Friday, February 26, 2016

A Few Good Monsters

Less is More
As a referee I try hard not to over describe. Allowing the imagination of players to "fill-in" details and hypothesize and "go wild" is one of my goals. As a result I do a lot of answering questions from my players. Verisimilitude and immersion are two of my main goals in refereeing and I am of the opinion both are easier to achieve when using the adage "less is more".
There is an element of storytelling in all role-playing type games. I like to share that task with my players, even while we are engaged in a game system that predates an emphasis on narrative. White Box is so flexible that inserting some narrative techniques borrowed from indie games has posed no problem. Asking the players to describe certain things during the game helps get them in the habit of imagining beyond the table action of consulting their character sheet and rolling dice. I use maps and miniatures very sparingly and mostly rely on "theater of the mind".
White Box doesn't include a list of skills and prior to Supplement I there aren't any mechanics for opening a lock or disarming a trap. I like to have my players think through a situation, picture in their mind's eye, describe how they search a room, disarm a trap or other tasks that can become just a dice roll in later editions and other game systems. Fewer rules can lead to greater player engagement and player skill development.
Fewer monsters, shorter spell lists and fewer magic items can mean each one takes on greater importance. I seldom mention a monster by name, preferring to describe what the party sees, hears, smells and feels. I do try to be consistent in my monster descriptions so that players can know that what they have before them is the same as what they encountered a while back. Often a familiar odor will announce a monster's presence before they see or hear him. I think some consistency is important to allow predictability and smart game decisions. I like to define my milieu in part by what monsters are commonly encountered and have given up using every monster in the book for each campaign. I take the same approach to magic spells, making some easy to acquire and others rare. Keeping the overall number of spells small makes a "new" spell stand out and have special value to the possessor of such rare knowledge. Each magic item I try to make unique, by its history or abilities. That way I think each acquired "treasure" seems more special and "magical". Magic items are not generally offered for sale in my world.
When designing an area for adventure I try to sketch out several possible avenues for the players to pursue rather than detail out too much and hope I can wrangle the PCs into my plan. I depend on them to pick a course of action, but provide some guidance. This method requires more improvisation on my part as referee, but allows greater freedom for the players and results in some surprises for me. I generally start a campaign off with a general idea of what's happening in the world and how things will progress without PC intervention and then present the situation to the PCs and together we find out how it all plays out.
Experience systems range from simple to complex, but all reinforce certain behavior on the part of PCs. White Box bases exp. on monetary gain, with a little extra for killing monsters. I like a simple system that is easy for the PCs to understand and for the referee to keep track of. Pay-outs can take many forms and variety seems desirable. Piles of coin are nice and adventurers will always be happy when they acquire such, but I find it more interesting to mix up "mundane" treasure by replacing some coinage with goods of equivalent value, such as carpets, vases, statues, and other furnishings, books, maps and scrolls, incense, oils, spices and other rare ingredients.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Thoughts on Fantasy Race
Elves, dwarves and hobbits, who together with various human peoples, oppose the evil forces of Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy form the player character races in White Box. In life, it seems timing is everything and at the time Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were creating their White Box, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien were becoming very popular, so popular that according to gamer legend, Mr. Gygax was pressured by players to include the Tolkien-esque races despite his own preference for human PCs. Later editions of the game call these the demihuman races.
I have always struggled with demihuman PCs, mostly because I think they should be more odd and fantastic than most people play them. In the boardgame Dungeon! by David Megarry, (who I believe also gamed with Dave Arneson) playing the elf character gives a bonus to finding secret doors and only needs 10,000 gold in treasures to win the game, otherwise the elf plays the same as the wizard, the hero and the superhero. The elf is just a playing piece with specific rules that set it apart. I think this is the way demihuman PCs are often seen by those playing them in pen & paper role-playing games.
Taking on the "role" of a non-human and trying to make it seem different and alien from humans is more of a challenge. Ultimately, demihumans may end up being played much like human PCs except with pointy ears, or a beard. After all, we players are human with limited ability to be otherwise. As a consequence, I prefer humanocentric milieux both as a player and as a referee. As referee I like to characterize the demihuman as having an alien personality and motives that often defy understanding, thereby making them an adventure to interact with. The imaginary races seem to lose their fantastic element when they become PCs.
Richard Snider has a rather unique take on elves and dwarves in his Powers & Perils game. The game is set in what Mr. Snider calls the middle world which is most similar to our own ancient/medieval world and lies between the upper world of the gods and demons (heaven, hell, etc) and the lower world of elves, trolls, faerry, etc. The lower world predates the sun and is a land of perpetual twilight. Humans may visit the upper world or lower world and occasionally denizens from those worlds may enter the middle world, and interact with humans. I like this idea. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Good & Evil

