Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Horror Isn't for Heroes

Victims Not Superheroes
It is no secret that I have a preference for a certain play-style that I fondly refer to as "dungeon horror". I describe it as "dungeon horror", which is a term I borrowed from some forgotten source, because it succinctly describes the mood I desire to create at my table and my preference for running sessions in the underground adventure environment. Drawing inspiration from a life-long time of reading tales of adventure and mystery involving lost civilizations, forgotten tombs and haunted caverns, everything from Creepy and Weird Tales to the work of Professor Tolkien - yes, I see The Shadow as a scary thing, despite many efforts of the cinema to make it otherwise!
Superheroes are indeed fun to play - in the right setting. The ability to meet every challenge head-on with reasonable expectation of success, empowers and thrills our illusion of control and sense of mastery, even when it occurs in a fictional game setting. Such is the power of "story" to seem real. Superheroes can have vulnerabilities, but they are seldom "fatal" and they can be expected to prevail in the end. Superheroes nearly always "save the day".
System matters! It is a phrase one sometimes hears while hanging around this hobby. If you have experience with any so-called generic system for tabletop role-playing, you may have noticed that they give the person setting up the game (referee/GM) some to a lot of ability to control or set the variable power level for newly created characters. For example, in the popular game GURPS a starting character of 100 points is much more normal human like and therefore more vulnerable than a character built using 500 points, or even 250 points. The more points one has in GURPS to spend on character creation, the greater the power of starting character abilities, skills and powers.
Horror role-playing games are not about smashing things. They are about survival. They are about smart play, solving mysteries and thwarting the evil machinations of sinister, shadowy forces - often by merely exposing them. From such modest level of accomplishment is "satisfaction" derived while playing and succeeding at a horror themed game. 
Immersion is a by-product of role-play - or for some, I suppose the principal goal in playing. Immersion in a "scary" environment requires a degree of vulnerability - some tension and anxiety on the part of the player helps. This is achieved in the role-play setting through the character's vulnerability, not that of the players, who ideally sit comfortably in a very safe place throughout the game. Risking their character is what provides the "fear" in role-playing. Imagining the consequences of failure in terms of the fictional story can add also to the tension. The presence of superheroic character abilities seems to be very much at odds with this experience.
So how should we define "competence" in terms of character ability in a horror setting? I frequently compare the character's skills and abilities to those of an "average" human. Many, if not most, fantasy characters have skills and abilities "above average" in one area or another. Masterful fighting skills, the ability to cast divine or arcane magics, pick pockets, jimmy locks, navigate computer novel systems or turn undead creatures sets the player character well above the abilities of most "normal" humans, yet do not necessarily imply an ability to brush aside all evil threats. Being competent without being super competent is of course a judgement call. I would like to see the players challenged, but not feeling helpless. I would like them to believe that careful and smart play can get them through, even if relying on their character sheet can't.
So this is why I prefer a more believably human level of power in my play. To achieve a heroic result while playing a person who could fail, who is vulnerable and might not survive the adventure. To succeed without having the game "stacked in favor of the characters" - that is what I seek.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Troll Lords

