Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Cypher: Still One of the Best Games

This was one of those games I could not figure out. I put this on a shelf, boxed it up twice, and gave up on it as too obscure and abstract.

For one, I could not get character creation through my brain. It was a descriptive sentence, but none of the translations between the words and the numbers made any sense.

Pools? Effort? Edge? Hindering? Assets? And the difficulty and target number system?


There are no hit dice? Any challenge is the same? Intrusions? Where are all the combat rules? What can this do that B/X can't do with an AC and a bag of hit points?

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Then, I played a post-apocalyptic 'Road Warrior' style game with the system. Car combat rules? There is no need for Car Wars and counters; I made them up on the spot. And they worked. And they worked incredibly well. Cars had levels. Size and level differences were assets or hindrances on attacks and defenses. The size was not everything, as a junky, large delivery van with lousy weapons may be an attack at level 2, defend on level 3, and have level 5 (15) hits. Weapons? Light, medium, and heavy, just like characters. That isn't in the official rules, but it worked for me - otherwise, enemy cars, damage equals level.

The car fights - in the narrative - were better than anything I had ever 'theater of the mind played' in 30 years of knowing Car Wars, Twilight: 2000, or Aftermath.

Traffic in a packed border outpost town? Give it a level. Try to get delivery missions done while your junk delivery van breaks down, overheats, and nearly gets hit by idiot drivers. Need more narrative spice? Don't 'say something happens - offer a GM intrusion. Are you bored playing solo? That is your fault; trip a GM intrusion and make something happen - this is your game! Want to push back as the character? Spend an XP for a player intrusion. Tell the GM what happens as the character. Create an NPC, or put a dungeon on the map and say you are going there.


You are not reading through 40-year-old D&D modules missing critical parts of the room descriptions and giving up because they are too wordy. You are not a bag of hit points with an AC and daily spell slots. I realized that the Cypher system was born out of decades of frustration with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1e.

This is when it all clicked.

The entire game is the d20 DC system built into a game, with narrative pools and spent effort controlling player agency. Every other part of 3.5e is tossed out, but that DC system remains and is the game's core. There is a crunchy framework for characters and powers, so you get more than a typical rules-light game. This isn't the FATE system. It is not so abstract; the world becomes a blur of conditional words and sentences, and relative difficulties are adjusted by rolls.

There are numbers here. These root the game in math. There is a crunch to the characters. The game rewards balancing your abilities, and one-trick pony characters will be boring and one note in parts of the game. A made a bard who could not fight, and it showed. I rebuilt the bard into a stealth fighter with a few bard abilities, and the character could contribute in many situations.

Rules-light games suffer from characters being too abstract, where you could justify using a vague 'panache' bard ability as an attack roll. I have seen games like that become one note, with players only using one ability score to do everything - from forcing open doors to attacking targets at range.

One of the worst parts of Cypher is realizing you want to play another game and realizing the other game is missing huge parts of the rules - or those parts suck in the other game - and realizing the Cypher System could just do it in a roll plus difficulty. Shadowrun, with its mixed magic and hacking, is perfect for the Cypher System, and I can't imagine playing it with any version of the official Shadowrun rules without my brain melting.

First, answer the question: What are you trying to do?

Hacking? Set a difficulty.

Magic? Set a difficulty.

Exploring cyberspace? What are you doing there? Set a difficulty (if you even need to).

Using a heavy weapon to attack a flying car? Set a difficulty.

Car combat? Do what I did in Road War. It is easy. It works.

Down the line, click, click, click - it all works.

Do I want drow and tieflings in Shadowrun? Uh-oh, I need to hack them in or buy a book with them! Cypher System? I have them; I can build them in a second. What are you talking about? Why spend more money or hop between games with different feature sets?

Some of the rules I have are missing entire parts of these rules. Or the spells boil down into the overused B/X magic. I want to be a fantastic street mage! Magic missile! What? Can we wait for my fireball spell to be in a couple of levels? Give me a few weeks of play here to be excellent. Let's start at a higher level! Please? D&D progression is becoming a joke; the spells are a half-century old, and it isn't the be-all and end-all of roleplaying.

But to enjoy Cypher, you need to be more on the narrative side of the game than the rules. If you enjoy the rules of a system - fine - that is your thing. Me? I pick up classic Traveller, get excited, and then realize it is missing vehicle combat rules. Are we having an air raft chase? Um, some skill rolls? Is the referee's hand waving damage?

Cypher? Level 3 vehicle, hand weapon attacks against it are hindered by 2 levels to a difficulty 5. Vehicle weapons target it on a 3. Asset and hinder as usual. How many hits? Level 3 times 3 is nine.

Done. Now play. It will work. If not, adjust a little. Want the character's air raft to crash land somewhere interesting? Use a GM Intrusion. I am way further in this adventure than I would be simulating this with the classic Traveller rules. I would not even be on the planet yet.

If you like the Traveller rules and enjoy rolling 2d6, play that!

For me, especially playing solo, I don't care about the rules that much. The story interests me a lot more. The crunch is in the characters, not the setting rules. I am not looking up rules. Do I need hacking rules in my Traveller game? The same way I handled hacking in my Shadowrun game still works. In Shadowrun, you use a 3d avatar to fly around a virtual network. In Traveller, you search a text prompt for the library, volume, and index of a magnetic data tape the size of a loaf of bread you need to find in a storage room and insert it into a data reading terminal.

It is all flavor, as the Cypher System people love to say.

But flavor matters! That flavor will influence Player and GM Intrusions. GM Intrusion? The magnetic tape may be damaged, and the data needs to be recovered. The 3d virtual environment may have a glitch. Player Intrusion? The magnetic tape has extra deleted data on it, and when recovered, it is also very useful. You meet someone beneficial in the virtual environment.

Flavor matters for narrative, not mechanics. A key point here.

Keep the original book near you for inspiration, but ignore the rules. The Cypher System puts you in "the story of" faster than any of these games. Some people can't handle that, and that is okay too. I can abstract things down to the narrative pieces and ignore the rest. I can crunch in Cypher System if I want details, like tracking ammo down to the bullet. Or not. Some games don't even give you the choice.

One of the best parts about the Cypher System is that it plays solo amazingly well, and I don't need to buy shelves full of books to tell stories in infinite worlds - or read thousands of pages of rules for 90% of situations, spells, and options I will never use.

Monday, November 27, 2023

A Game of Skills, part 4

We are still discussing the example of play in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy in the Exploits book on pages 103-104.

So the party reads the runes on the walls (no skill roll needed) and finds out they are in the right place: the tomb of a vampire who may have come back to cause trouble. We are doing marching orders and readying weapons, and one of them is maintaining a light spell for free while using the Cartography skill to map. The GM notes stealth with light is impossible, but they are blind without it.

Thank you for avoiding the modern 'make it easy' curse of everyone having night vision. This is why people play Shadowdark over 5E, and Dungeon Fantasy also smartly avoids this problem. Torches and light are instant drama!

We get a section of GM's advice, smartly saying that their opening the door and going into the tomb awakened the vampire. The vampire is moving around in the dark, but a secret quick contest between the vampire's Stealth skill versus the two wary party members looking for trouble - the mapper is busy and does not get to roll. One of the party members hears movement and calls for a stop.

Light, darkness, sounds, shadows, and detection of things moving around out there - the dungeon is alive! An enemy is stalking them. The light gave their location away. Making the dungeon a 'sim environment' is critical to enhancing the mood and adding to the fun. This also allows the party members to use their skills, even though the dice rolls here were secret. As a GM, I note everyone's Perception scores to make these rolls secretly instead of asking for them during play.