...or Shades of Gray
Epic struggles between the forces of good and evil describe many novels and frpg campaigns. Others feature a less dramatic delineation between good and evil, both of which may exist in the same individual. One of the defining elements of a milieu is how the question of good and evil is dealt with.
Prof. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic example of an evil focused in the being of a single entity bent on ruining the world and the forces of good, our heroes, who gallantly oppose that evil, both through the conventional means of alliance, might-of-arms and magic and ultimately through the seemingly less powerful means of friendship, self sacrifice, mercy and simple perseverance (and maybe also a little luck). It is the less powerful methods of goodness that arguably makes this such an appealing story. Prof. Tolkien didn't invent the epic scale, world-in-the-balance tale of good verses evil, but he certainly created one of fantasy literature's more recognizable and oft-copied examples.
The pulp fiction industry which heavily influenced the authors of White Box, and continues to flavor much of contemporary game design, approaches the question of good and evil in a more dark and gritty manner, which has become a defining feature of the genre. Termed Sword & Sorcery when set in an ancient, fantastic and frequently decadent imaginary world, authors such as R.E. Howard and Fritz Leiber  wrote many fascinating tales involving characters who often straddle the moral line between good and evil. Thieves, rogues and usurpers all, who live by a personal code with little regard for law or religion, their heroes seldom "save the world" and can on occasion, leave things in a bigger mess than they found them.
Fantasy games have frequently featured characters modeled on Tolkien's Middle Earth, but just as often modeled on Sword & Sorcery rogues. White Box supports both as befits its widespread roots in fantastic literature. The thief character class of Greyhawk and Blackmoor's assassin class give players a hint that those worlds are not necessarily all about telling the stories of good triumphing over evil. White Box's alignment system lists Law, Chaos and Neutral as the sides on which all creatures contend with each other. Evil is often associated with Chaos, but they are not the same thing, unless of course the referee says they are!
How the referee sets up the milieu largely defines the role good and evil will play in the stories that come out of game play. I have been reading Richard Snider's Powers & Perils rules which includes information on the game's default setting and an interesting alignment system. Humans in this milieu are unique in having the capacity for "free will" as it pertains to alignment. Humans get to choose, all others, including elves and dwarfs, are aligned by their very nature and get no choice in the matter. Alignment sets forces in opposition and determines who one's friends and enemies are. It also plays a role in determining what magic is available for use.
Whether it is the defining element in determining the character's actions and the fate of the world, or merely one aspect of choices made, good and evil deserve some thought in setting up the type of milieu desired. In its versatility, White Box can support many interpretations and I think this is by intent. Whether gaming or in life, what one sees in the world is largely determined by what one looks for.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Powers & Perils

Avalon Hill Enters the FRPG Field
The art on this box cover has always intrigued me, which together with the Avalon Hill name probably prompted me to purchase this game back in 1984. It very much has that sword & sorcery look of a Frank Frazetta book cover illustration. It pulls me into the scene, evil sorcerer and his snarling pet lizard is confronted by our barbarian hero, assisted by a pretty femme fatale. The illustration has some depth to the composition and even though it isn't great art, there is action and excitement here, just the sort of thing I would have been looking for in an adventure game at that age. Published by Avalon Hill, the originator of and at the time still the biggest name in cardboard counter and map wargames, Powers & Perils (P&P) held the promise that Avalon Hill would deliver the same quality to its fantasy role-playing game (frpg) that I had come to expect in wargame purchases.
Inside the box are five paper booklets (The Character Book, The Combat and Magic Book, The Creature Book, The Book of Human Encounters and Treasure, and County Mordara) and some dice. The booklets follow a general organization pattern familiar to anyone who has read their wargames. (That is they have numbered sections like 12.1.4 and so on.) Despite being broken into four rule books and a scenario, and introducing the rules in the order players are likely to use them starting with character generation and also using the familiar wargame rules organization technique, I recall having difficulty rolling up a character and grasping the mechanics back when this game was new. The interior illustrations are all b&w and are generally less impressive than the cover illustration, although the Frazetta influence is still in evidence.
I believe this game sat, unplayed, on my bookshelf for several years, until I finally sold it about a decade ago. I purchased P&P at a time my group was looking for something "more realistic" than White Box, although I continued to run White Box as well as experiment with other games. The group finally settled on RuneQuest 2nd ed. as our "more realistic game", but again, I continued to run White Box (often using Red Box, if that makes any sense). I recently saw a nice used copy of P&P for sale and purchased it (the above image). Maybe I was drawn in once again by that box illustration, maybe by the fact that many games I found "unplayable" in my youth now make sense to me upon reading them again and I am wondering if P&P might be one of those. Maybe it's pure nostalgia - a powerful drug to a middle-aged guy.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Old School Renaissance

