I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Minimalist sword & sorcery I - The concept

I've been thinking about this idea for a while. I started writing a minimalist D&D but I got stuck, maybe my hearth is not in elves and orcs anymore. 

But what about a minimalist sword and sorcery game? That sounds cool. There are a few good ones out there (I really like LFG for example, but it is a bit crunchy for my tastes), but maybe I can add something of my own.

Here is how I would (will?) do it:

S&S Tropes

- Tough protagonists - Starting at level 3 is recommended, everyone has many talents: a fighter can climb and hide, a sorcerer can use swords and some armor, etc.
- Dark, Dangerous Sorcery - Must recreate the entire spell system.
- Perilous world - well, we already expect that from D&D. But add easy rules for starvation, dehydration, etc.
- Decadent civilization - even resting in town is a challenge.
- Some dark fantasy tropes apply here: nonhumans are mysterious, alignment is complex, etc.


The system

- The basis: BFRPG because it is an awesome game with CC license.
- Convert everything to a Target20-like system.
- Take some hints from AD&D.

Player Characters

- Ability scores: 3d6 in order or maybe something a bit stronger.
- Classes: Fighter, Sorcerer, Expert. Optional feats and skills to differentiate them.
- Races: none, but you can add some cultures or backgrounds (barbarian, civilized, decadent, etc.).

Adventure and combat

- As usual, with my own tweaks, including cleave and other power-ups for the fighters.
- Most challenges are simply Target20 or similar.
- Lots of optional rules for weapons and armor because I like them.

Magic

- I have to rewrite it completely to make it more dark and dangerous.
- Sorcery probably requires bounding spirits to your will, but also includes some alchemy, mesmerism and summoning.
- Add some rituals, corruption and blood magic from Alternate Magic.
- Magic items are not as common and not as useful.

Monsters

- Probably just curate the list a bit, giving more emphasis to S&S foes.
- Also emphasize unique monsters and monster variations (using Teratogenicon as inspiration).

Treasure

- Must be significantly reduced (see this post).

Minimalism

- Single save, single XP table, single mechanic for skills, etc.
- Lots of optional rules left to appendices.

Sounds interesting?

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Hitting armor in D&D + glancing blows

Here's another idea on weapon versus armor. 

Assume ascending AC: 10 if unarmored, 12 for leather, etc.

If you roll less than 10 (or a natural 1), you miss. But if you roll a number higher than 9 an lower than AC, you hit armor.

This part is intuitive. Maybe you already use something similar when narrating combat: "17? You hit him, but your sword is deflected by his armor", etc.

Now give each type of weapon an Armor Piercing (AP) rating. Maybe a maximum of 50% (heavy mace) and a minimum of 10% (natural weapons). Unarmed attacks get AP 0.

When you hit armor, you deal a fraction of your full damage  round down.

And that's it! 

A +1 bonus due to magic or dexterity bonuses can save you on a roll of 11, for example (no damage).



Easy right?

Most (not all) side effects are positive for me:

* When a giant hits you - even in plate armor - you'll get hurt. Dexterity might be more useful here...
* Everything becomes more dangerous, so many give a few additional HP. 
* Armor is a bit less useful so this requires some balancing (make it lighter or raise all ACs).

The downside is adding more crunch.

We could go one step further and do the same with speed... From 10% to 90% chance of getting an extra attack, roll once for all combatants. Or roll to see if you can interrupt a spell before it is cast, etc.

But that is another matter...

Glancing blows

Here is an easier/lighter alternative.

An exact hit (e.g., rolling 17 against AC 17) is a "glancing blow", dealing a fraction of damage (or -x damage, depending on the weapon). 

Against very high AC, glancing blows will happen very often (e.g., once for every four hits), but against low AC there will be little difference in damage per round.

The effect is similar: some weapons are better against armor. However, the impact of this rule is much smaller.

(What is more, maybe a glancing blow gives you a chance of getting a free attack - so that quick weapons are more useful against unarmored targets!)

This might just be easy enough to actually try to implement in my B/X games...

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Wargames, storygames and RPGs

We have been through this before, but I might as well make try to make it clearer.

Role-playing games are neither wargames nor storygames.

The main difference is probably how you play the PCs (and the setting; see below).

In RPGs, you play them in as if they were real people, with their own needs and interests. This stance is very unique to RPGs.

In wargames, you play them as pawns in a "board" or table: they are easily discarded for the benefit of the faction/army or whatever, and player choice is determined by meta-analysis of the game or the grand scheme of things (e.g., I can lose this PC to save the unit, and then quickly create a new PC with 10% of his XP, maybe I can beat this trap with ONE of my PCs if the other dies, etc.).

