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Math
One of the few things from the new school that I like to keep in my old school games is ascending armor classes. I think it's much easier to deal with than attack matrices or THAC0 or the like. Anyway, I've posted about this before, I even wrote a pdf detailing a system for such.

Anyway, I used this system when I ran my B/X one-shot a while back, and while explaining that the conversion from old AC to new AC was 10 + (10 - AC), Delta quickly pointed out 'or just 20 - AC'. Um, yeah, the associative law, of course. You can even see that formula in the pdf linked above though. Though, I find it interesting that my mind didn't go there.

I think it's because I still find it easier to think of inverting a single digit number and then adding a tens digit than subtracting from 20. I wonder if that isn't why they used the descending AC system to start with? An AC in the range of 1-10 is much easier to deal with than one in the 10-20 range. Though, this of course doesn't take into consideration negative ACs in the descending system.

I've recently been playing All Flesh Must Be Eaten with my current group, which is based on the Unisystem. This system is d10 based, with stats and skills all in the 1-5 range. Rolls are simply d10 plus the stat and the skill. Though there's no AC in this system, so the comparison breaks there. Still, there's something attractive about all the low numbers here.

On the other hand, a d10 based system means all probabilities are in increments of 10%, while a d20 based system is in increments of 5%, and I think the latter is preferable. I don't much to back that assertion, simply that 5% increments feels like the right granularity. I've played pure percentile systems (eg. Warhammer), and a 1% change is really pretty imperceptible at the table. A +1 on a d20 though is noticeable, and +1 on a d10 is a big change.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, I have no conclusions here. Just some interesting things I've been noticing about the games I play these days.
November 1st, 2009 - 07:53 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Curse You, Morgus!
Last night, I got to play in a Halloween themed Labyrinth Lord game run by my good friend BJ. It was a fairly straight forward dungeon crawl, but heavy in horror themes, and he had replaced the player demi-human races with more Halloween themed races. For example, instead of dwarves, we had a huge hulking homunculus (think Frankenstein-esque flesh golem). I realized that this is the first old school game I've gotten to be a player in since really getting into the whole OSR scene. Usually I'm on the other side of the screen.

It was a blast. We had only three players, so I suggested we play the more specialist classes (wizard, cleric, thief) and each bring along a fighter type henchman. I ended rolling absolutely dreadfully for my stats. My only scores that didn't come with penalties were my 11 Con and 9 Int. I decided to play an inept hunched old wizard (hurray for no actual penalties in playing a low Int wizard!) I then proceeded to the local watering hole where I gathered as many potential body guards as I could, and insisted they arm wrestle to prove their strength, before hiring the winner.

I think old school D&D already encourages less than heroic characters, and with the horror theme our characters ended even more morally ambiguous. I really had a great time playing up the master/servant relationship between my wizard and his fighter henchman. Ezekiel the Younger (called 'easy-kill' by another player's character, which I had to concede was a fair assessment) would regularly assert his authority after Floyd had valiantly defended him with lines like 'Well, dinner isn't going to prepare itself.' Though occasionally I would play out Floyd as well, for example after defending the old man from a werewolf with a borrowed silver dagger, Floyd returned it saying 'This most definitely does not count as the pick of magic weapons I was promised for my service.' Between letting the randomness shape my character, and playing out my own henchmen, I think I was really channeling Mr. Collins, and finally really appreciating his style of play.

If I could point out one flaw in the game, and I presume when reading this BJ will take it in the constructive way it's intended, the ending of the game did kind of fizzle. Our final encounter had a great build up. It was with another adventuring party, whose leader was a wizard that BJ noticed had very similar spell selection to my own. He decided we were old rivals, which I think was fantastic, and I quickly began plotting against him with my companions. We had become aware of them ahead of time, and thus I convinced the thief to sneak up and backstab the wizard, using my invisibility spell to aid him. Unfortunately, the thief flubbed his move silent, and the backstab didn't take quite as well as we had hoped.

Finally the battle was joined, and as the sides were fairly evenly matched, it looked like it would be a drawn out bloody affair. It was also getting late at night, and though I was more than willing to play out as long as it took, I think others at the table may have been flagging. We negotiated a truce with the enemy who only really wanted to find a way out of the dungeon, and as we led him out he revealed a large treasure we had missed. Greed filled our eyes, and we attacked again, but not wanting to play the combat out BJ quickly narrated how everything went to crap when the charmed werewolf we had with us broke his enchantment and we all fled for our lives.