What's Old is New
The Old School Renaissance (OSR) has supplied me with an enormous amount of entertaining reading, both in terms of blogs and published game material. The earliest offerings seem to have been aimed to allow publication of new material compatible with White Box or another of the early editions. Many make use of the Open Game License (OGL) concept and the Standard Resource Document (SRD) and seek to recreate one of the early editions of the most popular roleplaying game.  If they are very close to one of the early editions, they are termed simulacrum or “clones”. At this point there are multiple offerings for just about every version of Original, Basic and Advanced. Each new title brings something new, be it organization, a small change supposed to be an improvement, or some original art. Perhaps their greatest appeal is price as the new products cost considerably less than the collectible originals. The original White Box remains my favorite version of the game, although there are certainly some impressive new games I have recently encountered. P&P has that "old" look to it and does a good job of breaking down the White Box into its "essence" and rebuilding something very similar to the original experience using new mechanics. Chris Gonnerman's Iron Falcon stands out among the "clones" as probably the closest mechanically to the original three LBBs plus Supplement I. Spellcraft & Swordplay by Jason Vey comes to mind as among the most original of the "nostalgia" games. Like P&P, Spellcraft & Swordplay attempts to capture much of the spirit of the White Box era of wargames intersecting with roleplaying. Using a mechanic based on the Chainmail miniatures rules rather than the more common "alternate combat system", Mr. Vey presents an alternative visioning of the game had it continued to develop along those lines.  Whitehack by Christian Mehrstam combines the OSR game feel with some indie-style narrative elements and a brief, but very original setting description, in a way that intrigues me. Indie gamers frequently “hack” their games by modifying published rules for their own use, usually involving an original setting. Yes, the DIY spirit of the 1970’s is still evident in the more amateur side of the hobby and that certainly gets my attention.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pits & Perils

A Nostalgia Game
Pits & Perils (P&P) is a re-imagining of the White Box, it is not a simulacrum or clone, but rather authors James & Robyn George have seemingly closely examined what makes White Box what it is and have designed a game that does what White Box does (minus introducing the world to a new hobby, of course) in a manner that reflects the 1970's style amateur press products, yet using their own new mechanics. The resulting product is delightful to read and maybe one of the best rules-lite games I have seen.
P&P notes in the Introduction that White Box was "just a special kind of war game".  Rules designed by amateurs for their own enjoyment, played with friends using miniature figures with an emphasis 1:1 on tactical decisions and imagination - describing just the state of the hobby circa 1977 when I acquired my White Box. I recall feeling it was a terribly difficult game to decipher and I was never sure we were "playing it correctly'. P&P attempts to solve this latter issue while reproducing the feel of a 1977 game, right down to the odd font which looks like it was "typed in someone's basement" and the artwork which is all done by the author.
So what makes P&P stand out? Mr. and Mrs. George have cleverly distilled the six classic ability scores down to a single roll to determine which one (or maybe two) of the abilities the PC is outstanding in, Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, Constitution or Charisma. Being outstanding in an ability may give some game bonus or allow the PC to do things other PCs can't. Humans can excel at any ability, while dwarfs and elves are limited. P&P is a class and level system and uses the "race as class" concept of early "Basic". Human PCs can be a Cleric, Fighter, Magician or Thief. Certain exceptional abilities are associated with certain classes, like Strength and Fighter, Dexterity and Thief, but there is no rule that prevents a Fighter with exceptional Intelligence or Wisdom, or a Magician with exceptional Strength. The exceptional ability gives each PC a specialty in addition to their class special features and further encourages teamwork.
Each class differs in the amount of experience needed to level, hit points, armor and weapons allowed, and any special class abilities such as a cleric's ability to turn away undead and a thief's ability to pick locks and disarm traps. Each PC must choose a "side" which corresponds to White Box alignment. Lawful characters are "honorable and generally good", Neutral characters are self-interested and generally non-committed, while followers of the Chaotic side are "unpredictable and often quite evil".
P&P uses a universal mechanic, a roll of two six-sided dice added together to achieve a number equal to or greater than a 9 in combat or to a 7 out of combat. Fighters get a +1 bonus in combat, dwarfs receive a +1 to all saves. In combat a successful hit deals either one or two points of damage, armor increases one's hit points and using a two handed weapon adds an additional damage point. P&P seems less deadly at low level play and high level PCs seem less uber-powerful, particularly in hit points, compared to many other games. A magician starts with 5 HP and a fighter with 10. At 9th level the magician will have 14 HP and the fighter 28. With each hit causing one or two points of damage it takes a few of them to drop a PC to 0 HP and death.
Encumbrance limit is 10 items and up to 1,000 coins, simple and easy. Armor slows movement and adds a bonus to overall HP. Combat starts with initiative/surprise and PCs have the choice of several actions such as maneuvering, blocking with a shield, parrying with a weapon, attacking or casting a spell. Various tactical situations add to or subtract from the attack roll making P&P combat feel like a miniatures war game - one with fantastic creatures and lots of magic.
Magicians can cast a number of magic spells depending on their available magic points starting with two spell points per day. There are twenty-four spells on the list and curiously, they all have four-letter names. The starting Magician or Elf can know any 3 spells from the list, each costs the same (1 spell point) to cast. Clerics know Cure and Heal and their magic is called "Miracles" rather than spells. Otherwise it works very similar, but Clerics are better at casting Cure and Heal.
Experience is gained for killing monsters and acquiring treasure, so P&P is a "kill monsters and take their stuff" type game. The actual exp. numbers are relatively low compared to many games with a typical level 1 monster earning the PC 5 exp. and 150 exp. is needed for a Cleric to reach 2nd level. The experience tables top-out at 9th level with the highest, Elf, needing 80,000 exp. to reach that level. Like White Box, P&P uses titles for class level such as "acolyte" and "novice" respectively for 1st level Clerics and Magicians. P&P lists 87 monsters and gives a brief description of each. Included are some common animals (some of giant size) such as horse and mule, ape and bat as well as many of the classic fantasy monster tropes such as dragon, troll, vampire and minotaur.
Mr. & Mrs. George have published a couple supplement books for P&P, but the basic rules cover essentially the same ground as the 3 LBBs plus Greyhawk, of course all is in the unique P&P style. P&P is a recent purchase for me and I have not had a chance to play it yet, but I am very excited to do so. There is a lot of material packed into these 74 pages and although the basic mechanic is simple, like some of the best wargames there seems to be considerable subtlety there that only repeated play can reveal. In P&P, like in White Box, success depends on players cooperating, using their collective and individual game skill and imagination and making good decisions. That's the way I recall the game being played in 1977.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fighting Man, Magic User, Cleric

