Friday, August 02, 2019

#RPGaDAY2019 Day 2: Supergame is a "Unique" Part of RPG History

This is a post about a truly unique super hero role playing game and how I came to find a copy in the "out of print" bin at a local game store.

For as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of Super Hero role playing games. My entry into this particular gaming milieu was Hero Games' excellent Champions 2nd edition role playing game. I happened upon a copy and was amazed that game designers had even attempted to capture super heroes using game mechanics. At the time, I was only familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, Star Frontiers, Tunnels & Trolls, and Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks. I had played all three of those games and their mechanical foundations did not prepare me for what Champions offered.

Unlike the other games with which I was familiar, Champions did not have randomly created characters and instead allowed players to build whatever they could imagine. The only limit to the character you could design was the number of points available at creation (100 points with 150 more possible if you took Disadvantages). Other than that, it was all good. During my initial Champions experience, I didn't have anyone to play the game with and spent all of my time making characters and doing some solo battles. My character builds were heavily influenced by the sample characters in the rule book and thus were typically of 200 total character points (100 and 100 from Disadvantages). This included my personal write ups for the X-Men. I was content with my view of the game, but this view was to be shattered in short order.

A couple of months after I discovered Champions my family moved to a new city, I finally encountered a group of gamers who played the game every weekend. Given that this was the Bay Area, and the game company was a Bay Area company, I soon discovered a rich and vibrant Champions community. I also discovered that how I interpreted character adaptations to the game was very different from others. Some of that difference, I maintain to this day. I personally believe that too many gamers inflate the stats of their favorite characters out of love for the character, rather than an examination of benchmarks and mechanics of the game. But these are things that can only be understood through play, and that was something I had not yet done with Champions. In playing the game, I learned how some combinations worked better than others and I learned that other players were much more likely than I had been to "grab" the "Obvious and Accessible" items some characters used in combat. Not that I designed a lot of those kinds of characters, I didn't, just that I had expected gamers to behave more like the characters in comics than like "tactical gamers" and that the rules treated gamers as tactical gamers while allowing them to behave like characters in comics.
Long story short, I learned that you can only truly judge the quality of a game by playing it. I still love Champions and think it is one of the top 3 or 4 super hero games out there, but my view is now grounded in experience of how the game works and how when some character building norms take over the game can slow down significantly and lose some of its charm.

Eventually, my love of super heroes and super hero games led me to purchase Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Super Heroes, and DC Heroes, all of which have there charms. At one point in time, not that long ago by some standards, I could claim to own a copy of every super hero rpg published (at least in one of its editions). With the explosion of pdf based publishing, that is no longer the case and I'm sure I'm missing out on some great games, but I also have a HUGE backlog of games I'd like to play...see how I'm pulling this back to the question of the day?

Among that backlog is Jay Harlove and Aimee Karklyn/(Hartlove)'s early Supergame. It wasn't the first super hero rpg published, that was Superhero 44/Superhero 2044, but it was one of the first and predates Champions. Both the first edition and revised edition came out in 1980. I discovered the game as a "real" thing and not just something mentioned in old gaming magazines, when I moved to Los Angeles after graduating from college in 2000. I was looking for gaming stores and found a long standing game store in Long Beach that had a copy of the 1st edition. Later searches on the internet have shown me that I got a significant bargain on it, as I did with copies of Warlock and a couple of other games originally designed by the Southern California gaming community.

Supergame, like Superhero 2044 which predates it and Champions which comes after it, has a point based character creation system. It also has an interesting skill and combat system that I think has a lot of potential. Some of the stats are odd in how they are presented. For example, if a character has an Agony score (similar to Stun for Champions fans) of 10 or more they suffer no penalties to how they move or act. Given that scores start at 0, and that some sample characters have 0s in other stats implying that a score of 0 is sometimes the "average" score, it seems odd that a person has to spend points just to be a normal person in some areas and not others. Why not just have stats start at "average" and let people buy them down later? Or why not have Agony start at 0 with no penalties and allow negative scores to cause impairment? It's a small complaint, and there are a number of neat features like different defenses against different types of attack (pre-Champions remember). A thorough reading of the rules, both editions, and the supplements has convinced me that I need to play this game to evaluate whether the designed characters are effective at all in a way that would be fun. There are far more characters who have an Agony of 10, or a Physical (like Hit Points but with those with less than 10 being hurt), which means that if they suffer just 1 point of damage they will be impaired.

I think there is a very good game buried in the Supergame rule books, but I think it is a game that needs a lot of play testing and rules tweaks to bring out that game. I applaud Jay an Aimee for their hard work on the game and their ability to get a game like this published in 1980, and this is definitely a game I wish I was playing right now. I have so many questions I'd like answered and I'd love to house rule this game into a more complete system.

