Wednesday, October 18, 2017

OSR Project #2: The Danger of Skills

There's an argument floating around that will claim that skills expand what your character is capable of by letting you invest in a bunch of different things, rather than being confined to an archetype like a class. I'm here going to have to argue that the opposite is true.

Skills by definition impose limitations on what your character is capable of.

When OD&D was released, there were only three classes - Fighting Man, Cleric, and Magic User. All of these characters were assumed to be dungeon-delving adventurers and have all the skills and abilities appropriate of such. Later, Greyhawk was released as the first D&D supplement and it added Thief as a class. Suddenly, the dynamic of the game changed.

The thief is essentially a class based around having skills. Climb walls, hide in shadows, move silently, pick locks, disarm/detect traps, etc. The Thief as originally written is Dungeoneer: The Class. This creates a lot of weirdness compared to how the game was played before. If you listen to Arneson talk about his early D&D experiences, everyone acted like a thief before the thief showed up. Everyone was sneaking around, picking locks, hiding and setting up ambushes, disarming traps, etc. The creation of the thief changed the way the distribution of abilities was perceived. Because the thief has a mechanical means of doing these things on their sheet, suddenly those things became the domain of the thief. Worse, because the thief had a mechanical ruleset for doing these tasks, it gave the implication that because no one else had access to these mechanics the thief was the only one who could do it. (There is a very interesting argument to be made that the nature and wording of the thief's abilities was supposed to imply a slightly supernatural character to them, thus everyone could sneak but a thief could literally disappear in a shadow. I actually prefer that interpretation, but it is outside of what I want to discuss here.)

When there is no mechanic for a thing, it's in the common domain. Anyone can attempt it by navigating the fiction. When you introduce a mechanic for a thing, you codify it and ultimately limit it in some way. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's an inherent side-effect of having a mechanic for it.

Now to make this less esoteric, consider for a moment Aragorn as a Ranger. In OD&D or AD&D, I can stand on the wall at Helm's Deep and make an impassioned speech because there is no Oration or Speechcraft skill. I can get up there, do my thing and feel pretty damned heroic about it because of course I can do it. I'm a big deal adventurer. The GM might nod and approve. The GM might even let me roll something to see if it has a mechanical impact on the fight. Who knows.. But it's entirely within my wheelhouse. Because there is no mechanic for it, it's up for grabs.

Now pretend we're playing 3.5e instead. Now there's a Diplomacy skill (or whatever it's called in 3.5) that exists for trying to influence NPCs. The existence of this skill means that in order for my character to be good at the thing governed by the skill, I need to invest mechanical resources into making them do so (in this case, skill points). What was something that I might have done and could have done because I thought it was cool and might have made a memorable scene becomes an area of the game I can no longer meaningfully interact with unless I spec out my character specifically to do so. I have to buy back the thing I could have done before, had the skill not existed.

Worse, because there is now a mechanic attached, if I do give an impassioned speech at the walls of Helm's Deep, the GM might make me roll for it anyway and because I don't have the skill I've introduced a risk. I might botch the roll and the GM penalizes the troops for my good intention. The GM might decide that I get up there and somehow drop my speghetti because a lot of games are written with the assumption that a bad roll means the character fucked up.

Where before this was a fun and optional thing that at worst would have been neat to play and at best might have given me some kind of fun bonus from a GM trying to encourage such things, I now have to weigh the risks of even attempting a thing that the game says I'm mechanically bad at because I don't have skill points invested in it. At best, I look unheroic and dumb, at worst, I might accidentally penalize my troops for having tried.

In the 3.5 ranger's case this is even more punitive because I've spent all of my skill points buying the abilities that previous editions gave me just for being part of my class.. And we'll not even talk about how different classes in 3.5 don't have access to certain skills and thus you have to invest even more character resources if you want to do something like be a fighter who also knows how to talk to people.

If you want an even more banal example.. There is no AD&D, B/x, or OD&D character who can't ride a horse. And yet, in 3.0/3.5/pf, Ride is a skill. You can technically ride without it, but if you want to do anything with the horse or avoid any perils of said horse, you now need to drop points in ride.

Making something a skill inherently walls the thing off from the open domain of play. If there's no cooking skill and you want to cook something, you are generally assumed to be able to do it because it's beneath what the game cares to simulate. The moment you create a cooking skill, you are mechanically a shitty cook until you invest resources in being able to do something you otherwise would have been able to do for free.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

OSR Project #1: Deconstructing Ability Scores

I've gotten my freelance work done for the day, I've gotten some Scoundrel work done for the day. Now I'm allowed to write about OSR stuff. That's how this works, right?

I've been kicking around the D&D six-scores setup for a while now. While they are a fairly well-rounded way to measure a character, they've always struck me as a bit odd for an OSR game. Ironic, I know.

