Monday, December 31, 2018

A Year: Past & Future

Goodbye 2018, Hello 2019
In many ways 2018 has been a good year for me and the tabletop gaming hobby. I attended both Origins and Gencon and hung out for extended periods with good friends who I only see at conventions. I played what seems like a good many games, both at the convention and with my home groups. I got to travel south and spend an extended visit with my oldest and dearest gamer buddies. The hobby saw the publication of many really top shelf products, both board games and TTRPGs. The online streaming and vlog community put out some informative commentary on the game and some entertaining gameplay video. Yes, it has been a good year.
As with many good things, however, the year 2018 has produced some darker events. The hobby continues to lose members of the old guard, those who were present for the beginning and who have shepherded the hobby along these many decades. I will especially miss Greg Stafford at Gencon 2019. Mr. Stafford founded The Chaosium to publish White Bear and Red Moon introducing the hobby to his world of Glorantha which has been the setting for several games including RuneQuest and HeroQuest. We also said good-bye to Eric V. Clark this year. Eric was a driving force behind the Legends of the Shining Jewel living campaign and ran the biweekly Pathfinder game in which I frequently played over the last decade and he was a good friend.
Looking forward into 2019 I am excited about several things. The Castles & Crusades campaign run by a good friend is starting up again and we are already a couple sessions into that. I have not got to play enough Gloomhaven yet and am hoping that game is again in my 2019 future. Scythe is another board game I was introduced to last year that I would like to play more of. I have enjoyed Legacy of Dragonholt as both a cooperative group experience and in solo play this past year and hope to finish it in 2019. FFG's Lord of the Rings LCG continues to provide thrills as well.
Tabletop role-play games I hope to run this coming year include a one-shot of Rolemaster set in 4th Age M.E. which I started working on this year. Rolemaster is an older system which I think does a nice job at the table if the referee knows the game well and has prepared the charts. I will use pregens for a couple reasons - it gives me more control of PC abilities so the session can feel like M.E. and frankly creating and leveling up PCs can be a chore in RM (more on that project in a future post).
I picked up the Mongoose Traveller 2e this past year and have a mini campaign setting in mind I hope to run in 2019. Conan 2d20 is still on my short list, so I hope to see it at the table in 2019 (as referee or player). I watched Kevin Madison run the new Legends of the Five Rings on his Youtube channel Dungeon Musings and as a result I recently purchased that game, despite it using a variant of FFG's Narrative Dice System. I like the way Kevin Madison ran the game and I think I may be able to live with the FFG funky dice/narrative mechanic as long as I am the one running it. (I'll say more on that thought in a future post.)
My love for the White Box and the OSR remains as strong as ever and I will be jumping at every chance I get to run old school games again in 2019. I have been with that system for over four decades and still enjoy it. It seems my homebrew sandbox gets bigger each year and I have had several thoughts I added this past year that can be developed into Dreadmoor game sessions fairly quickly.
Under the renewed leadership of Greg Stafford, Rick Meints, Sandy Petersen and friends Chaosium is once again turning out the quality products I learned to expect from Chaosium back in the day. Call of Cthulhu 7e is my favorite edition of a favorite game going back to 1981 and the supporting game aids being released for 7e today are nothing short of awesome. I just added the beautiful Masks of Nyarlathotep 7e slipcase edition to my collection and I may bring it (or some other CoC module) to the table in 2019. RuneQuest is back with Chaosium thanks to Mr. Stafford and the new RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha book is awesome in appearance and content. If I don't run RQ:G, I will be looking to play in a session or three. I believe one of the last things Mr. Stafford accomplished in this life was to bring his King Arthur Pendragon RPG back under the Chaosium tent. Pendragon has been on my favorite game list since I grabbed the 1st edition box set off the shelf and played it later that same day. Mr. Stafford sold me a copy of the beautiful new 5.2 edition this past Gencon.
I ran three sessions of the Pathfinder 2e Playtest beta this past year and my players seem to have enjoyed the changes from PF 1e. If the interest is there, I will be happy to referee more of that system in 2019. The Playtest beta is limited enough in options at present to make it a manageable affair for me and I do like some of the innovations - the 3 action combat economy for starters. I own several rules-lite FRPGs that I believe are a good choice for one-off sessions and I would like to experiment a bit with them in the coming year. Tiny Dungeon immediately jumps to mind.
OSR setting material I acquired in 2018 includes some real gems. Midderlands is a unique take on the English midlands from a creative fantasy perspective and an absolutely beautiful product I highly recommend. Hubris is a setting for DCCRPG and in keeping with the spirit of that system is full of weirdly entertaining and frightful material I can borrow for use in Dreadmoor if I don't decide to set a campaign in the land of Hubris. Finally I have to mention Hot Springs Island, a generic self contained setting in two beautiful volumes that begs to be inserted into any campaign. There is so much good stuff contained in these products that any one of them could form the basis of a lifetime of adventure gaming.
As for anticipating products for 2019... I am hoping to shortly get my hands on the Black Hack 2e. The Black Hack is one of those rules-lite games in the spirit of White Box that has seen some popularity in the last year or so and which I supported through Kickstarter. Steve Jackson Games acquired the rights to The Fantasy Trip last year and ran a Kickstarter for a new edition of Melee, Wizard and a whole lot more in that line. I backed it and am hoping to have my game(s) this coming spring. The Fantasy Trip was one of my favorite systems during the 1980's and has an elegance never quite equaled by GURPS in my eyes. I am also in for the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea player handbook Kickstarter and a couple of cooperative RPG in a box type board games (Set A Watch and Dark Domains) expected to deliver in 2019.
Cubicle 7 released Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e late this year and thereby complicated my life. WFRP 4e is an awesome and beautiful book, but I was just working my way up to conning my friends into some Zweihander by Grim & Perilous Studios when I received 4e. Zweihander won the ENie's GOLD Award for 2019's Best Game and Product of the Year, so you know it's awesome (for me it's beyond awesome!). Having read through WFRP 4e it is awesome too! Both are fresh takes on the original grim and perilous WFRP game by Games Workshop, but while Zweihander sticks closer to the original, offering fixes for the 1e's troublesome bits and adding a host of supplemental and original new material, all grand, and frees us from Ye Olde World setting (owned and monkeyed with by GW) so that we can use a fresh setting of our own wonderful creation, hence 4e is an awesome game too (the combat mechanic using success levels is brilliant imo). The changes 4e makes excite me in a way few modern games have. The folks at Cubicle 7 have a Best Game/Product of the Year contender for 2019. Unfortunately, I don't have a player group primed for either. Grim & Perilous adventure is right up my dark alley, but many gamers I know seek a more "heroic" experience. Although we play them, it often seems that White Box and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG may be pushing their limits.
Thinking ahead, I am as excited about this hobby as ever, which is not bad medicine for a gamer turning sixty. Here's hoping you too have lots to look forward to in the coming year.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Tolkien's Non-Humans Aren't

Elves, Dwarves and Hoblings
The non-human character "races" or ancestries in White Box and many later editions of the World's Most Popular RPG are sometimes referred to as "Tolkienesque", a term I frequently use on this blog to mean they are derived from the fiction of the good professor. There is little doubt in my mind that the popularity of the White Box has been enhanced by the inclusion of these alternate character ancestries, or races, as the game terms them. Much printed ink has been devoted over the years to what these characters should be like and how best to portray them in the game. Various descriptions have been detailed in the many game editions and in later editions additional non-human races not derived from J.R.R. Tolkien's work have been added to the list of playable characters.
Elves and dwarves of course appear in traditional fairy tales and Professor Tolkien's estate could lay no exclusive claim to the exclusive rights to such, but the estate reportedly did send Mr. Gygax and company a cease and desist letter over the appearance of the term "hobbit" (along with "balrog" and "ent") in the original printings of the 3 Little Brown Books (see Vol. 1, page 9, for example) that make up White Box. Hobbit is changed to "halfling" in the 6th printing and all subsequent editions (so as to avoid lawsuit, I suppose). I venture to speculate that the Tolkien Estate has sold quite a few copies of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit to folks who first heard of these books (and fantasy in general)  through playing White Box or a later edition of The World's Most Popular RPG. What debt is owed to TSR for this interest is anyone's guess.
So what exactly are "elves", "dwarves" and "hob-lings" like beyond the physical descriptions and illustrations. They seem remarkably like humans to me, both in the works of the good professor and in the game. It is my position that the elves, dwarves and hoblings are stereotyped exaggerations of certain human traits often found in more moderate proportions among us living humans. Elves are wise, aloof - even haughty, tall slender, merry and somewhat flighty folk. Dwarves are short, stout, grumbling, earthy types who enjoy ale and are plagued by greed and grudge holding. Hoblings are short, worrisome, barefoot bumpkins who tend toward folksy attitudes and over eating. Yes, I can think of at least one person in my own family that resembles each of these descriptions.
The literary fictions of Professor Tolkien and the fantasy role-playing games of TSR seem to go hand-in-hand despite a higher level of magic use in the game. Inspiration for the game is drawn from the novels and interest in the novels is developed playing the game. In the 21st Century we can add the widespread viewing of the Peter Jackson films to this mix. I suppose each product benefits from the popularity of the other(s).
Those of us who role-play an elven, dwarven or hobling character may draw upon depictions encountered in novels and film when we portray our PC, but to an even greater extent we are drawing upon our experiences as human beings. Ultimately this is what J.R.R. Tolkien drew upon when writing about his characters. Our non-human "aliens" are really more human than anything else. Maybe that's why we like them so much?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Specialist or Generalist

