why do I want to play a game that keeps that outdated design model around today?

I have all the options now.

Plus I can make my own.

And combine them however I want.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Previous Editions to the Rescue!

I see a few D&D YouTube channels doing this, and I get why they are doing this. They are pushing going back to previous editions as some sort of "fix" for the revisions to D&D 5, some pushing 4E, others 3.5, some 2, and quite a few hyping AD&D.

And you can be sure when the new D&D 5.5 rulebooks are out, those channels will be all over that and telling you to switch to the new edition; come on!

I am not buying any of it.

Sorry, D&D is dead to me, and there are too many other incredible games worth my time than current, in-patch, or previous editions of the world's most popular fantasy game I used to play. If I want an easy retro game compatible with everything, I got Castles & Crusades. If I want Gonzo 3.5-eqsue, I got Dungeon Crawl Classics. Most anything OSR is better, even the 5E clones. Swords & Wizardry will base their next game on the Creative Commons SRD Core, which is 100% like earlier editions - sans drama. There are plenty of better games than previous editions (that play just like them), and I feel some channels need to "keep you in the D&D mindset."

If you switch to having a game with a tremendous and sizable community, go to Pathfinder 2 (revised 2.5).

If I want a modern, structurally sound, and more enjoyable universal d20 game than 5E, I got Cypher System.

I can invest in all those games, support communities, and be sure my purchases stand the test of time.

I don't have the time to waste playing editions I have already played and being in the "What did Wizards do this week?" YouTube clickbait circus. When I stopped watching those "whoopsie Wizards" videos and put my 5E books away (and sold them), I was a lot happier and could focus on games I could invest time and positive energy into.

When Wizards can stop making mistakes for a year straight, I would possibly consider them an option. But as it goes, it is always "0 weeks without a community screw-up" with them this year.

Friday, May 5, 2023

The Divine Comedy in The Strange

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I see what you did there.

So, Hell Frozen Over, a recursion in the main rulebook, is essentially the Divine Comedy, or a version of Dante's Inferno. Only it is all ice. With carnivorous demons. And ice that heals you. And a mastermind demon named Treachery who lies to you. And powerful artifacts under the ice.

It is a strange "meta version" of Hell that sidesteps having Hell in The Strange and also from forcing everyone in the setting to deal with those concepts (and religion) when the game took the more middle-of-the-road path and sidestepped the issue. I get why not everyone wants Hell in their games, and this could turn into the Doom video game far too quickly with a "heavyweight" topic like that intruding on every other idea, work of fiction, and fun idea that can happen in The Strange. This was an intelligent dodge, but the concept of Hell being a fictional place sucked into The Strange is too good of a story to pass up for me.

It also brings up some reasonably dark topics. First, you get something like Event Horizon combining Hell and high technology.

Would Hell, even a fictional version, become a significant force in The Strange? Honestly, this would be a game I play once, and once only, as "The version of The Strange that ended up with Hell." It is a concept that is primarily all-or-nothing but could be done well. Better than most fantasy games have treated Hell, most notably the horrible job D&D has done with the concept as a sort of suburbanized and isolated place that never influences anything and the merging of demonic heritages with the planar background soup (and how they took the succubus and incubus out of the demonic heritages).

But this is The Strange; you could have a serious "Hell as a recursion" and have it exist, possibly influence several associated recursions, and still firewalled off from the rest of the central "The Strange" game universe. You could firewall it off and have it be a significant force in its sphere of influence. So honestly, you could have the best of both worlds - keeping your primary Strange Cosmos-verse book standard while creating a separate "server cluster" for Hell and its associated recursions.

This is imagination we are dealing with, and The Strange is a place where you can define the structure - or not - and just say how things will interact.

So firewalled off, I could do this and have it take over and spread influence through several recursions. I would also use this firewall structure for other "high pollution" ideas, where the spillover from crossing recursions could seriously change the game's narrative.

Or say the entire game universe, The Strange and all, is a recursion; run it once and see how it ends up, possibly have it destroyed, and then reboot the whole game again and start fresh.

Once your mind opens up and you can imagine all the possibilities, you will understand that The Strange is not a "metaverse framework" but more of a way of thinking and managing imagination and how it blends and interacts.

The Strange

The Strange (along with its Cypher System core) is one of the best "collected reality" games. What the Strange does, that Cypher doesn't, provides a framework for a million different ideas and imagination-based mini-worlds that may not be strong enough to stand alone but should be explorable by sentient beings.

This is a "what if an ancient alien data network was in space and absorbed imagination to create fictional worlds to visit" setting. It lets you "slot in" any idea into it and makes that piece of fiction - or just a strange place - visitable by outsiders. Each micro-world can have its own inhabitants, and those living there can gain self-awareness and sentience.

