Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Be careful what you wish for.

It seems that a lot of folks tend to laud Paizo and damn Wizards of the Coast, some even going so far as to profess the hope that WOCT will fail. to those people who wish for WOTC's death, I say, take a look at the Pathfinder rulebooks and the Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks. WOTC prints their books in the United States. Paizo print Pathfinder in China. Now this isn't a xenophobic "Buy American" rant, and I'm not saying that one is any better than the other, but rather just that the impact of a company failing can go far beyond the company itself.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gary Sent us. No, seriously, he did.

It's hard to believe that Gary Gygax has been gone for a year. Sure, Gary Gygax has been gone for a year now, but the games that he created live on in one form or another. I know people who claim that Gary had long since become irrelevant, but I think that's crap. He was the driving force in the creation of a hobby that I continue to love 30 years after I first head about the game during an all night ice storm on a January Boy Scout camping trip. He was always gracious and quick to answer my silly discussion board questions, and he loved the hobby that he helped to create. If there is an afterlife, I hope that Gary's found a nice table in an out-of-the way corner with Don Kaye and Tom Moldvay to sling some dice. So go out there and roll some dice, talk in funny voices and pretend to be elves, dwarves, gnomes, or whatever you're in to. And don't forget, when you meet the goblins, tell them that Gary sent you. ;-)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Rules vs. the Game

I've spent a lot of time lately looking over rule books trying to pick a game system to run, and it's finally stuck me that I've been going about it all wrong. I've been looking at rules and really not thinking about the game. The rules are NOT the game. The rules are a framework around which the game happens and spending too much time over-thinking the rules can kill the game.

Now I've never been much of a slave to the rules. In fact I don't much care for the rules. Oh sure, I buy a lot of rule books but in the end, the rules don't much interest me. I'm far more interested in the sense of atmosphere that a game creates with me. Of all of the games that I've ever played, the only one that I would truly say I "knew" was D&D way back in the day. I could barely remember the multiplication tables, but man did I know D&D. I had the combat tables committed to memory. I knew the saving throws for all the classes. I barely needed the books for anything except to provide inspiration, and they did that in spades. The artwork and the writing, while considered by many today to be substandard, still evokes a sense of wonder that I can't find in many other places.

Time passed and I played and ran other games. Gaming culture shifted and I found myself looking for rule-sets that would allow me to tell the types of stories that I wanted to tell. And that's where I fell off the boat. Role playing games are many things to many people. Lots of folks especially today really want to tell deep stories with interesting characters, and that's great for them. I used to want to do that too, and in fact I still want to but now I write fiction rather than try to turn my games into my fiction.

My idea of gaming isn't about a gamemaster telling his story, it's about a bunch of people finding out what the story is and having fun while they do it. The story may be deep and interesting, but it may just as easily be a story about creeping around an ancient ruins and looting the hell out of everything they find. They key is to get a group of people and have fun playing a game.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Games for Old-school Dungeon Crawling

I've put together a quick summary of three retro style games that I think work best for old fashioned dungeon crawling.  This is just designed to highlight their similarities/differences and is in no way intended to be a review or criticism of any of them.  I've placed them in alphabetical order so as not to indicate any preference by order.

Castles & Crusades

Overview:  A D20-light version of AD&D.  It follows a number of the current D20 conventions, while trying to stay rules-light.  There are no skill lists, just class skills.  Armor class is handled in the modern ascending format.  It is a race/class based system with all classes open to all races.  It's rules-light in today's terms, but is less a retro clone than a pared down version of D&D 3.5 with AD&D sensibilities.

My Assessment:  Probably the best choice for 3.5/4e players looking to scale back the complexity of their games while maintaining some familiar connection to the rules that they know.  A good game from a good company, but the most complex of the games discussed here. 

Labyrinth Lord  

Overview:  A retro clone of the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert D&D rules from 1981.  Race and class are not treated separately.  Dwarves, elves and halflings are their own class, with dwarves and halflings basically being fighters and elves being fighter magic users.

My Assessment:  A great choice for folks who cut their teeth on Moldvay and Cook and are after a classic dungeon crawl experience without a lot of overhead.  A nice complete package and free to boot.

