Wednesday, October 29, 2014

RPG Mechanics as Creative Problem Solving

When you think about it, RPG Mechanics are a bizarre concept. They are purely mental, procedural constructs that have to individually interact with one another in a very precise fashion in order to allow us to play out a story. It's like a great Rube Goldberg machine crafted entirely out of invisible pieces with the lofty goal of allowing us to go back to the same game of pretend we played instinctively throughout childhood.

I've always been fascinated by the mechanics behind role-playing games. I have a terrible habit of picking up games I know I'll almost certainly never play with the explicit purpose of seeing how they decided to build their particular machine.

Recently, I've begun really digging into Sword & Sorcery RPGs as a thing. I've always had a love for the genre, but it took a while for me to piece together why I was so drawn towards games explicitly billed as Sword & Sorcery over, say, generic fantasy games. After all, OSR games tend to cleave very close to their S&S roots without even trying. The explicit assumption is that the PCs are all adventurers in search of treasure, willing to put themselves in ridiculous danger to acquire it. Is it familiarity that has lead me to stray?

There's a broader theme, I realized. Reading through a game's mechanics isn't just about how they decided to numbers and dice to make up probabilities, or seeing if they came up with some creative and interesting innovation to make play faster/easier/more interesting. I've argued before that I believe a game's mechanics are part of the setting and define its reality. It's about the feel of the setting. After all, if the average person in your game can take 30 points of damage without suffering penalties or adverse effects, and a pistol does d6 damage, the reality of the world is that it takes an awful lot of bullets to do someone serious injury. Don't be surprised when PCs act accordingly.

A gritty crime drama or horror story should have rules as such that characters can and will die if they aren't careful. On the other hand, if you're going for a super-heroic story about crimefighters then it's totally genre appropriate for bullets to do negligable damage. Jason Statham has made a career out of seeing how much physical abuse a single action hero can take on screen.


More than that though, when I look through mechanics I want to see what kind of experience they are designed to give and how they accomplish that.

There's no hiding that I was a huge The Riddle of Steel guy back in the day. It was a kind of Ah-ha! moment that really changed the way I played tabletop RPGs. Our own Band of Bastards owes a fair bit of inspiration to it.  For me, it was the definitive "game about swordsmen." It delivered that experience and then some. 

I've always held Sword & Sorcery to be one of the most evocative traditions in fiction. In digging through various Sword & Sorcery style games, I realize what I am looking for in a game is something that gives me not just the feel of an S&S story, but also the experience of one through play. It's a dragon I keep chasing, but I'm unsure if it will ever be satisfied.

One of the things I find so interesting about game design is getting to ask these questions and try to find different answers and solutions. I don't want to just create a game that has a functional mechanic. That's fairly easy: Roll <insert die or dice here> add / subtract modifier based on <skill, attribute, trait, whatever> meet over/under <number based on difficulty>. I want to read, play, and create games that do different things, that are tailored to provide specific experiences and evoke a certain feeling.

That's the magic of RPG mechanics. You aren't just looking for a way to resolve task probabilities, it's an exercise in creative problem solving. It's the purest form of thought experiment. You're building a virtual reality machine. You're dissecting what is at the heart of a particular genre, and then trying to come up with innovative and creative ways to both replicate the internal logic and feel of that world and provide an experience that brings playing that world to life.

This test is actually the reason I have a hard time getting into generic systems: d20, GURPS, Savage Worlds. Don't get me wrong, I played a great deal of Savage Worlds a while back. It's great for quick games, pick-up games, pulp games. If anything, I'd argue that it's actually tailored specifically to be a pulp game, but anything outside of that specific genre I'd generally use something else.

If you're at all interested in game design, I really urge you: read and play as many different games as possible. Take note of what they do and how they do it, and ask yourself how those decisions impacted your play. Any time you play a game that pitches itself to a specific genre, keep an eye out for what the game does and ask yourself how the mechanics help evoke the feel and experience of that genre. It's a great habit on the way to sharpening your own design skills.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Chronica Feudalis: A Horse is a Horse (Item Aspects)

This was a rule that was inspired by Pixar's Brave, weirdly enough. Something about the way the characters were portrayed charmed me, but it was the horse in particular that got me thinking. This was a rule that got a fair bit of use in our home campaign, and I thought I would share it here.

Via Deviantart
Item Aspects
While the single-die tool system provides an easy way to handle most items and their uses, sometimes you want a little more depth for a unique or unusual item, making them something of a character themselves.

The most obvious application (and inspiration) for this is in dealing with animals, such as horses or dogs. In addition to their die as tools, the animal may possess aspects of their own. A great clydesdale horse may have Giant Draught Horse, or your horse could have Unusually Clever, Stubborn as a Mule, Trained Warhorse, Built for Speed or Mean as Hell. Canine aspects are endless as well. Hunting Dog, Lazy, Hound of War, Loyal, Half-Wild, and Ferocious Appearance are all good examples.

This could also be used to represent items of with unusual qualities, such as magical items or other tools of unusual characteristics. Particularly significant items may have more than one aspect. One can quickly imagine a ring with the aspects Concealment d12, Longevity d8, Sought after by the Enemy d12, and Will of its Own d8.

Players may invoke aspects of animals or tools at their disposal by paying a point of ardor as though they were invoking one of their own, but must also endure the aspects of their items, when applicable. Finally, the GM can compel the aspects of objects under player control. The danger is that these compels cannot be 'bought off' in the way that player compels are, though they still earn ardor for the player in question.

At the GMs discretion, certain objects may grant bonuses on their own. The enchanted sword Elvenbane might have the aspect Hatred of Elves d8 that automatically fires whenever the weapon is being wielded against an elf. Such weapons would be very powerful tools, by CF standards, and should be used sparingly, if at all.

It should be up to the GM and his players whether dice earned in this way should count towards the vigor limit of the player invoking the aspect. If not, then tool aspects become very powerful factors. If so, then balance is struck with other aspects of the system, but the vigor cap may wind up preventing the tool aspects into coming into play in many situations.

