Type III D&D + Old School sensibilities equals what?

This awesome lizardman illustration has nothing at all to do with this article.

I recently started (and ended) a very short-lived RPG campaign with the stated goal of using Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG rules set, and Paizo’s Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path, but with the rules mechanics pared down to resemble earlier versions of D&D, and with the Old School no-nonsense sensibilities of gaming style, e.g. lethality, rulings not rules, no battle mat, rolled attributes straight down the line, only four character classes and three races, considerably less skill points, slower feat progression, no easy access to healing magic, and no resurrection of any kind. An ambitious rules hack to be sure, and an interesting experiment on the compatibility of, in my opinion, two very different rules sets and the gaming styles derived thereof.

To start of, let me state that I’m strongly of the opinion, that rules sets are never just “the rules” and thus separate from the game world and what the actual game is like, but always strongly connected, e.g. the rules describe the metaphysics of the game world, and thus form the meta-culture of the way the game is played as a whole. You cannot separate the two more than you could use a spoon to extract oxygen from water.

The gaming group I had consisted of two players with a wide range of experience with different editions of D&D, including Mentzer D&D, AD&D, Pathfinder, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess; a player who had only played LotFP before this; and two players who had only played WotC 3.5./Pathfinder. The characters were created at the start of the first game session. We ended up with a fighter, two clerics, a rogue and a wizard, e.g. all four available classes represented.

Right off the bat we ran into some group dynamic problems, when one of the PF-players concocted an rather convoluted character backstory, which was soon revealed to the other players, but not the other characters. This is for for the most part fine when playing some more modern RPG’s, but for an old school style game, it just doesn’t work, as the intent is that first level characters aren’t supposed to really have complex backstories (“Character background is what happens during levels 1-4” -G.Gygax), and also, in old school play, the line between player and character knowledge is so blurred it might as well be non-existent. The backstory had other problems as well (for one, the character was the cleric of an evil deity), but these problems have little to do with the topic of this post.

It soon became apparent, that there would be problems in more than one area. For one, the players who were only familiar with Type III were in no way prepared for how lethal combat becomes, when the characters aren’t superheroes anymore. Instead (as typical of Type III play), then met dangers head on with the expectation, that of course the challenge would be level-appropriate, thus providing a safe and sanitized moment of heroics, that would at most drain some consumable resources. Not so in old school, though. A few character deaths later, and they were starting to pay more attention to the fact, that the best way to survive is to avoid fighting, and if things start to look grim, its time to run. One also needs to realize, that sometimes not even the best preparations in the world will save characters from totally random death by trap or poison. This is also a feature (not a bug, mind you) not really present in Type III, but there in abundance in old school play.

An unexpected development from the rules changes was this: Since a lot of the combat rules and of course the battle mat of Type III wasn’t used, a lot more of what was actually happening in the game rested on so-called GM fiat. The actions of players had become decidedly less important than the description provided by the GM. This is something I’ve become very familiar with when running White Wolf games, where the system itself doesn’t tell you much of what’s happening. For White Wolf games, however, that’s perfectly OK, since the emphasis is supposed to be storytelling, not conflict resolution. In old school games, however, it most definitely isn’t OK, since the GM is supposed to be an impartial referee who just sets the challenges, rolls the dice, and lets them fall where they may. In fact, that particular trait of storytelling games is one of the main reasons why I started to gravitate away from them towards the OSR some years ago. Why was this happening, though?

I came to this conclusion: Since a pared down, or “vague” rules-system (such as Storyteller and my chopped up Pathfinder) sets a framework that tells you what the rules are like, without providing the actual nitty-gritty on how it actually works, the blanks (e.g. setting appropriate challenges and moderating troublespots) are left for the GM to fill. In my experience, this doesn’t really happen with either Pathfinder proper or with old school games. I think I need to ponder on this some more, though.

In conclusion, the experiment was successful in proving that a proper merger of two game systems so dissimilar is impossible without sacrificing some of the traits that are essential to actually making said game systems what they are. Pathfinder is fine if you want to run a system-heavy heroic game, with an incredibly detailed combat system, and old school style games work the best when using an old school style rules system. Oh, and of course Storyteller (briefly mentioned) is just fine if you don’t care about system at all, and would rather concentrate on co-operative storytelling.

Did I learn anything? Maybe. Next up, something completely different.

E Chuta!

This has been a really busy month. I haven’t had time to write about any of the things I was supposed to. So, instead of writing a proper post now, I’ll just settle for quick updates on various topics. Oh, and I do believe a skin change is in order. What do you think of this one?