In storygames, PCs are protagonists in a story. Player choice is determined  meta-analysis of the plot. A player could choose the death/defeat of the PC because it is appropriate to the plot or story.

Let me repeat this: in RPG, you RP characters as if they were REAL within the bounds of the fictional setting.

In other words, RPG characters have value in themselves, regardless or side or plot. This is so unique to RPGs that it often generates anecdotes about players creating dozens of characters for fun, which, while a bit absurd in itself, would be almost unthinkable in a wargame or storygame.

One important thing to remember is that saying wargames and storygames are not RPGs is not an offense to ANY of these games!

They are just different. 

Sometimes the boundaries are so fuzzy that they allow some intermingling. Old school role-players sometimes fall back to wargame rules and methods, while modern D&D often contains lots of storygaming in actual play.

The chronological order for D&D is wargame - RPG - storygame. But that does not mean any of them is more genuine or obsolete. Checkers is not a better or worse game than chess or poker.


The role of the GM

The GM, in RPs, plays the world as if the setting was REAL. Fluff is crunch. Likewise for NPCs, with their own interest and needs, often regardless of "faction"/side or plot.

In wargames, the GM is a neutral arbiter, but his impartiality usually comes from the need to be fair to both SIDES of a quarrel.

In RPGs he should also be impartial, but in favor of the reality of the setting.

In storygames, there is not always a GM, but if present he is foten responsible to move the "plot" forward, create climaxes, antagonists, etc.

Wargames and storygames can easily be played without a GM.

RPGs, on the other hand, need the GM role; in a "solo RPG", the player takes this role, sometimes even more often than the role of player (e.g., in Mythic GM Emulator). Another possibility is having a game so full of detailed random tables that the book provides the GM role.

Metagaming

In RPGs, the precedence of the fiction over the mechanics (remember, this is a "real" world, or at least treated as such) makes too much metagaming (i.e., thinking as a player SEPARATED from the PC) an undesirable occurrence.

In wargaming and storygaming, metagaming is the norm, because the PCs are viewed from a "third person" perspective.

This is one reason I avoid miniatures; on the other hand, I see how they can be useful to ensure the player see the whole picture the PCs are seeing.

Another example: "describe how you killed the troll". While this could look like a third-person perspective (if you describe the troll's reaction to the killing blow, for example), you're encouraging the player to see through the eyes of the PC.

Again, the "play like you were the character", "play like the setting was real", part is very unique to RPGs. 

A wargame or first-person shooter can align the player with the PCs motivations if they are very simple (i.e., just survive the battle), but the "the PC can do anything like a real person" and "a world with no invisible walls" of RPGs is hard to replicate in any other media.

Unclear boundaries

The definitions above are clear enough, but in practice things get fuzzy.

The original D&D was partly a wargame (Chainmail). Alignments were "sides" of a battle (later, they became intrinsic to characters and creatures; HOW they see the world since you're going to see the world from their eyes).

Things like 1:1 time (in all its forms) and the idea that "you must end the session in town" are typical meta-game concerns. The players are asking themselves if they can play next week or if they have to finish in a couple of hours, instead of how many torches the PCs have.

[What about "how many HPs the PCs have"? This is not exactly a meta-game concern as it has a translation WITHIN the fiction: how wounded the heroes are. But that is a looong discussion.]

And modern RPGs (often called "narrativist RPGs") get deep into storygame territory. But even in regular D&D, story concepts are popular. For example, "fudging" dice because the "plot" demands it, or because the "main antagonist" got defeated too soon, etc.

Now, I think "fudging" in D&D is the result of a misconception, since the role of the GM is not to protect the plot or the pacing of the story. Likewise for changing a monster's HP mid-fight; this is not the role of the GM in RPGs.

On the other hand, metagame challenges are often fun to include in RPGs (for example, using a stopwatch for random encounters), especially when they help the players to get into the PC's mind.

The reason is that it is not always easy to stay "within" the mind of PCs for a long time, especially when the PC is hurried and scared and the players are seating cozily and taking minutes to decide what the PCs are doing in the next second.

Here is an hypothesis: RPGs must balance two different urges: playing your PC as a pawn or playing him as a protagonist. A real person is neither, but since pawns and protagonists are opposed, so one perspective/urge can sometimes balance the other.

In other words, while I think these non-RPG perspectives should be avoided as a general rule, they can sometimes be useful if they enhance the alignment between players and PCs.

Everyone is the hero of their own story...

Another problem to consider is that the players, as the PCs, can rightly think of them as the heroes of their own story - this is how most real people see themselves anyway.

