Friday, July 29, 2011

D&D-style computer games done right

Modern computer rpg games suck, in general. This one, however, does not:


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chivalry & Sorcery playtest (retroactive analysis)

Chris made a post yesterday, essentially begging for information about actual play of Chivalry & Sorcery (ampersand required), apparently in some need for anecdotal evidence that the game is insanely complex. First of all, just a quick glance at the character creation rules should be enough to answer this question, yet the topic is still worthy of discussion as C&S holds a special place in my heart, right behind WEG's Star Wars as my favorite rpg.

There are many editions of C&S, and their approaches are somewhat different. This Wikipedia article actually does a pretty good job of describing those differences; an additional article about an unauthorized version adds some more fuel to the fire. Full disclosure: around 1999-2000, I was in talks with the current copyright holder of Arden to republish the book. It appears there may have been some legal issues in doing that, but at the time I wasn't aware of any. Anyway, I pretty much removed myself from the C&S community (or whatever you want to call it) a number of years ago due to what I felt was a complete disregard for the original vision of the game and a lack of progress on the part of the trademark owners. Apparently from some posts I read on the fan forum (LOCS is LONG dead unfortunately) Mystic Station is working on a new 5th edition to be released sometime this year. Best of luck, but if they wanted to do the fans a service they'd simply re-release a nicely cleaned up 1st edition. Okay, enough complaining...

C&S 1st and 2nd editions are close enough to lump together for this post. Major differences are the addition of TES (thievish experience skills), moving some stuff like mass combat to the sourcebook, CRs for attributes and better organization. At least you can actually read the text in the 2nd edition; 1st is microprint. It literally looks like a 2 point font. Regardless, the 1st edition Red Book is probably the best value for your gaming dollar, if you can find a copy. I never actually played 1st edition, as my first experience with the game was purchasing a copy of the 2nd edition boxed set when I was around 15. I did get my hands on 1st edition soon thereafter, and mined it for endless ideas. I had a 2nd edition campaign for a while, which was really more like "make characters using C&S but we'll use Rolemaster for combat and D&D for all the magic items". At the time that didn't seem odd at all, but now I wonder how I figured out what the hell I was doing. Played 3rd edition once, 4th a few times. Unmemorable. 3rd was essentially an attempt to create a unified mechanic for C&S (which is stupid if you ask me, especially for a game that prides itself on complexity) and dumb down the character creation process. Consequently, all the flavor got sucked out and the game was left a boring, uninspired mess. I'm sure there's a good rpg floating around somewhere in those rules, but it's not C&S. 4th edition was called Rebirth and tried to rectify the downward spiral the game was taking. It was a valiant effort, but modern sensibilities don't work with a crusty old horse like C&S and thus the game was a failure. At least to me. I tried to like it, but like strawberry ice cream, it felt as if I was forcing myself to eat it simply because it was available. Give me chocolate or vanilla, fruit is for women. What all this means is, basically, you have one real version of the game and a couple versions that came out after that don't resemble the original enough to share the same name. When I talk about C&S, I specifically mean 1st/2nd edition, along with all the supplements and sourcebooks. 3rd might as well not exist, 4th has some good ideas but nothing worth worrying about except the Armourer's Companion, which is pretty good.

In light of that, how does C&S actually play? First, character creation. Making a character is half the fun, and to the uninitiated, an all-day affair. If you've never played C&S before don't even bother with a wizard; you'll just get frustrated and start throwing shit. Here's a character sheet:














All that stuff has to be calculated. PCF and PMF are two of the most important pieces of information for a character. Figuring out these values takes some time and a calculator. If you don't have a calculator, it will take quite a bit more time unless you have Rainman-level mathematical skills. Nothing complicated, but there's a lot of math involved. Prorating a character means you get experience points and level him up. C&S doesn't assume anyone is a 1st level rube, but instead ties ability to age. Unless you wanted to spend 90% of the campaign enchanting items behind the scenes, hope your wizard was Good Aspected and over 30 when play began. Old wizards actually got to cast spells and have cool stuff; young ones spent most of the time looking for dragon skin and rare woods to make crap. If you got lucky (or cheated), and rolled up a blue blood knight (or prince), it was possible to start with enough money and influence to have a small keep or even a castle. Constructing your dominion might take a while, but worth it. Buying equipment and supplies was akin to going to a market as the variety was staggering. Trying to figure out how much food was needed for an expedition was not something to be taken lightly. If you're curious, buying whole wheat bread, poor cheese and plums was the cheapest way to keep nourished. No guarantees on the quality of future meals.