Before we get into combat, it is imperative to highlight that dungeons are a 'home-field advantage' to those who live there. They could have patrols, warning bells, secret escape routes, ways to come up behind the party, traps, animals or creatures to set free, doors to lock, or other devices and tactics to use when protecting their home turf.

The example of play here highlights parallel movement in secret outside of the party's vision. Too often, we stick an encounter in a room and wait for the players to walk in and 'activate' the room like it was some sort of MMO where one goblin can't see the other goblin being killed 10 feet away. Light, fires, spells, the sounds of battle, the smell of food, and even the party talking among itself can attract attention, and some monsters can see heat or smell fresh meat from a long distance away.

Once monsters start sneaking around the periphery, the entire area 'lights up' and becomes alive. Also, some monsters may need light to move and act, so this is a two-way street. A party hiding in the dark from orcs using torches to search for them is a tense moment!

And remember the players being creative with their skills and actions during these moments! An intelligent thief hearing movement may alert their party quietly and melt into the shadows with stealth. Weapons and shields need actions to be ready. Spells can be cast. Traps can be set or caltrops thrown down to deter a charge. Someone could bar a nearby door. Those characters who need to drop backpacks for movement and extra dodging ability should start planning to put them down now.

Remember what happens to the lights! A dropped torch could go out or land on the ground, giving off less light. A light spell that needs concentration to maintain could be disrupted if that wizard loses focus. A torch can be thrown toward an enemy, leaving the arty in darkness, and the oncoming creatures lit up (or hit by the torch for damage). A dropped lantern may break and spill flaming oil all over. New torches may need to be lit in combat.

During combat, someone may hear alarms nearby being shouted, and more trouble is coming their way. Don't stop the 'dungeon sim' when combat starts or in this preparatory phase - the whole dungeon is alive, dangerous, and reacting to the sounds and lights of the battle raging in a part of it. Some monsters could lock doors, set traps, and bar themselves in a room. Others could send scouts out or establish guards in different areas. Enemy mages could be preparing spells. An enemy VIP may take this chance to flee. Neutral monsters, such as giant spiders, may be attracted by the heat and noise to pick off the unwary from the darkness.

The 'dungeon sim' never stops and reacts to events, and if things quiet down - it could return to semi-normalcy. This isn't all 'anti-player' events; the other side could make mistakes, too - we will see more of this soon. We are in a pre-combat phase, but everything here impacts the combat. This also raises tension and creates uncertainty.

This is old-school gaming at its best, bolstered by a robust set of skills that never stops working for the player - and the other side, if you play them smart. Since GURPS is a more realistic game, you get a gritty, dangerous, and realistic experience highlighting how risky this dungeon-crawling business is in reality.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

A Game of Skills, part 3

We are still discussing the example of play in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy in the Exploits book on pages 103-104.

So, the Observation skill for spotting dangerous things from afar and the Search skill to search through the room's contents are all we need, right?

The example continues with the GM asking a player if they can read the Ancient language and then reading what the runes on the wall say (keep out!). Your rooms should be filled with little fun chances to use skills, and some of these should reward the players with valuable information, warnings, clues, and other benefits if the players apply a little logic.

Let's say the players find a trapdoor with orc writing next to it. If they know orc, they will read, "Climb down to the second tunnel; do not go all the way down!" Instant clue and possibly how to avoid dying in a trap down there, or being fed to hungry alligators. They don't know orc? Well, next time someone will think about buying it and catch these things, don't give them the answer! Nobody will spend character points on these fantastic skills if you tell them what it means anyway!

There are many skills you could put these "Easter eggs" in your rooms, room contents, doors, and hallways. Here are a few:

  • Connoisseur - To appraise items.
  • Current Affairs - To make sense of scouting and news reports.
  • Forgery - To recognize forged works.
  • Heraldry - To identify groups, bad guys, and enemy forces.
  • Herb Lore - To identify special herbs.
  • Naturalist - Wilderness lore for outside.
  • Occultism - To identify the supernatural.
  • Thaumatology - To identify magic and spells.
  • Poetry - Hey, there may be poems in here.
  • Physiology - Find a dead monster? Want to know why?
  • Poisons - To detect and identify poisons.
  • Prospecting - What is that mineral in the wall?
  • Theology - The study of gods and the divine.
  • Traps - These places are often trapped.

Hidden Lore needs to be called out as a special one since your campaign will typically have quite a lot of this, and it will have specializations - such as the Ancient Lothanian Empire, the Cult of the Serpent Eye, or the Mystic Seers of Kalaman-Du. Nobody knows these extraordinary things, but your character may have some knowledge. Before the game, you need to have a rough outline of these and allow characters to take Hidden Lore in these areas if interested.

When a character identifies an eye staff of a Cult of the Serpent Eye priest, they will feel special, and the points spent on that skill will have paid off - especially if that staff turns out to be valuable or essential to the story later. If characters spend the points on skills, give them chances to use them and shine! Make those discoveries crucial to survival and the plot.

Religious Ritual is another you may not see a use for, but characters with Clerical Investment will be able to bless or purify a shrine. If you find a corrupted shrine giving power to evil, then doing this should impact the grand scheme of things, cut off a power source for a villain, and generally be regarded as a 'good thing' by the character's religion.

5E clerics are like, oh, corrupted shrine, who cares? Is there treasure under it? Or bash it with a hammer! Most will walk right by and take a short rest.

The rules of a game can limit your thinking. Once you go outside the box, your mind expands.

As a GM, you must make your rooms rich with plenty of skill opportunities and pay attention to apparent uses. If a player makes a suggestion that seems appropriate, such as asking if an orc chieftain's room has a cache of maps, notes, and other essential documents - let them try and find it and make sense of them! Refrain from settling for bland, empty, 20x20' room descriptions as a player. Ask questions! Does this look like a storage or guard room? Was this a shrine? What did they do here?

Push to use those skills!

GMs, give them plenty of chances to use them, and places where skills they don't have may have been helpful!

People hate GURPS because it has a lot of skills. This is one of the system's strengths, and this skill system puts 5E to shame. The 5E game is too simple and basic to do specialties and low-level, specific, and granular skill checks and masteries. GURPS gives you the tools to create a mage who is an expert at that ancient serpent cult, and that specialist has motivation and usefulness far beyond just being the party's 'magic user.'

We got three articles from the first column of the example of play, and there is a lot to pull out and think about here. This example is great since it illustrates many essential points about the game, but it is so dense that pulling it apart slowly teaches you much more than you would think.

One Way or Another...

The moment Wall Street publishers start enforcing language standards and using peer pressure to force people to use their experts? And saying books should not be written without them? And you bet PDF sites that sell books that aren't required to use these experts will be the next target. Will books be required to be reviewed by these experts to be sold in walled gardens? With more costs, more barriers to entry, and less competition, the market leader benefits.

And I like gender-neutral language and the concept of safety tools, but even I see through this.

Let people do and write what they want. I am free to be me; you are free to be you.

This isn't about protecting anyone or anything - only protecting profit margins.

Don't walk away from those publishers.


Thursday, November 23, 2023

ACKS 2 = $333,010

Congratulations to the ACKS 2 team for raising $333,010 by the final day of the Kickstarter!

We are seeing B/X-style games break free of the OGL and CC and discover their worlds, magic, and monsters - which is a great thing. Too many OGL games are content to rewrite B/X, BECMI, 1e, 2e, and so on. They are forever mired in the same old monsters, magic, classes, and feelings - and they will always be compared to D&D.

