Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dangers & Dragons: Download It!

After much delay, brought on by nothing in particular, my D&D-ish hack of Danger Patrol is finally available for download. You'll need Danger Patrol to play, though; I converted everything I wanted to convert, but I didn't go through the effort of rewriting the whole thing, so the zip file doesn't have, for example, a list of Threat Moves, which is something you're going to want to have.

Also, on the advice of counsel, it's now called Dangers & Dragons. Let the word go forth!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sigils and Traveller

As I've enthused elsewhere on the Internet, I recently picked up the original three Traveller LBBs at my FLGS for six bucks inclusive, and it's been a real psionic blast from the past. I have a lot of nostalgia for Traveller, but in all honest I don't think I ever actually played it. I didn't have a lot of people to play with back in 1980 or whatever, and my little group in elementary school was mostly about D&D and Tunnels & Trolls, with Top Secret added sometime in junior high. By then, I think Traveller was mostly forgotten, although we did squeeze in a little Star Frontiers, so it's not like sci-fi or space opera was totally unappealing to us. (How could it be? We're the Star Wars generation, man.)

At any rate, the thing I do remember doing with Traveller was rolling up characters. Like the AD&D DMG, those Traveller books weren't written for my demographic -- but unlike Gygax's work, Traveller's text was almost as hard as its sci-fi: dry and didactic. Gygax loved fancy words, and my vocabulary expanded quite a bit with AD&D, but Traveller's more... impersonal. Like, "Let's just get through this so you can play." The charm is in the content, not the presentation.

So as I rolled up characters the other night -- some of whom, yes, died in chargen, but nobody ever said exploring with the Scouts was going to be easy -- I recalled a recent couple threads on about doing a fantasy version of Traveller. This, of course, is right up my alley. So I looked around, found Adventurer and Mercator, and found that they had things pretty well in hand. But it also occurred to me that in terms of the thing I love so much about Traveller -- the random chargen -- Sigils is, like, 80% there. It's all about the random chargen. Instead of doing another fantasy Traveller, I'm Travellering up Sigils.

Looking at what I have now, I'm keeping the Cultures, but I'm divorcing them from the Backgrounds. It used to be that the only way to have a Background as, say, a Sorcerer was to come from the Decadent South. No more. Now the Backgrounds are in six categories -- Authority, Commerce, Crime, Learning, War, and Wild -- each of which contains four Backgrounds. Three of these can be chosen at will; the fourth has a pre-requisite, like a stat minimum or previous Backgrounds. (This is analogous to how Traveller keeps certain skills requiring advanced training behind a wall of elitism.) Each category also requires a 2d6 roll to access it. If you don't beat the target number, you can't get in, but you can roll for something else. If you don't beat the target number on that roll, well... I'll get to that in a bit.

Your Culture affects your chances of opening these categories. If you're from the Frozen North, for example, it's a lot easier for you to go into War than Learning, just as it's easier for someone from a Great City to go into Commerce instead of the Wild. It's not that you can't have those Backgrounds -- it's just that it doesn't come easily to you, and you may not find the opportunity in life to become a scholar or a shaman or get into a guild or what have you.

Assuming you beat the category's target number, you choose the Background, but you roll 1d6 for the Specialty it gives you, just as in Traveller. (Hey, it ain't broke.) Different Backgrounds within the same category are thematically related, but give you different odds for getting a particular Specialty. For example, if you want a fighter-type who's very focused on weapon skills, go for Soldier over Mercenary. Soldiers are more focused on that sort of thing, whereas the wandering life of a Mercenary gives you a potentially broader skillset. Almost all the Backgrounds only dole out Specialties, but some can give you a Resource, such as a Wealth Level or a Contact Level. The "elite" Background in each category almost always does this, sometimes two such Resources at a time.

All of this occurs in five phases; each phase you roll for a Background (or roll for a second, if you don't get the first, or...), and give yourself an aspect. If you succeed at your first-choice category, the aspect is a Quality -- a favorable aspect. If you fail to enter that category, you get a Challenge instead, or an aspect that is almost totally "negative" in nature: a weakness, a personal failing, an enemy, or the like. Both Qualities and Challenges can be invoked and compelled. They only differ in terms of the Challenge's enforced unfavorable flavor. Of course, you don't have to go a full five phases -- you can leave a couple aspect slots blank, and fill them in later, but that also means you start with fewer Specialties and Resources. Why on Yrth would you do that, you ask?

