Friday, February 7, 2020

I Hate Your Character

The "Evil" PC
Our hobby is about shared fun. It is about friendships, goodwill and camaraderie. One player, the referee, judge, or game master, designs the setting, draws any maps that will be used during play, plays the part of all non-player characters and monsters and adjudicates the rules. The other players control the actions of each of their player characters, who are the protagonists in any action that takes place once the game play begins.
The role-playing hobby is about having a good time as a group and play is designed around cooperation between all the players, including the person running the game. The referee or judge's role is impartial, but frequently leans toward rooting for the players' characters since it is their success which helps everyone enjoy the game and that drives the action forward.
Characters who are unlikable, player characters which annoy the referee or who frustrate the judge, who seem to break all the mutually agreed upon norms either in their behavior during the game, or by their over-powered build, these characters can be toxic to everyone's fun. Put simply, if the referee loses interest in the game, and they cease to be motivated to do their job of preparing for the next session, the game/campaign is likely to come to an early end.
Any player who loses their enthusiasm for the game is a loss in terms of everyone's fun. The game can perhaps survive if a player leaves the group as long as that player isn't the GM. The game master is essential for continued play. The role-playing game requires an active GM, or referee, to plan each session and to play the part of all the rest of the "world" in which the player's characters adventure. It is therefore advisable to help your GM/referee stay interested in your game. Don't be the character your GM hates.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Leveling Up!

The Curse of Role-Playing
The World's First Role-Playing game has its roots in wargaming (it says as much on the cover of the White Box). It is a battle game featuring magic and monsters drawn from myth and fantasy literature based on a previous set of wargame miniatures rules for tabletop medieval battles called Chainmail. One of the innovative concepts in the World's First Role-Playing game is the idea of going on adventures - in other words, discovering things while playing the battle game. Another difference from traditional wargames is that players typically control just one (or maybe two) characters rather than an army of many figures.
The practice of leveling up or advancing your character along a ladder of improved abilities is also a part of that first game and has become almost synonymous with role-playing, tabletop or electronic. It's a hamster wheel which never really gets you anywhere and it detracts from the "role-playing" focus. In the Original Game the accumulation of experience points leads to a character reaching the next level, which grants access to increased combat ability, hit points and new and more powerful magic spells. Al this empowers the character to take on more powerful monsters, but the "balancing" factor in the game is as characters get more powerful through leveling up, the monsters they encounter are also equally more powerful so that the game remains challenging. Really the novelty of a new spell and that of encountering a new monster must be the ultimate gain, because all the power advancements tend to equal out.
Other games have sought to eliminate experience points and levels altogether, but most retain some mechanic for character advancement and power increase. All this can become a distraction as the point of the game devolves into chasing advancement. Rather than this being the case, the game could be about adventure! Discovery and immersion... Role-Playing!
"It's not a game about winning and losing." We have all heard this phrase, but chasing experience points and leveling up can seem like winning. By contrast, character death can seem like losing. Role-playing is about suspending our mental focus on our real lives for a moment and imagining we are playing the part of a heroic character in some fantasy setting faced with mysteries and challenges that are interesting and entertaining. It's a form of "make believe".
I give Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu credit as the game that taught me how to role-play. Call of Cthulhu is an investigative game in which you play basically ordinary people who encounter supernatural things. Killing things and taking their stuff is not the point. Saving humanity from the things that go bump in the night is. Call of Cthulhu isn't about leveling up and characters seldom become much more powerful than they start out. Rather the longer one plays a character in Call of Cthulhu to more likely the character will become insane (and retired) from contact with that which mankind was not meant to know.
There are at least two recent games that eschew leveling altogether. Index Card RPG published by Runehammer Games and The Darkest Death by Bloat Games both rely on the acquisition of treasure, particularly magic items (frequently one-use items), to give players incentive, add variety and keep the game feeling fresh. This idea could be easily imported into lots of other systems, should players desire to make this so.
Chasing levels can be a distraction or an obsession. Powering up can be an illusion and can even lead to the game losing most of its challenge and appeal. By creating a character we find interesting from the beginning and role-playing that character through some interesting situations, perhaps uncovering some mysteries and thwarting the plan of some evil mastermind, we may find the game just as fulfilling as leveling up...perhaps more so. What is more interesting to discuss after the game, "Our characters are now level umpteen and have this and that new power," or "Our characters figured out the mystery and saved the day?"