None of them will ever live up.

OGL and CC games support D&D's position as the market leader.

Without the OGL or CC, there is nothing to compare games to, and they can be free and do their own thing. If they are numerically compatible, all the better, and you can pull in what you want - but you do not have to or need to.

A year ago, things would always stay the same until January 2023 came along, and Wall Street and their goons came knocking. All of a sudden, the true face was revealed. Nobody could rely on goodwill anymore.

Game after game, they started dumping the OGL.

Some went to the CC, which is cool, but those concepts are uncopyrightable rules anyway; only the CC requires you to kiss the ring.

Those who never kiss the ring are free to determine their own destiny.

This is where we are with ACKS 2, realm building, classic adventure, and domain management all in one classy package.

Congratulations again, and I am more than pleased I am a backer.

A Game of Skills, part 2

We are still discussing the example of play in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy in the Exploits book on pages 103-104.

We are at the point where we are checking a lock for traps, and this part really deserves a closer look. Note how the thief is being asked to do a perception-based Traps skill roll to find traps and then a dexterity-based Traps skill roll to disarm them.

My scout character (created by GURPS Character Sheet) has this entry for his traps skill:

Skill        Level    RSL        Points    Page Number
Traps       9           IQ-2        4             DFA92

So he rolls 9-minus for his Traps skill, based on IQ (his IQ score is 11). This is the default skill level for identifying traps and figuring out how they work - NOT finding or disarming them. Since he has a DX of 15, his disarming roll is four higher (15 - 11 = 4), resulting in a 13-minus. For finding, his PER is 14, three higher (14 - 11 = 3), so a value of 12-minus.

I thought all rolls were 9 or less for this skill!

Huge mistake.

This is something that never really clicked inside my head about GURPS until I slowed down and read this carefully. This is HUGE for this character, especially when finding and disarming traps - he knows more about doing that than how they work, just from his attributes. A 12 and 13 minus for these skills also means, as a player, I will rely on this skill more than they were if I assumed ALL rolls were 9 or less.

And assuming a 9-minus for everything - like my character sheet shows - was grossly unfair to my character.

This rule is mentioned on page 71 of the Skills book (and not in the Exploits book), but it never really clicked in my head that this was how GURPS worked. This is a massive change in how I view the entire skill system in GURPS and it makes the system a lot more flexible and fair for some character types.

I get the feeling this is one of those things that 90% of the people that try GURPS and end up hating it miss. You can never do anything! A low score means, why even try? None of that is true. You are much more capable in most skills than you assume.

This is it for today for pouring over this example of play; this is a huge piece of how to understand GURPS.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

ACK 2 Kickstarter: Last 24 Hours!

The ACKS 2 Kickstarter is in its final 24 hours! Wow, they did a fantastic job with over $319,000 raised, making this a bigger Kickstarter than the OSE: Advanced Fantasy. Congratulations to their team, and I am looking forward to this one!

My takeaways? There is a demand for domain-level play. There is also a strong demand for non-OGL and non-CC fantasy gaming outside of the influence of Wizards and their tangled web of licenses and 'we will pull this and that' shenanigans. There is also a desire to move away from 5E for many, or at least those who 'bought 5E once' and will stick with that while looking for something new.

To a lesser degree, there is a demand for non-planar gaming focused on one world and conflict, where the plot can't multiverse-sidestep into abstract and silly places - multiverse fatigue is here, and I don't see that improving. There is also a demand for games focused on the Middle Ages (world-building) rather than the oversaturated pseudo-Renaissance (nation-building, all but modern).

There are also fans of the old TSR Birthright setting wanting that 'Game of Thrones' style drama without all the superhero immortality and plane-hopping of 5E. I doubt 5E could do Birthright justice since the setting relies on aging, mortality, limited powers, and a closed sandbox.

ACKS 2 sits at the intersection of those demand lines. This is a strong niche to be in since this is the same place that the Crusader Kings videogame series resides in, so there is a strong cross-market interest. The spells and rules of ACKS are tailored to the domain management game, so it has a leg up on even a third-party 5E implementation of domain management. How is domain management critical in 5E if you are living gods with plane-traveling powers at level 20? What does it even matter?

So this is your last chance to jump in and participate in something fun. I have always liked ACKS as my 'serious B/X' that fulfills the BECMI domain management promise, and I look forward to the books coming next year!

And the PDFs coming very soon...

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

A Game of Skills, part 1

For those of us wondering how GURPS Dungeon Fantasy plays and trying to grasp what is going on with this game, please take a moment to read the Example of Play in the Dungeon Fantasy Exploits book on pages 103-104. And don't blast through this; slow down and read it action by action - you will learn a lot.

The first interaction with the thief refusing to touch the locked door unless the mage scans it for magic tells us a lot about the game - this is a game about information. The more you have, the better your chances of success. This is the heart of GURPS, and good game masters will use this fact to leverage success in skill rolls to advantage in avoiding danger, getting the advantage in combat, solving problems, and completing the mission.

Dungeon Fantasy spells are fun and much better than the simplistic 5E magic and MMO-like cantrips. You have a lot of magic, all particular and helpful spells, and they can all be used in many ways. Each spell is a skill, and building your mage will shape who you are - a unique and memorable magic system that offers casters infinite creativity when using spells in fun ways. Spells can also be more minor, scoped, and specific, helping out in a single situation like detecting magic on a lock (or anything else).

Environments and situations should be littered with little things that use skills, writings on walls, history, footprints on the floor for tracking, construction features for engineering, and every other skill on the list. If characters don't have it, they will want it when it comes up, and everyone fails the skill roll. Activities like navigation, map making, survival, social interaction, history, dungeon engineering, research, and activities that use every skill on the list are essential!

Every skill roll you make ticks up that invisible victory point total that a GM should keep track of in their mind for the adventure. Every skill roll you make should be reflected as a tangible advantage in the game or contribute to a good outcome overall.

Also, note that disadvantages are roleplayed! GURPS is never a "self-insert" game like D&D or Pathfinder, one where the company encourages you to "put yourself in the game" and "the game is an identity brand." GURPS is more like the Sims, where you create a unique character with flaws and advantages and "sim" the character through a situation. You are always a step removed from the character, and it is never ever "you as the character."

Understand this. This is a clear break between today's corporatist lifestyle-brand games and GURPS. One character in this example of play has a laziness disadvantage. You know what would happen in today's landscape, "Are you calling me - the player - LAZY?!"

Triggered! X card!

No, the character you designed has a disadvantage in the game called laziness. This is not you. This is your "Sims character," and you are responsible for directing them around the dungeon. No one is calling a player lazy. This is a simulation game. Take a step back. Their disadvantages could get them into bad situations like in the Sims. When we picked that disadvantage for character points, we accepted the risks and outcomes and looked forward to seeing it used in-game. 

This is the fun of GURPS across any genre and any setting.

This is also why we can never have a GURPS 5th Edition. Everything remotely challenging to our well-being would be removed from the game; it would no longer be the "character simulator" we love. GURPS is not a rose-colored mirror reflecting a fake cartoon fantasy that invites you to self-insert. It is an untouched photograph with warts, wrinkles, stretch marks, scars, bad hair, dumb expressions, out-of-focus pictures, and everything else that Wall Street uses Photoshop, newspeak, and AI to erase. The Sims have a kleptomaniac and lazy disadvantage, as do GURPS and Dungeon Fantasy. This does not say anything negative about this condition or people with it in the real world - but it reflects this trait in reality.

