Showing posts with label OSR. Show all posts
Showing posts with label OSR. 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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Weekly Geekly Rundown for May 25, 2003: Role Playing Games, Comic Books, Film Reviews, and a Classic Film Recommendation


On the Independent Fantasy RPG Front

Jason Vey has long been a part of the OSR community. He was a part of the OSR community before there was an OSR community, back when it was people making house rules for Original D&D and trying to figure out how to use Chainmail as the combat system. Using Chainmail for combat was my first Substack post because I always attempt to be super topical. Over the years Vey has created a number of variant rules for Original D&D and has even released his own fantasy heartbreaker, a heartbreaker that was successful enough that Vey has built a community of fans and expanded his design efforts. I’m among those fans and not only did I purchase Spellcraft & Swordplay, his OSR fantasy heartbreaker, I backed his modern horror rpg Night Shift on Kickstarter (you can buy Night Shift at DriveThruRPG or at the Elf Lair Games website).

Vey is currently designing a new fantasy role playing game called Wasted Lands: The Dreaming Age that includes an interesting setting and, in true Grognard fashion, allows players to use both of the rules sets he’s designed (O.R.C.S. and O.G.R.E.S.) each of which captures a slightly different feel of fantasy and both of which I enjoy. In an industry dominated by Hasbro, but which has plethora other options to choose from, I recommend checking out Vey’s game.

Sorry, No Math Video This Week

I will however be doing a video where I analyze the Ben Milton’s claim that B/X D&D uses a 5% increase in ability per level rule. That will have regression analysis in it, so if you like math that’s going to be the one for you.

Comic Book News

On the Fantasy Comic Beat

This July will see the release of The Hunger and the Dusk by writer G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy) and Chris Wildgoose (Batgirl: Rebirth, Batman: Nightwalker). It looks to be an interesting take on traditional fantasy conflicts where the two archetypical D&D style rivals, humans and orcs, must work together against a greater foe.

In a dying world, only humans and orcs remain, mortal enemies battling for territory and political advantage. But when a group of fearsome ancient humanoids known as the Vangol arrive from across the sea, the two struggling civilizations are forced into a fragile alliance to protect what they have built.

As a gesture of his commitment to the cause, the most powerful orc overlord, Troth Icemane, sends his beloved cousin, Tara, a high-ranking young healer, to fight alongside brash human commander Callum Battlechild and his company of warriors. With a crisis looming, the success of this unlikely pair’s partnership and the survival of their peoples will depend on their ability to unlearn a lifetime of antagonistic instincts toward one another…and rise above the sting of heartbreak.

Two Classic Marvel Series Getting New Omnibus Editions

Marvel recently announced that they would be publishing a ROM the Spaceknight Omnibus in January 2024 and a Micronauts Omnibus in April 2024 that will reprint the original series from the 1970s and 80s for a new audience. ROM has long been a personal favorite and the most recent Ant-Man film featured one character from the Micronauts. I wish that the film rights weren’t as complex as they are because I would have loved to have seen the full Micronauts team in Quantumania.

On another note, I think that Marvel would be well served to follow in the footsteps of DC Comics when it comes to Omnibus reprints. DC recently released Absolute Swamp Thing collecting Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s iconic version of the character. This collection was painstakingly recolored by José Villarrubia who is on a personal mission to color correct reprints of older comics to recapture the artistic intent in those older issues. If you look at the promo artwork for the upcoming Micronauts and ROM omnibus editions, you will see that they look extremely saturated. The colors are very bright. As Villarrubia has argued and demonstrated on hundreds of occasions, the art in the 70s comics was much more muted due to the newsprint used. The artists new the limitations of the medium, imagine that, and colored with intention that included that knowledge. I’m including one of Villarrubia’s many examples of how something should be colored below. You can see how subtle the older colors were and how they accentuated the line art in a way that is lost with the more saturated effect. I highly recommend buying the Wein/Wrightson Absolute Swamp Thing and I’ll be checking out his new series Dead Romans.

