Friday, May 31, 2013

Old School Dislikes

Elrad of Back to the Dungeon asks 3 questions about what we like and dislike about "Old School Games" (tm).  Avoiding the question of "what is an old school game?" and including Castles and Crusades and Dungeon Crawl Classics to Hackmaster even, I thought this was good for discussion.

Back in the day, each table had it's own house rules, the way that DM and group interpreted and molded the game to their campaign.  One of the cool things about the OSR (as opposed to most games of 4th and 3.x) is how we're returning to that.

We have an embarrassment of riches of old school game systems.  One of the advantages of so many variations, covers if you will, riffed off of the D&D base is that we can pretty much mix and match, cut and paste, and agglutinate a set of rules from our prolific diversity.

Here I've expanded some of my answers to Elrad's questions.

So what are some of the features of different Old School Games and their clones that you dislike and why?

I dislike to hit tables and THACO, so I use the d20 base to hit that's found in Castles and Crusades.  I use that because it removes more of the math.  The players usually have one number to add to their die-roll and their called out result compares directly to the armor class I have for the monster.  I have found it to be the fastest in play for me.

I hate non-weapon proficiencies (NWP) as the worst possible implementation of skills/talents/feats. By defining something as an ability you deprive others of it.  If you allow a character to choose "Mapping" as a proficiency do you allow others to map?  NWP systems typically allow only a few opportunities to choose them; a couple at first level and then not every level after that.  This would be fine if they were by definition all heroic level abilities.  But if they are mundane?  You're not letting players choose very simple courses of action that they could imagine normal characters performing.  I prefer free form stunts and try to encourage players with them.

I also confess to liking maps and miniatures. It's part habit from DMing too many years of 3.x and part reaction to an old school DM that couldn't keep player positions in his head and had very misleading sketches and descriptions and a tendency to "gotcha".  However, I must admit it can slow down the game both in my presentation and in players spending time choosing their precise square.

DO you have a house rule against the disliked feature?

With the variety of different old school rule sets, I've been able to choose one that more fits my style. I think that this is a great time for the OSR precisely because we have so many choices.  I've not even read them all.  In fact, if anyone thinks that system X (Blood and Treasure? Dark Dungeons?) would better fit my play style, by all means point me to it.

However, even after picking the base system I preferred, I do dislike some aspects of C&C: encumbrance and surprise/perception checks. I have houseruled in modifications of other systems (Lamentations-style encumbrance and 52-pages surprise.)

How many of you use a miss-mash of many rulebooks and systems? 

See above. I'd steal bits from DCC and Hackmaster too if I could get my co-DM to agree to it.

I'd also steal the different demihuman racial classes idea from ACKS.  However, I'd want to use it to emphasize how freakin' weird the demihumans should be.  

What is your final system or lack thereof like?

I'd really like to implement a tightly-bound armor class system and use 2d10 instead of 1d20.  I'd prefer a bell-curve over the flat resolution system.  I think it would be a better match for the slow leveling and generally gritty play that I prefer.  That would take some work and the result would be a bit outside the old school family; not in aesthetics but it would limit how easily pieces from other games could be mixed and matched with it.

I confess I love extreme fiddly detail in magic systems. That's part of my draw to DCC.  In fiction, your source of magic matters and there's great "play" (ie, choice and consequence) in it. 

My ideal system would also allow the DM to seamlessly dial detail in and out: from a mapless free form system all the way to a Hackmaster second by second combat resolution depending upon the nature and level of the challenge. If it's primarily an exploration or negotiation challenge, a grid is imagination-draining and time consuming without benefit. Same for a few goblins to a mid-level party - nothing dangerous or interesting in that combat. But a "boss" fight? A detailed combat system can be fun then. My ideal system would help the DM present different challenges in different ways (allowing the players to choose their method of course.)

What is an RPG game breaker that you cannot tolerate?

I dislike disassociated mechanics and intense character building.  But that's why I prefer old school games. However, a good DM and a good group could still draw me into playing 3.x or 4th edition.

Really, for all that I've talked about rules in this blog post, DM skill, DM and player style match, and group compatibility matter more for my table fun.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Torchbearer: Old School Dungeon Crawl? Late notice of kickstarter

Torchbearer is an incarnation of the Burning Wheel/Mouseguard rules designed for what is now understood to be the original dungeon crawl game: exploration and resource management.

I've never played Burning Wheel or Mouseguard.  As I became aware of them, I was developing my taste for lighter rules and mechanicless narrative.  On the other hand, these are very thoughtful gamers.  The kinds of challenges that they present are at the core of Torchbearer game play are ones that I've been trying to present in my own games. 

From an interview:

The cramped caves, the oppressive dark, none of that came across the way it felt in an actual cavern.
“I wanted to make a game where caving and dungeoneering felt like a big deal,” he says, “where your character could be cold and wet and feel the oppressive weight of the dark.”