I don't know how many copies of Supergame 1st edition exist, but I do know that you can purchase the original and second edition of the game on DriveThruRPG. Precis Intermedia Games reprinted the game last year with a high quality scan. The pdf includes both the 1st and 2nd edition of the rules. I don't know where Brett got his copy of the 2nd edition for the reprint, but I do know where he got the copy of the 1st edition. It's my personal copy. He treated it kindly as he scanned it for the project. I'm glad he did, because I think that this is a unique gaming item.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

My First "Real" Role Playing Game Experience #RPGaDAY2019 Day 1

Every year game designer Dave Chapman aka Autocratik (Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, All Flesh Must Be Eaten) issues his #RPGaDAY challenge where he asks gamers to blog once a day for a month using prompts he has designed. This is the sixth year of the project and I've started participating every year, but have failed to make it all 31 days. I'm going to try again this year.

As mentioned earlier, the goal is to use Dave's prompts to guide the posts. This year's prompts can be seen below and they begin quite simply with "First," so that's where I'll start.

I've blogged about my first experience with Dungeons & Dragons in a prior post, but that experience wasn't my first "real" experience with role playing games. It was my first experience to be sure, but it was such a bad experience and so unreflective of the hobby that I don't think of it as my "real" first experience. That honor goes to Citadel of Chaos by Steve Jackson. This is Games Workshop's Steve Jackson, not Steve Jackson Games' Steve Jackson, though Steve Jackson Games' Steve Jackson did write the Scorpion Swamp adventure (not confusing at all).

Citadel of Chaos was the second volume in the Fighting Fantasy Gamebook series created by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, but it was the first volume that I purchased. I bought the book at a local book store shortly after my parents purchased me the D&D Basic Set for Christmas. I had read the D&D rulebook several times, but I had not yet played the game so there were some gaps in my understanding of just how role playing games worked. Sure, there was the excellent example of play within the Basic Set, but it was still hard to imagine the array of choices that are available within a role playing game and it was Citadel of Chaos that provided the perfect demonstration of how rules affected narrative.

By the time I picked up Citadel, I'd already read a number of Choose Your Own Adventure books. I was comfortable with interactive fiction as a concept, so the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks would have interested me even if I hadn't received the Basic Set as a gift, but there was something that set the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks apart. They didn't just have a pick your path narrative, they also had rules for combat, magic, and interacting with the world. At least, Citadel of Chaos did. Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first Fighting Fantasy Gamebook only has rules for combat and interacting with the world, it lacks a magic system.

Had Warlock been my first encounter with the genre, I don't think I'd have had the same excited reaction to the concept. In addition to lacking a magic system, the adventure in Warlock has only a single solution. There is only one way to complete the adventure successfully. That wasn't the case with Citadel. There are a couple of ways to have a happy ending playing Citadel and this fact kept me coming back to the book and replaying the adventure several times. By having a magic system and multiple paths to a successful conclusion Citadel gave me a better sense of how role playing games worked.

Sure, the mechanics of the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks are simple to the point of being almost simplistic, but they are surprisingly flexible and have resulted in a complete role playing game that holds its own and that has a good fanbase.

I don't want to reveal too much about Citadel, only to say that it is worth checking out and that by bridging the gap between Choose Your Own Adventure books and full Role Playing Games, it makes a perfect introduction. Steve Jackson, unlike that cruel first Dungeon Master, wasn't arbitrary in his plot design. He wasn't cruel. He created an interesting and fun narrative that allowed sufficient choices that multiple plays resulted in different experiences. This fact alone, that the same book could result in different stories, was the revelation I needed to completely understand role playing games as a kid. They were stories, often starting in the same place and with the same modules, but where the players shaped what the end story would be.

After that, I was hooked.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Episode 163: Toy Wizards, Pop Lurkers, and Running Mysteries.

Episode 163 is filled with reviews and interviews and comes in at one hour and 52 minutes!

Segments 1 and 2: Something Old/Something New

The "something new" for episode 163 are the Young Adventurer's Guides from Ten Speed Press. Weapons & Warriors and Monsters & Creatures are written by Jim Zub, Stacy King, and Andrew Wheeler as introductions to D&D fantasy tropes for younger readers who are interested in playing Dungeons & Dragons.

The books are described as "all the information you need to start building your own characters and putting together your adventuring party," but are they? Listen and find out.

The Supercrew by Tobias Rades├Ąter is a rules light roleplaying game of superheroic action. Like the old Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game, the rules for the game are presented in a comic book format. Supercrew's central conceit is that the players are playing super heroic versions of themselves, which provides game masters with an interesting opportunity that I discuss in my review.

Does The Supercrew work as a role playing game, or is it a mere novelty item?

Segment 3: An Interview with the Toy Wizards 

Toy-Wizards is one of the go to websites for toy collecting news and we had the honor of interview to of the Toy Wizard crew, Loryn Stone and Scott Zillner, in this episode.

