Thursday, 22 October 2015

Consequences over Process

The Last Kingdom starts tonight on BBC2. I'm pretty excited, being mid-way through the books and having just finished watching series 3 of Vikings.

Bernard Cornwell writes fantastic battle scenes. I loved his 'King Arthur' trilogy and its brutal descriptions of warfare in the Dark Ages. But whenever I think about Cornwell's books I am reminded that my mother loves his books too, and she pretty much skims, if not skips, the fight scenes. She also enjoys Joe Abercrombie, another writer of wonderfully brutal combat, and again... Again, what my mother wants to know is who has won, and what were the consequences of that victory (or defeat).

So while Cornwell's books make me think that I want to play an RPG with a crunchy, 'realistic' combat system (RuneQuest 6 with Mythic Britain* comes to mind) my mother's tastes remind me of what I actually enjoy at the table, with the players I game with. A while back I wrote 'Thoughts on boring systems...', arguing that simple (combat) systems maximise player choices with minimal demand for system mastery. Sure, if I'm playing 'Saxon Britain: the RPG', I will want a combat system that produces brutal, visceral results - the consequences of player choices regarding engaging in combat - but I don't need a system that has a process that simulates the brutal, visceral nature of combat. Not only do those systems tend to require system mastery, which is rarely attained by my players, but simple systems tend to produce rapid resolutions, allowing players to move and make more consequential choices in a session. Which is pretty important when you're squeezing gaming into the gap between kids' bedtimes and heavy-lidded brainlessness. 

So, by all means, I love games that have combat that has the PCs risk bloody wounds and hacked limbs, but for my players, which sometimes includes my mother, I need to skip to those consequences.

*RQ6 is a beautiful system that, despite the above, I would love to properly play sometime. I have Mythic Britain on order, but it might get cannibalized as the setting for a more rules-lite game, depending on which players I can bring to the table. I

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Wage Rates and Treasure Hoards

On my other blog, I wrote about the route to a quick fortune in the Old World of WFRP1e - busking. Not too long ago, I wrote about my preferences for systems that accommodate the PCs employing NPC hirelings. Both of these posts touch on another concern of mine - levels of reward.

I have no need for the extensive price lists found in many games. I couldn't give a flying feather about the price of a chicken. I couldn't give a snort over the cost of salted ham. But that is because those kind of 'realistic' price lists are focused on the wrong kind of thing for my game. I don't need to know the minutia. But I do want to know, at a glance, what it will cost a PC to live. And I do want this broken down, not into a series of line items, but into consequential differences - into a series of bands from 'poverty' to 'princely'. I don't care about the difference in price between a cup of mead and a jug of ale. But I want to know what a carousing session costs, perhaps broken down by quality of neighborhood. Cost of a cloak? Pah! Cost of 'dressing in finery' vs 'dressing in rags', yeah, I can use that.  And so on.

As an aside, this is why I also can't be bothered with platinum and electrum coins. Gold, silver, and copper are enough - in fact, in practical play, two types of coins often provides a perfectly workable system, with simplified accountancy.

Thing is, I do like keeping track of the cash available to the PCs. I do like having the PCs grub around for the gold to cover their living expenses. This can lead to trouble, and trouble leads to adventure. But I don't want to play a game in which the players discuss whether they can do without cloaks, or whether they will wear boots or shoes, and so on. I don't find that fun.

What's this got to do with levels of reward? Well, a good, game-able pricelist allows a GM to calibrate rewards based on wealth. And more importantly, it allows players to understand the level of their PCs' wealth with regard to the game world. They are being paid 500GP to recover the Icon of St. Cuthbert? Is that the same as the yearly income for someone of their class? Is is 10 years' income? Is it the revenue a minor baron would collect? How many months of 'upper class' living would this reward grant the low-born PCs? And so on.

Of course, the much maligned (outside the OSR, at least) random treasure tables provide an additional mode of reward calibration, this time by risk. More or less. So is this a deadly adventure, akin to taking on a Dragon? Or it is like knocking over a couple of Goblins? Either way, and anywhere in between, D&D (and its clones) has you covered.   

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Endogenous Inspiration

The AD&D DMG has an ‘Appendix N’, filled with inspirational (and educational) reading, fiction and non-fiction. The D&D5e PHB and DMG are peppered with quotes from fantasy fiction, but the fiction being quoted was D&D fiction, produced to fit – for better or worse – the conceits of the game. Of course, to be fair, there is also a section on ‘inspirational reading’ in 5e too – which includes D&D fiction but isn’t dominated by it – but it occurred to me that as games/game worlds develop they begin to feed on themselves, to the point of generating ‘endogenous inspiration’.

