Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Required Reading

"Appendix N" and the Roots of the Game.
What you bring to the table in terms of background is important to how you play the game. Our understanding of everything is shaped by what we have been exposed to. Each new experience is interpreted in light of all our past experiences. The creators of the world's first role-playing game (1974) shared a common background in the books they read and in the hobby of tabletop miniatures and board wargames. As it turns out, I shared much the same background. The game they created is a good fit for me. Its assumptions and tropes make sense and are relatable and I have enjoyed the game they created for four decades and more.
Nothing remains static, however, and the hobby has evolved since those early days when the three little brown books were the only game available. This has been true since the beginning. It was barely a year after publication of the world's first role-playing game when Flying Buffalo, Inc. started selling Ken St. Andre's Tunnels & Trolls and the folks at TSR released Empire of the Petal Throne - an adaptation of the little brown books for M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel setting.
In 2014 the 5th edition of the world's most popular FRP game was released, and since that time it too has been evolving. Arguably more people are playing than ever before and doing so in ways probably not imagined by the game's original creators. Online play is now the norm as the world-wide pandemic has made sitting around a table playing face-to-face problematic. Virtual tabletop software makes electronic dice rolls, colorful shared mapping and tactical display all very common elements of the game. Video streaming has created a market for watching others role-play as entertainment. The hobby has changed and will continue to do so.
Over the years I have enjoyed many conversations among fellow gamers about "what we are reading". A shared enthusiasm for science fiction and fantasy literature is one of the things which brought many of us into the hobby and gave us some common ground beyond our interest in role-playing, or "adventure gaming" as it was originally termed. The rise in popularity of The Lord Of The Rings novels coincided with that of the world's first role-playing game and the popularity of one seemed to "feed" off the other as fans talked among themselves.
Appendix N - the sources of inspiration author E. Gary Gygax attributes to influencing his thinking in creating the Advanced game (and by backward extension the little brown books and Chainmail's Fantasy Supplement) includes way more than the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Having read a number of the sources listed prior to publication of Appendix N in the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), I delved into Appendix N with a passion almost as soon as I was introduced and have continued to seek out and enjoy reading the authors listed in that document to this day. It goes almost without saying that this has influenced my approach to FRP gaming. Awareness of this has also made me acutely cognoscente that many others playing the game today do not share a background in reading Appendix N sources.
Our view of what the game can and should be is colored by our knowledge and experiences outside of the game. Put simply, people who have little to no grounding in the Appendix N sources bring a much different mind-set to FRP than those who do. The common ground is just not present. I think this explains much of what I am observing in our hobby today.
It is the nature of things to change, to evolve and to often reflect the preferences of those involved with shaping the future. This post is not arguing otherwise. My thoughts today are merely an effort to better understand and enjoy our shared hobby experience and to remind myself that there has never been "one right way to play the game". If you and others at your table are having fun, then that is the right way for you to play the game. I am becoming increasingly aware that playing with others who share a love for the Appendix N authors is how I most enjoy FRP gaming.
Play the right game for you and with those who enjoy playing as you do.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Looking Beyond to 2021