The Origin and Uses of Skill
White Box gives the player a choice of making their character one of three classes. The Fighting Man excels at combat with the highest hit points and the best combat scores to hit creatures, even gaining multiple attacks at higher levels against 1 hit die monsters. The Magic User throws arcane spells and although weak in combat due to a lack of armor and fewer hit points, at higher levels the damage dealing spells this class commands can make them the most powerful class. The Cleric is a spell caster of a different sort relying on divine magic which is more geared to a supporting role. The Cleric falls between the Fighting Man and the Magic User in combat effectiveness and has the unique ability to turn away undead things. What they all have in common is they are "Adventurers" - a sort of super class.
An Adventurer is a player character, a game piece. Each player controls one or more player characters of the above 3 classes. White Box has no skill system and I assume all Adventurers have the basic dungeon delving skills, exploration skills and survival skills or they wouldn't be Adventurers. After all, a cobbler can make shoes, a butcher can prepare raw meat and a tailor can sew clothing. Although it isn't explicitly stated in the 3 LBBs, it stands to reason that Adventurers have some skill at creeping down hallways, listening at doors, climbing a rope, riding a horse or mule, making a camp for the night and following tracks in the snow, mud or tomb dust. If the referee wants to have the player make a die roll because the outcome could be meaningful or dangerous, the mechanic to do so is left open for interpretation. (Tom Moldvay suggests in his Basic rolling a d20 against the most appropriate ability score.)
Supplement 1, Greyhawk introduces the Thief class and muddies the waters some. The Thief has printed skill levels for various tasks, which until reading Supplement 1 seemed to be universal among Adventurers. Specialization up until Greyhawk has been the ability to cast magic spells or turn away undead. Moving silently or hiding in a shadowy alley is something any character can do, heck the players themselves can probably do them, more or less. Because of this (and players who steal from the party), I have never been a fan of the Thief as a class. As a role in society, sure. It can be great fun to play a thieving character of any class. In fact I had great fun with a thieving Magic User during the early 1980s.
Later editions of The Game (and many other systems) add a number of skill scores at character generation. Players may choose what skills their character has and that choice may go a long way toward defining the character and their role in the adventuring party. Some players in these systems like to "specialize" and develop certain skills at the expense of all others. Some players prefer a more rounded character build and have a basic competency in a broad array of potentially useful skills. In a system that is built around skill choice and development there are advantages to either approach. Specialists are really good at what they do, but require other specialists to cover the skills they don't have. Generalists have a wider array of skills, but are not as accomplished in any one skill as a specialist might be. White Box, by default, seems to assume everyone is a generalist in basic Adventurer skills.
Assuming everyone in an adventuring party can follow tracks (or any other skill) can lead to players who each take their turn at rolling to track until someone succeeds. This can be tiresome if each player rolls every check for every character, but even in a skill based system with specialists there will be times when the specialist fails and all the other characters take turns casting near impossible rolls on the off chance they can "get lucky". I like to as the players which character is taking the lead on any given group task and have that player roll the die.
The mechanical solution I currently favor in my old school game is to use a d6 for skill checks and every character has a 1 in 6 chance of doing something/anything reasonably possible. If a player is interested in specializing their character we negotiate how this comes about and they can get a skill bonus making their chance 2 in 6 or even higher. It isn't an original idea, but one I am finding I like. My players have quickly caught on and I believe they seem more apt to try something imaginative assuming they will have a 1 in 6 chance for it to succeed. I am all for encouraging imaginative play. Perhaps if they succeed in a dramatic way they will become the character who is good at that particular thing and receive a bonus from then on when using that particular skill.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Why Being A Game Master is Awesome!

And Some GM Advice
Whatever you call the person behind the screen, game master (GM), DM, referee or judge, the position can be the most awesome seat at the table. I enjoy being a player, but I never hesitate to take my turn "running the game" because I find it very enjoyable...mostly because I do it my way. The role has developed and changed over the decades and I definitely enjoy running some game systems more than others, but this post is about how I have fun as a referee and why I think being the referee is awesome.
Probably the most awesome thing about being the referee of a role-playing adventure game is the creative freedom that goes with that task. The referee designs the setting, milieu, world. In the old days that was a dungeon drawn out on graph paper and keyed with encounters, puzzles, traps, and anything you could imagine. The goal was to make it interesting and fun for the players to explore. Soon the hobby ventured outdoors and the referee becomes a world builder. How fun is that! Again, anything you can imagine is possible. New races, unique cultures, wondrous cities - invent, borrow or steal, but use any idea that is appealing. The referee has creative control of their world.
The players get one (maybe two or three in older games) character(s) to play, but the referee has an infinite number of non-player characters. Some are helpful to the party of adventurers and some are villains. Some are around for a single encounter, but some are recurring and can become among the most memorable characters of a campaign. (Never let your NPC upstage the PCs, however.) I have fun with my NPCs. I use voices and give them motives and personalities based on characters from novels, film and real world memories. My goal is to make the NPCs seem like real beings.
Entertainment in the form of watching the players discover my world is the reward I get for my efforts. Players are amazing and funny. Players do the unexpected. They sometimes challenge the referee to keep up as they take the game in unforeseen directions. Working with the players following the adventures of their characters through your setting is awesomely rewarding. To hear them talking excitedly about the adventure afterwards is priceless.
Some lessons I have learned about helping the process along and having a good time as referee are:
Listen to the players. Find out what they are interested in.
Remember as referee you are the eyes, ears, nose, etc of the player characters. Try to be as descriptive as possible without boring anyone.
Encourage players to ask questions. Be a teacher.
Be enthusiastic. If the referee is enthusiastic about the game, it is likely the people listening will also be interested.
Be flexible. Preparation is a necessary and fun creative process, but players will always do the unexpected. A referee must follow as well as lead. Thinking quickly while at the table is a skill and the more one practices it, the better one becomes.
Narrate the mechanics. Rolling dice and shouting out the score is fine, but I see part of the fun of being a referee as interpreting the mechanical outcomes in terms of the emerging fiction. "The orc swings and his halberd cuts high above your head as you smartly duck under the intended blow."
Remember to encourage the players. The PCs are the movers and shakers of the story, the protagonists. Help the players have a good time by giving each character a significant part to play in the session and note their successes with some colorful language.
Keep the game moving. The beauty of "rulings not rules" is not stopping the action to look up a rule. Be fair and be consistent, but don't worry too much about what nobody at the table can remember about what the rules say. Be assertive, you are the "judge".
If the players are stuck, give them suggestions. We referees have all the answers and it is too easy to forget not everyone thinks just like we do.
Run a friendly, welcoming table. Be respectful.
And encourage others to take their turn behind the referee's screen, it can be awesome!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Play The Right Game