Personal and professional

As some of you know, I’ve recently been promoted to Senior Store Manager in the mygamestore.fi gaming store chain. I’ve also moved from Tapiola to Katajanokka, and my place of work is now the Stadin Pelikauppa store in Kaisaniemi, instead of Tapiolan Pelikauppa in Tapiola. I’ve also taken on some new responsibilities in the chain, as in addition to managing the Stadi store, I’m also in charge of buying all of the miniatures, and boardgames related stock for the chain.

Wargaming

Wargaming is still going strong. My Red Corsairs Chaos Space Marines army totals at about 3000 points at the moment, and I think I’ve reached somewhat of a water mark with that army, as I pretty much have all of the units I’m ever going to use with this army using the current codex. The converted Chaos Space Marine Chosen squad still isn’t quite finished, as I still need to do some details on the Rhino, and the squad members. The fiery red tiger stripe camo pattern on the marines looks dead on, though, so I should really get them finished, and have some pictures taken.

My Warriors of Chaos army is at about 2000 points, and progress with these guys has been really slow. I made the mistake of taking part in a Warhammer Fantasy Battle tournament, and some bad experiences there made me pretty much lose interest in that particular game. It is quite unlikely I’ll ever dabble with the tournament side of WHFB ever again, as that game really REALLY doesn’t work very well in tournament play. As a beer and pretzels game it works just fine, however.

Role-Playing Games

I’m currently refereeing a Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing campaign, in which one of the players is Jim Raggi, the author of LotFP. The campaign is run in English, and after minor initial language difficulties, the campaign is now running quite smoothly. We’ve played three times so far, and I have the impression the players aren’t hating it, since they keep coming back for more.

I also ran a short Vampire: The Masquerade campaign a few months back, but that one didn’t last, since pretty much all of the players were very busy, and thus organizing regular game sessions was a real pain. I also found out, that if I’m going to run a regular game, it needs to be a weekly game, or I will lose my interest in it very quickly.

Star Wars

I’ve been a fan of Star Wars for as long as I can remember. My first contact with Star Wars was the original movie trilogy when it came out on VHS in the eighties, and the ensuing toy craze. I never had any of the original toys myself, as my parents thought they were too expensive. A childhood friend of mine had lots of them, though, including the Millennium Falcon, an X-Wing Fighter, and an AT-ST Walker.

Later on I kinda lost touch with Star Wars, only occasionally re-watching the movies when they were shown on TV. Then the new trilogy came, and man was I disappointed. What it did manage to do, however, was bring me back the old movies. It also opened my eyes to the Expanded Universe, which in my case meant the Dark Horse Comics, and the Star Wars role-playing game. Comics have always been one of my loves, and the Dark Horse comics were exactly what I’d loved about that original trilogy, and had missed about the new trilogy, e.g. swashbuckling space opera, with engaging storylines, and interesting characters. I’ve since invested quite a bit in Star Wars -related comics, and have quite a collection of them.

My other connection to Star Wars is through work. Stadin Pelikauppa is really big on Star Wars, having the largest selection of Star Wars related merchandise, collectibles, and vintage toys in the whole of Northern Europe. The 501th Nordic Garrison trooping in our stores is what brought me into contact with the NG in the first place.

And so, finally, after years of being a Star Wars enthusiast, I’ve decided to take that extra step into fandom, and have decided to make a Star Wars costume of my own, hoping for eventual 501st approval with it. My project is Count Dooku. I’ve already purchased the first part of my costume; the cloak clasps and chain. The next step is getting the lightsaber, the boots (from an army surplus store), and the actual uniform, for which I have enlisted the aid of a friend, who designs, and makes clothes professionally. She did the costumes for Iron Sky, so Dooku’s costume is going to be a cinch for her.

There you have it, recent hobby-related activities handily summarized. More on various topics later on, when I have more time to spare.

Why the OSR?

This post is essentially a follow up on this comment on a previous post:

Maybe if you told us what interests you in OSR stuff? You blogged about what it ISN’T, but what about what it IS?

I remember your old post about looking for a sturdy adventure game, but I’m a bit lost trying to understand how OSR reaches this. To my untrained eye Raggi is doing essentially lovecraftian stuff (“touch it and you die”) and the rest of the bunch print 70′s D&D in different colored boxes. This most likely isn’t the truth, but as said, I’m having problem seeing what makes OSR so “real”, “genuine” or “inventive”. Care to help me out? Maybe that would also help you find like-minded players.

