Showing posts with label Games. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Games. Show all posts

Monday, July 03, 2023

Geekerati Video: Chatting with Alan Bahr About Swords of Meropis and Tabletop Role Playing Games

 Alan Bahr is publisher and lead designer for Gallant Knight Games and his company recently launched a crowdfunding campaign for a storytelling game called Swords of Meropis. Alan was inspired by Sword & Sandals films like Jason and the Argonauts and wanted to make a game that captured the feel of those classic fantasy tales.

In this interview, I chat with Bahr about the inspiration behind Swords of Meropis and the basic mechanics underlying this storytelling focused role playing game. Bahr is no stranger when it comes to designing games focusing more on interaction than on tactical combat, but this is one of his first designs that fully utilizes what I call a “player focused” storytelling approach.

It’s an approach that really came into design focus with Better Games’ series of Free Style Role Play games in the 1990s. While there were some earlier games that incorporated storytelling elements, like Greg Stafford’s inspired Prince Valiant Story-Telling Game (originally published in 1989), the Free Style Role Play system games like Conrad’s Fantasy, Where Fools Dare to Tread, and Good Guys Finish Last by Better Games really pushed the boundaries of player agency and narrative focus in a way that would be immediately recognizable to a player of Apocalypse World and other modern storytelling focused games. Better Games were a major contributor in the Southern California gaming scene in the 1990s and their ideas were ahead of their time.

Just take a look at this character sheet for their horror game Where Fools Dare to Tread.


Since this is a starting character, there are no numbers on the sheet except for the task resolution chart. As the character gained experience, the only numbers you would see would be bonuses, such as a +1, to the skills. I’ll be doing a deeper dive into the mechanics of Better Games’ Where Fools Dare to Tread in my extended analysis of Candela Obscura by the Critical Role team, but you can easily see how cutting edge this game was mechanically.

Alan and I don’t discuss Better Games in detail, but it is a game in the same vein as Alan’s design for Swords of Meropis. The focus is on player agency and storytelling, but with mechanics that allow for solo gaming as well as troupe based play.

Check out the conversation. We talk about a lot more than his upcoming game and our discussion ventures into how while we often hear and see role playing game play presented as art, we don’t often enough think about game design as art. Just as live streaming performances and home games are moments of theatrical art, so too is good game design an example of artifice.

Take the time to watch and/or listen and please make sure to share if you enjoyed the discussion.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Tabletop Thursday: Teenage Mutant Ninja Tortles

With the pending release of a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, I thought I’d visit the frenetic foursome’s nearest parallel in old school D&D and present a Teenage Mutant Ninja Tortle class for Moldvay/Cook and BECMI D&D.

Role-playing games have a long history of anthropomorphic character options. I’m not sure what the first humanoid animal player character option was, but I’m going to venture a guess that it was the Ducks who have featured in Runequest since the first edition in 1978. Tunnels & Trolls (1975) and Monsters! Monsters! (1976) come close, as both provide options for “monster” characters, but none of the options included are as explicitly anthropomorphic animals as Runequest’s Ducks.

According to Chaosium President Rick Mients (2020), Ducks have been a part of Runequest since the initial playtests and served as a proxy for Hobbits. Though Ducks are described in the 1st Edition of Runequest (see above from page 78), Mients believes that the earliest drawing of the Duck species was the cover illustration of Wyrm’s Footnotes #8 (1980) by Jennell Jaquays. She certainly played a part in popularizing the species as she also co-wrote and illustrated the Runequest adventure The Legendary Duck Tower for Judge’s Guild. The adventure was a play on her popular D&D Adventure The Dark Tower, which was recently reincarnated in a Deluxe Edition Kickstarter by Goodman Games.

Legendary Duck Tower and Other Tales | RPG Item | RPGGeek

It didn’t take too long for D&D to get in on the anthropomorphic animal bandwagon, you have the Aranea by X1, the Lupin in X2, and possibly some earlier than that. Tortle non-player characters were added to the mix in 1987 in Dungeon Magazine issues #6 and #7 in the two part adventure “Tortles of the Purple Sage.” Tortles inspired by our favorite chelonian champions were introduced in Dragon Magazine #179 as “Tortle Mystics.” The BECMI D&D mystic class was analogous to the AD&D and and D&D 3.0 and later Monk class, so it didn’t take a person with deep lore of comics and rpgs to know who was being referred to in the article.