This is like a world based around the events of one Sherlock Holmes movie, and those events - and the actions in it - keep repeating themselves exactly as the movie plays out. If someone went to a store and bought two oranges one day, it happens the next time the recursion is reset. People live in them thinking they are entire worlds, and these places can stay locked in those loops of action and reality.

Then, the population starts getting sentient, called the spark, and more "free will" is introduced. Different things can happen, and the story can diverge. The world can expand from a few visitable locations to an entire city or larger. The story can change, and the world can progress or stay locked in an era. It could morph into a Steampunk world; who knows?

And as characters visit these places, they can assume the identities and roles (and looks) of those that live there. A muscle-bound Conan-like barbarian in a fantasy world could become a burley, bowler-wearing, handlebar-mustached street boxer in the Victorian era of Sherlock Holmes.

A lot of the problems of other generic systems are solved with this framework. Can a world stay locked in a particular piece of fiction, repeat, and never change? Yes. Do I need a "new Earth" for every fictional world I visit? No. Can a world be relatively small and focused yet still seem like an entire planet to those who live there? Yes. Can the world's inhabitants stay "locked" in their reality, and could they find a way to gain self-determination and break free? Yes, and yes.

Can you recycle your old gaming systems and settings and slot them in as recursions into this framework? Of course, yes! Do they need some messy, infinite, silly-structure "multi-verse" that is ultimately unmanageable and ruins your game? No.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

You could say The Strange is a "multi-verse," but it is not by definition since it provides a framework for collecting ideas that are inherently limited in scope and size. Multi-verse in the current context implies "the connecting tissue between multiple complete worlds." The Strange is a framework for expressing fictional worlds in a limited context.

You have far more control in a framework like The Strange than you do a messy, too-bit-to-imagine multi-verse. And worse, a multi-verse also implies multiple versions of the same person exist, infinite versions of Earth at every moment across time, whereas The Strange does not.

The Sherlock Holmes recursion does not need its own Earth, nor does "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."Alice In Wonderland does not need an entire world to get lost in. Things can be "just what they are" and not go beyond that.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

There is one "you" in The Strange, one life; spend it wisely and carefully. You can't "jump a timeline" and rescue another version of yourself somewhere else cheaply and ignore narrative context and consequence. Like the modern do-anything MacGuffin nanites and sci-fi, the multi-verse in modern entertainment has become synonymous with "crap writing." We will get to Nanites when we talk about Numenera. They are done right there compared to how they are used as lazy sci-fi plot putty these days.

The fictional places you create are "boxed in" and under control. The critical topics of self-awareness and self-determination are central to the setting. This isn't a "lazy collection of game settings and Earths" and some "funky planar soup" between them; it is a thoughtful framework of how the mind and imagination work and how these places can be explored in a larger context with an overarching narrative - and the smaller, individual stories are important too.

And an interesting backstory here explains everything, yet it doesn't. You are free to take it in any direction you can dream of.

The Strange is everything, yet it is very few.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Nostalgia, Part 2

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I like my nostalgic experiences but know how bad they are for me. I limit them like I limit my junk food intake. It pains me to see another version of "fantasy game" released.

Is D&D 5 a good game? Yes. Is it D&D? Not really; the current edition is more of a superhero game. The original is still better. Given that both editions are dead to me (corporate mismanagement and community behavior), I play Castles & Crusades for my faux-nostalgia hit. It is good enough, throws out a lot of rules, and frees me up for that original edition hit point and combat difficulty scale.

But I don't play too much of it.

I would prefer to invent new games with Cypher System and play things I have never done before.

Every time  I sit down to play something based on nostalgia, a classic module, or a familiar setting, it never lasts. The "want" to play it is always more potent than the desire to "keep" playing it. The nostalgia games and settings don't hold water for me. I may love them for the good times they represent, but my future games will come from my imagination.

And I need a system that isn't tied down to lists of junk I will never use and isn't a shelf full of books to reference.

In my entertainment, I don't watch nostalgia movies. If I like the original, I watch that. The word nostalgia has become "the remake" and not "the original." I don't like the remakes. They are empty calories, weak, and never live up to the originals.

What I do watch are the new things they make today. New ideas and stories.

I am done with the reinterpretation of the past.

It is empty at best and a constant argument at worst. And I am not tuning in for an argument anymore. That is a more enormous waste of time, worthless in every way.

The argument means nothing if you don't "buy into" the remake.

So, don't buy in.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Consent in Gaming

I may be an old-school fan where anything goes, but this book has a place.

This is a free download over at Monte Cook Games, and it goes through many topics that may upset people at a gaming table. I heard some criticism of this book along the lines of, "This is not needed," or "Sit at my table, and you consent to anything!"