I don’t think that I do that well with games that draw on themselves for inspiration. This occurred to me when I was thinking of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, and was trying to work out what was at the heart of my preference for 1st edition over 2nd edition. I don’t know enough about 3rd to have an opinion other than, “but I’ve got two small kids, and that’s a lot of fiddly bits to lose”. There’s a few mechanical things that I prefer in 1e, and I prefer some of the aesthetics – from incidental artwork to book design - but I realised that while WFRP1e is heavily shaped by influences – from history, fiction and art – from outside Warhammer, WFRP2e is very much more built on ‘other things Warhammer’.

It seems to me that the more games draw on ‘endogenous inspiration’, the harder they can be to ‘get’. Not only is there a larger body of canon material, but canon material references/is based on earlier canon material, rather than real history, legend, or external fiction or art. Games built on endogenous inspiration appear to be wonderfully immersive places, full of consistent(?), well developed ideas, but their fan communities are intimidating, and a desire to run a game ‘right’ can inhibit a GM. I find that a game which wears its external influences more baldly can offer a GM licence to draw on other inspirational material to add to the patchwork and make the game their own.   

And that reminded of Coop’s excellent post on WFRP – Not Syphilitic,Not Knee-Deep in Shit. Aside from agreeing with Coop’s argument that the WFRP1e rulebook offers a generic ‘grim and perilous’ fantasy system capable of doing higher-fantasy gaming that some of the classic WFRP scenarios would imply – I’ve long wanted to run WFRP in Fighting Fantasy’s Titan, for example – a comment from Graeme Davis highlights the stage of ‘coherence’ that the Warhammer setting had reached: “…at this stage [1986], WFRP didn't really know what it was going to be. The Warhammer mythos as a whole was still at the red box second edition stage, with odd and sometimes contradictory snippets of background scattered across the Citadel Compendium and Journal, miniatures ads, and the backs of mini boxes.”

As a final note, this highlights why I am always wary of trying to run games in the ‘real world’. The canon is enormous and all the inspirational material is ‘endogenous’!

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

When nothing is on the table, everything is

One of the problems of not playing for any length of time, as has happened as a result of our house move, is that my normal Gamer ADD, constrained by actual play, is unleashed. With no campaign on the table, any campaign is on the table. In any genre, in any setting, using any system.

But I think that I have narrowed the next game down to a 'space game'. But which one?!

Despite owning quite a few different 'space games', I have boiled it down to the classic choice; Traveller or Stars Without Number. Other systems that I own have been set aside as these two, in my opinion, support a 'traditional' sandbox campaign without the kind of heavy crunch that, when GM-facing, inhibits the facilitation of PC freedom of action, and when player-facing, intimidates the non-'gamer' players with whom I play.

Stars Without Number is a thing of beauty. Truly. The GM advice is worth the price of the book alone - though the book is free - and the sector generation tools knock those of Traveller (any version) into a cocked hat when it comes to producing 'adventuresome' situations. SWN has a lovely simple faction system that allows the players to impact on the 'big politics' of the setting, the rules for AI and mechs are straightforward, and the supplements are... yadda yadda yadda. SWN is cool, and will only get cooler when Starvation Cheap, a supplement for military campaigns, is released.

So Traveller would seem undone, as far as my preferences go. But Traveller has one big advantage, when it comes to an open-ended sandbox campaign, and that it the way the PCs are built. No, I don't mean the minigame - which I love, and Kevin Crawford as 'sorta-kinda' replicated that for SWN in Sandbox #2. I mean the fact that PCs roll out of the gate fully formed, at least as far as skills and so on goes. They don't 'level up'. And this means two things.

1 - With 'fully formed' PCs, the 'adventures' out there don't need to be scaled for 'level'. If a danger or hazard out there is too much for the PCs, it is because they haven't accumulated enough in-game-setting resources to tackle it, not because they haven't spent long enough accumulating in-game-system points.

2 - With 'fully formed' PCs, PC death and new or intermittent players can be incorporated much more easily. Starting PCs are as competent as they are going to get (more or less). Though the 'party' might grow in strength, this is often due to the accumulation of (nominally) shared resources; wealth, hardware, contacts, etc. 

So I've got my Traveller Book, my Mongoose Traveller, and my Stars Without Number, and really, as in all cases of Gamer ADD, I just need to get playing, and if that doesn't solve it, get playing more. Analysis paralysis is resolved, by necessity, at the table.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Henchmen, Hirelings, and Warbands

I've not been blogging much, or gaming much. I'm in the middle of a protracted house move, from Cardiff to Yorkshire, and am engaged in a weekly commute. Et cetera, et cetera.

But that doesn't mean that I'm not reading about games - only that my recent gaming (of any sort) has been limited to Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Carcassonne, and the like. Unless you count Candy Crush as gaming... We did play some very good games of Chaos in the Old World before the complications of life, and my brother and I unpacked the Horus Heresy game by Fantasy Flight Games, but we put it away as it just looked far too complex. 

Complexity. Maybe the repeated concussions from playing rugby have eaten away at my capacity. Maybe becoming a father has done so. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Because I have little tolerance for complexity in my games these days. This might also be related to the fact that I'm the only one who will read the rules when we play RPGs, and so the rules - and stat blocks for both PCs and NPCs - need to be easy to absorb.

