Friday, March 22, 2019

Melee & Wizard

The Fantasy Trip Returns to print!
It's back! A fan favorite and a game I have many fond memories of has returned to print. Steve Jackson Games acquired the rights to The Fantasy Trip last year. Designed by Mr. Jackson when he was with Metagaming Concepts and first published in a Microgame format consisting of a small booklet, map and cut-a-part counters, Melee and Wizard could be played as tactical games in their own right or used as the combat and magic system of a role-playing system. We did both, adapting them for use in our White Box and Advanced gaming.
The Fantasy Trip became its own FRPG with publication of In The Labyrinth, a softcover manual for fantasy role-play using Melee, Wizard and their Advanced descendants. Steve Jackson Games is now shipping the current, updated versions of his beloved The Fantasy Trip games following a very successful Kickstarter. They can be found online or in a store near you (if you are lucky enough to have one). Let The Fantasy Trip gaming begin!

Traveller Box

Mongoose Traveller 2e Starter Set
Mongoose Publishing has the current license to publish Traveller. The first edition of the game Mongoose released is very similar mechanically to the original Little Black Books and their second edition doesn't differ enough to make huge ripples among those in the hobby who follow Traveller. I can still use older material written for prior editions with Mongoose Traveller 2e. The Mongoose 2e presentation is excellent with much new art, slick glossy paper and a very nice box for the starter set which includes setting material, a nice map and beginning adventure. The core rules are also available in a stand alone hardcover book for those who prefer that format.
For me personally, I like games that come in a box. Boxes are nice. They sit nicely on the shelf, they hold the game materials together in one place and make transporting the game easy. The box adds a little class, especially if it's attractive...and it can feel like I am opening a hidden treasure, revealing something special when I remove the box lid. I appreciate Mongoose producing a very sturdy and attractive box with their starter set. It even includes dice!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Little Black Books 2 and 3

Traveller - a person who journeys through space
Book 1 covers Characters and Combat and it can be used without the other books if the referee is interested in exploring a story that will develop through play on a single planet. Honestly, that is how I like to run Traveller. The Traveller system, even in its earliest edition is much more than characters and combat. The original Black Box comes with three little black books. Book 2 is titled Starships and introduces rules for travelling through space (hence the Traveller name). Book 3 Worlds and Adventures includes information on worlds, equipment and psionics.
Book 2 Starships provides information on the standard hull interplanetary and jump capable space vessels. Traveller uses a bit of math (square root) in calculating how long it takes to get somewhere using maneuver drive propulsion. Jump drive travel is between star systems and takes about a week. Book 2 also covers ship design and weaponry and ship combat. Traveller uses a vector system for maneuvering spaceships, which means it takes momentum and gravity into account. Yes, Traveller relies a bit more on science and physics than some space opera style games. The math is minimal and it is quite simplified (space combat is played out on a two dimensional surface). There is just enough there to give the impression one is dealing with the game in a realistic, scientific manner.
Economics, trade and commerce can feature as a big part of a Traveller game if that is the direction the players want to take. Financing a ship, haggling for cargo prices and turning a profit transporting goods, passengers and mail can be one way to play the game - sometimes referred to as "space trucking". Traveller is intended to cover several play styles. It supports solo and group play, with or without a referee. This has been very formative in my own style of gaming which at times includes solo and unsupervised group play.
Book 3 Worlds and Adventures provides tools for exploring space and encountering new life forms and civilizations. Book 3 also includes the Traveller equipment list. Traveller exists in a far future as imagined in the late 1970's. One aspect which makes the Traveller universe so playable is the absence of faster than light communication. Messages travel at the speed of the jump drive. In other words, players are isolated and must often deal with trouble on their own.
Black Book Traveller is humanocentric. Player characters are humans. Robots exist, but they serve humans. The magic of Traveller comes in the form of psionics, ESP, telekinesis, and so on. This is the default as covered in the original system material, but its space...anything is possible and the referee and players can introduce anything imaginable. Book 3 ends with a strong suggestion for those playing Traveller to draw upon science fiction literature for game inspiration.
The Traveller subtitle, Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future, suggests a wide array of possibilities. Space exploration, colonization, conflict, trading, piracy, diplomacy, espionage and more, are all suitable for Traveller gameplay. My early days in the hobby were spent pulling stories from sources outside gaming, from novels, comics, movies and artwork, and converting them all into game material. (The 1979 film Alien served as inspiration for one such adventure.) Traveller is a vehicle for most any adventure story one might want to tell in a far future (or past). The Little Black Books, much like the Little Brown Books, comprise a referee's toolkit. The possibilities are endless, but Traveller does require the referee to do some design work (unless you are content running one of the published modules).