No photo description available.
Original on the Right, Villarrubia Middle, New Reprint Right from Villarrubia’s Facebook

Weekly Luke Y Thompson Review Cavalcade

Those of you who watched my first YouTube conversation video know that Luke Y Thompson is a critic and a friend. He’s been covering the geek beat for a long time and has some great insights and strong opinions. I plan on having him on my YouTube channel once a month for his insights and for the good conversation. It’s not often you can talk with someone about Truffaut, Freddy Krueger, and He-Man, but when you get the chance you take it (ed: We have not yet talked about any of those things on video). I’m including the video below and a rundown of his articles this week.

Classic Movie Recommendation

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This week’s episode of Ted Lasso featured a clip from Nora Ephron’s highly endearing film You’ve Got Mail and it reminded me that I need to do a video review of it and one of the films that inspired it (separate reviews of course), The Shop Around the Corner.

In addition to my day job, and blogging for a hopefully growing audience, I am an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Boise State University. In typical “attempt to be cool” professorial fashion, and because I am obsessed with pop culture, I frequently make film and tv references in class. Unlike many professors though, I don’t limit myself to the films of my youth. I reference things the students are currently watching and I drop a lot of classic film references. I end every semester with an Ask Me Anything session with the students.

At the end of the fall semester, one student (who knew my favorite genre was Romantic Comedies) asked what my favorite Romantic Comedy was. After a brief rant, okay not so brief, about how we are in a downcycle of Romantic Comedies (there are some good ones, but we aren’t anywhere near a peak cycle in terms of innovation/heartstring pulling/humor), I said that I don’t have a favorite. Naturally the student pushed back and asked me to give a meaningful answer, to which I replied that I think The Shop Around the Corner is one of the best and most important Romantic Comedies ever made. Not only was it remade, by the same director, as In the Good Ol’ Summertime (also excellent), it served as the inspiration for You’ve Got Mail. It’s a compelling story on many levels and one that has layers of subtlety beyond the core romance if you are willing to look. It’s a film I watch every year at Christmas time, since it is a Christmas film…even more so than Die Hard.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Weekly Geekly Rundown for May 19, 2023


Knave 2e is Coming to Kickstarter! - by Ben Milton

Analysis as Loose as OSR Mechanics

TL;DR — Ben Milton’s math is off, but it doesn’t matter. His game is great and is as compatible as he says.

One of the things I really like about original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is how varied and loose the underlying mechanics are. While the basic mechanic of “roll a die and roll high” tends to rule the day, there is not a fixed algorithm dictating how powerful all characters are at any given level, nor what the proper mechanical balance of monsters should be at a given level.

AD&D characters varied in their basic abilities based on their role in a party (I’ll be doing an article on this kind of balance soon as a response to Geoff Englestein's recent articles on balance soon) and there was not an effort to make sure that every character was equally proficient with their primary mode of attack as there is today. Similarly, there wasn’t an underlying math determining what the AC/HP/Damage Per Round output a monster should do to provide an appropriate challenge for characters of a given level. 

This doesn’t mean that people weren’t thinking about things along those lines in early gaming. Don Turnbull’s classic MonsterMark articles in White Dwarf magazine are a perfect demonstration of one such attempt. It’s actually a very good attempt, and one that DMs can use to good effect. The key term here is “can use.” They are one way to turn the power level dial in AD&D.

“Turn the power level dial?” you ask. “What does that mean?”

As a part of the tremendously loose underlying mechanics of AD&D, the DM and players had a lot more latitude with regards to how they wanted to tune the power levels of their individual campaign. A DM and players could work together to determine whether they wanted PCs to be average Joes and Josephines wandering the world, talented adventurers, or Godlike legends destined to bring down the gods. And this was all possible from first level in the older edition.

The rules as written provided dials that could be used to accomplish this. The first of these dials was the method you used for rolling stats. You could do everything from rolling 3d6 in order, which would tend to give you average characters, to the system in Unearthed Arcana which guaranteed very high stats in your class’s key statistics. The basic probabilities in AD&D didn’t assume player characters had good statistics and the benefits for them tended to be in the 2nd or 3rd standard deviation of a normal 3d6 distribution. This allowed for the higher statistics to have wildly different bonuses that were often affected by which class the character played (+4 hit points per level for Fighters of high Constitution for example or +3 to hit and +6 to damage for a Fighter with 18/00 Strength). The basic game didn’t assume you had good stats. It assumed your stats were average, but you could tune your game (without house rules or cheating) to allow for higher stats and thus different scales of game play.