How much food and water will you pack? How many candles, torches, or flasks of oil will you stow in your pack? All of these basic essentials are used up over time and unless you can replenish them, says Olavsrud, “things will start to go very poorly for your character.”

In other words, if a cave troll doesn’t get you, dying of thirst or starvation just might.

“It gets even more interesting when treasure becomes involved,” Olavsrud adds. “You need to fit treasure in your pack somehow. It often requires discarding valuable gear.”

The game hinges on choice, consequence, and conflict, and your inventory lies at the heart of each expedition.

 I could steal that sentence for the aims of the dungeon crawls I'm running.

Here's a character sheet:

The conditions lead me to believe this is a very gritty game.  "Dead - may not use wises, tests, or help", uh-huh.   I've been dubious of mechanics that limit choices or simulate fear, but the way some of these are expressed "Angry, can't use beneficial traits" and "Afraid, can't help or beginner's luck" are interesting.  But there's a lot here I'm sure I don't get the implications of: it's been decades since I've played a game with dice pools (Shadowrun first edition, I think)

On the other hand, I have a distaste for handling some of these challenges with abstracted checks.  I don't want players to think about what die pool they will expend to meet a challenge, but how their character would physically negotiate the obstacle.

I'm intrigued enough to get a pdf of the kickstarter.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Specials: Statue of Prophetic Doom, the goddess Wee Jas

"Specials" aka "Saturday Night Specials" are one of the fascinating set pieces of old school play, whether they're in a megadungeon or a location in a hex crawl.  By definition they are "unbalanced" and potentially either capricious or magnanimous.

Sometimes they are adventure goals and occasionally they are obstacles.  Often they are the focus of megadungeon faction conflict, and they frequently are listed on your rumor tables.  They should be in some way enigmatic, unstandard but definitely memorable.

One common old school standard recommends that 5% of megadungeon encounters be "specials", but I've been upping the percent in my recent level creations.  I like'm too much as a DM, even if I could be accused of being too cautious with them as a player (well, with some of my characters.)

If you like these, pester me and I'll put up more of them.

Statue of Prophetic Doom

This statue of golden stone is of the goddess Wee Jas and is linked to her portfolios of vanity, death and magic.  Larger than life size and the focus of a large worship room.  In one hand she holds a crystal ball and before her is an offering bowl.

 (A statue of the goddess Wee Jas depicting her vanity attribute.)

The Sycophantic Attendant
The statue is frequently attended by a sycophant, currently a deranged fawning and simpering creature on the cusp between life and undeath.  His name is unimportant and forgotten in any case in his devotion to the goddess.  He greets all equally, imploring them to worship the goddess and extolling her virtues.  If the statue is molested or offerings (see below) are stolen, or he himself is attacked, he will defend himself as a 3rd level multi-classed cleric/wizard.  If he is killed the statue will cease to function until another attendant is attracted to devote themselves body and soul to Wee Jas. (And could that be one of the characters attempting to manipulate the attendant-less statue?)
While he will prattle on about the glories and majesty of Wee Jas, his most repeated and insistent phrase is this:
"If you donate to her as she deserves, she will reward you and grant you a vision of your death."

The Offering Bowl
If questioned the attendant will reply that Wee Jas values gold, jewelry, beautiful objects and magical items.   What the attendant won't reveal is that the statue requires an offering of 100gp per character level squared.  A character that places less than that in the offering bowl will believe they see the statue react with a dismissive rolling of the eyes.  More and the statue will seem to smile upon the character, though with no effect more than the minimum - it is just her due after all.
The statue knows how much each character contributes even on multiple visits, and offerings below the amount remain in the bowl - though removing them will provoke threats at the least from the attendant.
After the minimum amount for a character is contributed, those offerings disappear and the character will receive their prophecy and reward.

The Disappeared Offerings
While the attendant believes that the offerings are rendered onto Wee Jas, actually they are transported to a secret room beneath the statue accessible from the level below.  While taking the offerings risks the wrath of Wee Jas, currently another faction of the dungeon (a cult of Nerull) are in possession of the room and are protected.  Nearby however is an ancient cache of offerings unknown to the Nerull high priest.

The Vision of Prophetic Doom
The statue will grant the character a vision of a potential death. The doom that a character receives is a weakness to a particular death as determined by the table below.  The effect of the prophecy can not be avoided - it will remain in effect until the character dies as a result of that particular doom.  Short of Atonement from a friendly life-giving deity (also a 5th level spell just as is Raise Dead), death from a particular doom is the only way to relieve the prophecy.  Death from another source will not remove the prophecy either.

The Reward
While the character now has a fatal flaw, Wee Jas is just in her own way.  The character receives enough experience points to raise a level and be half way to their next.  So a 1st level character would be 2nd and half way to level 3.  A character can only have one doom - but if by chance they return after death from their doom, they may receive another and another reward.