Image Source -- Toy Wizards
Loryn Stone is the Editor in Chief of Toy Wizards and has dedicated her life to the Word of the Nerd. She is most excited by collecting toys, writing about them, and infiltrating the convention scene. Loryn is also the writer of SyFy Wire’s ‘Important Toy News’ column, as well as the site owner and Executive Editor of Toy Wizard’s sister site,

Her writing has been published on other pop culture websites such as Cracked, LoadScreen, Nerdbot, That Hashtag Show, and Temple of Geek. Her toy collection is comprised of Megazords, Gundam, miscellaneous robots and trinkets, Sailor Moon, Snoopy, Otaku Garbage, and Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Image Source -- Toy Wizards
Scott Zillner is a world-renowned toy collector and the owner and founder of Toy Wizards. He grew up in the 1980s, the undisputed greatest decade ever. He truly believes in collecting, and his once hobby is now his lifestyle. A new world Renaissance man, he is a professional Artist, Toy Expert, and Convention promoter. He collects massive amounts of toys, games, and art. He also runs several pop culture conventions.

As a Professional Artist, he worked on Disney’s 2010 Tron Legacy film, painting the light bikes and toys in young Flynn’s room. The same year, his Tron Stich collectible vinyl sculpture from Disney was released.

Segment 4: Dungeons & Dilemmas -- Running Mysteries

In our second Dungeons and Dilemmas segment, writer/director David Nett and I discuss the challenges Dungeon Masters face when running mystery themed adventures in role playing games.  David came to the discussion with three key recommendations, but the conversation ended with five. Along the way, we make a number of pop culture adventures and give insight into our own personal game campaigns.

Episode Segments Featured Discussion of the Events and Products Listed Below:

We hope you enjoy your listening experience. We've got a lot of great interviews lined up in the future and you can leave us voice messages on our page if you have any topics you'd like us to discuss.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Do D&D's New Young Adventurer's Guides have "All the Information (Young Players) Need to Start"?

TL;DR -- Not all the information you need, but a vital contribution to the hobby.

When I read that Wizards of the Coast was going to be releasing three volumes designed to introduce younger gamers to the Dungeons and Dragons hobby with their "A Young Adventurer's Guide" series by Jim Zub, Stacy King, and Andrew Wheeler, I was overjoyed. I immediately saw that the volumes thematically matched the three central Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks. Warriors & Weapons and the as yet unreleased Wizards & Spells were the Player's Handbook equivalent, Monsters & Creatures the Monster Manual, and Dungeons & Tombs fit the Dungeon Master's Guide slot. I was so excited that I preordered them in February and eagerly awaited the opportunity to hand my eleven year old daughters their individual copies of the volumes.

My expectation was that these volumes would be simplified versions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules, written in a manner to be more accessible to younger audiences as the "kid friendly" equivalents of the core rulebooks. This expectation was reinforced by the marketing copy describing the books and recent reporting about the intent of the volumes.

The description of Weapons & Warriors states, "This guide includes detailed illustrations of the weapons, armor, clothing, and other equipment that fighters use, and offers the tools young, aspiring adventurers need for learning how to build their own characters, including sample profiles, a flowchart to help you decide what type of warrior to be, and brainstorming challenges to start you thinking like an adventurer whether on your own or in the midst of an exciting quest with friends and fellow players."

Add to that description, the copy from the back of the volume which states, "Warriors & Weapons provides would-be adventurers with all the information you need to start building your own characters and putting together your adventuring party" (Emphasis mine).

In an interview with Geek & Sundry, Jim Zub described the inspiration for the books by stating:

When I was at the Wizards of the Coast office in late 2017 consulting on the adventure material that would become Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, we talked a lot about how I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 8 years old and the elements of D&D and roleplaying that ignited my imagination at that crucial age. That discussion would come up again a few months later when the crew at Wizards introduced me to Aaron Wehner, an editor from Ten Speed Press, and plans started to develop around the kind of book that could engage new players without overwhelming them with rules or game-specific terminologies.

As experienced Dungeon Masters or players, it’s easy to forget how intimidating tabletop RPGs can be for people who haven’t ever played them before. These guides lay out the major concepts (class, race, equipment, creatures) in a way anyone can understand while encouraging them to create their own stories. Readers can use the material in these books to brainstorm a character and imagine their role in an adventuring party. They’re meant to get new players excited about the possibilities, so they’re ready to head to the gaming table and learn how those initial ideas can really flourish with a roll of the dice.
These comments, and my experience with the excellent new Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit, had me convinced that these would be the modern age equivalent of the Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer Basic Set, or D&D Player's Essentials books for a new generation of players.

I was wrong.

I was wrong, but I wasn't misled. I missed a lot of clues as I set my expectations of what these books would be. I missed phrases like, "the kind of book that could engage new players without overwhelming them with rules or game-specific terminologies" and "brainstorming challenges to start you thinking like an adventurer."

These books were never intended to be "kid friendly" replacements for the rulebooks. Instead, they were meant to be something that filled the gap between books like Dungeonology, the 123's of D&D, A Practical Guide to Monsters, the Monster Slayers series by Lukas Ritter, and the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit.

