Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Old School Gaming in 2014 and Beyond

The year 2014 was a great one for old school gaming.

5e D&D, which I've run with some success, isn't an old school game, and even if it hadn't been released, it would still have been an excellent year for the old school. It's a reasonably good game that plays pretty close to how most of us played 2nd edition AD&D in the 1990s, with some tweaks from the 3e and 4e eras. Old school material is being published for 5e, including OSR authors going and adapting or creating material. It's all to the good; we need D&D to keep fresh blood coming in, and it's better to have a good edition than a bad one.

The overachiever in 2014 is Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The fact that the Free RPG Day adventure was nowhere near as good as last year's doesn't diminish at all the sheer volume of excellent output that LotFP had this year.

Releasing two modules as solid as Forgive Us and Scenic Dunnsmouth in a year would be more accomplishment than most publishers have in a year. The former is a work of art in presenting a module using only two-page spreads, while the latter puts the die-drop area generation method to good use. But then the December releases came out.

Again, just releasing a solid island adventure like The Idea from Space or an absolutely alien concept sandbox like No Salvation for Witches would also be a triumph. The two are seriously great high-concept modules, with NSFW probably taking the edge. And the December releases included great reissues of Tower of the Stargazer and Death Frost Doom. But they are all dwarfed by A Red & Pleasant Land.

RPL is Zak S's book based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and, to some degree, Dracula. Rather than adapt these works to things already handled by D&D type gaming, it presents a way to adapt D&D type gaming to a bloodthirsty Eastern European land of madness. The book is packed with game-useful stuff, every bit of which is a challenge to the rote standard fantasy that predominates in the RPG industry. The book is a gauntlet thrown down to less imaginative concepts of what D&D can be, and it even has rules for dueling. (But you need to have a glove.)

LotFP has a heap of ambition for next year. Aside from the Referee Book, which I hope will be coming out next year, there are another half-dozen plus adventures and sourcebooks that are bursting with more amazing promise. Including the long-awaited follow-up to Carcosa by Geoffrey McKinney.

So what can compete with that? Goodman Games has been trying. They haven't released anything as revolutionary as RPL, but they have been doing some great stuff in publishing, most of it supported by Kickstarters. The KS for The Chained Coffin, an adventure set in a fantasy Appalachia written by Michael Curtis, turned into a deluxe boxed set that puts out a full setting worth of material. They wound up doing another KS that resulted in a similar treatment for Perils on the Purple Planet by Harley Stroh. This one is a sword & planet module.

Not to mention - Goodman did another Kickstarter for Metamorphosis Alpha that is suddenly turning it into a supported product line (you can see the line-up here). Just the special edition book is a terrific collection; the final result should make fans of MA jump up and down in celebration. Goodman's next deluxe edition will be of Grimtooth's Traps – the classic collection of Rube Goldberg traps that go over the top to slay the party.

Goodman is also releasing 5e modules. These are serviceable, but not much more; it's disappointing, when so much good stuff is going on in other areas, that they went pedestrian at a time when greatness was called for.

Basic Fantasy RPG has kept on keepin' on  This year saw several new print releases: Adventure Anthology 1, BFRPG Third Edition, and The Basic Fantasy Field Guide (a monster expansion). BFRPG has always been a labor of love, and where Lamentations and DCC are trying to do revolutionary things and present mind-blowing ideas, BFRPG presents the unvarnished real stuff of classic D&D. If you want a game that is steeped in the "classic" fantasy feel of '80s D&D, Basic Fantasy delivers exactly that.

The Adventure Anthology is a total mixed bag, of course, but it does offer good bits if you need to run D&D for a session. The Field Guide is fine, and is a mixed bag of monsters that needed to be adapted to BFRPG and innovative new creatures. There's going to be a new edition of BF1 Morgansfort coming shortly, which will update some of the adventures in that collection. Basic Fantasy has always tinkered with its older material, and in a certain sense it has become a distillation of the old religion of D&D.

Labyrinth Lord has been in a weird place for several years now. It's still the system of choice for megadungeons, and when the unbelievable happened and Dwimmermount was released earlier this year, it was for Labyrinth Lord and then ACKS. But Labyrinth Lord is more or less a shorthand for "yeah, this is compatible with B/X D&D" and has very much not been taking the lead in driving things forward. It's entered the long tail.

OSRIC never really wasn't in the long tail; its main purpose has always been to keep publishing 1e AD&D modules. It's kept that happening; if nobody else will, & Magazine and Expeditious Retreat Press will  keep new material going for as long as the 1e grognards are around.

