Saturday, August 11, 2018

Getting Board: Onitama Review

So, while tabletop RPGs are most certainly my passion, I also enjoy board games on occasion. I'm particularly a fan of two-player abstract board games, especially historic two-player abstract games. Games like Chess, Checkers, Go, and the like. Hnefatafl is a particular favorite of mine. I enjoy these types of games because they are typically easy to learn, only require one other participant, and are (for the most part) fairly cheap to purchase. In the modern board game market, I don't find a lot of two-player abstract games, especially ones with a strong historic theme. However, last year I came across Onitama after being pointed in its direction by Wayne Humfleet and Moe Tousignant. Since that time, Onitama has become my favorite board game.

Onitama is billed a martial arts themed tactical game. It is played on a grid board that is 5x5. Each player has five pieces, a Master and four Students. The base game also includes a deck of 16 move cards. The deck of move cards is shuffled and each player draws two, placing them face-up on the board in front of themselves. A fifth card is drawn and set to the side face up. Each player's collection is set along their own back row, with the Master occupying the center square back square. The Master's beginning space looks slightly different on the board and is called the Temple.
Example of Set-up
The goal of the game is to capture your opponent's Master (which is done by landing in the space occupied by the that Master), or by moving your own Master into your opponent's Temple. Each turn you move a single piece (Master or Student) based on the image depicted on one of the Movement cards on in front of you. That card is the set aside and you take the other unclaimed card into the now empty place in front of you, thus replacing your movement options on your next turn.

Your opponent then goes and does the same. They pick one of their movement cards, moves a piece, and takes the card you just got rid of into their hand and sets the movement card they just expended aside. Thus, you cycle through both your own movement cards and your opponent's movement cards.
Cards show permitted movement

The game is ridiculously simple too learn, set up, and play. The constant shifting of movement cards keeps the game dynamic and prevents a sense of staleness or inevitability that is often found in more traditional two-player abstracts like Chess or Checkers.

There is a single expansion for Onitama that's currently released: Sensei's Path. It is just 16 more movement cards. That's it. No huge rules changes, no extra things to learn. A great, solid expansion. Soon Arcane Wonder Games will be releasing a second expansion: Way of the Wind. This expansion adds a new neutral piece that can be manipulated by both players. I'm both excited and cautious about this. Onitama's big appeal for me, beyond the strong themeing, is the depth of play behind the simplicity of the rules. I hope future expansions don't clutter up the elegance of a beautifully designed game.

Onitama is available for $30 MSRP, though online retailers usually sell it for about 30% less than that. Sensei's Path MSRPs for around $15, but again online retailers offer it at about 30% off if you hunt around. Way of the Wind is the forthcoming expansion and is priced at about the same as Sensei's Path. All that being said, if you have a local game shop, spend the extra cash and support the brick n' mortar business.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Simple vs. Beginner: There's a Difference

So, earlier in the week I got into a conversation on Facebook with someone who had some constructive criticism and questions regarding Untold Adventures. I encouraged them to ask their questions because the person was both respectful and the questions were really insightful ones about the nature of the game. It got me thinking about something that seems a bit counter-intuitive.

Untold Adventures is a rules light game, but I would not call it a game that's a good game for new gamers. That's a bit confusing, eh? Without a lot of rules, beginners won't get overwhelmed - right? Sure, that's true. But Untold Adventures relies heavily on Referee fiat, descriptive play, and abstraction. Those three skills don't always come easily to new players or Referees. That's because they need time to build their confidence as gamers and trust their instincts.

Part of the reason I love Untold Adventures so much is that it is a game I wrote, first and foremost, for me. I didn't want to do "just another retroclone" for the sake of sales. That's why it's a PWYW PDF and the PoD will be under $10 in softcover. It's a game that I know I can run given my current life. It's low prep, fast-playing, and character creation takes five minutes. I abstracted so much of the game because I trust in my abilities as a Referee and to make a call on the fly.

That comes from thirty years of gaming and over half a decade creating OSR content. The mentality of "Rulings, not Rules" comes to me almost instinctively. I recognize that such a style of play doesn't come easily to new gamers and that many experienced gamers don't care for it. They want a more defined selection of classes, a more concrete gear system, and other things. That's perfectly valid and reasonable. But, it's not the way I prefer to play, so I didn't write Untold Adventures with that in mind.

Another reason to make it as rules light as possible was to make it as easy as humanly possible to drop in other OSR content. Heck, I wrote it with running Small Niche Games' Chronicle of Amherth (originally written for Labyrinth Lord) and Glynn Seal's Midderlands (originally written for Swords & Wizardry Complete) in mind. I could use both settings with no mechanical conversion, or simply by changing all HD to d6. Conversion takes seconds and can be done on the fly. But that comes at the expense of concrete rules, forcing me to rely on my own confidence that I gleaned from experience as a gamer and creator.