In OSR (for the duration of this post, being shorthand for "TSR-era D&D editions and the games that directly mimic them"), the overwhelming majority of things in the game have no ability scores whatsoever.  Looking through the monster manuals very few, if any, entries bother listing ability scores. Most will give a broad category for intelligence so that the GM knows how to play them. Every so often a rare monsters of impressive strength will have a strength score listed in their description just in case it comes up. Even monsters comparable to PCs (Elves, Dwarves, Humans) have no ability scores RAW, even when those NPCs are given character levels.

What this means is that ability scores are mechanically a player-facing mechanism. RAW, they are unique to player characters. NPCs only have them if the GM decides to detail one out for whatever reason. Immediately this makes any real concerns about ability scores as a kind of simulation moot. Instead, they seem to exist only as a source of player character bonuses. This becomes even more apparent when you look into OD&D, where attributes played a very small roll overall compared to modern games. Dexterity would get you a bonus on missile fire, Constitution increased your HP, and Charisma played heavily into retainers/followers/hirelings... but the main function of Strength, Intelligence, or Wisdom's seemed to be as prime requisites. Later editions add further bonuses and modifiers to different ability scores, but they ultimately remain PC-specific bonuses.

If ability scores are less "defining the simulationist parameters of your character in the world" (because again, NPCs don't have them, RAW) and more "bonuses PCs are eligible for" then it changes how we have to interact with them. The question becomes: in what ways do we want characters to be defined that interact with the mechanics of the game?

 Let's examine the traditional six and what they do strictly from the mechanical bonuses they (usually) provide.
Strength: to-hit bonus in melee, damage bonus in melee, ability to bend or break things.
Dexterity: to-hit bonus for ranged weapons, bonus to AC,  bonus to initiative
Constitution: bonus HP, sometimes resurrection chance.
Intelligence: ability to speak, languages, sometimes bonus spells.
Wisdom: magic-based saving throws, sometimes bonus spells.
Charisma: reaction adjustment, maximum retainers, morale of retainers

I already knew that I didn't want modifiers for to-hit or AC, so a whole lot of what Strength and Dexterity do immediately goes out the window. Intelligence and Wisdom also ring kind of hollow, for me but for different reasons.

Intelligence has always struck me as at-odds with the premise of OSR, at least in regards to the play style in which I am interested. It's incredibly difficult to play a character who is smarter than you are, as so much of intelligence is in the ability to make decisions and collate information. You as a player are only as intelligent as you are. You can get around this to some degree if the game has significant skill-like mechanics your Intelligence score can influence, but an OSR game typically doesn't and "roll to see if your character figures it out" goes against the player-skill principles that I want to pursue.

The opposite arrangement tends to be no better. When you give an intelligent player a dumb character, they wind up being a comic relief most of the time (which may or may not be good, depending on the tone you want in the game) but they also tend to wind up being far more clever than their intelligence should suggest because in most scenarios players want to succeed. For an OSR game that is supposed to be challenge or objective-based, trying to get players to make decisions that they know are going to be more likely to fail is putting the player at cross-purposes with the game's reward mechanism.

The mechanical weight of Intelligence is unimpressive as well. Bonus languages are okay, but aren't particularly interesting and I'm not at all interested in modeling your ability to speak properly. I've heard quite Lenny impressions already, thank you. Meanwhile, Wisdom basically only exists as a saving throw adjustment which is also kind of lame.

Given that I want a game that is more explicitly about player skill, I'm thinking that the best move here is to merge Intelligence and Wisdom. Wisdom will remain as an ability score and take on the linguistic functions, as well as any kind of knowing or noticing-stuff roles it might have otherwise had. Most of the functions of Intelligence are better left as player discretion. It's up to you how smart your character is and you ultimately display that intelligence through the choices you as a player make for your character.

The other major impulse I have is to merge Strength and Constitution. There's an argument to be made that lifting capability and endurance are not intrinsically related (the power lifter vs the distance runner) but in a game where we've already decided that most things don't have ability scores at all, this level of simulation isn't strictly necessary. Further, if we strip Strength of its combat bonuses (as I planned to do for dexterity as well), then the ability is left somewhat anemic on its own.

Suddenly, we're down to four ability scores:
Brawn: Physical fitness, strength, endurance, vitality. Plays a roll in carrying stuff, improves HP, bends bars, unsticks doors.
Dexterity: Agility and fine motor control. Increases initiative, is probably useful for mobility stuff.
Wisdom: Knowledge, willpower, judgement. Bonus languages. Interacts with magic in fun ways (saves, spells, etc).
Charisma: Leadership and bearing. Reaction adjustment, maximum retainers, morale of retainers
For what I want to do, I think that's perfect. As an aside, if someone was interested in a 3e style "three saves" setup, it winds up corresponding perfectly. As an added bonus, fewer ability scores make it much harder to have a dump-stat. Dexterity is mechanically the weakest of these options, but I've got some ideas on how it can come into play more as well. 

