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.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

Return to Live Gaming Part II - D&D 5E Returns (some re-impressions)

 Our second week of gaming has resumed in the live venue, which has by coincidence been an awfully nice and quiet place to game on Tuesday nights, shared mostly by a smattering of wargamers. I am told Wednesday nights are busier, so I am glad we moved to the new night a while back.

For Tuesday, the Roll20 game I had been running on the "off week" was essentially at a close. I had plans to continue the campaign, but rather than do so with D&D 3.5 I advised we should move back to D&D 5E. The other rotating game night will stick with 3.5 for now, though, until that campaign is done, if only because I love juggling editions of the same game (not! I just want to finish out that campaign).

The basic reason for moving to D&D 5E again is pretty simple: it's the edition which shows the most efficiency in providing a ruleset that runs according to the way most people want to play and experience the game in a live environment.* D&D 3.5 is a lot of fun to run right now, but I know it will inevitably get increasingly convoluted as it advances toward higher level play, and the very tactical rigor that makes it distinct also means I need to haul maps and minis along for effect. With D&D 5E the maps and minis are almost entirely optional, and we ran Tuesday night's game with no need for visual references.....theater of the mind combat management worked absolutely fine.

D&D 5E has some other advantages, too. At least one of these I came to realize was something which I had ordinarily been unhappy with in prior 5E experiences, but in an odd twist after playing some Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition again** I realized I probably shouldn't look to negatively upon. In a nutshell: I've never been a huge fan, as a DM, of the hit die and resting mechanic in 5E. It's a hold over from the 4th edition of the game which used quick recoveries to effectively let groups play through scenarios without worrying about having to take several days off back in town to recover from various damage types. The concept, back in 2008 when 4E came out seemed well intended, but the long term consequence (from my actual play experience) was that the game deflated the sense of risk dramatically. Risk became something that mattered during combat only, for the most part; even diseases were rarely a threat as they were written in 4th edition, and long term debilitation simply ceased, for all intent, to be a thing.

Back in 2008 this was an issue for me because I have a very descriptive style as a DM. In 3rd edition and earlier if someone took a massive injury or dropped to dying status it was easy to suggest through description that that person really had taken a serious wound and the game design supported the notion. Healing from such a wound took magic or time (or both). Suddenly, in 4th edition that was essentially gone from the equation. The closest one could get to "near death" in 4E was when all recovery options were completely exhausted, and that took serious effort and intentional DM overkill to achieve such a state.

5th Edition seemed to try to course correct a bit, providing hit dice as the recovery mechanic, with rules which seem to encourage at least a long rest to get back to full health. However, the DMG has optional rules (of which I am using one in the new game) to regulate the pace of healing. It's a good compromise, though one I had been reluctant to use when I ran 5E before, but I think it will work just fine now. The rule in question is the slow natural healing rule, which simply states that players don't recover HP after a long rest, and instead must spend hit dice to do so. The hit dice continue to return at a rate of 1/2 the level of the character, so the ability to spontaneously recover quickly in this process is a bit diminished. It's not the grittiest mechanic on offer (the DMG has the one where it shifts a short rest to 8 hours and a long rest to 1 week!) but I feel it provides an excellent middle ground, slowing down recovery rates a bit (making healers more useful) while still giving players some flexibility with hit dice.

 Other things I like in 3.5 but also happen to like not having in 5E include some of the fiddly combat bits. Stuff like a -4 penalty to firing into melee, positional flanking and other combat rules of specific note work really well with a map and minis (and ergo very well in Roll20 where maps/minis are trivial to manage). At the game table, however, it is really useful to not have to worry about that stuff when you are seeking a more narrative/freeform TotM approach to the game. People can describe their actions with more creativity (or will, when they get used to that process again....I honestly know some of my players likely prefer a set of "things you can/can't do" in combat situations but they will readjust!)

Although I love 3.5's skills, I also can't say I don't like the way 5E does skills. In fact, 5E's skill approach is more organic and essentially unrelated to the leveling experience, which is really cool. It also has more "natural" skill choices for its limited list.....it reflects very accurately the skills I want to call out checks for when running a game. In contrast, I am still after two years of Pathfinder 2E trying to adjust to the fact that it rolled so many skills up into nonintuitive clusters (society I am looking at you!) ....put another way, some of the consolidated skills in Pathfinder organized for efficiency in design at the dramatic expense of useful granularity and specialization. Some of the specialization was retained through the skill feats, but the skill feats are universally regarded as awkward throwbacks to the time when feats ruled all, and it's a weakness in PF2E. 5E sidesteps this entirely.

The thing I found oddest in last night's game was readjusting to the very small modifiers we were dealing with, but that's no big deal (but it also means low level 5E is forever swingy). I will, later, get somewhat annoyed with the way it makes monsters tougher through HP inflation, but that is also solved best by relying more on other third party monster books when possible, as Kobold Press, Onyx Path, Frog God Games and others are very good at making monsters with better "dangerous abilities over  HP bloat" balances.