On the other hand, the GM, with a wider view of the setting and keeping it true and coherent, while ,controlling lots of NPCs, must sometimes see the PCs as mere pawns in the grand scheme of things.

So, maybe, there will always be a tension between these two sides, and we will never find RPG in its "pure" form. But searching for this balance is of the essence of our hobby.

UPDATE/ADDENDUM (17/02/2024)

It has been brought to my attention that the term "wargame" is much broader and can includes all types of games and many RPG-like elements - even before the creation of D&D. The history of wargames and RPGs is much more nuanced - to elarn more about this, the books by Jon Peterson have been recommended to me.

For this post, I'm using "wargame" and "RPG" basically as defined by wikipedia. Same for "storygame":

A wargame is a strategy game in which two or more players command opposing armed forces in a simulation of some military operation.

A role-playing game [...] (RPG) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting

A storytelling game is a game where multiple players collaborate on telling a spontaneous story. Usually, each player takes care of one or more characters in the developing story.

As mentioned above, the lines are sometimes blurry - is Braunstein wargame or proto-RPG? Is Dragon quest a quasi-RPG or simply a boardgame like Heroquest? Are boardgames scuh as Risk or Battleship also wargames? Etc.

However, these definitions are good enough because they come from a famous source (Wikipedia) and include three descriptions that are essential to define each kind of game: opposing armed forces, characters in a fictional setting, and telling a story

These three perspectives are useful to differentiate these three games.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Gods of Mars (book review)

After finishing (and thoroughly enjoying) A Princess of Mars, I started the sequel almost immediately (if you haven't read APoM, read that review first).

Despite being quite similar to the first one, this book gave me mixed feelings.

This will be a short review - if you enjoyed the first (a must read!), this book is well worth checking out. If you didn't, you will probably not like this one either. Overall, I'm glad I've read it.


This book has all the trappings of the first one: the pulp action, cloak-and-dagger intrigue, fast pacing and, my favorite part, the awesome world building.

New types of Martians are introduced. Maybe they are not as imaginative as Green Martians, but still very interesting. New monsters too; the plant people are fun if a bit too weird.

The influence on D&D is less obvious here, but it's still very likely this book was an inspiration (even if indirectly) to the Drow, for example. The Drow are said to come from Margaret St. Clair (which I am yet to review, but has some interesting ideas), but they might as well have been lifted directly from this book. Barsoom's "first born" have ebony skin, beautiful bare-naked bodies, and a war-like society that worships some kind of she-demon.

The first half of the book is top notch. The sinister plot behind Barsoom's religion is a great twist, and the "dungeons" are ready to be used in your D&D games. We already had ships, swords, psionics and ray guns in the first book, and now the author adds pirates, cannibals, labyrinths and exquisite traps to the mix. What is not to like?

Well, everything is in this book cute feels bigger in the scope than the first one. There are chaotic battles with multiple sides and multiple sites (with fires, floods and traps). There is more intrigue and secret plans. Instead of one princess, we have three - and they all fall madly in love with John Carter, of course.
 
As you can see, everything that was a bit exaggerated in the first book becomes more so in this one. The sheer number of “deus ex machina” instances become almost unbearable, as an incredible number of unlikely coincidences keeps happening to our hero for no apparent reason other than making the plot more interesting and exciting.

By the end of the book, the stakes are incredibly high, but it is difficult to believe any danger the heroes find will be enough to pierce through their plot armor.

In short, is a fun book, not as awesome as the first, but it still gave me plenty of inspiration.

I am not particularly eager to continue the series (but I might read the third book just to finish the original trilogy), although it keeps introducing cool elements: cloning, mind-transferring, walking heads, and more princesses.

[Maybe I'm being too harsh to Carter; Conan has had his share of queens and princesses, and often in a less platonic manner].

In spite of my reservations about the writing, the series will probably continue to serve as inspiration for my D&D settings for a long time.

You can get the book for free here and here.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Diluting the dichotomy

Another random thought about races/species (such as elves, dwarves, etc.). Continued from my last post (see also "additional reading"). 

(I might get a bit repetitive, sorry.)

I have a feeling that having innumerable races (elves + hobbits +tabaxi + tieflings) just dilutes the whole concept on "demi-humans".

All demi-humans are created in comparison (and opposition) to humans.

Human/faerie is a strong dichotomy (e.g., in The Broken Sword).

A trichotomy becomes weaker, and again with each new element.

Of course, in TBS there is also an elf/troll dichotomy, but both are contrasted to humans as "aliens". They are, in a way, equidistant to humans, but closer to one another.

Notice that TBS is about characters that are right in the middle of this human/faerie dichotomy.