Castles & Crusades RPG
I have been revisiting one of the first systems to come into being and thereby helping to usher in what has become the old school renaissance - Troll Lord Games' Castles & Crusades excellent FRP game. Castles & Crusades appeared at a Gencon I attended around 2005 or so. At that time, as I recall, Troll Lord Games was a new company and Castles & Crusades was a basic game in a small white box containing three journal size booklets and some dice. 
Within a year, I believe Troll Lord Games published the C&C players handbook and with it gave us a game that in many ways resembles the Advanced game of the late 1970s, but one which also introduces modern game mechanics of its own. A monster and treasures book followed soon after the players handbook and together these two slim hardcover volumes (each are still around 200 pages in the recent printings) comprise a complete game system. The title Castles & Crusades is an homage to the Castles & Crusades Society which Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and many others once belonged to.
At a later Gencon, I picked up a slipcover edition of the C&C books along with Castle Zagyg - Gary Gygax was working with Troll Lord Games and the Castle was his. The Troll Lords had formed a relationship with Gary Gygax nearly from the start of their company and they continued to work with Mr. Gygax up until the time of his death in 2008. The Castle Zagyg project, which was promised to run into several as then unpublished volumes, was unfortunately cut short by Gary's death. 
As most everyone in the hobby today knows, the Old School Renaissance, or OSR as it is frequently referred to, has taken off and has become very popular (arguably influencing 5e decisions at WizBros). With the number of excellent OSR system offerings available, many which cleave much closer to the original game's mechanics than C&C, my interests have shifted to those games (one after another) and I have collected quite a few of them over the past decade - and have often written about them on this blog and I have even played a few of them. (grin!)
Thanks to a friend who regularly referees this system, Castles & Crusades is a game I have played regularly for some years. The recent hiatus on face-to-face gaming has kept our group away from the table for a while now, but we recently resumed play on a remote basis using Discord. Some things in my gaming hobby experience change, some stay pretty consistent.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

A Knightly Adventure Seed

The Tale of Sir Knight and the Enchanted Forest
I am forever fond of knights and stories about their adventures. The legendary King Arthur and the knights of his round table, the fantastic fictional knight's tale Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, the paladins of Charlemagne's court - all these stories excite my imagination and inspire me to want to game. In hopes of providing my own inspiration for your knightly gaming adventures I offer the following brief synopsis.

The Hanged Man- 
While traveling, perhaps on a "quest" for their king, our knight(s) encounter a group of distraught local peasants who excitedly describe a "hanged man" at the edge of the nearby woods. "Tis the witch's warning, 'tis!", they say. Upon investigation, the knight(s) find a scarecrow of sorts hanged from a sour apple tree. When approached it speaks the following words, "BEWARE, mortal Son(s) of Adam, turn back for these woods are not meant for thee. Do thee not hunt creatures here, nor gather wood for thy fire. And do not steal my mushrooms!" (Any noble knight worth their salt will of course see this as a challenge and immediately proceed into the woods.)

The Dryad-
A love-sick and confused old tree spirit has lost her scarf - a gift it was from a favored paramour (perhaps one of the witch sisters). The pixies have stolen the scarf for their "Forest King" - a giant puppet of sticks and rags who holds court in a nearby enchanted glade.

The Two Sisters-
Sister witches compete for power within the woods. Each has an enchanted castle, or keep, manor, etc., and a following of minions. One is served by dwarfs, the other by goblins. Each sister will "befriend" Sir Knight(s) and if they are willing, will share her bed bestowing gifts and favors on her new gallant! Each in turn will ask a boon - a token of her champion's devotion. The "night witch" will claim her sister has "stolen a favored silver hand mirror" long ago and she would have it returned. She will bestow "low light vision" on her "champion". The other sister desires the iron crown of the "goblin king" who dwells beneath her sister's castle. She will bestow a magic elixir of strength upon her champion. 

The Enchanted Forest may hold many other wonders, such as a grumpy tree who tosses walnuts about, a frog prince(ss), rodents of extraordinary size, the "king under the mound", or whatever "perils" you wish to include. Upon exiting the forest, I fancy the knights have been in a "time warp" and the outside world has changed a bit, just to re-enforce the magical nature of the fairy wood. Getting back to their own time may form the basis of their next "quest".

