Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Alone with a Big Rulebook

Thoughts on Hackmaster
I really love this book in so many ways. The Hackmaster 5 Player's Handbook is physically attractive, probably the best looking book I own including a few collector's editions of other titles. The leatherette cover is embossed with sword, shield and scrollwork reminiscent of nineteenth century craftsmanship. The colorful title plaque sets off the subject with a combination of old-style  and heroic action. The color pages are expensive glossy paper and the whole thing weighs a ton. (Well, that is obviously an exaggeration, but it's hefty.) It's got personality (and attitude) and is complex enough to demand I pay attention to it. It rewards thoughtful play and cooperation. (The "dating" insinuation is intentional.)
The Hackmaster game line started as perhaps the first old school clone, although with a heavy dose of humor. Owing its origins to Jolly Blackburn's comic Knights of the Dinner Table (KotDT), which so accurately captures the culture of tabletop fantasy RPG that it's uncanny, Hackmaster, being the game the Knights play, was written by Kenzer & Co. with permission from WotC as a spoof of early Advanced Original Game rules. The game was called Hackmaster 4 because the Official Game (owned by WotC) was then in its third edition. Hackmaster 4 is a complete game system based on the earlier Advanced game rules with a lot of good humor mixed in.
Hackmaster 5 is the game Kenzer & Co. created to replace 4. It is a more serious presentation, although the often arrogant tone of the author is I think at least partially tongue-in-cheek. He says it is the best game out and that once you play it all other games will appear inferior by comparison. This may turn a few readers off, but hey, I think there is some truth in the boast. This game is good...really good. Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of folks playing it and I have had a hard time selling it to my regular group. There are a lot of pages in this book (401, if we are counting) and the complete system includes two additional volumes, a Gamemaster's Guide and Hacklopedia of Beasts.
The current 5th edition (there was no 1-3 editions) draws from the best that's gone before - meaning the hobby in general. In the KotDT comic, the Hackmaster game is written by mythical game designer Gary Jackson, who is credited in the Hackmaster 5 rules. I believe this is a tribute to Gary Gygax and Steve Jackson (GURPS). Hackmaster seems to combine and improve on a number of rule systems pioneered by these two.
Hackmaster uses a class and level system (like White Box), and a melee countdown (similar to GURPS). This countdown incorporates weapon speed, a variable initiative roll (d6, d8, d12, etc.), and multiple attacks in a time progression count that works without using turns. Armor and shields function in a rational manner and the attack and parry sequence that can seem tedious and a time-waste in some systems is handled with simultaneous d20 rolls by attacker and defender in Hackmaster. Spells can be deadly, but take a while to cast and can be spoiled if the caster takes damage while in the process. Movement, casting and attacking are all happening simultaneously as the countdown continues and the result can seem more like real-time action than game-play. There is a bit of a learning curve, but it all makes so much sense.
So I love this game and hardly ever get to play it (so far only at conventions). Maybe it's just too much (of a good thing). I have talked to several friends about it and even got one to play through a short demo with me, but he thought the mechanics were too complicated. So for now it looks like Hackmaster shall remain just out-of-reach (like that really attractive person that barely knows you exist). I suppose we all have games that we only dream about playing.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Hit Point Calisthenics

Playing with Hit Points
The Hit Point mechanics help define White Box and all its direct descendants. A resource pool of character health, skill, karma or luck which can be lost through falling, burning, fatigue, or damage (physical or emotional) and recovered either slowly through healing or by magic is a defining factor in the game. Although the concept is often copied, even in video and computer RPGs, Hit Points are also one of the areas most discussed and house-ruled by those seeking a better, more realistic solution to "taking damage".
There is a beauty of design in the simple Hit Point system of White Box as I see it. At low level the game is especially dangerous as our game playing piece, the character, has but a single d6 worth of Hit Points which can evaporate given a single d6 roll for damage. Character Death - defined as Hit Points reaching zero, is ever a threat. We players start the game knowing it is "dangerous" and our playing piece, our entry ticket into the shared fun, can be eliminated very quickly. We therefore start the game with tension, which I see as a good thing.