Hobby Observations and Predictions
At the end of the year it seems appropriate to give some thought to the year behind us and to that before us. (With all the sufferings and hurt going on in the world it may seem unimportant to speak of a hobby, but that hobby is the sole focus of this blog.) The past year necessitated drastic changes in the way I engage with this hobby. As a gamer who much prefers face-to-face play, I have had to make adjustments - as have others. I have learned to enjoy playing remotely via Discord and have experimented some with virtual tabletop software - although "theater of the mind" remains my preference over the use of a tactical display, virtual or physical.
In years past I have considered myself fortunate to reside in a location between the host cities of two of the largest gaming conventions in America, Origins in Columbus, Ohio and Gencon in Indianapolis, Indiana. For many years I have looked forward to attending these conventions as a way to reconnect with fellow gamers, learn about new products and to play a few of the games that I enjoy, but don't get to share with my regular group. Obviously, this past year saw the cancellation of both conventions along with virtually all other large gatherings.
Browsing and networking at the local game store has also fallen victim to the world-wide pandemic. Fortunately, there is the internet and I have noticed a marked increase in the number of online streamers and video channel producers posting quite interesting RPG content for those of us stuck at home without a group game. Solo RPG has experienced a renaissance of sorts based on what I have seen covered on the web channels as well.
It appears that FRP remains a quite popular hobby despite the logistical difficulties everyone is experiencing with face-to-face group play. D&D 5e seems to continue to lead the FRP pack with Pathfinder 2e (with its strong incentive for team combat) remaining a strong alternative. With the release of Paizo's new Pf 2e Beginner Box, I expect 2e to gain ground in the new year. The release this past fall of Tasha's Cauldron..., with its "bigger and better" character options has me wondering if D&D isn't about due for a new revision or edition. Perhaps 5.5 or 6e will be announced soon? It occurs to me that the Wizards are going to need to do something soon to bring their Players Handbook into line with all the supplemental material which has been released.
The real game-changer on the horizon seems to be Age of Sigmar: Soulbound. Released near the end of this year by Cubicle 7, Soulbound has the potential to radically redefine the FRP genre largely because of its "soulbinding" mechanic and connecting the game's meta currencies to player cooperation. Soulbound takes the idea of a diverse party group of specialist PCs working together to achieve common goals to a new level by introducing mechanics that depend on them cooperating, and imposing increasing levels of "doom" when they don't. Even though the individual party members may dislike (or even "hate") each other, they have plenty of reason in Soulbound to help each other.
The premise of the game is that the Mortal Realms are a battleground where a benevolent god, Sigmar, attempts to hold back the destructive forces of chaos. The players control larger than life characters whose life forces (their souls) have been intertwined or bound together. The Mortal Realms contain a number of kindreds who specialize in unique abilities, but who also compete with each other. These kindred factions and the constant threat of the chaos gods and their followers is the backdrop for the Age of Sigmar tabletop minatures battle game as well as the Soulbound FRP game. 
In Soulbound the characters may gain benefit by accessing Soulfire, effectively borrowing from the life essence of the companions with whom they share a binding. This can be approved use if the other players agree, or the player may use Soulfire without group consent and thereby increase "Doom" - a negative energy which adversely effects both the characters and the world's other inhabitants.
Soulbound heroes start gameplay feeling like "superheroes" and leveling up is less of a thing in Soulbound than in many games. This "flattening" of abilities helps avoid the high level woes often encountered in other systems. The Soulbound setting is epic in scale with active god-lead factions (good and evil), nine worlds connected to each other through Realmgates and with PCs that feel a lot like comic book superheroes tasked with saving the day. Downtime in Soulbound has real meaning, again thanks to some innovative mechanics curtesy of the design geniuses at Cubicle 7. 
I have often noted the increasing tendency in our hobby for games to focus on providing players with lots of character options and I would add that many such choices involve playing character types that have little reason to cooperate with each other. As a result of players building characters independently of each other, and then being thrown together and trying to operate as a group, I have witnessed friction and frustration among many groups, including my own. The "session zero" discussion is offered by some as a potential way to address what I see as a growing problem in the hobby, but that seems a band-aid approach when the popular game systems seem to encourage a "do your own thing" approach to building each character. Party harmony is essential to group enjoyment (at least in my experience) and many a game campaign has come to a pre-mature end because of inter-character strife. Friendships among the players can even be strained under such circumstances.
The appeal of Soulbound makes it a game that I personally look forward to bringing to a table - actual or virtual -  during the coming year. The Mortal Realms as a world setting is dark and magic in Soulbound is dangerous - two things that personally speak to my preferences. So I welcome AoS: Soulbound and offer a warm "thank you" to the folks at Cubicle 7 who seem to have recognized the issue of our "disconnected" PCs for what it is and have provided what I think may become a model solution. The Warhammer miniatures battle game which established the setting of Age of Sigmar is itself a revolutionary product in table-top wargaming (introducing mechanics that focus on making "story" a contextual part of the battle game), so it seems appropriate to me that its role-playing cousin should also forever alter the way a FRP game is played.
Happy gaming!