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Palladium AC

Borrowing from Palladium Fantasy RPG
Customizing and improving your game is a time honored referee's privilege - at least to my thinking it is. Many games tell the reader right in the text that the material contained in the book should be viewed as suggestions or guidelines and that the game belongs to you and you should feel free to alter and change whatever you desire. Player buy-in can be where the test of an idea is shown to add to the game or detract from it and it is therefore important to discuss changes around the gaming table.
One of the reasons I read role-playing books is for inspiration. I own way more games than I have time to play, but most of the games I acquire get read and I borrow many ideas from games to try with other systems I do play.
Many of the first role-playing systems that I acquired during the late 1970's and early 1980's were written in reaction to the World's First Role-Playing Game and were either the author's "house-ruled" version of that system, or an attempt to improve on various aspects of that game - combat and magic being too areas which got frequent attention. A desire for more "realism" prompted many of these game designers and fueled interest in the consumer such as myself.
An early RPG offering which has remained of interest to me through the subsequent decades, the Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game includes so many good ideas. The default setting is rich in detail and is supported by a number of supplemental volumes. The combination of an innovative redefining of Alignment, original Occupational Character Classes and races that capture the imagination, and a combat mechanic that seems more realistic (at least in some ways) than that found in D&D allows the game to remain relevant, in print and almost unchanged to this day. 
One of the borrowings that I have frequently used while running my version of the Original (White Box) Game is to use a combat mechanic based on that introduced in the Palladium system. It uses a d20 roll with adds based on class abilities and circumstances with any result of 5 or more scoring a hit. Numbers greater than 4 but less than the target's armor class effectively hit the armor and can result in damage to the armor/shield. Numbers rolled that are greater than the armor class score damage directly on the target's hit points.
Using this method helps me in narrating combat for my players, allows for damage to armor and shield which in turn seems more realistic, all while adding very little extra delay to the combat round. Damaged armor and shields necessitate repair which contributes to verisimilitude. The mechanic for documenting armor damage and repair needs to be simple however and I recommend a binary status of "damaged or undamaged" for armor and shield. Repair can be an expense or not depending upon referee preference.
Modifying or "house-ruling" your system of choice can be a source of fun and satisfaction for those who enjoy the study of game design and theory. I have found there are a lot of good ideas to be found in the hobby and way more systems than I can ever bring to the table. Borrowing and combining allows me to pick from among the best. Occasionally I even have what I believe to be an original idea! It can be fun to try those at the table too. Having players who are on-board with trying new mechanics and limiting the number of new rules introduced during any game session to only a couple seems essential for successful implementation of any rule modifications. The result can be a more satisfying experience for all concerned - which of course should be the goal!

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

AC 10

Armor Class in D&D
The transition from original "white box" D&D to Advanced took place over approximately two and a half to three years - the first Advanced material is published 1977 and the Game Masters Guide seeing print in late 1979. Until the Game Masters Guide is available AD&D remains incomplete because the combat charts needed for play are included in that volume. During the transition period, those of us playing the game were confronted with a dilemma - how to go about combat without the new charts. This problem is exacerbated by the existence of AC 10 in the Advanced system.
Armor Class or AC as it was frequently abbreviated has been a part of D&D since the beginning. The alternative combat system (d20) included in the White Box Little Brown Books (page 19, Vol. 1) includes Armor Class 2-9, with AC 9 representing "No Armor or Shield". The Advanced Game includes an Armor Class of 10 defined as "None" - meaning no armor or shield. AC 9 is redefined as "Shield only" (page 39, PHB). To make matters more confusing, Basic/Expert D&D is similar to ODD/White Box in the use of AC 9 as "Clothing only" (page B12 of Moldvay Basic).
A comparison of AC across early editions reveals that chainmail is AC 5 in the Original Game, Advanced and Basic/Expert. Plate(mail) Armor is AC 3 in each of the three versions, but Leather Armor is AC 7 in the Original Game, and Basic/Expert, but is listed as AC 8 in the Advanced PHB. The Advanced Game includes a number of types of armor not included in the Original Game or Basic/Expert such as studded leather, ring mail, splint or banded mail, and padded armor. A shield gives minus one to AC across these editions.
The result is that it is the less armored AC values including ACs 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 where the difference in Armor Class values will occur. I can only assume that part of the reason for this disparity lay in the desire for greater granularity in the Advanced Game. Part may also have been in order to distinguish AD&D as a separate game from the D&D line. The result is that using modules and play aids written for AD&D can require a bit of AC adjustment on the part of the referee and that until the Game Masters Guide combat tables are released in 1979, we had to extrapolate (add one) to arrive at the numbers needed to hit AC 10 using tables that only went to AC 9.
As a determining factor (along with class and level) in the combat odds reflected in the number (or higher) that needs to be rolled on a d20 in order to score a damaging "hit", AC is a central factor in the game. Monsters lacking "armor" as such still have an Armor Class, which often reflects factors other than "armor" and which may affect their ability to avoid damage, factors such as size, toughness, immunity to pain, or agility which can improve their ability to avoid damage (or its effects) therefore making them harder to score an effective "hit" against during combat.
The d20 combat mechanic in D&D is an abstract "game" representation of armed conflict. There is no real relationship between game mechanics and actual life and death sword-play regardless of the RPG system, but the designers of D&D across all editions strive to produce an exciting and believable game representation of such. Using miniatures or theater of the mind, the popularity of the game seems a good indicator that the designers have achieved their goal.
Armor Class (or AC) is a constant (and defining) feature of the D&D line of games, and until the 3rd Edition lower AC is better AC. The 2nd Edition of the Advanced Game introduces THAC0, which stands for To Hit Armor Class Zero, as a streamlined method to calculate the combat number needed to be rolled on a d20 in order to effectively cause damage to an opponent. The 3rd Edition (dropping the "Advanced" name) introduces ascending AC which becomes in effect a target number for the d20 combat roll. Use of ascending AC continues in 4th and 5th Editions and while perhaps more intuitive, I feel a personal kinship with the old descending armor class system - under which I have experienced many memorable tabletop adventures.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Tunnels & Trolls