Either way....still insanely happy to be live gaming again! 



*Yes there are people who might prefer to play it a different way, but they are in their own cluster niches in the hobby and not the people propelling the game to immense levels of popularity via current sales, play, and Youtube stuff. 

**This deserves some elaboration: the short version is I haven't managed to get anywhere close to replaying Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition with its new content and DLC (or move on to BGII which I have never played at all) because I kept trying to play it on the "normal" mode, which for a real-time game at my age means serious annoyance and frustration as my group dies repeatedly and the laws of diminishing returns leave me disinterested in continuing. It's like playing with a DM who ends every third game in a TPK and then demands you restart and reroll from the beginning. This weekend I put it on "story mode" (alias easy mode) and was shocked to get through and blow right past the wandering encounter sections that kept wiping me out with ease. The game is using some basic tricks to make my characters hit tougher and take more damage, but the result felt like I could focus on my main and let the rest of the group efficiently do their thing. As this happened, I realized it was essentially jury rigging the experience to play more like an at-the-table event in which you weren't actually having to engage in the wargame micromanagement minigame that the old isometric engines focused on. That was fun in 1998 because Reasons but for me, in 2021, I just don't have that kind of time and need games that help me to relax, not stress me out. Either way, I suddenly had an epiphany and realized that the same principle concept helped explain why the economy of 5E design worked so well for such a large crowd of gamers.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Mechanics that did not Age Well

A month or two back I decided to mix things up a bit (while still stuck entirely on Roll20) and I started running some D&D 3.5 again. Dragging out the old books was fun. There are aspects of D&D 3.5 that I still like a great deal, and realize that their utility has not diminished with time; I still prefer more granular skill systems, for example, and like the idea that spot, listen and search are all separate skills, and that being good at one of them isn't automatically a certainty to be good at another. I really like the fact that the reduced healing mechanics mean PCs need to think and be more careful as there are consequences for pushing on without regard for health and safety. A lack of at-will magic means wizards do have a reason to carry a staff or dagger for other than purely aesthetic reasons. Even some combat rules in 3.5 are appreciated: higher risk from firing in to combat, penalties for lack of proficiency and other little details all make sense to me. Sure, they are fiddly bits which don't need to be in the game as 5E demonstrates, but they add some versatility to the design and make combat feel more tactical and dangerous.

However, what I have found most interesting is in the moments where I notice that a rule from 3.5 not only didn't age well, but it aged so badly that I basically change the rule and substitute a 5E method instead. So far I've run in to this situation a few times. Damage reduction as a rule is just a pain in the ass, and something that is in many ways potentially invisible to the players. If I as GM tell them, "Your blow seems to have little or no effect," the players need to guess if that means they can't penetrate the DR or there's something more troubling going on (like immunity to the attack). If your whole group is striking and rolling low on the damage against a DR protected creature they could be in for a brutal slog. This is where the much more effective resistance/weakness mechanic of 5E is so much more sensible, and luckily incredibly easy to substitute. It even gives the DM easy descriptive language to use: "You strike your foe and it seems especially weak/resistant against your attack," tells the player all they need to know, and if its an actual immunity that is easy to communicate, too.

We've been sticking to low level play in 3.5 so far (that will change over time), but I already know how insane the stackable vs. non-stackable modifiers get as the game progresses along. Needless to say, the elegance of 5E's design eliminates this issue entirely and seamlessly as well.

As fun as advantage/disadvantage is in 5E I haven't seen any reason to introduce it in 3.5 yet. I am quite comfortable with basic modifiers and DCs working as intended, but the ability to award inspiration is missed. 

The way 5E handles magic items is so remarkably different from 3.5 that it bears mentioning. The extremely processual design of 3.5 magic items is in many ways one of the Achilles' heels of the system, as it created the rules and expectation of magic economies, and provided hard rules that sort of demystified the entire process of magic item creation. Nothing short of epic artifacts could not be found at the right level of market, or made by the players, with the rules as presented. In 5E it deliberately eschews this entire affair and only in later 5E do we se some rules creep back in (chiefly because as a result of 3.5 more than anything the notion that every city and town must have a magic item economy had become thoroughly engrained in the genre*).

5E's basic rule on training new skills and languages (pay coin, spend time, get skill) is far superior to the class/level restrictions of 3.5. So while I like granular skills and the skill point method, I much prefer 5E's more organic division on skills, allowing for more realism in how people learn things. It also lets the DM incorporate learning skills over time as a reward without breaking any game balance.

The most noticeable detriment to 3.5 over 5E is that rolling a nonhuman character is a pain in the ass, thanks to the scaling issues being dealt with throgh level adjustments. The 5E method is simply less hassle for the same result.

By coincidence (or not) we are resuming 5E on the next live off-week session, so make of that what you will!



