Friday, 27 July 2012

Always loved Vikings

From Runequest: Viking, Rolemaster/HERO: Viking, to GURPS Viking, I have them all. And I know the difference between Scandinavians and actual vikings, but let's face it, the latter term is nigh-ubiquitous. And Glorantha's "land-bound Scandinavians", the Orlanthi Sartarites? Love them too.

One of our most memorable games is known as "the Viking game" -- although it had more to do with the Sartarites than actual Scandinavians. Still, there were boats, and raids, and acts both glorious and foul. It was a fun game.

So upon viewing it, the teaser from Cubicle 7's upcoming Yggdrasill has my "Viking gland" acting up again. I don't really know much about the game, character sheets are available but I haven't had much time to research it. Time to make some time!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Twenty Four Sessions, Twenty Four Years

This weekend we completed the twenty-fourth session of our Kingmaker game. We've just started the third chapter of the six chapter adventure path, and everything seems to be going strong. It is also the longest D&D+ game I've played since the mid eighties.

Once upon a time, long campaigns were our bread and butter, but over the last couple decades short concise stories or games that just sort of wither on the game-vine have been the rule. Part of this is our ages and stations in life. Our average age is in the mid-thirties (and that's with one of the players being the eighteen year old son of another player), there are jobs, there are two very young children being dependant and whatnot -- the days of playing from dusk until dawn the next day are decades behind us.

Some of the most memorable moments in my gaming past have come from long games, not just from "story" moments but from situations that arose organically. I'd say it's about an even mix, and even though I'm busy exploring things OSR, I can't forget that some of the stories we bring up when we've had a couple refreshments and are discussing gaming in the past occurred because they were narrative bits put in place by the GM, me.

I met the kernel of my modern gaming group at University about twenty-four years ago. If it wasn't for J___ I never would have met C___ and the rest of them. And although C___ hasn't been in all of my games, he's in Kingmaker now.

Twenty-four years ago the game was Rolemaster. Man, I loved RM. Frequently held up for ridicule because of all the charts, it actually played pretty quickly (as long as each player had a copy of the relevant charts). Where Rolemaster breaks down for me is in the character administration. Levelling up? Spending points, recalculating skills. There was a lot about RM that I loved, and a couple things that I wistfully look back at, and a few parts that make me wish I still played it. Character administration brings it all crashing right back down on me.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Focus & Versatility

If there are similarities between the new and the old schools of gaming, there are differences too. One of the biggest is in their approaches to genre simulation.

In order to emulate a genre in the old school one frequently takes a set of rules and alters the skills and equipment. FGU's Bushido and Daredevil take the same central mechanic to very different places. Likewise, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and SuperWorld are each about as different from each other as imaginable, yet the core system remains.

This approach works, and it hasn't gone away. FFG's Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, and Only War are each slices of GW's grimdark 40K world, but the system heralds back over two decades to Warhammer FRPG.

In the new school, in order to emulate a genre one tends to focus on what the genre does, and designing mechanics specifically around that. Skill and equipment lists may still exist, but the entire game focuses on the goal of play. Unlike the older games, the narrower the focus of the play style the more able the designer is to craft mechanics to support it. The games, seen from an old school perspective, tend to lose versatility.

Not that new school games can't be re-skinned and re-purposed. Apocalypse World gives us Dungeon World and Monster Hearts, for instance.

I think the crux of the great divide between the two approaches lies in there, somewhere. To people used to the older style, new school games seem so narrowly focused. It's not a Western, or a Supernatural Western, it's a game where you play wandering agents of the religious authority, dealing with problems of the Faithful on the Frontier. The task system deals with faith, with belief, not with how many miles an hour one can ride a horse. There may not even be any rules for horses, horses aren't central to the theme and play style of the game. To someone steeped in old school games this seems a glaring oversight on any game set int he old West.

The reverse is true as well. To someone used to new school games, the rules of the old school games often seem vague and directionless. What do the rules tell you about the presumed style of play? How does the texture match the flavour? Why does the game need twenty-seven kinds of straight one-handed swords?

There is new vs old, but underlying that is focus against versatility.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Lethality and Bonus Points.

Our Kingmaker game should have been pretty deadly.

I'm running a wiki for my game, Heirs of the Stolen Lands (link visible at the right) and when considering what to do about "player buy-in" a number of sources suggested "fate points" -- a mechanism to re-roll or to escape death.

Almost (but not) every player has used one of these points to save their character at the brink of death. Some of the players have used multiple points. However although the goal was to encourage player participation in the blog, it wasn't supposed to become a haves vs have nots mechanic.

We're all busy. We have jobs, and families, and in two of my players' cases, a new child. Two of my players have maintained interest and involvement in the wiki. That's fantastic. C____ has created twenty-two in character "journal entries" -- one every week. J____ has edited the party loot log and done a lot of work with me on the kingdom building process. Other players have made less frequent, but still entertaining and important, contributions. Some players have not. They come out to my game, and they do a great job, but after the game they have other pressures on their time. Contribution to the wiki was never a precondition.

However with almost two dozen sessions under our belts two players have had several opportunities to spend fate points to alter rolls or save their lives. I cap the maximum available at three, but that ends up encouraging "maxed out" players to spend one or two on skill checks. I have no problem with the mechanic, however after several months of play the mechanic has become unbalanced. Two characters can *afford* to throw themselves into mortal danger. It was time for that mechanic to end.

