Friday, July 28, 2017

The Worst Witch

Apropos of nothing...

The kids and I checked out the new Netflix series, The Worst Witch, based on Jill Murphy's children's books (which we haven't read). Starring Bella "I-kick-ass-on-Game-of-Thrones" Ramsey as the young first year student at a witch school, I have to say I already dig it much more than the Harry Potter stuff. Which isn't really saying much since I hate most everything about Rowling's setting.

[sorry, J.K....much respect for the empire you've built and all, but I absolutely hate your "magical world." It's even worse than the Principalities of Glantri when it comes to making magic mundane]

Anyway, the kids were ready to binge-watch the whole thing (I put them to bed instead), so it's not just me that the show appeals to...and it did scare my three year old a bit, which is something any good story about witches (even a fairly benign bunch like these ladies) should do.

[can I also say I really like that they've set up the antagonists to be their own sister witches and backstabbing politics, rather than some nameless (and noseless) Big Bad hovering in the background like Sauron in Mordor, just waiting for his chance to "rule the world" or something?]

[man, I dislike those Potter books]

All right, that's all I wanted to say. Have to get back to my reading (tonight it's Oman's The Art of War in the Middle Ages). Later, gators.

B/X Tactica

Last night I fell asleep reading Musashi's The Book of Five Rings (I was on the book Water). Subsequently, I had a vivid dream involving

  1. shopping at a game shop, and 
  2. taking the kids to P. F. Chang's

Which is ridiculous for all sorts of reasons, including that I've never taken them to a P. F. Chang's (the wife hates to go to restaurants where she comes out "smelling like kitchen"). However, perhaps I'll rectify that this evening (the wife's currently out of town).

As dry as Sun Tzu? Yeah.
My reason for putting myself to sleep with Musashi is that I was doing some "research" into various tactical treatises that I could find with the possibility of putting together some sort of handbook of engagement rules and maneuvers for the B/X game.

I know, I know...but sometimes you just get a bee in your bonnet about stuff.

In this case a recent post by Peter over at nilnotnull (and my subsequent response) got me thinking that maybe a small manual of combat essays and optional rules might be fun...and perhaps put together. Something that explores the whys and wherefores of B/X's simple, abstract well as its potential.

Am I the right person to put something like this together? Mmm...maybe. Lots of people have researched, written about, and explored the Old School combat system over the years (Delta, author of Original Edition Delta: Book of War, springs immediately to mind). Me...well, it's definitely a subject I've continued to come back to on Ye Old Blog. And a French game company did just petition me for permission to translate/use my B/X mass combat rules for their new retroclone...

Well, you know what? It doesn't really matter. So long as it fires me up to do some writing, I'll use the energy the idea gives me. This morning (when not cooking the kids breakfast) I've been 'making the rounds' at various blogs on the verge of shutting down, and offering encouragement to keep it up. For their own sakes, not mine. Because I know what it feels like to start questioning one's own worth when it comes to the blogging/writing/designing thing. Any type of art is hard, but especially art for little or no recognition. We have to remember that we do art for ourselves, as much (if not more) for other people. Especially those of us who aren't doing it as a profession or livelihood.

[come to think of it, here's a very tasty essay on that particular subject]

Sometimes we get in a funk with our art, and one of the best ways out of it is to just stick our face back in the mess and do something with our art. Art our way out of the funk, in other words. And futzing around with a book of B/X tactics is a perfectly acceptable exercise for Yours Truly to hone his chops. It may not be something that meets my standards for publication, but at least it's a constructive, practical thing I can work on.

I'll let y'all know how it goes.
; )

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bearding the, Lion

Tuesday night, I was fortunate enough to be able to play D&D again...for the first time in years.

Jeez. That's not really what I want to write about, but take a moment for that to sink in. Just looking at the sentence brings up a whole lot of conflicting feelings.

I had actually expected to get some gaming in next month (August) because my kids were going to be in Paraguay with mom for the last three weeks of summer, and I was going to have a bunch of free evenings. Fortunately/unfortunately, the trip fell through due to my wife's work obligations, so...well, shit. But on Tuesday GusL was running a playtest of his Viking rules for the HMS Appolyon through something called "Google Hangouts" and I got an invite to the game, so I decided to join.