Until part 2.

Friday, October 13, 2017

What I Want in an OSR Game

OSR appeals to me in specific ways for specific reasons. Because I'm already doing character-focused story-game stuff with other games I'm playing (or writing!), I don't need OSR to be my end-all-be-all general purpose tool. Here the attraction is in what makes OSR different.

Objective, Challenged-Based Gaming

Most of the games I love actively embrace failure. Burning Wheel, Apocalypse, and yes, Sword & Scoundrel — all of these games are designed in such a way that failure is not only expected, it's inherently part of what drives the story forward. You are not playing these games to accomplish things so much as to see what happens.

OSR is pretty well the opposite of this. In the majority of games in this family, you have two sources of XP: defeating enemies and recovering treasure. Both of these are objective-based reward mechanisms. If you want to advance, you have to succeed. You have to overcome challenges in order to get the rewards both in and out of character.

Sometimes, I'm in the mood for a tragic, twisting narrative. Other times, I want to be challenged. I want my players to be challenged and to be rewarded for beating those challenges.

Encounter-Based High Adventure

As a corollary to the above, most of the games I'm into are intensely character-focused and built around exploring who that character is and what they are about. It's a lot of fun but it can also be emotionally exhausting. I'm not always up for it as a player or a GM. Sometimes you want to be playing Game of Thrones where it's all character-focused drama built around their individual goals and passions. Other times, you want to play Conan or Indiana Jones, where the protagonist is less a focus and more an excuse for us to go on cool adventures and see weird shit. OSR is definitely in the latter camp.

This shift in focus also gives you an entirely different kind of creative outlet. Prepping for a character-focused game is all about finding ways to reincorporate aspects of those characters into the game. In an OSR game, the GM's creative efforts are almost the opposite -- outwardly focusing on creating interesting scenarios, locations, creatures and other encounters. You have a ton of freedom to do random interesting things.

Random Stuff and the Impartial Adjudicator

The more story and character-oriented the game is, the more deliberate you want to be with events. OSR tends to be all about the random. Aside from giving you all kinds of neat weird play artifacts (mutation tables, weather tables, random encounters..), the more randomized the elements become the more objective you can be as a GM. When I'm playing B/x, my job isn't to actively challenge the players or find ways to highlight their character. My job is to prepare a situation for them to explore and then impartially interpret the results of the dice as they do so, adjudicating any fictional elements as impartially as I can. Whether they succeed or fail, the amount of XP they earn, all of that is between them and the dice gods. I am simply the messenger.

Player Skill and Fictional Engagement

One of the major draws to OSR for many people is the way these games allow direct engagement with the fiction. In many cases, you can bypass challenges through role-playing alone, whether this is negotiating your way through a social encounter or narrating your way through disarming a trap or solving a puzzle. In a way, resorting to dice can almost be seen as a fail-state, as it means you have to instead fall back on your mechanical abilities -- and in the process, you're putting yourself at risk.

This approach is supported fairly well by OSR play.The lack of skills in most of these games means that players have to look elsewhere for solutions to their problems. Risk management is the primary player-skill to master in the game, so any time you can overcome a challenge through fictional positioning you're better off than you would have been letting the dice decide your fate. This works well in conjunction with the earlier point about challenge-based gaming. I love the kind of creative problem-solving that the gaps in OSR rules foster.

Adventure as Expedition

In nearly any other game I play, equipment and supplies are basically hand-waived. Tracking time, speed, and distance are all just irrelevant trivialities that interfere with the story you're trying to tell. In OSR, they can be a crucial part of the logistics of exploration. Early D&D editions were big on treating dungeon-delving as an expedition. Players would have to carefully balance their supplies to ensure they had enough goods to make a journey, but the more stuff you brought the slower you move, the less you could bring back and the more easily you can be overrun. You could bring hirelings with you to help you fight or haul, but the more people you bring the more supplies you need and the more attention you'll attract. And of course, time is also against you, because the more stuff you bring the slower you go the more time it takes the more supplies you go through, the more likely something will eat you.

In any other game time, speed, and inventory are unnecessary simulation and best ignored. In OSR, they can be an important expression of player-skill through risk management. I also personally love the Lewis & Clark or Oregon Trail vibe that you get once the players have started an adventuring company, set out into the wilds, their packs laden with junk and a dozen hirelings at their side. It's a unique experience and one that's nigh-impossible to manage in most systems.