While mechanical options for some anthropomorphic PCs were added by the mid-to-late 1980s to both the AD&D lines (the Hengeyokai) and D&D (Pooka) product lines, there were no rules for Tortle player characters. In the 1990s, TSR published rules for playing Lupin and Rakasta as BECMI characters in Dragon Magazine #181, but those rules violated the “ancestry as class” rules norm of Moldvay/Cook and BECMI and it wasn’t until the Rage of the Rakasta module that a Basic D&D specific class for the Rakasta. Sadly, that class was limited to the first 5 levels of play, but the class can be easily expanded to full BECMI by any DM (something I’ll likely do for my next post).

With the publication of the AD&D 2nd edition Red Steel boxed set, players of D&D finally had official rules for Tortle PC characters. Those rules are fun, and for a great setting, but are not for the era and style of game play I’m hoping to present here. I want to give players of BECMI and B/X games the opportunity to play everyone’s favoring pizza purloining chelonian champions. I’ll probably include other Tortle options later, but for now I think I’ll just focus on adapting the Tortles from Dragon #179.

The first step in adapting the Tortle into a full B/X class is to examine the benefits of the ancestry and to plot them out in a way similar to how the Lupins and Rakasta were presented on page 48 of Dragon Magazine # 181. The benefits of the ancestry will be drawn from The article provided the specific benefits of the ancestries and then the experience point penalty for playing as that ancestry.

Let’s take a look at the description from module X9 The Savage Coast to see if that will help us get a start.

Not really. The only benefit we are seeing here is that they can hold their breath for 10 turns and have a base AC of 3 (likely due to their armored shell since this is the equivalent of plate mail). We have no information on stat bonuses or significant special abilities. We want the characters to feel special, so let’s dig a little further and check out AC9 the Creature Catalog on page 47.

We get a little more information here as it includes information that Tortles are slightly below average Intelligence, that they don’t wear clothes or armor, and that they can withdraw into their shells for protection. How much protection? Who knows. It also looks like the average adult Tortle has 4HD and saves like a fighter. This suggests that the most common Tortles people will encounter are warrior Tortles and that these tend to be fairly experienced. Typical of early D&D products, we find that you can make armor from “fresh tortle-egg shells.”

We’ll set that bit of dehumanizing information aside and we are still left with a little less information than I’d like, so it’s time to look at Red Steel which presents Tortles as a playable ancestry.

This time we are given a little more information. I think enough to begin building a full Teenage Mutant Ninja Tortle class. Remember that in B/X and BECMI most classes don’t add or subract from core attributes like STR and DEX, instead they have a range. My sense from reading these is that we’ll require a minimum CON and WIS to receive XP bonuses and that those will be the Prime Requisites for a normal Tortle (to come in the next newsletter). Our Teenage Mutant Ninja Tortle class will have DEX and CON minimums and have those as the Prime Requisites. Additionally, we’ll give a +4 bonus to AC and give good saves to account for the ability to pull into the shell at will, but we won’t give hiding in the shell as an ability because we want this to be an active class and not one where players are encouraged to withdraw. You can keep that if you want.

This brings us to the second step, which is to take those benefits and recommendations and transform them using the Rakasta class from Rage of the Rakasta as a guideline. The Rakasta advance in combat ability like a fighter, have fighter hit points, and have the Magic User Saving Throw Array with faster improvement. Having done that, I’ve incorporated the bonuses above into a transformed version of the Mystic class from the BECMI Rules Cyclopedia and I give to you…the Teenage Mutant Ninja Tortle!

What do you think? Let me know in the comments. Maybe I’ll update it and make more edits for a final version. I will certainly be presenting the frenetic four and an adventure featuring them in the not too distant future.

Every appearance of the Tortle Ancestry.

Classic D&D (B/X and BECMI)

X9 - The Savage Coast (1985)
AC9 Creature Catalog (1986)
DMR2 Creature Catalog (1993)
Tortles of the Purple Sage Part 1 Dungeon Magazine #6
Tortles of the Purple Sage Part 2 Dungeon Magazine #7
Voyage of the Princess Ark Dragon Magazine #179

For AD&D 2nd Edition

Mystara Monstrous Compendium Appendix
Red Steel Boxed Set
Red Steel : Savage Baronies Boxed Set
Savage Coast Monstrous Compendium PDF
Savage Coast: Adventures on the Savage Coast
Tortles of Mystara: Dragon Magazine (Never published article by Bruce Heard)

For D&D 3rd Edition

Red Steel, Dragon #315

For D&D 5th Edition

Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016)
Tortle Package (2017)
Descent into Avernus (2019)
Explorer’s Guide to Wildemont (2020)
Monsters of the Multiverse (2022)

Third Party Publications

“A Traveller’s Guide to Tortle’s Tears” in Threshold Magazine #28

Friday, October 28, 2022

Appendix N May Have Influenced Dungeons & Dragons, but Moldvay Basic Influenced How I Read Fantasy

 now become a widely used shorthand for the literary origins of RPGs."  James' site often includes discussions of the Appendix, its influence on the early days of the hobby, and from time to time he even reviews books and authors featured in the Appendix. 

