Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Light in the Darkness

Does System Matter?
People seek various things when they sit down to play a role-playing game. Once upon a time I thought about the experience in terms of a fantasy based wargame, a tabletop game often played out in tunnels and caverns and other underground spaces using mostly our imagination. The investigation of a mystery, the collaborative process of telling an heroic story together through play, or just the fun of talking in a funny voice and pretending to be someone we are not, these are all aspects of role-playing depending on how we play the game.
Some systems are quite flexible and use some fairly generic mechanics, other systems specialize in delivering a particular type of experience for players. Most require some sort of judge, referee or narrator, but not all do. A recent vacation with friends included sessions of The Fantasy Trip using a programmed adventure published by Dark City Games that requires no referee and therefore allows all of the players to run personal figures. The Fantasy Trip by Steve Jackson Games is a tactical combat focused RPG system that can also be used for playing more social encounters using figure skills from In The Labyrinth (and without use of the tactical display and counters).
The same gaming vacation with friends also involved sessions of the King Arthur Pendragon role-playing game published by Chaosium. Pendragon, as it is often called, is a very different system from The Fantasy Trip (or D&D for that matter). The Pendragon mechanics focus on the personality of your knightly character including their passions, loyalties and hatreds. Chivalry, romance and above all, personal glory, is at the focal point of play. The narrator, or referee, presents a situation in which players attempt to interact with the referee's version of King Arthur's Britain in a manner that will achieve glory for their knight while navigating the game mechanically including d20 personality rolls which help determine their character's reactions and likely behaviors. Characters are expected to act in a knightly manner generally consistent with their virtues and vices, loyalties and hatreds. Pendragon includes no "intelligence" score because that aspect of character is determined by the player's own decision making.
Pendragon is a system designed for multi-generational play and romance, marriage and the siring of offspring, some of whom may become playable characters in the campaign, are all part of the game. The Great Pendragon Campaign, a separate volume that details events year by year from 485 to 566, is a great way to play King Arthur Pendragon. Each year may contain a single adventure worthy of the minstrel's song, or may involve little more than some dice rolled on a table to see who the character meets and at what chronicled event they are present. Meeting a lady (or gentleman), having a child, contracting an illness are all possible during a "year" of play. The legendary king and his court are of course the hub around which game events revolve. Drawing from the literary sources, especially Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign are designed by Greg Stafford to meld play with legend. Playing King Arthur Pendragon is a fun way to explore the magical setting of Camelot and Arthur's Britain and offers something unique in terms of tabletop role-playing.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

In The Labyrinth

Steve Jackson's First RPG
I have been playing quite a bit of Steve Jackson's new version of The Fantasy Trip since its release earlier this year. The Fantasy Trip is a tactical RPG experience like no other of which I am aware. Based on the microgames Melee and Wizard of the late 1970's and using markers and hex-map terrain display, The Fantasy Trip rewards cooperation between players and tactical planning. It is a game that brings the role-playing experience to its audience through mechanics that are quick to learn and would be easily recognized by the tabletop wargamer, a demographic that made up a considerable portion of the tabletop gaming community in the late 1970's. With its re-introduction this year, The Fantasy Trip is once again readily available through Steve Jackson Games, and they are providing the system good support following the very successful Kickstarter.
In The Labyrinth uses a 3d6 roll under mechanic for combat and talent (think skill system) resolution. Armor reduces damage which is deducted from Strength. Dexterity is rolled against in order to strike an opponent and wearing heavy armor deducts from one's effective Dexterity thereby lowering one's chances to score an effective blow. IQ, or intelligence, is the third of the main three attributes and is used for Talents and Magic. Casting spells requires a Dexterity roll and burns Strength points as fatigue. A combination of damage and fatigue that lowers the figure's Strength to zero, that figure (as characters in TFT are called) drops unconscious. Should damage reduce the figure to minus one or lower Strength, the figure is considered "dead".
The arena tactical games Melee and Wizard introduce the basic rules for character creation, combat and magic and are stand-alone games in their own right. In The Labyrinth combines the rules from Melee and Wizard with additional material to form a complete role-playing system called The Fantasy Trip. In The Labyrinth can be purchased separately (as can most of the individually named products) or boxed together with Melee, Wizard and the Death Test solo and Tolenkar's Lair refereed adventures, markers, maps, dice and everything needed for play, all in the Legacy Edition Box.
In The Labyrinth hearkens back to the days when the role-playing hobby was new and as yet undefined. The Fantasy Trip gave us wargamers something familiar in that we played TFT using counters on a hex-map, counting hexes and moving our markers and rolling six-sided dice. Combat with the new element of magic thrown in was about all we wanted. As the hobby matured and we matured as role-players, The Fantasy Trip has taken on an additional dimension, that of social encounter and investigative play. And yes, The Fantasy Trip/ In The Labyrinth is a useful tool for enjoying those aspects of role-playing along with combat and exploration.
In The Labyrinth offers a complete RPG experience and a fun, quick playing, easy to understand game. The simple, yet elegant system developed by Steve Jackson during his early days as a designer, and recently improved upon in its new edition, does not disappoint.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Fanzines & Creativity