The Young Adventurer's Guides do not have "all the information you need to start building your own characters," but they do contain valuable information that new players need. I remember the first D&D gaming session I ran for my daughters and their friends at a sleepover earlier this year. The session went great, BUT the first couple of hours were spent discussing basic information like what Rangers and Clerics were. As I stated in my post discussing that first session, "Everyone knew what a wizard was, but the audience was very unfamiliar with most traditional fantasy classes." That is exactly the gap that these books were designed to fill and they do that job very effectively. The Warriors & Weapons book gives a good overview of a number of D&D races and classes and has a useful flowchart to help young players decide what kinds of characters they want to play. The expectation is that the Dungeon Master will know the rules and guide the neophyte through character creation, or even use the descriptions the new player gives to design a character for them. Heck, the book even includes discussion of various backgrounds. None of the mechanics, but descriptions of what they are and what the benefits of each are in non-mechanical terms.

You will still need access to some form of the rules, but thankfully there are scads of low cost and high quality options. First and foremost, there are the FREE Basic Rules available on the Wizards of the Coast website. These are all you need for years of fun. Sure, there are more options if you own the physical rule books, but the Basic Rules are more than enough to start with and the price is right. You can also go with the D&D Essentials Kit from Target. Don't get the Starter Kit, though that's fine, take the time to find this gem.

If you are gaming with younger players, the players for whom these new books are designed as a bridge to the full game, then let me recommend the two Monster Slayers adventures designed by Susan J. Morris. Monster Slayers: The Heroes of Hesiod and Monster Slayers: Champions of the Elements are excellent starting points for players.

My recommendation, if you are gaming with 10 to 11 year-olds, is the following. Download the Basic Rules for yourself (the adult), and download the two Monster Slayers adventures. You don't need to read the Basic Rules to run the adventures, so just run those for the kids. After the kids have their first taste of role playing, buy them copies of Warriors & Weapons and Monsters & Creatures. While they read those volumes, take the time to read the Basic Rules and buy the Essentials Kit. A couple of weeks later, you and your kids will be wholehearted gamers with all the knowledge of the genre and rules you will ever need.

Friday, July 12, 2019

D&D Rangers Through the Ages (Part 2): Arduin's Forrester (sic) and the Gaming Scene

In yesterday's post, I the first in a series of posts about the Ranger as a character class in the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. This discussion was inspired by a tweet by Cam Banks where he shared his concept of what the Ranger is in his mind. His preferred Rangers are "guerrilla fighters, adept at striking targets quickly and with expertise, operating as scouts and archers and guides" and his argument suggests that the 5th edition D&D Ranger has somewhat deviated from this central concept. In the first post in the series, I wrote about how I thought that the Ranger class has become one of the most "meta" classes over time because it now includes among its informative archetypes a character who is in turn based on the earlier editions of the rules.

I know, that's confusing. Let's just say that the class has become self referential. I don't want to retread too much ground from the past article as I move forward, but I do want to provide a little bit of ground work on the origins of the class. As mentioned yesterday, some key examples of the class are Aragorn, Legolas, Tarzan, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Drizzt Do'Urden (the new "iconic" Ranger who has displaced Aragorn in the D&D imagination). There are some others who weren't mentioned, some who were mentioned by T.S. Luikart and Cam in tweets responding to yesterday's post (thanks for reading). In the tweet-versation, Luikart adds Dar the Beastmaster and John Carter to the mix.

Dar is obviously a Ranger, though he comes after the 1975 creation of the Ranger class, and John Carter is an interesting choice. I wouldn't necessarily have classified him as a Ranger, but after listening to Fiddleback's GM Word of the Week, I think he's a good fit. This isn't because Fiddleback argues that John Carter is a Ranger, rather because he conveys the military and civilian history of the real world Ranger in a way that makes it a perfect fit for Captain Carter of Virginia. I'd like to add a couple more Rangers, who also happen to have Animal Companions, to the mix. The Lone Ranger and Silver are very much in the line of the class as envisioned by Cam, especially in the radio portrayal of the Ranger character. The Phantom, aka The Ghost Who Walks, with his companions Devil and Hero is also a perfect Ranger. Given that Gygax and crew designed Boot Hill, wrote up stats for the Lone Ranger in Strategic Review vol. 2. no. 2, and may have played using the Curtis et al. Western Skirmish rules before that, I think that Gary's local group might have also had The Lone Ranger in mind for a couple of classes, the Ranger and the Paladin, but that's only speculation. Whatever the case, they all fit and you can probably think of several others that fit as well. In fact, go ahead and post your thoughts in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.

Now onto the good stuff.

Around the same time as the publication of the Ranger in The Strategic Review, David Hargrave included information about a "Ranger" class in The Arduin Grimoire. In the first Arduin volume, the class has experience point requirements listed and is included on one of the charts for "special abilities" (more on that shortly). Hargrave's Arduin books are a part of the "California RPG Scene" that included the Greg Stafford group that published All the World's Monsters (which Hargrave contributed to and volume 2 of which contains the "Perrin Conventions" that would influence how D&D is played), the Alarums and Excursions creators, and The Complete Warlock RPG group. The California RPG scene was responsible for the creation of the Thief Class, Runequest, Champions, Supergame, and a host of other exciting rpg innovations.

(If you check out the Supergame link, the scan of the 1st edition of the game is from my own personal collection...and that one's not an affiliate link.)