Given that he has taken the time to review the Carnelian Cube, a book that fellow Appendix N advocate Erik Mona has found "wanting," it is my hope that James will someday review the Kothar series by Gardner Fox.  Though if that doesn't happen I might just find the time to do so.  Having endured a couple of Lin Carter's Thongor books, I figure they cannot be much worse.  That said, Carter at least has the virtue of being one of the best editors in SF/F history even though his Thongor stories fall very short of the best of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

If I were to say that the influence of Appendix N extended beyond the gaming table and that many of the works therein are also seminal works of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I don't think there would be many who disagree.  The Appendix includes luminaries like Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Manly Wade Wellman, and Robert E. Howard -- and many others beside.  But the list is also incomplete as a glimpse into an earlier era of Fantasy, Scientification, and Sword & Sorcery.  There is no listing for Clark Ashton Smith, for example. 

While Appendix N is the best known Dungeons & Dragons recommended reading list, one that has inspired the DCC roleplaying game and several books, it is not the only list of recommended reading that Dungeons & Dragons games have provided to readers. There are other lists.  The Erik Mona edited Pathfinder roleplaying game, or as I call it D&D Golarion, has it's own Appendix 3. This Appendix features a list of recommended reading.  It is a longer list than Gygax's, and a good one, that includes a wide range of readings including some more recent works.

My own favorite "Appendix N" is a combination of the "inspirational source material" provided by Tom Moldvay on page B62 of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic and in the module X2 Castle Amber. Without those two resources, my experience of fantasy would be entirely different than it was.  While others may have based their youthful Fantasy purchases on Appendix N, I based mine almost entirely on the Moldvay Basic list.  It should be noted that Tom Moldvay was assisted in the creation of his list by Barbara Davis who was Children's Librarian at the Lake Geneva Public Library at the time that D&D Basic was published.  Davis eventually became the Library Director from 1984 to 1996.  Barbara is no longer with us, and her contribution to D&D and D&D fandom is understudied and underappreciated, but I'd like to thank her for the many hours (years) of joy I experienced due to the  list she created. I image her list created joy for many other young people as well.

This isn't to say that no one has discussed the list at all. James Maliszewski has already written a brief comment about how the Moldvay list differs from the Gygax one, and argues that it represents a shift from material that influenced the design of the game to a list that might provide inspiration or entertainment for those who play the game.  To quote James, "Whereas Gygax's list was a list of the specific books and authors who influenced him in creating the game -- and are thus a window into how he saw the game -- Moldvay's list is a generalized quasi-academic survey of fiction and non-fiction that might hold some interest to players of D&D."

His language is strong, and as much as he demurs from the quote being used as a "this list is better than the other list" statement, it seems clear to me that the use of the term "quasi-academic" is somewhat loaded.

Let's just say that James and I hold similar, but not exact positions on the lists.  I agree that the Gygax list is a specific list that influenced him in creating the game.  I think the list was also one which he thought would appeal to people who were currently playing D&D.  That is to say, adults.  When AD&D was first published, the game was just beginning to escape from college campuses and niche SF/F reading circles and into the mainstream.  The Moldvay list, on the other hand, was written for a generation of emerging players.  It was written for the young. It was written for me. 

Both lists include some overlap -- Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien.   Moldvay's list differs in one very distinct way. It is divided into many sections and these sections lead down a wide variety of learning paths, all of which can inform your playing experience. 

There is the "Fiction: Young Adult" section , which includes Lloyd Alexander, L Frank Baum, and Ursula Le Guin. What a range of stories!

There is a "Non-Fiction: Young Adult" section, which includes Olivia Coolidge's Legends of the North.

There is the "Fiction: Adult Fantasy" section with Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Avram Davidson, E.R. Eddison, Heinlein, Jack Vance, Karl Edward Wagner, and a host of others. Karl Edward Wagner?! When Davis/Moldvay say Adult Fantasy, they mean Adult Fantasy.

"Adult Non-Fiction" includes Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beasts and Thomas Bullfinch.

In most ways, the Moldvay list is inclusive of Appendix N.  There are only four authors Moldvay's list leaves out that are in the Gygax list.  These are Frederic BrownAugust Derleth,  Margaret St. Clair, and Stanley Weinbaum, though it should be noted that these are important authors contextually. 

