Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Old School Is Bigger Than Yours

[What follows may seem like a rant against the OSR.  It isn't.  It's my perceptions, which are doubtlessly flawed, and an explanation of why what I perceive about it doesn't work for me personally, given my perception of the history of the hobby.  Your own mileage can and doubtlessly will vary.  That doesn't make your gaming "badwrongfun" in my eyes.  Offer not valid in US Virgin Islands.  Go forth, kill things and take their stuff.]

While my dice are old, I don't limit my gaming to any one "school."  I think this is largely because much of what the Old School movement seems to espouse doesn't really resonate with my personal gaming history.  I got into the hobby in 1978, very much in the heart of that period.  My first version of D&D was the Holmes rules, mixed with stuff from the White Box and supplements, and even the first two AD&D books (the PHB had just come out when I started playing; we had to wait almost an entire year for the DMG).  During that time, I also played Metamorphosis Alpha, Traveller, Top Secret, and En Guard!.  I read Chivalry & Sorcery (or tried to, at any rate), and played the hell out of Melee and Wizard.  All of those games are arguably "Old School," but whether due to the OGL making retro-clones of D20 easy, or the preferences of the folks writing OSR materials, "Old School" has become shorthand for "Earlier versions of D&D."  And that seems to be a bit of a Whig History, in my opinion.

There was so much going on back then.  So much more than just D&D and TSR.  Yes, it drove the hobby, but when the hobby was young, there were tons of cool stuff out there.  Granted, a lot of it was hit and miss, but the important thing to remember is that D&D was hardly the only game going.  Furthermore, the notion that story-driven gaming came about due to White Wolf and the success of Vampire is really pretty far off-base (I've also seen it blamed on DragonLance, which is equally laughable).  I've got copies of Alarums & Excursions from the late 70s where people were cheerfully debating the merits of a plotted campaign vs. a sandbox.  They didn't use those terms, but it's the same discussion you can find on countless game forums and blogs today.

But I digress.  To my mind, thinking just in terms of "Old-School" is a pretty fruitless endeavor.  Around 1984 or so, I remember having a conversation with a friend wherein we were looking at the games out at the time and grouping them by "generations."

The first generation consisted of D&D (all editions), and its immediate imitators.  If I remember right, our big distinction of a first generation-style game was the use of classes and/or levels.  So Tunnels & Trolls was in there, as was Chivalry & Sorcery, Top Secret, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, et al.  Even Villains & Vigilantes, and Palladium's house system fit this criteria.

Second generation games got away from the Class/Level distinction and might incorporate a unified task resolution system.  Character generation was still random, though there were often more options to flesh out the character.  Traveller, RuneQuest and it's offspring (Call of Cthulhu, BRP), FGU's Aftermath, Bushido, and Daredevils (which all used the same system),and later versions of Boot Hill come to mind (earlier versions of Boot Hill were still in that proto-RPG stage.  I consider them sort of a pre-first generation).

The hallmark games of the third generation are Champions/The Hero System, In the Labyrinth, and its offspring, GURPS. These games featured unified task resolution as a matter of course along with structured character creation where your character was built rather than rolled up.  The use of points to level the playing field made a mini game out of character creation (and optimization, another thing that is hardly a new development).  Champions, in particular, brought about the notion of Disadvantages: intentionally taking on handicaps and personal or social problems to flesh out your character and get more points to work from.  Granted, this created more room for abuse and optimization, but it also gave players and GM's tools to use in-game in order to better emulate the genre.

(While story-driven gaming certainly existed before the third generation, for me personally, it became my chosen style of game during the third generation, when Champions took over my imagination and didn't really let go for the next twentymumble years.  I maintain it's impossible to run a "sandbox" superhero game and have it look anything like the genre its emulating, because comic book superheroics are an inherently reactive genre.  The heroes react to external stimuli.  In a sandbox, the world reacts to the heroes, who drive the direction of the campaign.  They're polar opposites.  Which is not to say a superhero campaign is an exercise in railroading.  But that's a conversation for another day.)

According to the conversation I'm recalling, Victory Games' James Bond 007 was the first fourth generation RPG.  At the time, I think we based this more or less entirely on the fact that it featured a one-roll task resolution system, where margin of success or failure determined additional outcomes (damage, winnings at the gambling table, etc.)  Looking back, I think there were several other features that marked it as such: it was the first really successful licensed game (NOTE: THIS IS WRONG - I FORGOT CALL OF CTHULHU); it was completely devoted to genre-emulation instead of simulation: there were elements clearly at variance with reality that jibed with James Bond's world, and that was how it should be; there were mini-games scattered throughout that utilized the one-roll task resolution system to add suspense to actions that might otherwise be handled by a simple "roll to see if you succeed" approach.  Other games in this generation (IMO) include Marvel Super-Heroes, DC Heroes, Conan, Chill, Ghostbusters, and Star Wars.

(By this point, the astute reader might notice that these generations are not precisely chronological.  GURPS post-dates a number of fourth generation games by a couple of years.  But it's clearly a third generation design, being the bastard lovechild of Champions and In the Labyrinth.)