Perhaps our biggest reward for surviving and accumulating experience/treasure and gaining a Level is more Hit Points. Additional Hit Points is like insurance. We start to worry less and think our character can take a couple blows before dying. We have some additional room to manage our ability to survive and succeed in the game by running away or healing-up after taking damage because it is less likely our character will lose all their improved Hit Points in a single roll of the damage die.
Just what does that additional Hit Point die roll represent? Can my Fighting Man now reliably survive one chop with a sword, but maybe not two? Does this represent the ability to take two "killing wounds"? Maybe it means my character can use his luck to duck under the first "killing blow", but not a second. The designers of White Box are purposefully silent on what the game Hit Points amount to other than "being the number of points of damage the character could sustain before death."
Hit Points would be a concept wargamers would be familiar with in 1974 because they would have seen them used as a way to reflect accumulated damage to a warship or other "playing piece". Consistent with a general do-it-yourself philosophy, the designers leave it up the the referee to further develop the Hit Point concept, but imply that loss of Hit Points has no affect on the PC other than death when they are at zero. Vol. 1: Men & Magic of the LBBs states, "Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee."
So are we left to conceive of our character as something like a giant space robot who takes hit after hit, pieces flying away as they are slowly diminished and eventually destroyed to the point they die? I rather think that misses the point and shows some lack of potential imagination. Many systems which followed White Box use a damage system that relies on hit location and/or detailed wound descriptions which may seem more "realistic", but the ol' White Box system can be just as detailed in description by applying a little extra imagination, and can do so while maintaining the speed of using an abstract combat mechanic.
Abstraction in rules can account for a number of discrete variables while remaining a simple and fast system. The designers of White Box understood this (White Box wasn't their first game design). The speedy pace of White Box combat (which is admittedly abstract in many ways) allows for several encounters to be played through during a session, emphasizes the fast and furious nature of melee and is one of the things I really like about the game. Abstraction can be a limiting factor in enjoyment, however, especially if what is behind the rules is not thought about and discussed.
So when we roll for damage and report so many "hits" are to be recorded against the Hit Points of an opponent it is a simple and quick adjustment to add some verbal "details" taken from our imagination such as "he takes a slash across the stomach for 6 points". The "bloody" creature can then continue to "suffer" from the injury, if the players like, by carrying the "detail" forward. Perhaps the referee states, "holding the wound in his stomach, the bugbear now swings his axe at the warrior princess, but being distracted by his wound, misses." Such table talk can be oh-so more interesting than "take six hits".
Hit Points are one of the most frequently "house-ruled" mechanics in White Box and subsequent editions of the Original Adventure Game. I have a long and troubled history with Hit Points myself. I currently tell myself they are abstract for a good reason. I DO like the idea of rolling for Hit Points at the beginning of each session. The resulting variability across many sessions helps to emphasize the transient nature of karma, luck and the intangibles that go into Hit Points.
The key for me to remain satisfied with Hit Points as a game practice is to not fall into the trap of "ticking off the HP boxes". Rather I try to imagine the action and what's happening on our shared mental stage. Fatigue, divine favor, armor and situational props (a wet floor, etc.) may all come into play while thinking about and describing the action resulting in Hit Point loss. When I recall that each round/turn of melee involves not a single thrust or hack, but a series of actions, parries, maneuvering and looking for openings, it gets easier.
I am currently more inclined to mess with healing than with damage as a subject for house-rule. The balance between Hit Points, weapon damage and creature Hit Dice seems about right to me in White Box. Also, I don't like to slow the pace and rhythm of the combat game as written. Healing happens after the furious action of melee is over, so applying bandages, herbs and poultices, using healing magic or adding "down time" detail like variable rates of natural healing based on 1-point per hit dice or 5-points per day after the first week of bed-rest doesn't detract from the enjoyment of being "in the moment". Verisimilitude...I think this is how it happens, at least at my table.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Do Orcs Hang Out at the Local Tavern

Old School Perspective
My first association with the word "orc" is from The Lord of The Rings where they are the bad guy minions of Sauron and Saruman. The Hobbit seems to refer to the same evil creatures as "goblins" and despite some research into the origins and species of orcs and goblins, I remain unsure if J.R.R. Tolkien meant them to be two names for the same creatures or not. The fact that they are evil and live separate from men and elves seems obvious, however.
