The Role-Playing system Grail Quest

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about role-playing game systems, specifically what MY needs and preferences are. In the past year or two I’ve studied around 30 different game systems, and played games with around a dozen of them at least once. To recap, a few years back I played Storyteller games pretty much exclusively. My Storyteller era culminated with home-brew systems best described as “Storyteller Ultra Lite”. The emphasis was heavily on story and immersive character play. I also played a lot of different indie games, Dogs in the Vineyard chief among them. One of my problems with Storyteller was, that since the system is pretty much rubbish, all the actual decision making (“What happens next?”, “How hard is this guy to beat?”, etc.) relied on the GM being able to spin a good yarn. So my ideal game system needs a structure that provides the basic framework of anything that might need rules (or rulings).

The next era was all about Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. A need for a more structured game system had been brewing in me for some time, and since D&D 3.5 was so completely different from anything Storyteller, AND it came with one of the most important ingredients required for role-playing, that is, an active player scene, it was kind of a logical choice. On the topic of 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG after that I’ve already blogged quite extensively, so I won’t bother with beating that dead horse any more. D&D 3.5 had structure aplenty, but the gaming culture associated with it had way too strong a gamist streak for me.

The next step was also a logical one: D&D 3.5+ systems were to damn heavy, but I still liked the basic idea of D&D, so I decided to go back to the roots. I studied a lot of old school systems and their simulacra, and eventually settled on Labyrinth Lord, a Moldway D&D retro-clone. Simplicity. One key element of my requirements for a gaming system pigeon-holed right there. The rules provided a framework, but were a lot lighter than 3.5, and also a lot less gamist (leaning more towards simulationism, actually), since there just wasn’t that many fiddly bits to deal with.

At the moment my main game system is Jim Raggi’s Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, a Moldway retro-clone, and as fantasy gaming goes, it satisfies quite a few of my needs adequately. One key ingredient is, however, still lacking: Basic D&D hasn’t got much mechanical character development going on. That is, the characters are pretty much ready-made. Sure, they get more hit points, and a few other benefits as they advance levels (such as powerful magic), but the characters don’t really grow. Indeed, the point of OD&D isn’t characters at all. Its about the actual adventuring experience; about solving puzzles, conquering dungeons, beating monsters, and surviving traps using whatever ingenuity the players (n.b. not the characters) can muster. The characters are completely expendable and disposable.

My next game is going to be a Space Opera -type science fiction romp in the vein of Starblazer Adventures, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Star Trek TOS. I haven’t decided on a game system yet, but it should be something that meets all of the criteria described above: 1) It needs to have a robust (maybe even simulationist) rules system. 2) It needs to be light, fast and easy to use. 3) It needs to have mechanics for character development. I’m currently leaning strongly towards an old favourite of mine, indeed, the first game system I ever played: Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing. I recently purchased the new(ish) BRP core book, which has, in addition to the core rules set, pretty much all of the sub-systems from all of the different BRP-games. It’s like a rules smorgasbord, that allows me to pick and choose which rules sets to use and which to discard. For instance, I won’t bother with combat mechanic fiddly bits like hit locations and fatigue. Neither am I going to use magic, sorcery or superpowers. Mutations and psionic powers? Maybe. Sanity rules? Tempting, but probably not.

I have my hopes up, that this particular “old school” game just might be the one I’ve been looking for all along. We’ll se what happens. Now all I need to do is find players, who share my enthusiasm for ray-guns, space-pirates, pastel colours, weird or even goofy aliens, intrigue & romance, and swashbuckling adventure…

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Penny Dreadful

So, Gabe over at Penny Arcade decided to give OD&D a try.

Sure, its nice to have more people try out OD&D. It just seems to me this guy has gone about it all wrong. Statements like this:

” all the twists and turns of old school gaming but minus the freedom and danger.”

… tell me he clearly has no idea what OD&D is about. By sanitizing the game, by making it safe, and by removing freedom, he has effectively gutted the soul of OD&D. Way to go, buddy. Now all you need to do is slap on a thousand pages of combat rules and feats, and you’ve effectively re-created D&D 4.

Also, this line makes me think he clearly considers OD&D to be an inferior game:

“Maybe seeing for just a night what it was like back then, will give them a greater appreciation of the game they’re playing now.”

Although, also judging from that comment, seems he doesn’t have that high an opinion of the game he’s playing at the moment, either.

Should I be insulted for being told I play a game that, essentially, sucks, since magical swords eaten by rust monsters stay eaten, levels lost to a wight’s draining touch stay lost, and low-level characters are killable by one sword stroke?

Nah, fuck it. To each their own.

