Friday, September 24, 2021

On Mothership and The Haunting of Ypsilon-14

Mothership RPG and its first two modules (Haunting of Ypsilon-14 and the mega module Dead Planet) are available on  Roll20 now, so it was easy to get a game going at long last. By using Roll20 I was even able to create a mixed A team of local players and friends I gamed with across the country in my prior incarnations (or who moved elsewhere), so it was a great group!

The Haunting of Ypsilon-14 module in print is a wee cardstock trifold brochure promising an entire module. The online version through Tuesday Knight games' website conveniently includes three MP3 recordings you can play as the group finds various discarded cassettes during the module. These are professional-sounding recordings illuminating the grim last days of certain characters (one has some music), and lend to the mood quite well...plus my group is not too used to such theatrics so finding them in play is a novel reward.

I think the Haunting module is intended to be a one-shot to last an evening of play, and arguably it can probably take about 4 hours to complete by a highly organized and risk-embracing gang of players. My group took three sessions to complete the module, and I will admit I buffed it up a bit both to provide some extra challenge but also to motivate them to explore areas that my often more risk-averse players were resistant toward exploring. 

Mothership is the kind of game where players work best when they approach the experience with a tiny bit of delight in the nihilistic nature of it all. If you go in to Mothership determined to make level 10 and steal boasting rights from Ellen Ripley over your alien moderation skills then you might be missing some of the point of Mothership. Can you get to level 10? Sure, absolutely. But should you do so through the safest course of action possible, without a backup character? Most decidedly not!  As with Call of Cthulhu, if your character lives long enough to be committed to an insane asylum then you should consider that the best case win; CoC and Mothership both are games where if you find you truly love your character to the point that you wish them no harm, then your best course of action is to send them home, safely, to let other more daring souls with shorter lifespans handle the mysteries and many deaths lurking throughout the universe.

With all that said, my entire group did not lose a single character, though the NPC mortality rate was an astronomical 80% or more. The group, on average, took a fair amount of damage, and everyone's stress levels (Mothership's take on the sanity mechanic) are skyrocketing....therapy and recuperation alone do not readily reduce the Stress level of your PC, you have a chance to drop it a bit when leveling and maybe if the Warden (GM) is feeling especially kind and that's about it.

The Ypslon-14 module in print and with the MP3s is perfectly playable at the game table though some sort of general station map to track the action would help the warden. The Roll20 version was particularly nice, though, and the first time I ever bought and ran a preprogrammed module using Roll20. It was a nice experience, though I was hopelessly lost in figuring out how to handle map overlays and ended up defaulting to the old fashion fog of war option.

The Roll20 version includes NPC sheets and tokens, module pieces for all locations, the MP3 recordings and a nice retro SF map of the entire mining station your group will be trapped on while investigating the mystery surrounding Ypsilon-14.  It's a nice package, and as I mentioned it lasted 3 nights for us, a total of about 12 hours of gameplay.

Before I go any further in talking about the module: SPOILERS! I don't want anyone to stumble into secrets and information they did not want to know. Here goes....

SPOILER WARNING

Okay, so Ypsilon-14 is a mining station on which the party, while visiting on their freighter for routine company pickups, is asked by the station superintendent Sonya to check into the disappearance of a missing crewmember. As the group further investigates they discover more crew go missing, and something which is insidious, dangerous and invisible appears to be lurking....there is a secondary related mystery involving a dangerous yellow goo, and another visiting ship, locked in its own docking bay, with a mad doctor on board. Oh, and there's Prince the cat who has now been adopted by my players for reasons.

The trifold module provides an incredibly space-efficient layout for how to run the module. Too efficient, actually, because it provides no instructions on how to absorb the content it offers, and you sort of have to stare at it a bit and read through to realize what it is doing, but once you see it it will "click" and make total sense. It works like this:

1. There's a paragraph on why the crew is here, which if read verbatim can dispense with literally dozens of minutes of conventional preamble and warmup (my game started with them being mysteriously diverted to the mining station, building a little tension as to why the company sent them there). 

2. You then get a flow-chart layout of the station; a map can be nice, and is great in Roll20 to track who is where, but the trifold itself lets you see what is in each area descriptively, with arrows, connectors, lock icons and such to tell you how the place connects. It's direct, no-nonsense descriptions give the warden the outline and you can use it as directly or with as much additional riffing as you see fit.

3. You get a table of NPCs. You roll on this periodically to see which one goes missing.

4. You get a monster. Every few minutes you roll a D10 and that is the region of the ship the monster is lurking in next. It's tough, but if the group is tougher (has a marine or two) they can probably take it with some luck if you are not careful (they technically blew it to bits at the close of session 2, but more on that in a bit). The creature is meant to be a stealth striker, and does enough damage to hurt but not usually kill a PC in one round. How easily you make it for the PCs to get around on the station will impact how readily the beast is likely to corner and strike with success. 