White Box reintroduced me to orcs as a part of gaming. Listed among the monsters in Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure, orcs are one hit-die creatures with armor class 6 (equivalent to leather and shield) who live in various tribes either above ground in villages or below ground in caves, are aligned with chaos and occasionally work alongside men (who are presumably also aligned with chaos). Orcs are light sensitive (-1 to hit) and quarrelsome - frequently fighting other orc tribes. We are told orcs have access to catapults and to wagons, so I infer they are builders and makers of some (crude) skill. They are often led by high level fighting men, magic users or more powerful creatures, which seems to indicate subservience to power. This all seems to fit in with what I gleaned about orcs from reading Prof. Tolkien and my mental image of "orc" was (and maybe is) a combination of what I gathered from the Tolkien sources, movie adaptations included, and White Box.
In 1974, when White Box was published, the "to date" published works of Prof. Tolkien were fairly popular, especially among readers who would be interested in White Box. This was before the unfinished works were released by Christopher Tolkien therefore much that is now known about Middle Earth remained a mystery then. White Box may have been inspired by elements of Middle Earth, but certainly it does not adhere to a strict canon regarding any source. Therefore creatures such as the orc or troll may be "borrowed" from a literary source, but the authors freely adapt such material to suit their own fancy.
Moving ahead in time to the Advanced Game, orcs receive a fairly long entry in the Monster hardback. We now know that orcs are a common creature, of average (low) intelligence. They are characterized as slavers and "bullies" and their tendency to squabble and fight among themselves and with goblins is emphasized. They are described as cruel and haters of living things in general and especially elves. They prefer to live underground, see well in the dark and are accomplished tunnelers and miners.
It is from the Advanced Monster hardback that we have the image of orcs with pig snouts and the first mention of their skin coloration - brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen and pink snouts and ears. This seems in contrast to the Tolkien orcs who I recall being described as "black" and created from the tortured spirits of elves. The so-called pig faced orcs have never set particularly well with me and I tend to avoid using this description while refereeing. Your orcs may vary.
The half-orc makes its in-game appearance in the Advanced Monster and Players hardbacks as a mongrel race mostly resembling their orc parent (Prof. Tolkien mentions half-orcs as bred by Saruman). We are told some 10% of the human-orc cross-breeds sufficiently resemble humans so as to pass among human society. The strong racial language used in these volumes teeters on the unacceptable today (imo), but the meaning is quite clear. Half-orc player characters look mostly human, perhaps having some unusual features such as off-color skin tone, unusual hair or nose and ear shapes. They receive a Charisma penalty of -2 and are not well liked by other races. It is obvious, however, that this 10% of half-orcs can move among human society with some degree of freedom. I get the impression that people generally react negatively to the half-orc, but tolerate them as "ugly" and perhaps "ill mannered" or bullies.
What about the rest of orc-dom? The tribal orcs and those half-orcs who mostly resemble other orcs are presumably treated as monsters and are therefore unwelcome among polite society? This would be keeping with a Middle Earth interpretation. I just can't imagine an orc being served anything but violence at the Prancing Pony Inn.
The game has changed much over the decades since White Box ushered in the new hobby and today much game art and many published settings assume orcs and humans mingle freely in a diverse culture of blending much like our own real culture aspires to. This is certainly different from the way I experienced the game in my early days and may reflect some degree of old school verses new school styles of play. White Box emphasizes a do-it-yourself approach especially to world building and there is no reason to suppose worlds didn't exist back-in-the-day where orcs and elves shared high tea - in fact Tunnels & Trolls' default setting (Trollworld) has always been like that. It just isn't the way my group played the game until fairly recently. (In fact, when I referee, orcs are still "monsters".)
How one approaches the orc, half-orc may say something about their roots in the hobby. My first half-orc character was handed to me by my referee as he informed me this was to be my character in his 3.5 campaign. I balked...I had never wanted to play a half-orc, or a vampire or any other "monster". I got through it and grew to enjoy playing my half-orc cleric/thief, but it was an adjustment. I still tend to see orcs, drow, tieflings and other monster races as the bad guys. I also still enjoy westerns where the good guys wear the white hats (remembering it is all "make-believe"). One of the joys of this hobby is the freedom to "decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way".

