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?

Monday, 17 August 2015

America and D&D

I've been busy. I've been away this summer in the USA. The first trip was to Phoenix, the second to South Florida. And I can honestly say that I now 'get' D&D just a little more. 

I was amused by the old Games Workshop/Citadel ads in Dragon, which used to tell the Americans that they ought to buy their games from people with 'real' history. It chimed with my own prejudices. I still chuckle with a sense of wrongheaded superiority at the fact that the terraced house that I lived in (until this summer, a housemove has also put a dent on my blogging) was about 130 years old. Which isn't that old for a house in the UK, and certainly every other house in the area was about that old, yet in parts of the USA it'd probably have a plaque from the local historical society. And my taste in game worlds does tend to be very European. Very British, even. Legend, the Warhammer World, (even Titan to some degree), all seem to capture a greater sense of historical 'place' than the Forgotten Realms, say.

But it doesn't matter. Unless we're playing a pseudo-historical game, in which of course, it does. But D&D isn't always pseudo-historical, and is (I think) at its best when it is not, despite the pretensions of the AD&D1e DMG. It is an American game.  

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the 'borderlands' theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the 'civilizing' mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn't fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA - and the Americas in general - has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don't just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn't need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker 'city' - the richest per capita in the USA at one point - precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

And I've never seen the Great Plains, the Rockies, the forested, often frozen north, the Great Lakes, etc. 

Something twigged in my brain on these trips, as this wasn't a medieval England of innumerable villages, each a day's walk from the other, a landscape tamed and human-ized, however ancient. This is a landscape of awe-inspiring scale, and to a European, strangeness. A landscape of isolated settlements, both those of Native Americans and European Pioneers. A land of radical heterogeneity - of religion and ethnicity, as well as environment and economy -  with adventurers building quasi-states in the borderlands. I imagined the amount of planning and calculated risk taking required to explore this new world. Wilderness expeditions, full of strange landscapes, a hostile environment, and encounters with peoples and animals that could roll either way, depending on their Reaction.

Yeah, I've only been playing D&D for about 30 years. I spend about three weeks in the Americas and now I get it a bit more.   

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

1e Big News!

Well, I have to say that I didn't expect that. An e-mail arrived literally minutes ago announcing that the AD&D1e Players Handbook is now available at DriveThru RPG. I thought there was some (incomprehensible) corporate strategy going on with regard to the unavailability of the AD&D rulebooks, but I have to say I have been impressed by WotC/Hasbro's commitment to making TSR D&D/s available.

We are living in a Golden Age!