Saturday, February 12, 2011

Original Dungeons and Dragons

More investigations into role-playing games (mostly to plunder them for ideas) led me to a couple of re-writes of the original Dungeons and Dragons game (the red and blue books! Remember?) The games are Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry (White Box Rules). And you know what? Original D&D sucks. Badly.

There are horrible tables (attack roll tables?!), saving throws, experience points, ability scores, spell levels, Vancian magic systems, alignments, arbitrary weapon restrictions (as if clerics don't shed blood, come on! The crusades, anyone?), etc.

The idea of moving away from D&D 3rd and 4th edition is a good one. Not moving back to AD&D 1st or 2nd edition is also a good idea. But moving back to original D&D? Not a good idea.

What the authors should have done: Taken the idea of "simple" and applied reasoning to it. Take the nostalgia and remould it into a simple and yet modern RPG. The great thing that original D&D has over 4th edition D&D is evocation. Reading about Charm Person is a lot more evocative than reading about Ray of Enfeeblement. These OD&D games have the evocation but they're extremely tedious, power-gamey and complex.

Who are these RPGs even aimed at? I can't imagine how anyone new to the past-time would be even slightly intrigued by the complexity and weirdness of the books. They're not logical nor do they create a space for players to envision their characters. Therefore, I can only imagine that the new releases are for old-school players. If that's the case, why wouldn't we just grab our old red and blue books from the attic, basement, parents' house, siblings' house, etc.? I know I could, but I'm not going to.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

HeroQuest comments

I looked at HeroQuest while looking for a RuneQuest replacement. It's the other Glorantha RPG. It's almost a good replacement. There are few special rules. Keywords, derived from a character's description, are tied to numbers from 1 to 20. Rolling below this number (on a d20) determines success. That is basically it.

The maths, however, like most RPGs, is a fail.
HeroQuest abilities are scored on a range of 1–20, but are scalable. When you raise a rating of 20 by one point, it increases not to 21, but to 1W. The W signifies a game abstraction called a mastery. You have now reached a new order of excellence in that ability. (HeroQuest 2nd edition, pg 19)
To fix this deeply broken idea, the game-master is expected to keep pace (of course):
Supporting characters, with whom you have relationships, improve over time. Values for their ratings are comparative to yours. As you improve, so will they. Narrators needn't track the improvement over time, but simply update their ratings whenever they reappear in the storyline. (pg 61)
And to justify it, the author declares:
Why Advance Characters At All?

Few of the adventure genres we draw inspiration from actually feature significant character improvement through the course of a series. Mysteries, pulps, military adventures, westerns, and space operas tend to feature characters who are highly competent from the outset. Occasionally a secondary character, most often a male ingénue, starts out as a greenhorn and proves himself in the course of the story. (Just as often, a once-competent secondary character redeems himself and returns to his legendary past level of competence.) Other, grimmer genres, like horror, satirical SF, and arguably post-apocalyptic survivalism, keep their protagonists relatively weak throughout.

Fantasy is a prominent exception: it is not uncommon to follow a character from humble beginnings to epic achievement.

Rate of improvement is basically, then, a genre element. Narrators who want a rapid growth curve should decrease the costs of ability improvement. Those who want slower growth should increase them.

That said, roleplayers really enjoy increasing their PC’s abilities on a regular basis. Regular ability boosts helps to keep them invested in their characters, and thinking of their futures. This is one area where HeroQuest bows more to the demands of the roleplaying form than to precedents set by the source material.

In series fiction, relationships are another common exception; highly competent heroes often make friends or contacts they meet again in a sequel. Narrators can encourage this with directed improvements. (pg 58)
This justification is muddled. Within fantasy, "it is not uncommon to follow a character from humble beginnings to epic achievement." Epic achievement maybe, but that isn't the same as numerical advancement. Not at all. There is little "advancement" in the classic of all fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings. The characters develop, undeniably, but do they advance in any way reminiscent of RPGs? Gandalf does, perhaps, when he becomes Gandalf the White. Nevertheless, the changes aren't similar to the way one advances in RPGs. The other characters, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Strider and the hobbits just don't advance, yet they all achieve great things. Frodo, if anything, regresses. The weight of the ring bares down on him. He barely survives and is certainly no stronger for it.