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Little Black Books

GDW Traveller
Released in 1977 by Game Designers' Workshop, Traveller gave the new hobby a chance to explore the science fiction side of adventure gaming. Over the decades Traveller has been published a number of times by various publishers and has seen several editions, but remains a popular system. With the exception of the GURPS version of Traveller, the core 2d6 mechanic is consistent across editions, a fact which makes even the earliest play aids still relevant. Traveller is currently enjoying a rebirth through Mongoose Publishing's second edition.
The first and second editions of Traveller come as three little black books, perhaps as a nod to the World's First Published RPG. Book 1 Characters and Combat (note the absence of an ampersand) covers just that. This is the famous character generation system that can result in your character dying prior to the first adventure. This may sound a bit unusual, but it makes sense.
Chargen in Traveller differs from most systems. Traveller introduces the career or life-path concept (although they don't use the term) which later re-appears in games such as The Burning Wheel. Once basic characteristics are determined by six 2d6 dice rolls, one each for Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing, the player decides which of six careers to try for, Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants or Other. If the enlistment roll is not successful, the character is submitted for the draft and a random assignment to one of the six career paths.
Enlistment is for four years during which the character ages and acquires skills and expertise according to random dice rolls. There is also a survival roll, because life is dangerous in the Traveller universe. Failure on the survival check results in character death.
Traveller allows the player to choose re-enlistment or transfer to another career at the end of each four year term of service. It is not uncommon for beginning characters to have 3, 4 or even more 4 year terms under their belt prior to retirement and commencing play. The risk of survival and adverse effects of aging helps balance the accumulation of skills and wealth which can accrue during a lengthy pre-play career.
Traveller is a skill based system, the first I came across in gaming. Skills and expertises are acquired through one's terms of service and through adventuring. A skill or expertise adds to the roll for success during play. Success in Traveller is based on rolling 2d6s, adding the scores and any plus or minus die roll modifiers. The referee may award a plus of minus to adjust for easy or difficult tasks. A total score of 8 or better is needed for success.
I like the bell curve nature of rolling two dice. A frequent complaint of systems based on the roll of a d20 or less often percentiles, is the "swingyness" that can accompany rolling on a flat distribution die. The complaint about bell curve dice is that the plus and minus adjustments mean more or less depending on where along the curve you are. It generally boils down to personal preference.
The simplicity of the Traveller chargen and combat systems lend themselves easily to tinkering. I like games that I can add to and adjust to suit my tastes and preference. Traveller can be used to explore almost any setting - it's a big universe.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Table Trust

Running a Game
Trust is at the heart of most human relationships. The gaming table is no different. As the person at the head of the table, the referee is highlighted as being particularly important in establishing table trust. The players look to the referee to be just that, a referee, an impartial judge of events during the game. The players rightly expect the referee to apply the rules in a fair and consistent manner. If the rules include dice, and most do, the players expect the rolls to be fair and impartial. Survival is winning and risking the lives of our paper characters is the price of entry.
The referee has a reasonable expectation that the players can be trusted as well. Trusted to show up ready to play, keep accurate records during play regarding character hit points, treasure, and resources expenditure and to defer to the referee on all matters pertaining to the referee's game world. The referee in turn is expected to put forth a reasonable effort, to use rules that are agreeable to all, to be enthused, and to devise an interesting and entertaining setting for the adventure. Moving the game along, keeping track of experience points and improvising when needed are also reasonable expectations of a referee.
Occasionally dice need to be rolled. I say "occasionally" because it is my practice to keep dice rolls to a minimum. Why commit to chance anything that can be adjudicated through discussion? (It's a social game!) Why risk failure by rolling the dice if failure is an unacceptable outcome? As a general rule, the referee should seriously consider each situation and the possible outcomes and their effect on the campaign before committing the outcome to the randomness of the dice. In most games outside role-playing the dice roll is sacrosanct. One does not alter the outcome on a whim. Honor and trust the dice. Accept their "decision" when consulted.
The bell curve nature of rolling multiple dice should be used whenever possible to mitigate extreme outcomes, unless the extremes are relatively meaningless (or are occasionally desirable). Because of the flat nature of the range of possible d20 outcomes, I am leery of using critical successes and fumbles when using this die. The d20 system, which began as the "alternative combat system" in White Box has become prolific and almost universal. So common is the twenty sided polyhedron that it is essentially an icon of the hobby, but it has its disadvantages. The d20 is essentially a percentile die in 5% increments. Rolling a 1 or a 20 is just as probable as a 10 or 11 (or any other single number for that matter). Adding two or more dice together produces a normal distribution of random results and is therefore more predictable (and desirable in my estimation).
Regarding dice and the game, random tables are great for referee (and sometimes player) inspiration and many of these rolls need not be explained to the players except as regards an outcome that would be immediately evident to their characters. The same must be true of certain skill use or detection rolls where the character would be in the dark regarding how well or poorly the PC has performed. All other dice should be rolled in the open with the outcome narrated by the referee (or by the player if encouraged to do so by the referee). Dice rolls are a matter of trust.
The referee, referred to by whatever name is used in the particular system being played, must wear many hats - author, judge, director, story-teller, character actor, time keeper, accountant and many others. The referee's reward for all their hard work is to see one's creation, a personal world vision, brought to life by cooperative players. The referee's responsibility is to do one's best to provide a safe, fun and fair table. We play to find out what happens. We create as we play. The rules and dice may aid us, if we trust them, but first we must have trust in one another.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