Since we have started the third chapter, the Varnhold Vanishing, I informed the players that fate points were now finit. And I explained why. Sure enough, one of the characters who had a stock-pile of fate points was killed by a Wandering Encounter.

Death, however, is no longer the barrier it was. Although they can't quite cast it, yet, the group is in a situation where they can afford Raise Dead. So with Gentle Repose protecting the corpse of their dear companion, the Cavalier mounted up and raced for the home-castle to grab appropriate treasure, then off to Restov to get the character raised.

I hope the players continue their contributions to the wiki. But the time for bonus points had come to an end. Now the escape from the final curtain will cost the characters as a group, and not even they can sneeze at 5,000 gp, and 2,000 more for Restoration, couched not as the price of a diamonds, but as the massive contributions to the Temple of Abadar required for a spell of this magnitude.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Disconnects & Dragons

I am caught between two worlds, the OSR and the new school, and I frequently find myself at odds with both.

Recently I got in a rather polite conversation about Cosmic Patrol with a member of the OSR community. In their favour were many valid points (that isn't sarcasm -- they were right on the money on several criticisms), but I did get a bit of a bone caught in my throat over narrativism and railroading.

I have said, and I still believe, that when it comes to things like player agency there is a similarity, a congruence if you will, between a lot of "new school" RPGs and the OSR. One of the central features of both games is that the GM is not trying to tell a story. In many of the OSR games the style of play is a Sandbox. The GM puts things in play, but in the end it is the players' characters who decide where to go and what to do.  In some of the "new school" games the GM is expressly prevented from creating their own narrative.

This is not an absolute value. There are older games where many GMs tell stories. That style of play did not spring wholly formed from the heads of Weis and Hickman. And there are no doubt many games in the 'new school" where a rigid narrative traps the players by design or GM empowerment and limits their choices -- even if I can't actually think of any. Certainly the play-style can be emulated in some of them.

But one of the advantages of the "new school" is that people have really thought about gaming, about the hows and whys of the hobby, and applied this ideal to the very mechanics themselves. Some of the results are a bit baroque, some have implications I don't enjoy, but there are a number that really work for me.

As to his other criticism, that games in the new school (my phrasing, not his) often allow the players to step back from the characters and take the role of collaborative screen-writers instead? On any game that turns the narrative control over to the players, pretty much guilty as charged. If that's a deal-breaker for him, well, taste is subjective and there's nothing we can do about that. Except -- how is a game that turns narrative control over to each player in any way railroaded?

There's lots of room in the hobby for different tastes, but I think we all can learn a bit about "the other guys" here, and maybe learn a trick or two from them.

Getting Our Motors Running

Recently playing a forgettable computer game that featured some post-apocalyptic car-racing.

It brought me back to Car Wars, that classic Steve Jackson game of, you guessed it, post-apocalyptic car-racing. There have been numerable attempts to create this in an RPG. GURPS Autoduel and Atomic Highway spring to mind.

But I've never found these sorts of RPGs entertaining in anything other than very small groups. Something about the environment and the size of the vehicles -- part of it is a pack of four to six player-character-driven vehicles forms such a formidable swarm, and part of it is the excitement in high-octane highway duels is the "one on one" or "on vs the horde" angle, where it's just you and your skill (and your car) between survival and death.

Why is dungeoneering, for instance, any different? Why is skirmish combat with a small band of heroes versus an enraged Ogre, or a pack of murderous bandits more enjoyable than a pack of cars hunting down a heavily armed pump-truck full of raiders?

I still want to run a "Car Wars" style game of Mother, Jugs & Speed -- the full-contact Gold Cross ambulance crew -- one day.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Vancian Magic gone Mad!

With the long weekend disrupting the RPG campaign, we defaulted to board/card-games. Amazing syncronicity, since it would have taken about two weeks for those of us still interested in doing Kingmaker's "Kingdom Turns" to run through about 14 months of turns, as the little Barony develops into a small Duchy. As far as Domain level games go, Kingmaker's is sparse and abstract, even with the addition of the 3rd Party "Book of the River Nations" to flesh things out.

The first game was Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mount Skullzfyre. With art somewhat like EC Comics Vault of Horror on acid, the game is very over-the top. But relevant to the blog, each player crafts "pseudo-Vancian" spells.

"Midnight Merlin's Devilicious Death Wish" or "Scorchia's Disco-Mirrored Brain Suck" -- both possible results -- almost demand being statted up in some RPG system. I'll put it on the back burner. As the spell titles may suggest, the game is light-hearted, chaotic, destructive fun.

I don't know if it's a reliable source for spell-names, rather I find it interesting that spell-names have been turned into a game.

The second game was Lords of Waterdeep. Most WoTC board-games tend to imitate dungeoneering (Castle Ravenloft), or are wargames (Conquest of Nerath). This worker-placement game, set in the greatest city in the Forgotten Realms, doesn't try to imitate the mechanisms of D&D, rather it uses the setting to support it's goal-completion based play.

Unlike Epic Spell Wars, Lords of Waterdeep offers a lot of world-flavour to a GM, and many of the Quest cards are useful adventure seeds. The game doesn't cover the same detail as the old Waterdeep boxed set, but it is useful for more than just it's very enjoyable play. WoTC should make more games like this, compared to their "dungeoneering board game" they label D&D Adventure System Co-operative Play.