Adventurer Conqueror King has been absolutely slammed by Dwimmermount. It caused a big stir when it was released, but it has really only had three significant releases since then: the Player's Companion, Domains at War and Dwimmermount. Of course, you could buy those and not need anything else for the next two years of gaming – so who's going to complain?

Swords & Wizardry is in an even weirder place. There is plenty of Swords & Wizardry material coming out from Frog God Games. Most of it is fine and old school in spirit – but it's all basically adaptations of Pathfinder products, and now Necromancer Games's 5e products. That was true before this year, but it's really become the main stream of new S&W material. Which means that it's more or less a side option for existing publishers, frankly.

There are plenty of other clones, but I think these are the ones driving most of what we see today in the old school gaming scene. It's not that I don't like Delving Deeper, or Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, or BLUEHOLME, but they're serving a niche of a niche.

One area where it's absolutely thriving are zines. Aside from James Maliszewski's Tékumel zine The Excellent Travelling Volume and long-running system neutral zines like Scott Moberly's AFS or Tim Shorts's The Manor, the games that are killing it with excellent zines aren't really that surprising.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Crawl!, Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, Crawljammer, Crawling Under a Broken Moon
Lamentations of the Flame Princess: The Undercroft, Vacant Ritual Assembly

It's hard to say what will happen in the future, but the momentum really seems to be with LotFP and DCC RPG. I see them as continuing to be the driving force. What would make 2015 an even greater year is if another publisher takes up the gauntlet that LotFP has thrown and tries to put out products that are as heavy on utility and as fresh in ideas.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Actual Play: Running Metamorphosis Alpha

Since I have time off over the holidays, I wanted to make sure I got at least one really prime game in, and for months I've been wanting that to be Metamorphosis Alpha. So I finally got that done today, and a game has gone right from my to-play list to the list of games I really enjoy.

I had no idea what MA would actually be like in play, but Tim Kask's introduction to the new Goodman Games edition really defined some of the delightful moments: it gets a bit into cultural anthropologists as you explain high-tech things to players like they're the tribal barbarians their player characters are meant to be.

I loved mixing this with known science, which I think is why so many Gamma World games went into "modern plus apocalypse" rather than the "future plus apocalypse" that it was supposed to. I mean, an iPhone is basically a strange rectangle where one side is glass and the other is metal, and it has one button. (And when a PC pressed the button, an icon displaying no battery power came up. Familiar to anyone?)

The random Round House Modular Dwelling Unit generator in Craig J. Brain's module The House on the Hill helped generate some priceless moments. I think the players really enjoyed the discovery process with a packet of salt & vinegar potato chips that came out of the food machine and were a theme for the rest of the adventure. The RHMDU is a brilliant place to explore; the PCs actually got into the administrative center for a bit because of a laser pistol they had found.

Brian Blume's bionics (reproduced in the Goodman edition) made a really threatening NPC who got offed with the laser pistol - it did him a ton of damage, even more than he did with his bionic arm and vibro-sword. And I wound up using Jim Ward's forest level from Dungeoneer (also in the Goodman tome) when the PCs left the confines of the level I had designed. Both the Goodman book and House on the Hill pulled their weight.

One detail I really enjoyed playing out was that the PCs, in the RHMDU, found "casual clothing" - which I decided had them going around in "Starship Warden" t-shirts. I might need to petition WardCo to actually make some because I'm just so tickled by the idea. I also enjoyed the PCs finding out that the radiation-riddled "Forbidden Zone" was really, well, forbidden and not just somewhere the PCs' parents had warned them against.

The session ended in disaster because the PCs found explosives, which I described pretty clearly as C4. I know, I could've gone with something else, but it's so much more fun to run with something you can really get into describing. Plus, there's electrical effects abound in the game, and given that C4 is activated by electricity it only seemed fitting. This was what did the PCs in, as the electrified shed in the Dungeoneer level and a PC's ability to generate electricity both combined with the C4 and blew the PCs and the shed to kingdom come. (Two PCs technically survived because, as a G+ Hangout game, their players dropped out before the grand finale.)

The ending was appropriate given that it was a one-shot; I see MA as perfect for one-shots, or maybe a "mini-series" planned campaign. It was based on novels which are fairly brief, and relies heavily on the theme of discovery. I could also very much see it blending into D&D as I discussed in my last post. Because it isn't class-and-level based, players can get to the really good stuff right in their first or second adventure, and don't need to go through a grind of level building.