What on Titan has this got to do with Henchmen, Hirelings, and Warbands? 

Well, a while back I came across an interesting post on 'Billy Goes to Mordor', about expeditions in colonial East Africa, and it reminded me that I like games in which the PCs might employ NPCs, and that one of the first things that I check when I pick up a new system is the degree to which the rules support this. I am often disappointed. Systems are often either too complex (with an expectation that NPCs are statted out like PCs in order to interact with the game world) or absent, with perhaps only a list of wage rates reducing hirelings to equipment.  

Now, this disappointment keeps my head bouncing (I do have to be careful about these head knocks!) back to Classic D&D (B/X, BECM, and their OSR descendants) as there are simple but effective rules for Morale, Reactions, a distinction between personal followers and employees, a good list of wage rates, and so on. As well as - and this is very important - simple stat blocks. Indeed, stat blocks can be so simple, in fact, that for the average 0-level NPC non-combatant hireling you don't need to write down any stats at all, without undermining your ability as a Referee to determine the mechanical aspects of NPC interaction with the world. Maybe you need a Morale score... And the less than one line stat block you might need for a combatant NPC allows these 'extras' to get involved in a fight without unreasonable complication, even if we don't use a skirmish or mass combat system. 

And that's the thing - the simple mechanics of those D&D games allow me to incorporate henchmen and hirelings into a game and campaign in a manner that is dependent neither on Referee fiat or an overly complex system (either at the table of in terms of book-keeping).

But what other systems do this well? What other systems support the idea that the PCs might assemble a team of porters and assorted help when exploring the wilderness? Or to protect their manors? Or further their criminal ambitions? Or help start a new religion? Or... whatever the PCs goals might be? It seems to me that henchmen and hirelings are an important part of the tools of an extended 'sandbox' campaign, and I wonder if I've missed systems that do this well, and do this simply.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Old School vs Old School Revival?

Moving house (which has turned into a very drawn out process) has knocked my gaming temporarily, but has prompted me to think about the value I place on different aspects of my collection. What do I value? What would I hate to lose?

Sitting in my brother's house, a half-way house, I only have a couple of boxes of books with me; a box of AD&D books -

- and my relatively recent Lulu/DriveThru books -

And I realise that I prefer the OSR to the OS, despite my sentimental connection with the originals. And this lot doesn't in include my copies of Kevin Crawford's stuff, or my Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures, etc. I realised that I could imagine selling my collection of TSR-era D&D materials - yes, even my Gazetteer collections - and play only using the vibrant, forward-looking products of the OSR without my gaming skipping a beat. My heart might ache to lose the material that reminds me of the time when I first found D&D, but some of those books in that box are in danger of turning into memorabilia rather than resources.

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Rise and Fall of a Hero

I've been reading more Tom Holland history - Persian Fire. Tom Holland's books are always great gaming inspiration, and I ended up on Google Plus I was asking about Bronze Age-inspired (or at least Antiquity-inspired) OSR games/supplements. By way of a few recommendations, that led on to me asking for opinions on Barbarians of Lemuria (which has a mythic Greece supplement, Heroes of Hellas), which prompted Alex Schroeder to say:

“Ah, the magic system was another thing I didn't like too much. It's too freeform for my taste. I like well defined spells because these are part of the ever changing nature of a long campaign. We know that eventually we'll fly, be invisible, walk the planes, speak with the dead, and all that. We don't do that right away, and it doesn't depend on referee fiat. It's a "promise" that is made by the rules themselves. Free form games just don't offer that.”

Alex has written about this before on his blog. He has a point. It is important for long term campaigns – for my tastes anyway – that the game itself offers the mechanics for different sorts of gameplay. Which was why one of my questions was does Barbarians of Lemuria handle Conan the King as well as Conan the Adventurer...


But changing gameplay over time is almost always imagined as ever increasing power. What about the decline of the hero? The decline of the hero is a venerable feature of fantasy and legend – the once unsurpassed hero is challenged by upcoming warriors, or must face one last quest with fading capabilities. And then there is the other trope – the once proud champion grown fat, lazy, or drunk.

Cohen the Barbarian

D&D is bad at representing this. A 9th level Fighter is still a 9th level Fighter, even if you use aging rules to knock a few points off her Strength. I presume it is even worse in later D&Ds, in which Strength etc. increase as PCs level up. A BRP-based game should do better, as with things such as Damage Bonus and Hit Points being directly derived from a PC’s Attributes, these will dwindle even as her Skill percentages remain high. WFRP, in which Skills are binary (you have them or you don’t) with success governed by Attributes should do even better, though I’ve never seen any ageing rules for 1e or 2e, even if a collection of old wounds might do the trick for most PCs.

So my question is this; which game is best able to handle the decline of a PC as well as they do the rise?