Monday, January 13, 2020

Playtest Results

So after running a few sessions using my alternate weapon system, I've gotten a sense of how it actually plays, and I've made a decision on whether or not to fully include it in the revised edition of E&E.

What I Like:

Modeling different weapons by varying the to-hit bonus rather than the damage die is awesome. For whatever reason, most weapons dealing 1d6 damage manages to feel more like D&D than the much commoner different-weapons-deal-different-dice system. So that's definitely sticking around. Plus, having a to-hit modifier being one of the inherent qualities of a weapon makes it easier to use Delta's Missile Modeling, which is the most realistic (but easy to use) system I know for handling archery.

What I Don't Like:

As much as I'd like to keep it around, having a parrying bonus to AC based on what weapon you wield makes AC too difficult to keep track of from round to round. Consider: I like to use simultaneous initiative, so everything all happens at once in a combat round. What would a character's parrying modifier be if they were throwing a dagger that round? Should they count as "holding a dagger" or "unarmed"? Problems like that tended to crop up more often than I expected. So the weapon-based parry modifier goes away.

I'm going to replace it with another mechanic to be tested, which I'm calling the parrying factor. Previously, whenever a character gave up moves or attacks in combat in order to defend, they could give themselves an AC bonus for that round ranging from 1 to 3, depending on how many moves or actions they gave up. I've decided to take this mechanic and alter it slightly, so that the AC bonus you get depends on what weapons or shields you carry, and it's just a static bonus based on that. You give up your attack and you get 1 to 5 points of AC bonus for one round, ranging from 1 point if you're totally unarmed up to 5 points for a character with (say) a great sword or a pole arm or a one-handed weapon with tower shield.

It's much, much simpler, far easier to keep track of (in fact you can track it with a d6 sitting on your character sheet), and it makes parrying back into an active choice, almost exactly the way it works in Holmes Basic, except for the varying AC bonus.

It remains to be seen whether 5 points of AC for the largest weapons and most defensive weapon–shield combos is too powerful, but I doubt it. For one thing, players are always reluctant to give up offensive action and the chance to deal out as much hp damage per round as they can manage. For another, I expect that the benefits of tanking on total defense will prove to be as highly situational as ever. (After all, one character attempting to block a door with a tower shield can still be overrun by the press of a large number of enemies.)

So What Will it Look Like?

Assuming this most recent system works out, a typical stat line for a weapon becomes the following:

Arming sword, Medium-Size, To-Hit Mod +0, Parry Factor 3
Long sword, Heavy, To-Hit Mod +2, Parry Factor 4
Long bow, Two-Handed Missile, To-Hit Mod +4, Range 90'

—To give examples of a one-handed weapon, a two-handed weapon, and a missile weapon. In all cases the 1d6 damage is implied, and there's a note in the rules that characters with missile weapons have the same parry factor as if unarmed (PF 1).

All in all, I like the look of this much better. It's cleaner, simpler, and it still mostly "gets it right"—even if it is sacrificing a lot of the realism I liked so much for a more abstract but smoother gameplay experience.

Monday, January 6, 2020

I've been convinced.

I've been convinced, partly by argument and partly by recent experience, that the best way to make a D&D setting human-centric is to use only race-as-class for non-human PCs, assuming they should happen to be allowed in the first place.

It's oft-quoted from an old The Dragon article that Gygax put Vancian magic in D&D to prevent it from becoming a "weird wizard show," to give fighting men their proper chance to shine. I'm now more certain than ever that the strict limitations on demi-humans in the LBBs (the tight class restrictions and the extremely low level limits) were in fact a good idea and quite necessary to prevent the game from becoming an "eerie elf show."

It was also an abject failure of an effort, since, by the time AD&D 2nd edition came along, the elf's highest level limit had jumped from 8th to 15th level in the mage class, level limits were typically ignored by most groups anyhow, and by the 2010s the hobby itself was snidely being called "playing elfgames" on the internet.

And certainly, in the campaign I've just begun, the fact that only two players out of six even considered playing humans (despite all the restrictions I heaped on demi-human characters) is more than disappointing. It's enough to make me regret allowing demi-human PCs at all.

So color me convinced. In the revised iteration of Engines & Empires, not only will demi-human characters be optional and tucked away in the referee chapter, they'll only appear as race-classes. No separate race-and-class option at all. And this got me to thinking, why did I even include it in the first place? After all, back in the original E&E Campaign Compendium, the little digest-sized paperback, I used race-as-class straight out of BECMI.

And then I remembered, oh, yeah, I changed it for the E&E Core Rules because of the Gaia setting. It seemed to make more sense for Gaia to have race-and-class, because of the modern/steampunk milieu and the fact that non-human races in that setting are thriving rather than waning—that it's a world where demi-humans are in fact more prevalent than humans.