Friday, August 28, 2020

Old Love, Rekindled

I have recently become re-enamored with an out-of-print FRP game authored by Eric Goldberg and published by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI games). SPI, for those much younger than me, was a significant producer of hex map wargames during the 1970s and '80s. DragonQuest is on the crunchy side of the rules spectrum and especially in its first edition, has the feel of a wargame. (There is a second SPI edition edited by Gerald C. Klug which alters the combat system.) 
DragonQuest uses a hex-based tactical display and the first edition comes with a selection of cardboard counters very similar to SPI's many wargames of the period. Combat (and to an extent, magic) in DragonQuest feels somewhat "real" in terms of the in-game time actions may take and the effect of certain variables (such as positioning, fatigue and wounds) on those actions. Its mechanics are arguably "less abstract" than those of the then leading FRP game, Basic/Advanced D&D.
How to explain the recent leg of my journey? The recent acquisition and publication by Steve Jackson Games of The Fantasy Trip renewed interest among several friends in hex and counter tactical display combat, of which The Fantasy Trip is an excellent, if somewhat simplistic example. This style of play is arguably more roll-play than role-play and is consistent with how many of us wargamers originally approached FRP games in the 1970s. After a few months of playing TFT, the old bugaboo of wanting more "crunch" crept into my mind and DragonQuest has become my answer. 
Why would a game originally  published in 1980 still appeal to me? Long out-of-print, the production qualities are primitive by today's standard. Monochrome illustrations pass for "color". The layout of the three paper bound volumes which together with a hex-map and counters comprise the first edition boxed product all have the look of 40-year old game components. But despite all the potential "drawbacks", the substance of the rules is what intrigues me. I have heard it said, and I would agree, that DragonQuest was a game way ahead of its time!
The Action Point economy is perhaps the most significant difference between the first edition and later versions of DragonQuest. Using Action Points, each creature has a pool of points based on Agility which are expended during combat to move, attack, parry, cast, or "pass"/delay - which is the only action one may take once all points have been expended for the turn. Some actions expend more than one point. Damage is assessed in terms of Fatigue, Endurance, or a specific wound result depending on the outcome of a d100 attack "strike".
Magic consists of three types, "Talents" which are innate abilities of certain species and function more-or-less automatically (like casting spells in D&D). The other two types of magic, "Spells" and "Rituals" require longer to cast (moments for Spells, hours for Rituals), and depending on the d100 roll, may risk "backfire" complications. Spells, which must be "prepared" and "held" immediately prior to casting draw energy from the caster in the form of Fatigue points and in effect are the most analogous to D&D magic spell use.
Magic is further divided into "Colleges" or schools. A magic using character typically will concentrate their knowledge in only one college of magic. The DragonQuest first (and second) edition Colleges of Magic include: Ensorcelments and Enchantments, Sorceries of the Mind, Illusions, Naming Incantations, Air Magics, Water Magics, Fire Magics, Earth Magics, Celestial Magics, Necromantic Conjurations, Black Magics and Greater Summonings. Each College includes Talent, Spell and Ritual magics tailored to its particular specialties. 
DragonQuest uses a skill based system to define and advance characters. Many of the "third generation" RPGs (those which followed the "second generation" - the D&D house-ruled systems) use "skills" to give players more flexibility in character design than were allowed using the early class based systems. Skills in DragonQuest advance in Ranks and players are encouraged by the system's mechanics to specialize rather than generalize their character's skill advancements. Ranks are an indication not only of d100 ability, but also a level of proficiency with the skill which allows certain tasks to be performed without resorting to dice rolls. (Did I mention that in many ways this game was ahead of its time? Some concepts first seen here would appear many years later in so-called "modern games".)
So why not just play one of those "modern games"? Why do I revisit this long out-of-print "oldie"? Well, it does so many things well, many better than have been done since. The magic system includes detail and flavor while being mechanically smooth to run. It strikes a near-perfect balance between low-magic and high. Character generation is flexible, but seems to avoid most of the min-max pitfalls later games that emphasize PC choice frequently succumb to. Combat seems realistic and doesn't bog down in its detail and bookkeeping. Lastly, to rule tome(s) are approachable at a combined page count under 160. (PF 2e, which also uses a multi-action combat and magic economy, weighs in at pages which doesn't include the separate page bestiary volume.)
SPI was bought by TSR during the latter company's hey-day and although they published a re-edited single volume third edition of DragonQuest (edited by Jon Pickens) in 1989, the game was ultimately dropped as management shifted away from offering SPI products and wargames in general. 
Around 1980, with a few years of Original Edition play behind me - including the incorporation of some Advanced material once those volumes had been acquired - my gaming group and I were looking for something a bit more "realistic" in terms of game mechanics. DragonQuest and other "realistic" systems including RuneQuest and Rolemaster seem to be addressing the perceived market for more believable FRP games. My group ultimately settled on RuneQuest as our game-of-choice, but I remain a fan of both DragonQuest and Rolemaster. Whenever I am thinking of a skill based FRP game - one with a strong tactical feel - that delivers right out of the box, I can think of nothing better than DragonQuest!