The Amateur Hobby Press
The Gongfarmer's Almanac describes itself as "A Free and Unofficial Zine for DCC RPG" and is a continuation of a traditional form of amateur press that predates the original role-playing game. Often referred to as "fanzines" such newsletters and digest sized periodicals have been popular with hobbyists interested in wargames and science fiction and fantasy literature since the age before the internet. Such printed correspondence provided the hobby with a means to share news and ideas and to establish contacts with others who shared a similar interest. Although less prevalent today perhaps, they do still exist.
The Gongfarmer's Almanac is has been around a few years, I have compilations of the Almanac from 2016, 2017 and 2018. Each compilation contains the volumes from that year and includes additional material that can be used with the old school inspired Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game (DCC RPG) published by Goodman Games. Included are additional character classes, adventures, rule suggestions, interesting character sheets, maps and artwork, monsters, patrons and deities, all tailored for use by the DCC RPG player.
The booklet pictured above, Volume #5, 2019 of The Gongfarmer's Almanac, is devoted to playing a weird western (Mythos inspired) version of the DCC RPG. The volume includes some setting specific rules for adapting the DCC system to an old west setting and for playing a more horror style of game. New character classes include the Gambler, the Occultist and the Gunslinger and eight others. New rules introduce Madness and a Poker Deck for adding spell like effects to certain new player character classes. In true DCC RPG tradition a zero-level funnel is included to get things started.
Grassroots creativity, a do-it-yourself approach and shared enthusiasm for the hobby is evident on nearly every page of The Gongfarmer's Almanac. It brings to my mind memories of by-gone amateur publications in an era of self publishing of hobby related content meant to be freely shared and enjoyed. In many ways the internet continues to serve a very similar function, but for me there is something nice about the physical copy held in my hands. The Gongfarmer's Almanac is aimed precisely at one particular game, but a quick search will turn up other amateur zines, both digital and print available "at cost", that support our hobby interests and promote the sharing of our collective creativity.
And if you are not familiar with the term "gongfarmer", a quick web search will inform you. Hey, it's what I had to do!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Chainmail & ODD