I could keep going on. The rules-light nature of most of these games, the flexibility in hacking, etc., but the purpose of this post was specifically to talk about what I wanted in an OSR game that wasn't what I was already getting in my other games. In turn, as I kick around design ideas, these highlight the areas I really want to lean into and focus on.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

OSR & TROS

In terms of role-playing preferences, I've always been in kind of a weird position. There's always been a weird undercurrent of animosity between the different camps of the role-playing community. Within the indie/nar/forge/story-game crowd there are certain elements that have a tendency to look down on D&D in any form as an unsophisticated and unsatisfying experience. This sentiment is often extended to the OSR movement, which can be seen as a nostalgia-fueled leap backwards in gaming. In turn, the certain elements of the OSR crowd have a tendency to look at the story-games people as elitist hipsters trying to pass off their game experiences off as high art.

This isn't universally true of all parties on each side — how often is anything universally true of a group of broad group of people? — but I've gotten in debates with people on both sides about the legitimacy of the other as a valid game choice. This brings me back to the first sentence: I've always been in a weird position between the two communities, with one foot on each side. I enjoy both kinds of games quite a bit, as they offer very different experiences that appeal to me for different reasons. The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've realized they have in common.

Intentional, Focused Design

The hallmark of both movements was a dissatisfaction with some element of the hobby that was so widespread as to spark the creation of new games meant to answer a specific question. For the forge/nar/story-games movement, it was largely a dissatisfaction with games on the market in terms of creating the kind of stories that people wanted to tell. For OSR, it was largely a reaction to the introduction of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons that made a whole lot of people realize that the current official version of the game was no longer giving them the kind of experience they wanted to have. In both cases, this dissatisfaction lead to intense critique, analysis, and eventually the cultivation of a body of design philosophy.

DIY and the Indie Explosion

In both cases, fierce forum debates quickly became blog posts and ultimately an explosion of games designed to embody various elements of the design philosophy. The primary focus on both ends was on a specific way in which the game was meant to be played in order to deliver a very particular kind of experience. Both scenes have flourishing online communities where people are constantly churning out games and hacks and other content. Both scenes are to this day dominated by independent publishers, many of whom have turned their passions into a legitimate business. 

As I chewed on this subject, I realized that if I went a bit deeper I could actually draw far more parallels in my own journey through this. My gateway drug into the narrative scene was a now largely forgotten game called The Riddle of Steel. It was a formative game for me, in that it not only introduced me to a whole new way of playing, but ultimately changed how I played everything after that. The parallels between TROS and the OSR are striking, even beyond their amusingly similar abbreviation.

Red-Handed Pulp

The Riddle of Steel is a reference to the classic Conan the Barbarian movie, from 1982. Both TROS and the OSR ultimately take their origin from early pulp Sword & Sorcery as filtered through popular culture. Amusingly, both also then sort of obscure the human-centric and exotic pulp quality to do a Tolkienesq medieval fantasy with elves and dwarves.

Modular Mechanics

Like the overwhelming majority of OSR games, TROS had no single unifying mechanic. Instead, it had a handful of different self-contained systems the game leaned on for different situations. Much like with OSR games, this both told you rather explicitly the arenas in which the game wanted to focus but it also gave you a ton of room to add, remove, and tinker with the guts of the things. Almost as soon as the game was out, people began to customize and hack it to suit their campaigns much in the same way as even today people hack their OSR system of choice to customize it for whatever they are doing.

Gameable Gaps

Many OSR enthusiasts will argue that the lack of rules for certain situations is a feature, rather than a bug. TROS benefits from a similar gap in its rules set. While it features a rudimentary skill system, it was obvious that combat and sorcery were what the game was really interested in. Everything else was a simple test and you moved on. It gave the GM quite a bit of leeway and in practice I found playing TROS to have a lot in common with my memories of playing AD&D: you basically ignored the book most of the time until someone got in a fight or cast a spell, with the thief-type character usually being the one to do nearly all of the task-resolution kind of rolls.

Player Choices, Player Skill

Much like the OSR, TROS was not a game you could by any means just "roll play" your way through. TROS has one of the highest player-skill curves of any game I've played. You, the player, have to become very good at both engaging with the system to get XP (Spiritual Attributes, in this case) but the combat and magic mechanics require a huge amount of system mastery to play. What's awesome about this, though, is that the system mastery here means "picking strategies and making interesting choices in play" rather than something like 3.pf where system mastery means "knowing how to build your character in order to get the most amount of bonuses."

This, more than anything, is probably why I was so attracted to TROS back when.  The idea that you would win because of your choices rather than having the highest numbers or the biggest sword or whatever was enthralling. It gave me a taste for something that I've been chasing ever since.