It deserves some mention that the system is more rough hewn than even OD&D. The organization of the rulebook is awful, especially given that the WardCo and Goodman reprints both contain errata-ed versions of most of the essential tables that you use to run the game. (And don't get me started on the fact that the mutations are in basically arbitrary order.) The lacunae don't really matter much, though, because the system is simply so light that an experienced referee can just make a ruling and not change the game at all. The material that is present works quite well, but it's not a game to be run by a neophyte.

One hint for the prospective referee: you should have stats for any NPCs or monsters you're using. The game runs a lot more smoothly when, at a minimum, they have Mental Resistance and Dexterity scores, and at that point you might as well give them Constitution, Strength and Radiation Resistance.

Metamorphosis Alpha is going through the best period of support in its lifetime, thanks to Goodman Games and WardCo.  It's very different from the D&D experience, but it is really worth giving a try in play. MA is really good for gamers who've played a lot of D&D and want the excitement of fresh discovery, really specializing in that aspect of play, and because of how it's structured it doesn't require a commitment of months or years to a campaign.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mashup: Holmes D&D and Metamorphosis Alpha

I love the Holmes rulebook, and I often wonder why I have so much affection for it. Part of it is simply that Dave Sutherland cover; the art is not polished but it is completely evocative, both in color and in the monochrome blue. (I particularly love the blue book look.)

But it's the potential in the incomplete work that draws me in. The Holmes booklet allows the DM to run a few games of D&D, but not a full campaign. Meepo's Companion is an easy fix, and fills out levels 4 through 9 in just four pages. From that basis, unorthodox "supplements" to the Holmes rulebook are one of my favorite thought experiments. It allows you to have a basis that is 100% classic Dungeons & Dragons, but change everything outside that core and create something totally different.

Of course, it helps that TSR published something totally different from D&D just a year before Holmes Basic. Just re-released as a super-deluxe book by Goodman Games, Metamorphosis Alpha is a wild game of exploration in a generation starship that has gone horribly wrong. Radiation killed most of the people on board, and the survivors have reverted to barbarism. There are weird animal mutants, deadly plants and high-tech weapons and gadgets abounding in the setting. It's a decided alternative to the stereotypical post-nuclear apocalypse world that, for instance, appears in Jim Ward's later Gamma World. MA gives nigh-magical powers through mutations, and cares not for hard science.

The games are both focused on exploration, and as such make a natural pairing. The mutants and high technology of MA are excellent variants on the overly-familiar fantasy tropes supported in Dungeons & Dragons, while D&D's framework is fundamentally similar to MA's, to the point where MA has been called a "megadungeon in space." And while MA has some wild and awesome ideas, D&D is more of a sustainable campaign game.

MA's system is very nearly in scale with classic D&D, and uses similar systems of armor, weapon, and hit dice. Its characters don't advance, and get hit points as a direct function of Constitution (1d6 per point). This is similar to an eighth level D&D fighting-man using the Holmes Companion, so it stands to reason that the tougher MA creatures will be at the lower dungeon levels, with only a scattering of mutants in the first levels. Jim Ward's game is notoriously tough, and even with D&D levels and spells it's still not a walk in the park.

Look at the Tom Wham "Skull Mountain" dungeon layout:

This is a perfect fit for a D&D/MA mashup. I picture the early levels being fairly straightforward D&D type affairs, with hints of more – a stray mutant or two, a piece of inexplicable technology here and there. Then level 4A is the first level with serious numbers of Metamorphosis Alpha style mutations as well as D&D monsters, while 4B focuses on some of the tougher "fantasy" baddies. Then the 5th and 6th levels have some serious high-tech artifacts as well as some of the humanoid mutations of MA, and progressively meaner creatures. Finally the 7th level - the "Domed City" - is a high tech city straight out of Metamorphosis Alpha. A twist suggested by Zach H of Zenopus Archives is to have the whole of Skull Mountain be aboard MA's Starship Warden.

I like this setup because it takes TSR's two "lightest" rulesets, and links them together in what I feel is a largely organic way. For instance, it would be perfectly fun to have PCs roll up a Radiation Resistance score the very first time they actually encounter radiation. Mental Resistance can be converted from Wisdom, and Leadership from Charisma. And it merges the "big reveal" style of MA with the "secret at the heart of the dungeon" aspect that D&D always promises but it turns out to be a chute to China.