Arguably, Vampire: the Masquerade is also a fourth generation game.  But it kicked things off in another direction, and I'm happy to concede that the Storyteller System marks, if not a huge mechanical shift in RPGs, a massive philosophical one.  Pretty much everything that's come out since has been a response to it, either taking the same philosophy further from the previous generations or recoiling in horror and retreating to more comfortable territory.  And because I like multiples of five, I'll grant it fifth generation status.

So what does this mean, really?  Not a lot.  I still love playing Champions.  It's certainly changed a great deal from the game I first played in 1982, with loads of rules and improvements.  But even with a Sixth edition and pretty hardback books, I still consider it a third generation RPG at heart.  And I have no desire to go back and play the 1st edition rules.  Seriously, they were an incredible leap forward in the design of RPGs, but to my modern eye, they're diamonds in the rough, still mired in the ground trod by those who came before.  (Also, Mechanon didn't have Life Support.  That always cracks me up.)  If I'm going to play it, I'll take the new rules, thank you kindly.  To my mind, that doesn't make me New-School.  I still think of Champions as one of the granddaddies of superhero games.  It's still Old-School in terms of the core mechanics; it's just been fine-tuned over the years.

So yeah, I play story-driven games with non-random character creation.  And I play them sitting at a table with my friends, with paper and dice, and bags full of unhealthy snacks.  And it's that last part, if anything, that makes me an Old-School Gamer.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Nerd Saturday The Second

So, today was the second C&C game.  When we last left our heroes, they'd managed to flee the goblins in Dyson's Delve after killing a number of vermin as well as a ghoul who'd killed a local shepherd boy.  They returned to the local inn (The Roasting Rack) to heal their wounds and count their treasures.  Bhaaahb the bard drank himself under the table (his player had to miss the game), but two new adventurers had wandered in: Xasha, a paladin of Tyr and Gav, a half-orc barbarian.  The PCs offered them the chance to join them in raiding the goblin nest on the morrow.  However, as it turned out, the goblins had other ideas...

In the early hours of the morning, the goblins launched a preemptive strike, intending to burn the inn to the ground with the heroes inside.  The heroes were alerted to their presence and sallied forth to drive them off.  What followed was a battle royale of low die rolls, as neither side managed to do much harm to the other for several rounds.  It got rather silly after a bit, but just about the time it became unbearable, Leaf the elven fighter hit the Hobgoblin chief and killed him with a single stroke of her battleaxe.   The tide began to turn, and Vultrude the Prosperity Cleric of Waukeen was able to save her loot from the flames before they claimed the inn.

The rest of the night past in tense quiet.

The next day, the party elected to use the same method they'd used to infiltrate the goblin lair before, a series of narrow caves that ran into the worked tunnels.  They found the goblins on alert, but through a clever combination of stealth and gnomish illusion magic, they were able to lure the initial set of guards into position for a quick and quiet takedown.  This allowed them to take out the other goblins and hobgoblins on the first level in pieces without raising the alarm.  And that's where we left off today, with them healing up a few wounds and psyching themselves up to go down a level to take out the rest.

So, all in all a good time.  The two new players were an interesting set of contrasts.  Xasha's player is an experienced gamer (tabletop, online RPGs, and MMOs) who's been looking for a tabletop game.  Gav's is the husband of Lux the Gnome Monk's player.  He's played one session of an RPG before, and was basically completely new at it.  It took him a little while to get into the game, but when he did, Gav swung his mighty mace with gusto at all comers, and will be back next time.

(I'm sure Justin will be along later with the various clever quotes from this session.)

There were a few minor problems, in that a number of the newer players don't have their own dice.  Not a huge problem, since I've accumulated quite a few over the years, but it turned out that a lot of my old Gamescience d20s are number 0-9 twice, instead of 1-20.  It took a while for us to realize it, which is part of the reason why the initial battle at the inn was such a whiff-fest.  When we caught and corrected the problem, I declared there would be double XP this session to make up for it.

My only worry is that we're now up to 7 PCs when everyone shows up.  I'm afraid my poor dinner table can't take any more.

Friday, March 25, 2011

No Pressure...

So, the first C&C game went well.  So well, in fact, that the first-time gamer talked it up to a friend of hers, who's been getting her gaming fix via Dungeons & Dragons Online.  Said friend was looking for a tabletop game and they asked if she could join up.  Groovy.

Then another player asked if she could bring her husband this weekend.  I'm still not clear if he's playing or just hanging out, but I'm not sure my dinner table can take the strain.  I also think I'm going to have to up the threat level a little bit if we're going to have 7 or 8 PCs at one go.

I'd planned on writing up some more info for the players about things their characters can do, but it's been a hellish week (my wife's grandmother passed away at 102, my car had to go into the shop, and I've got some ongoing dental woes that will have to go on a bit longer due to a bookkeeping error), so we'll see if I feel up to it tonight.  If not, I'll just throw a bunch of goblins at them and let the dice fall where they may.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I'm Not Very Good At This

It's been too long between posts again.  I've got something percolating in the back of my mind on the subject of gaming history; namely how my definition of "Old School" likely differs from a lot of the OSR crowd and gamers of my vintage.

