Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RPGaDay 2017 - The Whole Month

Day 1: What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?
Star Wars: Force & Destiny. I love, love, love that game. It captures the Force (not just the Jedi) perfectly and does it with a great rules set. I adore running it, but never get to be a player. Maybe some day.

Day 2: What is an RPG you would like to see published?
An RPG based on Neil Gaiman's novel/mini-series Neverwhere. It's a fantastic piece of open-ended urban fantasy that's just ripe for a role-playing game.

Day 3: How do you find out about new RPGs?
Like everyone else these days: The Internet! It's nice to get an occassional surprise, though that's rarer and rarer these days. The wierdest thing is when you find out about a new product because you're writing for it, but can't say anything - often for a year or more! - do to Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Day 4: What RPG have you played the most since August 2016?
Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars. I ran a long term campaign of it for over a year and it was an absolute thrill-ride. The group fell apart do to out-of-game issues, but it was a total blast when everyone was firing on all cylinders.

Day 5: What RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?
The original West End Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game. That 1987 cover had Luke, Han, and Leia leaping off the page with their blasters blazing and ready to save the galaxy. I never truly WANTED to be a gamer until I saw that cover.

Day 6: You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do.
First of all, I wouldn't. That's asking for burn out. Two games a week, tops - assuming I'm running them both. Three if I get to play in at least one. I'd spend that extra gaming time writing or prepping for my campaigns. At one point I was gaming six days a week in my early twenties, but that was a mind scramble even then.

Day 7: What was your most impactful RPG session?
That would be the session where I was playing in a Rifts game and another player said something specifically with the intent of hurting my feelings and embarrassing me in front of everyone else at the table - including my girlfriend at the time. I told him "Fuck you," and he proceeded to leap across the table and scoop me up in a choke hold before attempting to snap my neck. When I finally got loose, he then came after me with a butcher knife and I felt the house. Everyone at the table blamed me because "that's just how he is" and my girlfriend actually left me over the incident. Needless to say, that stuck with me and it took a long time before I was willing to play Rifts again.

Day 8: What is a good RPG to play for sessions of two hours or less?
Swords & Wizardry Light. The entire rules system fits on two double-sided pages and you can make a character in less than five minutes. You make your hero and jump right in with both feet. It's so quick and dirty that it ought to be a crime.

Day 9: What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?
Star Wars, either the FFG or WEG incarnation. You can have a fantastic story arc over that span of time and the characters really reach a comfortable level of power and proficiency. After ten sessions it really feels like you've told a "trilogy" of movies.

Day 10: Where do you go for RPG Reviews?
I usually follow word-of-mouth over on Google+ and see what folks are buzzing about. I tend to have similar tastes to many of my friends in the OSR, though with some deviation. From their opinions, I can usually get a sense of whether or not I'm going to like a game.

Day 11: What 'dead game' would you like to see reborn?
I got my wish answered recently. The original Star Wars RPG by West End Games. Fortunately, it's about to be unfrozen from carbonite, as Fantasy Flight Games is releasing a 30th Anniversary 2-book set of the core book and Star Wars Sourcebook. I can't wait. Quixotic Jedi, ho!

Day 12: Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?
In spite of my bad table experiences with it, I always thought the Rifts books had some fantastic black and white line art that really capture the gonzo sci-fi "that's so cool!" pulp nature of the setting. It made me want to BE what I saw in those pictures.

Day 13: Describe a game experience that changed how you played.
I could reference Day 7, but that feels like cheating. Years ago, when I was a teenager, I was in a game where my character was killed by other members of the party because he was under a charm spell and they (being self-serving thieves) left him to die because of the spell's effects. It was very appropriate for the session and the campaign and even though my character died, I didn't feel like I'd "lost." It taught me that character death can be a good and fitting thing in a campaign if handled appropriately.

Day 14: What RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?
White Box Fantasy Medieval Adventure Game. This is an repackaging and updated presentation of Swords & Wizardry White Box. It's light rules and reasonable character progression rate makes it a very "drop in/drop out" game, which is important to me in these busy times where I sometimes go weeks, or even months, without rolling them bones.

Day 15: Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?
This is an easy one. Swords & Wizardry White Box. It's strong and familiar foundation have allowed me to build some fantastic material onto it without getting lost in endless rules glut. I just love it for its core utilitarianism.

Day 16: Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?
There are a handful, both on opposite ends of the spectrum. White Box Fantasitc Medieval Adventure Game and Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars both are almost instinctive to me and I can run them without little-to-no rules changes. Same for Star Wars d6 and most classic World of Darkness games (Vampire: The Masquerade, Changeling: The Dreaming, etc).