...With The Right People
Rules matter. Style of play matters. Personal preferences matter. In a hobby that is based on fun and entertainment, and our hobby is getting bigger every day, it pays to give attention to the available options. Finding the right game system for you from among the many now available and finding people who seem to want the same thing you want from gaming is essential to everyone having a good time.
In 1974 TSR published the Original Rules of the Game, White Box or the Little Brown Books. That started a new sub-genre of wargaming which came to be called adventure games or role-playing. At that moment there was only one choice of rule systems, although the rules encouraged a do-it-yourself approach and each referee tended to run the game a little differently from others. The adventure game concept caught on quickly and folks other than TSR began publishing their own way to play the game and entirely new systems became available. The trend has continued and today there are thousands of games available.
It isn't hard today to find a published game that does pretty much what you want your game to do. With the internet connecting all us gamers together, it isn't even hard to find others interested in the same game system we are. This is important. Playing or running a game you aren't especially into can sap the fun out of the experience for everyone. Playing with people you don't really get on with well, can be taxing and lead to a loss of interest in playing.
If you are like me and prefer to game at the table with the other players present in the same room, it can be a bit more challenging to get it all set up right. Finding people I like to game with hasn't been hard for me. Gamers are generally people I like and get on well with. We are a tolerant, accepting and friendly hobby in general. Finding a rule system we all enjoy equally can be a challenge, however. Often there are compromises made in the face-to-face group and that can mean an individual's favorite game gets played rarely, if at all.
Setting is as least as important as rules when it comes to playing the game you desire. There are many published settings and even more home-brews. Each referee basically runs a different setting as interpretations and additions are made to published material and of course those who make their own settings are presenting something unique. Most referees today take input from the players and are willing to incorporate many suggestions so that everyone in the group enjoys the setting.
Style of play is very similar to setting. Some rule systems support a certain style of play better and some settings do as well. Those choices, together with the personalities of the actual players goes a long way to determine style of play, but there is still room for discussion and adjustment so that everyone involved is having a comfortable, enjoyable gaming experience. It just takes a little self awareness, communication and flexibility.
So are you feeling trapped when it comes to your game? Maybe you aren't playing the right game with the right people. Explore about a bit. Why not try a new system or get involved with an additional gaming group (we can never make too many friends). Games are a social thing and are not "all about me", but really, it's a big hobby and there are lots of options.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Sandy Petersen Invents Role-Playing

The Investigator
I am not sure when we started calling it role-paying, but among my friends the term didn't really apply until we discovered Call of Cthulhu and became investigators. Up until that point we played heroes, magicians, priests and thieves in pen and paper wargames where we each controlled one or more individuals with specific talents. It was a natural extension of skirmish wargaming with miniatures where each figure represented a single individual and we had our own guy or playing piece. The object in these games was to kill or capture the other player's guy(s).
Early on playing White Box we had learned to ask "Who, What, When, Where, and How?" in our back and forth dialogue with the referee; mostly in an attempt to outsmart the "dungeon" and grab its treasure while avoiding the loss of our playing pieces or characters. My gaming friends were all wargamers excited about the new game coming out of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. We were history buffs and science-fiction, fantasy fans much like the creators of the new game. It was fresh and fun and we were obsessed with climbing the experience ladder of success, each trying to get a more powerful character so we could reasonably descend to even deeper and unexplored levels underground.
Talking in character? Not so much. Asking ourselves what would our character do, think, feel, say? Not so much. We generally played ourselves, even if our character sported a distinct name borrowed from a popular source, such as "Conan", Ragnar, Harald Hardradda", "Lancelot", "Roland" or "Corwyn". Then Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu in an attractive box with quality booklets and maps. We were already enamored with Chaosium as a company because of their previous game products including Thieves World and the RuneQuest line. We purchased our copies at Gencon and had the enormous benefit of having the game explained to us by the folks at the Chaosium booth so we had some idea of how to play as soon as we opened our copies. Being a bunch of history buffs we rather enjoyed the idea of playing a game where we could make some use of our knowledge of the American 1920s.
Armed with a new game and some ideas from the Chaosium staff regarding role-playing we set about investigating ghosts and ghouls, cults and hauntings. We learned to think like role-players, to imagine a person separate from ourselves, often very different from us in age, education, values, and goals. We asked questions in a different voice, literally and figuratively. The 1980s was a transition time for our gaming group as we looked for and found new game experiences including new systems like Call of Cthulhu and we adjusted our style of play to include more actual role-playing. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson introduced us to a new hobby. Sandy Petersen taught us how to play a role.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Inherent in the System
Come and see - Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures - the subtitle for the World's First Role-Play Adventure Game describes what the game is about and suggests who might be interested. It is a wargame playable with paper, pencil and miniature figures (figures optional) aimed at people who play wargames. There is no adventure game or role-play game market as no such game has existed until 1974 when newly formed TSR published the White Box rules.
As rules for wargames the 3 LBBs contain quite a lot about combat and hitting things, throwing spells and dying characters and such. The second volume is devoted to monsters and their treasures; the monsters to fight so as to acquire their treasure. To be sure, White Box is also a game of exploration and castle building and space in the rules is given over to these tasks, but combat is never far from the central theme. The underground and wilderness, subject of the third of the LBBs, is a place full of adventure for there lurks monsters and hostile encounters, wizards in their towers and knights who will challenge travelers to a joust.
As I recall, the role-playing gradually grew over time as characters developed and we read articles about the game and eventually encountered the rules to other games. The taking on of the character's role happened gradually. At first we had our character, our guy or playing piece as opposed to the other players' guys and the NPCs, some of which we controlled as hirelings and henchmen. Our guy was just a special playing piece, a ticket into the game and when he died, we were temporarily out of the game. As time passed we eventually made statements like "my guy says this, or does that", thus the beginng of role -play! Generally we made decisions as ourselves...what would we do? It was a bit of a jump to start considering "our guy" as separate from ourselves; not so much an alter ego as a separate and distinct fictional entity, a "role" to play, rather like acting a part.
As the years have gone by and more and more games, both the original and subsequent variations on the theme, have been played the way we play has changed. Roll-play gives way to role-play. Killing the baddies and taking their stuff evolves into let's make a deal. The nature of our adventures now includes investigation and negotiation as often as exploration into the unknown and our characters develop skills other than just for fighting. Most sessions still have violence. It's kinda how we roll.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Magic Items

Make It Magical
There are two types of magic in the fantasy adventure games we all love: 1) in-game magic using the rules for magic and, 2) the feeling of wonder we get playing the game. The first magic is what's in the book. The spell descriptions, magic items, things that produce effects beyond what is expected in the mundane world. This magic is part of the draw of fantasy gaming, the ability to bend reality and impose one's will on the laws of nature, physics and chemistry.
The second magic is the sense of amazement, surprise and delight that discovering something new and unexpected gives us during play. It also draws us to the game, but in a different way. While years of play may add to the number of spells and magic items, it often diminishes the wonder we personally experience. How do we keep the second magic alive?
Various ideas have been written and talked about regarding this topic, so I doubt I am adding anything new...which is actually the secret to keeping the magic alive. New, unexpected and unusual, those attributes help keep the magic alive. Referees, design your own magic items, make them unique one-of-a-kind objects who give up their secrets only slowly and perhaps reveal new abilities as the PCs level up. Limit the availability of magic items to those found. Pay attention to players and try to customize the found items to the characters, rewarding players with the treasures they most desire as opposed to allowing them to peruse the printed lists and go shopping at the "magic mall". (If you must offer a market for magic, let it be with other adventuring parties.)
Roll for starting spells and don't freely offer new spells for sale. The rare magic will be sought and prized. Finding a scroll will be special and whole quests can be built around the magic user's search for a legendary spell book. Encourage players to research spells, both to learn the ones in the rule book and to develop new ones. I rather favor an abbreviated list of known spells for my players partly so as to encourage them to develop their own through research. It gives the player a sense of ownership and accomplishment...and perhaps bragging rights!
Introduce new spells through NPCs. Allow players to witness, or perhaps be on the receiving end of magical effects that are not on the list. Let them wonder! Always give them a chance to acquire such rogue magic for themselves, however. Make some magic "perilous", even evil in its effect. Let the players make the hard choice to try and use such magic or destroy it.
Consumable magic items are much more useful in a campaign where they may be the only easily acquired magic. After-all who wants healing potions/scrolls when one can purchase a wand of healing? Resource management is a part of the original game design and can add to the tension and suspense or just be "bookkeeping" depending on the prevailing attitude. Part of keeping the magic in the game is agreement among everyone to do so.
What to do with all the cash adventurers recover if they can't purchase expensive magic items? Those consumable magic items are one option, as is the old "build a stronghold" (a place to keep your wealth safe from thieves if nothing else) option. Paying henchmen and hirelings and seers and experts can consume money. Level drain and restoration, disease and cure, death and raise dead can all cost the player characters dearly. How about upkeep and living expenses (including dependents)? Armor repair, spell components? Luxuries like a yacht? Most campaigns I have played in have hand-waved these expenses, but if the referee is worried about gold/silver accumulation, taxes, living expenses and such can help relieve the anxiety and keep the adventurers hungry.
I like to make the world as magical as the items or spells. Magical beasts and especially magic areas add to the wonder and verisimilitude. An enchanted forest where certain magical effects are acting on those who enter, a cursed ruin where evil magic affects all who enter adds potential adventure as well as something novel to a campaign. Why is it cursed and how can the curse be removed? These are potential questions adventurers may like to explore...or exploit. When things generally work like they do in the real world, and then they don' feels more like magic.
I have heard it said that magic exists in our world today. It certainly existed in the Minneapolis area and Lake Geneva during the early 1970's when groups of tabletop wargamers and history buffs were drawn to add some of the magic they had been reading about in fantastic stories to their tabletop games. Something new and wonderful came into being, something that has been a source of fun for countless players and has changed popular culture as its tropes have spread into the digital age. The magic of the game.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Published Settings