The above gives some basic suggestions, but the idea can establish a precedent that can be used in countless ways, from animals to weapons and armor to ships and vehicles - any time you want to elevate a tool from an item to a character of its own.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Chronica Feudalis: Economics

The least-sexy of the equipment expansions, but a bugbear to battle no less, particularly after the Weapons and Armor posts.

There's a weird tendency in fantasy to eschew cost when working things out in the world. No, I'm not talking about the protagonist having things beyond his means - he's the protagonist. I mean as a whole, throughout the world. I can't count how many battle scenes I've read or watched where every last combatant had maille and plate and a sword or two at their side. This isn't objectively bad, but if you are going to sell me on a world of Lords and Dukes and Feudal structure, you should probably take some time to consider what that means.

Good equipment has always been prohibitively expensive. In the viking age, having a sword or maille was the sign of a veteran - even a chief - as only the most wealthy and powerful could afford that much iron and steel. In the crusader era, we see a similar pattern: having a sword forged would cost more than a car today, and a well-made maille hauberk would be worth more than your house. A true war-horse? Ferrari, sir. Ferrari. Eventually, the west discovers better ways to heat and make steel bringing the cost of metal arms down, but like apple products today the prices never really go down; the toys just get more advanced and the rest of us just hope the outdated things entered our price range.

The down-side of the one-die system to rate all of the equipment is the same as my essential qualms with D&D's gear listing: the cost of things is dependent on how 'powerful' they are, not how much they actually cost to make. This is definitely one way to do it, but we already have some weirdness. In vanilla CF, spears and swords are both rated at d8. This is fine for combat, and even for defense, but do they cost the same? Though any soldier worth his rations would have been familiar with spear-work, spears were the standard weapon of peasant militia specifically because they were so cheap to make by comparison. Part of the mystique of the sword has been that it was a hero's weapon. A chieftain. A knight. Someone who wasn't a dirty peasant. In most eras throughout history, swords were relatively rare on the battlefield compared to the number of men with spears, daggers, axes and modified farm tools. It isn't until right before the era of plate that steel production became cheap enough to allow such blades to be regularly acquired by the ignoble.

We can find similar issues elsewhere in our weapons list: the club or staff is generally just a bit of carved (or uncarved) wood. Halberds were weapons issued en masse to guards and infantry.

Labor Costs
Due to cost of labor and materials with the technology of the day, certain items cost more or less than their die would suggest. They may have one of the following tags applied to them. If an item is not tagged, you can assume that it costs the normal amount.

Worthless items are those that can be just as easily made by yourself and may be purchased at up to 2 steps lower than their list cost, to a minimum of d4. However, in most cases, given the opportunity and resources a character could fashion such an item themselves. These items generally do not have a barter or resell value.

Simple items are those that are readily available and fairly inexpensive. They may be purchased for one die step lower than their listed die.

Complex items are those that are extremely expensive to make or purchase and represent a significant investment in the character's personal wealth. These items are generally made specifically for the person. Rare items generally don't sell below a d12 or d20, regardless of what their die listing is.

A little knowledge of history will go a long way with this one. In a viking setting, maille will be a d12 easily and a finely made sword is a king's ransom at d20 - a thing of chiefs, kings, and heroes. By the crusader era, an arming sword could drop to d12, and you might even let the hauberk slip to d10 if you were feeling generous. Spears and (when available) halberds are generally Common items. Clubs and Staves are worthless. Use common sense when applicable. I may create a full price list for my campaign later, but for now I think this serves well enough.

An Alternate Take
After discussing this with a friend of mine, he came up with a simpler way to handle the whole thing. Use either method.

Use the dice as listed normally, but keep all item purchases in-character (thus the GM can price appropriately). Use the following guidelines:
  • Nobody trades worthless items, such as clubs
  • Large die, but small workload items sell for one die less (spear, dane axe, halberd)
  • Small die, larger workload items sell for two dice higher (coif, helm, fine jewelry)
  • Extremely rare and massive workload items sell for d20 (sword, maille hauberk)
Trading with items works the same as trading with the Purse, except for the item put forth into the trade should be at least equal die value than the item that one hopes to gain. Also, as items are kind of generic in value, the GM should agree that the trade is reasonable. If the protagonist's roll succeeds, he will lose his item of course, as the change of goods occurs. If the roll fails however, the other party will not agree to the trade for whatever reason. Retries are possible, but the protagonist must make a better offer, which means that he should either offer another item for trade with a higher die type, or combine his current offer with other items to make the die value go up as per purse rules.

If the initial trade item value is d20 (it can't go up), then at least a d8 value item must be added to the retry, then an additional d10 item for the next retry (can't be combined up from d8) and so on.

Characters with applicable aspects (Shrewd Trader) can invoke them here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Chronica Feudalis: Talhoffer Edition

As mentioned before, I'm a bit of a HEMA nerd and I've had a hard time finding games that really let me express that particular interest. After some wonderful experiences with The Riddle of Steel, few other games have come close to that intricate maneuvering and sword-play (a dragon I'm still chasing with Band of Bastards). Imagine my surprise when I started reading through Chronica Feudalis and realized the potential of their maneuver system.
While nowhere near as technically detailed as TRoS, the open-ended nature of the maneuver and condition mechanics would allow the clever would-be swordsman to come up with all kinds of dirty tricks that even Talhoffer would be proud of. Just a few ideas that spring to mind:
  • A Round or Heater shield might be used to bash someone, giving them the Off Balance (d6, d8), or Prone (d10) for a follow-up attack.
  • Hand axes, javelins and spears can catch in someone's shield when thrown, giving them an Encumbered Shield condition until they either remove the object or abandon the shield.
  • Infantry using spears, long axes, halberds, and other lengthy weapons can use crafty foot-work to impose the Reach Disadvantage condition, keeping their opponent at bay until they manage to close the gap and land a blow.
  • Axes, halberds, and other weapons with angled protrusions can be used to hook into an opponent's weapon or shield, giving them the Disarmed condition. Shields that are strapped to the arm can't be lost this way, but they can be rendered useless against a follow-up attack in the next turn (or against an attack from another party in the same turn).
  • Longswords, greatswords, and zweihanders can be turned over-end (as in the illustration above) and used in the same way as above, and any weapon that is sufficiently long can also be used to hook or trip an opponent to give them the Knocked Prone condition.
  • Fighters with daggers, shortswords and other up-close-and-personal weapons can use clever footwork to get inside the reach of an opponent with a longer weapon, giving them the Too Close For Comfort condition and hindering their ability to attack or defend themselves until they land a successful blow to get some breathing room, or drop their weapon in favor of a shorter one. This rule might also apply to confined fighting conditions, such as below a ship's deck.
  • Cloaks, sand, or even a glass of wine could be thrown to temporarily Distract an enemy for the next round, or a quick follow-up attack.
It is really astounding how much martial complexity can be found in a system this open ended. Chronica Feudalis is one of the few systems I've seen that really nails creative thinking over rules management.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Chronica Feudalis: Weapons!