Day 17: Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played.
West End Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Owned it in some incarnation since 1987 and haven't gotten to play (not GM) since 1997. Far, far too long.

Day 18: What RPG have you played the most in your life?
This is a softball question for most, and I'm no different. Like everyone else, the foundation of my gaming is found in one version of Dungeons and Dragons or another. It's simply the game that most people default to, often because it was their introduction to the hobby.

Day 19: Which RPG features the best writing?
Is it self-serving to say The One Ring? Well, that's my claim. The One Ring captures to near-perfection the nuances and subtleties of Tolkien's Middle-earth while still leaving plenty of breathing room for new advventures and original characters. I can open any book in the line and turn to any page and find something fascinating.

Day 20: What's the best source for out-of-print RPGs?
If you're talking digital, OBS is king. That's DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. As far as physical, I've found a lot of luck on the Google+ Goblin Emporium community where old gamers buy, sell, and trade games all over the place. Noble Knight isn't bad either, but their pricing is really swingy.

Day 21: What RPG does the most with the least words?
Swords & Wizardry Light. A complete game in 4 pages. Three races. Four classes. Gear. A solid bestiary. Combat and adventuring rules. It's built for speed, not for looks - but its damn fine at its job.

Day 22: Which RPGs are easiest for you to run?
White Box (either Swords & Wizardry or FMAG), d6 Star Wars or FFG Star Wars, or The One Ring. I know the White Box rules set like the back of my hand, and am immersed in the setting material of the other two. I'm proud to say that in the case of all of those listed, I often don't need to prep and when it comes to campaigns, I develop a vague outline and just jump in from there.

Day 23: Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?
I'd have to say Dungeon Crawl Classics. The art in that book is just splattered all over the place and captures the feel of the game perfectly, but it never feels obtrusive or unnecessary. The text is clean and easy to read, so between the two it's both beautiful to look at and easy to use at the table.

Day 24: Share a PYWY publisher who should be charging more.
That dumbass at Barrel Rider Games should stop listing his White Star and White Star Companion at PWYW. I mean he's even got the prints marked at that price. Total business noob who's throwing money out the window.

Day 25: What's the best way to thank your GM?
Invest in the game. I don't mean buy books, dice, or snacks. Take the time to learn the basics of the system, actively create ways for your character to be involved in the storyline presented, pay attention at the table (and put the damn cellphone away!). GMs work really hard to get the game set up for you and do a lot of work to make sure you have a good time. Show them you appreciate it by investing in material presented.

Day 26: Which RPG provides the most useful resources?
Depends what you define as a resource? For me it's utility at the table and material that's easily applied to a campaign. For that I'd have to say Star Wars d6 hit it out of the park with two of their products: The Gamemaster Guide (2nd edition) and Galaxy Guide 9: Fragments from the Rim. The Game Master Guide is the single best "how to GM Star Wars" book I've ever read, and its material is really applicable to any pulp-style game. Very few rules, but lots of golden advice. Fragments, on the other hand, was filled with ten thousand tidbits that could be used to launch campaigns, add depth to the setting, or introduce engaging NPCs. I used that book until the cover fell off.

Day 27: What are your essential tools for good gaming?
Other than the obvious books, dice, pencils, and players I'd have to say an actual table to play at. Not a coffee table or TV trays: a table. It keeps everyone's focus in the same place and creates the implicit sense that everyone is gathered together as a group and for a group activity.

Day 28: What film/series is the biggest source of quotes for your group?
Wow? Just one? Probably Star Wars, simply because we play it most often and everyone's seen it a thousand times. There's never a bad time to "Have a bad feeling about this."

Day 29: What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed.
Easy. John Wick Presents' 7th Sea Second Edition Kickstarter. Absolute transparency, regular updates, and early delivery of product. 100% top notch and professional.

Day 30: What RPG genre-mashup would you like to see most?
Though I never read it, I always liked the idea of Gothic Cyberpunk. GURPS CthulhuTech and an old CP2020/Vampire: The Masquerade crossover article from White Wolf magazine both really seemed like a lot of fun. But, you don't see sci-fi done quite like that every often. It's not "horror sci-fi," not really.

Day 31: What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?
Maybe I'll get to be a player in an on-going campaign? Maybe even a Star Wars campaign? Or The One Ring? Yeah, pipe dreams I know...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

These Dice Ain't What They Used To Be

So, tonight I unexpectedly got to play in a 5e game. I was thrilled to do so and had just said to my wife "I really need to play D&D, it's been weeks and I miss it." Well, someone out there heard me and granted my wish. Thanks, Universe.

