Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Big Wrap-Up

This might very well be the last post I have time for before my final year of school kicks off. (Holy fuck, my final year of grad school… it's about damned time.) During this last year, I expect to be too busy to do much of anything involving gaming. On that account, my Barrowmaze campaign is wrapping up, and the last session will be played next Saturday.

The penultimate session saw a very large party (sixteen characters with levels ranging from 1st to 8th, being run into the dungeon by ten players) go full "balls to the wall," speedily ransacking a path from the northwest corner of the Barrowmaze to the northeast, using whatever divinatory means they had at their disposal (now considerable, between their two crystal balls and their 11th level patriarch ally who can commune). They started the session by fighting their way to the Pit of Chaos and chucking in the Fount of Law ("killing the spawn point," as they put it) and then making a mad dash for the lair of Ossithrax Pejorative (they ganked the draco-lich in two rounds flat; there is a bloody reason I bump the haste spell up to 4th level when I run D&D).

So even though they haven't yet found the Tablet of Chaos, or gone toe-to-toe with any gods of death in person, or, you know, fulfilled their campaign-long ambition to overthrow the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and rule it themselves, I do believe that they'll accomplish at least one of those things (probably the Tablet one) during the last game. And I don't think it's too early at this point for a post-campaign analysis.

What I've Learned

To keep this brief: un-modified rules-as-written D&D is awesome. House rules actually need a really damned good reason to come into being. There are a few things that I do still house rule, but there are lots of things that I now know I'm never going to house rule again. I won't use critical hits in the future. I won't implement any kind of wound system that takes the teeth out of "dead at 0 hit points." I'll certainly never again fuck with prime requisite adjustments to experience points (though I do think I prefer the way AD&D implements it vs. OD&D, because "10% bonus iff all your primes are above 16" is way easier to deal with than OD&D's scaling table, which might have, say, −20% for a prime of 3–5, or +5% for a prime of 13–15).

I will still continue to use fixed hit points instead of rolled hit dice, and to replace Gygax's weird weapon and armor history hiccups with more realistic corrections, swapping leather armor for gambeson/aketon and using proper terms for one-handed arming swords and two-handed bastard and long swords. And I'll still probably do something different with missile-fire, because D&D's rules for weapon ranges are truly just teeth-gratingly awful.

(Note to self: in the future, run missile weapons as follows. Daggers, hatchets, spears, etc. can be thrown out to 30' max, no range penalties. Javelins and darts, out to 60', at a to-hit penalty of −1 per 5' beyond the 30' mark. Bows, crossbows, and slings can shoot out to 90' max effective range, at −1 to hit per 10' beyond the 30' mark. Hugely more realistic, still plenty slick to implement at the table, and it effectively eliminates the whole range category mechanic in a very satisfying way.)

While I don't know for sure when I'll next be of a mind to run a proper D&D campaign (as of now, I really just miss terribly running Engines & Empires and other games of my own devising), I do know something else: I won't use d20 roll-under ability checks.  I didn't use them for this campaign either, and things went rather well.  But I did use a "career" system based on Secondary Skills, and I've discovered that I frankly don't like that mechanic much either, to the point where I'm going to eliminate it from Engines & Empires when I revise that game and replace it with my old skill system from the earlier edition. You know, the twelve skills with ranks that you roll under on 1d6.  That, actually, works really well if ability checks simply aren't a thing, and I'm bringing it back. I'll talk a little bit about my plans for E&E (and what's to become of Retro Phaze) further below.

Finally, I've discovered yet again that an open table is really exhausting to deal with once you have more than four or five players.  Factions inevitably form, and groups start working at odds with each other, trying to pull the campaign in different directions. Some months ago, a few of the players became bored with the Barrowmaze and tried to drag the campaign first in one direction and then the other, and they dipped their toes down into the first three levels of Stonehell Dungeon before sailing off to the Isle of Dread.  Both of these distractions caused the whole campaign to lose focus and coherency, and I regret allowing either to come to pass.

A small part of the problem was trying to run an "open world" game set in a big gonzo pulpy high-magic, High Middle Ages world like Mystara (it's just too much, and it's a great fit for the Isle of Dread or even Stonehell, but a terrible place in retrospect to set an isolated dungeon like Barrowmaze, which really does require a much more borderlands-of-Greyhawk-meets-Conan's-Hyborean-Age sort of setting to dwell in). If I ever have a mind to run Barrowmaze again, I'm going to make sure that it's the campaign dungeon, and traveling anywhere else will be impractically difficult, because I just don't see it working out any other way.

The larger problem was just having an open table and letting too many players sit down on a whim.  Most would roll up a character, play a session or two, and then never show up again.  A few would make a new character many levels lower than the long-running PCs and be frustrated that they couldn't ever really catch up. So I've learned something else: in the future, use shorter open-table campaigns run in game shops to vet players and recruit for more serious, more long-term home campaigns.

What Comes Next

So for now, what little time I have allowable for game related things will be devoted to cleaning up Engines & Empires. This is a fairly small and manageable project. I've got a number of things I need to fix up or streamline, but in the main:

• The game engine is mostly going to get re-B/X-ified, made more compatible with the game that was its inspiration. Stripping out critical hits, for example. Stripping out wound levels. Making sure that I have the dungeon and wilderness exploration rules right. (But I'm going to make sure my wilderness exploration rules emphasize point-crawls and hex-crawls equally in the future. Point crawls have their uses, after all, and hex crawls really are nothing more than big and mostly-empty point crawls with a lot of equidistant points.) The classes get their level titles back, that's gonna be fun. But I'm sticking with the BtW magic rules, because those are and continue to be awesome.