I'm not saying this to toot my own horn. I'm simply pointing out that the level of experience of the individual running a game and playing in a game has a huge impact on that game and is a key factor to consider when choosing, designing, or playing a game.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Been a Bit Since I Blogged

It's been quite a bit since I threw down some words on the blog. Real life's been busy. Damn busy. I went to Texas and back for 2018's North Texas RPG Con, and it was probably the best time I've had in a decade. Seriously. It was exactly what I needed to reinvigorate myself creatively. Though my personal life has actually forced me to slow the time table on several OSR projects, I just wanted to take a minute to talk about what's been going on with me since April.

Untold Adventures: I published a minimalist fantasy RPG called Untold Adventures, and on the whole it seems to be getting a very positive response. It's a PYWY PDF on RPGNow and $8 for a print copy on Lulu. I also put out a short rules supplement for it called Unsung Heroes, which is currently a PYWY PDF on RPGNow.

Heart of Varrul: I've been working alongside Pete Spahn as we finish up the final draft of Heart of Varrul, his White Star setting/adventure supplement. There's a ton of excellent stuff in there and I'm really pleased Pete asked me to get involved when the project was in its earliest stages.

Vigilante City: Eric Bloat from Bloat Games recently successfully funded a Kickstarter for Survive This! Vigilante City, and this OSR superheroic roleplaying game looks like the bee's knees. I got to contribute a small adventure to the book and am really excited to see this puppy come to life. I love, love, love superheroes and am always looking for a good RPG. I think Eric may have finally found the Rosetta Stone of OSR supers gaming. Plus, my own original creation, Midnight Ace, will be appearing in VC - and I'm super excited to see that.

White Star: I've got a number of White Star products in various stages of drafting and development, including collaboration with some third party publishers -- similar to working with Pete over at Small Niche Games.

Saga of the White Box: My "White Box Vikings" RPG is ridiculously close to being finished if I could just get off my ass and get it done. I'm really excited for this one, but can't bring myself to finish the damn thing. It'll be a stand-alone and draw heavily on the Eddas and culture of the pre-Christian Norse culture.

Cybermancer: This one has been a damn devil. 150 pages into the initial draft and I realized I would have to overhaul the entire thing to make it as streamlined as I wanted. I had to completely scrap the system originally being used and, much to my surprise, found it will work well as a variant of the rules found in The Hero's Journey.

Rad Box: This is my White Box Post Apocalyptic RPG. I'm about 50 pages into the first draft and it will draw heavily from themes and elements of the Fallout series of video games and the Mad Max films. I'm looking at it similar to White Star as a a genre book and not a specified setting.

Freelance Work: Yep, I'm doing some. No, I can't talk about it.

There's other stuff tooling about, but nothing to any point of development worth talking about publicly. Anyway, just wanted to let everyone know I'm alive, well, and still creating.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review: For Coin and Blood

I remember hearing vaguely about For Coin & Blood some time ago, but it seemed to pass me by before I got a chance to investigate. Then Diogo Nogueira, author of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells and Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, made mention of it on social media. And when Diogo endorses a game, there's a really good shot that I'm going to like it.

So, I googled For Coin & Blood and started investigating. Well, what I found was an awesome little game made by a passionate creator. Like my own The Hero's Journey (and obviously White Star), FCB is built on the Swords & Wizardry White Box chassis. It draws heavy inspiration from a more grim and gritty side of fantasy, clearly influenced by works such as The Black Company and The First Law series' of novels. By combining and tweaking White Box, material from several third party supplements, throwing in a heaping helping of evocative art, and excellent production values Gallant Knight Games has managed to produce a gem of a game.

While I'm not familiar with the fiction mention above, huge credit to the creators of FCB for creating a game that oozes dark fantasy. In fact, I was a bit jealous as I read through the book because I immediately thought "This would be great to run a White Box: Game of Thrones style game," which is something I had always hoped to write myself. Well, Gallant Knight Games beat me to it and good on them! The material is so evocative that it inspired me to pick up the first book in The Black Company series of novels.

So, what separates For Coin & Blood from traditional fantasy roleplaying games? Well, for starters it runs on the presumption that the player characters are not heroes. There are no holy protectors or knights in shining armor here, folks. But, what elevates this above the tired trope of "you play the villains," is that For Blood & Coin presents players and narrators with the opportunity to play characters who are complex and nuanced. No alignments, no archetypes. These are characters who are certainly self-serving, but are still capable of heroism if they so choose. The complexities of characters like Arya Stark or Jaime Lannister are right at home in this game -- and that's awesome!