It is really remarkable how much output this community put out in the 1970s and I'm eternally grateful for the fact that UC Riverside, where I'm earning my Ph.D., has copies of many of the fanzines this community was producing at the time.

I'm pretty sure that Hargrave had read the 1975 Strategic Review article referenced in the last post by the time he published his Grimoire, but I don't think he had read it before he began designing his own version of the Ranger for his home game. I say this for one specific reason. He renames his Ranger, "The Forrester" (sic), when it is published in vol. 3 of the Grimoire. This suggests to me that he had been playing with a Ranger equivalent before reading the rules and then continued using it afterwards because his Ranger was different from the one published in Strategic Review. Interestingly, if you've listened to the GM Word of the Day podcast linked above, one might argue that the Strategic Review Ranger represents the "military" version of the class, while Hargrave's represents the "civilian" version.

So what does Hargrave's Ranger look like? Well, there are two parts of his emulation of the archetype.

First, he includes Rangers in a group of characters with a "more or less secret nature." This grouping was listed in a collection of tables that included special abilities new characters start with, abilities that helped to make individual characters more distinct from one another. If you read through the Original D&D rulebook Men & Magic, you'll quickly see that the only thing that differentiates one Fighting Man from another in OD&D are the character's statistics, hit points, and equipment selected by the player. Most of the individualization of the character comes from how the player describes the character and given that all weapons did the same amount of damage prior to the Greyhawk Supplement, things could be pretty static. Do address this, Hargrave created a series of special ability charts and the Ranger is on the chart with other "Secret"-ive classes like, Thieves, Monks, Ninja, Highwaymen, Corsairs, Assassins, Traders, Slavers, etc. As you can see by that list, Hargrave had a lot of optional classes.

Among the possible special abilities a new Ranger could have were the following (not a complete list because good God Hargrave was a lover of random charts for good and ill): Natural Locksmith (pick locks at a Thief of two levels higher than your won), +3 attacks versus all attacks by oozes and slimes, +2 with rapiers and foils (he had rapiers early), 50% better night vision, bump of direction, Master Herbalist, Natural Linguist, etc.

There are some entries, not listed, that make one shake one's head in disbelief that he thought they were appropriate, but there are over 30 options which meant that characters in Hargrave's game had a little something to set them apart from other characters of the same class. Modern characters have feat selections, archetypes, backgrounds, different skill choices, but back in OD&D that wasn't the case, so this was pretty innovative. You can see by the grouping of Rangers with "Secret" characters, Hargrave is strongly in the "their guerilla warriors" camp.

The second way Hargrave emulated Rangers was by creating his own class called The Forrester (sic). He describes the class this way:

This type of character is akin to the Elves and the Outlaws in their abilities. They are solitary and nomadic by nature but do join expeditions as wilderness guides )though they seldom venture into dungeons). Forresters (sic) only have a 05% chance of getting lost in known areas, and a 20% chance in unknown ones.
They are used as border patrols and scouts/spys (sic) by military types and are occassionally (sic) hired to tend the Royal Game Preserves...
Clearly has similar inspirations as the official class, though the additional information regarding game preserves adds a nice detail about the real world Rangers and how they might have inspired the class too.

Hargrave's Forrester (sic) doesn't have all the abilities of the official one, in fact it isn't readily clear what the combat capabilities and hit points of the class are. Those do become clear later, but they are unique to Arduin's system. The main abilities of the Forrester (sic) are progressive bonuses with "non-mechanical" bows, sensing enemies, good hearing, weather sense, the ability to speak with plants and animals, the ability to heal like a first level Druid (at 15th level), and eventually a bonus with "any weapon." The class eventually ends up with a +2 (total) bonus to non-mechanical bows and whether the bonus to "any weapon" means a bonus to any weapon the character is using at a given moment or whether the player can pick a single weapon with which to have the bonus isn't clear. The lack of clarity is something common in Arduin. Where OD&D had a lot of gaps in the rules, Arduin has lots of uncertainty for how things work.

As you can see though, Hargrave's Ranger equivalent is a guerrilla fighter and spy, but one with a focus on bow use. Clearly there's more Robin Hood in Hargrave's Ranger than in the OD&D one. There are no bonuses against "Giant type" creatures. The spell casting is much weaker than the OD&D class, though also more in line with Aragorn's stated capabilities in Fellowship.

It's an interesting take that highlights the creative energies of the California scene, while also demonstrating the amateur nature of the hobby at the time. I don't mean amateur here as a pejorative. Merely that a more professional publication would assume that more clarity is needed in the rules. For the amateur, who is part of an active community constantly in conversation with one another via cons and zines, things can be a little looser. They are also looser because the hobby itself was more amateur at the time. Things weren't rigorously playtested. People were too busy playing FOR THE FIRST TIME and exploring possibilities to playtest. The hobby was growing at a logarithmic pace and you can see that in Hargrave's Arduin books. They may be gonzo and vague, but there is a lot of creative energy here.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

D&D Rangers Through the Ages (Part 1): The First D&D Ranger

About a month ago, Cam Banks began a discussion on Twitter regarding his thoughts on the Ranger class and how he didn't think that the Ranger class in 5th Edition D&D captured his concept of what the class should be. Cam and I are acquaintances, and one of my favorite game designers having designed some fantastic material for the Dragonlance setting, a Marvel role playing game, and the highly underappreciated Smallville role playing game (a game I mentioned during Dungeons and Dilemmas segment of this week's episode of Geekerati), so I thought it might be interesting to present his concept and discuss the evolution of the Ranger class over the editions. This isn't going to be a Jon Peterson-esque history filled with insider information. Rather, it's going to be a simple look at each edition's version of the Ranger class with some insights from a long-time player.