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Can We Parley?

An Alternative to Combat
"Roll for initiative!" Perhaps too often is this the the first words spoken by a referee at the beginning of an encounter. If the game is viewed as a wargame, in which combat is the goal and purpose, then combat seems the most appropriate method for handling most encounters. A role-playing game may involve much more than combat, however, and this is indeed what sets it apart as a hobby separate from wargaming (and separate from CRPG).
Many characters in a typical FRP game are built for combat. Many players enjoy combat above all other aspects of the game and there is of course no wrong way to play the game. Computer and consul RPGs (CRPGs) excel at combat, but handle dialogue and social aspects of the game less well. The table-top RPG (TTRPG) is not limited to what the programmer thinks might happen and therefore codes into the CRPG options. If one takes the time to ask a few questions of the referee, there may emerge an entirely different way to enjoy playing any table-top scenario. Exploration, discovery, investigation - these are all aspects of even the simplest TTRPG dungeon crawl. Engaging the world through diplomacy, role-playing what your character says, is also a part of many games. 
Motivations play an enormous role in determining how creatures in the real world react and there is little reason for this to not be the case in our role-playing games. We should ask ourselves, "What is the motive of this person (or beast)?" Once we have the answer clear in our mind, there will usually be more than one way to achieve this motive. Even a creature that desires to eat you may respond favorably to being offered food without a fight. A bribe, or a lie can often get you past the guards and without the loss of hit points, or having  to use up some valuable magic. Sneaking about is the basis of many a covert mission where gaining access to or acquiring valuable intelligence is the motive. Thievery is just that and is quite distinct from murder. The question of motive can be a dark one in some cases - I suppose genocide as a motive is just that, and leaves little room for discussion, but aside from that, most creatures will not necessarily be fanatical.
Most referees enjoy sharing lore about their world. What better way to do this than to get their players talking to NPCs - even "monsters" about what's around the corner, over the next hill or some bit of ancient history that makes this place "special". Dialoguing with its inhabitants is a great way for you and your players to explore the shared fictional setting and to further enjoy the game. It has been my experience that the more the players know about the world, the more they seem to enjoy uncovering its hidden secrets.
One way to "shape" player behavior during a game is by making it clear just what the potential rewards are (and are not). Granting experience for the monsters slain will pretty well assure that killing the monster will be at the top of a player's to-do list. One of the advantages to giving experience for gold, or for just for showing up and playing for the session is that it encourages more than killing. It is important that players are aware of this fact prior to character generation, because a PC built for combat is likely to default to what they do best. Players will follow the rewards. Let your players know how they can be successful in your game without always going straight to combat and you may see a surprising level of creativity emerge!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