• Related to no more wound levels: I'm going back to hard death at 0 hit points, but I'm adding a variation on a rule that many an old-school D&D podcast has discussed in relation to J. Eric Holmes' home campaigns, where he would allow a one-round "final action" so that your doomed 0 hp character could go out in a blaze of glory. My own version of this rule will combine it with that singular mechanic which my longtime players love so much, "rolling the bones." How it will work from here on out: when you take enough damage to fall to 0 hp, you're dead, and no healing magic will save you at that point, but it might not be instantaneous. Roll 2d6. On a natural 7, you cling to life just long enough to take a one-round final action or to pass along some heartfelt last words after the battle (but probably not both, unless your final action ends the battle). A roll of 11 is the same as 7, except that your body is maimed or scarred in such a way that will persist even if you're raised. Craps (snake-eyes, acey-deucey, or boxcars) means that you're just dead, plus the maiming/scarring. Any other number is just dead.

• I'm also walking back the career system in favor of the old E&E skill system. 1d6 checks for the win.

• On the flip side of that coin, and this one's a biggie, d20 ability checks are going away, and in order to emphasize that, so are the traditional names for the ability scores. It's just too easy to be tempted into saying "roll a Strength check" to lift something heavy, or "roll a Charisma check" to sweet-talk an NPC. It's a bad mechanic, and the math still didn't work quite right even in my corrected system from the most recent edition (i.e. checks rolled under 2 + half the ability score). This is because any ability check system is going to place far too much emphasis on a very swingy, randomly-generated number, and it's just not a good idea for character with, say, Dex 14 to be even 20% better, never mind 35% better, at doing agile things than a character with Dex 7. So, while the scores will still have their little modifier impacts on things like to-hit rolls and saving throws, their main function will be to serve as prime requisites for the classes. And to emphasize this, they're getting renamed, from Strength, Dexterity, Intellect, and Charisma, to terms that say "fighteryness, rogueyness, nerdiness, and wizardyness" without saying too much else—namely, Valor, Fortune, Acumen, and Presence.

• The character races and classes are getting a slight overhaul. All demi-humans being dual-classed and level-limited is going away, in exchange for a simpler system where everyone is always single-classed, a "scholar" class gets added to the lineup to stand in for fighter/mages, and demi-humans can belong to one of their favored classes at no penalty, or take a small penalty for belonging to a non-favored-class.

• And, of course, some fixing up how weapons and armor work to improve historical accuracy. Also, I've hit upon nice nifty little simplification to my encumbrance rules that keeps them working the same way while eliminating the "grid" on the character sheet (which was itself rather cumbersome to use) and the X×Y encumbrance values for items in favor of simple kilograms.

I've always maintained that you can tell a great deal about how a game will work by looking at its character sheet, so I'm going to put it to the test right now. This is what E&E is shaping up to look like in the near future.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Or rather, for some news that I'm sure will disappoint a few people.

I'm not going to revise Retro Phaze.  I just can't manage to beat the game into a shape that I'm happy with. It's drawing from too many disparate and incompatible sources.  And so I've decided to simply leave it alone as-is, and focus on the parts that I like, and make a new game out of those.

I find nowadays that I don't particularly need to have a tabletop game that feels like the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, because original D&D already does that just fine.  I also don't need a Phantasy Star game, because we have retro-clones that do that admirably. What I do require is a tabletop skirmish game that gets Shining Force and Fire Emblem down pat, because nobody does that. So that's what I'm going to focus on: making the best tabletop tactical battle game that I can make. And that means seriously de-emphasizing dungeon crawls and re-balancing magic around the single-encounter battle rather than the all-day slog. This is a game that Retro Phaze is not capable of becoming.

So I'm creating a new game. I'm basing it more directly on the actual mechanics "under the hood" of the strategy RPG video games it will be trying to emulate. Its title will be Shining Armour.  And I do not expect to have much time to even start working on it until next summer at the earliest, because, again, last year of grad school, holy fuck, etc., etc.


  1. I know I punched out some time ago, but this feels like the end of an era. I suppose this isn't the first Dragon's Lair campaign you've wrapped up, though.

    Best of luck with your last year of grad school. I was lucky enough to get a student teacher at the end of my program.

    I also wish you luck with your next project. I love Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. (Not much exposure to Shining Force since I never had a Genesis growing up- just watched a friend play a few times.)

    Just best of luck, all around. Hopefully we'll see you blog-side in the not too distant future.

    1. Thanks, man. And, yeah, ending a big campaign always feels huge, but the truth is that this one was starting to get pretty long in the tooth and creaky in the knees. And while I won't be able to run a new game for some time yet, I do look forward to the day. I seriously miss my steampunk.

      On the school side of things, I've never been a TA before. Kind of terrified, knowing that I'll have a tiny measure of authority over undergrads. Preppy Jesuit-college undergrads who need to pass basic physics to stay in their med-school programs. I shudder to imagine.

    2. In my experience, teaching and DMing share kind of a jaw-dropping number of soft skills and approaches. Granted, I've never taught college, but I'm guessing that the seniors at my present school aren't so different from freshmen you might have.

      Are you teaching courses, or are you doing a lab proctor type thing?

    3. Just a lab proctor, thank goodness.

    4. The only proctoring I ever have to do is when our juniors take the ACT... physics labs should be at least a little more interesting than that, right?

    5. If by interesting, you mean a hellscape of inevitable mechanical problems and scheduling difficulties, sure… :D

    6. So maybe it's interesting as in "may you live in interesting times" XD

  2. It’s fun to see many designers hit a lot of the same notes as they get better at their craft.

    In many cases we do find that Dave and Gary had it right all along.

  3. Funnily enough, I'll be entering grad school this impending semester, but the resultant time crunch will probably be similar (coupled with, hopefully, working a part-time job to help save up for a move). Best of luck to you!