Swords & Wizardry 

Overview:  This is for the most part a cleaned up, better organized version of OD&D (Original D&D).  It actually comes in two flavors, regular Swords & Wizardry and Swords & Wizardry White Box Edition.  The regular version includes that later stat bonuses for strength and dexterity and constitution , while the white box version retains the original idea that only charisma has any direct bonuses.  Demihumans are, in keeping with the OD&D rules, more limited in level progression than in Labyrinth Lord or Castles & Crusades.  

My Assessment:  Jump into the wayback machine and see how the grognards played D&D back in 1974-79.  Probably the best choice for people who want to house-rule their games a lot.  The rules found here adhere most closely to the old-school "guidelines" approach.  The Erol Otus style cover of the regular edition and that it's freely available are pluses too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What makes a "good" dungeon?

I've been thinking about the question of what makes a good dungeon for a while now, so I think it's time to write down a brief summary of my ruminations.

1. A good map. The map is an important part of the dungeon. Thirty feet of passageway to room with orcs, followed by thirty feet of passageway to a room with kobolds, just doesn't cut it. Maps don't need to be Escher-like studies in insanity, but they do need to have enough caracter to make the players feel like they are going somewhere and not simply visiting the same room over and over again, or just following a straight path to the end of the dungeon.

2. A sense of scale. Dungeons in the old school sense were big places. Individual rooms might be small, but the overall impression should be that the dungeon is BIG.  The dungeon should cause players should feel that they are far from the lighted world above, especially as they moved deeper into the underworld. 

3. A sense of otherworldliness.  I 've always felt that the best dungeons are somehow separated from the day to day realities of the world above.  Sure, the dungeon may be situated beneath the ruins of a mad mage's castle, but it shouldn't be storerooms and privies.  The dungeon needs to be mysterious.  It should evoke wonder in the players and make them question its purpose.  That purpose may never be truly known, but it needs to engage the imaginations of the players.  Make your players wonder about things.  Keep their minds working.  The dungeon needs to almost be a character in itself and if handled well can in many ways be more interesting that either the monster or the loot found within it.

4. Room to grow.   A good dungeon needs room to grow.  Parties of adventurers will come and go and the dungeon may need to expand either downward of outward.  Make sure that there is room.

5. Care and feeding.  The best dungeons are never truly complete.  As adventurers come and go, things will change.  Old monsters will be slain, new monster will move in, inhabitants of the dungeon may form alliances or fight amongst themselves.  Dungeons are entities in a game and they need to be maintained.  A well cared for dungeon can provide countless adventurers for numerous parties.  

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Some more thoughts on hirelings and henchmen

I'm quite sure that of those who even remember the prevalence of hirelings and henchman in the early days of RPGs, quite a number of them don't really miss them.  I've heard comments from people to the effect of "hirelings don't make for a heroic story", or "Conan didn't hire a torchbearer."  While I can see these points, I would argue that especially at low levels, the PCs are not mighty heroes of literature, they are adventurers, adventurers on a journey often into the uncharted depths of the earth.  To me, hirelings and henchmen accentuate the send of an expedition.  I think back to the days of watching the old Tarzan movies, where the explorers surrounded themselves with no end of bearers, guides and other assorted local-help, not to mention hiring Tarzan to save them when things got really tough.

In games terms there is sometimes some confusion between hirelings and henchmen (sometimes called retainers).  This was in my opinion caused by the somewhat inconsistent terminology used in the early days, but for the most part, the confusion was cleared up by the first edition AD&D Players Handbook.

Hirelings are individuals such as Bearers, crossbowmen, men-at-arms, teamsters, etc.  They are employed by the PCs for a set fee.  They generally are employed for a set period of time and do not usually gain experience.  In the case of crossbowmen or men-at-arms, they will fight with the party as that's what they are payed to do, but the other non-combat hirelings will generally only fight when it is necessary for their own survival.  The PC's charism, while affecting the loyalty and morale of Hirelings, does not restrict the number of hirelings a PC may have.

Henchmen are a different story.  Henchmen are considered to be followers of the PC.  They travel with the PC for lodging, supports and a share of the adventuring spoils.  They also gain experience, albeit at a slower rate than the PCs, gaining only 50% of earned experience.  This is because they are not involved in the decision making process of and adventure and while controlled by the gamemaster, they generally follow the orders of the PCs, except of course in situations where the orders are not of an agregious nature.   Charisma is an important factor with henchmen, as it limits the number that a PC may have as well as affecting their loyalty.  Thus, when using hirelings and henchmen, charisma becomes a more important stat in the game and not the dump stat that it has become in later days.