One on One

System Matters
In my last post I talked about playing a FRP campaign with a single player controlling a single character. Typically a fantasy role-playing game is designed to accommodate more than one player at the table, often relying on a diverse group of characters each contributing their different specialized abilities toward the success of the mission. Such systems usually have mechanics which protect the niche area of expertise so that character strengths do not overlap. In this way each player is encouraged to cooperate with others to achieve their shared goal.
The game system that we use in our role-play game matters on many levels. Some systems allow each player to control more than one character, often calling these secondary characters by descriptive titles like "sidekick", "henchmen" or "hirelings". Some FRP game systems handle a single character better than others. In many old school games the designers assume that an adventuring party will include several characters and that each character will differ from others in possessing a group of abilities defined by character class.  In a system that uses class each character's unique set of abilities are combined with the abilities of other characters to make for a team of specialists who while working together will provide each character their unique time to shine as their abilities are needed to resolve various challenges. 
In contrast to the "team" approach, a game featuring a single character will necessitate that character to be rather self sufficient. A character that possesses a variety of skills and abilities, including the capacity for magic seems advisable. Some systems, usually those that do not use the class system and allow for a great deal of character customization including martial and magic skills, can handle this better than others. 
In thinking about The Last Dragon Lord campaign I considered a number of systems and settled on Tunnels & Trolls. It is a system that has been around for a number of years and has gone through several editions which are all closely compatible with each other. The folks at Flying Buffalo, Inc. who publish Tunnels & Trolls early on adopted solo play and the system works well with a single character. Other FRP games which I would quickly consider equally adaptable to solo play include GURPS and any of Chaosium's games based on the Basic Role-Playing system. Both GURPS and BRP are skill-based systems allowing for a degree of character customization which may include a broad range of abilities including an aptitude for magic. It takes a bit more planning and work, but I suppose most any system may be adapted for solo or one-on-one play using a single character.
In addition to having a variety of abilities, the single character needs to be resilient enough to survive a few "hits". Otherwise the game becomes rather chancy as any bad dice roll may end the game prematurely. Resources, including "hit points" need to be gradually reduced in order to facilitate the player making decisions regarding risk. In a game featuring several characters the disabling or even "death" of a single character will seldom bring on an end to play. 
If using a system such as the original edition of the world' most popular role-playing game (White Box) I suggest an elf for the single payer character. The White Box elf combines the class abilities of the fighting man and the magic user giving the character access to both "strengths". The elf uses the most advantageous saving throws, weapons and armor of the two classes. The system as it appears in the original three little brown books contains no skill mechanics as such and I interpret this to allow all character to try just about any action under the assumption that they are competent adventuring types. Hit points is my concern when using the rules as written here and I believe some adjustment is in order when playing with a single character. Perhaps allowing the elf to roll two "hit die", one each for their status as fighting man and magic user and adding the results together. This would at least make the first level elven character a little more robust. 
As The Last Dragon Lord, our character can be assumed to be a cut above normal folks, even as an apprentice. As such, it seems appropriate to set the game up to deliver a heroic feel to the character. They should prevail in most encounters and the referee should give careful thought to their odds of surviving any encounter. Therefore I would suggest tilting the game slightly in favor of the character - something I usually avoid on principle believing a good challenge is more rewarding for players than an easy romp through all obstacles.
The one on one game allows the referee to tailor the entire campaign to the preferences of a single player, therefore a bit more customization of the developing setting seems in order. Following the players lead whenever possible, the referee might want to use role-play with NPCs (and out of game discussion) to help plan the future direction of the campaign including adjusting encounters, magic items and conflicts so as to give the player more of what they want. I would also suggest that combat take a back seat to role-play as social encounters present the referee with more "control" than combat encounters during which the outcome can be very dice dependent. Of course setting the tone as such may require some discussion with the player if they are inclined to "shoot first and ask questions later". A role-play rich campaign allows the player to more fully engage with the world, to discover more about the world and engage with the world on a level seldom achieved in a "shoot and loot" type of campaign.
The one on one FRP game is something unique requiring an adjustment of expectations and methods of play. It can be rewarding and it definitely offers a way to engage the hobby under circumstances that prevent play in a larger group.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Last Dragon Lord

A fantasy adventure set-up for a one-player campaign.
For thousands of years the Order of Dragons ruled The Land. Wizard-warriors and lords all, from their fortresses the Order commanded with absolute power. Dragon disciples, whom it is said were all descended from true dragons, trained at such fortresses from an early age in the use of both arms and armor and magic and upon reaching maturity, would become Elder Knights of the Order. Some of the most powerful Elders were even said to be able to assume the aspect of a huge winged dragon.
This has all now come to an end. Within hours every stronghold of Dragonkin has been destroyed, every dragon warrior-mage has been killed, their bodies burned beyond recovery. Every Dragon Lord except you that is. You are the last.
Like all those who have carried the dragon's blood, you were marked at an early age as exceptional and brought to the Order to train. As a senior apprentice nearing graduation, you were sent on a routine errand that took you away from your stronghold and so you were not present on the fateful day now remembered as the Dragonfall - the day when all who bore the mark of the dragon perished. 
The Order is gone, their fortresses reduced to crumbling ruins. The people seem mostly glad for their freedom and have adopted new rulers elevated from their own ranks. Homeless and without kindred, you now wander this land haunted by your fate... The Last Dragon Lord.