Here are some I like.
Generally I prefer to referee my own world. Like many I enjoy developing a milieu around an idea, my own preferences and the interests of my players. Running a homegrown setting, especially one that has developed over many years, has a richness and depth of detail rarely reached by reading the published settings of others. But from where does one get ideas for the homegrown setting? Well, from everywhere, really. Anything the referee reads, fantasy fiction or otherwise may find itself adapted and altered and added into the homegrown setting. I believe this was the way Gary Gygax and company originally envisioned the game.  Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and Gary Gygax's Greyhawk are original homebrewed settings, but one can see the influence of many sources of inspiration in the descriptions we have of those settings. Reading the works referenced in "Appendix N" will reveal a number of those influences.
Forty-five years after TSR published the original LBBs the hobby can boast of numerous published settings. Many started out as the homebrewed milieux of the various authors, some have now achieved fame on their own. There are also licensed adaptations of settings drawn from literature or other media IP complete with system stats so the referee need merely read the published setting and follow the suggested guidelines in order to play one's own version of Middle Earth, Barsoom, Hogwarts or whatever.
The freedom found in labeling your setting "homebrewed" allows the referee to make changes and take things where they seem to naturally want to go in the setting. One is not constrained by history or canon and therefore much of the worry of "conflicting facts" can be avoided. (Of course one may simply play those conflicts off as wildly spread rumors, outright lies or misunderstandings. Anyone who has studied history knows how this can happen.) The simple act of changing names (filing off the serial numbers!) can convert the source material to a homebrew (as long as one confines use of said "homebrew" to your table and makes no attempt to profit from the plagiarism.) More common is the borrowing of certain elements which are folded into the referee's own mix to create something which resembles a lot of sources, but copies none.
Besides the literary sources, one obvious place to go mining for inspiration is among the wealth of published setting material which has accumulated over the past four and a half decades since the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements were published. No doubt every referee has their favorite sources for such plundering, but I include here a few of my personal favorites.
The older adventure modules published by TSR are among my first go-to sources for inspiration, borrowing and adaptation. Many years ago I would run these modules (or attempt to) as written, but today I blend them into a larger milieu of my own making (which of course includes elements drawn from a variety of sources). I continue to find these modules of great value when homebrewed for use at my table. Even players who have experience with the original format of these "adventures" find enjoyment in how it has been adapted and changed.
The Middle Earth modules published by I.C.E. are another excellent source of inspirational material and I frequently turn to the ones in my collection not only for Middle Earth, but in general I have found the locations and adventures, both detailed and merely hinted at, are readily adaptable to most any setting. Want something for a Call of Cthulhu adventure set during our own middle ages, it isn't hard to find a few in the pages of these beautiful volumes.
At this point in my career as a referee I seriously doubt I could run anything someone else wrote "by the book" as they say. I am an incurable "tweaker", a do-it-your-selfer, and a meddler. I add-lib even when unnecessary, often just to amuse myself, quite honestly. The result is whatever the author wrote, I change it some. Having said that, I really like a number of the published settings just as they are written.
Hyperborea as it appears in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of... is to my mind a quite brilliant setting. It is named after one of the imaginary worlds of pulp fantasist Clark Ashton Smith and is the creation of Jeffrey Talanian (North Wind Adventures). Mr. Talanian's Hyperborea is thick with pulpy atmosphere and AS&SH, in my experience, gives the most authentic feel for role-playing in a sword & sorcery setting. Alien gods, ancient civilizations, lost technology and secrets that man was not meant to know, it's all here in trumps in AS&SH.
Tekumel, the setting of Empire of the Petal Throne created by M.A.R. Barker, is one of the earliest game related settings and one of the best. It has a reputation for being a bit difficult to get in to, but the reward is well worth the effort. There is a lot of material published for the Tekumel setting and it is an alien and unique place, so it can feel overwhelming at first. I have found the best point of entry is the original Empire of the Petal Throne game book, originally published by TSR in 1975, but often reprinted. The setting material in that single system book is manageable and more than enough to get your Tekumel off and rolling.
Before TSR got around to publishing their adventure modules and setting guides Judges Guild (Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen) designed and released a setting in the form of a number of play aids including a great city and a number of hex-maps and some light description material. The City State of The Invincible Overlord and the surrounding Wilderlands give the referee/judge an adaptable playground at a period when most of us were still struggling to figure out how to use this wonderful new gaming concept. The Judges Guild setting remains one of my favorites to this day.
A list of great settings worthy to be run as written has to include the mythological setting of Glorantha, home to various boardgames and roleplaying systems spanning several decades including the editions of RuneQuest. Glorantha is the imagining of Greg Stafford and is one of the more unique settings in adventure gaming. A floating square cube beneath a domed sky, Glorantha is home to gods and men who are in constant interaction. It is a heroic setting with elements of early bronze age (esp. Mesopotamia, Iliad and Odyssey) and Native American cultures.
Harn is perhaps the most realistic and detailed medieval setting published for adventure games. It is the creation of N. Robin Crossby and has been published by Columbia Games since the mid 1980's. Harn, together with the system N. Robin Crossby designed for playing in it which he called HarnMaster, gives the referee ample tools for judging an immersive role-playing experience nearly unequaled (partly due to there being relatively few fantastical elements). The beautifully detailed maps can nearly come alive when paired with the detailed articles describing life down to the domestic animals, flora and fauna as well as the fictional inhabitants, mundane and illustrious, the politics of village and nation and the practice of religion and what passes for magic in this world. In many sessions it has been hard to remember this is a fantasy setting, it can all seem so real.
One of the settings I won't hesitate to referee or play in is J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. One reason is that I don't ascribe to the practice of holding absolutely true to the source material as written by the good professor. I am OK with taking liberties...making Middle Earth one's own. Add some stuff, assume the professor never got around to telling us about everything there exists in Middle Earth. Reinterpret some of the "facts" as they are presented in the published works...perhaps that is only one version of things? There are more stories to explore in Middle Earth than the destruction of the One Ring.
If you have made it this far, dear reader, I thank you for your patience and interest. Let me reward you with an easy to use source of adventure ideas that I find to be extremely useful - old westerns! The "B" movie variety and '50s/'60s TV series. The characters are classical archetypes and the plots are simple, often involving moral choices that will engage your players when they have to make the hard choices for themselves. Watch an episode of The Rifleman or The Lone Ranger, etc. and see if you can't re-skin the characters and plot for your next fantasy adventure.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Games I Love