Henchmen provide not only addition muscle and skill son an adventure, they can also provide a source of replacement characters.  Dungeons in the old days were deadly places, and having a henchmen along when your PC fails a save vs. poison can be a godsend.  this becomes even more important later in a campaign.  Imagine if you will, a party of 4th level character wandering deep beneath the earth, when disaster strikes.  Suppose that one of the PCs is slain, perhaps in a manner that precludes his or her being raised from the dead such as a pool of lava or acid (no body, no raise dead).  So, what is the player to do?  Go home?  Roll up a brand new first level character?  Well, if there was a henchman around, the day would be saved.   He would most likely be only second level and while that might not be ideal, that character would still be more survivable than a level 1.  

Of course hirelings and henchmen do require a bit more record keeping on the part of the GM, but I think that the benefits that they can bring to a game are numerous.  From rounding out a weak party to providing a source of easy and logical PC replacements it's hard to argue their potential value.  So, I say, "Bring on the hirelings and henchmen!"   

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dungeon Entrances

One of the biggest problems that I have when designing a dungeon is coming up with the main entrance. I've been doing quite a lot of thinking lately about what constitutes a "good" entrance. Should the entrance be a room, or just a stairway descending into a corridor? I think than an argument can be made for either choice. I usually tend toward using an entrance room, so I'll approach that first.

As this is the first room that and adventuring party sees, it can go a long way toward setting the tone for the dungeon. I like my entrances to be interesting, but as this room is often the most frequent through-way for adventurers going in to plunder the depths and monsters sneaking out to raid the countryside, it's unlikely to be filled with interesting items, traps or tricks. By the same token if the room is a 30'x30 square with nothing in it but doors or archways and a dusty floor, it serves as a rather drab opening for the "mystical underworld".

So, perhaps it is best that the entrance leads to a corridor, allowing the players an initial choice and some variability around which room the party encounters first. With this approach, different parties can find different first rooms. Of course this does little to help capture the players imagination initially. "Ooooh a 10' wide corridor! How novel."

In the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide, Gary Gygax presents a small selection of dungeon entrances to be used with the random dungeon generation tables in the appendix. While these are useful, I've never found them to be particularly inspiring, and I'm a strong believer that maps should be inspiring. I think that a GM should look at a map and think, "now that's a cool looking dungeon!" But this is heading toward a discussion of how important are cool maps to cool dungeons, with is a topic for another time.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming

How we gamed in Ye Olde Tymes.
And Best of all, it's free.


Resurrecting "Old School"

The Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Association announces International Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Week, January 10th through 17th, 2009


Party like it's 1979!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

In which we creep closer to my finally choosing a system

I'm in the mood to run an old school dungeon crawl. The type centered around a village on the edge of a dark forest, with a nasty beast infested swap nearby. No far away, just out of site of the village in fact, is the hill upon which the ruins of the once mighty fortress of the mad Arch-mage Cyclopentaxor. The upper works of the fortress have long ago been laid low, but it is rumored that a nearly endless warren of tunnels and crypts lies below the ruins.

I've reduced my preferred system list to the following:

1. Labyrinth Lord (Basic & Expert D&D clone. Nicely Done and available for free. Mutant Future is a plus here as well.)

2. Swords & Wizardry (Re-imaging of the original 3 brown D&D books. It's free too.)

3. Castles & Crusades (I finally figured out what I don't like about C&C. The book covers. Thankfully the covers are being redone in 2009.)

4. Actual Original 3 little brown book Dungeons & Dragons

5. Savage Worlds (A nice versatile game, but not necessarily the best choice for dungeon crawling.)

Of course, now I need to pick one. Any suggestions?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gaming resolutions for the new year

Of course I never keep these sorts of things, but what the heck.

I resolve to play more tabletop games and less computer games.  I have no intention of curing my computer game addiction, just toning it down a bit.  One hour a day working on my grand megadungeon, or painting miniatures, or playing a boardgame with my wife and/or friends seems to be a somewhat better way to spend an evening than 3 hours in front of a PC game.

I resolve to choose a preferred system and actually learn its' rules.  My current list of possible candidates (in no particular order) is as follows:

1. Castles & Crusades
2. Labyrinth Lord
3. Swords & Wizardry
4. Savage Worlds
5. Dragon Warriors