As I write this, the global pandemic which began approximately a year ago and largely defined the year 2020 shows no signs of abating. Table-top gaming has moved on-line for many of us. Those who are fortunate enough to live with another gamer or two are perhaps looking for ways to continue gaming face-to-face with a very small group. Traditional party based adventuring remains possible, and face-to-face games remain a goal of many and may hopefully resume in the coming year. In the meantime, I offer the above as inspiration. It is admittedly not an original idea. I have borrowed heavily from various sources for my inspiration. I write these words in hope that they will inspire others to borrow ideas, add your own, and create fun opportunities for a referee and one (maybe two) players to explore the fun that can be had adventuring in a fantastic setting.

Happy Holidays to all!

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Optimization

It's about having character, not being one.
I listen to a number of YouTube video commentators. I play, run and enjoy Pathfinder 2e. This month I have seen there have been a number of videos devoted to the idea of "optimized" character builds and their effect on play with a particular emphasis on the Patherfinder system (which if you aren't familiar with, is a derivative of 3.5 developed by Paizo using the OGL). 
Optimization of the player character has its earliest roots in the ability scores used in the world's first role-playing game. Supplement I: Greyhawk (released the year following that of the original game) makes those ability score values more important than they seemed at first by assigning bonuses (and penalties) to extreme score values. The Advanced game furthered this ability score optimizing trend, the author even suggesting various methods of rolling the (still randomly generated) ability scores using 4 dice, dropping the lowest and thereby increasing the odds of having a character with higher ability scores. He even suggests that in order to be viable, a starting character should have a minimum of two ability score values at 15 or higher. 
The WotC era of D&D introduces even more reliance on ability scores and adds point buy options to character generation thereby introducing "min-maxing" of scores and allowing for players to customize their character to produce the PC they desired (rather than adjust expectations to what the random dice delivered). Feats and other customization mechanics further expanded the idea of building a character with certain combinations producing an optimized effect. This was all probably a reaction to what competing systems had marketed as "play the character you want to play". Role-playing games including GURPS and the HERO system are built specifically around the point-buy/ custom design a character concept.  
The goal of optimization is usually combat effectiveness. Optimizing a character often produces a PC that is unusually good at one thing, utilizing various combinations of options to achieve mechanical advantages over other combinations. The optimized character is often less proficient when tasked with anything other than their specific specialty. Thus the ranged specialist is not nearly as good up close in melee. The PC optimized for two-handed melee combat has little to contribute to ranged combat, social encounters or sneaking about and scouting. 
As a proponent of the original edition of the world's most popular role-playing game - the one with perhaps the least specialized characters - I have found there is near infinite freedom when the mechanics don't dictate how to "best" play one's character. The fighting man, cleric and magic user all start with the same chance to hit and nearly the same hit points as rolled on a six-sided die. The starting level 1 magic user has a single magic spell. Once this spell is cast, what will the player of said magic user do for the rest of the game session? 
The apogee of optimizing PCs (at least among the d20 systems) seems to be found in the 3.5/Pathfinder 1e system. When all the additional books are included, each of these games offers a near endless ability to make choices and combinations individualizing characters. Not all choices and combinations of abilities, classes and feats are equal however and there are some "bargains" which produce better mechanical odds of success than others. Thus there are certain character builds which seem "optimal".
I have experimented with this philosophy of gaming and found a level of enjoyment in the clever assembly of options that leads to a mechanical "monster character". Doing so provides a certain power fantasy fulfillment. I have also found that I am ultimately bored with such characters. They seem two-dimensional and lacking in real "challenge" to play. They are very good at what they do well, and usually not very interesting when doing anything else. Hence playing them I tend to look exclusively for problems and situations to which I can apply the abilities my character is good at, to the exclusion of all other possibilities. I find such optimized characters very "limiting".
Returning to our level 1 magic user who has cast their single spell for the day..."Be Creative!" Not every situation demands a combat solution (in fact early edition experience is not based on killing monsters). Our level 1 magic user can scout about, can engage in discourse with encountered creatures, can work toward setting up an ambush, perhaps leading to the capture of a creature that can be interrogated for useful information. There are a number of items that can be employed to effect the encounter area without using a magic spell. Oil, smoke, and caltrops instantly come to mind. The lack of "specialized" skills in the early editions of the world's most popular role-playing game offers a level playing field for each character (and their player) to be creative - in other words, to try something other than what is written down on the character sheet. I find the freedom that this lack of mechanical specialization of characters offers is invigorating and inspiring and is one of the reasons I enjoy the older style of play.
So "What differentiates one magic user from the next in such a system?" you may ask. ROLEPLAYING
With very little in terms of mechanical differences each player is encouraged to add to their PC through how they play the character. The phrase "play to find out" applies to characters as well as plot/story in old school games. Let the character's "personality" emerge through play. Discover how the character will respond to various situations as they are encountered and very soon a unique "character" may emerge. 
So in the spirit of fun, I offer the following character "optimizations". These are all characters that I personally played (and enjoyed playing) for a number of years using Pathfinder 1e. All but one were played into levels in the teens. 
a genocidal ranger
a love-struck cleric of dirt (soil)
a pole dancing bard
a dark elf seeking oblivion