The conclusion is "This is one area where HeroQuest bows more to the demands of the roleplaying form than to precedents set by the source material." Screw that! All we need do is teach roleplayers basic arithmetic and then move on to great achievements, huge rewards, challenging and fun stories. We just don't need grade 3 sums to do that.

And the rest of the HeroQuest? I don't know, I didn't read too much more. I was too enraged and wanted to ride my hobby-horse. However, I think I should return because there are lots of ideas about how to play an RPG, something that is deeply lacking in RPGs these days.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

FateQuest session report 4

Our fourth role-playing session was different again to the previous sessions. The biggest change was the abandonment of RuneQuest II as the game system. We still have the same adventurers, the same setting (Glorantha) and the same plot (Summons of the Wyter), but a new set of rules. Rules that I've been working out for a while. I'm calling it FateQuest.

FateQuest is basically a hack between RuneQuest and FATE (hence the name). All the good things I liked about RuneQuest (lots of the combat stuff) and the good things I like about FATE (skill pyramid and aspects) have been melded together. The result worked better than what I imagined (and I was imagining something pretty good). I've already tweaked it some more, so it should run even smoother, without a loss of detail.

There is issue, however. It isn't about the game system as such, more about how people play. Half the group of six have never or barely played an RPG before. The other half have either played a lot or at least have preconceived ideas about how to play an RPG (me included). That's tricky. Furthermore, at least one of us wants to play more free-form (few rules, few dice, mostly narrative and role-play). At least two of us like the game/simulation element and the dice, though not all of the time. We all like the debating and figuring out what should happen.

The main thing I tried to do with FateQuest was expunge all of the power-gaming by design aspects of RuneQuest. I think I've achieved that. But it's still a game. Depending on how you look at it, you can still win. It's suppose to be more of a simulation than a game (see GNS Theory) but those two aspects can easily meld together. And people feel good when they win. I don't want them to lose the feeling you get when having a clever idea or solving a problem. In fact, I want to encourage it.

I like frameworks, they can help stimulate ideas and they can give you a game within a game. I'm not sure how we could completely free-form it, though the thought reoccurs. I.e., drop the rules and dice entirely. But who/what would decide? If the adventurer's life is in the balance, I don't want the game-master to decide the outcome. That's too much responsibility. That's why game-masters hide behind a probability wall - they can always blame the dice. And yet, adventurers' lives should hang in the balance. Perhaps all the players (GM included) can simply agree that the adventurer got into too much trouble to be able to survive, or at least, remain conscious. I dunno.

The other potential problem with free-forming it is that events will probably move a lot faster. We'd definitely be moving out of the Glorantha setting in no time. We'll also move out of an ancients setting too (i.e., Greek/Roman). Mostly because we don't know all that much about Glorantha (I know at least ten times more than the other players, but very little overall) and I don't think any of us know very much about an ancient way of life, though more than a regular schmuck. Neither of those things are necessarily bad, but I'm enthralled by Glorantha and imagining other ways of life is what role-playing is all about.

Trying to speed through the combat section - because I didn't want anyone to get bored - without actually allowing players to collectively decide what they were doing wasn't a great move. However, because we had a new set of rules, needing explanation at the same time as being played, it was quite difficult to fit everything in.

The horsemen approached Verstead. Hengall hastily organised a shield wall at the broken gates (the only feasible entrance to the stead, at least on horseback). As the horsemen closed in, it became apparent that they were clan-members from the Orldor family. They were Old Ways Traditionalists, perhaps, but not enemies. The shield wall came down.

As the horsemen rode into camp it became apparent rather quickly that something was amiss. Some of the Orldor carls looked nervous. Iddi Iddrosson, the Orldor leader, almost looked pleased.