5. You get three complications: the yellow goo, which is a substance that heals the monster but turns humans into a slushy over time, Dr. Gillespie who is on the locked down ship Heracles and is slowly dissolving to the goo while studying the monster, and the three tapes, of which the first is easy to find, the second requires the PCs to climb into vents (which a risk adverse group is unlikely to do), and the third requires boarding Dr. Gillespie's ship and confronting him. In the end, to insure they got to hear the tapes I places tape #2 near the vacant space suit in the mines and tape #3 was the mysterious final broadcast from the Heracles before the group left (they never investigated the Heracles, instead using laser cutters to weld the ship's bay doors shut).

....And that is it. The module is very simple and straight-forward, and you can modify it easily to season to taste. I, for example, made the following modifications:

Mixed Tapes; changed tape locations (as the players failed to follow up on certain angles of exploration). I also described them as "recordable media in EMP-hardened cases" rather than, essentially, space versions of 8-tracks because I am just not in to the idea of fetishizing the 70's style SF as often happens in Alien-inspired media (Alien: Isolation cough); the SF of the 70's had CRT monitors and green screen computers because it was the 70's and they had budgets and limited ability to predict near future changes. I have no such limits.

The Goo Origins: elaborated on the yellow goo, which is a macguffin designed to hint that water is a weakness of the substances and maybe the creature (not really); this worked in that when they found the wellspring of yellow good they obliterated it with a high pressure water pump cobbled from their ship. I used the yellow goo in more detail, since it was unclear to me how vacc-suited miners were getting it on themselves in the first place, suggesting instead sloppiness and the creature tracking the stuff around was the source of contamination.

Exploding and De-exploding the Alien: After the group blew up* the creature in session 2 I revealed its remains had gone missing; the yellow goo, it turns out, began regenerating the creature (as intended) but could do so even if it were chunked; the creature got one final hurrah that way, before they tricked it in to docking bay 2 and welded the doors shut. That means that as of the third session when they grabbed the human survivors (Sonya, Prince the cat, and Morgan who was covered in yellow goo and stuck in cryostasis) that they left the station with Dr. Gillespie and the creature still in the Heracles....

The Goo and Water: The yellow goo causes contaminated humans to react badly to water, but the module explains nothing further. I decided it's actually chemically converting water molecules in the human body, thus causing some of the breakdown. This lead to an avenue of exploration for the scientists and androids in the party. I riffed quite a bit on what the goo was, on analysis, because I love that sort of SF stuff, but someone running the module straight up could probably work with what info is at hand easily enough. 

Expanding on Mike: Mike was the first miner to disappear. I added another guy into the mix as well as a ruse: Jenkins, in case some of my players were secretly familiar with the module. I further decided that Mike didn't die; he became aware of the creature's use of its pod to heal, and then unsuited and entered the pod himself (deciding also that the properties of the yellow goo kept him alive in a vacuum). So when they investigated the pod, Mike appeared, which was a great scene as I described his yellow-goo covered body, the madness in his eyes as he lashes out, only to exploded in a cloud of vaporized goo when struck by the laser cutter, covering all of their vacc suits in yellow goo from his converted body. Good stuff!

In Space You Don't Have Gravity: the module identifies where in the mines you are in vacuum. It doesn't talk about gravity at all, so I assume when entering the mines everyone passed out of the artificial gravity well created by the station generator. How does it work? Dunno, but this led to a tense combat in the mines when everyone realized that projectiles can send you flying backward, and exploding stuff doesn't stop or slow down. 

The Mysteries of the Alien: The module suggests little about the alien and the pod it comes from, other than that the yellow goo heals it and does horrible things to things alien to it like humans. I toyed with the idea of how much to riff on this, and settled for a few sequences in play that built tension and mystery: the group discovered the yellow goo on analysis was biomechanical, a nanite slush, and that when they tried to see if it could be "communicated" with it did something horrible to the computers which crashed. They later discovered the alien in their own ship, attempting to override their mainframe to take control and broadcast a message. The implication: this is an alien stranded here, its pod either exiled to the asteroid or crashed. They never established what the deal was, and the module lets me figure that out. I can sense a Part 2: Return to Ypsilon-14 module in the future....