...But Never Play
As I look toward the end of another year, I am reminded of what I did not manage to bring to the game table this year. Some of those titles have been on my short list for years, but once again the earth has circled the sun and I have yet to find the right group, or the time, or the perfect adventure...there is no shortage of excuses. As a tabletop gamer who prefers face-to-face play I am relatively blessed being a part of two groups that regularly get together and roll dice. I also live near I-70 between Indianapolis and Columbus, home to Gencon and Origins respectively. I am also fortunate to have remained in contact with long-time friends with whom I get together a couple weeks a year just to catch-up, hang-out and game. In other words, I think I have played a lot of games over the past year.
Number of games played is one thing, variety is something different. No matter how often I get to actually play games, there never seems enough time to play nearly all the games I am interested in. Part of my personal issue in this regard is that I also enjoy many types of games, not just role-playing. So there remains a number of games each year that I would like to have played, but did not find there way into actual play, even solo. Conan: Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of immediately comes to mind as one I intended to play some this year, but didn't.
Conan: Adventures... by Modiphius is a game that adheres closely to its source, the fantastic fiction of pulp author Robert E. Howard. While games like White Box draw from a number of sources for their inspiration and are designed to give players a good experience playing in a variety of settings, other games such as Conan; Adventures... is very setting specific. I am actually quite fond of a number of single source games such as Dragon Age published by Green Ronin which is based on the video game property, King Arthur Pendragon by Greg Stafford which conforms closely to Le Morte d'Arthur, Adventures in Middle Earth by Cubicle 7 which draws heavily from their game The One Ring to give us a 5e version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Zweihander Grim & Perilous RPG won a Gold ENie award for best product of 2018. It is an awesome 600+ page monster homage to 1e Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play that out does the original in many ways including the "grim & perilous" imagery of the text and illustrations. I would really like to play/run Zweihander and/or the new Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 4e recently released by Cubicle 7. Grim & Perilous is exactly how I prefer my fantasy gaming, but I have found it is a taste not shared by many of my friends.
Harnmaster is another system which is dear to me, but for which I struggle to find players who share my enthusiasm. I refer to those hardy role-players who willing suffer the constraints of playing with the often gritty realism of a medieval milieu. Those for whom a bountiful crop is reason to rejoice and who find reward in spending character time in prayer and meditation. Immersion is key to finding the rewards in such role-play and if feeling like you are experiencing a few moments in a life lived in a realistic medieval setting isn't your idea of fun, Harnmaster has little to offer. But if the idea of being able to present your lord with the most abundant barely harvest in memory and receiving the accolades associated with such service can tickle your fancy, Harnmaster and the associated world of Harn itself can deliver.
 Early this year I imagined playing a new version of my beloved GURPS by Steve Jackson Games called Dungeon Fantasy. Dungeon Fantasy comes in a nice big box full of brightly colored tomes and maps and stand-ups. It is "powered by GURPS" meaning it has that system's mechanics at its heart, but it is a stand-alone fantasy dungeon crawl version aimed at those of us who really enjoy that sort of adventure. The boxed set comes with everything needed to play including starting adventures and maps and cardboard figures specifically designed for the opening adventures. It is a role-playing game and a board game, but I have yet to get it to the table.
Generally the person who runs the game (referee) chooses the system they want to play. I am more often a player than a referee these days and therefore I play a lot of systems that are chosen by my friends. I enjoy most of them. The big conventions offer me an opportunity to play in a wide variety of games and that is where I generally get to play Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Hackmaster, and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. On the occasions that I do get to referee at our home table, I generally run White Box. I have refereed a few additional systems this past year, the Pathfinder 2e Beta Playtest, RuneQuest, and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG immediately come to mind.
Planning is a necessary prelude to running a game, although I find it no guarantee of actual play. (Getting to play also involves interest among your players as well as finding the open time slot.) So I ask myself, "What RPGs would I like to get onto the table in 2019?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Challenge Players & Endanger Their Characters

How (I think) Gary Gygax played the game. 
I have been reading DM David and thinking about how I prefer a style of play summed up as "challenging players and endangering their characters". Perhaps that would have been a good title for the original game designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson as it nicely sums up certain aspects of the early play style. Those of us who have played the game using the LBBs realize that starting characters in that system are in constant danger of being brought to zero hit points and therefore character death. Player skill involves avoiding this state of "death", often by coming up with creative solutions to challenges, avoiding direct conflict with monsters and tricking them out of their treasure. The original game is basically a dialogue between the referee and the players, sometimes with a designated "caller" or spokesperson for the player group who relays directly to the referee what the characters are going to attempt.
Team play is emphasized over individual character heroics in such game play. The Original White Box LBBs produce characters with no "skills", only ability scores, hit points and saving throws. The rest must come from imaginative play. Any adventurer may attempt to climb a wall, sneak up behind a monster and stab it in the back, disarm a trap or locate a hidden object. They are all "adventurers" and assumed to be skilled at their dungeon delving trade.
After the success of the original White Box, Mr. Gygax wrote the rules for an Advanced Game in three volumes. At the time of their publication, he noted that tournament play required standardized rules, hence the new system. The 3 hardcover volumes he authored represent a shift in Mr. Gygax's thinking from a DIY approach to a standardized one regarding rules. Tournaments were popular at the conventions of the day where gamers from many locations would gather to play their favorite game, frequently run by a referee, or "judge" who was often someone new to them. The publishing company, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), which Gary Gygax had co-founded to publish the original game, ran almost all their convention games as tournaments - competitive play that emphasized player skill and the ability to avoid character death. The modules published by TSR were often adapted tournament adventures and thus the tournament style of play was further encouraged. B2 Keep on the Borderlands and T1 Village of Hommlet, both authored by Mr. Gygax, were notable exceptions and seem to be written more as examples of non-tournament, sand-box campaign style play where player agency is expressed in their choice of what lead to follow and what mischief to make in the setting. 
The tournament modules frequently begin with a short description of how you got to the front door and what your mission is. It is then assumed the players enter and attempt to accomplish the mission. The characters are built as a team, each reliant upon the others for survival and player skill and knowledge is expected to be used. Role-playing is what happens when players talk among themselves "in character", or when they engage an encountered creature in dialogue.
The Keep on the Borderlands and Village of Hommlet both start in a civilized and basically safe area where players may engage in role-play to learn about the surrounding area and about the opportunities there are for adventure. They may take as long as they like getting to know the locals (NPCs) and trading with them. If/when adventure is sought, the party of characters will leave the safe environs and enter the wilderness, either on their way to a known destination where conflict is likely to occur, or perhaps just to explore and see what they can discover on their own. The so-called sand-box can be expanded almost indefinitely as the players travel further and further afield.
The end-game of the early version of play, of which I am so fond, is for the character to acquire many levels of experience finally collecting enough wealth and power to establish a stronghold of one's own, castle, temple or tower, attracting followers and being awarded a territory over which to rule. This is "retirement" of the character and the successful completion of the "rags to riches" journey so much a part of the American tradition.
In this post I attempt to stay as true as I can to what I believe were the ideas of Gary Gygax when he was with TSR designing the World's Most Popular RPG. My thoughts are based on 45 years of playing his games and reading what he wrote and listening to what others who knew him have said about those days. In my folly I may have unconsciously portrayed Mr. Gygax as being more in agreement with my own preferred style of play than is fair, but it is my belief that in truth it is I who prefer his style of play. If in my ignorance, I unfairly misrepresent Mr. Gygax (and I leave that judgement to those who knew him), I sincerely apologize.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Why every referee should have some experience with Rifts!
The art and science of building an adventure setting can seem overwhelming.  The LBBs give only the vaguest of directions for what to do (vagueness is how they roll after all) and figuring it all out on one's own can be a daunting task. It has taken me many years to feel comfortable knowing what to do when designing a setting. I have been borrowing ideas from this referee and that, from one source and another for decades in order to formulate my philosophy of how to run a game.
Rifts is a role-playing game by Kevin Siembieda published by Palladium Books set in a post apocalyptic future where the release of atomic weapons and resulting death energy introduced ley lines that forced open various dimensional "rifts" in time and space which now connect Earth to lots of other realities. As a result, high tech enclaves still exist alongside very primitive populations, aliens and demons have invaded Earth, and many other planets and dimensions are accessible if one uses the rifts to travel off Earth. Magic now exists and players can choose from a plethora of character types, some wearing flying powered armor, some hopped-up on stimulants, some capable of tapping into the new magic and others who are much less powerful. Rifts is everything all in one setting and it is frankly overwhelming at first.
A quick study of Rifts however will reveal that it is probably unwise to use everything all in the same campaign. The referee, together with players, should make some choices about the the game they are interested in using Rifts for. What to include and more importantly, what to leave out. And this is where Rifts starts to teach us how to be better referees of any system.
What kind of narrative are you hoping to create through the game you will run? Is this to be an investigative/intrigue adventure or one of exploring the unknown? Will there be lots of combat? What power level are you preparing for? When running a Rifts campaign, the referee generally makes decisions about what to focus on and what to avoid among the many available options in order to promote the desired and agreed upon type of game everyone is expecting. Is the game about powered armor Glitter Boys flying around pounding huge monster space robot invaders or is it about a vampire haunting a village? With Rifts, almost anything is possible, but Glitter Boys can be out of place in a sleepy, back country village and their firepower isn't needed if the biggest threat is a Bram Stoker variety vampire who can be killed with a wooden stake.
To a lessor extent, these same concepts apply in White Box and most every other system ever designed. What gets included and excluded from the current campaign, where to set the power level, when to add elements to the rules (or take away) or customize systems, all with the intent of setting the game up to deliver the experience everyone expects and is most likely to enjoy, all this is a big part of referee preparation.
This discussion also underscores the importance of having some dialogue with your players before the campaign starts. The longer I game, the more I am finding a session zero where the referee and players discuss the details of a coming campaign face-to-face (and perhaps create characters together) to be very helpful in this regard. Nothing trumps sitting down for some conversation about the coming campaign to get everyone on the same page and excited about the game (and don't forget to take notes!). I believe it is time well spent and helps avoid all kinds of potential pitfalls that can occur when everyone isn't a part of the initial creative process.
Learning to referee Rifts is a good way to organize your thoughts on campaign creation and running just about any kind of game. Making choices about scope, power level, PCs, monsters, rules to include and exclude, and where the game may need customized are the choices a good referee makes when designing any campaign using any rule system. The enormous amount of options available in Rifts pretty much forces the referee to focus and make choices. I think it is a good habit to get into. It is almost a bonus that Rifts is an excellent game with a great setting.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Recent Arrivals