(If you read that link, or if you know your classic Dragon magazines, you know that Gygax did send PCs to the Warden; here we are talking about the opposite, using MA as the "reveal" at the deeper levels of D&D.)

The mashup has some great potential for chocolate/peanut butter type mixtures. First, factions in a large-scale dungeon transition naturally into some of the classic MA bad guys: wolfoids and androids, particularly, are classic MA villains. Technology, particularly Brian Blume's Bionics table from The Dragon (Jeff Rients reproduced it here) could be a lot of fun when applied to D&D monsters. Imagine a hobgoblin with a bionic arm, or a hyper-intelligent ogre with bionic eyes and brain. Mutations, too – I mean, come on, you can have kobolds that fire frickin' lasers from their eyes. Meanwhile the D&D magic items gain particular effect in MA; after all, think of the power of a single Ring of Animal Control over the mutated beasts of MA. Not to mention the visual of, say, a bearoid wielding a flaming sword.

Part of why I think I'm enjoying this particular blend of sci-fi and fantasy over the more sword and planet ideas I've explored in the past is that it's a very human-centric game, and rooted firmly in RPG history. It also lives up to the sci-fi elements that were present in the original edition of D&D but disappeared shortly thereafter. I like it enough that I think it's worth pursuing further and looking at some of the places where the two games intersect in the most interesting ways.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Initiative, Dexterity and Ready Ref Sheets

The title of this blog is Macaronic Latin for "Always Initiative One," but I don't actually write about initiative much. Which is odd, because I actually do think about it a good bit, just not in a format that's ready to write about. Here I'm going to be focusing on OD&D, although coming at it by way of Chainmail.

In the first round of Chainmail man-to-man, the attacker strikes first, unless the defender has a longer weapon, or the defender has high ground. In subsequent rounds, initiative stays the same, unless one side has a shorter weapon or the high ground. All of this makes sense. If a man with a sword attacks a man with a spear, the spear-wielder can fend him off and get the first blow in, but if they both survive, the man with the sword has the advantage because he's overcome the spear's range and can work more quickly.

The state of affairs in Chainmail is good, and it's worth seeing what we can do in terms of replicating it in D&D. Unfortunately, it doesn't cover enough possibilities; what if someone is firing missiles, or throwing spells, or fighting against a creature that attacks with its claws? Chainmail only has 12 weapon types (if you don't have Chainmail but do have OD&D or Holmes Basic, the weapons are arranged in order by length in both of those books). So clearly it's going to need some work.

Outside of surprise, the main comment that OD&D has on initiative is under the description of abilities:
Dexterity applies to both manual speed and conjuration. It will indicate the character's missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.
We're not told how Dexterity indicates this. We can compare stats when an Elf is taking a shot at an Evil High Priest, to see whether the Elf's arrow gets off before the EHP's Finger of Death spell, but it breaks down once we have monsters with no stats. So if a Hobbit is fighting a Manticora, does the plucky hero throw his stone before the creature's tail spikes fire? We don't have a Dexterity score for the monster. Also, this doesn't specify whether it factors into melee at all.

But I like the idea that Dexterity should impact on initiative. Now our goal is twofold: a spear should get first action over a sword, and Dexterity should impact on initiative.

In the 1975 article in The Strategic Review, "Questions Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules," Gygax did make some attempt to clarify initiative:
Initiative is always checked. Surprise naturally allows first attack in many cases. Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round. Dice scores are adjusted for dexterity and so on.
This doesn't specify exactly how Dexterity adjusts initiative, but in the ensuing example Gygax says that the Hero gets a bonus of 1 due to high Dexterity. We can reasonably extrapolate that he is geting +1 for a Dexterity of 13 or better, matching the missile adjustments given in OD&D.

Unfortunately the method in the OD&D FAQ doesn't get us an effect much like that in Chainmail. Now initiative is mostly random, with a bump for Dexterity, but weapon length has disappeared from the equation.

The Judges Guild tried to solve all these factors (and add a few more) in the Ready Ref Sheets. The Weapon Priority table (you can see it on the Zenopus Archives site here) factors in weapon length, spell level, missile weapons, dragon breath weapons, armor, monster speed and Dexterity. Which is all for the good, except that the priority system has a fatal flaw: it makes longer weapons better in absolute terms than shorter ones. A spear in these rules is better than a sword, and if you're using all d6 damage, there's no reason to ever use a sword. Which is silly, as there are plenty of reasons to use swords in real life.