So all in all, a fun time was had by everyone. The module really does work best with a more relaxed crowd who is in to the genre; my friend playing the marine did a fantastic job of emulating the genre elements cemented so well in panicking marines from Aliens, and my other buddy played the unnerved scientist to a tee. My rules lawyer was a bit of a rough spot as Mothership is not as worried about nitty gritty details, such as a moment when I realized that there's really not a surprise mechanic in the system (just roll speed to see who goes before or after the monster). Both of my players who played androids really played it to the hilt....apparently Ash and David are exemplary of your average androids when it comes to top of the line models!

If you run the module, I have a couple of suggestions: advise the groups they can roll all teamsters, or maybe all teamsters and one scientist or android (or both). Marines with their basic loadout do make the creature less of a threat. As with the original movie Alien, a lot of the tension was due to the crew being average space truckers with no meaningful defensive gear.

My other suggestion is: as I did, change a few things a bit. I am reasonably sure at least one of the players had snagged the module ahead of time because their gear loadout looked suspiciously prescient, with items that the module assumes they won't start with access to. Throw that player off a bit in whatever way you think works best with some surprises.

We'll be doing Dead Planet next, and I have to say I can't wait. I have all the modules I can find so far between Tuesday Knight games, Exalted Funeral and DrivethruRPG and I plan on eventually running just about all of them!

FINALLY! The irony is not lost on me that this review is probably twice as long as the actual module.

*The marine in the group threw a grenade and rolled a spectacular critical on the hit as the creature rolled a fumble on its Combat armor check. The rules in Mothership seem to not provide guidance on what a crit success does to damage, if anything, but I ruled that you get maximum damage when criting on an attack. In Mothership parlance a frag grenade rolls 1D10 for damage, and in Mothership the line under the roll means "multiply by 10," so he did 100 damage on a crit! Frag grenades are deadly in space.


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Modules and Their Many Sizes

 Short post today.....trying to remember to post more frequently (I got badly out of habit from the old days on 3 posts a week hell or high water). Yesterday several books arrived which I had been waiting for, and each was a lesson in varied design. In fact, it's rather insane how widely varied the approaches are in each of these books:

Aurora is the latest in a series of Mothership RPG adventures. It comes in a docket packet you must break to get in to, and the module itself is a handful of cardstock pages with the usual excellent minimalist design characteristic of Mothership adventures, in which you get a framework on which to drape your own interpretation of the horrors within.


Halls of the Blood King along with five other modules from Necrotic Gnome for Old School Essentials RPG is an example of how an economy of design (not unlike one sees with Mothership) gives you the framework of an adventure without bogging the GM down in details that are best handled by....the GM. Excellent maps, slick retro graphics that are modern but evocative of an older fantasy style without feeling pandering and a "to the point" design approach make this an incredibly approachable (and usable!) module.



The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is 1 part sourcebook on the Feywild to three parts adventure series, with some updated fey for 5E that I think many will be happy to see. The book is typical of Wizard of the Coast design, a large tome which aims at readability and shows more effort at structuring the overall plot into bite-size chunks, allowing DMs to manage it without too much fuss. 


This is actually two monstrous 400+ page tomes, the first one of which is split between a series of articles and interviews on the inception and impact of the oiginal module, followed by a faithful reprint of the original Village of Homlet and the 1st edition compilation of the Temple of Elemental Evil. It then dives into a massive retooling of the modules into 5th edition rules, which start in book 1 and spill in to book 2, ending with a massive bestiary and new items section. It is a gigantic tome, and lives up to this module's daunting reputation. I also think Goodman Games knows its audience leans older, as they use a big, readable font for the 5E section that is easy on older gamer eyes.


As I look at these books I realize that while I really would like to run The Temple of Elemental Evil, it's just...too much, man. It's also very traditional in design, in the sense that it communicates a lot of text-heavy exposition and depth. This is not something I'd notice or care about if not for modules like Aurora and Halls of the Blood King, which are actually more old school in design in the sense that they get to the point and leave much of the exposition to the GM. They are not genuinely old school, however, in the sense that actual old school modules were never this user friendly in design. Meanwhile, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is interesting but I can tell it's one of those modules I will read and maybe borrow a bit from before moving on. There might be some cool plots there....we'll see, I need to find time to read it.

But The OSE and Mothership modules? Yeah, those simple economies of design and brevity I can actually handle, they fit into my wheelhouse of usefulness.

Monday, September 20, 2021

More thoughts on running D&D 3.5, D&D 5th and Pathfinder 2E at the same time

 So for several months now I've been running three different games: a more or less weekly Saturday Pathfinder 2E game, and a rotating weeknight session that jumps between D&D 3.5 and D&D 5E. In Pathfinder the group has hit 5th level, so still relatively low powered. D&D 3.5 deliberately started at level 1 and has crept up to level 4ish for most of the group now. D&D 5E rolled in at level 3 and is hitting level 5. 