New Games I am Excited About
Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne, authored by Ruden In 'T Groen and published by Nocturnal Media, is based on Greg Stafford's King Arthur Pendragon RPG and uses many of the same mechanics. Paladin, like Pendragon, is all about playing a knight in a legendary setting that draws heavily on period literature, in this case the Charlemagne epics such as The Song of Roland and which aims to immerse players into its multi-generational role-playing experience. Pendragon and Mr. Stafford's The Great Pendragon Campaign do an excellent job of just that. Paladin will hopefully do the same for Charlemagne.
The age of Charlemagne may be slightly less well known to American audiences than the romances of King Arthur, but is in fact more directly historical and just as fantastic and full of adventure, drama and entertainment as the legendary King Arthur tales. Charlemagne ruled from about 768 to 814 and these are the years of the Paladin campaign, which takes its inspiration from The Great Pendragon Campaign. In Paladin one plays a knight (or aspiring squire) in the service of the Frankish King, Charlemagne, acquiring Glory and honor and hoping one day to join the ranks of the great Paladins, knights who personally serve the King. 8th Century Europe is a wilderness ripe for adventure. The withdrawal of  the Roman Empire has left a huge power void into which the fledgling Frankish Empire is expanding. Pagans, invading Moors and Saracens, meddling Romans, competing Christian princes, supernatural forces of faerie, nature and the Evil One are all part of the epics and therefore available to the referee as potential fodder for adventure. The scope of material for Charlemagne's era including history and all the myths and legends seems even larger than that present in the Arthurian tales.
As with King Arthur Pendragon, the gaming challenge may be finding players who are interested in confining their role-play to the milieu of chivalry, knightly privilege and responsibility. Playing an honorable knight is a challenge (in my experience) that many Americans can find tedious. The hopeless romantics like myself perhaps welcome the role, but for many it just doesn't make sense to their modern sensibilities that people would behave as they do in the stories.
Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (WFRP) 4th edition published by Cubicle 7 is perhaps just the opposite role-playing experience. Set in the Old World of a fictional Reich loosely based on a renaissance era Holy Roman Empire (historically what Charlemagne founded) where money, greed and self-interest have largely replaced courtly romance and chivalry, the "Grim World of Perilous Adventure" offered by WFRP seems in many ways more familiar to modern Americans.  Social mobility is more common and behavior is less restricted by birth and class. Players may feel free to openly brawl about in the streets and alleys as is suggested by the cover illustration (which recalls that of the 1e WFRP). Its Warhammer so Chaos is the big threat and cults and demons can be found lurking anywhaer. I have heard WFRP described as a smash-up of Call of Cthulhu and D&D and that rather seems appropriate. The current 4th edition has much in common with the 1st edition by Games Workshop and I see that as a positive. The 4th edition does bring the profession and percentile mechanics into the 21st Century and is a much improved game, very much to my liking.
Of course Games Workshop, the original publisher of WFRP and developer of The Old World has taken that setting forward and into The Age of Sigmar. There is good news ahead for those in the hobby who prefer the newer setting. While Cubicle 7 WFRP 4e retains the older setting for this product, they are promising an Age of Sigmar role-playing game for next year. I have not explored The Age of Sigmar much, but it does look to have its own appeal, enough for me to invest in that version of the game once it is available. Yes, I enjoy the WFRP system that much!
B/X Essentials, published by Necrotic Gnome (author, Gavin Norman), is now a complete game system with the addition of the final two volumes. The Monsters book and Adventures and Treasures book are, much like the first three volumes titled Core Rules, Classes and Equipment and Cleric and Magic-User Spells, a digest sized retro-clone of the Basic and Expert rules reorganized so as to seamlessly combine the two original volumes in a modular format allowing for ease of reference at the table and flexibility if one wants to alter setting/milieu. The modular nature of the system allows for replacing Classes and Equipment or the Cleric and Magic-User Spells or any of the other booklets with something more directly tied to a different setting while retaining the Core Rules and any of the other books.
Necrotic Gnome is one of my favorite OSR publishers at present and has recently given us Dolmanwood and the Wormskin zine in addition to B/X Essentials. With original content, evocative art and very inspiring characters, the Necrotic Gnome products have been among my favorites since I first discovered Wormskin a year or so ago. Moss dwarfs...need I say more? The Dolmanwood and Wormskin setting is a unique and fresh take on an enchanted wood that can easily be the entire setting for its own campaign or dropped into another setting.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Games That Might Have Been