As alluded to earlier, probably the most famous bit of old-school Traveller chargen was the possibility of dying during it. I'm not going quite that far, but I'm keeping the vibe. Death-by-chargen isn't just cruel -- it serves a purpose. In Traveller, two things discourage you from going a full eight terms and racking up a ton of skills and other benefits: age-dependent stat degradations, which get worse the older you get, and the risk of dying during a term of service. I'm not so concerned about age. Sword-and-sorcery characters are old or young as the story demands. If you roll up a guy with a low Strength and Coordination, feel free to say he's old -- or weak and clumsy. Whatever. No, there has to be an analogue for dying, a potential consequence for constantly testing your luck in the world and starting out with a more experienced character, and that analogue is Servitude.

If you fail two Background checks in a single phase, you end up in Servitude for that phase. You're captured by slavers, or arrested on charges real or falsified, or forced into indentured service, or overthrown by your social inferiors and made to work the mines. You figure it out.

Being in Servitude sucks. You roll for your Specialty, just as you would with any other Background, but odds are good -- one in two -- that you won't like the result. Sure, there's a chance your enslavement could make you stronger or slightly more worldly, but it's just as likely that you'll emerge from it penniless and broken. In fact, you could end up so broken that you aren't fit for a life of adventure, in which case you roll up a new guy. That's right. You aren't dead, per se, but you wish you were.

What are the odds of this happening? Pretty low. First, you have to fail two Background checks, then you have a one-in-six chance of getting a -1 to your Willpower. If your Willpower is reduced to zero, you've lost your ambition, hope, thirst for vengeance, or whatever it is that drives you. You have to keep ending up in Servitude (getting out requires a roll, as opposed to rolling to get in) and keep rolling that result. All that considered, this probably will not happen to your character.

But it could.

I've only rolled up a few characters using this method, but right off the bat the results indicate much more in terms of backstory and personality than the old method did. I'm very pleased with it. Yeah, it's a little more rolling, but it's also much more interesting, so that's a fair trade-off in my mind. When I have it in better shape, I'll update the PDF and post it. I've gotten some interest in it lately, so I know at least a few people out there will care about that.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Gamex 2011 Wrap-Up

(This covers the non-FATE games, which was almost all of them; for FATE coverage, see Spirit of the Blank.)

A week late -- typical! -- but here's the stink from last weekend at Gamex.

Friday Afternoon
I'd been hearing a bit here and there about Vicious Crucible, one of (apparently) a couple new games from Josh Roby and Ryan Macklin, so when I saw it on the schedule I knew I'd be signing up for it. I knew nothing of the system, other than it sounded like it was intended to drive a number of specific scenarios, or at least use them as introductions to various mechanical add-ons the like. The scenario we played was The Vicious Crucible of Verdigris Valley, and essentially involved a long-simmering dust-up between European-style imperialists and native barbarian-types in a fantasy-medievalish world. (There was magic, and some monstrous things, but those things were mostly there to exacerbate the political situation.) I played a half-breed scout who'd been ostracized from the barbarian-types by her own grandfather (another PC) and forced to seek some sort of community with the invaders. I chose to style myself as a "double breed." It's all about spin.

Every character has an Arc, with three thingies listed under it: The first encourages you to follow that arc with a mechanical incentive, the second encourages you to make a sort of character-defining decision (again with a mechanical payoff), and the third gives you a way out of the Arc altogether by finding your way into a new one. At least, that's how it looked from my perspective. I got Heat (the game's currency) for trying to fit in somewhere, could spend Heat and unlock a new character ability to irrevocably reject a place or people as my home, and could move on to a new Arc by deciding that I'd found my home and wasn't an outsider anymore.

If you've played just about any indie game from the past five or ten years, the mechanics of Vicious Crucible will not be difficult to grasp. (I mean this in the most complimentary way possible.) Dice-wise, it reminds me a bit of both Dogs in the Vineyard and ORE. Every round you roll three dice, one for each of three of your Elements. These can be from d4s to d8s. If the Element is helpful, it gives you a d8. If it's a hindrance, it gives you a d4, and every d4 you roll gets you a point of Heat. Otherwise, it's a d6. Low roller goes first and narrates an action, and high roller goes last. Whoever goes last essentially has the last word. In essence, there's no rolling for success or failure -- it's all about getting to be the last one to narrate.

(Why ORE? I dunno. I guess because the roll tells you both who did "well" within the context of the game and gives you an initiative order.)