In each case I worked out a fairly detailed scenario/plotline to keep things focused. In Pathfinder the group is a gang of young acolytes in a local assassin's guild with strong political, patriotic ties to protecting the city itself. They face a crisis as the heir to the throne is killed, then resurrected under extremely suspicious circumstances, even as their senior leadership are taken out of action, leaving them alone to figure things out.

In the D&D 3.5 game I started with a level 1-3 zone in which I worked out a main dungeon of interest and several minor side quests. I then built it around leading in to a specific Necromancer Games module from the good old 3.5 days of Necromancer, which shall remain nameless in case any of my players are reading. The key conceit of this campaign is it is extremely sandboxy and open-ended; I don't care where the PCs go, as long as they do something of interest....I have most angles covered unless they suddenly decided to journey two hundred miles away in a random direction.

In the D&D 5E game I an running it in a different section of the same world the D&D 3.5 game is taking place, and it starts with a group of ragtag mostly monstrous heroes who work for a local investigator of an orc-dominated city; they are essentially given tough jobs that require protecting the interests of the city against the neighboring human kingdom which often mistrusts the orc-run area. The group is currently wrapping the latest investigation, into the attack and kidnap of a priestess who channels the will of a popular goddess, and it is exposing a deeper mystery of other groups who seem interested in sowing conflict between the orcs and humans. I started this campaign as a 3.5 venture for the first scenario, but then moved to 5E for the next storyline as I wanted to do exactly what this article is about: contrasting 3.5 D&D against its successors, 5E and PF2E.

Here's what I've learned now after several months of gaming:

Pathfinder 2E Remains Fun but it's Balance is Too Much 

Pathfinder 2E's rigidly designed skill system is annoying. Seriously, I wish it was a broader set of skills, and not so tightly woven into the structured pathology of Pathfinder's overly balanced advancement, balanced to the point of eerie predictability. In fact, after running a level 1-20 and some smaller campaigns in PF2E, I have decided that, in contrast with the editions it is meant to replace or compete with, that it's highly structured style just isn't as flexible or fun as prior editions have been. PF2E, on occasion, has been compared to D&D 4E, and I can understand why: it's design was handled with too much emphasis on a specific play experience, and not enough feedback clearly entered during design and playtest to allow for Paizo's team to realize that there are other styles of play which their new game would not support so well (such as at my table, where I am sick and tired of calling on Society checks or generic crafting checks or Nature, Survival, etc. etc. for myriad other skills that the PCs should actually have as separate skills).

 Do I still enjoy running it? Yes, particularly in Roll20, which makes it easy. But it is painfully clear that in contrast with 3rd edition and 5th edition D&D that Pathfinder 2E feels a bit more like a "sandbox playground where everything has been padded to prevent the players from escaping its confines." Moreover, my players describe PF2E as "A GM's game, for GMs who don't like uppity players." They like elements of it....such as how ancestries work, but they also sense that a lot of PF2E's design went in to removing the potential for players to design truly interest characters and unexpected synergies. 

As a GM I have come to realize that combat encounters of even 1 CR more than the players can be a pain in the ass and risk unexpected deaths and TPK, it simply doesn't have the range that you can get out of D&D's editions for encounter design due to its hard focus on tight balance. I have ranted about this in prior blog posts, of course, but to give you an idea: I mostly design encounters around a CR 1-2 less than the PCs. Anything more than that is too trivial, and anything except a rare CR+1 will be too deadly with remarkable consistency. 

D&D 3.5 Is Funner Now That It's No Longer The Only Game Around

Put simply: D&D 3.5's key flaws evaporate once people are playing it for fun and enjoyment and you no longer have a large player base and online presence talking about min/max game design and turning everything into an arms race. My group is having fun in a way that very much reminds me of the early fun days from 2001 to 2006. Sometime after that I feel the game hit a level of notoriety and the obsession with optimal builds began to infect everyone who played it. Now? It's just a fund game and I am enjoying a sandbox campaign with a group that is barely optimized for fighting paper bags, let alone serious stuff. I run it as a DM aimed at providing for a good time, and I don't worry too much about balance at all, a welcome reprieve from PF2E on the other game night.

One thing I realize with 3.5: I prefer the old skill system. It was flexible, a little unpredictable, and had more stuff in it that feels natural to call out for in the course of play. I am sure a great many people much prefer "perception" as a skill (or not at all in the OSR crowd) but I love the fact that Spot, Listen and Search are three different things and can reflect that one PC might be a keen eyed observer but have a hearing problem, while another PC might have bad eagle vision but can search methodically with great efficiency. Good stuff.

I don't anticipate running D&D 3.5 past level 12 or so, but who knows. 