This really only works if you can work out in advance that, say, a fighting-man in plate with a sword and Dexterity of 14 has a total rating of 5, while an orc (9" move) with a spear has 6. The orc always goes first. But it has some good ideas, and we can pull this all together without so much work that it's unwieldy.

This is a much-simplified table that takes into account weapon length:

Factor Round 1 Rounds 2+
Long Weapon* +1 n/a
Short Weapon** -1 n/a
Dexterity/Move 8 or less -1 -1
Dexterity/Move 13 or higher +1 +1
Encumbered (Moving at 1/2 speed) -1 -1

* Morning Star, Flail, Spear, Pole Arm, Halberd, 2-handed Sword, Lance, Pike
** Dagger, Hand Axe, Mace

The system is simple: roll initiative on 1d6, individual for PCs, as a group for monsters, and apply the above modifiers. Roll-off (no modifiers) on ties.

I chose not to flip the modifiers after round 1. Particularly in d6-based damage systems, 2-handed weapons don't have a large advantage, and giving them a penalty for most of the fight makes them nearly useless. I also threw in the encumbered modifier from the Ready Ref Sheets rule, and merged Dexterity and monster Move rates, which are pretty similar.

This does pretty much everything I want an initiative system to do: it takes into account weapon length, but only on the first round, it takes Dexterity into account, and it makes movement rates a bigger part of the game. A dextrous, light-armored fighting-man with a spear (+3) is at a pretty big advantage versus a clumsy, heavily encumbered cleric with a mace (-3), and will almost certainly get the jump on him.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

OD&D Hobbits, Scouting and Light

A while back a story of mine encouraged a post over on the Zenopus Archives saying Hobbits are the Rangers of Basic D&D. Looking through Chainmail recently, I noticed a bit that Zach also quoted:
Remember that they are able to blend into the background and so make excellent scouts.
OD&D's hobbits are low in utility; they only get to 4th level, have good saving throws (+4 to level), and are "deadly accurate" with missiles, which should mean roughly that hobbits can throw stones with a bonus on the to-hit table. I would consider adjudicating this the same way that OD&D adjusts the saving throws for dwarves and hobbits, giving them a shift upward in level (so starting at 5th level and going up to 9th) for the column used on Attack Matrix 1.

But it occurs to me that hobbits are also very natural dungeoneers. Which led me to look at The Hobbit, and specifically its description of Frodo's experience while underground.
Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people; and after all if their holes are nice cheery places and properly aired, quite different from the tunnels of the goblins, still they are more used to tunnelling than we are, and they do not easily lose their sense of direction underground – not when their heads have recovered from being bumped. Also they can move very quietly, and hide easily, and recover wonderfully from falls and bruises ...
The light from Sting is mentioned repeatedly in the sojourn that follows, but what is really intriguing is that Bilbo mostly finds his way through the goblin caves by instinct and feel, only to be surprised when he finally hits the underground lake in Gollum's lair.

OD&D is stingier with regard to infravision and darkvision than its descendants; elves and dwarves don't get it any more than humans or hobbits. And lacking thieves, but giving all demihumans enhanced chances to hear, I think hobbits doing dungeon scouting becomes a natural fit. Keep in mind that hobbits are excellent at hiding and will do so quite naturally.

In running dungeon-based games over the years in many systems, it's always seemed like this is an irritating point. Unless you send a dwarf or an elf ahead, or are high enough level to throw around Infravision spells, the natural scouts – B/X human thieves, AD&D halfling thieves, OD&D hobbits – always run into this problem where their natural scouting abilities are limited by inability to see in the dark. Once you're sending a torch ahead, the group typically decides to do reconnaissance in force, sending the whole party in formation through the dungeon and leading to a "kill everything" mentality. And in original and classic D&D that's a recipe for TPKs.

Giving OD&D hobbits the ability to navigate by sound, touch, and instinct (but not to see in the dark; they may have a feeling that something is in a chamber but not know what's there) goes a long way toward solving this practical problem. Obviously they won't be able to do intricate maps, but counting the number of side passages and knowing the navigation paths leading to the next set of stairs allows a PC party to make much better decisions about the way they're going than simply having them lump from room to room like drunken sailors.

Obviously when PCs get infravision they become the natural scouts, replacing the need for such hobbitry. But as a method for OD&D, I would think this is a very viable replacement for the thief-as-blind-scout.