Beyond fantastic, heavily shadowed black and white line art, the most evocative feature of the game are its classes. No paladins, fighters, or bards here folks. Sellswords, Blackguards, and Assassins rule the day These characters are tarnished by their own sins and willingness to do horrible things, but aren't mustache twirling villains. They're just willing to do what needs to be done when others aren't willing to get their hands dirty. That's something that's refreshing and pretty damned unique in the OSR, separating it from the more heroic games like The Hero's Journey or pulp stylings of White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game.

Author Alan Bahr grabs hold of plenty of open source third party material then tweaks it until he's given it a new, but dingy and tainted coat of paint and created something all his own. There is plenty of familiar material here, but its all modified to the grimdark mood. A few areas of note include his adversaries section, the small tweaks to the player character classes, and rules for player characters running a criminal organization.

For Blood & Coin runs under the assumption that all player characters and most adversaries are human. There are no rules included for playing non-human characters and the bulk of adversaries included in this book are mundane. This creates the implication that magical creatures (and by extension magic itself) is rare and dangerous. This helps add to the atmosphere of the material as well as keeping the page count down. A handful of fantastic creatures are included, but that only helps to accentuate their rarity in my opinion.

This is a deadly game. Characters begin play with more hit points than other White Box-style games, but gain very, very as they increase in level. In fact, it's likely that a critical hit will kill even a 10th level character outright. Again, this adds to the grimdark feel of the material and in addition will force player characters to think beyond the "beat it till XP comes out" mentality that too often plagues fantasy roleplaying games. Each class also features abilities that are familiar tropes from the traditional fighter/cleric/wizard (called sellsword, priest, and magus in this game) dynamic, but takes the time to spice up these core three into something that feels genuine to the setting material. Four additional classes (assassin, blackguard, cutpurse, and knight) round out player character options. Each is just different enough to have its own unique feel, but isn't bloated with extra, unnecessary rules.

In the final pages of the rules, Bahr includes rules for player characters running and joining criminal organizations. Based on Swords & Wizardry Chivalry, the author has taken the concepts found in that book and given them a new and wonderful spin that (yet again) reinforces the themes and tone of the grimdark fantasy genre. Even as someone who originally wrote Chivalry, I found Bahr's tweaking of my original concept to be absolutely wonderful and refreshing.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the inclusion of a 7th Ability Score: Infamy. A character's deeds and misdeeds have a huge impact on the game and this form of measuring a character's reputation provide a more complex and dynamic roleplaying experience that the more traditional alignments used in most games. In fact, alignments have been completely jettisoned in For Coin & Blood, and that's a good thing in this context.

Pound for point, point for point, For Coin & Blood is my go-to grimdark fantasy roleplaying game. In fact, grabbing it has actually saved me money because I've purchased a copy in lieu of Warhammer or Shadow of the Demon Lord. My affection for White Box-based games is well known and this is takes that original edition style of game into a new and wonderful direction by presenting a game that offers opportunities for complex, morally ambigious storytelling not often actively encouraged in the OSR. I can't wait to see where Bahr takes the game line next.

For Coin & Blood can be found  on RPGNow & DriveThruRPG in PDF and print-on-demand versions. PoD is in digest form, with a black and white interior, though it can be ordered on color quality paper for a higher quality product -- which I'd recommend. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Frustration and Focus

The past three months have been tough on a personal front, with ongoing issues regarding a family member's health and a rapid fire series of home ownership issues. I've not been able to do any writing of real substance and even had to turn down a freelance job I very much wanted to take. After being displaced from my home for almost four months, I'm finally back home and ready to turn my attention to work again.

But, the problem is that I've got so many projects in a partially completed state that I'm at a loss of where to start. I've got the following projects in various states being drafted and can't bring myself to focus on any particular one in order to bring it to completion.

Saga of the White Box: A stand-alone White Box variant drawing from Norse mythology as a primary focus, particularly the Poetic and Prose Eddas.

White Knights: A stand-alone White Box variant focused on telling stories set during the Crusades and focused on playing crusader knights.

Rad Box: A stand-alone White Box variant dealing with the post-apocalypse genre.

Cybermancer: An homage to and rules clean-up of Shadowrun, particularly the 1st and 2nd ed versions.

Untold Adventures: A Jamesification of B/X D&D and Labyrinth Lord.

Swords of Bulsara: An original system sword-and-planet RPG.