An RPG Treasure
Tunnels & Trolls is a different sort of fantasy role-playing game. I collect and read a variety of older fantasy RPGs, OSR and small press books, and digital downloads and in my experience there is nothing quite like Tunnels & Trolls. T&T is the creation of Ken St. Andre and the game and its solo and group adventure supplements incorporate Mr. St. Andre's whimsical wit and sense of humor. T&T is fun, but it is a serious fantasy role-playing game offering many unique experiences. It is self contained in a single volume coming in at just under 100 pages. It is easy to teach and encourages players to work together. The system is modular and lends itself easily to adaptation and modification, something I personally look for in a RPG.
Periodically I cycle through my RPG collection and spend time with an old friend - lately that has been Tunnels & Trolls. Flying Buffalo, Inc. published the first "solo" adventure that I am aware of - Buffalo Castle for T&T written by FBI founder, the late Rick Loomis. For decades now, I have enjoyed playing the many T&T solo adventures, but T&T is also a great game for group play. The mechanics are intuitive, adaptable and fast-playing and they easily disappear into the game background allowing for the character action and the developing story to take center stage in our mind. But T&T is not just another roll the twenty-sided die system. In many ways T&T (often referred to as the 2nd ever published RPG) differs greatly from the world's first fantasy role-playing game.
Ken St. Andre and friends started playing Tunnels & Trolls in 1975 in the Phoenix, Arizona area. Flying Buffalo, Inc. would publish the first edition later that same year. T&T borrows the idea of playing heroic adventurers that battle monsters for treasure and glory from the original FRPG published by TSR, but mechanically T&T is original. In fact, I believe that T&T introduces the hobby to a number of (then) new concepts including spell points, testing against attributes including Luck, and imposing strength and dexterity requirements for weapon use.
T&T does not provide a bestiary or stat block for monsters and encourages the game master to create their own unique monsters - a task made fairly easy by the Monster Rating mechanic under which each monster is assigned a Monster Rating (MR) which can be any number from 1 on. The Monster Rating determines how many dice and adds are used for combat and serves as the monster's hit points. For example a MR of 20 means the game master rolls 3 six sided dice (T&T uses only d6s) and adds 10 (1/2 MR) for their attack and has 20 hit points. The MR makes it very easy to create a new monster and also allows for more suspense as a type of monster can be scaled up or down in power by increasing or decreasing the MR, perhaps coinciding with how far below the surface the underground monster is found.
T&T supports one-on-one single combat and general melee involving multiple creatures on both sides. The general melee mechanic involves all the characters adding their attack total together and splitting up any hits taken among all the participants. Evenly matched combats can sometimes result in a virtual stale-mate requiring the players to think of some alternative to straight-up fighting. (a creative alternative to violence... I like that!)
T&T provides mechanics for generating characters from the traditional fantasy "kindreds" including elf, dwarf, hobbit, human and also covers the possibility of playing a non-standard being such as balrog, centaur, troll, etc. (For those interested, the T&T spin-off game Monsters, Monsters takes the mechanics for playing monsters even further.) T&T uses a class system for characters who may be Warriors, Wizards, Rogues or Warrior-Wizards. The latter two classes combine elements of both combat and casting. Magic spells are structured according to levels and have IQ and Dexterity requirements in order to use. Although an adequate spell list is provided, players are encouraged to research and create new magics.
Although subsequent editions have been produced, including the excellent expanded Deluxe edition, the classic 5th edition (introduced in 1979) remains my go-to version of T&T. The 5th edition, edited by Liz Danforth (who also supplies a number of illustrations including the cover), incorporates the best elements of T&T.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Monster Manual