I suspect BJ was trying to steer the game away from combat and into negotiation, either because he felt bad that we missed the big treasure, or wanted an outlet to detail the interesting back story of the other party and how they came to be trapped down in this dungeon. I understand both situations, I've been there myself, but I think once the GM starts trying too hard to push the party in any direction that's when the game starts to feel railroaded and unsatisfying. So we missed the big treasure, so we missed the interesting back story of my rival, as GM I think you have to be willing to just cut huge swathes of what you prepared and just run with where the players take it. If we had simply played out the fight with Morgus's band, either we would have exulted in his destruction, or witnessed the final pathetic downfall of our motley band. Either outcome would have been an exciting finale to the story in my eyes. Instead, although the final outcome of everyone fleeing for their lives is ammusing to relate, playing it wasn't particularly satisfying.

Of course, as I said, it was pretty late at night, and energy levels were dropping. Despite the final 15 minutes of the game, everything prior was a huge amount of fun. In fact, I'm a little surprised to have gotten so much out of a game that really was not much more than your basic dungeon crawl. There were plenty of great moments with all of our characters, and though my story above revolves around Ezekiel the Younger, I'm sure either of the other guys could relate just as many funny and exciting stories about Grar the Warrior and Vann the Holy Man.

So thanks, BJ, for running that. I can't wait to play the next one.
October 31st, 2009 - 11:55 am | Comments (3) | PERMALINK

Next Up: Zombies
So our group has decided to take a little break from the Warhammer game after our TPK. We're going to try playing All Flesh Must Be Eaten for a little while to cleanse our gaming palate before seriously contemplating what to do next. I think it will definitely help to get away from fantasy for a little while to recharge the batteries.

Whether we'll actually return to Warhammer after that is debatable, and though a minority of players have expressed interest in doing just that, I doubt it will happen. I've never seen a campaign successfully returned to after a hiatus. I think once you start to distance yourself from a given campaign, it just gets harder and harder to go back, and more and more tempting to start something completely new.

Personally, I'm kind of hoping I can talk them all into an old school game next. I'd really love to run a longer term B/X or Labyrinth Lord game. Maybe even give the LL Advanced Edition characters supplement a spin, which I believe is supposed to come out pretty soon. I don't know if they'll all go for it though.

In fact, we don't even have a solid idea on how long we'll be playing the zombie game. Everyone agrees it should last at least a month, but I think we're also curious to see how fun it is before deciding how long to play it. I think that's actually just fine. I should stop thinking so far into the future and just enjoy the game we're going to play next session.

Braiiins...!
October 20th, 2009 - 12:06 pm | Comments (3) | PERMALINK

Awarding XP
I was just reading James Maliszewski's post on alternate XP systems. I know the usual Grognard stance is to go by the book, where XP is awarded only for monsters killed and treasure found. I've tried to do this, but my problem is that I've had some very enjoyable sessions that involved neither the discovery of treasure nor the killing of monsters. And I absolutely hate the idea of not giving XP for a session like that. Not only does it just seem unfair, but I'd worry that it would discourage the types of actions that lead to such sessions.

I also hate 'good roleplay' rewards. I don't want to base XP on how well I perceive a player to be playing their character. I know GMing comes with a lot of intrinsic power, but really, who am I to judge how well another person plays the game? As long as everyone's having fun, isn't it just mean-spirited to give one player more XP than another because they're a better actor, more talkative, or just have a more dominant personality?

OK, what do I like to use? Well, I've posted before about goal based XP. I really do love the idea of the players ultimately controlling what kind of actions will bring them XP. If they want to kill monsters and find treasure, great we'll do that. If later they want to uncover the plot to overthrow the king, we can do that too. It's adaptable and player driven. The only problem with it is finding players who will actually put in the effort to make it work. Sigh.

OK, here's what I did for my recent Warhammer game. I gave 75 XP per session, plus a bonus of 10-50 XP based on how much the players controlled the session vs. how much I controlled the session (more XP for them controlling the session). Why? Well, first off, I have to give XP for something, and if it's not monsters or treasure or plot, it might as well be just for showing up. Second, if I'm going to encourage any kind of behavior, it's the kind that makes the game more fun for me and takes some of the strain off my end.

Really though, the whole XP as a reward to encourage behavior X I'm starting to think is a load of bunk. The players will do what the feel like doing, and will rarely if ever associate actions from a previous session with the amount of XP they got, even if it's completely obvious, like 1 xp per gp found. Maybe I've had good luck in picking players, but I just don't think they really care so much about XP that they're going to change the way they play just to maximize that reward.