Yes, yes, you know all this crap. You've read the reviews and articles, you want to know how the game PLAYS, once you've gotten the character in hand, ready to go. To be perfectly honest, it's just an overtly complex version of D&D. Combat is pretty much the same (roll a d20), although armor is broken down into its component parts. Fighter-types are nearly supreme in martial affairs, and you do not want to fuck with a knight of great renown. Still, it's D&D with a bunch of cool tactical additions and A LOT of atmosphere. Probably by design, wizards were not fireball throwing gunslingers like those in D&D. I played an Enchanter who never cast one spell over the course of 5 or 6 sessions; in-game it made sense. Considering how hard it was to create that character in the first place, how difficult it was to understand the processes that constituted the making of a magic lute, the amount of real time it took figure out how long wood required to become BMR 0 and thus enchantable...that character wasn't about to waste 6 months of work on some ruffians in a back alley. Dealing with bandits was for knights and yeomen, not a scholar. Similarly, I ran a goblin thief for a while and don't think he ever got into a scrap. The one knight I had, cousin to the Crown Prince, regularly waded into battle to make a name for himself. He also killed a few commoners who tried to steal his horse. Would this happen in D&D? Possibly, but maybe not.

C&S is not a game to be taken lightly; in fact, to play it at all requires much more attention than a game such as D&D. RuneQuest had the idea that limbs could be hacked off and hit points weren't unified; at least you could be magically healed. C&S took this a step further and had rules for chirurgeons with the ability to set bones and perform surgeries. When coupled with the insanely detailed rules for building construction and magical research, most of the game was spent in "down time", with a focus on what the characters were doing when NOT adventuring. It was far more fun to make up characters and age them, never once doing any sort of dungeon delving. The system itself was designed for all the offscreen activities, and that has always been the appeal of C&S to me. Consequently, it is why 3rd and 4th edition failed as they attempted to allow for easier adventuring. The proper feel of C&S, when adventuring, is akin to reading Le Morte or Lord of the Rings: utter dread and near futility. The purpose isn't for fun, it's to accomplish a goal, unlike D&D which implies adventuring is valuable in itself. I enjoy both gaming styles, but the distinction must be understood to fully realize the intent of C&S, why all the real action goes on when the DM isn't running a session but instead getting emails from the players about a new barricade constructed to keep out highwaymen or a list of items intended for enchantment. Adventuring in C&S is a way to make money to do all these things.

Monday, July 11, 2011

South Texas Mini-Con AD&D

As expounded upon here, the mini-con in New Braunfels is next month and I'm supposed to run a game. I said I wanted to run AD&D, but didn't fully comprehend what that entailed. First of all, if this was a campaign, I'd probably spend many hours coming up with crap to give the players, put it on a webpage or blog somewhere and setup a mailing list to discuss the game. I mean, that's what I did in the past and will do again if I ever get my shit together (granted, I am working on a PhD, working full-time and teaching, so it's not like I have a ton of spare time; still, if the NFL season is cancelled that'll free up Sundays). But this isn't a campaign, it's a con game. Having actually only played some of my first few con games not more than a few weeks ago as described on this very blog, I noticed something unsatisfying about them: they were designed as campaign games. Except for V&V, which was intended pretty much to be a one-shot, with a beginning, middle, and end. That's what I liked most, I think: there was a conclusion. D&D campaigns are open-ended, so there may not be a climax during a session, or perhaps several sessions. That's good because it allows for extended games. Cons, however, are not campaigns and they need to have a conclusion to be meaningful. For me, anyway, and since I have to run the damn thing my opinion matters.

I've read a lot of INTERNET POSTS about Tomb of Horror sucking balls, how it is just an idiotic killer dungeon meant to TPK the party within minutes. Well, duh...it's a con game that was eventually published as a module. What do you expect? The party pretty much has no chance, and if you make it to the demi-lich, for instance, you are empirically better than the guys who didn't get past the sphere of annihilation. Eventually you die anyway, but you still have bragging rights. That's what I want from a con game, an ending. The party either fucks up a dragon and steals the treasure or dies from its breath weapon. Either way, a conclusion was reached and a climax achieved. Sort of like sex, but with other nerds instead of a woman. Moving on...

Con game. My issue is that I know how to run a campaign game. Before my long running Labyrinth Lord-that-turned-into-AD&D game got unwieldy and stupid, it was pretty good. Everyone had fun. There were cliffhangers, a decent plot, etc. I've never run a con game, but I know what I DON'T want, so what does that leave me? Well, I thought long and hard this morning and decided that I wanted something that is fun but really wouldn't work for long. Something that lends itself to one-shot gaming, where players know they have no chance but actively strive to go out swinging. I decided that a "reverse dungeon" would be the perfect con game, and thus I began to outline how I wanted to approach it.

Essentially, the player characters will be monsters. I don't know what kind of monsters yet, but probably monsters capable of taking on a small party of 3rd or 4th level characters individually. Not too insanely powerful, but not goblins or anything. Actually, I think one of the characters could be a goblin chief and his 10-15 underlings. Random cannon fodder for the guy who likes rolling dice and not thinking too much. Maybe a troll, ogre magi, you get the point. The PCs are monsters. The first part of the adventure will be a town raid or something similar. Murdering villagers, stealing horses for food, pillaging, just causing all sorts of mayhem. Kill a lot of guards, etc. The second part will be the PCs heading back to their lair (a dungeon with map drawn up by players because, hey, they're the monsters), and prepare for the inevitable onslaught of nasty adventurers. I'll give them time to come up with trap ideas, how they want to arrange themselves in the dungeon, and provided them with a bunch of random crap like skeletons and zombies just to soak up some of the damage. Maybe more goblins. Anyway, adventurers storm in, monsters make a final stand against the evil marauders invading their lovely home.