The Three Original Classes
White Box introduced the world to a new pastime and in many ways defines the resulting hobby today. Mr. Gygax and Mr. Arneson re-imagined the stories they loved, involving heroics, magic and the supernatural, and invented a new type of game, one where players get to experience through an alter ego, the player's character, those adventures read about in mythology and fantastic fiction and seen portrayed on the screen and in comics. Archetypes and icons figure prominently in the design of their game including the Fighting Man - warrior, knight or strong-man, the Magic User - wizard, sorcerer or wise-man, and the Cleric - crusader, priest or holy-man - Heroes all, who conquer adversity by using their bodies, their minds or their faith. The inclusion of the Cleric, inspired by the medieval warrior-monks of various religious orders such as the Knights Templar, I think says much about the game's creators, their interests and their intent for the game's default setting or milieu.
The class system seems a way to organize, individualize and balance player character (PC) abilities and specializations, giving each PC a unique role to play in the party mix. Combined with Tolkien-esque races, the White Box player can choose among a number of unique characters. Backgrounds and fully fleshed PC personalities are not encouraged in the rules as written, partially I believe because of the high anticipated mortality rate of low-level PCs. PC personality is what develops through play and the longer the PC lives and adventures, the more personality becomes established.
White Box essentially encourages each referee to make the game their own. This often involves modification of some aspect of the rules including the addition of alternate classes and sub-classes of playable characters, frequently a part of campaign development as evidenced by the official supplements. My initial discovery of White Box included a near mindless desire to play with all the options without regard to source or effect on the nature of the milieu. At this point I am more deliberate in my choices and ask myself whether the original three classes aren't enough. How is the campaign shaped by offering additional PC classes?
Supplement I introduces the thief class and paladin subclass. They can be viewed as specific to the Greyhawk campaign along with higher level magic spells and additional monsters and magic items that all help shape the particular milieu of Greyhawk. Most players, myself included, have treated Supplement I as additional material which we add to the White Box without much thought - an "upgrade". I think it is more than that, however. It is also our first model for how to customize White Box for a specific campaign. It is the rules for playing White Box in Greyhawk.
The White Box gives us the basics and with the Fighting Man, Magic User and Cleric many fun and exciting games can be played. Adding additional material should be done deliberately and with purpose because it will change the game to some extent. One of the reasons I keep returning to the original game is White Box encourages making the game your own.

Friday, February 12, 2016


What About Them?
White Box lists six abilities that have become the industry standard, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity and Charisma. Volume I of the LBBs, Men & Magic, states the referee determines a score for each ability by rolling 3 six-sided dice and adding up the total, thus creating a bell-curve range from 3-18 for each score. It is stated scores from 9 to 12 are "average". The abilities are described as to what they represent, giving some guidance on how they might affect play, and ensuring some individuality for each PC. The first three abilities are used for the prime requisites for the fighting man, magic user and cleric class respectively. High scores in the class prime requisite entitles the PC to an experience bonus leading to more rapid leveling up. Constitution is used to add bonus hit points and determine survival chance in adversity such as paralyzation or being turned to stone (and back presumably). Dexterity can add a bonus to the PCs ability to hit with a missile weapon if the score is above average and Charisma determines the maximum number of hirelings and loyalty base.
Other than the above, ability scores are just the numbers that make up a character along with class, hit points and alignment. White Box does not specifically say the abilities have any other function, yet there they are, begging an enterprising referee to make use of them. White Box gives some prompts to the imagination in this regard. Constitution and Dexterity can give a small bonus or penalty to other scores such as hit points and to-hit with missiles. Therefore one presumes other ability scores could be used to grant bonuses/penalties in a like manner and sure enough in Supplement I, this occurs. Abilities might also be used to affect the PC's chances of accomplishing certain tasks in a manner similar to constitution and the shock survival percentages. The ability score can also be used as a ranking as in the case of Dexterity and speed, determining who goes first in casting spells or firing missiles and therefore other score rankings might also be useful.
The nature of adventure gaming is for players to think of something they would like their PC to do or try and for the referee to tell them what game mechanic to use to help determine if it happens and how well an outcome it produces. What White Box referee hasn't defaulted to those aptly named "abilities" when faced with such challenge. Perhaps using Strength to determine if you can lift a heavy object or Dexterity to catch a falling object. Rolling a number of six-siders, usually three, but it could vary with the difficulty of the task, and looking for a total that is under one's ability score or rolling a twenty-sided die equal to or under one's ability score is an intuitive answer to the question of how to handle such in-game situations. I assume they are termed "ability scores" for a reason.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