*Sure the notion of a magic item shop existed long before 3E, but the idea that it was part of a mercantile economy with clear rules of commerce and manufacturing, and an almost total absence of mystery was very much a 3rd edition introduction. In 2nd edition and earlier the magic item shop was the weird wizard and strange shop in a large city, surrounded by mystery, usually with a specific and well regarded name attached. But the key idea was that prior to 3E, the magic item shop was a contrivance of the GM and fully in their control, and laden with mystery. The magic item shop of 3E was by contrast well defined and something the players themselves could establish if they were so inclined. It stopped being a DM tool and macguffin and became a player utility. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Game Store Play Advantage

 Brief post, but last night's return to live gaming was a  blast! It was nice to play a game with actual live humans again. People are still live humans on VTT, sure, but they are distracted people with narrow electronic pinholes peering in to the remote dominions of their cohorts. Not the same, in other words, as just being present around a table and gaming together.

The big advantage of gaming at the local game store, of course, happened immediately last night as we picked up a new player (first time since before the pandemic shutdown) and possibly a second down the road. You can meet people more easily (in person) by being in a common location where people congregate with like interests, and for us locally that means one of the two game stores we have (I bet the student annex at UNM or our community college might also work, too).

Either way, it was nice to be back to gaming in the manner for which it is most suited!

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Return to Live Gaming!

 We're meeting for the first time in more than a year at our local game shop.....everyone in the group is vaccinated, none of us have overtly stressful health issues (outside of the usual stuff), and frankly it will just be nice to meet people live again. 

Virtual gaming has some advantages.....one of them is not hauling a 50 lb. bag of books around, followed by another immense tote filled with maps and pawns or minis, but I gotta admit, this may have been yet another form of exercise that I haven't been getting for the last 15 months of isolation.

It will probably involve somewhat slower interactions....our brains will need to remember calculations now rather than let Roll20 do it for us, for example; but on the plus side that is trivial compared to learning how to set up the macros to do those calculations in the first place!

Instead of me scalping maps off the internet or trying t draw them with crude online tools I can now just draw them with dry erase markers and call it a day. 

Pulling maps out of the ether online is pretty trivial. For a physical table you can print them out as needed, or just draw your own, but of course the virtual environment is easy enough to port them in to as well. The difference that favors the table, however, is no one complains when you can't figure out how to use the dynamic lighting software, or can't find the time to elaborately set it up. Is dynamic lighting cool? Hell yeah. Is it worth it? Not in my opinion.

Perhaps the biggest advantage VTTs do have over the table is minis management. It is prohibitively difficult under any conditions to easily pull out the right minis or pawns and use them. At minimum you need to narrow down what is necessary (that can be hard if you run more hexcrawl or sandbox style campaigns where by its nature there is some unpredictability) and also very expensive to secure enough miniatures to field any possible encounter. Pawns such as what Paizo makes simplify building up your army of tokens a bit, but can be a nightmare to organize for easy deployment. VTTs let you you drag and drop tokens in a flash and with very little delay.....so points to VTT for this.

A huge thing I am looking forward to live gaming for again though is the fact that conversations can once again be fluid, can include visual queues, and do not funnel through the "one voice, one channel" process of online communication. You can have side conversations. You can have conversations where people aren't talking over each other (okay, that will happen, but it makes more contextual sense in live situations), you can not worry about audio dropping unless someone gets laryngitis, etc. etc.

But mostly, I'm looking forward to seeing some old friends again in the flesh for the first time in ages!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Decision Paralysis and the Fantasy Heartbreaker Genre's Evolution

 Back in the 90's a game which appeared to be overtly influenced by D&D was generally called a fantasy heartbreaker. It was typically considered a game in which the author, having house-ruled AD&D over the years, had finally reached the point where his interpretation of the game attained special significance: it was so far removed to one degree or another from AD&D that it looked like a different game, and the author was so enmeshed in his interpretation of said game that he could not imagine any other game (including AD&D) being more worthy of consideration for play than his own.

Some of these early fantasy heartbreakers languished unpublished. In the 80's and early 90's in particular the everyday nonexistence of an internet meant that sharing your fantasy heartbreaker required publishing it through the channels available at the time, which also did not include print on demand. There was no Lulu or Onebookshelf to realize your dream. If you were savvy and talented then you could turn your heartbreaker into a real game with a real following (I consider Palladium Fantasy to be in this category, for example). If you were less talented then the results could prove interesting (If you've ever heard of World of Synnibarr it is regarded by some as on the more extreme end of the fantasy heartbreakers). Most are completely forgotten, though.