Continuing our Chronica Feudalis Armory Update, we take a look at everyone's favorite toys.

Weapon Expansions
A strong part of me wanted to get into real detail with this - splitting up the attribute of individual weapons to make some of them better for offense, better for defense, and so on. After some thinking though, I decided to leave that much alone. However, some things needed to be adjusted a bit and I expanded the list. As weapons do not have separate ranks for Parry (Fend, if you've updated) and Strike, all of them are listed in a single table.
d4   | a dagger, knife, gauntlet
d6   | club, hand axe, short spear, short sword, staff
d8   | arming sword, battle ax, buckler, mace, spear, war hammer
d10 | longsword/greatsword, long axe, round shield/heater shield
d12 | halberd, kite shield, lance (mounted), pole axe, zweihander
Arming Sword - This is the standard one-handed knightly sword, but also covers all of the similar weapons from a norse broadsword to polish saber.

Staff - Mysteriously absent from the original listing (unless they meant "club" and "staff" to be interchangeable), the staff gets a tough rap in most games. Contrary to popular belief though, the quarter staff is one of the most versatile weapons one can learn, capable in both offense and defense. Staves count as d8 weapons when used for defense.

Longsword/Greatsword - While other games use the phrase "longsword" to refer to the single-handed knightly arming sword, here I will use it in the traditional sense. In reality, the line between weapons referred to as "longswords," "greatswords," and even "bastard swords" has been pretty murky. All of these war swords are between 3 and 5lbs, between 4.5 and 5 feet long, and meant to be best wielded with two hands, with the major differences being in handle-to-blade length ratio and a balance bias towards either the cut or thrust. None of these differences are big enough to register in the CF system, and I'm happy enough with that. A lot of games want to penalize these weapons as being big or unwieldy, but the combat systems that developed with them were truly incredible.

Long Axe - Also called the Dane axe, Huscarl Axe, and similar terms, this weapon was the king of the viking age. While there really is nothing that could be compared to a D&D "great axe" in history, the long axe had a 4-5ft haft that was capable of all of the lightning quick defenses and maneuvers of a staff, with a steel head capable of hooking, thrusting, and fearsome chops. In later periods, this could also represent weapons of a similar orientation, such as the bardiche, kern axe, or lochaber axe

Round Shield/Heater Shield - Here, I've only clarified. In addition to various kinds of round shield, from the Scottish targe to the Norse round shield, this category also includes the knightly or heater shields. See below for more shield rules.

Halberd, Pole-Axe - These long-hafted weapons were complete weapon systems for the medieval infantryman, and enjoyed popularity with high and low-born alike. They were equally adept at armored and unarmored opponents, frequently with crushing, chopping and spiked-stabbing surfaces for whatever the situation required and edges to hook, catch and trip an opponent.

Lance - This is the king of the medieval battlefield. A lance charged from horseback was devastating to anything in front of it. The d12 represents a mounted charge. A lance on foot, or used from a stationary position is just an awkward spear (d8 as above).

Zweihander - the true two-hander, six foot of steel nearly as much pole-arm as sword. These were made famous by the Landsknecht mercenaries. Too modern for all but the latest settings, I thought I would include it anyway for the sake of completion.

Shields Are Weapons
A lot of games either how shields were used, or never knew in the first place, but they were frequently as offensive as they were defensive. Assume that bucklers, round shields and heater shields can be used to bash and cut as weapons, using the Strike skill the same as any other weapon. Kite shields have been intentionally left out, however. The trade off for that much protective coverage is a shield too unwieldy to make a useful weapon.

If you worry that this makes shields "too good" by comparison, consider house-ruling that offensive shield attacks are made at one die lower (d6 attack from a buckler, for instance). Alternatively, you could declare that shields can only be used for maneuvers rather than attacks. This is also valid, though a saxon shield could crack a rib pretty easily if one knew what they were doing.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Chronica Feudalis: Armor Expansion

I'm a history nerd. There is no denying it. While I enjoy fantasy, my real passion is for the mud-and-blood of low-fantasy or historical fiction. Chronica Feudalis rules actually handle this pretty well, if one is willing to color their narration to taste, but since I have a thing for historical detail I thought I would spice things up.

Today's post will be the first in a series on adding some extras to Chronica Feudalis, starting with Armor. As always, your mileage may vary, but after a relatively decent amount of testing this held up nicely.

Armor Expansion
This revised edition makes a few changes. The original table for Chronica Feudalis read as follows:
d4   | A leather jerkin, a gambeson, a maille coif
d6   | Hardened leather cuirass, a helm
d8   | Maile hauberk
d10 | Scale coat
Helms and Stacking
First, when a helm is worn in addition to armor, it will stack with the armor you already have. Wearing a helm or coif will increase your armor die by 1 step. Thus, a hauberk and a helm count as d10 armor. This d10 will be both your armor die when being attacked, and the armor die you'd have to endure in appropriate circumstances.

This was chiefly done because I didn't like the idea of an Ardor cost for your helmet to work. Few people seemed interested in spending a point to gain d4 under any circumstances, and it granted the weirdest mental image of trying to headbutt an arrow. Under the previous rules, the iconic great helm was more trouble than it was worth - rarely a benefit, but frequently a hindrance.