PCs or World

What's at the Center of the Campaign?
Fantasy role-playing campaigns can be built a number of different ways to suit the individual tastes of the players. Much like the literature from which White Box and the hobby in general draws for inspiration, it is (almost) always a combination of (player) characters and world interacting. The cast of characters must have a stage or world on which to act out their story. Sometimes the story takes place over several generations and involves characters that come and go. The only constant in such a tale is the world or setting.
Narnia, C.S. Lewis' brilliant fantasy world is the setting for a number of fantastic tales. Other inspirational works which feature the world setting at center stage include George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones tales and J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. All feature a changing cast of characters who shape the world, but the story seems centered on the world itself. The fantasy role-playing campaign can readily tell this kind of narrative with a cast of PCs, some who come and go, while the world lives on, changing and evolving in response to both the PCs and NPCs actions.
The Conan tales of R.E. Howard, Michael Moorcock's Elric and Fritz Leiber's Swords stories involving the daring escapades of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are set in very interesting make-believe lands, but are really the personal narratives of the central character(s). The fantastic world provides a backdrop to the lives and adventures of the principle actors. A role-playing campaign can certainly take a similar approach and facilitate the story of PCs as they go from one adventure to the next. Continuity in such a campaign rests on the survival of the central cast, obviously. Old School games such as White Box frequently have high PC mortality rates, especially for low-level PCs and therefore may require some rule adjustments in order for the campaign to be centered on the activities of a single set of characters.
White Box and other systems in which PC life can be cheap (especially at lower levels) and players may expect to go through a number of characters during the campaign lend themselves more to the "world as central feature" narrative. White Box is cleverly designed so that as the PC progresses up the level ladder, the players have more options for keeping them alive. Higher hit points and the availability of resurrection supports PC survival and the resulting story shifting center toward the exploits of the high level PC. Thus White Box is both Narnia and Conan.
The actual game setting can be as detailed as the referee wants to make it. Some campaigns run for years as nothing more than a common cast of characters that are linked by playing in several stand-alone adventures which taken together form an episodic campaign. Other campaigns involve worlds borrowed from published works, either fiction or game materials. The game worlds I generally enjoy most, however are the personal creations of gaming buddies, some of which are the result of years (or decades) of play.
Campaigns, even the episodic type, tend to develop a certain character of their own. Whether dark and dangerous, light and humorous, heroic, gonzo or gothic in nature, each campaign will develop along distinct lines and the players will associate it with certain key events, places and maybe characters. Each campaign tells it's own story through play, sometimes with the aid of heavy scripting from the referee, but I tend to favor letting the story happen as a result of the players interacting with the world through the PCs. As a referee I greatly enjoy being surprised by PC response to my world where a number of opportunities are always available and things are constantly changing, with or without PC intervention.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Keep the Action Moving
Over the decades, I have played many rule systems. Some are way more detailed than others. Depending on my mood and the desires of fellow gamers at the table, a more detailed "crunchy" system can provide a lot of entertainment. The more detailed rules I often find more interesting to read because they are generally full of sub-systems and novel ideas I may want to borrow for my rules-lite game. Such borrowed complexity usually only lasts for a game session or two and then I drop it in favor of "less is more". One of the reasons I like rules-lite systems and especially the White Box is the game's pacing. Things move along quickly. Combat is quick, spell casting is quick, rolling up a new PC is quick. Nothing breaks up the mood of an exciting game like pausing to hunt down an effects table or look up a rule in the book.
I really enjoy playing a system that fades into the background. Rules that are so well known by the group that not only is there no question how they work, but they seldom even give pause for reflection. The game is just played, quickly and with little thought given to mechanics. A table can do a lot of adventuring when little time is spent figuring out how to do things. Rules-lite systems often require the referee to adjudicate on-the-fly, to improvise rules for determining if the PCs succeed at a proposed action. If this is done quickly and smoothly, the action can proceed, but a lengthy discussion, which is sometimes necessary, can effectively pause play just like looking in the book for a forgotten rule mechanic. As a group plays together over time they may come to a point where most of the things not covered have been hashed out and an accepted method for handling them established thereby minimizing the need for the referee to intervene.
I have little doubt that familiarity and memorization plays a significant part in my preference for White Box over all other systems. White Box supports a style of play that influences how I approach other even dissimilar games and I rather think I bring a little White Box philosophy to every game system I play. A desire for quick combat and rapid pacing is evidence. I also like to tinker with rule systems and appreciate an opportunity to individualize the game with my own innovations and interpretations. White Box seems to encourage all these aspects and is therefore a good fit for me. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Critical Hits