Today, fantasy heartbreakers still exist, but thanks to the transformative era of the D20 OGL 1.0a we have more "mechanically consistent" heartbreakers than ever.....we just don't call them that. The entirety of the OSR is essentially a subgenre of fantasy heartbreakers, as is every single D20 era system which thought to demonstrate that it was better and more efficient at doing D20 than D20 was (be that Fantasy Craft or Grim Tales, to name a couple). The OGL at least made it possible to comfortably do this legally, and also allowed for a unifying structural arc over the entire mess. 

A side effect of this is that today we have an abundance of published and often well supported game systems which are all essentially variants on the same D&D theme, sometimes to the extent that they are collectively each fighting for a corner of the same specific experience, rather than collectively offering anything particularly new. When you have this mixed with a GM like myself who likes to collect way too many books this can lead to scenarios where it becomes, at times, troubling to think about which flavor of D&D you want to play at any given moment. Like, really annoying!

I mean, on my shelves alone I have the following (this is what I have after my great purge a couple years ago, mind you):

13th Age - for people who liked the direction of D&D 4E but didn''t want the map/minis harness.

D&D 5E - the current D&D, carefully designed to emulate how people play over what the rules said.

D&D 3.5 - the beast that started the last 20 years of gaming evolution.

D&D 0E - the original, characterized as the root of all things OSR by some.

AD&D 1E - the version associated with Gygaxian prose and endless unique subsystems.

AD&D 2E - the version I actually enjoyed playing the most for all of a decade.

Pathfinder 2E - Paizo's attempt to distinguish itself from the competition, but also my current fave.

Pathfinder 1E - the one that happened when WotC abandoned its base .

OSRIC - the first successful attempt to show how the OGL could revive old school design.

Labyrinth Lord - the OSR version for people who loved B/X D&D (and also AD&D).

Dungeon Crawl Classics - the carefully designed aesthetic and focus on procedural randomness plus unusual dice to evoke the sense of the 70's like a scratch-n-sniff that smells like your uncle's waterbed.

Mork Borg - I think this is for people who love ideas but also don't like words that explain things unless those words are grim, dark, metal, etc.

Troika! - also for people who like ideas but aren't big on coherence, and also who loved Fighting Fantasy as kids.

Palladium Fantasy - I've got the most recent edition, but would argue that Palladium is the definitive original heartbreaker. 

Mythras Classic Fantasy - it might seem odd to include this, but it fits; Mythras is a Runequest based system and CF is all about changing Mythras so that you can play it like AD&D...but with more percentiles.

Swords & Wizardry Complete - the definitive OSR clone of D&D 0E, allegedly (except for all of the others), but arguably the most playable and fiddly of the different 0E variants.

....there are likely others I have forgotten about sitting in storage or whatever.

The point being: there are a lot of different systems out there currently that let you achieve your exact and highly specific brand and flavor of D&D that you want. For some reason I have a lot of them on my shelves. I have gotten rid of others in the past.....as much as I enjoy the style of play Castles & Crusades evokes, for example, it was simply too close in feel o D&D 5E for me to keep it around. There are other contemporary old school clones that are simply not quite worth the effort when the original editions are now all back in POD; why bother with For Gold & Glory, for example, when I already have all the AD&D 2E stuff I could bear?

But the real question I run in to is: why have all of these systems on my shelves to begin with? As a collector the answer is obvious: so that my relatives and family must do a lot of back-breaking cleanup in my study when I die. But aside from that.....I find that until that fateful day all these fantasy heartbreakers lead only to momentary confusion as I find each one has its merits and is worthy of attention, yet I only have so much of that to go around, and only a couple times a week to game. As such, I inevitably need to choose the games that best fit my actual playstyle, and those are only a handful, to be honest. 

So....this was a long post to come around to saying that I may need to look at another Ebay selloff soon, or maybe I'll just start boxing some stuff up to clear out space and take them to the local bookstores. If I do this, I figure I'd need to let my collection settle down to the following:

1. The edition I am most likely to run consistently (Pathfinder 2E) 

2. The edition I am most fond of because it does everything I want it to (D&D 3.5)

3. The edition I know is most popular so should keep for that reason alone (D&D 5E)

4. The edition with the most nostalgia and for which I actually would be willing to play again becasue of that (AD&D 2E)

There's also Dungeon Crawl Classics, which I would be inclined to keep because I feel it tries hardest to do its own thing. 

The rest.....should probably go. Hmmmm. We shall see!

Monday, July 5, 2021

GM Block

 Does this happen to anyone else? As I prepare to return to gaming after a work-induced break, I find myself feeling less enthusiastic, or so I think, for straight D&D/Pathfinder gaming. I think the real reason is Roll20 burnout more than lack of actual interest. Put simply: the stuff I as GM like to focus on doesn't translate so easily in the VTT environment, and the VTT stuff that works best tends to be more of the maps and minis kind of stuff, so there's an imbalance I am feeling.

