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.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

One Last Big Change for the E&ECR Revision

Some discussion on various blogs and boards hereabouts reminded me of something.

Old-school gamers really, really like those demi-human character classes.

My in-progress revision of the Engines & Empires Core Rules was on the brink of dropping any semblance of race-as-class, and just going with straightforward race-and-class with a few restrictions (similar to Holmes Basic or Basic Fantasy RPG). But then I saw folks once again singing the praises of race-as-class, and it reminded me: race-and-class leads to "weird fantasy kitchen sink" games, while race-as-class promotes human-centric games. And you can even go one step further by making demi-humans entirely optional, in which case the game becomes not just human-centric, but human-by-default.

I want Engines & Empires to be human-by-default.

So one big re-write that I'm working through now is to strip demi-humans out of E&E's character creation chapter. A new chapter will be inserted later on to give demi-humans a place in the rules, and it will be explicitly optional and present multiple methods for dealing with such characters.

That way, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have rules for race-and-class that go with a setting like Gaia, which is a weird fantasy kitchen sink where demi-humans are common. And I can have race-as-class classes (elf fighter/magicians, goblin rogue/inventors, etc.) that really drive home what those non-humans are all about in settings where the demi-humans are rare or on the wane or simply really isolationist (as in Tolkien). And it will just be up to individual referees to choose which model works best for their campaigns.

That, I think, is the right way to do it in the end. We'll never totally resolve the debate in the old-school gaming community (the large umbrella that includes grumpy grognards, the OSR, the artpunk movement, SwordDream, and tabletop adventure gamers like myself), so I think more rulebooks should try to include both race-and-class and race-as-class as options.

But forget dual-statting books with both descending and ascending AC. Ascending AC is for heretics.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

My first D&D game in a season.

Really my first E&E game in like two years.

Of the six players I was expecting, four made it. The following characters were created:

Bertrand Truelove, human inventor.
Elizabeth, human scholar.
Tommy Twohands, dwarfish rogue.
Hector, elfin magician.

That's right, they rolled up a party with every available class except fighter. Then they went down into the dungeons of Zenopus (yeah, that Zenopus; I've been on a Holmes Basic kick lately you'll remember), which I'd conveniently placed under Morgansfort.

Oh, yeah, have I mentioned that I'm running BF1: Morgansfort? But with the Zenopus dungeon under the town itself, and the rest of the region expanded into a thickly forested point-crawl.

For this campaign, I wanted to do some things differently to what I normally do. To that end:

• It'll be a short little campaign, nothing epic, with just some close friends & family, not my usual big open table at a game-shop. Only a handful of sessions before I call it good.
• A point-crawl instead of a hex-crawl, which should make exploring the whole map within a short time-frame totally reasonable.
• Mostly based on the E&E rules, including those weapon rules I posed about last time, but with one big exception. I'm using the B/X rules for magic. Not AD&D or BECMI where magic-users can expand their spell-books without limit, but the B/X version where they can't know more spells than they can cast.
• Also, straight dead-at-0-hit-points (but with the Holmes "final action"/"blaze of glory" rule in force).

And because of that last rule, we had a truly awesome moment where Bertrand and some chaotic beastmen got into a war of words over who would "stand and deliver" their treasure to the other party, before the beastman drove his dagger into Bertrand's heart; and Bertrand in a last act of spite cut out the beastman's tongue and spat, "You deliver!" before they both died.

Then the rest of the party carried Bertrand's corpse back up to the surface and let the sight of it traumatize the stable-boy they'd hired. In the words of Bertrand's player, choked with laughter: "You can't write this shit!"

Indeed, you can't.

But I can say that it was the best laugh I've had out of a tabletop game in a good long while, and I owe it to OD&D's death rules.

Monday, December 9, 2019

All weapons do 1d6 damage, but bigger or smaller weapons adjust both attack rolls and AC: I call it "deep fried Holmes-style."

So a little while ago, I finally went and put together a reasonably complete version of this idea that's been banging around in my brain for a good long while. (Dragonsfoot link.) (Reddit link.)

The basic idea is, all melee weapons and most missile weapons deal 1d6 damage, just like in the blue box version of D&D from '77 (so-called "Holmes Basic"). It's yet another one of those cases where I find that I like the original D&D rule better than either of what developed in classic D&D or AD&D. And it got me to thinking: what if Moldvay had never put the optional variable weapon damage table into the pink box Basic Set in '81 (cribbed and simplified as it was from Supplement I: Greyhawk)?

The game's combat system might have gone in a different direction, and it turns out to be one that I like. Instead of differentiating weapons by damage die sizes, so that weapons only vary in their offensive capabilities, my alteration is to vary them with a modifier that applies to both attack rolls and AC-in-melee. For example, if you're unarmed, you still deal 1d6 damage, but you're −4 to hit and −4 to your melee AC. If you have a great sword, assuming you have room to swing it, you're +3 to hit and +3 to your melee AC.