Player-Driven Play

This may not be true for all of the OSR, but it is generally true for the parts of it I enjoy. I love sandboxes, huge, sprawling dungeons, and anything that lets the players have a significant say in the strategies and engagements they will attempt. Even if you've all agreed to the premise "we're going dungeon-delving" the gold-for-xp nature of so much OSR tends to mean that players are in charge of their own advancement. The OSR assumptions of balance mean that the players have to pick and choose their battles and are making decisions that ultimately puts their success and failure in their own hands. Contrast this with later D&D (or other games) where you are often a participant in a pre-written story and are rewarded for hitting milestones within that story.

TROS did this in a way that no other game I'd encountered had, with the PC's Spiritual Attributes making them masters of their own destiny in a massively compelling way.  The two camps take massively different approaches, but both games ultimately empower the players to make decisions that matter and let them drive the game onward in a compelling way. 

In hindsight, it's not surprising to me at all why Sword & Scoundrel inherited as much TROS DNA as it did or why we retained what we did after all of these revisions. By the same token, it's not surprising that I'm gravitating towards OSR even as I work on the former. In a lot of ways, they are the answer to the same kinds of desires taken in two different directions.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Coming home to the OSR

A couple different things have happened in the last while to turn my attention back to the OSR world. First off, I've started playing in B/x game with the fine folks from OSR General. It started as a 4chan group and it's slowly migrated to discord as well. It's always weird to join a campaign in the middle of play, but I'm enjoying it so far. After spending so much time dealing with heavy character-driven narrative bullshit, it's incredibly refreshing to do some old-fashioned Gygaxian fantasy. Negotiating with kobolds and watching your compatriots get hopelessly murdered by obvious traps.

A more pressing concern is that at least for now, the design work for scoundrel is done. With the exception of the occasional tweak or adjustment, it has been done for a while now. Instead, I'm stuck with the writing.

The endless, endless writing.

I don't actually mind the writing, mind you. Sometimes it's more difficult than others — as you might expect, writing for a living and then trying to then also moonlight for Grand Heresy — but I don't mind doing it. The problem is that this does nothing for the part of my brain that enjoys game design, which is what started all this mess in the first place. Naturally, my thoughts begin to drift elsewhere.

I've already started having these conversations with a couple people. I figure I might as well refine and catalog them here and just maybe, by the time Scoundrel is off my plate, I'll have the beginnings of another game right on its tail.

Sorenson's 3 Questions - Sword & Scoundrel

In ye ancient days of yore, Jared Sorensen (designer of many things) put forward three questions that now collectively bear his name. Between writing on the subject, I've been attempting to decide how I wanted to answer.

What is your game about?

Sword & Scoundrel has the tag: A game about Passion, Violence, and General Skullduggery. Above all, the game is a passion play. It's medieval morality theater presented as an HBO or AMC-style character drama. Players decide what's most important to their character, what they care about, what they want, the lines they will not cross. Through play, we challenge them to see how far they are willing to go and what they are willing to sacrifice. The game is about moral conflict, with forces set in motion against the player's goals and beliefs. Finally, it's a blood-opera with the player's passions leading to quick and brutal violence. We wanted the fantasy equivalent of a western or a john woo film, with swordplay being quick, flashy, and lethal.

How does your game do this?

Mechanically speaking, characters are not just their attributes and skills. Their goals and beliefs are represented by player-nominated phrases called Drives which have a mechanical weight to them. Similarly, characters have Traits which can represent everything from the character's history and background to their physical or personality quirks and their relationships with other characters, including the players in their group. These all have mechanical significance in play, often giving them additional dice for their pool when relevant.

On the other side of the coin, the game is written in such a way that it is explicitly about conflict. If there is nothing in conflict and nothing at stake, there is no roll made. Further, while the game goes out of its way to play up its blood-opera persona with a detailed combat system, the rules support conflict in a broad range of arenas. The current beta supports anything when rolled as a simple conflict, but as we get the opportunity we intend to add a fully formed social combat system, faction rules, magic, and other forms of more abstract conflicts.

How does your game encourage/reward this?

The primary reward mechanism is through the accumulation of Drive Points. When players engage in conflicts with their drives, they are rewarded for it through additional dice that drive is worth. These dice come up as bonus dice in any conflict that is directly about the drive in question. Further, when players engage in certain behaviors that highlight their drives and traits, they can gain additional points that can be added to the drive of their choosing. The quickest way to earn these points is often to allow your drives or traits to get you in trouble, rewarding the player directly for making choices that are in line with who their character is even if those choices are not the optimal way to get what the player might want. Finally, these drive points can be spent to increase any of the character's abilities or traits or learn new of the same.

In short, players advance solely by making the kinds of characters suitable for good character dramas (ambitious, resolute, yet flawed) and then role-playing them in the fashion that these characters tend to behave (struggling between who they are and what they want). When they do this, the game not only gives them more dice to throw around in the conflicts they will face but also gives them the means to improve their character's scores as they play.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

or so I am going to pretend. 2017 has been a very busy year for me and Grand Heresy as a whole, but a sad year for this little blog. It got pushed off to a back burner and I haven't bothered with it much, which is a shame.