I’ll start with one more ISN’T. The OSR isn’t just one specific thing, so it would be pointless for me to try and describe the whole of the OSR. Instead, I’ll take a stab at describing what specifically interests and appeals to me.

First off, simplicity of design. The games I play have extremely light rules, that cover only the bare minimum of instances that might come up during a game session. Instead of hard rules, there are guidelines and rulings. This design creates a framework for the referee, which in no way constrains creativity. Also, no game time is taken up by the necessity to look up this or that esoteric rule in a huge 300 page tome. Granted, the downside to this lightness is the reliance on the authority of the referee. Then again, this is really only a downside if you don’t trust the judgement of your referee, and don’t communicate with the people you play with.

Second, the freedom that stems not only from the looseness of the rules system but also from the assumed style of play and adventure design. The typical Old School adventure isn’t a series of encounters or scenes leading up to a pre-designed dramatic climax. Rather the story is what comes out of play, that is players interacting with the game world as presented by the referee. Again, there is a caveat. For this to work properly, the referee needs to prepare enough material beforehand to be prepared for any eventuality that might come up during play, or he needs to be able to improvise game content based on the material that’s already been established about the game world. Fortunately the OSR provides the referee with a lot of tools designed for these express purposes. The referee has a veritable buffet table of content to choose from, be it tables for anything from carousing to random happenings, or locations ready to be explored, or monsters, characters, magic items or anything else one can think of that can be dropped into any adventure on a moment’s notice. In a sense, this toolbox mentality even extends to the OSR adventures modules, which usually don’t have ready-made plots at all.

Third, the old school material does not force a designer’s intent on the individual referee in the way that many newer settings and adventures do. The OSR designer is not an auteur, who’s work is sacrosanct, and to be used as is. Exactly the opposite in fact. The Old School method of using material written by someone else is adapt it, change it more to your liking, mine it for ideas, and basically do with it what you want. I realize I’m repeating myself here, but really, the Adventure is what happens at the table, NOT what is written in a book. I think this is one of the main stumbling blocks for people more familiar with stricter by-the-book play (Who look at the OSR stuff and go all “this is lame, this guy has no motivation, and that guy doesn’t even have a PROPER NAME, and this whole thing ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE”.), or for the people who’re into Forge stuff, which is very focused and specifically designed for ONE type of gaming experience (Who look at the OSR stuff, and immediately start looking for definite how-to guidelines on HOW to actually run the game, or how the designer intended the material to be used. I’ll give you a clue: It really does not matter what the designer was thinking when he wrote what he wrote. What matters is what you make of the material at your own gaming table.).

That last point is really what drives the nail down. The OSR game is what happens at the table. It is what the referee makes of the material he is using, be it his own or someone else’s. It is what the players make of the material the referee presents them with. It is the interaction of all of the above in the situation that is a tabletop role-playing game session.

That’s it in a nutshell, really.

What’s up with role-playing games?

As many of the regular readers know, role-playing has been put on back-burner for me. It has been quite some time since I had a regular gaming group with weekly games, or since I got exited about anything new RPG related. Releases which would have had me in stitches a few years back just feel kind of meh and bland now. The adage “same shit, different package” goes for a lot of new games. For example, Pathfinder is just a rehash of D&D 3rd edition, and while I did spend a LOT of time with that game when Pathfinder first became all the rage, it just got old for me. Seen it, done it, more rules, more character options, and “builds” (God, I hate that word in this context.), more recycling of old ideas, just redone in a sleek, sanitized, manga-influenced package. And don’t even get me started on the currently prevalent “Dungeon Punk” look of most of the character art in BOTH Pathfinder and D&D 4th Edition.

In fact, the more time goes by, the more I feel the need to find something that seems real, and genuine. Something that has that certain spark of inventiveness, and has all of its rough edges unfiled. Thus, pretty much the only kind of gaming that has any draw for me, is old school, be it D&D related, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play or BRP. Many of the older games didn’t stand the test of time, but the few that did… they just seems so much more real and interesting than anything that’s come out since.

Which brings me to the topic of the Old School Renaissance, or the OSR, which while concentrating on playing the older games, or simulacra ISN’T just a bunch of old fogies and has-beens rehashing old shit, or back room anachronisms hack’n slashing their way through 10′ by 10′ corridors filled with orcs in search of treasure. Quite the opposite, in fact: While building on a solid foundation of simple, time-tested rules systems and tradition, a lot of the actually new stuff coming out of the OSR is undiluted inspiration given form. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the stuff being put out by creative powerhouses such as James Raggi, Geoffrey McKinney, Matt Finch, or Daniel Proctor, or have a look the vibrant blogosphere, where people like Zak Sabbath, Jeff Rients, the guy who writes Planet Algol, and many others are creating brilliant, innovative and imaginative stuff for Old School role-playing on a regular basis.