I had fun, and found the system straightforward and easy to grasp. The Arc mechanic more or less forces you to get in character to earn Heat, which is a good thing, although some Arcs generated Heat more easily than others. (One character got Heat whenever he blamed someone for his brother's death; another, when she acted suspicious of the native-types. In comparison, my trying-to-fit-in bit was often a bit harder to reasonably pull off.) I like the way the dice mechanic creates beats organically.

Friday Night
A couple friends came over to my hotel room and we played our second session of "The Keep on the Borderlands" using Dark Dungeons, the unfortunately named but otherwise-excellent D&D Rules Cyclopedia clone. I highly recommend Dark Dungeons for all your Rules Cyclopedia-replacing needs, not just because it's inexpensive and well-executed, but because it further sticks it to Jack Chick, Santorum-style.

Anyway, a while ago a friend of mine said he'd like to try D&D, and that he could probably get a group together of like-minded tabletop RPG virgins. I jumped at the opportunity, as any sane gamer would, and a few months later we had our first session. Initially I'd planned to use the D&D 4E Essentials line, but after a while I decided that even that level of complexity might be a little too much, despite my players' extensive experience with MMOs and computer games born of D&D's influence. I don't know if I was right about that, but I've been having a God-damned ball running KotB, so no regrets here.

Anyway, in the first session, I ginned up some excuse for them to head off to the Caves of Chaos and fight some kobolds, which they did -- a little combat to satisfy the "kill them and take their stuff" vibe of old-school D&D -- but the second session was all about investigation and talking, with very little in the way of combat. To my surprise and delight, they preferred the second session, which is very cool. In general, they like doing anything that they couldn't do in a computer game, including doing stupid things and getting beaten down for it. They quickly picked up on the fact that anything can happen in a tabletop RPG, and they've been going with it. One of them compared it to a game of Scott Aukerman-style Would You Rather?, and in a lot of respects, he's right -- at least, when it comes to old-school gaming. The more questions they ask, the more they know about their environment. Unlike Scott Aukerman, though, I'm not going to screw them over for failing to correctly pixel-bitch their way to a solution.

After we wrapped up at about 11:30, I took them over to the Sheraton so they could get a glimpse of the convention's late-night goings-on. It's just a whole new world to them. Good times, and well worth missing that Friday night slot at Gamex to do.

Saturday Morning
Morgan's DFRPG game! Read about it here!

Saturday Afternoon
I've had a couple near-misses with Dungeon Crawl Classics, Goodman Games' table-filled, retro-fueled take on 3.5 D&D, so I was resolved to finally check it out. I'd been to a couple other mini-cons -- one at DiceHouse, the other Hyphen-Con -- where Joe Goodman had been either running it at the neighboring table or inexplicably not running it and playing boardgames instead. It was only a matter of time before I weaseled my way into a seat at his table, and Gamex was that time.

Here's what I like about DCC. There are lots of tables for things -- critical hits, fumbles, spellcasting, etc. Just about every class seems to have its own little subsystems or rules exceptions. Characters are relatively fragile. Magic is unpredictable. These things are all likely to turn off the majority of gamers I know. They'd turn me off, too, on a bad day, but last weekend had no bad days, so there.

What I'm getting at is that DCC revels in clunky, piecemeal, un-unified mechanics that seem as if they were written by a dozen designers over the course of a decade. But, like, that's the point. Later, I'll talk about Dungeon World, and its goal to replicate an old-school feel using new-school mechanics and sensibilities. Having just run a D&D module originally published during the Carter administration the night before, I feel confident in saying that DCC nails the old-school thing not by cleverly re-imagining it, which DW does, but by embracing it, warts and all. In fact, I think it might embrace the warts the most.

This takes balls, if you ask me. There's a definite learning curve to this game. Playing a thief won't really give you an idea of what it's like to play a wizard. In fact, playing a cleric won't do that, either, because they cast spells differently. The open playtest goes online June 7th, I believe. Check it out, and if you still have SAN left, it's probably the (a) game for you.

Saturday Night
I ran my D&D hack of Danger Patrol, currently called Dungeon Patrol -- but is Dangers & Dragons better? I dunno. Anyway, this was a lot of fun, and I had a great table of players. I knew them all, in fact! I'd say this is a disturbing trend in my convention games, but the truth is I like all of these people who keep showing up, so I can't complain.