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Forgotten Sage

Knowledge at a price!
Once upon a time, in the mythical early days of the world's most popular role-playing game, there existed a creature called the sage. The sage could be found in most all urban settings (usually leafing through a dusty tome) and their services were considered useful to employ. A popular non-player character, the sage served several in-game functions.
As a source of rumors and esoteric knowledge of ancient peoples and treasure, the sage served as a vehicle for the referee to feed players information...at a price. The sage possessed specialized knowledge and their services did not always come cheap. 
The sage might occasionally serve as patron to the group of PCs extending offers in exchange for services rendered. As a collector of antiquities the sage might "employ" the characters to fetch a certain artifact from some lost ruin with assurances that the other valuables to be found would remain the property of said PCs. 
There are no "Identify" spells in the early editions of the game and any knowledge characters could acquire regarding magic items had to be earned through experimentation with the item - "trial and error" and its associated risk to the PC - or they could pay a sage to research the item. Yes, this may bring to mind a certain grey wizard who researches the history of a certain "magic ring" thereby achieving invaluable knowledge of its ultimate master. Of course in the game there exists a multitude of lessor magics from potions to magical swords all bestowing more modest benefits and the occasional curse on its wielder.
"Forewarned is forearmed" - a saying which seems to carry more weight in an era of gaming when PC death is common and out-witting the monster could win you the treasure (and experience) without necessarily needing to risk life and limb to get it. The sage may know of (or be able to find out) the history of some place of mystery where the adventurers plan to delve, including any monstrous creatures rumored to lair therein. The sage may even know that said creature is rumored to have certain powers and weaknesses. All this knowledge can be had for a price. Such expenditures may help keep the adventuring party broke and hungry for new opportunities!
A dependable sage, one who was both reliably in-the-know and who didn't over charge too much, was a valuable resource to the experienced party who sought to continue living. They would perhaps even risk their own safety to ensure that of their favored sage who just might get sage-knapped by some evil rivals who sought to profit. Rescuing the sage can be a nice alternate hook when rescuing princes and princesses has lost its charm. 
The sage is a powerful tool for the referee. Through the sage, much information can be relayed to the players about the world, its history and lore, prophases, divine maneuverings, astrological conjunctions and just about anything else the referee would like the player characters to know about. A well played sage can become a very valuable asset and an integral part of the campaign - one which can span across more than one generation of characters (think of Elrond or Merlin).
Looking back, its easy to recall why the sage and their services is a type of hireling specifically recommended by the authors of the game. Good NPCs will bring a milieu to life and their are so many opportunities for role-play with the sage. So common was the sage character in this bygone era that a regular running column in a notable gaming periodical of the day bore the title, Sage Advice!