Whether you're using a half-helm or coif (both d4) or a full helm (d6), you get the same 1 step bump to your armor die. However, to account for the difference between the two kinds of headgear
  • Full Helms hamper your hearing and vision (when the visor is down, when applicable) and must be endured under these circumstances, but prevent any kind of injury specific to the face.
  • Coifs (and Half Helms, added in this expansion) do not hamper vision or hearing, but do not protect the face in the way that Full Helms do.
 Expanded Armor Table
d4   | A leather jerkin, a gambeson, a mail coif, half-helm (kettle helm, and so on)
d6   | Hardened leather cuirass, great helm (sallet, etc)
d8   | Mail hauberk, Coat of Plate
d10 | Scale coat
d20 | Full Plate Harness
Half Helm - This represents all manner of open-faced metal helms that were popular among every class throughout the middle ages. We covered stacking above, so I won't bother going into it again.

Great Helm - Expanded to include all closed-face helms and great-helms. Many of these have a visor that can be opened for better vision (and breathing). When these are open, they count as half-helms but still incur the hearing penalty.

Coat of Plate (or Brigandine) - This was a transitional armor that came into prominence in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. It consisted of steel plates riveted into the inside of a leather doublet, usually faced with some kind of fabric. The idea of a "studded leather" armor actually comes from a misunderstanding of what this garment is. On it's own, it provides the d8 armor listed above. More commonly, it was worn over maille. When worn with a maille hauberk, the armor stacks and bumps up to d10. This also stacks with headgear. A knight with Sallet, coat of plate, and hauberk will have d12 armor.

Full Plate Harness - This is the full suit of plate (not "plate mail." Maille only refers to the chain-link material) that marks the high-point of armor development in the western tradition. Yes, it's a big jump from d12 to d20, but keep in mind that the closer we get to Plate, the more pole-arms and two-handed swords became the norm as knightly weapons. the d20 represents this well. We also know that it was damn hard to kill someone in plate unless you had them on the ground and could pierce one of the joints in the armor. On the flip-side, enduring that d20 is going to be a good deterrent to people living in plate and in reality it was rarely worn outside of tourneys or pre-planned battles. As a side note, this assumes a helm is worn, as the helm would be made to fit the armor like any other piece of the suit. The helm does not increase the armor rating, but the d6 penalty may still apply for hearing/vision tests where appropriate.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Aging Gracefully: Creating Veteran Characters in Chronica Feudalis

Like many games, Chronica Feudalis seems to take the default assumption that the starting characters are fresh-faced twenty-somethings with the whole world ahead of them. Sometimes though, you want someone who has a little more age and experience under their belt. The simplest way to do this within the framework of the rules is to simply give the character the Grizzled Veteran or Old and Wise aspects, and go with that. However, if you want a more crunchy option that will give that choice a little more umph, I present the following:
The Old Bear, by ReneAigner
Veteran Characters
Not every character's story starts at 25. Players who want to begin as a more advanced and experienced protagonist may opt to use one of the Aspect slots to do so. At character creation, you may take an age aspect in exchange for additional points to advance your skills.

A Middle Aged (d8) character gains 3 additional points to advance their skills with. These can be used to advance skills gained from their mentors, or other skills they may have picked up along the way. These points work the same way as mentor overlapping, advancing the die by one step. A d4 becomes a d6, d6 becomes a d8, and so on. This assumes a character in his late 30s, or early 40s.

An Elderly (d12) character gains 6 total points to advance their skills with. This is not cumulative with the Middle Aged character points. As above, these may be allocated as you please. An Elderly character is considered to be someone in his late 50s or beyond.

Characters who are races that age differently than humans should obviously adjust the age categories to match (an Elderly dwarf being in his hundreds). Also, bear in mind that while you could use this to get that maximum Brawl or Strike, your Elderly aspect may well be invoked against you.

The die from the above age aspects can never be reduced barring magical intervention, but may be increased as normal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Chronica Feudalis: Nobility House Rules

While the official Noblesse Oblige supplement may or may not ever come, my group used some house rules to cover the same ground.

Chronica Feudalis makes the default assumption that all of the protagonists are all peasants (maybe even yeomen, if your setting is far enough in time) and suggests that if you're interested in some kind of status, you can add it via background. If you're wanting something with a little more swagger in your social status, then here are some optional rules you can try out.

Playing Nobility
Like everything that makes your character truly special or interesting, CF handles this aspects. While vanilla CF makes passing mention of a character with the Fearless Knight, the subject isn't strictly addressed in a broader social way. There are two distinct methods I'm going to use here, House Affiliation, and Status

House Affiliation
House affiliation represents a character whom is a member of a specific noble family, whether they are the reigning lord (duke, etc), an heir or other family member. You can take this aspect directly (Scion of House Blackwell) or phrase it in such a way to imply reputation ("A Lannister always pays his debts.").

In addition to being able to invoke this aspect in any normal way (most often rolls to influence another party), you may also invoke your House aspect when making purchase rolls to represent letters of credit or resources tied up in your family holdings. Note however, that all of the rules that apply to the purse also apply to your House die, including the conditions for step reduction. This represents the loss of influence that comes as debts pile up and rumors fly ("Did you hear that the Blackwells had to sell off part of their lands to settle their son's tournament losses?"). A careless noble could spend his family into ruin.

If several characters belong to the same noble house, they share this Aspect. As the wealth and influence dwindles, it affects all of the characters with the die, rather than each individual separately. Aspect dice spent this way can't be raised at the end of the session as others can. Instead, they rely on the actions of the characters in the setting. If the letcherous son of Bywin Flannister begins to empty the family's coffers with whoremongering and folly, it may be up to the father to eliminate a rival or win political favor to restore the family name (and thus bring their die back up).

While not strictly nobility, players wishing to simulate rich merchant characters or others whose wealth and influence is otherwise tied up in lands or industry can use a similar approach.