However, that's going to have to wait a bit.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

C&C With New Folks

Today was the first session of the long awaited "Castles & Crusades With Librarians, Mormons, and Army Sergeants" game.  Armed with my handy quick guides to C&C, a converted copy of Dyson's Delve, and a boatload of snacks, we jumped into it.

I'd been informed that most of the players were rank newbies, but only one had never played a TRPG before. I decided to short-cut things at the beginning, establishing them as a fledgling adventuring company who'd stopped in a nowhere farming town on the road to somewhere much more important. While refreshing themselves, they were approached by the local headman, who asked their assistance in finding a missing shepherd boy, who he feared had been taken by goblins.

And with that, they were off. Giant rats and ferrets were slain. A ghoul was confronted. Eventually, they learned the poor lad's fate and even managed to find the goblins, who trapped them in a crypt full of undead. Thanks a rather clever ploy by the one human in the group, they even managed to get back out alive.

While I normally run a more story-driven game, I decided that this one, if not a sandbox, would largely be run without pre-planning on my part. While I'm always surprised by the courses my games take once the PCs get involved, it was nice to just sit back and react to what they were doing.

(And a fine crew of PCs it is: Leaf, an Elven Fighter; Lux, a Gnome Monk; Vultrude, a Half-Elf Cleric; Bhaaahb, a Halfling Bard with a 3 STR, and Candles, a Human <strike>Arsonist</strike> Rogue, who also seems to be the conscience of the party.)

In the end, I measure my success at the table very simply: did everyone have a good time, and do we want to play again? The answer to both questions was yes, so today was full of win.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Getting Ready. Also, Hot Elf Chick.

My C&C game full of newbies is this Saturday and while I'm slowly putting a PC together from scratch at the office,* I'm doing the final prep work for the session.  Right now, I'm printing out Mad Irishman's awesome old-school style C&C character sheets on goldenrod paper stock.  Because a proper first-timer's character sheet should be on goldenrod, dammit.

Adventure-wise, I'm adapting Dyson's Delve from "non-specific OSR" to C&C, which takes about five minutes per level.  After that, I just need to print out my introductory material and make copies of the shopping lists.

This game has been a long time coming.  I think Justin and I first spoke about it almost a year ago, so I have pretty high hopes for it.  I think my enthusiasm is coming on line at just the right moment, so I should be bringing my A-Game to the table for them.

And because everyone else is doing it, here's a Hot Elf Chick:

*OK, technically, the PC came to us intact, but I had to wipe it and install a really old copy of XP on it, which means I've spent the better part of the last two days hunting down and installing drivers to make it more or less what it used to be.

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Shadowrun Was Grungier

And a lot less hair-metal.  But man, this takes me back.

Three Years On

It's been three years since Gary Gygax died.  Since then, we've lost Dave Arneson, Erick Wujcik, Robin Crossby, and Bob Bledsaw (that I remember).

It's as good a day as any to raise a tankard in their memories.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Another Mish-Mash Post

Has it been nearly a week already?  I'm really getting bad at this. I'd blame work, I blame work.

Anyway, let's see what's going on.

I did manage to get in a few games of "Wrath of Ashardalon" with my son last Saturday.  We probably would've played more, but I was wearing out before he did.  All in all, it's quite enjoyable.  To me, it feels like a cross between 4e and the old Dungeon boardgame, but it's cooperative instead of competitive.  The toy factor is great (42 minis and dungeon tiles and tokens galore), and it's easy to pick up and get through a game in less than an hour.

It does have a few quirks, however.  In the first game, we ran out of dungeon before completing our quest.  Literally.  Two paths dead ended, and the last gave us stairs exiting the dungeon well before we accomplished our assigned task.

In the second game, we tripped a Lava Flow trap almost immediately.  The problem with it is that it spreads to adjacent tiles every turn.  And then those tiles spread.  It's possible to disarm traps, but with only two players, a single failed roll was enough to set us back significantly.

Also, due to the random nature of the dungeon tiles, we had a number of orphaned monsters on the board by the end of the game that could not act and we could not reach.  That's probably as much a bug as a feature, but it made the game flow a bit oddly at times.

The important point was the boy and I had fun with something he recognizes as D&D (as almost all of his experience is with 4e) without going through the logistical hassle of getting an entire group together. That's a win in my book.

In other news, it looks like the M&M 3rd ed game I'm co-GMing will be kicking off sooner rather than later.  Next Tuesday in fact.  Co-GM will be starting things off, so I get to sit back and play Immaterial Girl, my PC.  Her origin is part of the events kicking off the game, so I don't want to say much about her yet.

The 4e Master Maze game is this Sunday.  Pseudolus is 6th level.  What new weirdness can I pick for him to accomplish?  My last feat got me a Wizard power.  I'm thinking of something Warlock-y next.

"C&C with Librarians, a Mormon, and an Army Sarge" is next Saturday.  I need to put some material together for that over the weekend (mostly some introductory stuff and pare down the shopping list a bit so we can do character creation in under an hour).

And that's pretty much it.  Hopefully, I can get back to some writing discipline in the near future.