How I Like My Demi-Human

Not Too Exotic
The term demi-human appears in the Basic Rules (B/X) and refers to those character "races" or species, ancestries, aliens, etc., who are playable as characters, but are not humans. In the Original Edition of the World's Most Popular RPG they include the elves, dwarves and hobbits drawn from the fantastic fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien (and other sources). Hobbits are renamed "halflings" in the 6th printing of the White Box and the term continues to be used up to the present day. The Advanced Game adds gnomes, half elves and half orcs to the list of playable character races and that is the way the game has stood for many years. The Basic Game introduces "race as class" combining several previous ideas about class and the demi-human races (a term first used in Basic), a concept which gamers either embrace or reject, but seldom are they indifferent to.
I am on record as being a devoted fan of the Original Game - the White Box or 3 Little Brown Books where players choose to play either humans, dwarves, elves or hobbits. As referee of my own setting I also prefer to encourage a humanocentric milieu where most (all) player characters are human. This is (in my estimation) for several good reasons which include the following:
1) Being humans, I think we players tend to role-play humans, even when our PC has pointy ears, a bushy beard or hairy feet - we think, feel and react as humans. At some point the "in-character" persona breaks down and we are all role-playing a human.
2) Most of the fantastic fiction I like best, that featuring Conan, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, and even Harry Potter, are all human protagonists. Non-humans are encountered and give added flavor to the setting, but are generally not the main characters. The work of J.R.R. Tolkien is an exception and likely forms the basis of including non-humans in White Box.
3) I believe the Original Rules encourage human player characters and that is consistent with much of the gamer legend which surrounds its original author(s) preference. Limiting the PC population to humans encourages imaginative creation of diversity within the set of human characters and promoting more thoughtful and believable role-play.
4) Finally, I like to make my non-human NPCs seem as alien as possible so as to increase the wonder and surprise players experience while exploring my "world". It's part of the "magic" of the game as I see it.
Including and embracing all people different from ourselves through our gaming activities should be a goal. An admirable goal...also keeping in mind we are all in reality humans. Diversity among our players, those humans sitting around the table, is absolutely desirable. Players should feel free to explore any aspect of human diversity during the game, but I feel the referee has the right to dictate what non-human races are available as PCs in their campaign. If a player would like to play a "special" character, such as a member of one of the "monster races", I suggest working with the referee to create a "one-off". That is how White Box suggests it be done.
Using a humanocentric PC milieu seems both more genuine and more desirable. The false diversity consisting of elves, dwarves, hobbits, dragon folk, winged faeries, trollkin and so on and on...often detracts from the verisimilitude of the game and misses the point of roll-play - that is to examine the referee's imaginative world through the eyes of another person (your PC), to react "in character" while drawing upon your own experience and to present a realistic portrayal of your PC for the entertainment of yourself and your fellow players.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Crypts & Things Remastered

Swords & Sorcery Roleplaying
Crypts & Things starts with the heroic stories of adventure that from a young age set me (and others) so many years ago on this lifetime journey to places people today only dream about. Journeys to the center of the earth, to antediluvian civilizations, exotic planets far across time and space and to a dying earth under a fading sun. These never-never land tourists are generally hard muscled men and women of action much like those illustrated on the cover of Crypts & Things and the sword & sorcery books that inspire C&T.
Crypts & Things also starts with the excellent Swords & Wizardry OSR rules written by Matt Finch to emulate the early edition play of the World's Most Popular FRPG. Crypts & Things is designed by Newt Newport and published by D101 Games. The original Crypts & Things dates to 2011 and C&T Remastered made its appearance in 2016. In keeping with its swords & sorcery feel, players choose to play a barbarian, fighter, sorcerer, or thief who will face a variety of brigands, bandits, cultists, and sorcerer villains as well as the occasional supernatural creature.
The contents of Crypts... includes The Scrolls of Wonder (chargen and system rules) and The Book of Doom which describes C&T's default setting, the Continent of Terror. Yes, that's the intent of Crypts & Things, a world of mystery and terror. Characters are heroic because they face the unknown. The game is intense because it involves discovering things mankind is not meant to know.
There are no elves, dwarves or hoblings among the peoples of Zarth or on the Continent of Terror. There are, however, beast hybrids, lizard people and serpent nobles, which give C&T some of its old school swords & sorcery feel. Magic or sorcery is classified as "white", "grey" or "black". The use of black magic in C&T carries with it the threat of corruption as do certain "vile" locations.
Many of us in the hobby like to play in our game the kind of characters and worlds we read about. For enthusiasts like me who enjoy old school swords & sorcery tales (often with some mythos thrown in), a game such as Crypts & Things can be a great means to that end.