Eclectic Gaming
The publishing of the Monster Manual in 1977-78 marks a first in a number of ways. It is to my knowledge the first hardcover game book, all previous products aimed at the tabletop wargamer were softcover, amateurish affairs, many of the small digest size and indeed, this is the format in which the original version of the world's most popular (and first published) role-playing game saw print. The quality printing with a full color cover illustration (not an easily damaged dust jacket), durable paper and stitched binding moved the fledgling role-play hobby toward serious business.
The Advanced Game was released as three separate volumes over the course of as many years with the Monster Manual being the first to hit the shelves. The Monster Manual consists of 112 pages of game stats, descriptions and black and white illustrations of monsters, some familiar from myth, fable and fiction and some quite novel - many created by the designers of the new game and appearing for the first time.
The color illustrations to be found on the front and back covers give an example of the wonderful variety found within. As a college student barely a year into my exploration of this new hobby, I found the Monster Manual mesmerizing. Herein I found not only the statistical data I would use while running the game as referee, but also detailed descriptions and illustrations that allowed me to better imagine the monster and to describe it for my players - occasionally showing them a picture from the book just to make things more clear (and hopefully more frightening!).
The original little brown books which were my introduction to D&D contain very few illustrations and monsters are simply listed on a table along with brief game statistics and some are briefly described, often in very general terms. It was not until I looked inside the covers of the Advanced Monster Manual that many of the game's creatures took form in my mind. So vast are the number of different creatures to be found in the Monster Manual that it was some years before I was able to feature the last of them in an adventure.
Working diligently it still took Gary Gygax and the TSR staff two years more to complete the Advanced Game series with publication of the Game Masters Guide - necessary for play because it contained the combat "to hit" tables. In the meantime, those of us who desperately wanted to play combined elements of the Advanced system into our existing white box games. I continue to this day combining various aspects borrowed from one source or another into most every game of every system which I run. My referee style is eclectic and it likely started with combining the Monster Manual with my original white box materials.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

How the Game Has Changed - Part 2

Customizing Your Game
Tired of the same old fantasy tropes? Looking for something fresh? Wanting a system that makes more sense? Do you have an idea that you would like to explore? If any of these questions tap into your secret desires, then customizing your game may be the solution.
any game system can be "homebrewed" by adding to, or taking away from the basic rule system, but some RPG systems are tailored for customization. Savage Worlds, GURPS, Basic Role Playing and Hero System are, to name just a few, all core rule systems that emphasize taking the provided tools and using them to build the game you would like. Other popular RPG systems readily lend themselves to customization even though they are not marketed as "generic". With enough effort, most any system can be modified, but some practically encourage it.
The world's first fantasy role-playing game, original "white box" D&D is one such system that encourages, some might say demands, customization. So much so, that the folks at TSR developed the Advanced edition in an effort to codify and standardize play, thereby limiting customization that had led to much variety in the ways that the original game was being played.
Subsequent editions of the world's most popular fantasy RPG seem to go back-and-forth with respect to customization. The second edition of the Advanced game introduced a number of options for customization through various supplements and setting materials. Options included rule systems aimed at the referee and character options aimed at players. By the end of the second edition printing era the shear number of available published optional rules tomes could become overwhelming.
Customizing the game mechanics to fit a particular setting such as Dark Sun or Dragon Lance became an official thing during the second edition era. The preference for "official" verses "homebrew" rules is perhaps a personal taste, but there have been many arguments between players and referee/GM regarding what to include or leave out of their campaign. This discussion continues to the present with the 5th edition of the world's most popular fantasy RPG which includes optional material such as feats and multi-classing in the core rules and additional tomes containing even more options. Third party publishers add to the body of potential options which can be picked from. The simple nature of the basic 5e system lends itself to modification by the creative consumer wishing to use their own ideas or borrow from other sources.
As a gamer who delights in seeing what creative rule solutions and new content other gamers can devise, I welcome customization and frequently indulge in it myself. In fact, I prefer a campaign setting that deviates from the bog standard, rules-as-written approach. Customization is personalization. To borrow an idea from Mr. Gygax's afterword to the original edition, why shouldn't we imagine the game as we would like it to be, and then make it just so?