Similarly, since there was no limit to magic item slots in AD&D. A DM might tell you that you couldn’t have a golf bag filled with a magical sword for each kind of challenge because you could only “attune” to a limited number of powerful items. You didn’t need to attune at all. Outside of some classes limiting the total number of items you could have, the level of magic in the game was entirely a negotiation between players and DMs. Besides, the Paladin’s limit on the number of magic items the character could use is meaningless when you realize just how OP a Paladin with a “holy blade” is in a game. Magic items could turn PCs into superheroes that were outside the normal expectations of a different scale of game and this was all down to the players and DM and the game they wanted to play.

Modern D&D is much more rigid. From the moment you start with the “Standard Array” of stats that ensures that you have either at +4 or +5 in your main attack, you know that there is a backed in power level that requires house ruling and the creation of new rules to bring about. AD&D offered rules for various power levels and you could choose to use them or not. Modern D&D has an assumed power level and its hard coded into all encounters, so changing it requires more work because that assumed power level is more stable and less swingy than AD&D. In an AD&D campaign, characters will vary wildly in capabilities and most players of that style of game doesn’t bother most players. Modern D&D characters are more equal.

This is neither a good nor a bad thing. All these games are good, but they are different. Which after a long digression brings me to Ben Milton of The Questing Beast’s recent video about the underlying mechanics of his Old School adjacent game KNAVE (he’s running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition and I’m a backer at the Completely All-in level). In the video, he answers a question about how his game where there are no classes and where ability scores range from 0 to 10 instead of 3-18 (or -3/-2 to +3/4 if you only look at bonuses) can be compatible AD&D and D&D. His answer is “The 5% Rule” which he explains in the video below.

Ben’s claim is that in AD&D and D&D characters “on average” got 5% better at attacks and saving throws every level. But is this true? It’s certainly true of more recent editions of the game, but is it true of the early ones?

Ben begins his conversation by saying that “he’s done the math” and that if you compare the saving throws and attacks of the average character at first level to the average character at tenth level their rolls are about +9 (+45%) better. He states that the worst saving throw on average for a first level character is about a 16 (25%) (his starting difficulty). Let’s gave a look. I’ve taken the saving throws for first level characters, as well as the THAC0 (To Hit AC Zero) from every base class and listed them in both d20 and percent likelihood below.

So, what’s the worst saving throw? That would be the Fighter’s 5% chance of saving against a breath weapon. BTW, do you see how terrible the first level Fighter is at saving? Man. They suck, but at least they are better at hitting opponents in combat at first level right? Oh, they aren’t? Crap. As for the average, you can see from the charts above that the average worst saving throw is Breath weapons which have an average save of 17 (I rounded down .25 and rounded up .5 and higher for these numbers) which is a 20% chance of success.

If you look at the “Class Average” column, that’s the average saving throw for that class where the “Save Average” row is the average save value for that category for all classes. This makes the Class Average/Save Average column the average overall for the average by class value and that comes in at 30%. Ben’s not off by much, but he’s off by a lot “by class” and it’s a pretty large range of difference. Ben’s system is classless, so using the average of averages is fine but it does mean that Ben is adhering closer to the modern stable dial than the older wild dial.

So he’s both incorrect and close on his statement that the average worst save is 25%. It is for all classes except Fighters. Since his game claims to be a bridging of OSR and Modern games, this is right in line with what he wants to do. But what about that 5% increase claim? The one that he uses both a claim that the average best save is 75% at tenth level and that combat rolls also demonstrate this?