D&D 5E Feels Better to Run with 3.5 Fresh in Mind

D&D 5E is good, and running it back to back with 3.5 makes me appreciate it more. Most interestingly, sometimes I find myself using 5E as a reference point for adjudicating some moments in 3.5, to keep tings simple. Other times I find myself tempted to house rule in a few items from 3.5 to 5E, but I try to restrain myself as much as possible. Like with 3.5, I suspect that as D&D 5E goes on I may grow a bit tired of its core simplicity and lack of dynamic elements in stuff like saves and damage; but I did decide with this campaign to run it using gritty resting rules and that is going a surprisingly long way toward my feeling like the players are "tough guys in a tough world" rather than the standard 5E trope of fantasy superheroes. Still...they've only just hit their good levels, so we'll see how things go in the coming months.

Also, I don't hate the D&D 5E skill system, at all. In fact, while I still like 3.5's granularity on skills,  will take the 5E skill system over PF2E's skill system any day.

After the group completes their current storyline, I am considering integrating a module, possibly Rise of the Drow, which I just snagged. We shall see.

Some Conclusions (so far)

So....it's fun running three iterations of basically the same game, and seeing how my expectations and experience in one lend to observations and changes in the other two. The real takeaway I have gotten from this experience so far has been one about how I structure and focus on campaigns. Specifically: I am not as interested in the "big story" campaigns as I once was, and the D&D 3.5 game where I basically made a sandbox for them to do whatever (including regions of different levels they can wander in to regardless of their own level) has actually been the most fun. But my structured investigation stories in the 5E game have also been a lot of fun because I took some time to lay out interesting paths of discovery and skill challenges related to the investigations. It's "pseudo-rails" in that the PCs could, like, stop investigating and go elsewhere, thus ending the module, but they had motivation and interest to proceed so it worked. 

Meanwhile, the very structured big picture storyline which admittedly makes the PCs more integrated to the world and setting proved perhaps a bit too much in terms of scope and design. I realize now that I came up with a great idea, but then sort of left it as a "and so that happened," type event, without a lot to go after the main event. Luckily I proceeded to dive in to some of the smaller angles and pieces, fleshing out the game to feel more like a sandbox, but I concede it's hard to just do sandbox in PF2E because a good sandbox should allow for the PCs to get into more trouble than they can handle on occasion, and in PF2E that can quickly turn into a lethal TPK. So....we'll continue for a while on this one, but afterwards I need to think hard on whether I plan to continue with PF2E or not, because it almost....but not quite....manages to frame the sort of adventures I like to run, but just not as well as either D&D 5E or D&D 3.5, which both do it so much better.

Final conclusion.....turns out too much balance in design is not necessarily a good idea! Who knew?

Also, and this is extremely important to stress: the D&D 5E and 3.5 edition games both have a huge edge over Poor Pathfinder 2E, in that they are live games I am running in person. PF2E is online, and while the online tools make for an easier time of it, I know my lack of time to sink into enhancing the graphic elements of the experience factor against the game to some degree, as does the predilection for the overall experience to be a generally less satisfying experience than the sort where normal humans are able to see each other live and not share a single audio channel. So, I must concede that PF2E in a live environment might still be a better overall experience than I am giving it credit for. Poor Pathfinder though....I think I got about 10 levels in to the original campaign when it had to migrate to online due to the pandemic, and its more or less lingered there ever since. May need to change that soon.


Friday, September 10, 2021

The Undead Mohrg for Old-School Essentials RPG

 As some may have noticed, I love Mohrg. These fiendish undead are a sort of hyper-advanced ghoul with a long proboscis/tongue that paralyses targets and makes for a generally fine mid-tier foe. Just ask my regular players! They have many mohrg horror stories.

Anyway, here is the mohrg for OSE, my new favorite D&D variant:

Mohrg

Mohrg are terrifying undead forged from the vile souls of serial killers and murderers. They resemble skeletons with a writhing mass of organs and flesh in their body cavity and skull, from which emerges a hideous tentacle-like purple tongue covered in paralytic slime.

Mohrg are noted for their unrelenting sense of commitment to the evil ways that led them to their fate. When mohrg gather in groups this can quickly lead to a unique and terrifying epidemic of undead in the form of zombies and new mohrg.


AC 3 [16], HD 8 (36 HP), Att 2X slam (1D6+3 plus grab) and 1X tongue (1D4 plus paralysis), THACO 12 [+7], MV 120’ (40’), SV D8 W9 P10 B10 S12 (8), ML 10, AL chaotic, XP 1,750, NA 1 (1D6), TT R, U

Slam if the mohrg strikes with both blows it can restrain the target with a grab long enough to gain +2 on its tongue attack.