Soon enough, Iddi declared that he'd like to move into Verstead now that the Jendarls wouldn't be needing it any more. Hengall and the adventurers attacked. Of course, the adventurers went straight for Iddi. Most blows were ineffectual, but Flavias managed to strike Iddi's head with an arrow, though his helmet protected him from any serious injury.

Anid, Trax and Soliste were heavily involved in fighting the carls and weaponthanes. Flavis, with her bow, attempted to stay further away. Ben Poleo slipped away to try to free Arlyn. Ben also shouted out to the assailants that their attack was without honour, further demoralising the carls.

Anid and Trax are competent warriors and they could hold their own against the carls and thanes. Soliste, on the other hand, struggled. By the time Hengall ordered them to leave to save the wyter at the Black Grove, Soliste had already suffered injuries. A short-spear became impaled in her left arm. With the help of Anid, she was able to retreat from the battle.

The party gathered their horses once they were out of the fight. All six (including Arlyn) mounted their three remaining horses - there was no time to acquire new horses. As Soliste mounted her horse she was forced to withdraw the impaled short-spear. The pain was overwhelming and she fell unconscious.

The group rode towards the bared exit. With Arlyn's help, the group managed to easily flee Verstead.

We left them as they were on their way to the Black Grove.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Opposed Tests (in RPGs)

Most role-playing games use opposed tests. E.g., RuneQuest:
An opposed skill roll occurs when one skill is actively resisted by another. For example, a thief attempts to sneak past a wily palace guard who, being vigilant is on the look-out for potential crooks. (pg 34)
(This is a confused concept in RuneQuest because combat rolls aren't exactly considered opposed tests, which is a little discombobulating because surely combat tests are "actively resisted by another.")

Or Diaspora:
You want to beat someone else at something. The defender rolls defensively and you need to meet or beat that roll offensively. (pg 9)
Opposed tests don't change your odds of success. However, some tasks that you could never achieve with a single roll may be achievable with an opposed test as it opens out a larger range of results. The inverse is also true, you can fail when you normally wouldn't.

I don't know where the idea for opposed tests came from, but they're a wacky idea. One of the main issues is figuring out, philosophically, what is and is not an opposed test. In RuneQuest, sneaking past an alert guard is an opposed roll, but trying to cut her throat whilst she attempts the same to you, is not, technically. This isn't solely an issue with RuneQuest, most games seem to struggle with the concept.

Opposed tests are usually reserved for resolving a conflict of one sentient being against another. Why is that? If one wants to cross a dangerous suspension bridge, one isn't allowed to roll an opposed test against the designers/builders of the bridge. However, if one of those builders were shaking the bridge from the other end, you might be allowed an opposed test. That seems quite odd.

I think that the only logical use of an opposed tests is to use them when you want, for whatever you want and just because they are fun. Playing with opposed tests makes it feel like there is a real conflict going on. And you can stunningly succeed or fail, so that has to be fun, surely. Of course, if a game never used opposed tests, it wouldn't be any less of a game and it would definitely speed the game up a little too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

RuneQuest session report 3

We played our third RuneQuest session a couple of weeks ago. It started with a bit of roleplaying philosophy and discussion of what this game should be about. I presented the idea that the RuneQuest rules should be generously relaxed, due to the unnecessary complexity, categorisation issues and issues regarding maths.

I brought along a bunch of FUDGE dice as a possible way of resolving un-categorisable tasks and allowing granularity of results (not just success/fail).

The session followed closely to the Summons of the Wyter adventure, though there were a number of embellishments along the way.
The party arrived at Verstead to be greeted, not by their family and friends, but smashed village gates and burning buildings. During the previous evening, the stead was attacked by unknown enemies. The clan leader was trapped and burnt to death inside his house. Only tens of people survived.

The adventurers helped rescue their clans-folk. They pulled, from the rubble and collapsed beams, Soliste's aunt, Arlyn. Addi, a herb and spice trader, was also a notable survivor.