I made my character easily enough and we sat down to play. From 6:30 to about 9:15. Not a long session, by any stretch. But here's the thing - I had an absolute blast. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I was Dregnr Bloodbeard, Dwarf Barbarian, and it was pure fun. Never once did I feel fatigued or overwhelmed, nor did I wonder if gaming was "worth the effort."

I learned something about myself - maybe I ought to slow down in my "old age." Ten years or fifteen years ago, a four hour session was standard. We often pushed for six or even eight hours. But tonight's "shot in the arm" of gaming, really felt just right.

For a long time, I had considered getting away from the table both as a player and GM. Just focus on design and playtesting. But tonight taught me that maybe, if I take it a bit slower and in smaller doses, that it's still as much fun as ever - even after 30 years.

This also reenforced why I love the OSR (and particularly White Box) so much. With rules light systems, you can get a lot of active gaming in, in just a few hours. That way time doesn't feel wasted by looking up rules, modifiers, and outlying material. Just leap right into the game, and head off on an adventure. Man, it was nice to realize that I may not be as young as I used to be - but the spark is still there and adventure still calls to me.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Fault In Our Stars: Starfinder, ADnD 2E, and Repeating History

So I wanted to talk a bit about Starfinder and how I see it. Not as a game or in comparison to White Star, but as a business move and why I think Paizo chose to release a sci-fi adaptation of their juggernaut fantasy roleplaying game. But to do that, I have to go back to 1989 and the release of AD&D, 2nd edition.

However you feel about AD&D 2nd Ed, it was an absolute runaway hit. It made money hand over fist and sales had exploded far beyond expectations. The books brought slick, previously unseen production values to the game with full color core books that were priced to buy. By 1993, AD&D 2nd edition dominated the market and it was the game when it came to tabletop RPGs. Granted, tabletop RPGs get compared to D&D by default, but this was unprecedented.

It seemed as though there was nothing AD&D 2nd Edition couldn't do. The campaign settings were fresh as gamers explored Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Birthright. The seemly endless slew of class and race books gave players new ways to customize their characters with optional kits and new equipment, spells, and sub-races. There was no end in sight.

Until there was.

The long and short is that TSR was on the verge of economic collapse because of the runaway success of AD&D 2nd Ed. They had to keep producing supplements to maintain an ever diminishing revenue stream. That's the nature of tabletop roleplaying games. Roleplaying games are a niche of a niche of a niche market. Most folks who play them do so casually, briefly, or out of curiosity. They borrow a book from a more active friend while they're playing, or they buy a single core book for their own reference. Maybe they buy the "core three" books, but never grab a supplement. They might grab a supplement which focuses on their favorite species/class if they're really into the game. But the fact is, most gamers aren't rabid consumers of every single thing published for a game line.

So, TSR had to keep producing supplements on more minuet elements of their flagship game to keep the money coming in. But as the product line bloated, the profit margins thinned. AD&D 2nd edition had more books released for it than you can count (I stopped at 250...) and let's face it, some of them were very narrow in their focus. (Did we really need Thief's Challenge, let alone Thief's Challenge II: Beacon Pointe?)

But, to keep these more tightly focused products viable, you have to keep much of the previous library of material in print, maintain storage space to keep unsold product, pay your employees, and keep the lights on. So, eventually, the numbers just didn't add up and TSR was on the verge of collapse. That's when Wizards of the Coast came in and bought the company.

Then came D&D 3E. There was a lot of backlash against it at first. So many people had spent over a decade chasing the dragon (so to speak) keeping up with the endless gamut of 2nd Ed books that they felt betrayed by the fact that D&D 3E was going to render all that time and investment invalid. While many players recognized that a new game being published did not obligate them to play it, I still understand their frustration.

But in the end D&D 3E and its OGL were a success beyond all predictions. So much so, that when it ended and 4E was announced in 2007 and released the following year many gamers decided not to invest in yet another itteration of the world's most famous fantasy roleplaying game. Enter Paizo's Pathfinder. Serving as as rallying point for those who wishes to continue playing D&D 3E, Pathfinder was released under the OGL with a few minor changes to D&D 3.5.

And it exploded. Pathfinder was a runaway hit, like AD&D 2nd Edition before it. It even managed to out-sell Dungeons and Dragons, the very game from which it was born. For a brief time, Pathfinder was the Rebel Prince, dethroning the king of all roleplaying games.

