Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jumping the Rails: Converting an Entire Game, Mid-Campaign

So this might be the craziest thing I've done in a long time, but I've finally just become so bored with the simplicity of Barbarians of Lemuria that I've resolved to convert the whole of my current campaign to D&D---specifically, AD&D 2nd edition.  Now, two things to note before I get into the details here: first, I haven't played AD&D 2nd edition pretty much at all since it was the current edition, back in 1999(!) or so; and second, I haven't converted a whole campaign's ruleset since my last major gamer crisis, back around 2006 or 2007, when I at last gave up on 3rd edition D&D and went all the way back to playing RC OD&D.

Really, that right there sums up my history as a gamer.  You could break it down into a timeline like this:

Before 1998: I played basic D&D (black box edition) once or twice with friends who were a lot more interested in Nintendo and Sega (so was I back then).

1998: I start high school.  I have an old second-hand IBM Thinkpad laptop running Windows 95 and capable of emulating NES games with the NESticle DOS/Windows emulator.  With my best pals Curt and Anders, we play lots and lots of arcade games, chiefly Mario Bros and Bubble Bobble, until one day Curt loads up a ROM of Final Fantasy I, assuring me that I'll love this game, in spite of its belonging to this bizarre genre I barely understand called "RPGs".  I indeed fall in love and proceed to obsessively play this game and all its sequels like a nut for the rest of my life.  Later that week, Curt brings to school his copy of the D&D Black Box.  We play our first Basic D&D campaign, a horrid and rules-free muddle of Final Fantasy (that coming from Curt) and Middle-Earth (coming from Anders and me, we were already Tolkien fanatics), with the hit point and damage totals for characters quickly escalating into the thousands because that's how it works in FF7 (man, that campaign was awesome).  Not long thereafter, I obtain some AD&D 2nd edition core rulebooks (revised black-cover editions), not really comprehending that D&D and AD&D are different games.  Whenever I happen to take over as our trio's DM for a game, we pretty much play AD&D 2e, mostly by the rules, but ignoring a lot of the complexity (generally by mistake, not by intent).  Whenever Curt DMs, which is most of the time, he lets us use our 2nd edition books with patronizing largess, because, heh, he's the DM, and what do "rules" even matter anyway?  (And of course those games were awesome.)

1999: Sophomore year begins.  One of the new incoming freshmen, Dave, joins my friends and I as the fourth regular in our gaming group. Dave has a Sega Genesis; he introduces me to Shining Force II.  I instantly fall in love and proceed to play that game and all its sequels and prequels like an obsessive nut for the rest of my life.  Our near-daily play of AD&D 2nd edition continues, often with Curt DMing us in an ongoing "all thieves" campaign.  Anders acquires many PHBR splat-books, the rust-covered "Complete Handbooks" for all his favorite character types (chiefly Gnomes/Halflings, Elves, Rangers, and Psionics).  I make sure to acquire the Ninja splatbook, and to obtain the 1st edition PHB and Oriental Adventures so that we can have the official version of the Monk in our campaigns.  But this is all to be very short-lived, because also this year, previews and leaks regarding the new 3rd edition (gasp!) start to appear on Eric Noah's website; and that summer, we start to incorporate all of these half-finished details and rumors into our mish-mash 2ndy-3rdy edition-esque franken-campaign.

2000: 3rd edition comes out.  It seems so much better than older editions in every way.  So we play it, a lot.  I keep on playing it after high school and into college.  I buy pretty much every book that comes out for 3.0, and likewise for 3.5 when that comes along, because, hey, it's even better---it's fixed all the problems we didn't know we had.

2005: With the gaming group that I hang with for one year in college, I start a campaign using the new D&D 3.5 rules.  The players are total munchkins and don't really role-play much, but we have fun killing stuff.  I get pretty dissatisfied with the lack of story and interaction, though, so I try to scale back the power of the campaign.  I do not one, but two whole-cloth conversions, first to OGL Steampunk, then to d20 Past.  That last set of rules seems to work out pretty well, and we actually bring the sputtering clunky campaign to a sort of climactic conclusion.

2006-7: At another school, with another gaming group, I play another 3.5 campaign with even more munchkiny players.  I get so freaking fed up with the very concept of feats and builds that I nearly scrap the campaign around the time the players reach 15th level; but instead, I try converting to Castles & Crusades, and then, on a whim, Rules Cyclopedia D&D.  The RC works so damned well, and I and all the players have such a blast playing with these sleeker, simpler rules, that I resolve never again to play anything more complex.  It becomes my game of choice.