And I jumped on my laptop a bit before I settled 'em down with some television in the other room (an example of my wonderful parenting skills...ordered 'em a pizza for dinner, too). But I got to game for a couple hours, in a very cool campaign setting, with a very thoughtful DM whose creativity I respect immensely. Plus Vikings! Man, I loves me some Vikings. Mix that up with the "Stranger in a Strange Land" trope (our lost-at-sea longship floating up against the insanely massive, steampunk ship-dungeon that is Appolyon), and you've got yourself a very good time indeed., fun. And while my character did get turned into a tiny gold figurine because of a magic trap and a failed saving throw, I got to hit things with an (imaginary) axe and stomp around in big (imaginary) boots, kicking down doors and stuff. Going a-Viking suits my personality quite nicely.

Which leads me to the topic of this post: namely, folks who not liking to put their boot in...for fear some hidden tiger is going to bite their foot off.

Yeah, yeah...I realize I'm eliciting a WTF moment from a bunch of readers. I'm talking about something Alexis was describing in one of his recent posts, Confidence Abounds. The essay describes what "confidence" is (briefly: surety, not courage or ego) and how confidence (or lack thereof) can sometimes manifest in gaming, both as a DM and a player.

And ONE of those ways is a player's conviction...their confidence...that there's a tiger (or similar deathtrap) just lurking there, waiting to do them in. Even in campaigns run with low rigidity (i.e. a more open, sandbox-y type campaign) that would otherwise attempt to encourage player agency and initiative and creativity. Players become stymied in their decision-making, laboring under the fear that the axe is just waiting to drop at their first misstep.

Yes, it's out there. So what?
Now I realize that there are some players for whom this is a preferred style of play...players who like approaching a D&D scenario with all the dutiful care of an archeologist, cautiously brushing the dust away with a small whisk so as not to destroy some fragile piece of ancient pottery; the "fragile piece" in this case being the player's character. For me, this isn't terribly fun...neither as a player, nor as a DM. When playing D&D, I prefer my archaeology a bit more Indiana Jones...some bold swinging into action and a pulpy disregard for one's fictional life and limb. That's the kind of adventure I want from a fantasy adventure's the reason I play D&D (when I get a chance!). In real life, I'm a fairly cautious individual. After all, I've got two little kids depending on me.

But in a game, I can get away with acting fairly brazen...and so I do, as much as I can. I often restrain myself (a bit) for the sake of other players, but I'm sure that some find me a little too "gung ho" at times. Even so, my survival rate is pretty good, helped immensely by thirty+ years of DM'ig experience. I've got a pretty good head for the numbers and playing the odds, and a fairly good nose for sniffing out bullshit.

[that magic trap was something I should have avoided fairly easily, but I was distracted at the moment it came up by a pair of small children clamoring for my attention]

So I'm not terribly worried about tigers lurking in the bushes. Even if there is one (just to take an analogy too far), I'd prefer my character to go down fighting the tiger, then to spend a bunch of my precious gaming time worrying that my paper character is going to die. It took me longer to decide on a suitably Norse-sounding name than it took me to roll up my PC.

And anyway, one of the things I've found in the last decade or so of gaming (since getting back into the D&D hobby) is that DMs have a tendency to be pretty soft on players. It's like they have the opposite problem of these players who fear the hidden tiger. They are sure (i.e. "confident") that playing Old School D&D...with its lack of healing surges and death saves...means that a Total Party Kill is just waiting to happen. And they lack confidence in the party's ability to deal with legitimate threats in a reasonable fashion.

I don't know...maybe I've just been "fortunate" in the draw of DMs I've had (Gus said his last play-test involved a giant demon monster that wiped out everyone in the first encounter, but I wasn't there for that one). What I do know is that, other than Tuesday night, I've only lost TWO characters to death in a D&D game in the last ten or so years...and one of those was a character that chose to die in order to give the rest of the party the time they needed to escape a nest of troglodytes.

