Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Long Before Basic Isn't Basic?

I'm a big fan of Basic/Expert Dungeons and Dragons. From Moldvay to Mentzer to the Rules Cyclopedia - it just hits my gaming sweet spot. It's quick. It's simple. It's easy to modify to suit an individual group's needs. It's this last part that I wanted to address. Because B/X is so easy to modify and gamers and publishers in the OSR often do use the game and its mechanics as a springboard for new options, how many additions and modifications can one have before it is no longer B/X?

Barrel Rider Games built its foundation on adding to B/X through a ton of alternate classes. Rules Cyclopedia provides us with 7 (Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, Cleric, Halfling, Elf, and Dwarf - along with the Druid as a later-level option for Clerics) and BRG produced somewhere around 70 additional classes. Seventy. That's ridiculous. Labyrinth Lord has its Advanced Edition Companion, and there are countless other publishers who continue to introduce optional rules. Not to mention our own house rules that we use at the table.

How long before you're not even playing the same game any more? At what point do you some how move beyond "basic" D&D into something beyond the original scope of the game? One of the things that drives me away from AD&D 2nd Edition is the endless plethora of optional rules, splat books, setting modifiers, countless spells - the list goes on forever. But if I'm playing in a Rules Cyclopedia game and the DM sits down with the RC and is using every optional rule in the book, all the info from the Gazetteer series, and all the info in Poor Wizard's Almanac and the other supplements produced in the line then am I still playing B/X D&D?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Your Own Personal Paladin

My favorite class in D&D is the one I play the least: The Paladin.

That's a huge part of why I love Paladins. They're the archetypical knights in shining armor. They are the classic fantasy hero incarnate. There is no doubt that they are good and pure and true. There is no doubt that they are there to make a difference. That's awesome and I love it.

So why not play more Paladins? They're the perfect choice for my style of gaming and they've been around since Supplement II - Greyhawk. They're right there. All you have to do is take up the sword and pray, right? How hard could it be?

Very hard. Ridiculously hard. Damn near impossible.

You see, I'm Catholic. You'd think that would only solidify my choice in playing a Paladin; the Knights Templar, St. George the Dragon Slayer, all that stuff. But you see, I'm not a very good Catholic. I don't go to Mass. I disagree with the Church on a lot of things. I find the politics of the Church to often be petty and completely counter to their teachings. I rarely pray. Heck, sometimes I turn my back on the whole thing and am not even sure I believe anymore. 

But somehow, whether a few months or a few years, I always come back. For all the disagreements, all the problems, all the bullshit, it still feels like home. Maybe its legends of the Saints. Maybe its the beauty of the ritual. Maybe its the magnificence of a Catholic Church with its beautiful stained glass and blazing candles. Maybe its the idea that forgiveness is there, if you just take the outstretched hand. Inevitably, I come back.

That's why I can't play a Paladin. In a fantasy world where your character was chosen by a divine being to act as their servant in the material world there is no room for doubt. When your character has the ability to heal with a touch or cast vile creatures away with a brandish symbol of their god, there's no point to be argued. It's real and it's in your face - the good and the bad. There is no conflict.

This puts my own personal difficulties right in my face. It's like I'm pretending to be someone I'm not - which I admit is the whole point of RPGs, but in this case it somehow feels like I look at this Paladin's character sheet and it looks back at me and is telling me everything I'm not. Everything I'm pretending to be. Everything I'm lying about.

I know this is a bit deeper than my normal posts and reviews, but its been weighing on my mind for a few weeks now and I wanted to just put it on paper to clear my own head. Maybe if I can sort it out I can play a Paladin without feeling like the character I'm playing is somehow judging me. Because hot damn is it fun to draw forth a Holy Avenger+5, cry a prayer to your god, and charge into glory.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Heroes of the OSR: Richard LeBlanc

I've gotten a lot of praise for my products and I'm humbled by it. Truth be told, I'm just a fanboy who is arrogant enough to think his scribblings might be worth a dollars. Most of that money goes to fund the next project or to cover emergencies when they happen. That's what happened with White Star - it's amazing success allowed me to repair my car when it suffered a serious break down that would've otherwise left me financially incapacitated. To everyone who bought a copy of White Star, I give a sincere thanks.

The OSR lives and breathes by its creators and I am honored to be among them. When I discovered the thriving communites on Google Plus I was immediately struck by one particular creator. He spoke little, never involved himself in the politics and drama that inevitably comes with large social groups. Instead, he quietly kept a blog and on that blog he created. Alternate rules, new monsters, new classes, magic items - it was a stream of content and nothing more. His blog turned me to his products - which had been, by all accounts, among the best in the community. 

Vainglory never filled his feed or his blog. Instead, he continued to create. More over, he continued to great fantastic products. When his products are completed they are always amazingly priced, both in digital and print formats.