And that winds up making it not a very game-able setting when you get right down to it. So I'm starting to realize that I'm going to have to re-think the Gaia setting too, before I revise and republish that one. In the meanwhile, a better flagship setting might be in order, like the Älyewinn setting I described on this blog long ago, which is in fact the source of demi-humans as I now run them (with its hobbity dwarfs and dwarfy goblins and orcky ogres and kenderiffic elves).

So my game publishing agenda just got one book thicker:

1. Engines & Empires Core Rules, revised.
2. Shining Armour, the spiritual successor to Retro Phaze.
3. Shade Isle, a mega-dungeon (that will need some serious revision itself as I transcribe my notes and maps). I want to get this done before I delve into settings.
4. Finally, the Älyewinn and Gaia setting books, each of which I think I'll also pair with a dungeon to keep them relevant. Gaia as a setting is going to get a major overhaul, too, to make it more human-centric and playable.

So there's my agenda. No idea how many years it'll take to work through this, but at least I can foresee finishing E&E's revision this year. I do promise to get to work on Shining Armour after that, because I've found that I miss having a tactical skirmish game in my life.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Decade

The roaring twenties are back.

The gaming blogosphere is cracking jokes about pairs of natural 20s and double critical hits. For years and years now, I've used "roll under" attack rolls in my D&D games, so a roll of 20 is an automatic miss at my table. (Not a critical fumble, I don't use crits anymore, just a plain ol' whiff.) It's the kind of thing to make a DM feel lonely. Segregated from the wider gamer culture.

But then, this whole decade in blogging was one slow realization that (a) I am definitely segregated from the wider gamer culture, and (b) that's not such a bad thing. The Old-School Renaissance really started drifting away from being a TSR-D&D-centric movement around 2011, so I can almost say that it's been a decade since I had a real home in the OSR. I've managed to rediscover old-school gaming on my own, and I've come to understand that what I want out of it isn't a renaissance anyhow; I just want to play some good games, sometimes with my friends and family at home, and sometimes with total strangers at the local game shop who become friends.

No need for proselytizing and evangelizing old games. They're good enough to stand on their own. All it takes is exposure through play, and players come to understand what's valuable about OD&D or 1st edition—they come to see that vital spirit that's lacking in 5th edition (or really any edition of D&D that does away with XP-for-GP). One gaming group at a time, I suppose, is the best anyone can manage. I'm okay with that.

More importantly, though, I find that I rather like what the isolation from the OSR does for my creativity. Ever since the 90s and my AD&D 2nd edition days, I've relied on the internet—on netbooks and forums back then, and on blog posts and free pdf downloads in more recent years—to fill in my campaigns, to do my prep for me.

Sites like this were 90s gaming for me.
(Well, sites like these and Baldur's Gate.)
Compare this to how a DM must have prepped for a game in the 70s or 80s, with nothing but some graph paper, some library books, and one's own imagination, and you can start to see what I'm getting at. When I don't rely on the internet to fill in this dungeon level or that map location for me, I find that I can do better on my own. I can be creative in the way these games were meant to foster creativity.

This is also a boon that came unexpectedly out of making Engines & Empires not-wholly-compatible with B/X since I published the stand-alone Core Rules in 2017. It's a nice way of having my cake and eating it too. The engine under the hood is still B/X: the same ten minute exploration turns, reaction rolls and surprise rolls, morale checks and hit dice, those things are all there. But the skin on the surface of an adventure? The character classes and spells and magic items? Different enough that creating my own dungeons is often easier than converting existing ones. In that way, I get to be playing my same old OD&D using mechanics I know and love, but I've also forced myself to create for my game in order to play it properly.

So what does gaming in 2020 hold for me? Hopefully, I'm going to create a real campaign—meaning, a new mega-dungeon that incorporates everything I've learned about the form since my first attempt (Shade Abbey) at the end of the last decade. That dungeon has been my go-to campaign tentpole dungeon for a decade now, and I still want to properly write it up and publish it; but it's got glaring flaws. Shade Isle needs to have its geography scrambled around a bit before I can call it good.

In the meanwhile, I need to make a new dungeon for the new decade. Something my regular players (wife, brother, neighbor, close friends) haven't experienced before. I haven't had the time to do this in recent years because of school, but now my grad school days are finally drawing to a close, and so I'm hoping that I'll actually have some time to do this now.

Well, it's a hollow hope, but it's more than I had in the 2010s.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

E&E Race-and-Class vs. Race-as-Class

Very much in keeping with an old-school adventure-gaming philosophy, the revised Engines & Empires Core Rules are going to present an explicitly humanocentic set of rules. The implied setting will be one where demi-humans are rare, and demi-human player characters are an option subject to referee approval.