Gary Was Correct
In 1975, a year after publication of the White Box, TSR published Empire of the Petal Throne which included the rule that a "natural twenty" score on the to-hit die is a critical hit and deals double damage. This was a time when the new hobby was developing rapidly and the idea of a critical hit was making it's appearance in various "house rule" innovations to White Box, such was described, alongside numerous other rule innovations, in several of the amateur publications of the day. Published games starting in the late 1970's and right up to the present have frequently included a critical hit mechanic. The Arduin Grimoire (1977) includes a rather detailed critical hit table, which can result in instant death. Chivalry and Sorcery (1977) and Runequest (1978) soon followed suit with mechanics for the "critical hit".
The only mention of critical hits in the White Box is in volume 3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, when discussing aerial combat a Critical Hit table is provided. This critical hit works in conjunction with a hit location table (Blackmoor would include a hit location table for land combat). The Critical Hit table lists percentages of a critical hit occurring by location and ranges from 25% if the rider is hit on down to nil for a tail hit. The effect of a critical hit depends on the location and if it's the rider, the beast withdraws from combat. Other critical hits can result in loss of speed, dive and land or crash - dead in air!
E. Gary Gygax wrote in Dragon #16 (July 1978), and in other places (including the DMG), that he disapproved of the critical hit idea. In the article he writes that the inclusion of critical hits and double damage does violence to the game and can possibly result in ruin, especially in the case of the instant death of characters or monsters which unbalances the game and makes it difficult for the player to use their judgement in play, i.e. to predict how dangerous certain monsters are. When even a lowly kobold can lop one's head off with a lucky referee roll of the die, how does one know when to run away? Every encounter becomes much more of a gamble. Also, low-level PCs may take ill-considered risks on the off-chance of rolling a natural twenty and slaying a huge dragon. If that happens the resulting treasure hoard may be described a "Monty Haul".
In the same article Mr. Gygax challenges the trend for players to want more realism in their fantasy game. He points to the inherent contradiction between what is real and fantasy (including "magic") as well as the fact that no "game" can replicate reality. The desire for a more realistic feel, for verisimilitude, continues to be a factor in role-playing games to this day. Many popular game systems start out as an effort to design a more realistic game and market the resulting product as such. I admit my own occasional the desire for more realism or at least verisimilitude, has prompted many of my own gaming hobby decisions. There is something visceral and satisfying about being told your mace connects with the baddie's lower leg bruising flesh and crushing bone resulting in a crippling wound and the baddie drops prone before you. But I have also found there is no reason a referee cannot use such colorful language to describe a simple White Box hit that does an impressive number of damage points. Verisimilitude, rather than realism, is the actual goal here.
Is this a point on which there is room for a difference of opinion? My answer is a resounding "yes, of course". Mr. Gygax is making a point and I think a good one, however. The ability to judge damage dealt and taken is key to many games including White Box. Each Hit Point is determined with a roll of 1-6. Each weapon hit does 1-6 points of damage. It almost reduces the point system to a creature who has four hit die can take four hits, one-for-one. Rolling the die adds some degree of unpredictability, but double damage, maximum damage and especially instant death crits can significantly alter expected outcomes. Is White Box the delicately balanced, finely tuned Swiss watch Mr. Gygax seems to present it as? "Not hardly", I would say, but I do like the game better without critical hits.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Man To Man