Certain characters may not have access to land and wealth in the same fashion that some of the great houses do, but they may have some of the trappings of nobility all the same. Characters who can claim title or a badge of office ("Reeve of Curthshire," "Captain of the Debra Sanchez," "First Sword of Braavos") may take that trapping as an aspect. Many who were noble by blood placed themselves in the service of other nobles or the church, with no income of their own. Taking such aspects as Sworn Knight or Priest of Recursivous, The God of Priests can represent this well.

These aspects functions in nearly all ways similarly to the aspects as written in the core book, and may not be used to leverage wealth. However, they can still come with a prestige of their own and can be used to influence others. Characters wishing to do so should tread carefully, however. No matter how high your die, invoking your title against someone above your station will not only do you little good (invoking Priest of St. Cthulhu's Cathedral has no effect on the abbot, nor on the king), but may well provoke their wroth.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Advanced Lamentations of the Flame Princess (Project: Meatgrinder)

We're now two sessions into our OSR/AD&D/2e/B/x/LotFP campaign that we've dubbed Project: Meatgrinder. In true old school style, I honestly couldn't tell you what rule we've taken from where. It's been a hodge-podge of influences, house-rules and ideas that are being thrown into something of a living rules set as we go along.

For the most part, the game's core is Lamentations of the Flame Princess as written, including the magic system wholesale. We did decide to toss out the Vancian "spell per level per day" setup in favor of a mana-pool based system, however.

The biggest departure is rewriting the classes and races in a fashion that mimics AD&D, with the races breaking down to: dwarf, elf, half-elf, half-orc, human, and wildling - the lattermost being a custom race that takes the place of halflings and gnomes both. Current classes include:
Warriors: Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger
Magic-Users: Cleric, Mage, Shaman
Rogues: Assassin, Bard, Brawler, and Thief.
Clerics and Mages are fluffed in a somewhat sword-and-sorcery fashion that neither confirms nor denies the existence of gods, with clerics gaining their powers through gnostic mystic shenanigans. All classes advance in AB and we use ascending AC. Certain classes have been buffed from their common AD&D setup, and the Shaman and Brawler classes have been created whole-cloth (replacing Druids and Monks, respectively). Weapons and armor have been slightly rebalanced as well.

The most obvious LotFP import is taking advantage of the d6 system that Lamentations uses for "common activities," and certain classes have been mechanically written to either gain advances in specific tasks, or gain points in the same fashion that Specialists do in LotFP that they may spend on specific tasks.
Digital Edition Meatgrinder Character Sheet

So far, it's working extremely well. The system is very easy to run and adjudicate, and as I invest more time and energy into the campaign (run very West Marches style), I'm adding more random tables and other fun nonsense so that my job is 90% rolling with their punches and interpreting results. The players seem to be having a blast as well. It's been a very refreshing experience.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Well What Do We Have Here? (Image Heavy)

It's no secret that I've been on an AD&D kick lately, so I had the urge to go dig out my old box of stuff. I mentioned in a previous post that I got started role-playing basically due to raw chance and a yard sale buy. I knew that there was a DMG in there, and a couple old copies of Dragon, but apparently that wasn't all.

Inside this old box of nonsense was an unassuming black three-ring binder completely full of card sleeves. And they are awesome.

Apparently, TSR put out a ton of these out as play-aids back in the early 90s. There are three basic types of cards: monsters, NPCs, and magic items. Awesome, evocative art on the front, all of the stats you need on the back. Fantastic. Speaking of art, let's just bask in that art for a minute.


I'll apologize for the glare or texture on some of the cards. Having been in those sleeves for the better part of twenty years, I didn't want to risk taking them out of the sleeves. With my luck, they will be stuck to the insides of them.

I don't know how my 12 year old self didn't completely lose his mind over these, because I'm absolutely tickled by them. I have a big love of play-aids at the able, and these are just wonderful.

I've got about 300 of these in total, it looks like. Whomever owned them before I did must have bought them in booster packs, as it seems TSR released 3 sets of 750 of them. Now I have an overwhelming need to track down and purchase them all, just to have them. 

Very cool.


My Love Affair with Chronica Feudalis

Chronica Feudalis carries for me the title of "Best Game Ever Forgotten." It's one of those little gems that sets a goal for itself and follows through elegantly.

The game sets out to be a historical RPG, and the text under the clever premise that the original authors were monks passing the long, dull hours of monastic life, complete with a foreward by the translator, and translators notes within the text itself. The game works in a way very similar to FATE, in that it's based on the invoking and evoking of Aspects, but it develops the concept in different ways. It's a bit more focused than FATE, and also has its own die scheme that is elegant in its own way.

Chronica Feudalis is a very tight little machine. It plays quick and easy, and with the FATE-like method of damage resolution, can be as forgiving or bloody as the group desires. Character creation is quick and dirty, with characters essentially picking up to three "mentors" that determine their collective skills at the start of play, such as Artisans, Courtiers, Knights, Minstrels, Peasants, Thieves, etc, in effect making each character a gestalt of the three classes chosen. The three mentors also determine starting equipment and funds, so character creation takes practically no time at all. This can be a little restricting, but individualization can easily be done through choice of Aspects, and additional kit can be bought during play. Of note though, the Mentors aren't just classes - they are expected to be brought in as NPCs from the start, helping the character to not just have a background, but to actively fit into the world.

I played quite a bit of CF over the years, and I'll be posting some of my house rules as I get a chance. Definitely worth trying out though, particularly with the hacks floating around out there. Some of my favorites are by Nathan at Platonic Solid, who managed to both expand the scope of play some, and made an excellent fantasy hack for the system. Posts of particular note are:

Chronica Feudalis Fantasy Hack - Wherein he sets up some basic premises for modeling orcs and other baddies.
Chronica Feudalis Fantasy Hack: Scaling - Where he works out how to represent dragons and the like with the system.
Chronica Feudalis Fantasy Hack: Magic -  which adds a flexible, fully functional magic system to the game.
I got so much expanded play out of these extras that I would consider them essential for anything but the most historically-based games.