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Old School Assumptions

...and Other Thoughts of Chaotic Delusion
The authors of White Box make certain assumptions regarding the people likely to play their new game. Chief among those assumptions is that those playing the game will be familiar with wargaming as it is practiced as a hobby (circa 1974). This means awareness of and often experience gaming with miniature figures representing various soldier-types from history and with maps. Traditionally wargaming is centered on subjects taken from history and a certain level of historical research is expected of those participating (fantasy battle gaming developed alongside RPGs). "Realism" becomes a thing sought after among such knowledgeable hobbyists and characterized the design of many early RPGs. Familiarity with tabletop measurement in inches or centimeters, the concept of scale and use of dice to represent the uncertainties of war accompanies participation in gaming with miniatures. That the designers possess these assumptions is quite obvious when reading the original LBBs.
White Box authors are also making an assumption that their intended audience has some experience with, and interest in, the fantastic as found in mythology and fantasy literature. The sources of influence listed in Appendix N of the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide contains a list of those literary antecedents to the hobby.
Perhaps another way to separate an old school approach from a new school one is by looking at the assumptions made by their respective authors. Today designers of "old school" games assume their intended audience has some experience with the fantasy adventure games of the 1970's and '80's if not the same wargames and literature interests which brought many into the hobby during that era, while so-called "new school" games generally make no such assumption. WotC may be an exception with 5e having been designed using knowledge of the old school movement in the hobby. Nostalgia often plays a part in the old school marketing strategy if marketing comes into play. Many products labeled OSR (Old School Renaissance) seem to be labors of love and are perhaps written as an expression of the author's desire to share their "improvements" on the original game. I say this because many are available as free downloads.
New school (and some OSR) games often start with an assumption that the game is an introduction to the hobby and fantasy in general and therefore include a lengthy "What is fantasy roleplaying" section. If the current game author assumes anything in terms of an interest in the fantastic it is different from the assumptions of the 1970's. Today, fantasy has become somewhat mainstream evident in many video games and it is hard to find anyone who has not some familiarity with the magic of Harry Potter or the movies of Peter Jackson involving hobbits. Electronic games are a part of popular culture and many draw from the role-playing games of yesteryear for inspiration. Playing the part of a pixel hero in a video game setting is more common than familiarity with the map and miniature wargames of old. Designers of new school games assume familiarity with such sources and frequently build upon this assumption.
In 1977 when I discovered White Box and the hobby of adventure gaming I met very few fellow White Box devotees who had not read the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien. Those authors together with Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt are less well known today. Many of my fellow role-players, younger than myself, now come to the hobby reading R.A. Salvatore, J.K. Rowling, Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. Many play computer (and console) RPGs before tabletop. Many are experienced collectible card game players. How one thinks about the hobby and what one looks for in the hobby game is undoubtedly influenced by our prior experiences and the wider popular culture we are a part of.
The games I read and play today differ in many ways from those contemporary with White Box and the first Advanced Game. The single "unified mechanic" has largely replaced the modular approach to design. Character class, when used, is generally seen as something one can "dip" into in order to smartly build up character skills and abilities (through multi-classing) rather than class as a full-time career requiring years of training and full-time devotion. Races are accepted as variant humans with a few stat adjustments rather than totally alien beings. The idea of game balance has changed from one of experience point tables and level limits to that of managing threat, challenge and reward (wealth by level) and all characters being roughly equal in ability at all levels. I have already addressed death and dying in my last post.
The old school approach places much more power in the hands of the referee through a rulings not rules approach and a general do-it-yourself attitude towards campaign design and sand-box style adventuring. One of the goals of many new games is to limit the negative impacts of an inexperienced or poor referee. While not a bad aspiration in and of itself, I personally find this approach often leads to a less inspired and less creatively run session/campaign. It is no secret I generally favor the old school values over new school, so my opinion is undoubtedly biased. As regular readers of this blog may note, I am very excited about many new RPG titles and run them as referee more often than I do my beloved White Box. As an example of games actually played I have refereed more Dragon Age than White Box this year and enjoyed Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics, RuneQuest, Castles & Crusades, Star Wars, Shadowrun, The One Ring, 5e, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Pendragon, and Fantasy Age in that order of frequency as a player.