GURPS'  0th Edition
Back in the late 70's Steve Jackson (the American one) wrote Melee and Wizard as part of The Fantasy Trip (TFT) system which included several excellent solo adventures. Later came an expansion called Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard. These titles were all published by Metagaming which shortly after the Advanced versions were printed went out-of-business. Mr. Jackson hung on to his idea for a logical realistic role-playing game with fairly simple, understandable mechanics. Forming his own company, Steve Jackson Games, he was unable to secure the rights to his TFT, but started development of a new system that carried over as many of his old concepts as seemed practical. According to gamer legend, the development team called this project GURPS, the Great Unnamed Role-Playing System, and the acronym would eventually stick as the Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS), a name which more closely reflected Mr. Jackson's design goals.
GURPS was several years in the making and before the final product was released Steve Jackson Games tested their idea with Man To Man, which is the Fantasy Combat system from GURPS, just like it says on the cover. Man To Man was sold (for about a year) as an arena combat system, but contains a lot of what would eventually appear as the GURPS Basic Set 1st Edition and remain the core rules to this day (GURPS Basic Set, 4th Edition). Like TFT, GURPS uses 3d6, roll low for most checks - to hit, to save, to succeed. The basic attributes are Strength, IQ and Dexterity and Man To Man adds health where the old TFT used Str for health as well as physical prowess. Man To Man focuses on combat in a medieval fantasy technology level, but full blown GURPS is Generic and has stats for all kinds of weapons including science fiction, far future technology.
Man To Man introduces the GURPS point-buy system of character generation. The point-buy system does away with character classes and allows a player to design any type of character with just about any mix of combat abilities, magic and talents/skills. Man To Man also introduces the system of point-bought advantages and skills that will be a staple of GURPS through all its editions. The list is short in Man To Man, but what is there is suitably focused on combat. GURPS takes personality development a step further with additional advantages and skills and adds disadvantages and quirks.
GURPS is a lot of things I like. It largely succeeds in being Generic, especially within the confines of human character limitations. GURPS says the developers tested the mechanics which means real world data went into the development. The system has rules for super powers, but obviously they are  beyond the ability of humans to "test". Fantasy magic is also similarly "theoretical" by necessity. In the fantasy setting, which is my main gaming interest, GURPS works well and that's really all I can recall ever using it for. The search for realism in gaming was at its height when GURPS was being developed and this shows in both the game's design and verbiage. Another stated goal of the system is to be universal and to that end GURPS uses real world measurements such as seconds of time, pounds of weight and miles per hour of speed. It does this so that a referee can easily translate any source-book or adventure module from GURPS to other systems or from other systems to GURPS.
Weapons cause one (or more) of three types of damage, crushing, cutting or impaling. Damage is a combination of how the weapon is used, swinging or thrusting and the type of damage it does. Armor makes one harder to hit and reduces damage taken. Shields block damage and are definitely worth taking. Man To Man covers a few basic fantasy races and some "monster" types, but even with GURPS a full fantasy bestiary is only supplied in a separate volume. There are mechanics for improving the PC with experience. Encumbrance rules are again practicle and based on real world effects - it slows you down and increases fatigue. The movement system and combat options make Man To Man and GURPS one of the most tactical of RPG systems. With the exception of a magic system (which really didn't appear until the Fantasy supplement for GURPS 1st Edition), Man To Man has all the components of a full blown fantasy RPG. 
GURPS, unlike Man To Man, assumes no default setting and offers the referee a flexible set of tools and rule options, to design their personal game, picking and choosing rules to suit the individual setting. More so even than White Box, it demands the referee use their own imagination to create a setting, or buy a setting source-book - Steve Jackson Games has printed lots of them over the years. Making the game your own is a must either way because many rules are presented as options. I love systems that encourage a do-it-yourself approach to gaming, give the referee control of their world and allow for running either a simple or complex game depending on preference and GURPS does all this quite well. Like a lot of systems that rely on point-buy and offer a lot of character customization, GURPS is prone to min-maxing and power-gaming. As long as munchkins are kept in check, I find the game very fun, but for each referee a lot of explaining needs to occur upfront regarding what rule choices are made.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Pumping Up the "Magic" Factor
"So you have heard of a spell called lightning bolt and you wonder how this magic can be yours?" stated the sage. "I only know of one other mage who knew this spell and she is unlikely to teach it to you, nor do I recommend you try to steal it from her. That would be most unwise, young Bugstomper."
"Where did she acquire this arcane knowledge? Perhaps I could get the spell 'Lightning Bolt' the same way she did?" said the mage called Bugstomper.
"The way I heard it," whispered the sage, leaning close, "she acquired it from the cloud giant, Angrbodeus..."
Leaving his party of adventurers at the basecamp, Bugstomper started the long climb up the mountain. The stone steps winding their way around and around the mountain seemed endless and Bugstomper was glad for the draft of endurance potion he had purchased from the wise woman at the village below, even though it had cost him nearly all his savings. He thanked his good fortune that he has converted his gold into portable jewels before starting this quest. The villagers said the cloud giant, Angrbodeus, could be found at the top of the stairs when clouds covered the mountain peak.
Many hours later, as dusk drew near, Bugstomper rounded a bend and stopped short. There before him in the fading light stood a columned temple of giant proportions, shrouded in mist and shot through with the sun's last rays. He stumbled forward on legs that barely responded to his wish. He must enter the temple and find Angrbodeus!
Climbing the oversize steps proved almost too much for the exhausted mage, but at last he could use his arms as well as legs to propel himself upward. Passing between the colossal columns, Bugstomper seemed to enter another realm, one of splendor beyond imagine. Seated on a dais, a bearded figure lifted his gigantic head and emitted a thunderous laugh. "And who has come to disturb the quietude of Angrbodeus?" the giant queried.
In a voice shaky with fatigue and fear, for much depended on the outcome of this meeting, Bugstomper stated his name and the purpose of his quest. After agreeing to a price, the cloud giant taught Bugstomper the spell he sought, informing him that he would need to secure his own piece of fleece from the Sikelean sheep in order to cast the spell.
As he departed the temple and started down the stone stairs, Bugstomper practiced the incantation he had just learned. Of course, the spell would not actually work until he had a piece of  Sikelean sheep's fleece to rub. That should be no trouble, Bugstomper was sure his adventuring companions would be eager to accompany him to the island where he could find and slaughter a Sikelean sheep. He thought to himself, "I think there was something I recall hearing about a one eyed giant living on that island..." Then, "Wait a minute, my beard is white, so is my hair, and they've gotten longer! Oh, well, Angrbodeus said there was a price for such powerful knowledge."
Magic should be magical in our White Box or any other fantasy game. Mundane magic misses the entire point. There are many ways to make magic more "magical". The easiest involves colorful descriptions of the spell effects and involves no actual rule modifications. White Box magic is generally described as "Vancian" in reference to its similarity to magic in Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories. The spells in Mr. Vance's fiction have wonderful names and "mysterious" effects as well as being memorized and held in the magician's brain prior to casting. White Box states how many spells a Magic User may know and memorize. New spells can be rolled for or chosen when the MU levels up, alternately acquiring new spells can be an adventure in itself as described in the Bugstomper tale. In fact several aspects of making magic more magical are described in the short tale, used together they probably make magic a little too difficult to acquire for most gamer's taste. Bugstomper's magic has a cost in terms of turning his hair white/aging. He has to find someone to teach him the new spell and acquire a material component in order to cast it. Spells in White Box are somewhat unpredictable what with those spells affecting a target who generally gets a saving throw and other spells which do variable damage or affect a variable number of creatures. Many spells just go off as described with no surprises, however. The uncertainty of magic can make it more mysterious, dangerous and exciting. It isn't difficult to add mana, ley lines or other sources of magical power to one's campaign by house-ruling the White Box. The use of rituals can also add "flavor" and variety with little effort. Even the addition of a few rules that affect a few spells can spice up a milieu and keep things fresh for players in a long campaign.
Perhaps while adventuring on the Island of Sikel, Bugstomper learns of a spell of Water Breathing that can be earned from a certain skull of a drowned sorcerer and a really high level magic that enables the caster to Animate Dead. The latter spell supposedly exists in an ancient "living" tome held in a temple where vampires are known to perform their dark rites. Imagination is the only limit. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