This creator is an example. He looks past the creators ego, the rewards he has recieves and acts in quiet and humble class. His name is +Richard LeBlanc  and he continues to a cornerstone in the OSR community. Cornerstone. That's an apt description. Silent, strong, unyielding and ever present. I'm thankful to have his products on my shelf and hope he continues to create for years to come.

You can find his blog, Save vs. Dragon is a library of resources and his products on RPGNow and Lulu under the company name New Big Dragon Unlimited are worth five times what he prices them. I ask that you show Mr. LeBlanc respect, kindness and if you can spare it, a few coins from your pocket in exchange for exceptionally well-crafted products.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dark Albion: History and Politics come to the OSR

Dark Albion: The Rose War, written by the RPG Pundit and published by Dom Publishing, is the kind of product that makes me jealous. I'm an amateur history buff and a huge fan of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series - both the films and the books. You see, a few months ago, I considered doing a politics supplement for Swords & Wizardry: WhiteBox because of my love of both these things. I made a few notes, wrote down a few ideas, and set it off to the side. I turned my attention to White Star, which has had its own success.

Well, as things became finalized for the print-on-demand version of White Star, I returned to my idea - only to find that someone had done it far better than I ever would. That product is Dark Albion: The Rose War. You see, Dark Albion is more than just what it says on the tin. It bills itself as "Grim Fantasy England in the 15th Century." But that's not quite right. This product is that and more. You can read it and use it as written with your OSR game of choice. Statistically speaking the game is very light. It can be slotted into Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess or any other OSR or older version of D&D or AD&D on the market with no mechanical modification. That's not to say the game is lacking in substance. In fact, quite the opposite.

Dark Albion takes readers and gamers into a 15th century England and does so with remarkable detail - but it never feels overwhelming or dry. It does not give simple, stark facts of the past. It paints this distorted mirror of a history that feels familiar, but the details make it fresh - like fine spice to a classic meal.

In spite of the fantasy elements introduced, the game is firmly rooted in history and this is reflected in the art - much of which is taken from historic pieces in our own world suitable to the period. The game has its goblins and elves and magic - but these are foreign and rare. Most have never seen a magical beast or a spell being cast - and most never will. These things are dark and dangerous, best left undisturbed and unspoken.

But Dark Albion is more than a rich historical setting. It takes OSR gaming out of the dungeon and into the throne room. Social class and political acumen have more power than swords and spells. While this in and of itself is not earth-shattering, the way it is implemented makes the rules regarding social rank and political power something to be easily integrated into any OSR game. In this sense, a referee who wants to reach into the pages of Dark Albion and extract these options is not bound to an alternate 15th century England. There's no reason these rules couldn't be used when player characters establish strongholds and gain titles or applied to an original campaign where the referee wants to include politics and power plays as a part of their campaign from day one.

That being said, I can't imagine not wanting to use Dark Albion with its written setting. It's beautiful, detailed and so vibrant. It begs to be played. The characters can change the world, even from first level. In fact, the setting is written so that few characters rise beyond 3rd level. Those that do have done deeds worthy of renown and are going to have quite the reputation. With a reputation will undoubtedly come attention and with that characters will be drawn into the political conflicts of the day. Whether they're mercenaries, nobles or knights - all bleed by the thorns of the Rose War.

In summation, Dark Albion: The Rose War is a product thats myriad of uses. By providing 275 page of rock solid material, the gamer is guarenteed to find something more than worth the price of admission. If you want to add politics to your game? This book has it. Want to avoid the politics and set a campaign in a historic setting? This book has it. Want to find a mine full of ideas, NPCs, locations, and adventure seeds to bring to a campaign outside of poltiics and setting? This book has it. Want some fantastic ideas to give depth and weight to your magic-users and clerics? This book has it.

Dark Albion is one of the best products I've purchased this year, if not the past five. I could take this book and run a campaign for years - whether Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or even a game not commonly associated with the OSR like Basic Roleplaying by Chaosium or Steve Jackson's GURPS. The sheer versatility of the product combine with great production values, engaging writing, and solid cartography make it an absolute must-have. In short, Dark Albion: The Rose War is a must-have and given the density of what you'll find in its pages I'd especially recommend a printed copy.

You can find the PDF on RPGNow for $9.95 and in hardcover on Lulu for $29.24 (as of this review, that's a 20% discount). It clocks in at 275 pages, so in both cases that's a bargain of a price.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Adventures Dark & Deep: Advanced Edition Perfection

I already have entirely too many old school and OSR fantasy RPGs: Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, Swords & Wizardry Complete, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Adventures in the Eastmark, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying, Iron Falcon, Dark Dungeons, Deeper Delving, Dungeon Crawl Classics, as well as original classics like the Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D 1st Edition premium reprints. I'm never going to play all of them - not even if I didn't have a full time job, a toddler, freelance writing and my own publishing company to juggle. So why in the Seven Hells would I buy another? Especially one that stepped away from my Basic/Expert wheel house that I love so dearly into the much less used "advanced edition" likes the aforementioned OSRIC?