The Dooms
The character receives a vision of themselves dying from their particular doom, but the player is unaware of the actual mechanics.  Roll a d20 of course!
  • 1-4 Poison:  any poison the character receives will be fatal.  Antidotes, spells of protection from poison or other means will have no effect.  The only way to avoid the doom is to not to receive poison in the first place.
  • 5-8 Fire:  all fire saving throws will fail and all damage from fire is tripled.  Any protections from fire are ineffective other than avoiding fire in the first place. 
  • 9 Old Age:  while the character may indeed live to a ripe old age, ANY aging effects (such as the touch of a ghost or a haste spell) will cause the character's death.  As most "common" Raise Dead spells are ineffective for deaths of old age, this result is not as beneficent as it would appear.
  • 10-14 Unlife:  any drain from an undead creature, such as a level drain, strength drain from a shadow or similar effect will completely drain the life from the character.  No protections or contraceptives are effective except avoiding unlife.
  • 15 Drowning:  the character will fail in any attempt to hold their breath under any liquid for any duration, and no magic that allows a character to breathe underwater will succeed.  While the character can still swim, any immersion of their entire head beneath water will result in a horrible accident in which the character drowns.  The character can still safely bathe as long as they can't be completely immersed, nor do they need to fear normal eating and drinking.
  • 16-17 Backstab: any unknown attack with an edged weapon from behind is treated as a successful assassination attempt.
  • 18-20 Fall:  any fall causing damage will be fatal.  While the character can fly with magic or a steed, any break in their flight that begins a fall will be fatal and re-initiating any flight magic will be unsuccessful.

As yet, the adventurers in our campaign have not chanced upon this special.

Also, please inform me if you know who I should credit for the image of the creepy asylum inmate.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Letter to a new player

We've been recruiting for more players for our co-DMed old school sandbox.  We've used a variety of means: Pen and Paper games, Meetup, forums - and personals sites (really - a higher percentage of those folks actually reply and show up to game, go figure.)
One of our new perspective players emailed the other DM to ask if his group (there's only one group) was "inclined to share our political views."

Our current group includes a variety of people - women, poly people, queers, etc.  This is Seattle, so it's generally left of center too.  But we're not recruiting for an underground cell or anything - just people it would be fun to game with.

Here's the background:

I met two prospective players at my girlfriend's coffee shop this week.  We talked about the campaign and rolled up characters.  I did wear a hat with a small rainbow pin, but otherwise I had no overt badges, and no agenda besides the game.  95%+  of what we talked about was how we like to play pretend elfs and roll funny dice.

There were two exceptions to that conversation focus.

The first was that one of the guys, an avid computer gamer and first time table top player, mentioned how so many computer game conventions that he did not understand were being explained to him now that he was learning about table top games.  I replied that many of the computer game pioneers got their start in tabletop games, one of whom of course was Jennell Jacquays; I did mention that Jennell transitioned from Paul to Jennell just as she had transitioned from tabletop to the computer, going from 3 dimensional dungeon layouts to 3 dimensional Quake and Halo levels.  The double mention of transition wasn't meant to be anything other than a poor pun and one that I don't think Jennell herself passes up on her own bio page ("the future will be about changes").

The second exception was the May Day Anti-Capitalist March, that was chased by the Seattle Police up the street right outside the coffee shop.  (Normally I'd have attended such a march, but I'd gone to the earlier Workers and Immigrant Rights March, and I'm trying to give a leg injury time to heal - and last year the black bloc was a bit unjudicious with their choice of property destruction as speech).  The Seattle Police armored personnel carrier rolled by, and I made the remark "Our tax dollars at work."

The spectacle passed and we went back to talking about how we pretend to be elfs and wizards.

The next day the other player, having rolled up his halforc, emailed the other DM, asking if his group was "inclined to sharing your political opinions" and if not he'd "like to switch groups".

The other DM just messaged him that 'this might not be a good fit.' I didn't want to quite leave it at that, so this is what I sent to him:


I understand you wondered about the politics of the group and all that.  Well, we try to make a group that is welcoming to people of all kinds - queers, women, poly people, anyone who wants to play.  A lot of the world, a lot of the gaming world, is not so welcoming to them (us, speaking for myself.)  So it might feel 'political' to you.

If a person's politics fits into the status quo, then nothing in the status quo feels political.  But if you're outside the status quo, everything is objectionably "political".    So a place that feels political to you might be just relaxed to others.

Understand we'd like to have you at the table.  You seem like a real enthusiastic player - and that's fun.

In the wider gaming world, women are often assumed to not be serious players, gay is used as a pejorative and people censor themselves to fit in.  We want a table were everyone has respect and we don't have to censor our preferences and beliefs.

It's also just one group.  You could certainly only show up when one DM is running the game and not for the other.  But the player community would be pretty much the same.

So if you're cool with us being who we are and can be respectful, then please come and roll dice and pretend to be an elf (or an orc or what-have-you) with us.