Understanding White Box through the lens of Chainmail
Volume I of the Little Brown Books lists the Chainmail miniatures rules among the  "Recommended Equipment" for White Box D&D play. It should probably be mandatory and therefore included in the box itself. I did not process the Chainmail miniatures rules in 1977 when I acquired the original edition of the first role-playing game, nor did I see Chainmail for a number of years after that. Therefore, I devised my own interpretation of how to play this new game. I imagine it was just so for many who came to D&D in those days.
Gary Gygax is listed as a co-author of both the original fantasy role-playing game and Chainmail and one may presume the earlier Chainmail product may inform a complete understanding of the Little Brown Books. The subsequent D&D game perhaps represents a certain evolution of thought on the part of Mr. Gygax as he explored the fantasy game and may shed some light on how one might play the new fantasy game.
Taking the turn sequence as an example, we find that in Chainmail both sides roll a die with the higher score choosing to move first or second (after observing the enemy moves). After each side moves in turn, both sides execute artillery fire, missile fire and then melee, in that order. Since magic spells such as fireball and lightning bolt operate much like artillery in Chainmail, I assume we can fit it into the turn sequence after moves and before missile fire.
Magic spells in Chainmail are not the same as in ODD/ White Box. Each type of caster, Seer, Magician, Warlock, Sorcerer and Wizard in order of increasing power, has the ability to know a number of spells and a two-die casting mechanic is (optionally) used to determine the success, delay (it goes off next turn) or failure of each attempt to cast a known spell. Wizards may more reliably cast spells than those magic users of less power as indicated by having greater chances for the spell to actually go off and to take effect without delay. Spells are rated according to complexity and the more complex spells are more difficult to succeed in casting.
In the Chainmail mechanics of magic use and spell complexity we can see the early thinking of the author regarding magic in the fantasy game. Some magic users have greater power than others in terms of knowing more spells and in terms of having the ability to cast them more reliably. The magic spells themselves vary in terms of complexity. Both concepts will be represented with the term "level" in the subsequent D&D rules.
Alignment is a term that appears in the Little Brown Books, but not in Chainmail, however once again we can see a progenitor to this concept in the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement's "General Line-Up" table. The table lists the terms Law, Chaos and Neutral, which are used to categorize the fantastic creatures available for battle along opposing sides, Law verses Chaos, with the possibility that Neutral forces may show up fighting for either or both these sides.
Many of the game concepts such as the forces of Law and Chaos have their antecedents in popular fantasy literature. Chainmail specifically mentions Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions in connection with true trolls and Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone in the section on Magic Weapons and figures combining elements of the "hero" and "wizard". The fantasy supplement to Chainmail and its later cousin, D&D can be seen as game engines to assist players in further exploring the characters and themes they enjoy from popular science-fiction and fantasy stories.
Morale, movement, the effects of terrain, charging, the number of attacks per turn, figure facing and more, all of which shows up in the Advanced game rules, each has their beginnings here in the Chainmail miniatures rules. To be sure, much has been changed and added through the various editions of the world's most popular fantasy role-playing game rules, but the Chainmail miniature rules helps me to understand where it all began and informs how the White Box may be played.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Marvel Conan

An Interest is Born
My introduction to Conan The Barbarian came in 1973 thanks to Marvel Comics. Stan Lee and his comic empire have enriched the lives of many over the decades and I am certainly not alone. I had read many other comics prior to discovering Conan The Barbarian, with stories based on history and weird horror tales among my favorite. The above pictured Conan comic opened a new chapter in my reading interests. To be brief, reading Conan The Barbarian comics lead to the Savage Tales and Savage Sword magazines, and eventually to the collected Conan stories edited by L. Sprague DeCamp and published by Lancer/Ace in a cheap paperback form that was affordable even to a teenager of the 1970's.
I happened onto Conan The Barbarian in the middle of a multiple issue Roy Thomas adaptation of the story Hand of Nergal, which I later found in one of the Conan volumes edited by Mr. DeCamp (Lin Carter authored the short story Hand of Nergal from a Howard fragment). Drawn by John Buscema and Ernie Chan the images I found in those early issues of Conan The Barbarian helped me to imagine the world of Conan. The dynamic action depicted in those illustrations of course appealed to my teenage restlessness. The 1970's was a long-hair decade (my favorite band was Led Zeppelin) and the long black main of the Conan character made him someone I could identify with.
The Hand of Nergal story involves a decadent monarch manipulated by evil advisers, a captive princess, and demonic forces not meant for human understanding - all tropes that would form the impressions I have of swords & sorcery and fantastic adventure. My infatuation with heroic fiction, swords & sorcery and high adventure stories taken from Conan comics and pulp era fiction primed me for the next step to come, adventure gaming.
Four to five years later I had joined the ranks of growing D&D enthusiasts, thrilled to be playing out some of the ideas that I borrowed from those comics and stories. However you come to this hobby, whether through the stories involving a certain dark elf ranger or through a green-clad digital avatar, those early experiences probably continue to influence what you enjoy. My preference for dark fantasy and grim tales has continued to this day. Fortunately I have found many games that focus on the kind of stories I enjoy best. Through the hobby I have also met other players who share my interests and many have become life-long friends. That is a lot of value from a 20-cent comic.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Building a Sandbox