Earlier, I called Chronica Feudalis the best game ever forgotten, and I think this is the most tragic thing about it. As much potential as it has as a simple system, the author seems to have forgotten about it entirely. The last post on the subject was back in 2010, wherein was Keller was beginning to hype the expansion book Noblesse Oblige. Some time thereafter he ran a kickstarter for Tech Noir, and the project seems to have disappeared off the map. A true shame.

I can only hope that he decides to come back to it one day. With several more years of design, and several additional projects under his belt, I'd look forward to seeing what he would do with the expansion.

Until then,

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Character Sheets

I was digging around looking for - I'm not sure what, to be honest - and managed to come across some really cool characters sheets for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, over at Last Gasp Grimoire.

He (She?) has various designs set up, most of which seem to incorporate some house rules, but also a number of very cool, useful features. My favorite of the lot, aesthetically is easily this one though:

Good character sheets are an art, and this (wo)man has it down. If I ever get the chance to run a Lamentations game straight, I will almost certainly use these. Kudos to you.

Everyone else, go check out their page. It's full of great stuff. 

Majestic Mummers & Malcontents: The Marvelous Mountebank

I remember having a few old copies of Dragon magazine back in the day and reading an article Gygax in which Gygax wrote about his thoughts on a second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, particularly classes he would like to see included and class options he would like to see expanded. Gygax was, of course, pushed out of TSR long before the actual second edition came out. Whatever would have been, we have only his notes. Some of these ideas actually came to pass - barbarian and thief acrobat made their way into Unearthed Arcana - but the one that always really stuck out in my imagination

THIEF — Mountebank: This sub-class of thief specializes in deception, sleight of hand, persuasion, and a bit of illusion. These factors, together with speed, are what the mountebank relies upon. However, disguise and theatrics also provide valuable tools of the trade to this class, so that one might never know one has been had by this class.
- Character Classes to Consider, by Gary Gygax. Dragon Magazine no. 65
Professional charlatan and huckster, snake-oil salesman, and confidence man extraordinaire. What's not to love?

So if we were going to home-brew this class, how would we do it? I've seen various ideas floated over the years, but honestly they have all rubbed me the wrong way. The common thread of contention is that these classes all seem to be based on making the Mountebank an illusionist wizard, who happens to have picked up a thief skill or two. They aren't wrong. The article seems like Gygax may have had that in mind. I'm just not a fan.

I had this problem in 3.5 as well, with the Assassin PrC. In my mind, an assassin is an extremely  disturbingly skilled stealth operative who has made murder into an art-form. What I actually got was instead a rogue whose major advantage was that he began to learn stealth-oriented spells.

It's a matter of personal taste, but I like my mundanes mundane. I would rather believe that my assassin was just that good that he could pull off mind-boggling feats of precision and stealth than "He used Greater Invisibility and then cast True Strike." It subjectively feels less impressive, and the more people you have who can cast spells, the less special magic-users are. Besides, If I want to go that route, I could have just played a wizard in the first place.

If I am going to have a Mountebank that fits my tastes, I don't want him to be a discount Illusionist. Besides, that goes against type. If anything, a Mountebank would be a stage magician using prestidigitation to pretend to be an actual wizard. That sounds awesome.

So what can he do? Clearly sneaking around is a thing, so Hide and Move Silently, sure. The Disguise ability from the AD&D1e assassin would fit nicely. Picking Pockets and Sleight of Hand are a must. But how do we deal with the core of the class?

I actually argued in one of my John Wick articles that the problem with social mechanics is that if you don't include them as a thing that you can invest your character in (read: some kind of skills or traits) then you essentially preclude players from making archetypes based on that character. A character who would have, in another system, focused exclusively on social-skills is without them mechanically just mediocre. Such is the problem we have with the mountebank.

 One of the best and worst features of OSR games, and particularly B/x, is the free form way that it handles role-playing and social situations through the Reaction Roll. Essentially, when encountering random, intelligent monsters or NPCs, the DM can either decide the other party's attitude in accordance with the situation, or he can roll 2d6 on a chart to find out, ranging from immediately attacking to hostility, uncertainty, or even friendliness. Some editions of the game give you a Charisma modifier that can be applied, making high-CHA characters more likely to start with better reactions than low-CHA characters. After this is determined though, there's no more rolling, no skill checks, nothing. You just role-play. If the PCs can talk their way out of the situation, or maneuver it to their favor, awesome. Otherwise, events play out in time with the narrative.

The problem this creates for the Mountebank is that they are essentially a class built around a social archetype. One could give them the same ability AD&D2e gave the bard (essentially giving them a chance to adjust that reaction roll up or down by one category if they succeed), but that alone is a poor basis for Mountebank as a stand-alone class.

Other options I've seen floated around included various "they can talk someone into something and it counts as a Charm Person spell" kind of solutions - which is better, but not perfect, or my favorite - Snake Oil Salesman: they can make fake potions and pass them off as real, with randomized effects. So you could make a Heal potion that actually may heal your party member, but also has a small chance of poisoning them. This is also very, very cool and flavorful, but then we've gone from Poor Man's Illusionist to Poor Man's Alchemist, and without some major effect, we remain Poor Man's Bard.

At it's heart, the dilemma is simple: I want to make a class that is essentially all about social prowess and fast-talk, but simultaneously don't want to give them a "roll to win RP" ability as that means the class most based on social encounters mechanically relies on RP the least.

I fear as though my goals are at cross-purposes. I will have to think more on the subject for now.

Until then,

Saturday, October 18, 2014

I Hate Skills

This is something I've come to realize over the years, as I've both GMed and developed games. It's not universally true, but it very often is:

I hate skills.

As a mechanic, they seem to really bother me, at least in the context of fantasy RPGs. I've seen it done well before - in Burning Wheel, making good use of your extremely specific and obscure skills in combination makes for a flavorful and entertaining game-within-a-game - but for the most part, they are bland. I think I forgive this in sci-fi games, though I'm not sure why. Likely because science fiction by its very nature tends to lend itself more towards the complex realities of the situation. But fantasy? When one looks back at classical fantasy, we never really worried how many ranks Conan had in stealth, or how high Frodo's Survival skill was. Did someone want to check Aragorn's Speechcraft at Helms Deep?