So I am about to embark, either this week or maybe next, on resuming live gaming. But in doing so I decided to jump the shark a bit and propose some stuff I normally consider outside my wheelhouse of interest....specifically Luther Arkwright, powered by Mythras. I'm not a salient fan of the series, but I did grab the Arkwright Integral graphic novel and have enjoyed reading it. The campaign book for Mythras is comprehensive and provides a wealth of interesting material, though like so many other books for licensed IPs that don't have "Cthulhu" in the title it's maybe a bit too brief on interesting conflict/foes that the GM can immediately run with. It's got them sure, but I get the impression throwing a Disruptor tactical assault squad at the group first time is probably a bit excessive. There's a sourcebook of eight adventures for the setting which I am trawling through right now...it is providing some good context. It probably doesn't help much that most of the media content suggested for the setting is also outside my wheelhouse of expertise....I am not terribly immersed in the 60's and 70's era espionage fiction that the game seems to spark from, or for that matter Moorcock's Eternal Champion series. But there are other influences mentioned I am more acquainted with (Lovecraft and Planetary are mentioned), so maybe I can find a way to make this game "my own." 

I sort of need to, because I'd like to find something which really "grabs" me but I am loathe to admit I did not do any preparatory work for the game this Tuesday (well, I did write a scenario but I don't like what I wrote, and think it's in desperate need of a redo). Group still needs to make PCs,so maybe we can focus on that, or otherwise put it off to next session....I haven't run Mythras in a few years and it is not the kind of game you can run off the cuff, being just different in key ways from straight BRP/CoC that one can readily get tripped up.

So....yeah. No idea where I am going with all this. I have been feeling less enthusiastic about GMing than I ever have before. I literally have to think back to 1995 as the last time I lost all enthusiasm for gaming, post-graduation and in the midst of turbulence with a troubling relationship that led me moving across a couple states to Washington! I took most of the year off from gaming, and it did me some good I think, as by the time I restarted I had a chance to recharge the creative batteries. It's tough, though, as there aren't many other GMs in the area, and in my group I think traditionally I am the only one who has been happy to default to that role. 

No solutions here --yet-- but time will tell. Either I'll find "it" again or I won't, and at that time I may beg the group for a longer break. We shall see.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Emergent Gameplay, Risk vs. Reward, Leveling Too Fast and Other Musings

Rambling thought warning ahead!

The title is weird, but it comes from a problem I am facing: a campaign I ran for the better part of this year (six months) in Cypher System came to a close on its main plot but all of the side plots were not yet clearly resolved (some were, but others weren't). This is at minimum a side effect of a reasonable sized group and the Cypher mechanics in which players can pursue personal plots/quests that net additional XP for achieving goals. 

Ordinarily I wouldn't stress it too much, but the problem arises from higher level play in Cypher System. Character advancement, even when you try to slow it a bit, tends to be much quicker than in D&D or Pathfinder. The group hit Tier 4 when we left off, and this means that for many of them, especially the characters optimized for their level of experience, will find most mid-range and lower threats in the game trivial to the point where, mechanically speaking, they don't even have to roll to succeed at task in combat. The best way to handle combat in the game with average opponents at this point is to avoid it or expediently dispatch it through a narrative. 

Now, in most cases with Cypher System the best solution is to scale the threats and risks (which aren't generally meant to be opponents in straight combat; Cypher works best when you get creative). But the problem is a lot of the lined up plots resolve on the more basic level.  So how to handle this? The system itself basically dictates that at this point we're just narrating the process. I could spice it up with something suitably exotic....but....and there's no nice way to put this....it's not really exciting me as much as it should to do this.

Part of the problem was I made a poor choice for setting with Cypher this time. I adapted a D&D world (Realms of Chirak) which is built from decades of D&D style gameplay, a style which drives much of the conflict through battle, and as a result there's an expectation in the default pacing of scenarios to rely on the tropes and styles of D&D. When I break from that, it works....but it stops feeling D&D and starts feeling Cypher. But I am restrained by the setting, still. I can break the rules of the setting and lean hard on what Cypher does best, but then I'm messing up what the setting is about. This is a very personal issue, mind you; my players would be happy no matter what, but I as GM have done this before in the past and learned that there are things you don't really want to do with a game world you create for specific purposes (unless you want to axe the future of that setting for your own use). So it's really an internal GM issue.

One more session could probably resolve enough plots for everyone to move on and we can then go play a game where I get to experience what I realize is the more engaging element of D&D (and Pathfinder) that I like very much: emergent gameplay. You've likely heard of the term or are familiar with it already. Emergent gameplay is the idea that you start with the rules and a setting, maybe a scenario, but nothing is on-rails, nothing is preordained and no one has plot armor. The story emerges directly as a result of how the players choose to engage with the environment and how the GM gets the environment to react. Unexpected things can and will happen in emergent gameplay, and often when you hear people talk about those amazing plot twists in games it's from adventures driven by the emergent gameplay process.