The upshot is that the to-hit bonus and AC mod cancel each other out for identical weapons, but when weapons are different, the bigger ones are a big offensive and defensive advantage, as in real life. And it's no great increase in game complexity to implement this little change. Different to what people are used to, sure—but not if you're steeped in a white box/blue box culture, where the d6 damage die is already standard.

So as it turns out, much like making sure that ability scores are chiefly serving as prime requisites for classes and sources of XP adjustment, I think I'm going to be taking the next edition of Engines & Empires in this direction too. (After all, it was the need to make the weapon tables more historically accurate that prompted me to start working on this new edition in the first place.) When all is said and done, E&E will be I think more compatible with Holmes than Moldvay or Mentzer, which is different for me, but it's what I'm into these days.

So (to cite one example of a family of weapons), blades now have the following progression:
knives, −3/−3
daggers, −2/−2
short swords (cutlass, hanger, longknife, smallsword), −1/−1
normal swords (arming sword, broadsword, rapier), ±0/±0
bastard swords (when held in two hands), +1/+1 (falls to −1/−1 in one hand)
long swords (e.g. claymores), +2/+2
great swords (e.g. zweihänder), +3/+3 out in the open, or ±0/+0 down in a dungeon

This alteration to the rules produces fine granularity, and I can also vary the weapon modifier to apply to different armor types in a way that largely represents the (in)famous Chainmail/AD&D weapon vs. armor type table, without having to ever look up or cross-reference anything. In the next edition of E&E, it will be the case that:
• Spears retain their main advantages, throwability and setting vs. a charge
• Swords have social capital, ease of carrying/wearing, and are commonly enchanted
• Axes are +1 to hit low armor classes (9 to 6) because they're good at hewing through soft matter
• Maces are +1 to hit high armor classes (6 to 2) because they punch armor
• Clubs get no such advantage and are actually −1/−1 relative to similarly-sized weapons

And it all fits together really well and "just werks." I've run some Python simulations and some one-man playtests and everything looks great so far; and I look forward to running a full, live playtest game with actual players sometime soon.

* * *

There's a second alteration that I'm also leaning strongly towards implementing, but it has me a little more worried. The more I've thought about it, the more I've decided that I'd rather play out rounds in D&D combats without any kind of initiative mechanic. I'd keep initiative rolls at the start of encounters, because those are a great framework for organizing such mechanics as reaction rolls and the starts of chase scenes.

But in combat? A round is ten seconds. A lot can happen in ten seconds, sure, but on a scale that small I'm inclined to call everything simultaneous. That is to say, everybody gets to at least start taking actions before anything actually shakes out or results from them.

How it works is actually a lot like AD&D 2nd edition, but without the d10 roll for inish. There's a combat sequence, but it has to do with declaring and resolving actions, rather than classic D&D's famous "m-steps" (move, missiles, magic, melee, misc.).

It goes a little something like this:

1. The referee tips his hand by declaring what the monsters or enemy NPCs are doing, or appear to be doing.

2. The players decide what each character and follower in the party is doing, construct a list of orders/actions, and relay these to the DM through the caller.

3. The DM now executes all the actions one at a time, in whatever order makes the most sense, but resolves none of them. That is, movement happens, spells go off, and attacks are rolled, but no consequences yet.

4. The DM then resolves all actions as close to simultaneously as possible. Saving throws are rolled, spells take effect, damage and healing are rolled and applied to targets (with damage and healing to the same target cancelling out so that only the net number of HPs are gained or lost).

5. Back to step 1 until the fight is over.

It's straightforward, but not at all simple. The potential for absolute chaos is there, because actions are not ordered in any way beyond what the DM judges. Which on the one hand I like, because it's freeing, but on the other, has terribly high stakes in the game because it's combat.

Generally speaking, I hate 3rd edition style cyclic initiative. I would never go back to that. And for me, Basic D&D's swingy round-to-round back-and-forth was also starting to feel kind of artificial and predictable. This, I hope, injects a little danger back into the proceedings. No more streaks where the player characters steamroll encounter after encounter in the dungeon by setting up surprise, getting a free round, and then winning initiative on top of that and getting to take two allotments of actions in a row, often ending a fight before it starts without consequences.

With a system like the above, where actions are always effectively simultaneous, there is no such thing as a "safe" battle. Maybe this will make players think twice even before laying an ambush now.

But who knows? This one, I'll actually need time and players to test out.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Saw some movies and (unrelatedly) thought up some D&D stuff

Saw Knives Out this evening. It was a damn fun little mystery thriller that just begs to be analyzed, what with its themes and metaphors all taking front and center stage. Very enjoyable flick.

Saw Frozen II last week as well. Not as good as the original but it had its moments. Maybe mildly disappointing, but still worth the price of the ticket.

I just put up a Reddit post on my most recent thoughts about weapons in D&D, and I hope I can get some solid critique there! Normally this is the sort of thing I'd put up on my blog, but (a) I haven't touched my blog in a while because school has me badly out of the blogging habit, and (b) I really need lots of eyeballs on this system, as it presents a major change and a lot of work that I may or may not actually be willing to put it. We'll see.