Pathfinder began to release supplements, as is expected. From the Advanced Player's Guide to Mythic Adventures, they left no stone unturned, no supplement unpublished. Soon the runaway success of Pathfinder ran away with them. Ten years later, and countless supplements later, Pathfinder feels its in the same place as TSR was in 1998. But, unlike Wizards of the Coast, my guess is that Paizo doesn't want to alienate the fans that have been loyal to them for the past decade by releasing a Pathfinder, Second Edition. So, how do they add longevity to their product line when the vein of ore that is fantasy seems tapped?

Starfinder feels to me like an attempt to extend the longevity of the Pathfinder product line and IP without releasing a second edition. But, I'm uncertain about it's potential for success. Yes, it sold out at GenCon - but there hasn't been a whole lot of buzz surrounding it that I've noticed. Admittedly, I'm over here in the OSR corner of the RPG community - but still, the tabletop roleplaying game community isn't exactly vast.

Do I hope Starfinder is a success? Absolutely. By all accounts Erik and the folks at Pathfinder are good people. Besides, even at its most successful, RPG publishing profits are razor thin. Given that many fantasy gamers aren't interested in sci-fi (and vice versa), I'm doubtful that Starfinder will be as successful as Paizo needs and that may create a rough road for Paizo in the days to come.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why I Don't Do Kickstarters

It's funny. When I tease a product one or two people usually ask when I'm launching the Kickstarter for this. The answer is always "I'm not." I don't crowdfund. That's not to say I never will in the future, but I can't imagine a circumstance that would warrant me doing so. Turning to Kickstater makes me feel uncomfortable, it makes me nervous. It's a great way to get your product out there and get support, but I don't think it's for me.

I did one crowdfunding, several years ago. I did an Indiegogo for Class Compendium, my largest project up to that time. But I didn't do it specifically to fund the Class Compendium. I did it because my computer was becoming unreliable and without a computer I couldn't publish at all. So, I did an Indiegogo with half the money going to art for the Compendium and the other half to a new laptop. Nothing fancy, just to keep myself writing. I made all this very clear in my pitch video.

I thought Class Compendium would be easy. It was almost done before I even launched. It was so close. But, to be safe, I gave myself an extra six months as padding for my deadline. That was a helluva lot of wiggle room, right? Wrong.

You see, one of my stretch goals was to add a spell index in the back. A complete spell index. That way any class in the Compendium would have instant access to spell details right in the same book. No flipping between books. Easy, right? Well, not so much. See, at the time I worked solo. I hadn't found awesome layout guys like +Jason Paul McCartan+Michael Herrmann, or +Thomas Novosel. From cradle to grave, it was a one-man show. Everything was done manually. Everything.

It took me all my padding time to get that damn index in place. I even went over deadline, though only by two weeks.

For me, that was unacceptable for several reasons.

First and foremost, I hate missing deadlines. It feels unprofessional. If you give a deadline, meet it. People even said "Two weeks isn't bad at all for a crowd-funding project." Didn't matter. Late is late for my releases.

Secondly, I'm very mercurial in my interests. As it stands at the time of this blog, I've got two large projects in the works (White Star: Galaxy Edition and Saga of the White Box), a large project I won't name, as well as four small projects, one personal project, a project I'm secretly working on, and am coming up on a freelance gig. It's like someone gave Attention Deficit Disorder a pen and a set of dice. This means that focusing on a single project for an extended period is very difficult for me. I get an idea and I want to grab it and run - then bounce between the many hollows of my mind.

That makes for a potentially disasterous crowd funding project. And that's not fair.

It's not fair to those who put their money in my hands. It's not fair to the way I operate. It's just asking for a train wreck and permanent damage to the good will the OSR has been so kind to grant me. So, I won't be doing Kickstarers or crowd-funding projects any time soon. I'll be patient, leaping from passion to passion, hoping folks are kind enough to accept the time it takes for me to get a project to the table. So far, the community has been quite kind in that regard - and I am appreciative of that grace.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells

+Diogo Nogueira is a work horse in the OSR. Known primarily for preaching the Gospel of Dungeon Crawl Classics and being an amazing artist, what some may not realize is that Diogo has published his own fantasy roleplaying game. It's not another retro-clone, though it shares some commonalities with traditional d20-based games. Diogo's baby is called Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, and it's available in both PDF and digest-sized softcover on DriveThru and RPGNow. Did I mention that both the PDF and the physical are priced at Pay-What-You-Want at the time of this writing?

Nogueira's love of Howard, Smith, and other iconic pulp fantasy authors is evident in his product. The entire book amounts to 48 pages, but that page count could probably be cut in half if you removed the art. That's not a criticism at all. It's the art and how it's been carefully selected or crafted to evoke that Hyborian feel that really sells the game.