Tongue save vs. paralysis or become paralyzed for 1D4 minutes. Target can save each turn to end the effect.

Undead does not make noise until attacking, immune to effects that target the living (such as poison), immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells.      

Create Spawn creatures killed by a mohrg rise in 1D4 rounds as zombie. When this happens the burst of necrotic energy heals the mohrg for 1 hit point per hit die of the slain creature and the mohrg gains the benefit of the haste spell until the end of its next round. On occasion some mohrg generate new mohrg instead of zombies as an effect of slaying a foe. These mohrg are exceptionally dangerous. When a mohrg slays a target, there is a 10% chance that it returns as a new mohrg instead. At the GM’s option any evil character slain by the mohrg has a 50% chance of returning as a new mohrg.


Saturday, September 4, 2021

Okay I can see why so many People Love Old-School Essentials

 One of my friendly local game stores has taken to stocking all sorts of hard to find indie and OSR titles in recent months and this has allowed me to, among other things, get my hands on Old School Essentials RPG, specifically the Advanced Player's Guide and Advanced Referee's Guide. These have been genuinely difficult to find online, always appearing to be sold out wherever I go. Admittedly, part of me was also suspicious that should I buy OSE, I'd just be getting yet another variant on the exact same classic B/X/Advanced experience I have in countless other tomes.

Well, while it is certainly true that I have bought yet another OSR variant, I can now see (and very quickly, I might add) why Old-School Essentials RPG is no mere OSR heartbreaker, but a genuinely good game as well as a noteworthy evolution in what it means to be an OSR homage to D&D.

For starters....OSE seems focused on an economy of design, form over function, but also providing a clear and distinct vision in terms of graphics and layout. It's art is simultaneously reminiscent of old school aesthetics (particularly if you equate Erol Otus as high on that list) and still evocative in a manner which feels modernized. The look of OSE is retro-inspired but contemporary, and also it helps that there was clearly a budget for the art, so I am not seeing any old familiar packaged art so common in older OSR works (including my own).

Second, OSE seems to be about capturing the essence of B/X along with Advanced D&D in principle, but it sheds no tears over providing a modern framework to handle contemporary expectations. A few examples of what I mean:

--Optional multiclassing, but not limited to specific races, nor are humans restricted; and a GM who wants those restrictions can decide to do so on their own terms;

--Both class as race and race as its own thing (in the Advanced books, at least); handled well enough that I would readily allow players to pick their preference, and on top of that it embraces drow, svirnfeblin, duergar and gnomes who often for inexplicable reasons get short changed in other OSR products;

--Level scaling embedded in the spell mechanics....a very modern notion, one which aligns OSE much more closely to modern iterations of D&D and in fact does a really nice job of making the scaling even easier and more interesting than, say, D&D 5E.

There are a few items that feel needlessly excluded, I suppose: notably there's an absence of demons and devils in the Referee's Book, which seems anathema to an "Advanced" version of the game; I have honestly been terribly unclear on exactly why it is so hard for an OSR version of D&D to embrace fiends, something in the late eighties that was singular for many in defining a distaste for TSR's capitulation to the moral panic with AD&D 2E. There are obviously specific reasons certain authors choose not to include them, part of the "author's voice" coming through the game design, and that is another thing OSE does really well, as it has no author's voice....just a clean set of comprehensive old school themed rules. So not seeing demons or devils in the game is...weird.

Another oddity, one which doesn't bug me but nonetheless given the other modernities in OSE is surprising is the use of descending Armor Class as the rule of choice. It does provide for both options, though (I'm just blind and didn't notice it does cover this for both even after reading these books for hours, d'oh).

All that aside, if I can find a resources for demons and devils (which tend to play an important role in my own campaigns, especially my venerable Keepers of Lingusia campaign that started in 1981) then I could easily see running and enjoying OSE for a long time. It seems that some other gamers rely on Labyrinth Lord for their demons and devils, though it seems to me my current AD&D Monster Manual reprint would also work just fine.

So...OSE is really damned good. I am impressed! I should have tried harder to find this a while ago. 


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Seven Reasons I Prefer Tabletop (even as my state is probably going to go full lockdown again...)

 Talking about why one does or does not like VTT (virtual tabletop) gaming can be a tricky thing.....what usually happens is you are really critiquing VTT in ways that it fails to replicate the experience at a live tabletop, or you critique the extras that it brings to the tabletop which may only be possible in VTT, but done better in other ways.

My recent return to gaming in a live environment has helped me to clarify significant reasons as to why live tabletop gaming provides for a more fulfilling experience, using seven short and easy reasons:

1. You can actually look at someone who is talking to show you are focusing on what they are saying. Even better, the table can see this and other players will react in context.