I think I need to get back in the habit of using the blog as a kind of sounding board for role-playing game thoughts and ideas. I've gotten into this bad habit of not wanting to show anyone anything until it is fully-formed and polished, which is idiotic. That's not what a blog is for.

So instead, the future of this blog is going to be a lot of notes and ideas as I sort through them, along with whatever else I wind up with. Blogging in this manner serves a dual purpose, both in helping me solidify ideas but also in letting the people who follow me doing this kind of nonsense know what it is that I'm doing. This latter function is particularly good for the people who keep an eye on the role-playing game that shares this blog's name.

Until next time,

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

The blog here has been silent for a while, as my writing efforts in the last few months have been almost solely concentrated on a project that I can happily announce has begun its release cycle today.

If you would, head over to Grand Heresy where the Sword & Scoundrel (great name, huh?) RPG will be beginning it's release cycle. The starting documents contain the core rules and the character creation materials. We also have a print pdf, form-fillable pdf with character creator, and a sheet already approved and available in Roll20.

This is going to be an interesting ride, folks. Buckle up.

Monday, February 20, 2017

On Published Settings

I abhor published settings. Or at least, that's how I phrased it when the subject came up in conversation. This, of course, was bound to provoke a bit of controversy.

"I can't understand that mindset. Like. Have you READ Deadlands?"

Alright. 'Abhor' may be too strong of a word. I can actually enjoy published settings for their fluff. A lot of settings I quite enjoy, especially when they come from an actual work of fiction, rather a campaign book. If we want to make my initial statement more accurate, I abhor running published settings. There's a handful of reasons for this, some more practical than others.
  1. I'm huge on communal setting creation. I want to create something in the broad strokes and then fill in the details through play.  This was how I grew up playing these games in my early teens. We sketched out a map or a came up with a setting and then it just got filled as we played with it. New locations and things were introduced as a natural outgrowth of play, rather than as a concerted world-developing effort or referenced from a gazetteer. As a natural consequence, these worlds were always ours, unique to the people who shaped them and often colored by our own mythologies. Funny enough, this style of world-building seems to be popular both with the OSR crowd and the Burning Wheel/Apocalypse World/Story-Game crowd.
  2. I'm a history nerd. I spend a lot of time memorizing the details of various cultures and eras in the real-world's history. As a result, I can pretty handily fill in the gaps of whatever broad-stroke setting I was running with bits from history without missing a beat. Even something as small as just nailing the material culture of a society or setting is something that I really enjoy. It helps flavor the thing and makes it stand out. To bring that same level of loving detail and attention to a published setting, I'm effectively going to have to study a whole new culture and history while trying to parse how much it leans on this or that historical period/culture and where it deviates and the specific bits that make it worthwhile on its own. Even settings I legitimately enjoy and am familiar with from fiction (Middle Earth, Star Trek, Star Wars, Westeros) would require me to go back and study them for a while before I'd be comfortable trying to represent them. This could simply be a hangup based on unchecked perfectionism, on my part, but I'd rather spend my time studying earth history than Westerosi. The former is far more interesting than most people would believe.
  3. I enjoy GMing as an act of creation. Writing stuff and creating fluff is half my fun of doing it. The more details that are published for a setting, the less room I have to carve my own niches into it. This actually creates a weird double-edged sword for me. A setting too tightly constrained will lose my interest because I want to create for it, but a setting too loose will make me question why I'm bothering with a published setting in the first place. Does a sweet spot between the two exist? I'm not sure.
  4. I don't want my players to know more about a setting than I do. There are a handful of reasons for this by itself. The most immediate is that I don't want to introduce my players to the governor of Waterdeep only for someone to inform me that Waterdeep is actually governed by a council of retired adventurer-nobles or some nonsense. The more popular a setting is, and the more stuff has been produced for it, the more likely my players are to have read it and the less likely I am. I simply don't have the patience to go through three hundred forgotten realms novels. Before one cries "get players that won't be assholes," this isn't because I'm afraid my narrative authority would be challenged (I have good players, and it's easy enough to say "not in this setting.") but because...
  5. I mentioned before that I'm a big history nerd. My favorite settings are the "viking age" — northern Europe around 900AD — and various places/times in ancient Greece, classical and mythological, alike. Being a visual creature, I am naturally a big fan of movies set in these periods as well. Unfortunately, movies are absolutely terrible at actually representing history in any appreciable way. I've never seen a sword and sandals movie that bore anything more than a passing resemblance to ancient Greece. Viking movies get a little better, but even the Vikings show on the HISTORY channel is nothing close to the actual period. To enjoy any of these, I have to actively turn my history brain off and pretend that what I'm watching is actually a fantasy universe set in the flavor of the thing being represented, with all likenesses to places and characters a complete coincidence. Otherwise I'm like to point out that "We shall not interfere with the lives of mortals," is not only a stupid plot (Lookin at you, Immortals) but that Greek mythology is literally nothing but the Gods interfering with mortals. I don't want my players knowing more than I do because the whole point of playing that setting is to give them the experience of that setting. Every time I get it wrong or diverge significantly from canon, it's detracting from the reason I was using it in the first place.
  6. It removes some of the mystery. I don't want my players having a Word of God absolute knowledge of the history of the setting. I want them to know basically what their characters know. It makes the history that much more interesting when we can be uncertain of it and surprised by it. Likewise, you lose all dramatic impact of any kind of Lovecraftian plot when the players read on page 47 that the council that governs Kingdom Y is actually a dark cabal trying to summon Shub Nuggath, the Toothstorm. 
  7. Finally, settings are meant to be destroyed. I tend to make my players protagonists in the literary sense of the word. Within a few months of play, they're going to have shaken up the setting enough one way or another that they've overturned the most of the original status quo's anyway. Why put all the work into memorizing an establish setting and getting all of someone else's details right when there's a goodly chance the players will have burnt it down within the first campaign arc or two anyway?