To take that away ruins the game.

We are flawed, beautiful people. I play games that accept that and reflect us. To be perfect or 'play yourself' is tedious and leads to people moving on from the hobby when something else that caters to self-inserting comes along. Corporatist games make every character perfect, happy people - and thus, everyone is miserable.

I accept my flaws; why can't I do the same for my character? My flaws make me beautiful. Those flaws make us who we are, and we love them as a part of ourselves. They make our characters memorable and exciting. The imperfections make the sparkles of the diamond.

And we love GURPS like we love the Sims since watching characters fail because of their shortcomings - and dealing with the aftermath - is a massive part of the fun.

And we love seeing them succeed despite them.

This is what makes us heroes.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Hexcrawl Campaigns

One of the best inspirations for a hex-crawl campaign is the setup the Forbidden Lands game uses, and this mirrors the 'random world' generation for games like Civilization - a great mist of evil has covered the world for 100 years, and people could not leave their towns or houses. Venturing far into the evil fog meant death, and there were likely monsters in the mist (or darkness) that covered the world, and knowledge of what was out there was lost.

Then, the heroes start when the mists begin to lift. It is up to them to discover 'what is out there' and begin rebuilding civilization. This works in almost any game and especially shines if your game has kingdom management and construction rules.

ACKS 2 has some of the best rules, but GURPS has a Realm Management expansion on Warehouse 23 that you could use with Dungeon Fantasy easily. Even if you don't want to "do the numbers," there are typically random event tables in these games and expansions that can help add flavor to the world and keep things interesting.

In these games, I would leave patches of mist around on the map (randomly determined) and make those sources of chaos that need to be cleared out by venturing inside, destroying a source of evil, like a totem or obelisk, or purifying a corrupted temple or landmark. Then, the area returns to its averagely dangerous self - but stops summoning evil to try and spread the corruption. Inside the mist should be a 'combat mission' with danger at every step. The typical wilderness should be filled with normal encounters and locations.

This sort of campaign can be started repeatedly, with a small starting town or hamlet and branching out to find civilization from there. Other towns could be contacted, and these could be friends or foes. Enemy bastions, such as a fortress of orcs waiting for the mist to lift, could be found. Ruins of places that didn't make it through the long night are likely scattered about and infested with undead monsters or other ancient horrors.

Once your game world expands and you have found a few civilized areas, your game takes a different feeling as trade, travel, and more social activities open up. In the later game, new settlements can be founded by the major factions. Your map grows, the opportunities for politics and intrigue expand, and wars among the factions could erupt over limited or unique resources. Imagine an area with two cities with opposing factions, several small towns and outposts, and a new iron mine is discovered. Iron means economic, industrial, and military might, so there could be a conflict if a deal to share the resource can't be reached.

Do the players want to step in and suggest a solution, or let the conflict and possible war play out by itself? Their choice has consequences and costs no matter what they do. If the iron is shared, and one city comes under siege by orcs, there could be harsh feelings that 'this could have been prevented if they let us have all the iron' could surface. Conflict is good, even among survivor communities like this, and everyone does not always get along.

And you don't need every race or faction; you could have a game with just dwarves and elves, and the dwarves are not even typical - they could be cloud dwarves stuck on the ground meeting gray elves of the spirit realm. Your game could be human-focused, and the other races found as you go - or start as orcs and explore and rebuild from there.

Hex-crawls can be done with 5E, but 5E at high levels gets too 'planar' for my tastes, and it is less deadly than I would like. I prefer a solid OSR game like ACKS 2 or GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. Something grounded and more gritty, with a need for survival and an emphasis on skills.

Social skills? It's not that important at the beginning of the game when exploration, survival, and combat skills will be at a premium. If you want to play that bard and sing to the same 100 people in the hamlet, go ahead, but you will be at a disadvantage out in the wilderness. Save the points and go Rambo mode to clear hexes.

Not every campaign is created equally for all character types.

Another good thing about hex-crawl games is you can throw out bloated and expensive campaign world books. I can't count the number of ones I have, and I don't like them. They belong on a coffee table, and I never got good use out of a campaign guide. My best games were hex-crawls or 'open settings' that you could take in any direction.

The default 4E setting is classic, just a town and a scattering of places, and you fill it all out. This is nothing a sound hex-map creation system could not quickly come up with with the added fun of filling out the map. If characters die and you still like the map? So what? Start new ones.

It's time for new stories in this place.

I don't invest in one character; I invest in the story of the setting. If a character dies, it is okay. Many of today's games assume you should "see yourself in the game," and games like that are not roleplaying. You are not playing a role; you are playing an idealized version of yourself. It is a play-acting game; we were told in the 1980s that those were dangerous - and every game warned us not to.

Today? Companies put profits before mental health.

Some fundamental styles of old-school play are incompatible with today's games. Deathtrap dungeons are one. Hex crawls come close since part of the fun is pushing your luck exploring, losing characters occasionally, and starting new ones to see what is on the map.

The setting is the character and the story, and seeing what you find out there is what keeps you playing.

Friday, November 17, 2023

I Tried Walking Away, but I Can't

Dungeon Fantasy is just too good of a game.

I get 5E; character progression is a theme park ride on rails. Sometimes, it is an enjoyable ride. The second time through, it is meh, mostly the same unless you are following someone's multiclassing guide and breaking the game. Pathfinder 2e is balanced with good options all the way up, but the class complexity and dozens of unique tags and conditions killed the game for me.

Yes, GURPS characters are complex. The 250-point starting characters are equivalent to 8th-level characters in D&D and are highly capable. They are also a lot to handle for new players, with tons of skills, powers, spells, and special abilities to manage. Combat and damage use a more realistic system, with parries, blocks, and dodges being important.

Despite all its detractors, GURPS has done something right to last nearly 40 years. This is still the same game as the first version, and despite a few subsystems and options, it has mostly stayed the same. The 4th Edition has lasted nearly 20 years, outlasting D&D 3, 3.5, 4, 4 Essentials, and 5E.

And when I play GURPS and the fantasy-themed version Dungeon Fantasy, I am taken back to the 1980s when AD&D sucked, and a point-buy system like GURPS was much more fun to play and craft characters in. Those of you who weren't there just don't know, and those rose-colored glasses of nostalgia blind you to so much.

If the kids in Stranger Things were cool, they would play GURPS. And Car Wars. Then again, shows you what the writers know about the 1980s. Everyone played Car Wars in the pre-Battletech days, post-Atari and pre-NES. Back when you had to go outside to have fun, nobody had phones in their pockets, and kids could just be kids.

Everyone did have a hand calculator, though. I still have one, and it still works after 40 years.

Back to using GURPS to play fantasy. Every skill matters; the skills you choose matter. You can play a social-focused campaign with no combat. You can play a skill-focused game more on stealth and subterfuge. You aren't forced to pick combat skills and become a killer the game designer forces you into. You don't have to solve all your problems with blood and violence.

Combat is deadly, which heightens the risk and danger - and forces you to think of other ways to resolve problems. Firstly, with your skills. Combat is something serious and not to be engaged in lightly. D&D abstracts death to the point where we become desensitized to it. Combat is 'for fun' and is 'exciting content!' We hurl fireballs into rooms of goblins and laugh. Tactical options are exciting and cool! Healing? Don't worry about healing; a "short rest" will cure a shotgun blast to the face! Death is hard and healing is easy!