Certainly, the best THAC0 increase is +8 (+40%) which comes from the Fighter. Everyone else is lagging pretty far behind by tenth level though. Similarly on the saving throws, only one saving throw is at 75% and that’s the Cleric's save versus Poison/Paralysis and given Rasputin and all the times PCs are likely to fight undead like Ghouls these are artifacts of the role. The “average” increase is only 20%. That’s the increase in the average of averages for the classes. Similarly, the best save doesn’t actually increase by that much either. What we have here is that the difference between the average worst save (excluding Fighters) at first level and the average best save at tenth level is 50%. How much does the average worst save typically increase? It goes from ~ 25% to ~ 40%, an increase of only ~ 15%.

What’s more is that it varies based on which saving throw we are talking about and which class. I don’t want to go into a class by class breakdown, but you can see the differences pretty clearly. The same is true for combat ability, which follows a similar path. It varies wildly based on class.

So…Ben was WRONG in the particulars of his “doing the math” and that makes his claim that KNAVE is compatible with AD&D and D&D completely off base right?

Nope. Remember that long digression at the beginning regarding the dials of play and how there were various inputs that could be tuned (stats, ancestry, magic items, etc.) at will to create a particular level of play? Ben’s game, while it is rooted in a more conceptually modern consistent 5% increase per level, is perfectly achievable with those dials and AD&D/D&D were created with that dial as an assumption. Ben’s game is perfectly compatible with the older game. It’s also a unique game on its own that you should check out. I recommend backing the new 2nd edition, since he makes some significant changes to the first edition but the first edition is great too.

Action Figures from My 2nd Favorite Adaptation of The Tempest

Like any geek, and I geek out about a lot of topics, I get annoyed when people who get paid to write about a things I love write something that pushes one of my buttons. One of those buttons is when people compare (as David Weiner did for The Hollywood Reporter) the Disney film The Black Hole to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I get it, they both take place on vessels (one a submarine and the other a space ship), but other than that they don’t have much in common. The Black Hole is far closer to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Dr. Hans Reinhardt, with his frightening companion Maximillian (Caliban/Ariel in one), has far more in common with Prospero than Nemo.

I probably wouldn’t mind so much when these comparisons are made, if they also mentioned The Tempest or Forbidden Planet (my favorite adaptation of The Tempest). I would concede that the screenplay is a high concept mashup and move on completely satisfied. But it bothers me when authors use the words “tempestuous” and “maelstrom” in the same story where they make no mention of Shakespeare.

Grumpiness aside, the folks over at Super 7 have decided that they want to turn my frown upside down and are releasing a set of the three robots featured in the haunting Disney science fiction film. I’m particularly excited about Maximillian. He haunted my dreams for years. The packaging and the action figures look great and I’ve preordered them.

Classic Movie Recommendation

I watch a ton of films and consider myself to be a cineaste, but there are still a ton of films I need to see and I keep trying to fill the gaps as I can. This week I filled a pretty major gap when I watched Terrence Malick’s (1978) visual masterpiece Days of Heaven. The film shares a lot of stylistic qualities with Malick’s earlier (1973) film Badlands, but it has a more solid moral core. To be sure, it is not a story about highly moral characters but it is a tragedy about believable characters you can forgive for their immoral actions because they are trapped in a world view. Oh, and because they end up having to answer for their moral failings. It’s still a quintessentially 70s film, so it has an absurdist ending, but it left me liking the people more…even those I don’t like.


Days of Heaven is a visual treat. There is so much craft in how the film is shot. The viewer goes from one mind blowing Andrew Wyeth influenced shot to another, but each is also given enough time to burn their way into your brain. The story is slow paced, but is a good commentary on perceptions of class in a way that would make it a nice match for a double feature with In Cold Blood.

DAYS OF HEAVEN - American Cinematheque

The acting is solid throughout and every actor is visually captured with the same care as the geography, that care includes long shots that require the expression of deep emotion. It’s a challenge that all the actors meet well.

The real treat of the film though is the sound design and editing. The use of sound in Days of Heaven gives it such a deep sense of verisimilitude that I was in awe of how brave many of the choices in the mix were. Trust me. I’m saying the sound design is the real triumph in a film that is a mind blowing visual masterpiece. That means it does some really brave and skilled things with the sound design and editing and those sound choices help reinforce several plot points, including the film’s tragic turn.