That's enough rambling for one afternoon. I don't have any problems with other people running published settings, nor would I particularly mind being a player in one. As a GM, though, the effort/reward ratio is way off and in some ways it actually runs contrary to what I actually enjoy about GMing.

Am I crazy? How do you feel about published settings?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Song of Swords Kickstarter!



Another game in the family of TROS-descendents, Song of Swords kickstarted today. They've been at this for nearly as long as we have, so I'm glad to see them get off the ground. Even better, they've managed to get the project funded in the first day! Couldn't happen to nicer guys.

Check out their kickstarter here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Ruminations of the Rune Priestess

A buddy of mine is planning a viking-themed hex crawl using Lamentations of the Flame Princess. He wanted some help on fluffing out the classes, so I obliged. The rough draft of classes to follow:

Ruminations of the Rune Priestess


Myrkr, by TheFoxAndTheRaven


Ability Scores generated per normal. Classes are as follows:

Thegn: The warrior class. Maps to fighter in every way.

Goethi: Seers and spiritual advisors. Maps to cleric. Shuffle the spell list around to make it more of a divination/will of the gods type character.

Seidermenn/Volva: Sorcerers that are distrusted by society at large. Volva at least have the respect of being wise-women, but as sorcery is seen as women's magic, Seidermenn are doubly stigmatized. Maps to Magic User.

Carl: low-born men who haven't the martial training of the warrior class, but make themselves useful in other ways. Maps to Specialist.

Berserker: warrior-shaman that follow bear totems and work themselves up into a frenzy before battle. Maps to dwarves as a class, but loses Architecture. Instead, they get a bonus to AB and Damage when they work themselves into a rage. This bonus starts at +3 at level 1, and increases by 1 at levels 4, 7, and 11. Working themselves into a state of berserk takes a full round and can last for a number of rounds equal to Constitution mod+level.

Wolf-Skins: Warrior-shaman that follow a wolf totem. Maps to halfling, but they lose the size restriction and gain access to the same combat options as a fighter.

Blooded: Men who can trace their ancestry back to the Alfar or other land spirits. Maps to elf, save that they use Charisma as a casting stat instead of Intelligence and cannot make use of spell research. Their powers are innate. Like Seidermenn or Volva, if their status is known they will suffer a stigma.

Changes to Equipment
The cost of items are unchanged. Plate armor does not exist. Chain and leather only, though adding a helmet is worth +1AC and costs 25SP. Horses do not wear barding in this period. Lances, Polearms, Mancatchers, Rapiers and crossbows as listed in the standard equipment list are unavailable. There are no ships larger (or more expensive) than a Cog. Otherwise, use common sense for equipment availability.

I'll dabble with the spell list later, but this is enough to get us started.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Lifespans of Elves

One of the more disagreed upon rules that crop up in a lot of old-school OSR/TSR games is based around demihuman level limits. Some of these arguments are from a game balance perspective (which is its own can of worms), but I find the more odious justification is based around the lifespan of the demihumans in question.

The argument goes something like this:
"Elves and dwarves live so much longer than humans that they would have to gain XP slower and hit a cap. If they advanced at the same rate as humans, then the setting will be dominated by elves and dwarves of god-like power. After all, if humans can hit level 14 in their meager lifetimes, what could an elf do with a couple hundred years to blow adventuring?"
It's one of those arguments that makes a good deal of sense at first blush, but for a number of reasons I've never put much stock in it.