Dungeons of Terror

Last Sunday I ran Dungeons of Terror, the sequel to The Clearing of Castle Caldwell from B9: Castle Caldwell and Beyond for a group of four players with level one characters. Only one of the four players in this group had played the Clearing of Castle Caldwell, but as the two modules are quite stand-alone, this wasn’t really a problem. This game session was my second recent foray into running old school modules, and as with the first session, I wrought some considerable changes on the material at hand.

The campaign world I use is a mix of the Known World as presented in the modules and the D&D Basic Gazetteers, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, with a healthy sprinkling of Sword & Planet influences. Thus, Caldwell Castle was situated on the slope of Mount Hatheg-Klaa, the gods worshipped are (among others) Nodens, Bast and Yog-Sothoth, and once in a while visitors from other worlds stop by. One such visitor was the nobleman Clifton Caldwell, from Victorian era England.

The group consisted of Dmitri, a cleric of Nodens, Racklamon the Fighter, Barakus the Specialist, and Bardical the Dwarf. After having a chat with Mr. Caldwell, and stocking up on supplies, the group descended into the dungeon.

The first change I wrought was changing the Doppelganger in room one for Esteban the Cordoban, a PC casualty from the first game session, now back as a ghoul. Unlike the common ghoul, Esteban had retained some of his intelligence, though he had no recollection of how he ended up the the dungeon, or why he suffered from such an all-consuming hunger. The party tried feeding the poor chap some rations, only to have Esteban chomp down on the hand that fed him. Esteban was swiftly dealt with.

The next encounter was with the two insane Magic-Users. I changed this encounter from a pretty straight-forward combat encounter to something more akin to Alice meeting the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, deciding that the Magic-Users would only attack if provoked. Great fun was had all around, as the Magic-Users tried to pass off suspicious liquids reeking of piss and mold as Magic Potions. Not very surprisingly, the PC passed on the offer. A pity, as the Magic Potions would have been genuine, albeit with some non-standard after effects.

The next encounter (the robber flies) went pretty much by the book. The flies were quickly and efficiently dealt with. Proceeding forwards, the characters passed through some half dozen rooms without incident. They had already realized they were trapped, and looking for an exit was paramount to avoiding a slow death by starvation. This unthoroughness would come back to bite them in the ass later.

The third combat encounter with the berserkers seemed way too random to my storytelling sensibilities, so I changed them into starved, crazed adventurers who had turned to cannibalism to survive. This served to drive home the point, that this fate might well lie in store for the PC’s themselves. Finding the butchered carcass of the fourth member of the other adventuring party, with four straws, one of them shorter than the other three, was ample testimony as to his gruesome fate at the hands of his adventuring companions.

The fourth combat encounter was with the ghouls.

I love all kinds of ghouls, make no mistake about it, be it D&D ghouls, Lovecraft ghouls, or the modern variant: The infected “fast zombie” popular in recent cinema. I usually portray my ghouls as having at least simian intelligence, sometimes even more (Remember Esteban?). With these guys, however, I decided to go with the deranged cannibal approach familiar from movies such as 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Surely enough, the ghouls claimed a PC casualty, as Bardical the Dwarf got his throat unceremoniously ripped out.

While backtracking from the ghoul cave, the party came across Bardical’s quickly rolled up replacement, the Elf Lathariel. His adventuring career would be measured in minutes, as one of the rooms previously skimmed over contained a gelatinous cube, which managed to surprise the party. The specialist Barakus only had time to say “I think this room is empt..” before taking maximum damage from the gelatinous cube’s attack. Did I mention I love gelatinous cubes too? Its next attack paralyzed Lathariel, and its third attack rendered Racklamon the Fighter unconscious, leaving the cleric Dmitri to fend for himself. Dmitri did the smart thing, that is, he legged it, carrying the unconscious fighter with him. The gelatinous cube was left to snack on the paralyzed Lathariel, as well as the corpses of both Bardical and Barakus. Anyone remember The Raft from Creepshow 2? That’s what my oozes are like. Stalking, acidic death.

Dmitri, out of spells and alone, shacked up in one of the rooms, cradling the near-mortally wounded Racklamon in his arms, waiting for Death, whatever form it would take.

Surely enough, two more hapless adventurers came traipsing down the dungeon. They were Migurine and Martin, fighting-men both.

The final encounter of the session was the illusory pile of treasure behind the locked door. Martin decided to poke the pile with hit dagger, and in a blinding flash of light, he was gone without a trace.

Some of my players read this blog, so I won’t detail the fate of Martin. Suffice to say, he managed to solve a riddle, which provided a means to escape for the rest of the party. Martin, sadly enough, did not benefit from this, as his encounter with a beastie too deadly for a lone fighter proved his demise.