Roleplaying games selling combat as gameplay sounds like fascist dictators trying to get people to join the army for glory, wealth, purpose, and excitement. They downplay the soldiers who die and those maimed for life and sell this fantasy escapist dream of military adventurism.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

This is me talking from the 1980s. This was true back then and is more true today than ever.

This hasn't changed, and D&D was always too focused on death - and still is. A considerable part of the realism movement in roleplaying games in the 1980s - and GURPS was one of them - was to get us to question our bloodlust. Today's average roleplaying game is a party of killers like multiple versions of Jason Vorhees.

GURPS gives you tools to escape the D&D reality and makes you question it. Some people dislike GURPS just because it does this; it puts a price on death used for escapism. The complexity is part of the price. They want to be inside the cave, and while that is okay, people need to understand what motivates them psychologically.

We gave up D&D in the early 1980s for games like GURPS, Aftermath, and Champions, and D&D was a limited, killing and loot-focused, level-based game. that didn't do much of anything else but "kill for treasure." These days, the treasure is gone, but it is still "kill for power" and story is secondary. GURPS did fantasy far better than D&D, and coming back to it - it still does.

The type of fantasy we liked.

One less focused on death, more on character and story, and one where every skill matters. This wasn't a 'power collection contest' or a curated 'leveling experience' - you got a pile of character points as a reward, and you were set free in a toy store of options you could pick from. Your fighter wants to dip into magic? Go right ahead! Some lame game designer won't tell you what to do or force you to cheat the game by multiclassing. You won't become an 'invalid character' with your choice.

The points are yours to spend in any way you want.

If your fighter knows a few spells now, and they help him light up a dark dungeon hall or heal himself, those abilities are a part of his story - cool. If it makes sense story-wise, go for it! You take a level of wizard as a fighter in D&D, and it can feel like a dongle that weakens your character in high-level play. It makes no sense. It breaks your build.

Sadly, many of the fantastic OSR games fall into the D&D trap. I love Dungeon Crawl Classics, but I can do more satisfying corruption stories in GURPS that are much more nuanced and meaningful. Just balance points of 'dark magic' with disadvantages, and pretty soon, your mages are growing horns, being hunted by witch hunters, gaining all sorts of compulsive behaviors, and serving dark lords of alien evil. DCC opened my mind to the possibilities, but GURPS made those more meaningful and expressed them with game mechanics.

The power could be yours right now! All you have to do is accept these few disadvantages and say yes...

What could go wrong?

Questioning power? Like the notion that 'power at any cost' is not worth it? We are back in the 1980s again and in that counter-culture movement where roleplaying games dared to do this. D&D even back then, D&D gave you this mentality that if you obeyed the rules and stuck within the classes they gave you, you were given power. That is precisely what governments and corporations want you to do.

You may see a pattern here.

I still play a little 5E and OSR games, but it is mostly junk food. It never lasts, and when I am eating it, I know it is a short-term thing, and there are better, more satisfying options. GURPS is my home cooking. It takes a little longer to get into, but the enjoyment is something I savor and look forward to. DCC, again, is a great game, and I love it - but it is still class and level-based.

With GURPS or Dungeon Fantasy, I can also question the narrative, shape it, craft my game into something that reflects me, and break free from the hobby's corporatist, death-glamorizing, blind obedience, and more problematic roots.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Class-Based Games

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I wonder if my disinterest in many roleplaying games is a distaste for class-based systems. Companies use class-based games to siphon money from you; they limit options, drip out character-build choices in expansions, and even if they don't - they force you to take your idea of a character and fit it into a "box" they give you.

Conan? Fighter! Right?

Merlin? Wizard! Right?

No, and no.

Conan can sneak around a temple, survive in the desert, and go into a berserker rage. Merlin has this part druid side to him; he could probably act like a warlock, but he knows magic and sorcery. Those are MY ideas of these characters.

Then, I end up shopping for games that best fit my ideas for these characters and playing that game, having other ideas for characters and not having them work in the boxes they give for other classes. And I am back to square one.

Every class-based game I tried failed me.

You are usually fine if you can put your ideas in a tiny box.

I am so creative classes ruin the game for me.

Also, class-based systems do not scale and break easily at high levels. Unless you are committed to testing a game at every level with every option to the maximum level (aka, Pathfinder 2), why do you ship broken levels with your game? Wizards have never shipped working high-level D&D play for the last 20 years. Every game gets to the 10-12th level and breaks hard. D&D 4th edition died for us when the 'turn denial' tactics made boss monsters these silly knock-down and stun-lock affairs, and the damage dealers were rolling damage every turn, and the game got boring.

And martial classes always get the short straw. No matter what edition you were in, magic-using classes outshined everyone else. Mages out-damaged martial characters, rogue abilities were easily replicated by magic, and you got this sense of 'who cares?'

Point-buy games are superior in every regard to class-based games. Hands down. If I want my Conan to have stealth and ranger abilities, I buy them. I don't get something else, or my combat skills are less lethal in their current experience, but my character acts and functions exactly like I want them to.

And in the grand scheme, those stealth and survival skills make my Conan far deadlier and more capable than a comparable and boring B/X fighter. GURPS and Dungeon Fantasy give me that. Character design is game design. Will my game be more survival-based? Buy survival skills and put those challenges in my game. Will my game be straight dungeon combat? Ignore the survival skills, hand-wave the game's survival aspects, and design characters for map combat.

The most significant mistake people make when playing GURPS is thinking they need to use it all.

You don't.

Character design is game design.

The skills you pick define the world and experience you will focus on. Granted, you need to be mature enough as a referee to understand this early with your players and not blindside them suddenly, requiring them to have survival skills, or the party dies! That is lame. Nobody wanted to do that when the game started, so don't pull a cheese move like that on everyone when nobody signed up for that.

If you run a do-everything game where they need to battle, survive, do social stuff, repair gear, hunt, forage, build shelters, navigate rough terrain, make maps, and take care of medical care - fine, fair game. You are running a very complex game, and that level of detail appeals to you.

If you want to cut any of those parts out of your game - that is what the book tells you to do, and you can. We only play hex-combats; we just focus on combat skills and healing. Great! You could hand wave the trip to the dungeon and assume they do what they must to navigate and travel; that is fine!

That is your game.

Character design is game design.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

And as for GURPS being complicated and math-heavy? I don't get it. The initial level of character complexity is higher than D&D, but the complexity of the character stays relatively level as you gain experience. High-level D&D characters are a slow and complicated thing to play and master - especially with the interruptions, bonus actions, reactions, and all the other not-your-turn mechanics flying around.

I understand why it takes people 30 minutes to say what their character does on a turn. What should be an "I do this" moment in a one-second combat turn - becomes a discussion of diplomacy and negotiation at an international forum. A GURPS character with many character points stays relatively the same complexity level as when they started. They are far more powerful and capable, but their complexity remains relatively low.

At worst, high-skill combat moves open up and become viable. You begin trading automatic hits for extra damage, called shots, or other advantages.

There are parts of GURPS I prefer to avoid, like some of their space combat implementations, that get too simulation-like and physics-based. I am free to handle this however I want to, like using another game's overall framework of starship combat but using GURPS skill rolls for attack and task resolution. The Knight Hawks starship combat game for Star Frontiers could use GURPS skill rolls for most everything, especially if you tweak modifiers for range (and convert between hexes and the minus-to-hit).

In fantasy, I like GURPS. The game is smaller scale and more intimate. Building a shelter and starting a fire for warmth can be a fight if you play on that low level. Getting an arm injury for your weapon hand can be a severe thing. A leg injury can slow you down. You will need medical skills, healing, and supplies - and you will wear down the longer you are in the wilderness. Armor can take damage, and weapons can wear down or break.