No, I always want to see fantasy characters in broad strokes - as archetypes. I think that is why the genre lends itself so well to class-based systems. Classes are a quick and easy way to define who the character is, what the character knows, and their general problem solving tools. It's a good basis from which to develop a character.

I always feel like skills get in the way, somehow. Once written down as a list, there's a feeling of limitation. This is what I can do. This is what I'm good at. Maybe I can climb tha-- Oh, no. I don't have any ranks. I know, I'll bribe the guard - hm. but I only have rank 2, this could get dicey (a pun!)

Worse, once you begin to make skills for things, players have a terrible habit of looking at their sheets for guidance. If your goal is to keep them immersed in the drama and suspense of the narrative in front of you, then the last thing you want them to do is switch from thinking about the fiction, to thinking about their mechanical options.

For better or worse, this was one of the things I actually really enjoyed about D&D back when we were growing up. We played AD&D, but essentially ignored all of the rules save for the very basics of class, race, combat, and spellcasting. In essence, we were playing B/x, but with more character creation options.

If a question ever came up about if you could do a thing? It was almost always a question of the fiction itself. Forge a sword? Your character was a blacksmith, right? Of course you can. If anything was ever in doubt, we ran with the ability score rolls - equal or under on a d20. If it was really hard, you used half your ability score. If anything would have been "easy" we just let it go. Does your cleric know about church history? Absolutely. The rival church's doctrines? Give me an Int check.

The beauty being that it all remained in the narrative. You were more concerned with the fiction than anything else, and once you get in that mindset most problems tend to lend themselves to inventive solutions.

This is one of the things I'm really coming to enjoy again in our current Lamentations of the Flame Princess / AD&D mashup. The d6 system that it is set up on is a really nice compromise between the almost entirely free form manner in which I handled things growing up, and having to deal with a "real" skill list. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Review (aka Gushing like a Fan-Boy)

After a taste of pathfinder, I found myself digging through my old D&D books and really jazzed at the notion of running an old-school campaign. Here defining old-school as having objectives in line with the pulp "explore ruins, get rich" style of gaming that started it all. That was about the time someone turned me onto Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Alright, odd name, but I'll roll with it. And there's a redhead on the cover, so there's that (I'm easy to market to). After some digging, I came across the free pdf version of the above and figured that was the best place to start. Now, it's an art-free version, so I'm sure I'm missing some of the ambiance here but can I just say: Holy crap, that layout. I guess we're doing a Lamentations of the Flame Princess review.

The thing that strikes me immediately is that it is so clean. I don't just mean the lack of art. There is a complete lack of bullshit here. There is no three page foreward about the OSR movement, or even the pretense of "What is a role-playing game?" in the beginning. He knows what you're here for, you know what you're here for. It goes from index straight on to character creation. The opening section of character creation lasts all of a couple pages, and each class is summarized in a page of text (save for the Specialist, who takes a page and a half.)

I have to congratulate James Edward Raggi IV (If but my own name were so impressive), there is this beautiful and ruthless efficiency in the text. If you are at all familiar with my blog or other writings, you know I am an invariably (perhaps regrettably) verbose bastard. I really have to admire and respect his writing style. Raggi said exactly as much as he needed to get an idea across or give you the vibe he intended to, and not a word more. I cannot stress enough how refreshing this is. There is a tendency in indie-games of all stripes to over-explain and talk about their book in their book. No, this is exactly what you need to play. Go.

The result is that you have an impeccably clean layout that flows very quickly from section to section, requiring the absolute minimum amount of reading to actually get the information down and ready to play. This is made even more impressive by the book's formatting - A5.

Can we take a moment to appreciate the A5 format? I know that most games are published in big textbook sized layouts, but I have a deep love of A5 hardbacks. They look good on a shelf, they feel nice and solid in your hands. They take up less space on the physical gaming table, and even if they would wind up with a higher page-count to fill the same number of words, they are much easier to navigate in practice. You can kind of flip through the pages in one hand. When I bought the gold edition of Burning Wheel, I was extremely impressed by the format, and that's a 600 page monster that requires a lot of page-flipping at the table. It works beautifully.

Inside, it appears to be very similar to B/x in a lot of ways, or at least how I remember B/x going, so you have the relatively light rules and the expected race-as-class setup. There are some noticeable differences though. The major one is the theme: Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a very different kind of aesthetic than your typical fantasy game. There is a huge emphasis on horror and weird-fiction, of a very Lovecraft / Robert E. Howard style. This may put some people off, but I eat this up.

I make the argument that the game's design should itself convey the setting, and LotFP does this quite well even with it's B/x roots:

The game uses AB and Ascending Armor class (as many OSRs do - yes, THAC0 isn't terribly difficult, but it is a pain) but only Fighter's AB gets better over time. Every other class starts with +1 and never increase. Fighters start at +2 and increase every level. How's that for niche protection?

Alignment has been rewritten in a brilliant fashion. Rather than being simply a statement of personality, it takes on a flavor of cosmic meaning. Lawful becomes the belief in a cosmic and unwavering plan, of destiny and omens. Chaotic is the stuff of magic, the otherworldly - the "howling maelstrom," of ruin and unmaking. That Which Should Not Be. Neutrality is the domain of most people - the lives of those who are lucky enough not to be part of cosmic drama. Adding to this flavor: clerics must be Lawful, and Magic-Users must be chaotic.

The spell list reflects this in spades, with the difference between those two classes exaggerated. Raggi seems to have removed most of the redundant or even overlapping spells between the two, even creating the notion that the arcane version of Dispel Magic can't be used to dispel divine spells. Clerical magic is very geared towards their archetype, with clerics gaining iconic powers of protection, walking on water, or creating plagues of insects. Their list is relatively limited, but very powerful. The magic user lists wild and diverse, but untamed and in many cases outright dangerous. The Summon spell doesn't just call forth a dire badger or goblin to fight for you, it randomly generates some terrible and eldritch horror from a tear in the fabric of space and time. It includes the series of tables you roll to work out the nature of this creature from scratch, creating all manner of lovecraftian horrors. And if that wasn't enough, the creature can be up to twice your level in hit dice and did I mention you aren't guaranteed to be able to actually control it? No? What If I then pointed out this is a first-level spell? Glorious. 