What If...
I love this book and its companion volumes (Bestiary and GM's Toolkit). Adventures Dark & Deep is my favorite OSR iteration of the Advanced Game and its successors. If you are not familiar with Adventures Dark & Deep it is a work of interpretation which starts with 1st ed Advanced and takes it where the author, Joseph Bloch, thinks Gary Gygax might have gone had Mr. Gygax gotten the chance to do a 2nd edition. For inspiration, Mr. Bloch says he consulted as much written by Mr. Gygax as he could find that is pertinent to the subject. Mr. Gygax of course didn't come right out and say, "I would have done it this way" regarding a 2nd edition, but he did write many articles, subsequent games and internet postings that were consulted by Mr. Bloch in designing Adventures Dark & Deep.
The reason this is my favorite is that Mr. Bloch keeps what I like, omits what I find troublesome and doesn't go where I would rather the game didn't go. In other words, Adventures Dark & Deep is something I agree with...whole heartedly and that doesn't often happen, my friends. Rule systems are an important element of play for me and although I am a big fan of DIY adventure gaming, there is something really sweet about reading rules that I am in agreement with, touching on all the right spots. This is a game I can take to the table and tell my players we are playing this game "by the book" - "rules as written".
Playable races in Adventures Dark & Deep are the classic ones and half-orcs are described as "ugly vicious people". The monk is gone, the assassin is relegated to the Appendix as an option along with the weapons verses armor class adjustments. Mr. Bloch keeps weapon speed and weapon length in the main table for use in certain combat initiative circumstances. PC classes include Bard, Jester, Cavalier, Paladin, Cleric, Druid, Mystic, Fighter, Barbarian, Ranger, Mage, Illusionist, Savant, Thief, Acrobat and Mountebank, enough to cover all the bases and give players plenty of variety from which to choose. The rules for multi-class characters makes sense (I don't often say that about multi-classing) and there is the option to change class, once, if the PC qualifies and the referee agrees. The rules for secondary skills are acceptable, don't seem to get in the way and may even add something positive to the game depending how they are used at the table. Armor class, saving throws and spell magic is in keeping with 1st ed. with casting time given in seconds which is more intuitive and easier to handle at the table than segments. There are welcome additions including rules for social class (optional, but realistic) and family that seem to lend a bit more depth to the PC and a more realistic feel to the implied setting. New tables for handling surprise and shooting-into-melee add a further degree of realism. Critical hits and fumbles are optional mechanics (as they should be).
A word about Alignment: Alignment in Adventures Dark and Deep is essentially the same as in the Advanced Game Gary Gygax wrote. It is both a moral compass for characters and a way to divide up the forces competing for dominance in the milieu. For me, it isn't D&D without alignments. Alignment is an important part of setting up the sides or teams players will be a part of and the ones they will compete against. (In Greyhawk cities and countries have alignments - representing the team/side they support and the moral standards one can expect the population to abide by). The alignment concept supports a certain world view that has been common in fantasy literature, that of "good verses evil", clearly defined and in conflict for control. It isn't the only way to write fantasy and it isn't the only way to play a fantasy RPG, but it is the way I like my D&D.
Even if Adventures Dark & Deep didn't set so well with my personal game sensibilities, I would probably find it an interesting read as I have many other speculative treatments of role-playing games that might have been. Elf Lair Publishing's Spellcraft & Swordplay by Jason Vey is an interpretation of the classic Original RPG if its authors had stuck with the Fantasy Supplement from Chainmail rules rather than the "alternative system" which became d20. Spellcraft & Swordplay is an interesting game that uses only the common six -sided dice which were available everywhere in the '70's. The game advances the basic ideas as found in Chainmail to a fully fleshed out vision of what Mr. Gygax might have written. I find it interesting reading to say the least, although I have never taken Spellcraft & Swordplay to the table.
Champions of ZED by Dan Boggs is another interpretation of what the world's most popular fantasy RPG might have looked like under different design circumstances. Champions of Z(ero)-ED(ition) includes some interesting differences both from what authors Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson eventually published as the World's First RPG and from Spellcraft & Swordplay. Mr. Boggs, who also authored Dragons At Dawn - a study of how Dave Arneson's original Blackmoor campaign was perhaps played - and has researched extensively the early, pre-published versions of the game, how they were played and what the discussions of the day can reveal about what might have been. Champions of ZED, like Adventures Dark & Deep and Spellcraft & Swordplay are works of historical research as well as speculation.
The "what if" game is fun to talk about and to play as evidenced by the number of hobbyists who spend hours doing just that. Adventures Dark & Deep, like the TSR Advanced Game, is complex and "crunchy". There are a lot of rules. What makes it stand out for me is the choices the author makes with regard to rules and his interpretations which I agree with to some degree. While I generally prefer rules that leave more room for a DIY approach, Adventures Dark & Deep has become one of my favorite game systems.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Answer is Not on the Character Sheet

Player Skill and Character Skill
There are two types of character record sheets in the hobby of role-playing games.  The oldest, White Box and OSR type sheets have very little information on the character sheet, often just Name, Class, Level, Ability Scores (six), Hit Points, Armor Class, Alignment, Saving Throws, and equipment including a list of spells if appropriate and can fit on an index card. Newer game sheets may also include a whole list of skills, feats, special abilities and things the character may do which often sets them apart from other characters who have a whole list of different things they can do.
White Box and all other RPGs are basically a conversation between the referee running the world and players who control the movers and shakers - the player characters whose adventures make up the stuff of the stories being collaboratively created at the table through play. The referee (who goes by many different names depending on the system used) describes the situation and the players say what their characters will do. Dice are used to determine the outcome of any risky action which may result in significantly altering the situation.
When that question comes from the referee, "What do you do?" - meaning what would you like your character to do? - where does the player look for answers? In White Box the answer is not on the character sheet, so the player may have to ask questions to know additional information such as details of the surroundings so as to generate ideas regarding a creative solution or course of action. The player may draw upon their own experiences, things they have read about or seen in cinema. They may "talk among themselves" if in-game time allows. Looking at the character sheet will only tell them what equipment they have which may be useful if creatively employed. There are few other answers on that sheet of paper, however...maybe a utilitarian magic spell if they are lucky. In general the White Box player must rely on skill and information to address an in-game dilemma.
What about the player equipped with a detailed, multi-page character sheet with lists of special abilities which may or may not be useful in this particular situation? The player so equipped may spend considerable time pouring over their sheet, looking for a skill or ability which seems to promise a positive outcome if used successfully. What if none of their character's specialties seem to apply? It is easy to conclude, "There is nothing I (meaning my character) can do." That long list of skills, feats and special abilities may suggest to the player that if something does not appear on the character sheet, it would be outside the realm of possibility for their character, but play doesn't need to be that way. In an Old School game such limiting thoughts could not be further from the truth.
The fact that White Box places so few answers on its brief character sheet suggests there are lots of things the character can do competently which are not listed, written down or maybe thought of yet. It is left to the player to do the thinking. Can the referee running the game with lengthy multi-page character sheets not also make the statement, "Don't assume that if it doesn't appear on your sheet, that you cannot do a thing.  Many of your character's abilities are not written down. Now, what would you like to do?"
We may be in agreement so far, but what if you find a listed skill or special ability seems to perfectly fit the in-game situation, such as Find and Remove Traps? A roll of the die produces a success or a failure. Perhaps the referee requires two separate rolls against the success of the skill, one to locate and another to bypass said trap. Quick, simple application of a character feature...and boring game play.
Without the listed skill Find and Remove Traps a player may still state, "I (my character) is looking for a trap." The referee rightly asks, "How do you go about this?" The player may give a number of detailed actions the character may perform such as tapping the floor ahead with a pole, running the pole back and forth along the floor in front of them, occasionally swinging it up through the air in the space ahead so as to contact any trip wires. The referee may tell the player, "The floor ahead sounds hollow - there may be trap. What do you do?" The player may describe any of a number of  possible attempts to get around the trap, harmlessly spring it or disarm it. The solution will frequently require a number of questions by both parties and perhaps a die roll. This is how trap finding was done prior to the introduction of the Thief Class.
Does this "talking it through" approach take longer than a die roll or two? Does it add anything useful to your game? I suppose each of us must answer these questions according to our own preferences, but it does mark a significantly different way of playing the game.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Getting Lost in a World

...Not Your Character
I am a fan of fantastic settings, fictional worlds of magic and wonder - the kinds that are encountered while reading adventure stories. Names like Lankhmar, Gondor and Bree, Zamora and Aquilonia, Barsoom, Tekumel, and even Arkham draw pictures on my imagination and fill my head with possible stories. I can easily lose my self in any of these imaginary places described as settings by various authors I have read and re-read.
White Box is a tool to explore the wondrous worlds of make-believe and adds an extra dimension to the term escapist entertainment. Using White Box and similar "games", we may further explore the fantastic places read about, or invent new ones, all the while taking part in imaginary adventures, often of a heroic nature. We can make our own stories set in these wonderful places of fancy where things can be very different from reality. For a time we can immerse ourselves in the imaginary world and escape our real situation, perhaps even pretending to be someone we are not - the hero of the story?
It is customary for one to play the role of a character in White Box and other RPGs - that is somebody imaginary, rather than to just play oneself. To take on the role of a protagonist native to the imaginary world or setting is part of the fun for which the game is designed. The challenge is to try to think like this someone else, this alien person, "not you", and to be entertained by the process of how well you can do so.
How the player's character is generated can influence how the player thinks about their character. Many games take a detailed approach to character generation, one which involves many steps and results in a character sheet full of data. This can be accomplished through optimized point-buy or by making decisions based on a pre-conceived idea of what type of character you would like to play or even random rolls of the die, allowing fate to determine details while embracing the challenge to play what you are given. Some character generation involves developing a backstory so that much is already known about the fictional game pawn before play begins - or did play effectively begin with character generation?
The goal of most games, RPGs included, is to have fun and be entertained. To this end I find the setting is more important to the game than the individual characters. The story which develops during play, which is born of the setting and situation as described by the referee, and given life through the decisions and dialogue of the various players through the characters they control, and with fate or chance being accounted for in the form of dice rolls, is often on par with the best written fiction, cinema or theater. It is full of surprises, humor and tension. Conflicts may arise and outcomes change the course of the world's future, for good or bad. At the end of the day, however, it is escapist entertainment and we can walk away from it, returning to our real lives. Through memory and talking about the story of our game, however, we may revisit these fictional events even while making our imaginary world seem a little more real.
It remains a game, and what the game is not is a way to explore what it would be like to be an elf, or a wizard or any other character used to play the game. There really is nothing I see to be gained from identifying with one's in-game character. Putting your own hopes and dreams, emotions and beliefs into the imaginary game pawn, a pawn designed as a tool to let you explore an imaginary setting, is in fact a distraction from allowing your mind to be fully entertained by the game and its emergent story. The story isn't about you, or me, it's about an imaginary place and some imaginary beings.
This is one of the reasons I prefer White Box and the OSR style games - they have simple character builds which require a minimum of character generation decisions on the part of the player. Decisions are reserved for what the characters will do during play. Who the character is and what makes them special can emerge through play and be a surprise to all. It also makes the character easier to replace when the fates of the dice, or bad decisions regarding risk, results in character death...a game event which itself can add to the story rather than detract from it.
So the next time we play our favorite version of the RPG, I propose we get lost in the world - immerse ourselves in the story, much as we would while watching a good film or play. Try to think about the character we control, our game pawn, as a person of that world and ask ourselves, what would that character most likely do in the situation? Don't look on the character sheet to find the answer. Instead, let's use our imagination and play to find out!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Maze Rats