It is not high fantasy, fireball a thousand goblins and then laugh as you gate out to the planes of whatever. I tire of that no-consequences magic and 'combat for fun' game style. It is so 2010s, and it is frankly old and stale.

And classes limit my creativity. They put my ideas in a box designed by someone else.

I prefer to design the box myself.

Or have no box at all.

Monday, November 13, 2023

...versus World of Warcraft

5E turning into the 'pen and paper MMO' is doomed to fail. I logged into World of Warcraft recently to check the upcoming expansion, and while this MMO is highly flawed, it is still a better experience than an online 5E game. The metrics we all use as excuses to 'play 5E' get blown out of the water by a halfway decent MMO.

No, World of Warcraft isn't D&D.

But it is an 'activity' like D&D that shares a lot in common:

  • Fantasy
  • Consumes Time
  • Play with Friends
  • Adventure and Story
  • Character Progression

Finding a game? I have a button to instantly get into a group whenever I want. I am put in the queue, and off I go! Granted, these are not the best games, but unlike 5E, I am not forced to waste weeks figuring that out - and have to give these people personal information and find a shared play space. And in an MMO, I never have to let them into my house. That may sound massively unsocial, but this is the world we live in post-2020.

Chances are I will land in an active and friendly guild on a server if I show interest and the willingness to learn and follow orders. I will always have content and groups. I will never need a dungeon master. I do not need 3d assets or a VTT to run a game. No game prep. No 80-dollar books to buy. There is a monthly fee, but it is cheaper than keeping up on 5E books and Kickstarters.

Granted, this is all an 'I know this' comparison - and a pretty lame article. There is no 'dungeon master' in World of Warcraft - but with AI advancing as quickly as it is, and Microsoft buying Blizzard, this likely is only a matter of time.

MMOs are not roleplaying. Not yet.

But a strange convergence of AI and online adventure is where we are heading.

But I ask myself, what is the Wizards VTT building? A static, non-animated, unmoving version of World of Warcraft with a few limited terrains and towns that we will all get sick of after one or two sessions? Part of the fun of a pen-and-paper game is going to places we have never been to and seeing people and cultures far removed from our experience. How fun will it be to go back to the same damn tavern map and town a few hundred times because the selection in the store isn't that great, and we don't have the money to keep buying 3d maps?

I have been in the 3d industry, especially the 3d asset creation field - building 3d sets and terrains is not cheap, and it can take weeks or months for a dedicated artist to pull off. To make that 3d set work within a VTT engine? That is further work 'editing the map' by a level-design editor, like creating the walkable surfaces the ruler will work on - more time and money spent. Testing? QA? Packaging? Store cloud space? More money is added with each step. Especially if the 3d assets you use are essentially asset flips from game stores, you get into relicensing fees and contracts (and having to pull an asset because the license expired).

Pretty soon, what you thought would take a 3d artist to 'hack out' is taking months to build a dungeon for the next major module release; the testers are complaining a few hundred issues are broken. What you thought you could flip on the VTT store for a few hundred dollars to build, and ship is turning into expensive videogame development in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in sunk development costs - that may release with a thud. You want the VTT Tomb of Horrors to be an 'experience' - of course, we need to sink more money into this!

How much can you charge for this?

The Wizards VTT feels like it is showing more for investors than for gamers. If you wanted gamers, the sets would be modular and snap together easily. You could buy pieces. This feels like a tech demo meant to grab investor attention.

Meanwhile, MMOs are sitting over there with infrastructure, cost data, scale, staff artists, animators, and the customer base to pull it off and make money doing it since they have been down that road for decades. They know how much money they can sink into a 'dungeon' for it to make money, and they have millions of customers ready to pay and allow for a profit margin.

AI plus D&D has a long way to go and is a niche experience.

AI plus an MMO is 99% of the way there and mainstream.

Wizards is trying to build a backdoor MMO with the VTT, which is doomed. Not just from a 'being negative' standpoint, but from an observational one - the level of adoption and success they would need to create the economy of scale to pull this off would be unprecedented.

And sooner or later, they start bumping heads with MMOs.

No, you can't 'roleplay' that well in MMOs. And you can't tell your 'own stories' - but the value and delivery of services are more accessible than a VTT. The costs are far less, especially when it comes to asset creation. Online roleplaying is a niche product, and VTTs are in the novelty market where more effort is needed to make the whole thing work than most people are willing to put in.

What happens when an MMO creates an AI 'dungeon master' that crafts stories around your favorite MMO character, and the game suddenly never plays the same way twice? What happens when the MMO AI DMs dynamically create adventure zones, NPCs, and 3d maps? What happens when your character's story is this complex, amazingly written creation that you have narrative control over, given your actions? What happens when your character has romance options with dynamically generated NPCs and can raise an in-game family and kingdom?

Will you even need a VTT?

An AI-driven VTT is a product designed to play the game we were interested in 10 years ago in the best way possible. It isn't forward-looking. And it will be quickly replaced by AI-driven mainstream options.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

ACKS 2 Kickstarter Update


The ACKS 2 Kickstarter has reached $292,438 with 12 days to go, surpassing the Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy Kickstarter. This feels like it will break 300K by the final days, and congratulations to this team. They are nowhere near Shadowdark, but this is still a fantastic achievement for the game and its fans.

These days, ACKS 2 will look like my serious B/X style game of choice and replace 5E and Pathfinder 1 and 2 for me. I have Dungeon Crawl Classics for gonzo fantasy. For everything else, Cypher System will be it.

I am not buying a thousand dollars of books for a game again. People who still play 5E and these wannabe live-service games will be the ones to blame for the ever-increasing cost of the hobby. Even if someone owns all the books and never gives another penny to Wizards, they will force other people - new players - to buy the game and get into the walled garden. Even if you get your books used, for free, or any other way - you force the people you play with to buy in - and it is selfish to tell yourself, 'Well, at least I am not giving them money' - you are forcing others to do it for you.

The only way out is divestment.

Find other games; there are plenty, and they all have fantastic communities.

Find a game with everything you need in one book - or boxed set, and make that your game.

The more money you spend on a game, and the more you force others to spend, the more part of the problem with the hobby you become. The players are the reason these companies can charge 80 dollars for a book with a monthly cost tied in. Not the company. Don't let it be you.

So congratulations to the ACKS team for a new high water mark in B/X alternatives, and ones that break free of both the OGL and the CC and do something new and independent. ACKS is different; it has no ties to the Wizards licensing schemes. It is B/X breaking free from the broken record we have been in with B/X for the last 10+ years, where people pick a specific version from a moment and try to rewrite it.

2023 was the year we learned depending on Wall Street's charity was unsustainable.

It is time we find games that give us the freedom to say no to them.

Otherwise, we will be a part of the problem. And people can't whine or complain about playing other games, saying, "I don't want to learn anything else" or the lame "won't be able to find a game" - since they will be forcing others to pay up for those in the ivory towers. Also, ignore the rabble-rousers, using silly reasons and politics to keep people in the Wall Street games.

All lies.

All distractions.

Support games that break free of control. Others will likely come up soon, even if you don't like ACKS, you will have great choices (and do right now). Pick one, and join the community early.

Do you want to be a part of why the hobby's costs are increasing?

I can't.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Urban Fantasy: The Gonzo Game

I look at all the 5E implementations of sci-fi and cyberpunk, and every time, it is a 300+ page book with too many rules, too many complicated subsystems, and half of the rules you will need to interact, and adventure in a near-modern cyberpunk city environment are nowhere to be found.