If you want a wonderful overview of the Fantasy, Scientifiction, and Sword and Sorcery field, I would argue that you should start with the Moldvay list and add the four authors that Moldvay excluded.  If your primary mission is to see the books that influenced Gygax, stick to Appendix N.

Both are good lists, but I still prefer the Moldvay/Davis list. This is especially true when you add the Clark Ashton Smith tales featured in Castle Amber. Man do I love that module.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

How Not to Present/Market Your RPG: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

 Edition wars have been around for a long time in role playing games and have affected a wide variety of role playing IPs. TSR experienced a major edition war regarding Advanced Dungeons & Dragons* when they released the 2nd edition of the game*. Players complained about the removal of Demons and Devils from the monster manuals and critiqued a number of the rules. At the time, the company was often referred to as T$R. They weren't alone though. GDW has experienced a number of edition wars over various Traveller* rules sets, with the original "Classic Traveller" rules set coming out as the still dominant setting and style. Games like 2300 AD* and MegaTraveller* were excellent, but they didn't click with the audience the way one might hope. Even Champions had a bit of an edition war with the release of their 6th edition rules* set. The 5th edition of Champions* expanded the player base and had a number of excellent sourcebooks and supplements, It also marked a return to the base mechanics after a FUSION version called Champions New Millenium had its own edition war. The game had hit the telos of its initial design, so any new rules set would have to make significant changes. It did and that split the fan base. For the record, my favorite version of the rules is 4th edition*, but I own all of them and think they are all very good.

When a fan base is divided, it can lead to a reduction in sales and open up the market to competitors. That's one of the reasons that many companies have taken a careful tack when releasing a new game or a new edition. Paizo and Wizards of the Coast opened up the playtesting of new editions to the public in order to incorporate the fan base in the design process for the Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition respectively.

The point of all this prologue is to say that when 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was released, edition wars were nothing new in gaming and they were something that any marketing and design team should have been aware of and should have been seeking to combat. Instead, they made what I consider to be a couple of major errors. The first was in the physical layout of the rulebooks and the balance of mechanics and background material presented within them. The second, and much worse, is that they attacked their consumer base and disparaged their own rules sets. They made a "this new edition is better and all the older ones sucked" pitch. Needless to say, this was not a wise choice. I'm leaving out the third possible error, tying the game to a digital platform that never manifested, because that involves a very unforeseeable murder/suicide.

Let me return to what I consider to be the first error in the presentation by looking at the differences between how 3rd edition characters and 4th edition characters where presented to players in the books. Let's have a look at the first page of a 3rd edition character class, the Cleric. Don't worry about what the actual content of the mechanics is, rather look at how things are presented. There is a ton of background and explanatory text, both for what a Cleric is and what their abilities are. Yes, there's a lot of content there and it's wordy. That might be intimidating to some, but it is filled with rich information.

The Cleric for 3rd Edition D&D

Contrast this with the 4th Edition Cleric. Once again, it's not the actual mechanics I'm asking you to examine. Look at the layout. Where we have only one "spreadsheet cut and paste" in the 3rd edition presentation, we have four or five in the 4th edition layout. In some ways, it's a cleaner layout. It's more approachable, but once you start looking at the ability outputs it becomes very much like reading spreadsheet outputs and less like reading abilities. The presentation is mechanics focused, almost as if they intended you to fill out cards or something similar. The fact that they later sold "power cards" makes this more and more evident. It looks far more like a Magic the Gathering card breakdown manual, or a video game hint book (back when those existed), than it does a role playing game manual.


The Cleric for 4th Edition D&D

Back in February of 2011, a couple of years into 4e, Robert J Schwalb who worked on the design team, wrote a blog post asking if "the format matters." In that piece he wrote:

Fourth edition’s presentation abandoned nearly everything familiar about the game’s look. Eight years of 3rd edition, I think, created strong expectations about how the game should read and since the game didn’t match the visual expectations, it certainly must not match the play experience. Yes, there are considerable mechanical changes that alter the play experience somewhat, but compare how the game plays now to how the game played in the twilight of 3rd edition. Just look at Tome of Battle, Complete Arcane, and many of the variant rules presented in Unearthed Arcana (complex skill checks, healing surges, and so on). In them you can find the proto-rules that would eventually evolve into the mechanical underpinnings of 4e. They are different, but not as different as I imagine some folks believe. I wonder if those changes might have been more palpable had we shifted back toward the old presentation, even if doing so meant that the game would be harder to learn.