2. More than one conversation can be had at once (with people recognizing when they need to talk quietly about plans on the side and such).

3. If you did not plan to TPK the party and would prefer the dice fall where you want them to to insure a good time is had by all rather than watch the group disintegrate under a wave of arbitrary RNG misfortune, you can do so.

4. If someone has an issue or is upset/unhappy/needs help you can easily identify that through a range of visual and verbal queues.

5. You will (almost) never feel like you are talking in to the void at the game table. You see who you are talking to, and you know who is listening (and not playing a video game on a second screen).

6. If you are in a public space when gaming you can meet actual new humans who may want to join your game. The vetting process is much more empathic and efficient due to the actual range of physical and verbal communication at play.

7. Small talk before/after a game can be about fun stuff instead of technical issues.

BONUS!

8. Don't ask why, but TotM (theater of the mind) style combat/event resolution seems to go much, much more efficiently at the live table.* On VTT the white space demanding you fill it with virtual maps and minis is like a black hole into which all creativity is crunched up and spat out in the form of nominal tactical gains and amazing lighting effects (at the potential expense of an interesting mental picture and narrative).



*Presumably for my style of DMing, but as always YMMV.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Original Delta Green Kickstarter

 Just discovered this Kickstarter by accident.....count me in at the $300 level!


This reprint/revamp appears to update to the current Delta Green ruleset, which is built off of the Legend OGL. Still, 95% compatible at its core with Call of Cthulhu 6th edition, and close enough to CoC 7E (a pity it's not officially licensed and 100% compatible, though.....yes, I really like what CoC 7E did to the system).

Check it out here.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Considering a new SF Campaign - What System to Pick

 I've been saturated in fantasy gaming for most of this year now (and last year, too!) and I am getting the Scifi itch again. The question is....what system?

Traveller remains a viable and well supported system and the Imperium is a perfectly good, venerable setting. Arguably Traveller is SF gaming's standard candle of excellence.

I happen to really have an interest in The Stars are Fire, which is the SF expansion for Cypher System. I had developed and run a couple one-shots in a future setting where humankind lost Earth long ago (for various reasons), and the distant colonies of this future, once more restored to starfaring powers, stumble across the relics of what mankind's old empire had grown in to before it collapsed. Running this would be a breeze with The Stars are Fire, which is full of useful stuff for SF gaming.

I also have Mothership, which is a curious breed apart. It's core book is a zine game, essentially, with densely packed rules for rolling up space truckers and laborers (it's not shy about its influence coming from Alien, Outland and Dead Space). The meat is in the swathe of supplements which are mostly all in a similar format, with a heavy emphasis on exotic artistically eccentric approaches to outlining a variety of settings in which your space truckers might get eaten, absorbed, mutated or mind controlled. The biggest obstacle I can see if that it's a lot like Call of Cthulhu on overdrive: you can play Call of Cthulhu as a campaign for a long time as long as the GM (and players) are mindful of how often nightmarish situations arise to slaughter or drive everyone mad. In Mothership, each setting seems dedicated to topping off the level of doom and destruction from the last, and some are completely over the top. The digital editions of some of the scenarios even include voice recordings and other fun things. All told, though, Mothership does feel like it works best for one-shots and short campaigns. I may test that theory soon.

There is also Esper Genesis, but I am still holding out for their version of the DMG, the Operations Manual, which is about a year or two past due right now. I've also ruled out M-Space for various reasons, mostly because the underlying design assumptions in M-Space just don't quite align with what I want out of a game. 

Anyway.....still thinking it over. Been re-reading a lot of Larry Niven lately, and also catching up on Neal Asher, so lots of inspirational ideas! I've always been a fan of Known Space, and Asher's Polity is quite interesting.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Month Nine of the New Console Generation - My gaming Laptop is the best!

 Just a few errant comments on having had a Playstation 5 (which I had to drive to another city to pickup) and Xbox Series X (and two Series S's) since roughly December/January: it's nice to have them, but also not really. Despite their popularity, this is starting to feel like the Laziest Console Generation, indeed perhaps even a clear indication that the Big Two have moved from the old notion of releasing new consoles as a demonstration of new computing power for games to merely being incremental iterations in which a virtual dearth of actual timed support is leaving me with the sensation that neither Microsoft nor Sony ever intended for this generation to be anything more than a general purpose hardware upgrade.