I think the discussion will be interesting for new gamers who may not be familiar with some of how the Ranger evolved over time and for older gamers who take certain things about the class for granted.

Cam's basic argument is two fold, an assertion that the Ranger is a part of an archetypical tradition and that the current version has abandoned a lot of this tradition because of the popularity of one character within the tradition.

His initial statement is about what he sees as the quintessential tradition that inspired the class.

For Cam, the prototypical Ranger is a part of a tradition that includes characters from the Lord of the Rings, the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Greek/Roman Mythology, and Fairy Tales. It's a nice list and you can see a coherent archetype within it of the lone warrior fighting from the shadows to defend the weak. In the case of Aragorn, this was done during his days as a "Ranger" prior to his appearance in the Lord of the Rings when he and others wandered the lands keeping the roads and distant communities safe from various threats. Legolas accompanied Aragorn on many of these adventures. Fans of the Tarzan books can find numerous examples of him engaging in guerilla fighting against threats that included Soviet Communists in Tarzan the Invincible. And we are all familiar with the various tales of Jack the Giant Slayer who climbs the beanstalk and battles...GIANTS...something that will be seen as a big influence in a moment, but first let's look at the second part of his argument.
In the second part, Cam focuses on how the character of Drizzt Do'Urden has influenced the Ranger class in more recent editions of D&D. Cam's earlier mention of Aragorn's lack of animal companion is another example of Do'Urden's influence. Cam is arguing here that he believes an iconic character from D&D fiction, has influenced how designers implemented the class in future editions. I think Cam is on to something here. Robert Salvatore's character of Drizzt has an animal companion and he fights with dual scimitars. Prior to his introduction in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, most Rangers were using weapons that were more effective against "Large" creatures and none had animal companions. So it seems at first glance that Salvatore's iconic Ranger is now "the" iconic Ranger.

What's interesting about this development is that Salvatore has always written the character of Drizzt in a way that conformed to the rules of the edition being used at the time the individual volume was being written. Drizzt has an animal companion because he's was in possession of a Figurine of Wondrous Power and his dual wielding of scimitars was because all Drow had that ability in 1st edition D&D. If you want a great example of how Drizzt was a quintessential 1st Edition Ranger in the Icewind Dale trilogy, I recommend you check out the scene where Drizzt and Wulfgar are fighting giants. Drizzt goes completely berserk. Why? Is there some deep back story where giants killed his family? C'mon, Drizzt would be celebrating if giants killed his family. No. Rangers got bonuses to damage against giants and giant kin in 1st edition. You can also see Drizzt follow the "dual class" rules of 1st/2nd edition when he formally becomes a Ranger and leaves his past as a Fighter behind. He literally becomes worse at fighting until he "gains enough levels" to surpass his former level as a fighter. Never mind that dual class rules were supposedly only usable by humans, Drizzt follows them in the Dark Elf Trilogy. I'm actually grateful that Salvatore hews so close to the rules, even as he takes liberties, because it helps readers who become players transition more easily. They don't encounter any moments of disappointment as they try to adapt the character to the rules. The character was written with the rules in mind.

Sorry for the brief digression there, but I think it was an important side conversation. Cam's point isn't that Salvatore adheres to the rules, rather that the rules have come to reflect Salvatore's vision. Now Rangers are viewed as having animal companions and dual wielding BECAUSE that's what Drizzt does. The class has transitioned from an archetype based on many characters, an archetype that then influenced Salvatore's writing of the character Drizzt, to a class influenced by a particular expression unique to D&D. This has actually happened with a lot of D&D. The rules were originally created to emulate the stories Gygax and Arneson read as kids, many of which are referenced in the famous Appendix N. Now D&D rules are more geared at emulating the stories told in D&D novels, which are their own brand of fantasy fiction. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, so long as D&D novels cover a wide variety of milieu, but it can be constraining if there is too much Forgotten Realms and not enough Eberron, Dragonlance, Mystara, Dark Sun, Birthright, Greyhawk, and Appendix N in the mix. Is D&D a roleplaying game of the fantasy genre, or is it a roleplaying game of the D&D fantasy genre? That's a question for another time, but one worth considering.


Okay, so I've argued that Salvatore's initial Ranger was influenced by the older Ranger class and that subsequent Ranger classes are based on Salvatore's Ranger as it developed through stories, but where's the evidence? After all, Nazir was pretty badass in the Robin of Sherwood series. Maybe Drizzt didn't shape things to come. The only way to know is to see the development of the class, which is the entire reason for this series of posts in the first place. So let's take a look at the initial Ranger class.