2007-9: I wind up living in the same town as my old friend from high school, Dave.  Along with my future wife, Sarah (hi, honey!), we begin a new D&D game set in a fantasy world that I've only lately dreamed up for writing a novel in, Gaia.  Dave plays a gnome named Sprocket; Sarah plays a birdling named Mira; so this game is forever immortalized as "the Sprocket & Mira campaign".  I start working in earnest on Engines & Empires as a whole rulebook to be published under Labyrinth Lord rather than just a little house-rules module thrown up on, incorporating changes into this campaign as I go along, playtesting everything.  Again, things work pretty well, although we play this campaign so much and so long that we eventually carry the game right up to 36th level and blow past that limit into Immortals level gaming.  The campaign very shortly thereafter falls apart due to boredom with the overpowredness of the deifically high-level characters.  But man, what a ride; probably the best game I've ever DMed.

2010-present: Now living in the world of the OSR, I play some small games at my FLGS using Engines & Empires and Retro Phaze.  With cool people like this guy.  But by now, I'm kind of fed up with the issues of high-level D&D gameplay, so I generally limit the level of the game using little rules hacks like Epic Six, or just making the end of the Expert Set (14th level) a hard cap.  Eventually, like last year, I start looking for games that have an inherently flat power-curve, so that the notion of a teleporting time-stop meteor-swarm death-wish quadratic wizard isn't even a thing that can occur to anyone in my campaigns.  I tried FATE for about a half a session (blecgh), and now Barbarians of Lemuira for about half a campaign.  But I guess I have to design something with a little more meat on its bones before I'll be satisfied, which is ironic, because it means going back to a design paradigm that involves something like feats and builds, and dispensing instead with true classes and levels (but I'm hopeful that it can be done without making a game too terribly complex or at all prone to the optimization mini-game).  Still, it's going to be a while for this new game (tentatively called the Decimus System) will be ready.  So in the meanwhile, what to play?

This week, it's AD&D 2nd edition.  And it really does feel like coming home.  There was so much about 2nd edition that I'd forgotten.  There was a lot that I hated back in the day, and a lot that I look back on now and really, really love.  Like, looking through these rules, I'm seeing stuff here that I like better in 2e than in Basic (such as the THAC0 progressions).  There's also stuff that I just absolutely won't ever bother with ever again (like most of the ability score tables; I mean, get real, who needs entries like "bend bars/lift gates" or "system shock" and "resurrection survival" when OD&D's simple -3 to +3 modifiers work just bloody fine!).  So... I was going to write this post about the house rules that I'll be incorporating (or not, as the case may be) into this 2nd edition conversion, but it seems that I've spent the last hour rambling about my past as a D&D player and DM.  So... I guess I'll write on that tomorrow (jeez, how did it get to be 2 AM, anyway?).  But I feel like I'm forgetting something....

Oh, yes.  Converting whole campaigns.  This is the third time in my life that I've done it.  Once with my first college group; that went well and got the campaign to its climax.  The second time with my second college group: that went well enough, in that it helped me rediscover the old-school gaming which has been my passion for nigh on seven years now. But generally, swapping a campaign's rule set (even between mere editions of what's ostensibly the same game) and converting characters between systems is usually regarded as a bad move, a social faux pas, or even a detestable bait-and-switch.  And prior to now, I've only ever really made a conversion between editions of D&D or d20.  This will be a switch form a non-D&D game to AD&D.  And it will present a severe ramping up of the complexity level, in a game where half the players are not terribly experienced with RPGs to begin with (although all have played D&D with me before).  Still, they seemed generally positive on the idea (merely neutral at worst for those players unconcerned with game rules to begin with and just there for the story and role-playing, which is more than fine by me!).  So... what I'm saying is, I think I can pull this off.  After about five months (give or take) of gameplay with BoL characters, the conversion algorithm I've employed has created a set of 2nd edition characters of around 8th level (as always with 2e XP tables, give or take)---a 9th level necromancer, an 8th level psionicist, an 8th level technologist, and a 7th level runecaster.  And, yes, that technologist link is pointing to a 3rd edition sourcebook, but it's 3.0, so it's easy enough to convert backwards to 2e.... which, I guess, I'll explain next time.

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