I'm not including Nintendo in this because Nintendo is still playing its own game, making consoles designed to be an experience in their own right. It is not trying to compete with the Big Boys, it is trying to cater to the consumer notions of what it means to buy and experience a console. Nintendo has made something of a mis-step with its Switch OLED edition but only because for months now the online buzz has been about an imaginary Switch Pro that Nintendo never said was coming and which likely Nintendo is aware it does not want to release at this time in the midst of a worldwide microprocessor/electronic parts shortage. This has not stopped an amazing number of Youtubers who make their clicks and likes out of insisting they have an inside scoop look like idiots and in turn viciously attack Nintendo for not catering to their imaginations. Nintendo is only guilty of not realizing the narrative that they needed to get out ahead of before announcing the mildly upgrades OLED console.

Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft might finally have some games by the Fall/Winter season that fit the definition of "next gen" for the new consoles. Up to this point though we've got mostly last gen holdouts with very mild upgrades, and a smattering of "new" stuff. On the plus side it has never been easier to find games and playing old games on the new consoles does give console players a chance to feel, briefly, like PC gamers have felt all along.

For me personally my investment in a decent gaming laptop (with a 2070 TI GPU, mind you) has eclipsed my console experiences. Pretty much everything except for Returnal (one of a handful of PS5 exclusives) is available on PC, and runs great on the laptop, usually at 4K resolution or maybe 2550p for higher framerates. Meanwhile if I play something on console it is purely as a deliberate choice....for example it is still easier to play split-screen Gears 5 or Call of Duty with my son on Xbox Series X, and Returnal is, after all, only available on PS5. 

Most of the newer games to come out so far (including Outriders which my wife and I both like despite its flaws) have been less than stellar, the sort of stuff you usually see coming out on last gen consoles catering to that quiet period between really good releases. For the most part, though, the next gen has benefited the most from the Games as a Service types including Destiny 2 and Fortnite, but I think there's a limit to how much people can put up with the never-ending hamster wheel of repetition and microtransactions these games sustain on, and you most definitely do not need a Ps5 or Series X/S to enjoy either of these games.

This is all a long way of saying, that had I not secured the new consoles I would still have the satisfaction of being envious of those who have gotten them. But because I have them, I now realize it was kind of a trap and I could easily have waited to 2022 without actually missing anything. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Suggested Read - Gibbering Mouth

 A brief post, but I really enjoyed the blog post at Gibbering Mouth by Alex Augunas (here). He reviews his recent experiences with Pathfinder 1 E and 2E, D&D 5E and Starfinder and talks about his experience with their strengths and weaknesses. He does a better job of expressing some of the issues, particularly with Starfinder (and its enormous setting strengths) than I have, and I find his discussion on PF2E a cogent analysis, one I have not quite seen as well as a GM, but which my players feel and likely would agree with from his analysis.

When I consider my time with Pathfinder 1E, for example, I am in total agreement....PF1E broke me in many ways as a GM, which is why I like PF2E so much more. I haven't yet reconciled my current new obsession with D&D 3.5 (and that game is still going strong!) beyond that D&D 3rd is a known quantity and that I am running it with careful consideration for all of its mechanical expectations at present. When that campaign hits level 12 I do sort of expect it to go off the rails....but also I recall how that was not really a thing I noticed (except for once when I experienced a CoDzilla first hand) until 3.5 was retired and Pathfinder 1E had risen to carry the torch. 

Still, PF2E is a lot of fun to play. I think my players are more in sync with it overall now, but I'd also suggest it's a hard game to play on autopilot....despite some trimming of the rules a bit, the game still is pervasive with the philosophy of system mastery and a casual player can easily find themselves spamming the quick and easy to understand stuff and miss out on interesting synergies and hidden options.

D&D 5E, meanwhile, is most definitely as Alex characterizes it: so easy it almost feels like you're missing something. I disagree on the skills, though. The complaint about definitions and their absence only makes sense if you are overly used to the rigor applied from 3rd edition onward to tightly defining what skills can do. If you are used to more holistic systems such as BRP/Call of Cthulhu and most other skill based RPGs of prior decades (GURPS excluded), a more generalized "eyeball and guesstimate the best approach" sort of attitude toward skills makes more sense.

His enthusiasm for Starfinder is infectious, though. It makes me really want to dive back in. His analysis on the problem with the game economy is intriguing, as I hadn't thought of the issue in this manner before (that the game drives players to spend their currency on constant upgrades at the expense of more tangential and fun rewards) but makes total sense. Still, just reading it makes me want to dive back in. I've had one really good Starfinder campaign two fun but failed ones, and a medley of one-offs that should have gone somewhere but didn't. I am thinking that the next time I try, everyone starts at level 5 to begin with to bypass the excruciating low level experience and I work on envisioning a stronger and more coherent space fantasy setting that I can riff from in a manner similar to the fantasy setting I find so easy.