As much as I love the theme, the most impressive aspect to me was actually unrelated to the setting. One of the problems I had when dealing with AD&D was the urge to condense and consolidate some of the rules. You have a 1-in-6 chance of detecting a secret door, unless you're an elf then it's 2-in-6. If you're a thief, you start out with a 15% chance to blah blah. The various ways everything was handled always seemed like such a headache to me, so I had it in mind to hack and rewrite it into something simpler - possibly putting everything on a d10 or a d20.

Lamentations beat me to it, throwing everything on a d6 setup, and slapping it all on the sheet for you. The design for this makes it even better, with the character sheet laid out in such a way that the actual tracking is done on squares resembling d6s. Each "rank" one might have in a task is then represented as a single pip filled in on the die. I can't tell you how in love I am with that concept, just from a design standpoint.
Despite its A5 formatting and copious amount of blank space (read: art!), Lamentations manages to deliver a remarkably complete game in relatively small package - about 170 pages total in the pdf. It covers all the bases, from the expected basics of dungeoneering, encounters and combat, to wilderness adventure, maritime exploits and even managing properties and investments. In the back, he even includes additional rules for advancing the technological timeline to represent a setting in the 16th or 17th century, complete with black powder and buff coats.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is an excellent study for game designers, aspiring and otherwise. It is a great example of economy in writing, elegant mechanical design, and of mechanics supporting theme and feel of a setting. Even if the setting isn't your thing, it's definitely worth taking a look at. The pdf is free. You have no excuse not to go take a look. As for myself, I'll be picking up the hardback cover shortly. Fantastic.

Until next time,

Monday, October 13, 2014

Coming Back to Old-School Gaming

I'm traditionally a very Story Games kind of guy. I love getting deep into plot and character motivation, and Band of Bastards is very much in that vibe. Hardcore cinematic, character-driven narratives, "role playing can be an art" kind of thing. I'm really proud of the way that's going, but sometimes I find that I just want something simple. As much fun as it is to push Story Now and create a really intense and dramatic story around a table, sometimes you just want to let off some steam and roll dice.

I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion, mind you. I'm not talking about the "Roll play" vs "role play" debate, but from the perspective of an adult playing with other adults, the time/effort cost/reward ratio speaks wonders for the simplicity of rolling up some dudes to go on adventures and plunder ruins.

I actually had this point hammered home not long ago, when a buddy and I wound up joining a Pathfinder group on a whim. Neither of us had actually gotten to play a game in a year or more, so it sounded like fun. Well. It was... until we got a hold of the player's guide, and then the advanced player's guide. One Thousand pages between the two. One thousand. Now, one could argue that it's all optional material, and that if you're familiar with 3.x/PF you can make a character fairly quickly. From the perspective of someone who has only the most passing familiarity with the system, it was daunting. Just handing someone those two massive tomes is asking for someone to turn tail and run.

We muscled through it though, and it only took us 3 hours to make our first characters. Most of this time was spent looking at possible feats, what those feats did, what the mechanics they referenced meant, what feats we need to ultimately get the feats we want, and then what statistics we need to meet the prerequisites for the feats that we needed to get the feats that we actually wanted. Perhaps I was reading too much into it, but the overwhelming sensation was that one needed to, at first level, have a pretty decent idea of where they wanted to be 10 or 20 levels later in order to make early decisions that will feel "competent."

After we finished, I pulled my friend aside and did a quick google for an AD&D character generator. I found this one at Dragons Foot. In the space of about five minutes, we'd made a pair of characters and got them equipped and ready to roll. At this point, he turns to me and responds "..Why aren't we just doing this?"

Why indeed.

We played all of one session with that Pathfinder group before interpersonal drama made it more trouble than it was worth, however the itch to play remained. Since then, I've been digging back through my old AD&D books, looking through retroclones, plotting and salivating. I've actually begun hosting a campaign, as of last saturday, but that's an entry in and of itself.

The older I get, the more of a high bias I have towards simplicity and flexibility. There is something in the older style of gaming that has a purity to it, utterly lacking pretense. It's a thing I look forward to exploring in the next coming days as I get my thoughts in order on the subject.

Meanwhile, we have finally got to playing again and I'm having a blast. We're currently meeting on Saturday evenings, and I will hopefully have some play reports to go along with my other nonsense.

Until then,

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Starting on a Personal Note

A couple years ago, I crossed a threshold wherein role playing games went from being a thing that I had been doing for a long time, to something I had been doing most of my life. There aren't good words to explain what an odd feeling that is. I've now been reading, writing, playing, and discussing tabletop RPGs for 15 years and I'm just starting to feel old.

My first experiences with the hobby were from an AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide I bought with a box of other fantasy books at a yardsale for a dollar. I didn't have the PHB to go with it, so I wound up reverse-engineering the game based on the tables and hints I could glean from what we had. Funnily enough, when years later we eventually bought the Player's Handbook we weren't extremely impressed. The way we had been doing it seemed to make more sense.

From there, our next love was Alternity, an interesting and ridiculously crunchy sci-fi game that we loved to death despite its flaws. Star*Drive is to this day the only pre-made campaign setting I've ever run for more than a session or two. Eventually, we abandoned the Alternity system for the Cyberpunk2020 rules, but we basically used them to continue playing our existing space opera.

Since then I've read and dabbled in a bit of everything. I love everything about role-playing games, reading, writing, discussing, even when I'm not actually in a position to play. I've probably written a dozen or more amateur games for the groups I play with, some of them simply for myself. In the last couple years, I've gotten a bit more serious about this and along with a couple other people I began work on a game called Band of Bastards, the development of which gave this blog its name, but this isn't about that. It's about getting back into the hobby that brought me here.

I look forward to it.