[the other character was a 1st level illusionist who ate an orc arrow and only had a couple hit big loss]

I think Alexis is correct in surmising that most of us have been conditioned from our formative years of gaming to expect to be tiger-bitten by the game. That early adventure modules...our examples of what D&D is/was supposed to look like...are particularly unforgiving SOBs, character killers, and deathtraps. And, no, I'm not just talking about The Tomb of Horrors. The Keep on the Borderlands, about which I've written many times, has killed more player characters than any other adventure module I've used over the years...and I've run Tomb at least four or five times. The Isle of Dread is probably (a distant) second. Other adventure The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth or Tomb of the Lizard King are notable (to me) for having caused TPKs in a single run...and fairly early in the game. And White Plume Mountain? My last large group to go through that one played very cautiously (over multiple sessions) and were still wiped out, almost to a man.

These early experiences are what give us our surety that the tiger is out there (in the case of DMs, this tiger is a TPK and our sad-faced players having "no fun" for the night). And perhaps it IS out there. D&D is ridiculously lethal when played as written; you can sneeze a hole in a 1st level player character. Gygax's own house rules started PCs at 3rd level, and this to me is fairly adequate across the board: three hit dice worth of hit points, three spells for magic-users (two for clerics), and a 10% bump on most thief skills is a perfectly reasonable starting point if you want to cut-down on the random insta-kill.

But even if the tiger is there, do you want to play tentatively? Do you (as a DM) want to stock that first level of the dungeon with 1-2 hit point monsters that can't hit chain-and-shield armor? Don't we want our players (on both sides of the DM screen) to have enough confidence in the PC's survivability that we can approach D&D with the gusto and verve of the pulp fantasy that inspired the game? Or do we prefer to embolden our players by instituting rules that all-but-take death off the table: plentiful healing, death saves, "shields will be splintered," etc.?

I'm certainly not what I'd call an academic when it comes to D&D. I'm an enthusiast. But even if I can't raise my writing to academic standards, it doesn't mean I'm not interested in having a discussion in how to make the game a better experience...a grander experience...for its players. ALL its players (including the DMs). How we can grab the tiger by the tail and ride that sonuvagun. Or something.

[***EDIT: Alexis just posted a follow-up essay that has some suggestions/methodology for evaluating your campaign...assuming you're a Dungeon somewhat mitigate players' over-indulgence in tiger fear. Another good read...check it out***]

Anyway. I had a lot of fun playing D&D the other night. I hope I get the chance to do it again in the near future.
: )

Friday, July 21, 2017

Jeff's Cool S**t

It really irritates me when I write a comment on someone's blog and the whole thing shows up on my G+ stream. I realize this is probably on ME and my lack of ability with the whole social media thing (i.e. I'm sure there's something I should be turning off to get it to stop)...but that's part of the irritation: it points out my ignorance and incompetence, in addition to sharing my one-line witticisms that were really only meant for the blogger I'm reading.

Such was the case recently when the immeasurably talented Jeff Rients posted his recent series on random advancement for B/X character classes (here's the post with the compiled documents).

His thinking behind these can be found in his first post in the series in which he writes:
A problem in old school D&D that has been intuited by nearly everyone but only occasionally spoken out loud is that sometimes you can go up a level and it's a dud. Reaching 2nd level as a fighter is pretty exciting the first time, because you have the opportunity to double your hit points. But third level is just more of the same. Sure you get better to hits (slowly) and multiple attacks (even more slowly). Meanwhile the spellcasters get more spell slots every level and new spell levels are even more exciting. Even the lowly, crappy thief gets incremental increases in percentage skills (plus things like reading languages and magic, better back stabs).  
Meanwhile, all players and many DMs agree that going up a level should be awesome. That's how we ended up going down the road of WotC D&D with its feats and whatnot...
Welp, I am one of those folks who tried articulating this a while back, though that was in the midst of designing a new FHB. The idea that I had was that, with so much "white space" between levels, you might as well cut-back on the levels in the game and simply play for the "power-ups" limited to about five times per career.

The main problem with that approach is that folks want to advance more than five levels over the course of a campaign.