Start Small
One of the primary joys of being a referee or judge in a game is the design aspect where the game becomes a creative outlet. Creating a scenario, drawing maps, building a world, these are creative pastimes and the excitement and satisfaction of sharing my creation with others is a big part of what has kept me involved in the hobby for 40+ years.
The sandbox is my favorite method of world building. The term "sandbox" in adventure gaming refers to a setting where players can explore and interact with the imaginary world through maps, dialogue with the referee and the application of game/campaign rules. A referee map and good mental concepts of most aspects of the world is all that is really needed to get started. At first, the map can be of a relatively small area.
Remembering how far a group of adventurers can travel in a few days will inform the referee about how many miles ahead need to be planned. I usually like to have a vague idea of the "bigger picture" map so that NPCs may talk about the sea over there, the mountains that way, etc., but spending time drawing detailed maps of areas the players may never any show interest in can be wasted effort, effort better spent on thinking about the nature of your world - what kind of climate does it have?; what creatures inhabit it?; what is the society like?; religions?; technology and magic?.
Do you need a big bad? Not necessarily, especially not at first. I try to anticipate all the questions players may ask about the world and its inhabitants and drawing on memories of everything I have read, watched heard about or imagined, I work toward a mental picture of this bold, new world, this "sandbox". I listen to the players and try to incorporate what they are interested in.
Do not dump all this information on the players in the form of a long monologue or pregame document for them to read. Let the world information flow naturally as the players explore and ask questions. That is part of the sandbox experience - discovery! Instead, put a small map in front of them. The above image is a tactical map lifted from The Strategic Review (v1 no5) and shows a castle, small village, underground entrance/exit and an unexplained misty area. There is lots here to explore, should the players wish.
I like to start with a village, partly because there are NPCs to interact with and learn from in a village and partly to establish a relatively safe home-base, should the players desire one. Describe what they see, what kind of day it is, etc. Reveal to the players a few rumors including information leading to two or three adventures you have semi-prepared. Let them learn about one or two "good" deities that have local worshipers and perhaps the existence of one "evil" deity and one or two "monster" types that may pose a threat.
Conflicts are fuel for adventure and a good sandbox needs at least two or three factions that are in conflict. The presence of factions may offer the player characters certain opportunities. It's always up to them in a sandbox. Encourage the players to be creative. Once they have become acquainted with the new sandbox, ask them what they want to do. In a sandbox, the players often lead, the referee follows. It may be helpful, especially for players to whom the sandbox style game is new, for the referee to offer a starting encounter/ adventure, just to get things moving. And remember those rumors, wanted posters and job notices.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Mythic Britain

How important is setting?
If you are like me, it's very important, perhaps more important than system or characters because setting defines everything. The setting is the framework on which everything else hangs. Setting defines various aspects of who the characters will be. Setting describes the laws of physics and magic if any. Setting establishes the geography and nature of the place where the action of play will take place.
What happens when not enough attention is paid to setting? For me it is a loss of verisimilitude and enjoyment. Inconsistencies in the setting tend to result in a surreal feeling, which may be the goal in a dreamland, but otherwise it just feels disjointed and random (in a bad way). Decisions made with regard to the setting can greatly influence system choice as well. Some systems work best under certain assumptions and produce certain kinds of results during play. Matching the setting and rule systems can greatly aid play.
There are many published settings. Some claim to be system neutral, although I still argue that they work better with some rule systems than with others. Like most in this hobby, I have my favorite published settings. The Design Mechanism published Mythic Britain during their RuneQuest 6 days and have made minor adaptations to fit their current system, Mythras.
Mythras is a d100 roll under skill-based role-play system. It has similarities (and differences) with other popular d100 systems including Basic Role-Playing, Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The Design Mechanism publishes a number of setting books for Mythras and has more in the works. Among the historic (Mythic) settings currently available are Constantinople and Rome.
Mythic Britain is set in a dark age fantasy Britain with Merlin, Arthur, druids and Saxons. Mythic Britain is divided into two parts, the setting material proper and a series of adventures that can be run separately or combined campaign play. As with the other setting books in the Mythic series, care is taken to present a believable world with much that seems familiar and expected. But this is "mythic" history so the fantastic and supernatural also plays a significant role in the setting. In Mythic Britain the authors draw heavily on folk tradition and the Camelot, King Arthur legends, making use of the unknown nature of the dark ages and occasionally borrowing from the fictional Arthurian traditions to weave a rich tapestry that is both familiar and surprising.
The legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table has inspired imaginations for centuries. The Arthur presented in Mythic Britain is more Celtic war chief than high medieval king. Roman Britain is a memory allowing for a renewal of many of the old Celtic ways and the new Saxon invaders bring yet a different pagan belief than the one that existed before the Romans brought Christianity to the isle. The druids, long suppressed by the now-absent Romans, have re-emerged and the mythic spirits and forces of the land, fey, dragon and demon, have found renewed strength in their struggle to fill the power vacuum.
The stage is set. The cast is assembled. It is up to you to determine what dramas will play out in your Mythic Britain.