Ultimately, I think my Warhammer system seemd pretty arbitrary to the players. I don't think that was necessarily a bad thing, and at least it was reasonably easy to tally. I'll keep trying different systems, but I don't think at this point that I'll ever find one single right way to do it. I think every group of players and every game is different, and you've just got to find what works for your game and stick to it.
October 19th, 2009 - 08:10 am | Comments (2) | PERMALINK

Oh Yeah, No More Lunchtime D&D
I don't know how I never posted about this, but our lunchtime D&D game fizzled out several weeks ago. Perhaps I failed to note its passing simply because it was such a gradual decline rather than a sudden change like my recent TPK experience.

I just had fewer and fewer folks showing up to play. After a fairly long lull (a week or two?) a couple players independently asked if we were going to play again soon. I gave each of them the same answer: 'I'd love to play, gather your forces and name the time!' Unfortunately, gathering the forces (that is, sending emails to try and get other itinerant players back to the table), was simply too much work for any of my players to commit to. I wasn't willing to do it myself, I wanted at least that one tiny symbolic gesture that the players were excited to play rather than have the whole thing kept afloat only by my own enthusiasm. It never happened.

I sort of think a good part of this was the shortened time frame. Not to say playing for just an hour at a time is mechanically impossible, just that it's not nearly as fun as playing for longer (3+ hour) sessions. And I think it was not fun enough for players to easily find other things that were more fun to do with their lunch hours.

So, that's the state of things. The lunchtime game has come to a halt, and the Warhammer game is in a state of flux. Though oddly, I'm not down about any of this. If anything, all I see is the potential for new games. I'm actually really excited to see what the Warhammer group wants to do. I'm quite sure 'stop playing' isn't even remotely on the table. Really it's just a question of what do we want to play next.
October 15th, 2009 - 10:41 am | Comments (2) | PERMALINK

TPK
Last night I GMed my first ever complete TPK. It's kind of a long time coming, and I'm glad to have finally done it. Not that I was looking forward to it, just that it felt odd to have played this long and never had one.

I guess I have had a couple near-TPKs -- game ending experiences where only one or two characters made it out alive. There was always at least one guy that made it out though.

Anyway, I don't feel guilty about it, nor any need to dissect what went down. The players got themselves into a situation they couldn't run from, and then had some poor luck and a few bad choices. It happens. I think it was avoidable on their end, and I don't think anything I did was incorrect.

Anyway, even though all the players still had fate points and could by rights continue the game, it's given us pause enough to discuss what we want to do (continue playing, play something else, etc.) It's unfortunate that we didn't quite hit the year mark on this campaign -- only three weeks away! Still, I think it was growing somewhat stale, and that whatever we come up with next will be fun and invigorating.

Until I kill them all. :)
October 15th, 2009 - 08:11 am | Comments (2) | PERMALINK

TSR's Castle
I just discovered this awesome picture someone posted of the TSR Castle at GenCon in 1992. (No, that someone is not Monte Cook, it's his wife Sue). My first GenCon was 1993, but this is the TSR Castle as I remember it, and the only picture of the thing I think I've ever seen.

Yeah, it was awesome. I know WotC has made similar decorations at other GenCons I've been too, but none of them ever seemed to match the splendor of this behemoth. Yeah, it was pretty square and boxy, but it was huge, and it was right in the middle of the freaking exhibition hall. It towered over everything else in the place.

Anyway, I just wanted to share.
October 13th, 2009 - 01:03 pm | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

More on Skills
OK, what I really hate about skill systems is taking them into account when writing content (adventures, modules, etc.) You see it all the time, it shows up in the content like this:

An ogre guards the doorway silently, refusing to let anyone pass. Players may attempt to trick him into letting them by (Bluff or Diplomacy DC 20), or may attempt to sneak past (opposed Move Silently vs. the ogre's Spot of +5).


Wow, that just sapped all the creativity out of the situation. Instead, wouldn't it be more interesting to describe the ogre's motivations and character, and then let the party interact with him in any way they can think of? Sure, they might try sneaking past or they might try convincing him they are allowed past, but they might also try something wildly different. By listing out those solutions, I feel like they are the only correct choices, and suddenly the adventure is all railroady. I think the worst thing a GM can do is have a proconceived idea of the 'right way' to get past any kind of encounter.