The other thing Jeff appears to be attempting (which may not be articulated as well) is to make leveling up more interesting. Not just in the actual increases of effectiveness that occur, but in the way those increases are bestowed and how they show up...helping to distinguish "cookie-cutter" B/X classes from one another via random tables loaded with cool stuff.

In the past, I've tried front-loading this kind of monotony-breaking system via something I called exceptional traits (folks who own The Complete B/X Adventurer will see this is one of several systems developed "on-blog" that made it into the book). Other folks have done similar random tables that influence chargen (Alexis uses extensive random charts and a simple Excel formula to quickly generate distinct weirdness from hundreds of possible options).

I think I may have even addressed the idea of PCs getting new "exceptional traits" at higher levels (though I never actually implemented this at the gaming table)...but I never suggested a completely randomized leveling process like Jeff (and Zak) have. Part of this is due to me having a hard time thinking in truly gonzo concepts on a regular basis (much to my chagrin). But another part is simply due to a difference in philosophy: I have no objection whatsoever to random character generation, but I have strong reservations about random character development.

Part of the challenge of playing old school D&D is bucking up and working with what the dice giveth. One of my favorite characters that I never had the chance to play (well, not more than once or twice), was a 2nd level fighter with a constitution of 3. I decided to define him as an elderly warrior, only newly minted as an adventurer, describing him as looking somewhat like that geezer King Haggard in the animated Last Unicorn film. As my children are fond of saying, "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit."

[I think Diego learned that in kindergarten. It's applicable to a variety of life's arenas, however]

And considering that your player character in D&D is supposed to be an adult (presumably with some life experiences that has gone into shaping him or her), starting with a randomly created origin is perfectly acceptable...saves time so that one can get to playing. But random development? The whole point of play (well, one of the points of play) is developing your character from a rank beginner into a potent adventurer, and it is the game play that describes this development. And as I have a say in how my character plays (Do I attack the bugbears? Do I loot the gemstone?) so, too, I should have a say in how my character develops.

If I work my ass off to go up in level and then (randomly) learn how to bake cookies instead of acquiring a new spell? Well, that kind of sucks. Likewise, if I spend my time carefully negotiating with NPCs, cultivating a respectable demeanor only to discover that I morph into some sort of tattooed berserker. Or whatever.

Having said that: I still love a lot of the stuff that's found on these random tables. And in a campaign setting where the megadungeon exists as a kind of "mythic underworld" and inexplicable, random strangeness is a regular, expected occurrence, I can totally get behind a system of randomized development like the one Jeff is suggesting. And, yes, it certainly makes advancement a lot more interesting.

Check it out when you have the chance. It's definitely worth the read.
: )

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Another Thursday, Another Cup o Coffee

Plenty of musings the last couple weeks (as well as one near-finished post about *mumble*mumble* paladins sitting on the draft board), leading me to my usual predicament: too much to say and little hope of putting together a coherent blog post.

But as I'm at the Baranof, fairly coffee'd up, and out of blogs and sports news to read (I mean, do I really care the Mariners have picked up a player for their godawful bullpen? They've only been above .500 once this season!), I might as well write something. Writing something is better than writing nothing. In fact, it's a LOT better: I almost always feel better after doing so.

Like I'm getting something accomplished or something.

Watching Ye Old Television the other day (late at night) I was struck again by the thought of how many gaming geeks must have fallen into the business of producing, scripting, and directing business.  Caught a bit of some Transformers sequel (don't ask me which. I watched the first one in the theater when it came out years ago and have since tapped out), and could not help but think THIS is what Siembieda is trying to convey with the whole S.D.C. versus M.D.C. thing. THIS is Rifts (or Robotech or whatever): giant alien un-killable monsters that snap their fingers and inflict huge amounts of property damage. Clearly the creators of this series used to play Palladium around the cafeteria table in high school, same as me and my old buddies.

Watching the new Game of Thrones season kick-off I was again struck by the thought of how much it looks like someone's old school D&D campaign, just bashed together with house rules and shoot-from-the-hip historic analogues thrown in. How does an assassin use their disguise ability? Like this: some magical latex mask that you can whip out of your pocket at the drop of a hat (I went back and reread my old PHB and DMG and could find nothing that would contradict the way a "faceless man's" ability is portrayed in the show). Who needs fake beards and padded clothes? Not these guys.