Friday, August 21, 2020


What's in your Backpack?
Rations have been a part of the game since the original edition. Rations, whether iron rations for dungeon use or standard rations represent a daily expenditure of resources. Managing limited resources in the form of rations and water, sources of light and daily magic spells is a significant part of how one succeeds at playing the game. Indeed, perhaps nothing defines a preference for old school style of play more than how we approach rations and the other limited resources in our role-playing game system. 
Encumbrance is also a part of the original game, again this is a resource mechanic. Encumbrance limits the character's capacity to carry stuff. It also adds to the overall verisimilitude of your milieu - it makes sense that there would be a limit to what a character can carry about and still run, fight, and do all the things a typical adventure involves. Much like rations, encumbrance tracking is a feature of old school style FRP gaming. 
Managing the books, encumbrance, inventory, even hit points and experience is part of campaign play, if not a necessary part of every session. Devices and digital character sheets can do a lot of the work for us, but to ignore all record keeping requires a change in our approach to the game - certainly possible and perhaps preferred by some. Before we abandon rations, ammo and encumbrance, we should probably be aware of what we are giving up.
Many of the things in our inventory have multiple uses and can foster creative play. In the original three little brown books sacks and backpacks, water and wine skins, torches and other sources of light are all part of an adventurers' gear that are specifically listed on the equipment price list, thereby giving players an enormous hint that such equipment might be useful to have. Dropped edible items will have a small chance of distracting intelligent monsters from pursuit. Semi-intelligent creatures will be distracted 50% of the time, and the non-intelligent beasties will generally stop pursuit in order to eat anything edible. Treasure can have an effect on creatures who are intelligent enough to appreciate its worth. Why fight those orcs if they can be bribed?
When players consider the environment as "in play" a world of possibilities presents itself. Creative use of objects found in the environment or carried on the person of the adventurer can provide solutions to many challenges and be an entertaining aspect of the game. Referees that encourage such imaginative thinking on the part of their players, while enforcing a reasonable amount of realism, are among my favorites. "Do you have it, where is it stored and how long does it take to get to it?" may be questions you do, or don't, care about. Is this a style of play which appeals to everyone, perhaps not, but I certainly appreciate it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Character Generation