SS&SS really trims the fat, though the author's inspirations seem evident in reading the product. Diogo's love of DCC is obvious, but I also get a bit of a White Box vibe going on. I feel as though he took Dungeon Crawl Classics, D&D 5e, Swords & Wizardry, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and Polyhedral Dungeon and ripped them apart of the Tree of Woe, then reassembled them to create something both familiar and different.

With only four attributes, three classes, and no skill system you'd think the game would feel a bit thin - but not so. The author is clearly trying to emulate a specific subgenre of fantasy and he stays laser-focused on that style. The system is pretty simple. Attributes (Physique, Agility, Intellect, and Willpower) are determined by your traditional "roll 3d6" method.

Tasks are accomplished by rolling a d20 against an attribute value. If you score under your attribute, the task has succeeded. The closer you get to the attribute without going over, the better you did. These tests can be modified by Positive or Negative Die, which works in a manner similar to D&D Fifth Edition's Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. If it's a Positive Die, you take the better. Negative, take the worse. Combat is actually resolved using the same attribute test mechanic, but the monster's hit dice modifies the roll - meaning a monster who's hit dice exceed a character's level are going to be harder to hit while those that are lower are going to be easier. Simple and elegant.

Some fast and dirty pulp spice is added by adding options to push your roll (ala Call of Cthulhu 7th edition) and a Luck option. Equipment and weapon ammo are also handled in a truncated, but intuitive and appropriate way.

Casting a spell? Intellect test. Trying to be stealthy? Agility test. It's all that simple.

Weapon damage is equally simple. Small weapons (whether dagger, short sword, hand ax, whatever) do a 1d6. Medium weapons do a 1d6, Large weapons do 1d8. Warriors automatically increase this die by one type (d4s become d6s, d6s become d8s, d8s become d10s). Any class can use any weapon.

Armor provides a form of damage reduction, but make you easier to hit by capping your Agility, while shields make you harder to hit.

Spells are simple, nasty and potentially dangerous to the caster. Casters choose the power level of the spell their casting, which modifies their roll. That means you can potentially throw a heap-nasty spell, but there's serious risk of things going south if you roll poorly. Men were not meant to know sorcery in SS&SS. Magic items are similarly powerful, but always with a cost.

Monsters all have one statistic: Hit Dice. They might also have specific special abilities, but given the player-centric nature of dice rolling and how hit dice of an opponent impacts combat, that's all you need.

Like I said earlier, where this game really shines is in its art and flavor. SS&SS requires characters to begin play with a Complication, which can be randomly generated if necessary. In addition, charts are included to generate on the fly adventure scenarios. These charts, again combined with the art, really give it that dirty sword-and-sandals pulp feel. What's so impressive that a lot of the art in this book is stock art that's been floating around for a long time - but when you get an artist to actually put a book together as a labor of love (which this clearly is), the unity of disparate parts really shines.

If I had to offer any criticisms, it's that SS&SS has a few areas where efforts to keep things brief make some explanations feel truncated or abrupt. Another sentence or so explaining a few of the rules would have clarified things quite a bit, but after reading over it a second time the designer's intent became pretty clear - so this is a minor issue at best. And for being PYWY in any format,  there are really no complaints. Another minor issue was that though the book included an ample list of monsters (35 or so), they did not appear to be organized in any fashion. Having them listed alphabetically or by HD would make for easier reference.

Long and short is that if you're looking for an ultra-light pulp fantasy game you can stuff in a backpack and run on the fly, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is a must. Grab it now. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The White Box One-Sentence Background

So one of the common arguments I see regarding Swords & Wizardry White Box and White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is that it's too narrow. Characters have no abilities beyond their combat or class related listings to give them any definition, background, or motivation. I regard this as a strength of the system as it keeps things simple - but I understand how it could frustrate some people.

So, I tried to come up with a solution that kept to the core of White Box's simplicity. I give you the One-Sentence Background.

The One-Sentence Background is exactly that. A character's background defined in a single sentence. This sentence must include some form of motivator and some kind of profession or skill outside the character's class.

Example One: Arki the Dwarven Fighter was a Blacksmith who wants revenge for the destruction of his clan.

Example Two: Jana the Thief is a former Woodworker who took to the road to search for her missing daughter.

The profession is something the character can attempt to use as is appropriate to the situation and with Referee approval. This can be narrative, or mechanical. If a mechanical system is used, I'd recommend having the character simply make a Saving Throw, but receive +2 to any saves tied to using their profession.

The background has no mechanical effect. It simply serves as a springboard so players can call back to their character's primary motivation and have a sense of how their character will act in a situation.

Simple enough?