Yes, it'll be almost all combat, but I think the idea has merit. No nonsense background (you're monsters and you're hungry), no long-term implication (a TPK is going to happen), and novelty to make it interesting.

WTF is "roll-playing"?

Message boards, the breeding ground for contempt. I've seen the term "roll-playing" crop up in the past, on usenet especially, and frequently on message boards, but had sort of forgotten about it until recently when I saw the term thrown around as an insult on good old rpg.net. Apparently, roleplaying is when a player assumes the role of a character within the confines of a gaming environment. Roll-playing, on the other hand, is akin to playing Monopoly, rolling dice to determine actions. I'm not so sure I completely understand the difference, as they sound like the same thing to me. Okay, of course I understand the implication here: if you use funny voices and actually decide to DO what your character would do (not what you'd personally do), then you are roleplaying. If you roll dice to determine the best course of action then you're just rolling dice and are not as sophisticated. No sir. Go back to playing wargames, you hack.

Let's revist history a bit...back in ye olden dayes, roleplaying was called fantasy wargaming, with good reason, as it was a direct outgrowth of minatures rules. Everyone knows this. Roleplaying was simply controlling your individual character/gaming piece as opposed to whole armies or abstract battle units. But even then, there's really not much of a distinction. When you play Civilization, sure, you're not making decisions for each citizen in your empire, but you're still acting as an overlord; an overlord who wants to expand his realm and conquer other nations. Even the most incompetent kings in history wanted the best for their kingdoms, no matter how awful they were at achieving that goal. So, a crappy Civ player is a bad king and a competent one a good king, and they're both playing roles. Right? To use another example, when playing Starfleet Battles, each player controls a starship. What is the "role" of the controller? A lot of people put themselves into the captain's seat, using their best Kirkian tactics to emerge victorious. Some people feel that they're Starfleet Command, dictating orders from the confines of a well-defended starbase. In any event, a role is still played, even if there are no rules to spell out the capabilites of the individual captains or admirals. Does this mean Monopoly has a roleplaying element? Of course it does: you're pretending to be a real estate mogul in Atlantic City. The boot or dog or car are abstract representations of your travels through the streets, and the board itself an even more abstract representation of plots zoned for housing, railroads or businesses. If there is no "roleplaying" involved, why do games of Monopoly become so personal? It's just fake money, right? Certainly doesn't seem like that due to the way players treat every bill in their possession.

Roleplaying games are simply a codification of rules to enable players to actively participate in the trials and tribulations of individual saps as opposed to the higher, more abstract approach provided by wargames, boardgames, etc. Roll-playing is a nonsense phrase invented to make shitty amateur theatre rejects feel better about their bad acting. If I roll dice to see if I hit an orc, how is this any different than rolling dice to see if my dumb argument convinces the guard to let me go? In the latter case, there may not be any social mechanics in a particular game, so we must "act out" the argument. If you want to cut a deal with a player during a session of Monopoly, there aren't any rules for that, either, so you better be convincing. There isn't any difference, really. I'd go so far as to say the primary difference between roleplaying games and conventional wargames is simply scope. Wargames and boardgames have a limited, well-defined scope, with rigid rules. Roleplaying games are much broader in scope, and have less rules to allow for this. These are features, not limitations, of both approaches. As you try to model more of "reality", rules must become less and less limiting, lest they inhibt the ability of the playing pieces to act. If I want my tank commander to escape from the burning hulk during a session of ASL, and there aren't any rules to allow this, sorry, he is burned to a crisp. We could make up a rule on-the-fly, and decide as a group of players to accept it, that the commander can escape with a 1/6 chance, becoming a crappy infantry unit armed with a .45. I imagine that's exactly how roleplaying came about, because eventually the player of that lone tank commander might want to see just how far he could get, possibly escaping back home. What happened to him? Did he resume his job in the steel mill after the war? That's still part of the game, but it's not ASL anymore. We've entered into roleplaying, even though we'll probably roll dice to see if his wife cheated on him while he was in Africa or how many kids he has.

As I consider the differening styles of gaming available, it's not hard to see that they all have a common root, an escape from reality. Whether we pretend to be individual fighters killing orcs or moving giant robots around in Battletech, all these games offer us the ability to do things we wouldn't normally be able to do in real life. Calling games that use dice to decide actions "roll-playing" is idiotic simply because those actions could just as easily be decided ad hoc. Wargames use dice to inject a bit of uncertainty, and thus so too do roleplaying games. Not rolling dice doesn't make the funny voices any better, nor gives more validity to the choices made for a particular playing piece.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cover Art Is Important

I think the pictures in this post explain the concept better than I ever could. I personally find the 1965 covers to evoke the proper feeling required to immerse oneself into the story; the new movie-based covers...eh. Anyone else feel that way?