The first is that NPCs are not PCs. Older versions of the game don't bother to treat NPCs with the same kind of care and logistics that we treat PCs with in the first place. OD&D claims that for every 50 elves encounered in a group, one of these will have "above normal" capabilities. Normal being "something other than a 1HD creature." It then asks you to roll some dice to determine its magic and fighting levels. According to the AD&D monster manual "For every 20 elves in a band, there will be one with above average fighting ability (2nd, or 3rd level). For every 40 elves encountered, there will be one with this fighting ability plus a 1st or 2nd level magic-user ability." The important takeaway here is that the majority of elves you bump into aren't adventurers in the same way that the majority of humans you bump into aren't adventurers. PCs are level 1 characters in a level 0 world.

The second is that prior to AD&D2e, the main source of experience for characters was gold. This has some very important implications. The first and most obvious being that you don't get XP just for living a very long time. Even elves have to go out there and schlep their dainty arses through the same mud and blood and bog that the rest of us adventuring folk have to and put themselves in just as much danger for every experience point earned.

The second and more profound implication is that assumption that the reason for adventuring is to get rich. You are out there to acquire treasure. The game is explicitly about going out into the unknown in search of gold. A funny thing happens over time, however. The richer you are, the harder it is to justify schleping your ass into some gods-forsaken cave where something is certainly bound to try to eat you. You already have more gold than you could possibly spend. This is actually built into the endgame of D&D as well. There is an assumption in early editions that you'd eventually start to settle down in a region, build a stronghold, acquire followers, and begin to play on a more regional level rather than a personal one. Your actions play out on a broader stage. At this point, it takes a lot more gold to convince you that it's worth putting your life in danger and hoards of that size are few and far between. You reach a natural equilibrium at a certain point and eventually retire from adventuring to manage other things.

The TL;DR of this is that it's easy to ignore the "elven lifespan" problem simply by arguing that even with their longer lifespan there is no reason to assume that their adventuring careers would be any longer than any other races. After all, what is the likelihood of Bill Gates coming out of retirement to work a hotdog stand any time soon? 


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Grand Heresy in 2017

Matt Easton posted a video recently entitled "Scholagladiatoria channel in 2017." It's a video of limited use to anyone who isn't already his subscriber (though, if you're at all interested in martial history, you should be) and chiefly details his plans for the coming year.

That's when I realized it was already February. How does that happen? Worse, I've written nothing on this blog this year. In an attempt to begin rectifying this mistake, I thought I'd post my own variant of the theme: Grand Heresy in 2017.

It's a very creative twist. 

GH2017

With luck, this will be the break-out year for Grand Heresy. 'Bastards (now bearing the more marketable title Sword & Scoundrel) is getting a major facelift and some key rewriting. As this draft gets close to completion, I'll be redoing the site to better show it off as well as redoing some of the marketing/fluff text. Plans are to launch the kickstarter in the very near future. I cannot tell you how excited I am for the thing to be in the wild and officially off my desk for a while.

We've kept track of the download counts of each edition of 'Bastards released. We've gotten anywhere from 400-1000 downloads on each. The last edition of the dueling kit alone has gotten about 1200 downloads. On the surface, this looks fairly promising but you never know what this will mean in terms of kickstarter support or sales down the line. On the other hand, we've also not gone out of our way to market the thing at all. We haven't reached out to rpg.net, storygames, or any of the other hub communities out there aside from a brief flirting with 4chan.

The level of interest we receive after launch will determine the next move. I have a number of things I'd love to develop out of the core rules as supplemental material for the game. Higgins and I have been wanting to develop the naval warfare rules since early in the project's development. A full pirate/age of sail book would let us treat the topic with the same kind of adoration we've spent on the HEMA nerd stuff in the book. I also have a number of setting-seed books I'd like to have the chance to develop for the game as well, all of which are basically toolkit modules for hacking the book to fit whatever you're trying to do with the main system. I've been keeping notes on this sort of stuff since just after the project began. If there were enough interest, I'd have material to write for this game for the next five years or more.

On the other hand, if it turns out to be an extremely niche interest with a limited following, I'm fine with that too. I have a half-dozen other projects I'd love to dev out. As anyone who reads this blog can attest, my gaming interests are eclectic as they are promiscuous.

All of that aside, I acquired a new mic today. It's a proper condenser mic I got relatively inexpensively. After some futzing around with Barbarossa on the audio we got it sounding pretty decent. Now properly equipped, we'll be doing a lot of youtube recording in the near future. Expect at least one actual play campaign of something. I'll probably record some AP material, explanations, and play aids for 'Bastards Sword & Scoundrel as well.

2017 is going to be a big year. Here's to it.