A game like Cypher System allows for emergent gameplay as well, but it does follow a different beat, and as you move through the Cypher System you realize the universe is informed (sometimes rapidly) by the power level of the players. There's emergent storytelling to be had, and mechanically there are layers of support for it in Cypher, but it also lacks a certain kind of non-determinism. If you can, as a player, get a guaranteed success that requires no roll in a system where the key GM tool is the GM Intrusion mechanic, then you cut off one of those random things the GM can do to make things more interesting. And as the game scales so quickly, it means you might (as in my case) run out of time for the loads of plot points designed for lower level characters because they are all now high tiered superheroes and no longer concern themselves with petty guild fights and other such nonsense.* I mean....sure, they can,  but what right-minded NPC in a world of level 1-5 foes would be willing to take on a gang of superheroes who can automatically attack and dodge without any chance of failure? It removes a lot of tension from those scenarios.

I suppose the issue here may not be emergent gameplay but instead lies within a mechanical framework that moved beyond the scope of what I wanted (gritty heroes with a sense of mortality vs. powerful superheroes at high tier) and combat with risk that doesn't evaporate.

My personal choice would be to retroactively go back and pick Pathfinder 2E as the base system. Pathfinder 2E has a different sort of problem: players will struggle to ever truly feel like superheroes, as the game system is brutal when the difficulty level spikes even a bit, but it is trivially easy for the GM to include an occasional feel good encounter in PF2E as well. That said, I think the emergent gameplay is more prevalent (and possible) in Pathfinder, at least in the way that I am thinking of it. But....there are better systems out there yet for that sort of gaming, too. My recent stint on revisiting Mythras has me thinking about the possibilities. 

Anyway....more thoughts as I gear up to return to gaming in a week or so....



*To some degree I've figured out with Cypher that the best approach is to either go in with zero expectations (really let the start state move along through emergent gameplay and just see where it goes with zero expectations) or you plot meticulously, which includes figuring out well in advance how much XP to award and be stingy if necessary. I think the latter fails with Cypher for various reasons, but I have to concede I haven't really pinned down the formula here with Cypher as this is now the third Cypher campaign that will end unexpectedly because the players reached a power level where it became difficult for me to figure out where to go with it next. This is a thing I need to think about, that as much as I like Cypher it might have....pacing issues, at least relative to my style as a GM.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Choosing a Flavor of Mythras....

 I've noticed a trend during my gaming hiatus....I'm back to browsing endlessly through Mythras and associated tomes, reading and scheming about what I might  do with them. BRP remains a core go-to when it comes to Call of Cthulhu gaming, but Mythras covers all the bases so well these days, that its justifiably entered the realm of "universal systems" which the likes of GURPS and a few others normally hold the ring on. I mean....look at this breakdown:

Want to do Science Fiction? Mythras Imperative gives you essential tools, M-Space and its expansions carry it through. 

Want to do time traveling or alternate realities? Check out Luther Arkwright, which aside from being a useful sourcebook on an interesting but obscure British graphic novel series is also a useful dimension-hopping sourcebook.

Want to do D&D but with a D100 mechanic? Classic Fantasy has you covered, providing more than enough emulation to incorporate classes and a ton of D&D tropes without otherwise altering the core Mythras experience.

Just interested in straight fantasy? Classic Mythras has all you need in its core book, but you can also dive deep into mytho-historical adventures in Britain, Rome, Constantinople and now Babylon. It is also trivially easy to pull any GURPS sourcebook as a reference tool for use with Mythras.

Pulp adventure? Monster Island is an excellent resource, and Mythras Imperative covers the bases nicely, although I think there is room for more here.

Post-Apocalypse? Rubble & Ruin and Seasons of the Dead collectively cover most any angle on the genre you could want. R&R covers a low key near future apocalypse with plenty of science-fiction weirdness (not Gamma World level, but you could definitely use this for a quasi realistic post-apoc future). Seasons of the Dead has everything from zombie plagues to terminator robot invasions fully covered, something I did not expect prior to getting the book.

Weird alt-reality dystopian retro-futurist Sci Fi? Odd Soot is one unique and dark flavor, and there's Worlds United for an entire other "Flash Gordon" style flavor. I have the former but not yet the latter.....I'm not much of a fan for retro-futurism unless it incorporates the benefit of hindsight, but concede I haven't picked up Worlds United yet so maybe there's stuff I don't know about.

If you want mythos stuff, and don't mind "Mythras adjacent" from the OGL we have Delta Green, and there are other similar mythos-based OGL products online as well (that I don't have so can't comment on). Delta Green is nonetheless the best modern interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos out there, so well worth it.

Supers is covered too. 3rd edition Mythras Imperative contains enough rules to start, and a forthcoming tome from TDM will provide the rest.