White Star: Lightspeed: A supplement for White Star: Galaxy Edition focusing on starships and space travel.

Heroes of Amherth: A conversion of The Chronicles of Amherth to The Hero's Journey.

I'm usually not this scatter-brained. In fact, I usually hyper-focus on a single project and plow through it at a pretty good clip. But each of these products is sitting in a drafted state, some as much as 50+ pages and now I can't just freakin' pick one and go. No real point or statement to this blog entry, I suppose -- just venting my frustration.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Chasing (Dungeons and) Dragons

A large part of the appeal of the OSR is built on nostalgia. Players look to relive those halcyon days of their gaming youth. Simpler rules for simpler times. Yes, there's a lot to be said from a theory and design point of view for a minimalist take on rules design, but I think to deny the wistful gaze into the past we often feel when playing these games is foolish. 

The past few months have been very rough for me on a personal level. I won't go into detail, because that's not what this blog is about. I genuinely long for the simpler times in my life. For the days when I got home from school, pulled out my Rules Cyclopedia and my graph paper and just went at it for hours on end. It was a simpler time. Now, I'm an adult. I have the responsibilities and concerns of an adult. The OSR lets me at least remember those simpler times, to hold a time capsule of my own youth bound up in a  print-on-demand cover.

But somehow, I can't go home again. Instead of ignoring or house ruling something and going with it, I break it all down to its smallest parts and try to figure it out. Analyze, study, play test. It's something it never was back in my youth: It's work.

I was looking at my bookcase today when this all hit me. I own physical copies of several versions of old school D&D or versions that would qualify as retro-clones: Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry Complete, Swords & Wizardry White Box, White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Adventures Dark and Deep, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Basic/Expert D&D, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Rules Cyclopedia, and a few others I'm sure I'm forgetting. Hell, I even wrote one myself: The Hero's Journey Fantasy Roleplaying. I stopped counting once I hit the teens.

Why? Whenever I look at my shelf, I always default to either Labyrinth Lord, White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game, or The Hero's Journey. So why do I keep buying retro-clones? I'm not a collector by any measure. Part of it, I know, is a way to peek into the minds of other game designers. But I can do that just as easily with a PDF. Part of it is also, undoubtedly, a desire to show support for other publishers with my wallet. We're all in it together, after all.

But as I starred at that shelf, I knew the real answer. I'm chasing that twelve year old kid I used to be. Problem is, I just can't leave well enough alone. I can't just game. It's become work. It's become this kind of ceaseless quest to find the perfect game that will somehow whisk me away to junior high -- and I'm not sure that's possible anymore.

I often wonder if it would be best to cut myself off. To simply select a game and use it as my singular go-to -- at least in terms of running games. Yet somehow, I always hold myself back from doing just that. Maybe it's because I'm not twelve anymore, and I never will be again.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

For Love of Basic D&D

I'm a Swords & Wizardry White Box guy. That's pretty obvious. I love to design using that set of core mechanics, as is evident from Barrel Rider Games' White Box line of products and the creation of White Star. I think it's a system with infinite possibilities due to its simplicity and the cleaner, more modern design brought to it by current OSR creations like White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game. In short, it fits like a glove. It just clicks in my mind.


But believe it or not, it's not my favorite D&D-style system to play. My favorite system to play is Rules Cyclopedia. It's a big, bold book chock full of clunky, archaic rules. From the perpetually confusing Weapon Mastery rules, to the never-once-in-my-life-have I used Seige Warfare rules, to the "who the hell ever reaches 36th level?" Immortal rules. But, by God is that book full of potential. I believe it's the greatest single-volume fantasy RPG ever published. In that tiny font, 3 column layout, my imagination (both as a young boy and as an old grog) soars. Maybe it was because it came out when I was just the right age. Maybe it was the art. Maybe it was hiding away in those pages after a bad day at school. Hell, I don't know. But I know that the Rules Cyclopedia is when I realized I was going to play RPGs for the rest of my life.


As most reading this blog know, Wizards of the Coast has made the Rules Cyclopedia available in both softcover and hardcover print-on-demand formats now. I'll get my hell mittens. But here's the real kicker: There's some seriously awesome print on demand support for Basic D&D these days. In addition to the RC, they've got the DMR2 Creature Catalogue, B1: In Search of the Unknown, B2: Keep on the Borderlands, and the Hollow World Box set (along with a few other more obscure products and a few of the Known World Gazatteers) available as print-on-demand. Never did I ever think I'd see the day.

That means the Rules Cyclopedia and Basic D&D will be around as long as print-on-demand is around. I guess the game itself finally reached 36th level and ascended to Immortality.