I'd never run or played Danger Patrol, and half my players had never played it, so we were on pretty even footing. Let me tell you something about Danger Patrol, and Dungeon Patrol by extension: It is embarrassingly easy to run. It actually wrecked me for the FATE game I ran the next morning. "Stats? Seriously? Ugh. Can't we just roll some dice and I'll make some stuff up?"

I know John Harper's working on a Gamma playtest edition of Danger Patrol, and from what I've seen so far it looks pretty different from the Beta. I'm not sure I like it better, to be honest, especially when the Beta-based Dungeon Patrol worked so well. The Gamma uses all d6s, but the mix of die types feels a little more D&D-ish to me, so no matter what John ends up doing I doubt I'll change my hack to follow suit.

The only real problem we had was that, with six players, it was hard to keep threats threatening. They could easily dish out 20 hits between them in a round, so I routinely tried to have multiple threats on the table all the time. I managed to split the party, too, which helped as well. But that's not really a "problem," per se -- it's just something to keep in mind. With two or three PCs? Sure, major threats will have 12-15 hits. With six? Double that. And add a few points of Resistance.

The Culture and Class cards have been tweaked and I'm in the process of putting it all online for people to check out. I've gotten a few requests for it, so that's kinda neat, right? I'm also bringing it to GenCon, so if you're interested, find me there and we can get a pick-up game going.

Sunday Morning
Agents of F.A.T.E. Read about my/our triumphs here.

Sunday Afternoon
I played a boardgame! Well, I played Descent. Still, I did something in the boardgame ballroom besides walk through it to get to the dealer room. The allotted timeslot for the game was four hours; after five and a half hours, we called it quits. They all laughed at me when I said the last game of Descent I'd played had lasted for seven hours. Who's laughing now, chumps? We could've easily played for another hour and a half, but I had dinner to eat and a game to get to.

Sunday Night
I'd not-so-subtly hinted to Colin Jessup that I really, really wanted him to run Dungeon World at Gamex so I could finally play it, and he was kind enough to oblige. Not like it was a big hardship for him or anything. He clearly had a blast, as did we all. I played a paladin named Cassius. A beholder disintegrated my shield (but not my arm) right before I jabbed my longsword up through his jaw and central eye. EPIC.

Back at Hyphen-Con, Colin had told me that DW was the game that finally scratched his old-school itch. It was the game he'd been waiting for that'd give him that kind of experience without having to slog through outdated mechanics and design. Afterward, he asked me if it felt old-school to me, and my response was a very noncommittal, "...Sure? I guess?" I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but after giving it some thought later -- and having recent experiences with both KotB and DCC for comparison -- I had to say "No."

I like Apocalypse World (though I've only read it), and I really enjoyed and will buy DW. Part of that is Colin being an awesome GM, as always, but part of it's just the game itself. The authors have done a great job adapting AW's style and mechanics to the genre while making little tweaks that nod suggestively in the direction of D&D. (Unfortunately, the D&D they're nodding at seems to be 3.5, not AD&D or BECMI, but whatever.) I love the class-based damage and replacing AW's stats with D&D's Standard Six. Colin did his level best to old-school it up with that beholder and those umber hulks and all, but ultimately, it's a game driven by a very contemporary design sensibility, and that really came through in my play experience.

I think the core of what I'm talking about is very simple. There's no Would You Rather? in DW. Like so many modern games (games I play and love!), there's a fair bit of player narrative control. (Even when I fail to Spout Lore, for example, I get to make up the false Lore I've spouted. Contrast this with the MC making my Int roll for me and telling me what I know.) That alone feels so utterly contrary to old-school gaming to me that I find it difficult to get past it. Players are constantly adding to the fiction out-of-character, or fleshing out the setting, or what have you. There's nothing wrong with this, and I like it just fine. It's just that it robs the DM (or MC, here) of their duty as Gatekeeper of Information. There wasn't really the same sense of discovery I see in my newbie D&D players when I tell them what a kobold looks like, or what's at the bottom of the pit they just stumbled upon, or pass them a cryptic rumor at the tavern. It's not that you can't do any of this in DW, but the players are empowered by the system to do this themselves, and taking that away from them would be a dick move, IMO.

So! I liked DW a lot. I'll buy it, run it, play it. I'm sold. I just won't be running it for my KotB guys.

All in all, a great weekend of gaming, especially when I write it all out in a lengthy blog post like that. GenCon's only two months away....

EPILOGUE: Here's a fun fact. This was the first Strategicon since OrcCon of last year that I didn't run Leftovers.