Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I have reached the threshold of middle-age and still consider myself a gamer. If you would have asked my at 14 if I thought that I would still be playing RPGs at 39, I would most certainly have said "yes" quite emphatically. Of course when I was 14 I'm sure that I believed a lot of things that would turn out to be untrue. Not so with gaming, and not only am i still gaming, but I have come full circle. I started with basic D&D, progressed to advanced D&D, moved on to the Hero System in college, played a dozen other "modern" RPGs and now, here I am, wishing for the old days of basic D&D. I purchased copies of both the Holmes and Moldvay editions from ebay, complete with boxes and dice. I own PDFs of Gygax and Arneson's original D&D rules. I frequent the Dragonsfoot boards and the Knights and Knaves Alehouse. I have a hardcover copy of Labyrinth Lord for heaven's sake. It's safe to say that I am into Retro RPGs.

So, perhaps I should outline why I really enjoy "old school" gaming. This is not to say that I don't enjoy modern games or that older games are in any way superior. It's just me thoughts.

1. Quick and easy to learn, yet easily expandable.
Games like Basic D&D, Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry and Basic Fantasy Roleplaying can be learned by the players in just s few minutes and by the GM in just a few hours, yet they are easily modfiable in many ways. Want critical hit carts? Grab your old ones from Rolemaster. New races can be borrowed from anywhere, especially versions of D&D. These games expect and really encourage the players to make them their own.

2. Quick character creation. Roll stats, pick a class, roll hit points, buy equipment and go. These types of games are great for when you want to just sit down and play and don't want your first session to be dedicated to just making characters. This also comes in handy when characters die. Yes, I said die. We'll talk more about death later on but for now suffice it to says that when a character in one of these games dies, there is no need for the character to be out of the action for a long time. Just follow the steps above and voila! Grob the Dwarf part II.

3. Character die. They die and the do it a lot. I'm sure that you are thinking, "ooooh, GM with an attitude here." No, not really. The threat of death was something in old RPGs that I found very exciting, even as a player. I never wanted my character to die, but I was an adventurer by the gods! I needed to do dangerous things and there was nothing like saving vs a deadly poison, or trying to avoid the basilisk's petrifying gaze, to get the blood flowing. It conveyed a sense that was we were doing was inherently dangerous in the world that our characters occupied. The rule of these old games usually made certain to stress that there were no winners of losers in RPG. Among the players that is true. Among the characters it is another story. No, no matter how generous would say that Grob the Dwarf had "won" when he got swallowed by the purple worm and subsequently was digested in its foul gullet. Grob had lost. He has lost his very existence, barring resurrection or wishes, which tended to be rather rare in older games. Grob's player had lost a character, but he didn't lose the game. He could quickly roll up Grob II or Grob's younger brother Grib, the party would run into him around the next corner and off they would go. Even better, Grob's player could take one of Grob's reatiners as his new PC and never miss a beat, except for perhaps the time taken to divy up Grobs loot. Waste not...

These are just a few thoughts that I've been having. There are more, but it is late, so perhaps I will continue this another day.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Tao of RPGs

"Have little and be fulfilled. Have much and be confused."

I've always been fond of these words from the Tao Te Ching. They have always seemed very applicable to my daily life and even more so to my RPG life. Way back in the mists of time (the late 70s early 80s) , we gamed a lot. We played at Boy Scout meetings, on camping trips, in study halls and around my parent's dining room table on Friday nights. I was almost always the GM (or Dungeon Master back then) and we almost always played Dungeons & Dragons. Sure, even back in those days there were other games available, but we were somewhat geographically isolated and didn't have ready access to much beyond D&D. We tried other games like Rolemaster (too many charts), Top Secret (fun, but better for one-shots than a long term game), and Powers & Perils (utterly incomprehensible), but D&D was our standby. I could run a game at a moment's notice. All that was required for hours of fun was some graph paper and a handful of dice.

Fast-forward to today. I've found myself almost completely unable to run a game lately. What is the problem? Not enough time? Sure, my time is more limited than it was back in Ye Olde Days, but I have plenty of time to screw around playing World of Warcraft or staring at the walls, so that's not it. No players? Nope that's not it either, I have players. No, it's not what I don't have but rather what I DO have. To many games. Yes, the dream that I have as a kid of having tons of games to play has finally come true and it is a nightmare. I seem to have developed some bizarre form of gaming ADD which leaves my unable to decide on a game system to use. I just can't pick one!

Now I have made some small efforts to overcome this malady, but the results have been mixed. A week or so ago, I went through what I can only call "The Library" and tried to come up with a list of games that I would run and why I would run them. So here I what I've com up with:

Savage Worlds: This is a solid choice. Lots of flexibility and the ability to do multiple genres. Probably not the best choice fo dungeon crawls, but a good all around game for GMs with limited time.

Castles & Crusades: Hail to the Ye Olde Tymes! Not a bad system and I really like the company (Troll Lord Games). I have run this before and enjoyed it, but something about it keeps holding me back.

Labyrinth Lord: Now these are Ye Olde Tymes. A direct update of Moldvay & Cook which I've always had a soft spot for. Into the dungeons and pass the pizza! It's also available as a free PDF, but to quote my wife, "...and yet you found a way to pay for it."

Swords & Wizardry: An OD&D (the three little brown books) clone. Kickin' it way Olde School. Great for cold nights in Wisconsin (or Pennsylvania). A cool retro homage to Erol Otus cover too. It's available as a free PDF just like LL and just like LL, I found a way to pay for it.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: A wonderfully atmospheric game if you're into death in the dark ages. Lots of source materials, but tied to a particular world (albeit a very cool world IMHO), and I prefer to roll my own. Overall a nice game with a lot to recommend it, including the Rat Catcher. It does however remain slightly unclear how much support this game will get now that Fantasy Flight Games owns the license.

So there we have it, my "List of Acceptable RPGS" (as of today). Two small press games, two free games and one big company offering.

Now I like dungeons. I love them in fact. I love the idea of the megadungeon where the dungeon as the campaign. I love killing time and goblins while killing a case of beer and a pizza. I love springing death traps on my players and watching them cleverly avoid them. Of these games, Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord are probably the most directly geared toward that sort of thing. Castles & Crusades leans toward the dungeon, while Savage Worlds and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay lean a bit away. Of course dungeons are a matter of taste, and game style needs to be agreed upon by at least a majority of players and in turn certain game styles fit better with certain systems.

By now, anyone unlucky enough to have read this is probably asking "Is there a point to all of this?" The short answer would be, "No." It's really nothing more than an effort to set down my ideas about what games I like and to push me to at least pick a game to run if I feel so inclined.

So am I any closer to picking a system and running a game? No, not really, but at least I have achieved a bit of perspective on what is holding my back and I have a starting list of games to work with.