White Box Middle Earth

What to do about Tolkien?
The White Box can handle a lot of campaign settings right out of the box, but the real joy for a referee is creating one's own world and seeing it come to life through play. White Box has been described as a creative re-imagining of the literary sources that inspired it, including among others the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Early printings of White Box list hobbits as a playable race and ents and balrogs as monsters. At least one illustration is labeled as a nazgul. Anyone who has read Lord of the Rings (LotR) or seen the Peter Jackson movies will recognize a dungeon full of orcs and the wilderness adventure where a party of mixed characters travels cross country, having many encounters along the way.
Middle Earth is incredibly well documented in the many published works, including some licensed game materials which have appeared from one publisher or another over the years. The interested referee might draw on one of these sources for a campaign idea or can, as I prefer, develop a campaign around a map area and a single line of text (or no text) from one of the sources. It is not necessary to involve well known personalities in the campaign and in fact I rather prefer to not do so and let the PCs be the main actors. Not every adventure need result in the destruction of Sauron. Many adventures can be to thwart lessor minions or achieve personal goals important only to the PCs.
White Box is written to encompass an eclectic style of play that blends elements seen in many different fantasy sources and therefore includes things which may seem out-of-place in Middle Earth. The Third Age is one of declining magic and departing elves. It can be described as a low-magic setting, whereas the default for White Box is high magic with crackling lightning bolts and exploding fireballs. This disparity can of course be addressed in one of two ways, tone down magic in the rules or bring the setting into line with the default rules for magic. I personally prefer the former.
Balance between character classes in White Box is a matter of some complexity (if it exists at all). Any tinkering with the classes and their abilities may "unbalance" things. Having said that, I don't worry a lot about it. It is easy enough to remove certain magic heavy classes such as the magic user and cleric or modify them. Spell lists can be trimmed or re-written to include a more Middle Earth themed magic than the default "Vancian" system, which is the approach I favor. Elven magic seems more music/song based while dwarven magic may involve tracing runes and muttering secret incantations. Herbal lore can replace magic in many ways, especially healing and other clerical spell effects and seems more in keeping to the spirit of Middle Earth than deity worshiping clerics wielding divine magic outright. More traditional White Box Magic Users would be rare and could be limited to the Istari, certain "older" elves and followers of the Shadow. White Box is a system of relatively few character classes and in order to both provide players options and keep close to the sources, adding a couple character classes such as herbalist and ranger makes sense.
The bestiary is another setting specific element of the game that can greatly define the play milieu. Again White Box includes many elements that are consistent with Middle Earth and many that are not. Removal of those monsters that seem inconsistent and adding to the list additional monsters found in the Tolkien sources seems the obvious solution. Orcs/goblins come in many forms in Middle Earth and the basic White Box goblin and orc will not do them justice without modification. Scaling seems a good option, making orcs available from 1 hit die or less on up to 8 or 10 hit die depending on the "power" of the orc. Giving undead special powers that more closely reflect their role in the source books is another way to both add consistency to the milieu and increase the horror element of the game. My reading of LotR suggests the Shadow forces were much more creepy and scary than come across in any of the movie versions and I like to run my version of Middle Earth this way. Therefore some mechanic for corruption needs to be in play.
White Box includes Tolkienesque fantasy elves, dwarves and hobbits, kinda. Tolkien's elves are powerful creatures, especially the Noldor. The Third Age is the "Age of Men" and I personally prefer human PCs for gaming in the Third Age, but other referees may want to include the other races. The mixed race Fellowship in LotR is brought together by the actions of Gandalf and the Council of Elrond and seems out-of-character for the races to frequently do this (although it is the norm in default White Box play). I think diversity is more a modern value and medieval cultures such as Middle Earth is somewhat based on, would be more insular and xenophobic.
I have run two short campaigns in Middle Earth, one based around Arnor for which I drew heavily on Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) material published by Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.), the other based in Far and Near Harad for which there is far less canon and I felt I had more creative freedom. Both campaigns involved human PCs and redefined magic. I find that with cooperative players Middle Earth is highly playable as a milieu and a nice alternative to my home-brew campaign setting.