And worse still, when I sit down to write my own material, do I take into consideration what skills my players do and don't have? If I do, I'm severly crippling my creativity by trying to ensure I put in plenty of areas where the halfling's cooking skill actually comes in useful. If I don't, then the halfling's player is disappointed that he spent so many resources improving a skill he never gets to use.
October 8th, 2009 - 10:52 am | Comments (10) | PERMALINK

Why I Prefer Less Rules
Got into a discussion yesterday with Jenn about other RPG systems we might like to play, and she reiterated her disagreement with me about skills. I've posted before about the drawbacks of skills, specifically about how they inhibit the player from interacting with the environment and encourage focusing on the mechanics of the rules. Jenn mentioned that she likes having the launching point of what her character can and can't do, as otherwise she just feels overwhelmed and has no idea what to do. I guess I can see that, a more inhibited player may tend to simply fall to the background and never get to do anything without having a mechanic to point to that says 'I've got the best eyesight here, I should be the one in the crow's nest looking for danger.'

These though are all player-centric arguments. I want to talk about why I prefer less options for players as a GM, be they skills or combat actions. Basically, I worry that I myself will sometimes inhibit the players who are creative if I feel I must enforce a large set of rules. When a player wants to do something outside the rules, I have this little internal monologue:

'Is there an existing rule I can apply to this action? Not really. Let me just look up one thing. No, that doesn't apply. OK, how can I adjudicate this fairly, such that it isn't unbalanced compared to the other things he could have done within the rules?'

I know, this is a weekness. If a player wants to do something creative, there's no reason I couldn't make a ruling about it regardless of how deep the rules we are using are, and no reason I have to take into consideration the existing rules. But I feel this strong need to be 'fair' to both the players that use the rules as written, and those that try to think outside the box.

When there aren't any rules about a large area of actions, it's empowering for me to have to make a ruling on the fly. I don't feel the need to remain consistent from one ruling to another. Which I think is a good thing, otherwise all I'm doing is writing a complicated rule system on the fly, and the longer we play the more rules there will be. I can make fast one-off rulings because I must make fast one-off rulings. There is no other option.

Maybe I just need to get over it and make my rulings as I please regardless of the system. Though there's a fine line there to being a good adaptable GM, and a callous arbitrary one that just completely ignores the system and does whatever he wants whenever he wants.
October 8th, 2009 - 08:10 am | Comments (4) | PERMALINK

Role for Initiative
I bought a couple core gaming books recently -- Call of Cthulhu (6th ed.) and All Flesh Must Be Eaten. The former I bought because somehow I've managed to never read the system in all my years of gaming, and the latter because I've been percolating ideas for a Zombie survival horror game and wanted to look at a system built just for that.

Both games suffer from the same problem: page bloat. CoC clocks in at over 300 pages, AFMBE at 256 (though it is an oddly smaller page size: 9.5 x 7.5). Most of this bloat is extra fluff and super hand-holdy explanations of basic roleplaying concepts. Do these authors really think they're getting many complete neophyte readers who have no idea what an RPG is? And really, I know you're a frustrated novel author, but could you at least try to keep the stories and the rules in separate sections so the book is actually useful as a reference during play?

That aside, after reading a couple different mechanics for initiative I came up with an idea for it that I thought I should write down. The most common initiative question is, group or individual? Group is easier to deal with, especially as it lets you go around the table and makes play order obvious. Individual gives the players another thing their character can shine at (or not).

I was going to say something about how individual initiative allows more intermingling of play order between players and monsters, but really that's kind of not true except for the very first round. After that, if you just shift your perspective to thinking that the round starts (or ends) with the GM, play does alternate between GM and all the players. I suppose the GM could break apart the monsters into separate groups with their own initiatives, but what a pain that is.

So here's my idea. Basically, every combat always begins with a surprise round. Each player makes some kind of test (perception, notice, dexterity, etc.) to determine if they may or may not act during the surprise round. Play begins with the player to the left of the GM, skipping any player who failed the test during the first surprise round. Once play reaches the GM he goes, and then play continues around the table as normal. You could interpret this as the GM always going during the surprise round (thus the turn ends with the GM), or never does (thus the turn begins with the GM). It doesn't really matter.

Basically, this allows some players to go before the GM, and some not. Or, perhaps all the players do poorly and fail the roles, thus are all skipped and the monsters go first. The GM can apply circumstance modifiers to players (blinded, purposefully on watch, etc.) or decide they don't get a roll at all (asleep, blithely unaware). Annoying feats/edges that imply some kind of 'sixth sense' could simply supply a constant bonus to this roll, or always allow the player to roll even if circumstance would normally forbid it.

I think it might be interesting. It would allow some players to play the quick, always on his feet type and others to be slow and ponderous, while still gaining all the benefit of a simple group initiative. I'm eager to try it out at the next one-shot I run.
September 22nd, 2009 - 03:14 pm | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

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