The Ranger first appeared in The Strategic Review vol. 1 no. 2 newsletter published by TSR in 1975. Wizards of the Coast hasn't reprinted all the early newsletters yet, so unless you own the Dragon Magazine Archive like me, you're stuck with less legal means of finding the information.
<![endif]-->The Ranger was created by Joe Fischer, who was a player in Gary Gygax's D&D game group and was initially designed as a "sub-class" of Fighting Men. Remember in Original D&D, there were Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. Thieves were created by California gamer Gary Switzer, the late owner of the excellent Aero Games (which is still open).  The formal introduction of Thieves to D&D came in the Greyhawk Supplement, which also introduced the concept of "sub-class" with the / Paladin the first sub class of Fighting Men.

Fischer introduces the Ranger in the following way:
Rangers are a sub-class of Fighting Men, similar in many ways to the new sub-class Paladins, for they must always remain Lawful or lose all the benefits they gained (except, of course, experience as a fighter).

Note that Fischer's Ranger is a specifically heroic class, with a required alignment of "Lawful," and that the character loses abilities if it acts out of alignment. While the alignment rules of modern D&D are flexible guidelines, the rules in earlier editions of D&D were very inspired by Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, and Henry Kuttner. In this fictional tradition, the forces of law and chaos have physical manifestations and are real things not just ethical constructs. One might argue that Tolkien's Ring Cycle fits with Morgoth and Sauron representing Chaos, but that would be an interpretation. Moorcock, Anderson, and Kuttner expressly state that Chaos is a living and tangible thing. D&D's early rules reflected a similar mythopoetic setting.

So other than being champions of "Law," what kinds of people where Rangers?

Like Fighting Men they had Strength as their "Prime Requisite," but they also required Intelligence and Wisdom scores of at least 12 and a Constitution of at least 15. These are pretty strict requirements as one only has a 9.26% of rolling a 15 or higher on a given statistic (assuming 3d6 in order as was the old school way). Players would want a high Strength, so the requirements mean that only about 1% of rolled up characters would qualify. This was one of the ways that older D&D balanced classes for play. The abilities of a class might be "unbalanced" or OP compared to other classes, but the rarity of rolling them up was designed as a counterpoint. Of course, Rangers are really cool, so the fact that I just "happened" to roll a 15, 16, 16, and 18 is totally believable. What's key here is that in earlier editions, you don't choose to be a Ranger so much as being a Ranger is something that chooses you.

Players of D&D know that each class has a certain number of hit points they gain each level. This was one of the ways that the early ranger was set apart from other Fighting Men. Most Fighting Men started with one hit dice (either 1d6 or 1d8 depending on which version of the combat rules you were using), the Ranger started with two. Right away, they are tougher but that doesn't tell us anything about their origin. The "level names" however do. Early editions of D&D had descriptive names for each level of character, that way a player could say "I'm a Ranger Scout" instead of "I'm a 3rd Level Ranger." I actually like the old system. It lessens the sense of "gaming" and increases the narrative element of play. The first few levels of Ranger are: Runner, STRIDER, Scout, Guide, Pathfinder...

Did you see the STRIDER? So yeah, it's totally Aragorn. Cam's on the money here. Additionally, as the character hits "name level," they are able to cast spells. Is case, starting at 8th level a Ranger gets access to one 1st Level Cleric spell. At 9th Level, they are able to cast 1st Level Magic-User spells. Eventually being able to cast spells of up to the 3rd Level in each class at 13th Level.
For the record, at 13th Level a Ranger knows Three 1st Level, Two 2nd Level, and 1 Third Level spell from each of the Cleric and Magic User Spell Lists. That's pretty OP, but they require A LOT of experience to get there.

In order to "pay" for these benefits, as if the restrictions on scores weren't enough (they weren't because "rollling"), Rangers had several restrictions. All of which fit within Cam's description of his prototypical Ranger. Here's an incomplete list:

  • They may own only that which they can cary with them, and excess treasure or goods must be donated to a charitable cause.
Let's just say that if you're using encumbrance rules, which players weren't but DMs were, this is a pretty big restriction.

  • They may not hire any men-at-arms or other servants or aides of any kind whatsoever.
A strict DM would have this apply to the whole party. Let's just say that a lot of player groups had expendable henchmen and that Rangers couldn't have them.

  • Only two of the class may operate together.
Legolas and Aragorn are okay. Ranger Squad Six isn't. Not that you could have honestly rolled those stats in the first place

So much for the restrictions, all of which fit the loner type Cam describes though I'm wondering where Tarzan put all his spells. Clearly Tarzan's spells are things like Comprehend Languages...yep, that's it. Rangers also had additional bonuses, beyond the additional hit points and spell casting

They didn't receive Prime Requisite experience bonuses, instead they gained "4 experience points for every 3 earned" at low levels. Holy cow! That's a 33% experience bonus! Unheard of. Why bother listing the high experience requirements, when they get a 33% bonus? Thankfully, they lose this at the same time they gain spells.