Anyway, back to the original topic. What was it again?

Oh yes. This: 1) I don’t have a regular weekly game at the moment. 2) I’m not interested in any of the new games. 3) The OSR rocks my socks, and that’s what I want to play and/or referee. 4) Give me four players with the same interests, views, and time tables, so that I can get a game going.

Too much to ask? Probably.

Tapiola RPG Night – An Obituary

Right, as some you already know, we’ve been running bi-weekly tabletop RPG’s at Tapiolan Pelikauppa since last August. This experiment has now drawn to a close. We managed a total of around 8-10 game sessions, two of them Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, game mastered by myself, and the rest of them Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, refereed by James Raggi (who is also the author of said game). A brief summary follows:

* Attendance was regularly around four players. Usually the same four players. One of the set goals of the whole experiment was drawing new blood into the tabletop RPG hobby. Suffice to say, this goal was not met, as all of the players were already role-players to begin with.

* No volunteer game masters (besides Jim and myself) were forthcoming. Yes, I did get tentative interest out of three GM’s, but none of them actually delivered, due to time table constraints or lack of general interest.

* Role-playing as an in-store activity draws a certain kind of crowd. That is, the kind of crowd you’d never invite to your home game. There were some exceptions, but on a general principle the gaming group was of the kind that sucks the life out of the GM, and makes him want to never run a game again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. Tried it, didn’t work, time for something completely different. Probably not anytime soon, though.

Various kinds of gaming

It has been almost a months since my last blog-post, so an update on my gaming-related activities is in order.

Role-Playing

Working full time (from 12 pm to 6 pm most weekdays, and one or two Saturdays per month as well) has really taken its toll on the amount of free time and energy I have available for traditional Pen & Paper role-playing. I still don’t have an ongoing role-playing campaign of my own, as the logistics of getting a group together regularly is just too much work, not to mention the time it would take to do the planning of the actual game sessions. I’ve tried getting together a regular group for some kind of low-maintenance gaming, but finding three-four other people with schedules matching my own, who’d also be interested in the same kind of gaming I am has proven a hurdle I haven’t been able to pass. I haven’t given up hope yet, though, so I guess I’ll continue planning for possible campaigns. The latest idea I have is running a mini-campaign of “Good Old Days” Vampire: The Masquearade, but as the people I used to game with are (if possible) even more timetable-challenged than I am, I don’t expect this project to take off from the ground any time soon.

Role-Playing at Tapiolan Pelikauppa is still going strong, with Jim running Lamentations of the Flame Princess bi-weekly. Our second in-store game at the moment is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition, which I’m game mastering myself. We’ve only played one session of it so far, but we had a record attendance of seven players. The rules system used is way heavier than LotFP, and as the group was rather large, we didn’t get that much actual role-playing done. I think I’ll have to limit the gaming group’s size somewhat, as eight people at one table is just too much.

There’s also the small(ish) matter of key time hours (paying hours) dedicated to something which doesn’t directly correlate to numbers (e.g. sales), so at the moment I’m doing this pretty much on my own, non-paying time. It doesn’t, however, come as that big a surprise to me that role-players are crappy customers, who think the hobby should be free, and any book that’s over 20€ is too expensive, but as I haven’t really sold anything role-playing related in two-three months, the sad fact of RPG non-viability as a product category in Finnish retail is really starting to sink in. (Yes, they told me. At least I gave it a shot.)

Console gaming

Console gaming is something I indulge in on a semi-regular basis, mostly for the sake of keeping up with new releases. I have a Playstation 3 console I got as a birthday present from my lovely wife, but I haven’t had that much time to actually play some of the newer games I’m really interested in (Fallout: New Vegas for instance). My hand-held Nintendo DS console gets a lot more attention, however, as the relative ease of popping the lid open and just playing for a few minutes makes it the ideal console for the timetable-challenged. The Nintendo also has a strong nostalgia factor for me, as the 8-bit was one of my first consoles, and I’m of the generation who was of appropriate age when Donkey Kong and other hand-held consoles became all the rage in the 80’s. I’m currently playing a Legend of Zelda NDS game, and Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, which is another one of those Japanese, vaguely role-playish games where you fight monsters, do quests, gather experience points, and horde loot. Not great, but still good fun gaming. There are also a few puzzle-type games I’m looking into at the moment, the Ace Attorney and the Professor Layton series of games chief among them.