I wish I had this checklist at a few of my games in the past, it would have set the tone for the game, and we would have avoided many problems. You can laugh at "needing a book like this" all day, but after you know all the trouble this game agreement saves you from - you will know.

In short, this is an informal agreement the group makes of what everyone expects at the table. Everyone fills them out, and it can be anonymous, and the GM goes through them and sets the game's parameters. This can also be used for world design and what players can expect from the world's history and events.

The book also has advice on resolving problems and includes a few good suggestions on apologizing and checking in later with both sides of a disagreement to ensure the "later feelings" are all right.

I also look at a book like this as an enabler. If you plan to play a "Friday the 13th" style game, and everyone accepts what happens in those movies, this pre-game checklist is good. This sort of understanding can enable handling a lot of sensitive topics that you are not 100% sure everyone at the table may be comfortable with. You never know if Bob from Accounting is a horror movie fan, and this sort of discussion is good to have just an ice-breaker. This applies to sex as well and includes the smart "fade to black" way of handling things many games recommend, and this technique can also be applied to too-violent scenes. 

The killer raises the axe, and...

Fade to black.

It works, and in some games, this is a far more potent and effective tool for horror than rolling 1d6 damage plus STR mod and realizing the blow wasn't that deadly.

I do not see this as a "tool for wussies" but as a good starting point to set expectations and also "clear the way" for allowing even more sensitive topics at a table that most games would sweep under the carpet because, by default, most all games are made for a younger audience. Having a tool to "open the door" to mature topics for a group of mature players is a good thing, and it can expand your game more than the typical "sanitized out of the book" settings and adventures we get these days.

This is a good thing for more reasons than avoiding hurt feelings, but that is where this book starts, and you can take it so far from there and have a better game that fits your group's expectations as a result.

The Effect of Charts on Imagination

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Over-reliance on random charts is the current fad-de-jour in pen-and-paper game design, and worse, it harms our imaginations. This can also extend to in-game systems, combat charts, crit charts, and over-reliance on chained dice rolls to determine special effects.

I recently had two experiences with this: my Road War game using the Cypher System rules. My cinematic, dramatic vehicle combat in Cypher felt much better than trying to "sim" everything using a vehicle combat system like Car Wars. I did not need that level of detail, and the results I got using Cypher System felt more realistic and engaging than "boiling down" and using a full-vehicle combat game.

And I got a result that, for a story-based game, felt right, fit into my story narrative better, and did not take four hours to conclude.

The second was my consideration of running a "hard sci-fi" game using the same rules but using the gear, ships, and overall feeling of the Cepheus Deluxe setting (an excellent game on its own). The feeling of "just use Cepheus Deluxe" was strong in this project. The breaking point was ship combat. Would I use the Cepheus ruleset or abstract it with Cypher System and use a variant of my Road War rules (cars as monsters with weapons)?

The Cepheus Engine ship combat system looks fun, with charts and tables for particular damage results that seem like out of a starship combat simulator. It is tightly integrated into the game's engine, which is nice, but the number of rolls and tables you need to work through seems daunting. The ship combats also seem complex, with one taking some time to simulate through and ensure all the rolls are done correctly to get the best results.

But to what result?

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

In Road War, I proved my imagination was better than any chart, and I had some great results in determining what happens on damage rolls, critical hits, and critical failures that made the entire game feel more like "Mad Max" than a complete vehicle combat sim could ever give me. If I applied the same logic and procedure to a "hard sci-fi" game, I bet I could come up with some memorable moments far better than any set of charts could give me. Some moments and things in my mind make space combat "hard sci-fi" - far better than any chart in any game.

I can do better with a generic system and a few guidelines.

So why do I need the charts and rules?

Random charts and detailed systems are excellent when you have no clue or need inspiration. But relying too much on them or creating monolithic "game systems" based on random charts feels wrong. Mainly when I had limited time, and I had played "chart games" before that went nowhere, with me rolling on random charts, getting results that did not excite my mind, and then rolling again and again, each time getting less and less excited about the following result.

Yes, rolling through a Cepheus Engine ship combat chart and "playing that game" would be fun as a "sim." But I must answer, "Is that what I want to do for my game?"

This is a tricky question. For those that don't have a massive frame of reference for what can happen in a "hard sci-fi" game and those who want to be surprised by chart results, the complete systems and charts can be a great experience. They take time and an understanding of the rules and leverage the game's design systems to create better fighting machines.

For those who want to tell a story, the detailed and complete combat systems and books full of charts will likely be a hindrance and drag on the game. I can get many of those "oh crap" moments in Cypher System with GM Intrusions, and the critical hit system works well to turn that around in the players' favor. Do I give up being surprised by a chart result? That is one weakness to 100% using your imagination, in that there will be things you will not think of on a chart.

But on the flip side, there are millions of things in my head that can happen, and one chart could never hold them all.