Next up, the Return to the Dungeons of Terror.

A friendly reminder

“The D&D game has neither losers nor winners, it has only gamers who relish excercising their imagination. The players and the DM share in creating adventures in fantastic lands where heroes abound and magic really works. In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination. The important thing is to enjoy the adventure.” (Tom Moldvay, 3 December 1980)

Tower of the Stargazer

We played the first session of Jim Raggi’s Tower of the Stargazer tonight. It will be the introductory adventure included with Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, out this autumn. The gaming groups is also the playtest group for the RPG as a whole. Of the five players, four were veterans of Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill playtest. The fifth, Tuukka, was a new guy, who’s previous role-playing experiences were mostly World of Darkness and Cyberpunk.

NB! The following write-up contains spoiler material about the module, so if you plan on playing it yourself at some point, read no further!

The characters we created, or, to use the game’s own jargon, “discovered” were Xi Tuc the Specialist, Llielnth the Elf, Loke the Fighter, Agnieszka the Cleric, and my character Njall the Outcast, the Dwarf. To get the ball rolling faster, it was decided that the characters had known each other for some time before starting adventuring. The term discovered is accurate for this particular method of character creation. Rolling for abilities means you don’t necessarily get what you intended, so instead of deciding on a character concept, and then getting disappointed with the ability rolls, you discover your character as you go along.

The group started out in the Free City of Grallides, a city of some 10,000 people in the north-east of the campaign world Jim’s been creating and re-creating for the past 20 years. Grallides is a coastal bastion of civilization surrounded by tribal lands. I got the impression that the “tech level” of Grallides is about equal to the late medieval or early renaissance period. The tribes inhabiting the plains, hills and forest all around seemed akin to pre-Norman era Northmen or Celts, with even more barbaric “berserker tribes” further up north. I’ll have to check back with Jim to see if my impressions were accurate.

The adventurers had heard rumors of a prospector having discovered a strange, unnatural-seeming tower some fifteen miles south of the city. To beat another group of adventurers to the punch, we decided to look up this prospector asap, so that we could get a head start on the exploration of said tower. After some nosing around taverns frequented by prospectors, we had the information we needed (“For two gold, I’ll mark it on your map!”), and off we went!

At this point we had a discussion about the encumbrance rules in the rules version 0.04 we were using. The general impressions were that at the moment the rules were too complicated, and stringent, since following them to the letter meant that pretty much all of the characters would be heavily encumbered or overencumbered. The basic idea of Jim’s encumbrance rules is good and sound, it just needs a bit of fine-tuning.

The tower was located in the middle of a mostly barren wasteland frequented by unnatural lightning storms. We deducted that the tower itself was the reason for the arcane phenomena, as its architecture was totally alien looking with a huge, metal orb with lightning conductors topping the stonework. Further investigation revealed the body of a man, who, according to the group’s Specialist was that of a thief of some renown. The tower only had one entrance, a pair of doors with iron rings (“Look at those huge knockers!”), which opened by themselves when our Specialist Xi Tuc knocked. Definite proof of sorcery!

We proceeded to investigate the interiors of the tower, finding a rather grizzly necromantic laboratory of sorts, where we had our first combat encounter, a flock of animated inner organs and intestines flying out of the chest cavity of a cadaver. After getting over the initial cool factor of said monster, we proceeded to hack the undead thing into small pieces. Further discoveries included gaol cells inhabited by restless spirits, strange mechanical apparatus, mind-bending mirrors, and of all things conceivable, an elevator!

On the second or third floor, I forget which, our Specialist got hit by a poison dart while picking the lock on a treasure chest. The player promptly failed his saving throw, so the character turned purple in the face, and died. Classic!

On the fourth floor (or is third if you count the ground floor as zero), we discovered the apparent owner of the tower, a Magic-user trapped inside his own protective circle. The old codger tried to persuade us to release him from his prison, but suspicious as we were (As most sane adventurers are!), we decided to leave him be for the time being. We proceeded to investigate the top-most floor of the tower, discovering among other things, a huge telescope pointed skywards, a pool of acid with alien fish in it, and a book about the fauna of an alien world. At around this time we decided to call it a day.

All in all the rules system is very familiar (It should!), albeit with a few innovations, like the d6-based Specialist skills and the rules for encumbrance. I rather like both of these changes myself. In addition the encumbrance rules, which I already mentioned, the demi-human classes, especially the Dwarf (which is just a weaker Fighter at the moment) need some work. The adventure is quite straightforward, but then again, its an introductory adventure, so it should be.