Wargaming

My other love is tabletop wargaming, which I’ve ben involved with on and off for the past two decades or so. I was on a hiatus from it for a few years, but working in a gaming store specializing in wargaming has really re-ignited my interest in the hobby. I’m currently working on and gaming with a Chaos Space Marine army, which is at about 1750 points at the moment. The current CSM Codex is kind of crap (Curse you Gav Thorpe!), and not really competitive with the real big boys of WH40K (in my opinion the three Space Marine Codices, and Orks). Chaos Space Marines (more specifically Emperor’s Children) was the army I started with way back when, however, so I’m sticking to my guns, and slowly expanding my army while I wait for a new edition Codex, which hopefully won’t suck as much as the current one.

My army is themed around the Red Corsairs, a force of piratical Chaos Space Marines operating out of the Warp Storm known as the Maelstrom. I’ve played only five proper-size WH40K 5th Edition games so far, and I’ve mainly taken a beating from more experienced players, but I’m slowly improving, learning how to utilize my army’s strengths, and how to counter some of the stock tactics of other types of armies. The tally so far is three games against Orks (one narrow victory, and two defeats), a game against Space Marines (a narrow defeat), and a game against another CSM army (a tie). Next up, I need to paint two more Rhino troop transports, the special character Huron Blackheart, and a Squad of Noise Marines, all of these for a Planetstrike tournament in four week’s time.

That’s it for now. Tally ho, Yarr, Blood for the Blood God, Stay frosty, and above all, Keep gaming!

DC Superheroes RPG from Green Ronin

Green Ronin, the company responsible for a whole slew of quality role-playing games and supplements, chief among them the True20 OGL-based system, the Freeport series of campaign supplements, the superhero game Mutants & Masterminds and the Dragon Age fantasy role-playing game, have now acquired the license to make a superhero role-playing game based on the DC Comics intellectual property. The first book of the series, the core rules, titled DC Adventures Hero’s Handbook was released a few days ago. And boy, let me tell you this has me exited to no end.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the superhero genre. I’ve been collecting and reading both Marvel and DC ever since I was a wee tyke back in the early eighties. My first loves were Batman and Superman, soon to be followed by the X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Legion of Super-Heroes, The Justice League of America, and many, many others. When I started role-playing in my teens, it was only natural I’d run into some of the early superhero role-playing games as well. Marvel FASERIP was the first one, but was soon replaced my Villains & Vigilantes, which seemed to my adolescent sensibilities a much better game. I didn’t, however, get much gaming done with either of these, as the gaming groups I was involved with at that time were much more interested in Runequest, Rolemaster, or which ever fantasy RPG seemed most in vogue at the moment.

After this, superhero role-playing for me fell a bit on the wayside, only to return in force with White Wolf’s Aberrant!, a game that had a brilliant setting, but proved in the end very lacking system-wise. The setting was, however, strong enough to carry three whole campaigns of gritty, Alan Moore -style “realistic” super-heroics. I also took to the habit of buying most of the new superhero RPG’s that came out, and so ended up owning copies of Mutants & Masterminds (which I never played, as it seemed way too D&D 3.0 to me), Savage Worlds’ Necessary Evil (which we considered for a campaign, but discarded in favor of yet another stab at Aberrant!), and some others. I never bought into Champions for some reason. Most likely that one was discarded as just too damn rules-heavy for my group’s gaming needs.

So, getting back to the topic at hand. Green Ronin’s DC Adventures seems to be (judging by a review and some preview material) a variant of the Mutants & Masterminds game, albeit with some add-ons and tweaks borrowed from some of Green Ronin’s other games. Green Ronin really seems to be coming into its own, now that they’ve managed to distance themselves somewhat from the ominous shadow of D&D 3.5. Dragon Age was a great, rules-light variant (one could always say a simulacrum) of older versions of D&D. True20 had some nice innovations, which streamlined the rather clunky 3.5 mechanics somewhat. Etc.

As I haven’t yet gotten my grubby mitts on the DC Adventures game, it is too early to tell if this will be The Superhero RPG for me, but I certainly have my hopes up. Now, if I could only find the players, who are as much into silver age super-heroics as I am… Come on, who could pass up on the opportunity to team up with Batman!