3.5E, 4E, or 5E can never have enough rules for everything. It was like this back in Pathfinder 1. I have thousands of pages of rules for everything, and I still have large gaping holes for relatively common fantasy tropes. I sit here and wonder if they can ever write enough 5E rules or if it will ever stop.

Some games are rules sponges, and they are built to sell you more rules. They lack generic mechanics where a simple, universal, and coherent rule could handle one thing.

5E was built to sell you the next book, and it will never stop. Even the classes are designed to be very book-dependent; you get one new subclass with this book, nickel-and-dime the design over a few hundred (or thousand) dollars of expansion books.

This is how the game was designed.

Everything from 3.5E on is like this.

It is a mobile game with stamina mechanics and particular currencies needed to complete basic actions. Only here, the rules are just generic enough to cover basic actions. Still, for anything exciting or radically different, the game needs an entirely new subsystem for things like monster training, car chases, vehicle combat, hacking, magical research, city building, hirelings, coffee shops, universities - and you need a sixty to eighty dollar book for each of those activities.

Play the game long enough, and you will need a book for something else.

Urban Fantasy? Taking elves, orcs, tieflings, magic, and monsters and mixing them with magic and cyberpunk? The closest thing I have to that is Starfinder, dozens of books I am not rebuying, and the story is the same. The core book covers 30% of what you must do as an adventurer but lacks many subsystems for specific circumstances. I bought books and books, and while I may get good coverage of most of the things I need - it will be a  few thousand pages of rules.

I am done with games like that.

I hit the 5E wall with a desire to run a d20-based Cyberpunk or Shadowrun game, and I realized how difficult this would be to pull off without a few thousand pages of rules. If a game were relatively complete in one book, learning how vehicle combat, hacking, magic, monsters, and everything else work in a heavily structured game would not be worth the time and effort. The 5E design makes it even harder since a good representation of a few classes would take over 100 pages of rules, powers, and options - if you include magic and tech powers.

The time it would take to learn and apply these rules for a typically unsatisfying and overly complex result would not be worth the time and effort. I experienced that in GURPS: Traveller, where my starfighter combat turned out to be something between a mix of a physics simulator and a submarine warfare game, and the two fighters searched for each other in a vast void of space, never finding each other, and never being close enough after they made a guess where the other ship would be.

They were lost in space and could only fire when they were 2-3 hexes apart, with zero chance of detecting each other to get that close.

Many systems written in these d20 games for starship or vehicle combat aren't worth playing, and the hacking and other systems are the same. They are created for map combat, and everything else is an afterthought. NPCs do the vehicle combat and hacking, and the GM handwaves it. For urban fantasy magic meets cyberpunk game, I don't want 5E 'in-room combat' with a leather jacket, sunglasses, and attitude.

Cypher System handles the entire Urban Fantasy genre better, with more flair and ease of use. Motorcycle chase through traffic? The system does it easy; the enemy has difficulty, uses the traffic on the freeway as a hindrance, uses your skill (and possibly bike) as an asset, and you roll a d20. Apply effort as needed. I don't need to learn 20 pages of unworkable vehicle combat rules that will require battle maps, road sections, and for me to place down every car to move around.

Roll a 1? GM Intrusion, and you wreck your bike. Roll a 20? The one you are chasing does. Major and minor effects are covered in the same roll, along with extra damage.

GM intrusion? Chase complication. Player intrusion? Force the issue and push the story forward.

Hacking? Same. You have your skills and tools as assets, set the difficulty rating, apply hindrances to the situation, and roll a d20. Apply effort as needed. Done. I don't need to learn 20 pages of hacking rules that nobody will use.

Magic? Same. Summoning a trash golem? Same. Making a deal with the mega-corps? Same. Helicopter combat? Same. Disabling high-tech security systems with a remote drone? Same. Casting an illusion? Same. Creating a combat robot? Same. Retrieving deleted data from a secure system? Same. Understanding ancient magical rites in an unearthed temple? Same. Climbing buildings? Same. Starship combat? Same. Training cyber combat pets? Same. Being a race driver or rock musician? Same.

Thousands of pages of rules I don't need to remember or keep on a shelf and never use.

Dozens of books I don't need to waste money on or flip through, taking away play time.

Yes, having a detailed subsystem for chases, vehicle combat, hacking, magic, and every other thing is a 'nice to have' - but given most games get this sort of game design utterly wrong on the first design, and they are never fixed. The Starfinder ship combat rules were horrible in the first book, and they changed many of the numbers in later printings. Most 5E books don't get a second printing, and some - like Spelljammer - don't even include the rules for what they are promising.

90% of the time, for a narrative experience, the Cypher System rules do the job faster with more flair and flavor than anything I have seen designed in almost every 3E to 5E game ever printed.

For a setting that demands so many unique interactions and situations - having a system that simplifies everything under the sun will make the game a faster and more enjoyable experience. This worked wonderfully for my Cypher System 'Road War' campaign, and I could run a day's action in 30 minutes and be happy with how it played and the results. There was tension in the pool management and a real fear of failure when I played solo. I don't get that from many other games.

If one of my three pools drops to zero due to effort or injury, everything gets more complicated, and I wonder if my character will make it through the day. And I can't fudge the rolls or the rules, and it is pretty clear when I lose points in a pool and from what.

The roll stands, and my character's life gets more complicated.

But I can fight back by spending those precious XP. These pools have an abstract narrative nature, but they simulate hundreds of pages of complex subsystems in one roll with one number.

The system works, covers anything I can imagine, and saves me hundreds of dollars in books and days of time learning exploitative and broken systems. If I want to watch complex subsystems break and fiddle with numbers, I will play 5E. If I wish for an incredible story with a system that handles anything, I will play Cypher System and forget about those other games.

You need to ask yourself, what is the most important?

What gives me the most fun?

For me, the story wins.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Future of Urban Fantasy

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Don't ask questions, it's D&D with guns!

That is what I get with Shadowrun, and the more I read and think about the game, the more I realize that this alone isn't the future of the urban fantasy genre. The genre needs to break away from one defining game, and answer the question, why?

Cities Without Number introduces an 'Intruders' concept, where the world is destroyed by magical incursions of alien fantasy monsters and races from other realms. These forces gate in, destroy cities, and bring terror and destruction to the land. They bring magic with them, and the setting is explained. The fantasy races in the book are more a result of genetic modification. Still, there is really nothing to keep you from making traditional elves, orcs, dwarves, and others refugees from the Intruders' world and having them live on Earth and blend in.

Or not. The potential for conflict exists, but in the face of an existential threat, this could force everyone into enclave cities with high tensions, forcing people to get along. This is the problem with D&D and Pathfinder 'writing conflict' out of the story and backgrounds, this happy world where everyone is best friends, like a version of Sesame Street. This does not reflect reality and turns RPGs into silly kids' games.

Urban fantasy needs a break from Shadowrun, like the high fantasy genre needs a break from D&D.

And Shadowrun also needs a break from D&D while we are at it. When you mix these two genres, you need to answer the question of why. Mixing elves and orcs with cyberpunk creates a central conflict between myth and technology. The urban fantasy genre is about the death of myth, magic, and tradition.

This place called the Internet is where our shared culture goes to die.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Our fairy tales, myths, shared stories, religion, and core beliefs of who and what we are - the mystic nature of the soul - all die on the Internet. Putting elves, orcs, trolls, dwarves, and others in an environment like this just highlights how these iconic myths are now worthless anachronisms in the face of corporate greed.