Hengall Boneblade (the stead champion) had reluctantly assumed leadership. He arrested Addi, then Arlyn, then Soliste, accusing them of betraying the clan. Arlyn and Soliste were accused of witchcraft (both have knowledge of God Learner alchemy and sorcery). Addi was arrested simply because he was an unknown visitor to the stead.

The accusation of treachery and witchcraft made against Soliste was resolved well by Trax who declared any accusation absurd as Soliste hadn't been in town for months, "and besides, she's been fighting against the clan's enemies, the God Learners of Seshnela."

Addi was also convincing. He'd lost half of his herbs and spices and was almost killed in the night's mayhem. If he had betrayed the clan, why would he have remained in the stead?

Arlyn remained tied up, with Hengall refusing to release her, no matter what argument was made.

An intense headache, then a vision of the clan's wyter (a theistic guardian being of an Orlanthi community) flashed into the minds of the people of The Black Grove Clan (including Trax and Soliste). The wyter was in danger!

Hengall began to organise a small group of weaponthanes and carls to assist the wyter, located in the Black Grove, an hours ride from the ruined Verstead. The wyter had to be saved or it would spell the final doom for the clan.

As they were about to ride for the grove, horsemen were spotted, riding towards the stead from the south.
I don't feel like it was an overly successful session. There was a lot of time spent establishing the story to come, which meant not many interesting decisions for the players. Futhermore, of the few decisions that existed, I struggled at making them genuine. Allowing players to influence the plot has got to be the most challenging aspect of an RPG. Nevertheless, I had fun and I think that generally we enjoyed the session.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Diaspora review

Diaspora is a recent sci-fi role-playing game. It's part of the "indie" crowd (Burning Wheel, Fiasco, Spirit of the Century, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc). It's basically a dramatic re-imagining of Traveller.

Diaspora has:
  • one great idea, cluster creation and integration with character creation
  • one excellent solution to numerical advancement (i.e., power-gaming by design, an issue with most RPGs)
  • a bunch of interesting ideas, the sub-games.
Diaspora uses a modified FATE system (FATE is a good, generic system for RPGs that uses FUDGE dice.)

Someone else's review describes a lot of the content, so I won't focus too much on those aspects. I agree with their "The Good" and "The Bad" conclusions. Especially:
I'd love to see a 2nd edition that goes into greater depth discussing hard sci-fi concepts, physics considerations, and how to make all of that fun at the gaming table. More attention to technological development of societies and its implications would have been helpful, especially given the importance of societal tech level in this game.
Otherwise, I don't think the game is lacking anything. I love how it's quite simple and yet offers a huge amount of scope.

Cluster Creation

The theme of the game, as the title suggests, is diaspora. Humanity has spread out over the universe/galaxy and become fragmented. No-one really knows where home is, they're lost in a sea of stars. All one knows is a small cluster of star systems that one can travel between using slipknots (sci-fi gobbledegook - otherwise the game is hard sci-fi). They don't even know how far away, in kilometres, each star system is from another. It's a lot of unknowns. Great start!

The setup, then, is to create star-systems and link them together. Each star system has three "stats" associated with them; technology, environment and resources. This is enough to give you a good basis for a description of each system. Players add information to each system, trying to evoke as interesting a system as possible. Individual planets are described also, especially the habitable ones. Finally, each system is linked into a network.

Cluster creation is a clever idea. In most RPGs, the players interact with an established setting, either from published material or from the gamemaster's creation. In Diaspora, everyone is involved with establishing the setting. From this point, the characters are grown.

Game Mechanics and Character Creation

Diaspora uses a modified FATE games system, an upgrade to FUDGE. Without boring you with the details, undoubtedly FATE is better than FUDGE. FATE uses two main mechanics, skills and aspects. Skills are terms associated with numbers (e.g., Engineer 2, Climbing 1). The higher the number, the better able you are at performing the skill. Aspects, on the other hand, are solely terms. Aspects are, for instance, "all attractive people must die," or "rich people are the bee's knees." One uses aspects to modify skill rolls. I see Skills and Aspects as the core concepts to FATE, or at least to Diaspora's modified system.