The game will present two different systems for demi-human characters, one for settings where demi-humans are relatively common (a typical fantasy kitchen-sink), and one for settings where they're relatively rare (the elder races are waning to make room for the ascendancy of man).

Race and Class

In the race-and-class system, a race is simply a template that you apply to a character—but E&E gives demi-humans no special racial abilities, only restrictions. There are a number of reasons for this. Things like infravision ruin one of the basic challenges of dungeon-crawling. It's very difficult to balance racial special abilities against humans, whose only ability is to pick any class and advance it to any level (or in the case of E&E, up to the maximum level of 10th—but it hardly matters if the campaign remains low-level). Demi-humans in early fantasy literature don't actually manifest a lot of special abilities in stories (there's no indication that Gimli can see in total darkness). And finally, and most importantly, when demi-human player races are made available, players reflexively choose them over humans, just for the sake of playing something "different."

Saturday, December 28, 2019

E&E Revised Core Rules Update

As I've worked through revising my rulebook, I've also started reorganizing it just a little bit. Mainly to match the Rules Cyclopedia—so now the chapter arrangement is:
1 Character Creation
2 Game Rules
3 Magic
4 Technology
5 Refereeing
6 Monsters
7 Magic Items
8 Optional Rules

So far, only the first three chapters are fully revised. I'm in the middle of giving technology the "Old-School Essentials" treatment, turning walls of text into bullet points. (I've already done it for the magic chapter and the result is pretty cool if I do say so myself.) Then I'll do the same for the monsters. (Which puts me back at where I was some months ago, but oh well.)

After that, the rest of the book is just cleanup and editing. But I have added a large section to the beginning of the Refereeing chapter, which includes both race-and-classs demi-humans and race-as-class demi-humans, with the latter being entirely new.

They're modeled off the BX/BECM style race-classes, but given that the human level limit is 10th in this game, their limits are actually closer to white box or 1e. We have

Elves, acting as fighter/magicians up to level 7
Goblins, mirroring elves, can be rogue/inventors up to level 7
Ogres act as fighters with a few minor shaman powers up to level 8
Dwarfs ("should anyone wish to play them") are this game's halfling analogue, so they can only go up to level 6, but they do so as fighter/rogue/clerics, on the game's single slowest XP track.

All in all, it looks pretty old-school, in a satisfying and aesthetic sort of way. (It also maintains roughly the same "ratios" of levels to the human maximum as in B/X. If you were to take the 14–12–10–8 paradigm of humans–dwarves–elves–halflings, scale that down to 10 levels and apply it to my lineup of humans–elves/goblins–ogres–dwarfs, you'd wind up with 10–8½–7–6, and I decided to round ogres' level limit down to 8th instead of up to 9th whilst also giving them a bit of flavorful shaman magic. The end result works well.)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Pithiest Definition Yet of Old-School Gaming

I like pithy gaming sayings.

I love that line by Evreaux of Dragonsfoot, "We don't explore characters, we explore dungeons."

I love to give that exploration some meaning (and admonish against the use of quantum ogres and Schrödinger's dungeons) by saying, "The world is the world."

But I think an even more complete statement of what it is for a game to be old-school (you can take or leave the Renaissance), for a game to be an adventure game rather than a role-playing game, can be summed up as follows:

A tabletop fantasy game is old-school to the extent that it demands of players that they inhabit an avatar in the service of experiencing an adventure. A tabletop fantasy game is not old-school to the extent that it demands of players that they portray a character in the service of telling a story.

I think that about captures it. It's not that these games are always totally one thing or another, with no overlap; as usual for such things, it's a continuum with a sliding scale. And the same set of rules can lead to different sorts of games with different players and referees. But ultimately, it comes down to this: a role-playing game asks players to be somebody else, for the sake of telling a story that entertains all present with things that are entertaining about stories. An adventure game asks players to merely be themselves, and to be entertained by the fictional world that they experience through playing. That's the difference, subtle though it is.

Old-school games are games with meta character portrayal and diegetic entertainment experience. Modern games are games with diegetic character portrayal and meta entertainment experience.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Obligatory Spoiler-Free 'Rise of Skywalker' Opinion

It's fine.

It's a Star Wars movie. As kids' movies go, it's fine.

It won't eat your puppy or bugger your childhood. The Force Awakens already did that, unless you don't accept it as canon, in which case New Jedi Order: Vector Prime already did that.

In a shocking reversal, it was better than Force Awakens and Last Jedi. But then, I was expecting Knives Out to be better than Orient Express, and it wasn't. Decent enough, and entertaining, but not cut from some artistically superior cloth. Basically just fine.

Noticing a running theme here lately?

Get over it.