An elf in an urban fantasy world is a shadow of a true high fantasy elf.

The myth is dead.

The magic is gone.

Those skyscrapers of the mega-corporations are the leg, neck, and ankle shackles around who that elf is inside. The identity is lost forever. You are just a wage slave with pointy ears. D&D or Pathfinder can't write a background like that; it would trigger someone. Those games are played in the kid's room.

But that is urban fantasy; it is not D&D with guns. It is a story of losing what makes us human through watching others lose what makes them myth and legend. It is a painful, nihilistic, and pessimistic genre that makes us reflect on the loss of identity and self. These destructive forces in our world are brought on by money, Wall Street, and the soul-sucking Internet.

No wonder the genre is either silenced or lacquered over by a corporate saccharine veneer, highlighting cyber's kewl neon opiate looks! The genre is not the flash, colors, looks, and styles.

The genre is a mirror to the darkest parts of our souls.

The flash and neon colors are there to hide the pain of having your soul ripped apart. Your identity is being turned into a number. Your body is being converted into a machine.

If you can't see beyond the lights and colors, the corporate brainwashing is working.

You are too distracted to feel the pain.

Friday, November 3, 2023

Chains of Asmodeus

It is strange that Wizards would sneak out a significant expansion to high-level play and monsters on Dungeon Master's Guild as a PoD book. At nearly 300 pages, this feels like a significant expansion book, and it needs to be a nicely-printed hardcover.

Then again, I have this feeling we are slowly creeping back into AD&D 2nd Edition censorship, and Wizards will get rid of demons, devils, and the entire concept of Hell because this is "linked to real-world religions" - just like the shaman and witch are being removed from Magic the Gathering.

I feel these concepts are not "Wall Street-friendly" and will likely be removed from the game. If you can't sell it at Target, it won't get a release. It is the same with spells that could be misused in 'harmful ways' against players, like charm person or hold person - one bad YouTube story that goes viral about those will get them removed.

The slow creep of censorship is here. That will filter down into everything, even video games, and one drop at a time, the game we loved won't be the same. It won't happen all at once, but I feel it is happening.

In 10 years, we will not recognize D&D.

This is why I choose smaller, independent games. I don't need to play 5E. "Finding a game" is not a good enough excuse to support this, just like "being able to find food" is a terrible excuse to eat fast food every night of the week. You can find better games, and you will need to work a little harder, but you will get more out of it, and the community will be healthier and a more diverse place as a result.

Shadowrun: I Quit at the Right Time?

From the reviews, Shadowrun 4th Edition looks like the most loved edition of the game. I went all in with 4th and never really got a chance to play. I had a big campaign planned, and it never panned out.

I love the setting, but my ideas of Shadowrun go beyond what is in the books, and it delves more into post-apocalyptic themes mixed with magic and the rise of darkness. My views are influenced by the classic World of Darkness setting, with an awakened class dealing with powerful cabals and magical world-ending threats.

My Shadowrun has demons, devils, fae, undead hordes, vampires, dragon factions, beast races, druids, dark elves, eldritch horrors, and ancient gods. There is a lot the governments and corporations never say, and life outside the enclave cities is impossible since the lands are overrun and destroyed.

Corruption was everywhere, and factions themselves could be corrupted from within.

My world is closer to Aftermath using their Magic sourcebook than Shadowrun, to be honest. I could use the Other Dust rules to fill in the areas between the cities if I wanted to stick to Sine Nomine rules. The world was not a nice place, and even though the megacities were run by corporations and their puppet governments, nothing could survive in the wilderness for long, and it was too expensive to mount protracted military campaigns to take worthless, destroyed, and empty land.

Other Dust is a game that I would love a second edition for that goes all out.

Society moved on to the urban model, and governments found it cheaper to have everyone close and on top of each other, heavily taxed, very few services for the poor, and keeping people in line by keeping them at each other's throats. Very few knew what was happening with magic, and it had to be this mysterious force that people feared and dreamed of controlling.

Magic could not be commercialized, bought and sold, and under anyone's control.

Using magic was like opening Pandora's box, much like the magic in Dungeon Crawl Classics; it could corrupt the user and the area it was cast in. A summoning spell misfire could open a gate to the infernal realms, and demons would pour forth, take over a neighborhood, and turn it into a war zone. You were thinking hard if you wanted to risk magic. There were reasons for corporations and governments to stop people from using magic and crack down on its teaching.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

This differed from the predictable modern game McMagic (D&D, Pathfinder, and many other games), which gets tedious, mathematical, and uninteresting. When spells become a part of your damage-per-turn calculations, throw the system out - you are playing an MMO, and that is NOT magic. Game designers creating mobile phone pen-and-paper games should be the ones who 'can't leave the hobby soon enough.'

But SR 4 is the peak, and the following games went downhill - based on reviews. Still, my version of the setting differs quite a bit, and this is one of those games, "The more I bought, the worse it got." My ideas got pushed to the back burner, and the official setting started taking over. My ideas of a destroyed world with powerful 'non-canon' factions seemed like a significant divergence from the setting. I outgrew their books - and the expansion books started limiting me severely.

My world wasn't theirs anymore.

Whenever other players tried it, they had those by-the-book expectations broken, and I began to feel the game's lore limited what I could do. I was way more imaginative than what they gave me, and with every book I bought, my setting slowly became theirs.

Not mine.

My setting felt like a drag racer burning its tires. The only thing their setting had going for it was I paid a lot of money for it, and I felt I should use it. I have this inverse-fun rule for RPGs and settings: the more books you buy, the less you use them - and the more you resent the purchases.

One-book games are the pinnacle of game design.

This is why I don't go back to Shadowrun 4th Edition, and I would use Cities Without Number and some B/X books to add in the missing parts, like monsters and magic. Spellcasting would require a skill roll to check for misfire and crit failure, and those consequences could be severe. Even a typical failure could bring on a minor effect, a change in the caster, area, or effect of the spell on the target.

Magic needs significant risks. These need to be high enough that the practice and use of magic are hidden and secretive. If you are open casting in a city, you could be disappeared by a corporation, government, or criminal gang. CWN has a concept of heat, and a concept of 'magical heat' would be applied to casters who were too out there with their spells. There are likely 'mage cops' who hunt down unregistered people with magical abilities, like Blade Runner.

A careless mage could burn a skyscraper down, permanently warp reality, or open a gate to Hell downtown. These events can change the campaign world permanently, and an entire city-hex may become a war zone and off-limits.

That mystery, danger, paranoia, and suspicion are pure story fuel. Seeing a magical creature show up has an air of fear and the unknown. Mages live dangerous lives with high risks, but powerful mages become game changers who can face down all but immortal dragons.

You can't have a gritty, Noir, and mysterious cyber-fantasy setting with familiar and accessible McMagic free from consequences. The setting doesn't work.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I outgrew Shadowrun the moment I laid my eyes on it. Over the years, the game held me back more than it allowed me to explore that world. It is a great experience and world, but the default setting meant one thing to the designers and an entirely different thing to me.

Learn to recognize this dissonant feeling. When that disconnect happens between you and a game or a setting. When that happens - walk away.

Explore those feelings.

Stop buying books and discover the fun inside your head.

Looking back, I left Shadowrun at the right time and should have left earlier with just my inspirations intact. All those expansion books throw a wet towel over my ideas. I can explore these better in other games without the official world hanging over my head and telling me I am playing the game wrong.