Well, that's because Adventures Dark & Deep isn't quite a retro-clone. Almost, but not quite. Adventures Dark & Deep (abbreviated ADD) bills itself as being "based on Gary Gygax's plans for expanding the game." So it's claims to be a clone of neither 1st or 2nd edition AD&D. Instead it is a spiritual successor to AD&D 1st edition, with a distinctly Gygaxian design. Constructed by +Joseph Bloch from notes, articles and blog posts by Gary Gygax it claims to be written as what the author believes AD&D 2nd edition might have been if the game's original creator had not parted ways with TSR some time before the release of second edition.

The original incarnation of AD&D is direct, but grew as it became more and more popular. Initially we had no skills, and few ancillary rules beyond what was necessary to plunder dungeons and slay dragons - and it was a helluva a lot of fun. But it always felt a bit... thin. Something was missing. We got expansions in snippets and pieces through magazine articles which added to and expanded the game. Then came Unearthed Arcana, Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and the Wilderness Survival Guide. The game suddenly had new (often horribly imbalanced) classes and races, non-weapon proficiencies, weapon specializations, and tons of extra rules that, though they were billed as options, seemed to be taken as unbreakable canon by everyone I played with back in the day. The bloat had begun.

AD&D 2nd edition came around in 1989 and while things like proficiencies were technically optional, there seemed to be an implication that they were meant to be utilized from the ground floor. Soon after we got hugely expanded campaigns settings and the brown book series of class and race supplements. Towards there came the now infamous Player's Option series. Suddenly there were countless "options" that seemed to be anything but optional and the power creep had been ratcheted up to eleven.

ADD takes a step back, starting from the roots of AD&D 1st edition and begins an organic progression that feels right. Yes, it has barbarians, cavaliers and a skill system - but its all implemented in an even manner that feels appropriate - not as slapshot and untested as the original Unearthed Arcana options. In short, the rules feel unified and consistent. No longer is there a question of "Why should I bother to play a fighter when I can play a ranger or even a cavalier." God help the DM if someone brings the issue of Dragon magazine to the table which features the Arch-Ranger class or any other of the horribly balanced "NPC Classes."

In going beyond first edition, there comes a collection of several classes that either found their origins in Dragon magazine or other supplements - but they're included here from the get-go, which gives them both a validity and a natural sense of presence. Jesters and mountebanks didn't just appear because the latest issue hit your gamin table, they're integrated from the beginning. Because of that integration, they don't feel shoe-horned in or unbalanced. Extra classes like this give a greater sense of player option while avoiding the glut of "splat books" that many believe ruined AD&D second edition.

But more than its unification is its presentation. It holds close to the simple black and white presentation of first edition, keeping things crisp and easily presented. But Bloch doesn't rely on obtuse rule descriptons and a vocabulary rooted in High Gygaxian. He speaks clearly and directly to the reader, while not seeming boring. Because of this concise verbage, ADD packs a lot into its pages. Damn near every concievable situation is covered in Players Manual and Game Masters Tool Kit - and its done so in an approachable, easy to digest fashion.

ADD doesn't try to distract its reader with dazzling layout or full color art. The art is present and it's evocative and fitting - but it doesn't feel like its trying to steal attention away from the text. The author focuses on the game and making the most of it. The majority of the necessary rules are found in the Players Manual because players are going to need to have quick access to a variety of rules. The Game Masters Tool Kit isn't bloated by "secret rules" that players shouldn't know. Instead it talks to the reader about social encounters, unique environments, magic items, adventure design, divine pantheons and other necessary tools and rules for running the game. The Bestiary is jam-packed with almost 450 pages of adversaries and offers a few brief appendicies for unique features and designing your own creatures - not that you'd need to with the plethora of predators found in these pages.

Even while covering every nook and cranny of gaming, ADD never feels oppressed by detail. But because the game is so complete there is a subtle professional presence that breeds confidence in the reader. If someone isn't covered in these pages, a reader will be able to find a similar rule or get a sense of how they should handle a ruling in any given situation. The game breeds confidence in both player and game master. With that confidence comes a sense of excitement.

In short, Adventures Dark & Deep has replaced AD&D as my go-to "advanced edition" fantasy roleplaying game. I'm already in talks with some of my old gaming buddies to run Temple of Elemental Evil using it, and they're excited to play. Now we don't have to decide between the clean but confined rules of first edition or the bloated infinite options of second. A perfect balance is found in ADD.

Adventures Dark & Deep is available in PDF, softcover, and hardcover print on demand through RPGNow and DriveThruRPG. It was written by Joseph Bloch and is published by BRW Games. There's even a bundle which includes all three hardcover books along with PDFs for around $100. A friend of mine called that a big buy in, and he's not wrong. It's a lot of faith to put in a game to blindly drop that much cash on any game - but I can say that Adventures Dark and Deep is unequivocally, bar none, the best incarnation of "advanced" fantasy roleplaying on the market - including those published by larger, more mainstream presses. I'll be running and playing it soon - and for years to come.