I see some spots that need more bits to fill in, of course: a proper Pulp Adventures setting book would be nice, I imagine, for those who want to run some hardcore Indiana Jones type stuff. More SF content would be welcome; a Gear Sourcebook for Mythras and/or M-Space would be extremely welcome. We could also use some more focused genre books on Cyberpunk and maybe something aimed at modern day adventuring, or modern horror that is not typically mythos based.

The issue I face now is: how to narrow down the focus to what I should run next? I'm leaning hard toward something Rubble & Ruin on the one side, and of course Mythic Babylon on the fantasy side. I also have the Bronze Age Egypt campaign I've been working on, which would be easy to fit within the Mythras rules. After that....M-Space, Mythic Britain, and more all demand attention. Maybe I can plot out several 4-6 session long mini campaigns in different settings, and let the group decide which flavor they are most keen on pursuing.


Friday, June 18, 2021

Metacomment on Video Game News Articles - Catch it Before It's Yanked

 Go here and read through. If you follow any video game news sites you will know what the author is doing:

Video Game Article (Kotaku)

(Hint: it's metacommentary, and not really satire.....)

Read the comments then! The crowd there also knows and contributes handily. In the meantime, I will take a look at John Walker's site because I think he's done with Kotaku....

Too Much Mythras Coolness: Mythic Babylon, Odd Soot, Rubble & Ruin, and M-Space Companion

Mythras is doing really well, almost a renaissance of really cool and useful new content to fill the void left by BRP's quiet return to being an engine for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. Mythras has only grown increasingly versatile and accessible thanks to the condensed Mythras Imperative rules, various genres popping up powered by Mythras, and a wealth of third party publishers taking Mythras in interesting directions. Anyway....here are four books you as a Mythras fan should not be missing right now:

Mythic Babylon

This released today, and I am perusing the impressive PDF this afternoon but can already tell its going to be a book I must run. The Design Mechanism has been knocking historical sourcebooks with mythical elements out of the park, filling a void not properly covered anywhere else save by GURPS. I'll post more on this as I read in more depth, but wanted to get word out that the book is now live while I wait for my print copy. I also ordered a copy of Fioracitta from TDM, a book which a friend of mine grabbed and looks like a fascinating take on a fantasy alt-Italy.

Odd Soot

While investigating my plans for M-Space campaigning in the near future I noticed this oddity on Frostbyte's storefront and decided to take a leap even though it sounded like it might be part of one of my least favorite genres (retro SF in which the SF is rooted in the golden age of science fiction and ignores the benefits of hindsight). Instead, it turns out this is an amazingly weird and unique take on doing an alternate history science fiction setting in a 1920's universe, but it defies the stereotypes of this sort of genre completely in favor of something weird and new and extremely compelling. You need to read it to see that it is unique and worthy of being a cult classic.

Rubble & Ruin

I was a fan of the original BRP monograph for post-apocalyptic roleplaying even though it needed more depth of design, and was surprised to discover quite by accident that it's been revamped (with two modules as well) for Mythras as a stand alone system. Rubble & Ruin provides all the rules and more for rough post-apocalypse gaming in a package that looks like it's not wanting for any content. I'll also be writing on this one more soon.

M-Space Companion

M-Space, despite my gripes with the very basic equipment and weapons list in the core rulebook, is still by far the best SF adaptation of BRP I've found on the market. It's only gotten better thanks to the M-Space Companion, which adds in some much needed SF content, most notably rules for cybernetic augmentations (good rules!), rules on playing robots as characters (also good rules!) and an expanded culture/background system that adds some randomized elements to character backgrounds. Well worth the asking price to provide useful additional content to M-Space. 

Speaking of M-Space, if you did not know, a quality color edition of the rulebook is available on DrivethruRPG now here. Previously you had to order it from Europe at prohibitive cost, or get a cheap copy in black and white off Lulu. Get it now before the cost of color printing skyrockets for POD in July!


 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Devil in the Details - When that one design choice overturns an otherwise fine system

Today is a post about griping about things, completely new to the internet, I assure you. You have been warned!

So I wonder how many have had this experience like me. Take a game, a game you might have a keen interest in. You read through it, design some characters, work out some scenario ideas.....you're learning the system. So far you see all the cool stuff and you become increasingly impressed. The creator of the game has a vision, and its one which aligns well with yours, meshes nicely. Indeed, it either supports your own ideas well, or provides ideas you had never considered but can definitely get behind.

Then....that thing happens. It's the thing that for some people they say, "Yeah I like this, but I wish the game did this thing differently," and then they start tweaking and house ruling. In some cases, anyway. I don't generally mean that, though.....first off being I don't like assuming I know enough about the rules to want to change them until I've actually run the game. Second issue being a rule might pose issues, but the idea in my head is that subtler, more disheartening moment when you discover that there's a design element in the game, something maybe a bit vague or undefined that you feel should be fleshed out, or an omission (or inclusion) that just feels out of place to you. 