OSR in 14 Pages
Maze Rats is a digital file/print-n-play game by Ben Milton (Questing Beast on Youtube) that I printed and stapled to make a journal sized booklet of gaming fun. Maze Rats is rules-lite, but heavily into creative thinking.  Mr. Milton has mentioned he is a school teacher who runs Maze Rats with an after school role-playing club, which I think is awesome. Creative thinking is something like a muscle, use it and it gets stronger. Assisting young (or older) people to think outside the box, to imagine situations and to devise creative solutions to problems using innovative methods is priceless. I personally can think of no better way to be having fun.
Mr. Milton has set Maze Rats up so it is easy to print either as a few sheets of loose paper or in this cool pamphlet that only requires a staple or two along the spine and you have an inexpensive, fun game for kids and adults. The pamphlet makes heavy use of a number of 6x6 inspiration tables, roll two six siders, one die gives you the column, the other the row and you have room descriptions, character characteristics, monsters, and spells.  Magic is one of my favorite aspects of Maze Rats which makes use of those tables to give you the name of the spell by combing a noun and an action such as Burning Hands, or Whispering Wall/Wall Whispering. Magic focuses on effects rather than damage and encourages creative spell use such as being able to "whisper through a wall". How each spell works is up to the player and referee, but again creativity is encouraged.
Rolling dice in Maze Rats is perilous and the game encourages players to address situations without resorting to chance. Combat and other risk taking behaviors such as attempting to jump across a chasm can result in injury and character's OLD SCHOOL finding a solution that doesn't require a "Danger Dice" roll is encouraged.
Maze Rats is a complete game. There is nothing else required except six-sided dice, pencil, paper...and a healthy imagination. The random tables can be used to create adventures on the fly and include monster generation, urban, wilderness and dungeon generators. The author includes a section on game master advice including how to prep Maze Rats, how to run the game and advice on world building. Like everything in Maze Rats, this section is brief, but to the point and right on target from an OSR perspective.
Maze Rats reminds me again how much I am amazed with the creativity and talent that is so evident in the DIY OSR community. Ben Milton has an even newer product, Knave, which is either in the works or just being released that I believe is written so that it is more compatible with the actual mechanics (not just spirit) of the original game that started it all and can run the old published adventure classics (and new OSR titles) with minimal adjustment.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Signature Skills

Define Your Character
The first commercially available role-playing game, the game that started the hobby, is class based. That means each of the the player characters has a specialized role in the game, such as fighting man, cleric or magic user - just what the class name implies. In 1978, The Chaosium published RuneQuest, a skill based system using percentile dice and with no character classes. The system mechanics introduced in RuneQuest have become a popular alternative to the class based system and it its basics were boiled down into a short pamphlet titled Basic RolePlaying, which eventually became the basis for Call of Cthulhu and other popular role playing adventure games published by Chaosium.
A skill based system is wonderfully flexible and soon other games borrowed the idea and adapted the mechanics for there own unique take on role playing. Systems such as GURPS, which although abandons the percentile dice in favor of the bell-curve of rolling three d6 uses the skill based approach to character building. Players are bright folks and they quickly discover which skills give characters useful advantages and as a result, many characters are built with high skill competency in the desirable skills, making many characters very similar in that regard. Some players try to make their character equally good at all skills resulting in basic competency, but nothing exceptional.
The way to have a specialist, a character who stands out from the crowd as the go-to PC for a certain type of situation, is to build a small number of clustered skills up to an exceptional level, probably at the expense of neglecting other skills. In this way the character has a specialty, a role to play that is connected to their signature skill(s). Yes, this imitates the class system, but with a bit more flexibility because the character can potentially become excellent at any skill on the list.
Advanced skill system games such as the latest iteration of Chaosium's Basic RolePlaying (BRP) offer a number of ways to individualize a character. Advantages and disadvantages, quirks and passions, backgrounds and professions are all ways to individualize a character either during creation or advancement, but are often cosmetic and just offer color to role play, which can itself be fun. What defines your character's prime ability and principle role in the game requires being better at something than anyone else in the group of adventurers, however. This can take some work on the part of the player and frequently involves sacrifices in the form of not being very good at anything else. That's why there are other characters in the party. There is a certain satisfaction in being able to shine when it is your tun to do your thing. Being able to reliably succeed when called upon is a nice feeling. And for the rest of the time, that's when we have the fun of role-playing and being a supportive cast member.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Why I Roll in the Open as Referee
Dice are random number generators. The tossing of dice is also an exciting event and games of all types include dice rolling for both reasons. The dice introduce an element of randomness, considered desirable for a couple of reasons. In any simulation there are known variables such as weapon training, armor worn, etc. and unknown variables, factors which are unaccounted for, but which may influence the outcome. The other reason is chance. People like games of chance. We enjoy feeling lucky. To many that is what "winning" is all about - beating the odds in a roll of chance.
Some popular games do not include dice or chance. Chess is such a game and its popularity goes way back before fantastic adventure games were thought of. The game of chess gives each of two players identical forces and a board with no surprises. It is a pure strategy game where each player may predict with absolute certainty the result of a game move - at least during their immediate turn. Thinking turns ahead is what the game of chess is all about. The only variable is what one's opponent will do.
White Box and the role playing games that follow use dice - funny looking polyhedral dice that are an interesting study themselves. The standard set of polyhedral dice is nearly synonymous with our hobby and display of such objects instantly brings the game to mind. Rolling the dice are fun and beating the odds is part of the excitement of the game. The use of dice allows for a degree of abstraction in the game's design. Enough details are accounted for so as to make sense of the action along with the tossing of dice to account for luck and all the other unspoken for variables that may determine a given outcome. This moves the game along quickly and arguably adds to the sense of verisimilitude as players immerse themselves in the moment, mentally picturing what the dice roll represents in the shared fictional space. Dice are therefore an important element in the creation of the emergent story that develops during play.
From the earliest days some referees have rolled dice in secret, some have "fudged" dice rolls - changing the results to make for a "better story". I am not a fan of either practice. By rolling my dice in the open where players can see the results, all the time, I believe I am helping to establish a fairness and degree of trust that what is happening at the table is not my personal agenda. I believe the open roll empowers the players by showing them their choices matter more than any expectation of desire on my part for the emergent story to develop along preconceived lines. The dice are impartial.
Open dice rolling can result in "losing" in the moment. The dice are random and sometimes the result is well below the odds as calculated by astute and informed players. Bad luck happens. As referee I try to be cognizant of that and my way of moderating the potential influence of "bad luck" is to not call for a die roll as the solution if I think that a single bad roll can ruin the game. The referee has the power to offer other approaches or solutions. Moving the game ahead can be achieved in many ways other than with the result of a simple die roll. Ask questions, provide additional information and help players explore a less risky way forward. Inform the player that a failure will result in a known consequences. Be open to bargaining in order to adjust the risk or reward of the outcome. If the player insists on taking the chance, knowing the risk and is willing to suffer the consequence, then let the die roll! Sometimes you just have to ask yourself, "Do I feel lucky?"

Dice illustration taken from Adventures Dark & Deep - an excellent imagining of what 2e might have looked like had E. Gary Gygax  been involved written by Joseph Bloch.