They also had the ability to track creatures outdoors and in dungeons and were dificult to surprise.

Here's the big one, one that partially explains why Drizzt goes berserk in the Icewind Dale trilogy.

  • All Rangers gain a special advantage when fighting against monster of the Giant Class (Kobolds -- Giants). For each level they have gained they add +1 to their damage die against these creatures, so a 1st Level Ranger adds +1, a 2nd Level +2, and so on.
Good Grief! Sorry Mr. Kobold. You may only be 3 feet tall and have 1 to 3 hit points, but our Runner gets +2 damage against you for being a "Giant" and he REALLY hates Giants.

They can't acquire henchmen, but at 9th level they gain "Followers" that can include Werebears, Stone Giants, and Gold Dragons. How's that for an animal companion? The Werebear I get. Beorn in The Hobbit is a Werebear and Bard is clearly a Ranger, but the Gold Dragon?

What you see here is a class that is influenced by the fiction of Tolkien (Aragorn has some small access to magic) and Tarzan (he has a large group of loyal henchmen and we'll say that a Jad-bal-ja the lion is kind of like a Werebear), and Jack. Did you see how much they hate Giants? That's totally Jack. There's no guarantee of an animal companion, but it's a possibility. It's also one determined at random and not chosen.

The class very much fits within the scope of Cam's description, but you can still see hints of the modern Ranger. It also makes interesting reading for the Drizzt series, though his character is based on the AD&D Ranger and you'll have to wait for the next post to see how the class changes. Notice that there are no armor restrictions, no dual wielding, just hatred of Giants which eventually became "favored enemy."

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Episode 162: Not So Tiny Conversations About Tiny d6

It's time for Episode 162 of Geekerati and this one is a doozy, coming in at approximately 2 1/2 hours of content.
Segment 1:

The first segment of episode 162 is a 30 minute interview with Alan Bahr of Gallant Knight Games who joins us to discuss GKG's wonderful catalog of role playing games. During the interview we go into a detailed discussion of Tiny Supers, Tiny Dungeon, and GKG's other Tiny d6 role playing games. We also discuss how Alan's company runs the gamut of the indie rpg world from OSR style games like For Coin and Blood to one shot pick up and play narrative games like Beach Patrol. It was a great conversation and our experience with the Tiny Supers role playing game inspired us to write up quick statistics for The Human Torch and The Invisible Woman using the Tiny Supers rules set. You can find those characters down below and we'd love to hear your thoughts on how you would adapt the characters to the Tiny Supers system.

Segment 2:

Since we were highlighting Tiny d6 games in our main interview, we thought it would be a great opportunity to expose listeners to a delightful Kickstarter project launched to support Tiny Dungeon 2nd Edition. The Micronomicon Kickstarter features new spells, new archetypes, and more importantly new "micro-settings." John D Payne and Gregory Israel stopped by to chat about this wonderful project and to share their love of the Tiny d6 system in general. It's a wonderful discussion.

John D Payne is the editor of The Micronomicon and he has a Patreon account which supports his game design efforts. The Patreon has a large number of backer supported extras that you might want to check out.

Gregory Israel's designs have been featured in the Tiny Dungeon 2nd Edition rulebook and in issues of Tinyzine, an official online magazine that supports the Tiny d6 line of games. Gregory is also the author of Between Sun and Shadow, a setting for the Tiny Dungeon system.

Segments 3 and 4:

Segments 3 and 4 contained our regular Something Old and Something New segment. This week, I  highlighted the Beach Patrol game from Gallant Knight Games as the Something New and Tales from the Floating Vagabond by Lee Garvin as the Something Old. Both of these games are humorous in nature and can be used to emulate the action of 80s and 90s shows. I had intended to include a review of Extreme Vengeance by Archangel Studios as well, but that will have to wait for a future episode. Hopefully an episode where we interview Philip Reed or Tony Lee who were involved with that particular project.

Segment 5:

We were finally able to reveal one of the exciting changes to the Geekerati podcast in Episode 162 with the addition of the Dungeons and Dilemmas segment with writer and director David Nett. Nett was on the vanguard of gaming related webseries and his Gold series set a high standard, particularly its second season Night of the Zombie King. We are honored to have him as our regular game mastering expert Dungeons and Dilemmas.

Segments of this episode discussed the products and blogs below.

Products Discussed/Featured in this Episode

A Glimpse at Two Quick Tiny Supers Characters

No post should be without gaming content if we can help it, so here's this post's weekly does of gaming goodness.

While the Fantastic Four has never quite been able to translate successfully to the big screen, they are among Marvel Comics' most iconic characters. The brother and sister team of Johnny Storm and Sue Storm-Richards are particular favorites of the Geekerati crew, so we jumped at the chance to convert them to the Tiny Supers role playing game system as a way to test it out. It's a pretty good fit, but maybe your take would be a little bit different. Feel free to give us your ideas for how you would adapt these or other characters to this quick and easy to play super hero role playing game. Is Johnny a "Striker"? Is Susan Richards best defined as a "Defender"? Would you use a different mix of powers?