Maybe the game suggests you should have a wild and wooly bestiary included and the game only has stats for four monsters or something. Maybe you expected the game, which deals with a serious look at ethics or morality in a genre setting to include some rules that support that and they're just...absent. Or maybe you expected the game about high tech capers to have more than a page or so on high tech things. That sort of "oh no" moment.....things you could only fix by, essentially, writing an entire new chapter or sourcebook for the game, or rewriting the game to remove a weird tonal inconsistency. Or drafting up new art to reflect the dark and serious nature of the grim setting, reflected through the eyes of an artist focused on cute anime styles. Stuff like that.

I've had that happen to me on occasion. I'll concede, a lot of what crops up here are SF related, which might say a great deal about my expectations for SF games. A few notable examples I can think of at the moment include....

M-Space Falls Flat on Weapons and Gear

I really dig M-Space and it's design intent, but I believe the author is on record as not being very "gadget focused," and it shows, unfortunately. When you get to the equipment section the barebones weapons and gear lists are the barest essentials for a good SF setting from my experience, and are oddly reliant on some Star Wars terminology with the serial numbers rubbed off a bit (seek out evidence of where else in SF the actual term "restraining bolt" is used, for example, outside of Star Wars). When you see the similarities in the gear it can't be unseen, and the minimalist list means the GM has some work cut out for him if he wants to have a range of gear across differing tech levels. M-Space also lacks tech levels, and oddly, while it does provide ship costs in design, its prefab ships do not tell you how much they cost. My players will want to know!

White Star Can Be Taken Seriously But Doesn't Want To 

I griped about this before at one point, and it was really when the Galaxy Edition came out that I realized that the White Star universe was defaulting to a setting with transformers, cosmic space squirrels, not-wookies, not-ewoks, off-brand jedi and off-brand sith and so on and so forth that the simplicity of the original core rules (which had nominal Star Wars-esque content that I could hand waive) suddenly overwhelmed my ability to use the expanded product with any sense of seriousness. Were I to write a game like White Star, I'd try really hard to corral the homage-style content to supplements and leave the core rules something with a broader scope in application.

Starfinder Uses Handwavium for Gear and Starship Economies

Also griped about, but ultimately a bugaboo that makes it hard to properly run campaigns for this otherwise fine D20 system, is its use of level scores for gear and a starship design system that completely divorces ship design and advancement from wealth. The core conceit of Starfinder is that mechanically both gear and ships are tied to PC level and over time you can get better gear (and boost your ship) as part of the leveling process rather than as part of the "in game story process" in which the players negotiate for the cash to buy things. In theory this shouldn't pose too much of a problem except that it does....and it does so because the way gear is done lampshades the entire process. Gear at level 20, as an example, isn't theoretically that different from gear at level 1. It's just....better. Much, much better. Trying to explain how build points for starships tie in to the galactic economy or why the corporations sell gear at increasingly staggered levels of complexity raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about how the Starfinder universe is supposed to work, and as a result it does some very weird things to one's sense of verisimilitude. The problem of course is we as gamers know the real answer: mechanical balance demanded by the game system. But when the game mechanics cause weird and illogical interpretations of the implied game universe, it makes acceptance of that universe very difficult. More difficult, ironically, than believing in fantasy space elves with magic and laser guns.

Pulp Cthulhu Is Pulp at the Expense of Cthulhu

Yes, you can adopt the Pulp Cthulhu rules and have a rousing adventure in which you through derring do and sheer grit manage to blow away an elder thing while dynamiting his pet shoggoth.....but are you actually playing Call of Cthulhu then, or are you just using assets for a physics defying action game that is paying a slight nod to the source material it perverts? Maybe it depends on the interpretation, but I personally think that talents and all the associated drivel of the pulp rules can go hang out in someone else's games. On the plus side, it's all quietly constrained to the Pulp Cthulhu books and therefore easy to ignore.

Those Dark Places Likes to Talk About The Idea of What's In Those Dark Places But not..you know...What's Actually In Those Dark Places

Those Dark Places is essentially a game about the first twenty minutes of the movie Alien, and it stops right when they are about to find the eggs in the ship. It's an indie game (and as such a lot of the times you have to either be on board with the creator's vision or get off the bus), in which the smallest section of the book is the one which advises GMs on how to populate their games with vile xenomorphs and evil androids. Indeed, it really doesn't seem to want to do this at all, and stops short of....anything. So, yeah. It's really just an indie RPG for rolling up space workers and then thinking about how it would be cool if something interesting happened while they were working. To contrast: the excellent Mothership gives you one rulebook to roll up spacers, then showers you with several incredibly dense space adventure tomes that are increasingly insane and deadly space crawls. 

Okay then! Felt like a rant for fun. I think some of this is cropping up as I am taking time during my work-related exodus from gaming to realign my gaming focus and look for other oft neglected games on my shelves to see which ones might demand more attention and interest. Maybe next post I'll mention some of the games which surprised me with their efficacy in design and focus.