 Let's have a look at what Robert's reformatting of the Cleric (now I wish I'd selected the Cleric for the others) looked like. Note that Robert hasn't filled in all the content, so don't worry about the lack of text. Just look at the layout. One thing that should strike you is how this looks exactly like 5th edition playtest materials and that it looks very similar to 3.x's layout. Had the design team opted for a presentation like this, it might have been slightly less shocking and been one less hurdle to overcome in order to minimize edition war effects.

Robert J Schwalb's Reformatted Cleric

Regardless of how formatting would have had the potential to minimize anti-4e backlash, there is one thing that is certain and that is that the marketing team did the game no favors with their marketing campaign. Below, I've embedded the D&D 4th Edition Teaser marketing video. You can watch the whole video and you can feel the meta-cognitive irony and seeming disdain for earlier editions of the game. In particular, I'd recommend watching at 1:31 for the "Okay, what is THAC0 again" question and to 2:26 to see how the 4th edition marketing represented 3.x by mocking that version's rules for grappling.

D&D 4th Edition "Teaser" Marketing Video

The entire video is filled with snide commentary and the THAC0 and grappling jokes, while representing genuine critiques of those editions by some players, have a mocking feeling. This is a tone that 5th edition largely managed to avoid until "THAC0 the Clown" in the recent Witchlight adventure. The unifying thing between the 4th edition marketing and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is Christopher Perkins. Perkins has written some of the best D&D content out there for several editions of the game, but I find his repeated mocking of THAC0 staid. At least he waited until later in the 5th edition cycle to pull out the anti-THAC0 joke from the dustbin. Had this attitude been evident earlier in 5th edition, rather than the "we love the old editions so much that Keep on the Borderlands is our playtest module" attitude, the game might not have gotten off to the great start it did and Critical Role would have continued promoting Pathfinder instead of D&D.

Those are what I see as the main flaws marketing and presentation wise of 4th edition, but those aren't the only challenges the game faced. It really did change much of the focus of the game in a new direction. Where 3.x built upon the 90s trend of "a rule for everything" in games like Champions and GURPS. The stat blocks for doors and magic items regarding how difficult they are to break look a lot like Champions. The fact that you can run an entire campaign simulating how many gold pieces characters earn running a tavern via skill rolls just screams GURPS. Third edition might not have been point buy, but there was a rule that answered how much a Bard earned for its performance. One could more easier "Roll" play with 3rd edition in role playing situations than in any other prior rules version due to the incorporation of a broad array of skills and 4th edition stepped away from that level of granularity. It substituted a focus on ease of play and clarity of tactical mechanics. It was not, as many claim, "more" miniatures based than 3.x. Anyone who has looked at the flanking rules and rules for zones of control in 3.x knows that to be false (with 3.5 being even more miniatures focused than 3rd straight). 

In a conversation with game designer Leonard Pimentel (Prowlers & Paragons* and By this Axe I Hack!*), he mentioned 5 key flaws/obstacles presented by 4th edition. I agree with most of them and think that these, in combination with terrible presentation and marketing, lead to a significant edition war and loss of sales. Those flaws are:

First, the presentation was poor. Or perhaps it’s better to say it was a failed experiment. Every power every ability every whatever you wanna call it was choked in meaningless flavor text. They simply overdid everything which made understanding your character and their abilities a perpetual chore.
Second, I really feel that they fail to understand how unpleasant it is to have abilities you could use only once per day succeed or fail. Every character is structured to work with this unpleasant dynamic.
Further I don’t think that they understood the psychology of how anemic the at will or encounter powers would look when compared to the daily powers. This exacerbated the frustration of the fact that your best power or powers or mostly One-A-Day type abilities that we’re gone whether you succeed or fail that using them
I also think they overestimated peoples desire to use miniatures or underestimated how many people prefer theater of the mind and always have.
They also completely disregarded the sort of role-playing game Golden rule which is that most combats should last approximately three rounds.
As you can see, the first thing mentioned is the presentation. The other points I think are worthy of a great deal of discussion and deserve posts of their own. I know that many reading this have strong opinions about 4th edition and might think, "but I hate it because of x and y." I'd ask these people to really think about how presentation affected their opinions. After all, as discussed in the "zones of control" article linked above, the game has always been miniatures focused and much of the "video game/collectible card game" feel was due almost solely to presentation. As for the marketing...below are a couple more examples of just how potentially off putting it could be, especially the Gnome/Tiefling video. The ironic ridicule of the Gnome put of some of my friends and it runs against the growing cosmopolitan and non-Tolkienesque style of play.

Tiefling vs. Gnome

Interview with a Dragon

Interview with a Mindflayer

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