How the Adventure Begins
For most people, everyone except the referee/judge/GM, role-playing games start with character generation. The players need a "player character", an in-game person to role-play during the game. The player character is an experiment in make-believe and a game piece. In order to think of the player's character as a person separate from the actual player, we must "make believe" the characters are real individuals - ones with hopes and dreams and skills separate from the player. The player's character is also their "game piece" - that which represents the player in the game, is subject to the rules of success and failure within the game context, and the place-holder of each player's stake in the game. A lot rides on the player character.
Rules for generating the player character may vary greatly from one game system to another. In the original three little brown books the referee generated a set of six ability scores for each character and the player then chose a class, a race, an alignment, and perhaps most importantly, a name for the new character they would control. Common table practice quickly shifted to allow the players to each randomly generate the six ability scores by rolling the dice themselves. 
Microgaming Concept's Melee and Wizard, and later In the Labyrinth which turned those individual microgames into a full fledged role-playing system called The Fantasy Trip, allowed each player to generate their character by assigning values to three attributes (Strength, Dexterity and IQ). The Fantasy Trip makes more extensive mechanical use of each character's three attribute scores, so I suppose it makes sense to allow the player some choice in the matter.
Point-buy systems of character generation followed the trend in designing a character by choice rather than by rolling randomly. GURPS is perhaps the most successful of the point-buy generic role-play systems, but there are others - The Hero System and Savage Worlds are examples. Many other genre specific role-playing games also offer a choice of either randomly generating character abilities by using a series of dice rolls or alternatively using a point-buy method for more control. I suppose which you prefer depends on how much fun you think it is to play what the dice rolls may give you, verses crafting a character to get what you envision playing.
Player characters don't exist in a vacuum, however. They are part of the shared imaginary world most often created by the other type of player at the table - the referee/judge/GM, or whatever title the game bestows on the person responsible for setting the stage, designing/adjudicating the setting, and bringing all the pieces together so that play can ensue. The players' characters generally form an adventuring group or team and therefore must co-exist with each other and generally cooperate to achieve some common goal. Working against each other, the player characters will likely have very short game lives and the adventure won't likely last very long - ultimately reducing everyone's fun.
Whether each player's character is randomly generated or carefully designed from a series of player choices, some thought should be given before play begins as to how each new character fits into the setting and gets on with the other player characters. Cooperation is the basis of all role-playing games and trumps character concept, backstory, or personal agenda.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Derelict

A Black Box Adventure Seed
Old Captain Flood had an illustrious career. Pirate, trader and explorer, the Captain's exploits have become legendary across the galaxy. Notorious by some accounts, Captain Flood was yet not without her charms and many a story has been woven about her adventures. To this day, Captain Flood stories are often talked about wherever space travellers gather to share a drink, and a tale or two, and her fate is well known - or is it?
Captain Flood enjoyed many adventures and reputedly amassed many fortunes during her long and checkered career. As all good stories must, hers eventually came to an end. In a far corner of the galaxy, the Captain's legendary luck finally ran out and her enemies caught up with her - some say she was betrayed, perhaps by a jilted lover. Set adrift and left for dead, her frozen corpse was found by the pursuing authorities, but a few mysteries remain - such as the location of her secret hide-out.
Your searches have led you to this the ends of the a huge debris field. How it all got here is anyone's guess. Some ancient civilization that destroyed itself? Some natural phenomenon, perhaps the leftovers from "a big bang" - stuff that never formed into a solar system or planet? However it formed, it is enormous and The Derelict is supposed to be hidden here. The Derelict is rumored to have been Captain Flood's secret "hide-out" - an old space-ship or station out here on the rim of known space - a refuge that may hold secrets to who knows what!
Unfortunately you were not alone in uncovering this knowledge. A pesky rival has learned the supposed location of The Derelict even as you did and now the two of you are here, each looking to cheat the other out of this "big score". Will you sneak about, hoping to avoid each other - there are plenty of rocks and debris clouds to mask your maneuvers. Will you confront the rival and fight-it-out for the right to claim the prize? Will you try "negotiations" and split the winnings?
Whether played as a two-player or team "wargame" pitting one ship and crew against the other, or as an RPG with the judge controlling the rival ship and crew, The Derelict poses an interesting scenario. Locating and exploring The Derelict may prove a challenging task - who knows what "traps" and securities may have been left to guard the legendary captain's secret hide-out? Then there is the question of the rival ship and her crew? Is a straight-up space fight in order? And what secrets and treasures await the victor? I guess we will have to play in order to find out!

I offer this adventure seed in hopes that it may be the beginning of something fun to be shared at gaming tables. As I see it, the hobby is about shared fun. Over the decades I have borrowed many ideas from countless sources who have never received credit. Where the idea for this seed came from - besides a dream last night and some applied imagination today - I have no way of knowing. You will need to make it your own in order to use it by drawing - or borrowing from another source - some maps and ship plans and adding your own characters, NPCs and rules. In other words, this is just a "seed" - something to jump-start the imagination - and hopefully it allows me an opportunity to contribute a little something to someone else's fun.
Hoping you enjoy!