[there is quite a bit more in the books on the manufacture of poisons, but nothing that would preclude the kinds of mass assassination...with as little what we see in GoT]

Same holds true for the undead (someone likes their wights!), or rangers, or...well, you get the point. Game of Thrones the show (I haven't read more than a couple of the novels) feels a lot like an OD&D campaign run by some curmudgeonly Old Schooler who said, "We're going to get rid of humanoids and just cannibal hill people," and "We're really going to dial back on the availability of magic in the game" while still retaining out-and-out gonzo elements.

[actually, reminds me a bit of Gus over at Dungeon of Signs]

You still have your plate-armor wearing dudes in a world without gunpowder. You still have your magic weapons ("Valerian steel"). You still have "raise dead" though on a much smaller (and darker) scale. Heck, you still have dragons...but these are much more of the Chainmail type (and used in the same way) than the latter-day McCaffery-color-based creatures.


What other bits of gaming geekery did I spot on the screen recently? Hmm...something, but it's escaping me at the moment. I know I see all sorts of moments in the superhero genre that seems to have been influenced by gaming...but then, as superhero games have been influenced by the comic book genre, it's possible that I'm just confusing the origin of the tropes.

One show that inspired gaming (rather than the other way around) was the old Robotech TV-series (translated and re-branded from an even older Japanese series. Well, three series, but whatever...). The kids and I finally finished watching the first season of that (the "Macross saga") on Netflix last week. It was still a lot of fun (I haven't seen it in decades), and even Minmei's music, while grating, was bearable. Of course, my children are now singing her songs all the time...

Still lurking in some bargain bins...
Of course, we had to go out and look for a copy of Palladium's old Robotech RPG so that we could play. And fortunately we were able to pick up a used copy for $10. Man, I haven't played or run that game for...well, for decades. I had a trio of gaming buddies in high school (Michael, Mike, and Ben) who LOVED anime and comics and we're huge Robotech players...they were my introduction to the game (as well as Heroes Unlimited), and I had a chance to borrow their books and play it with them on one or two occasions.

Funny enough, now owning my own copy, it's pretty much what I remember: a mess of a game which uses the Palladium system in a manner that makes it really, really difficult to capture the feel or themes of the show. Not even via the combat system (which is Palladium's emphasis). *sigh*

[I'll have to write more about my high school gaming sometime. Those guys introduced me to the extended Palladium catalogue...I'd only ever played TMNT prior...and I introduced them to Stormbringer, BattleTech, and Vampire the Masquerade. This was during the twilight years of TSR and we NEVER played "those games." At least not together...]

Diego REALLY wanted to play Robotech (of course), but just running the chargen is So Damn Boring And Slow (all those useless skills...) that we quickly gave up and decided to write our own, streamlined game. I've got a couple-three pages of notes for the thing so far, and if I can get my kid to draw some robot pictures maybe I'll publish it as an e-book or something. I'm pretty happy with what I've got so far, but I'd still like to work in various Robotech-isms to make the game something other than a map-less war-game. We'll see, we'll see...fortunately, it's a pretty lightweight project so I might be able to bang it out in a week or so (Ha! I've said that before!) if I can find some time between the playdates and summertime chores (yard sale this Saturday...).

Let's see what else have I been up to...? A lot of game-related, post-apocalyptic stuff (infer what you will). But that's a subject for another post (waaaaaay too long). Oh, I met someone who's known and worked with Mike Mearls and we had an interesting conversation about him (nothing bad). Picked up a new RPG that has perhaps the coolest presentation ever...hoping to run that one in August (when my family is out-o-town). What else, what else...

Eh. That's enough for now. I need to finish this coffee and make a run to the post-office. For those who bothered to read my ramblings, thank you! It feels good to get some of this clutter out of my noggin (perhaps my next post will meander less).

Oh, By The Way: print copies of my B/X Companion are about 60-70% sold. If you've been wanting to order a copy, I wouldn't wait too long...not sure when I'll get around to doing another print run.