I'll quote the book to elucidate all the elements of a character.
Characters are composed of four mechanical elements: their Aspects, their Skills, their Stunts, and their stress tracks (Health, Composure, and Wealth). Aspects are short, evocative statements that describe the character in ways that can be used mechanically both for and against the character as well as being points at which the referee can suggest actions to players for their characters. Skills are the basic abilities of the character, chosen from a list provided later in this section, and used mechanically to add to the basic roll during any conflict in which the Skill is relevant. Stunts are new rules that apply to the character. Stress tracks are indications of how stressed the character is physically, mentally, and financially. Aspects derive from the character’s story. Skills and Stunts are selected after the story is constructed. Stress tracks have a basic rating modified by some Skills and Stunts. (pg 32)
You might notice one thing missing, something that virtually all RPGs possess, ability scores (those "innate" abilities that all characters have). This is a great thing as they are redundant concepts. Often, all ability scores do is go on to become new numbers (strength bonus, initiate bonus, etc.), like some weird number generating machine.

The only Diaspora mechanic I dislike are Stunts. They seem like a trite way to get a bonus. Why aren't Aspects sufficient? Aspects are used, when applicable, to give a +2 bonus to a skill or a re-roll. A stunt seems to give an extra bonus on top of that. I don't see the utility, though perhaps I'm missing something subtle. The game could be played perfectly well without Stunts, so it doesn't matter.

The real innovation, in my opinion, is the idea that Skills don't "improve" in the way they appear to in most RPGs. Instead, characters have a pyramid of abilities.
Players select 15 Skills for their character and rank them in a pyramid: one at level 5, two at 4, three at 3, four at 2, and five at 1. (Pg 34)
A player may move any Skill up the Skill pyramid one place (though not past 5) and then must move a Skill from that new rank down one level. That is, the Skill pyramid must be maintained, always having one Skill at rank five, two at rank four, and so on. (Pg 59)
This innovation goes against basically all ideas in conventional RPGs. When I first read it, I was horrified. After thinking about the consequences, I realised that that's how all RPGs should work.


The sub-games are: personal combat, space combat, social combat and platoon combat. I've only read personal combat and bits of social combat. They look like good fun. With personal combat, you draw up an abstract map, place aspects on objects in the world (uneven terrain, furniture, trees, etc.) and costs to move between areas. This gives you an abstract but very usable way of describing the game world. Combined with rules for weapons and wounds, I find the personal combat rules very compelling.

The other sub-games might be good too, I wouldn't know. The great thing about them is that all the sub-games are completely optional. You can add/remove/modify without disrupting other parts of the game.

From an author:
So, we loved Traveller but one day we started experimenting with "new" games. We built a setting with Universalis and that was enlightening -- games could go places we hadn't thought of. We played Burning Wheel in that setting and that was enlightening -- different ways to think about success and failure, reward cycles, and players communicating what they wanted from the story through these. We played some Spirit of the Century and had a couple of months of the most inclusive, honest fun we'd ever had gaming. It had distinct flaws, but we found those attractive because we like to fix things.

But we loved Traveller. It wasn't delivering on the level of some of these new games, but then these new games weren't hitting the sweet note that Traveller did for us either. So we had a stupid idea: what if we hacked SotC to do Traveller? (The RPG Haven)
Now I just want someone to hack Diaspora and do RuneQuest.


I think Diaspora is one of the most innovative RPG books I've ever read. It ditches so many bad ideas (e.g., false ideas of progress, ability scores, unnecessary complexity, etc.) and presents a game system that is incredibly playable. Even if you're not into sci-fi at all, this should be the game you're looking at at the moment. Take the ideas from cluster creation, the re-working of FATE (minus Stunts, perhaps), and anything from the sub-games and you probably have the best RPG that currently exists.