Likewise, in A Princess of Mars, the dichotomy is between the red and green Martians. The red are unmistakably more human, but in the end, our (human) protagonist is caught between the two.

[In the subsequent books, we get humans of different colors: white, black, yellow, but each with a different culture (cannibalistic, pirates, domed cities, primitive, etc.). This is an interesting distinction, but cultural differences do not a different species make. We also get a few additional interesting humanoids, but I don’t find them as interesting as green Martians. You can check them here].


What about Tolkien? He was able to create great stories with humans, hobbits, elves, orcs, dwarves, ents... Still, there is an obvious dichotomy here too: good and evil. Humans can align with both, but most orcs align with Sauron, and Elves against him.

In Moorcock's Elric, the dichotomy is between Law and Chaos, and Elric gets caught up in the middle. The "races" are not as important here, except for the fact that Melniboneans are traditionally aligned to Chaos.

[This Law/Chaos dichotomy would separate the many species of original D&D in a strong dichotomy, but it is worth noticing that Moorcock contains some additional nuance, as mentioned in the link; Law/Chaos are not exactly Good/Evil].

In The Witcher books, there are humans and "Elder Races" (dwarves, elves, etc.). Geralt is a human turned mutant, and he often finds himself in the middle of this dichotomy.

In addition to this dichotomy idea, the fact that other species are interesting in comparison to humans makes them more interesting if they are rare

A Green Martian is a strange sight for John Carter, but wouldn't stand out walking in Ravnica between the elephant-people, minotaurs, blue elves and goblins with jetpacks.

In Ravnica, these "demihumans" aren't strange. Instead, the world is strange.

Another (counter) example is the D&D Honor Among Thieves movie. Simon is a half-elf. What difference does it make? None. Doric is a tiefling, and this explain some of her motivations (she was shunned by humans and accepted by elves). She was shunned because of her “demonic heritage”. But that heritage does nothing. She has no business with demons or demonic powers and traits, and the only difference in her appearance are small horns. She might as well have been rejected for being a red-head or left-handed.

How does Star Wars movies manage to get a few non-humans to work? First, they are individuals. The “wookie” race is an afterthought for Chewbacca. Second, they are non-human every time they appear. Chewbacca and R2-D2 do not utter one word the audience can understand. C-3PO’s reminds us every minute he is an android with his actions, tone, etc.

Too create "my own Barsoom", I still have to decide:

- Can different peoples create viable offspring? Or at least have diverse communities?
- If positive, how are they different?
- Does your species affect your stats? Or customs?
- Is it common for different peoples to adventure together?
- How does appearance affect reaction rolls?
- Can the PCs discover "secret communities", like Carter often does, if they are part of the same people?

Once again, I have no solutions for now, just random thoughts.

Additional reading:

Thursday, February 08, 2024

How many races/species?

I've been obsessing over Barsoom and thinking of "my own Carcosa" setting again...

I dislike there are so many colors of men with so little detail about each one - they are "suspicious" of each other for no apparent reason. Well, maybe that is the point - similarly to John Carter, the PCs are destined to unify different people under a single banner.

I recently wrote a post about some "clans", which I might use as inspiration to distinguish different communities.

But how many races should I have in my own setting? I'm certainly tired of elves, dwarves, orcs and hobbits, but maybe we can replace them...

Let's try to get at least seven different concepts.

First, we have:

- Humans.
- Superior/magical/advanced humans (e.g., Atlantes, X-men, Witchers, John Carter in Barsoom, some Elves, etc.)
- Strong/big humans (e.g., dwarves or goliaths)
- Small/weak humans (e.g., hobbits).

So, humans, elves, dwarves, basically. We could add "evil" axis: orcs are strong and evil, goblins are short and evil, etc. But I don't think inherently evil creatures to be suited for PCs. And, if they aren't inherently evil, the difference is usually only cultural/aesthetic.

"Superior humans" are a problem for games where the PCs should be balanced. OD&D solves this by requiring elves more XP to level up, etc. Likewise, "inferior humans" (e.g., gully dwarves, kobolds) can be a problem for the same reason.


These four basic groups represent most common PC races. But there are also:

- Hybrids (including human-beast hybrids).
- Aliens.
- Artificial humans.

I wrote about hybrids here. One problem is that they are either so common as to feel human, or so uncommon to make role-playing harder. Usually, they behave like humans, or as "divided" people looking for their place.

Of course, for this "divided" angle to work, there must be a clear distinction between the two "halves".

Human-beast hybrids (e.g., Tabaxi) make me a bit uneasy in world that have actual beasts. Is a tiger-man a cross between a tiger and a human, or something else entirely? What are their relation to tigers? The more feline characteristics you add, the stranger it becomes. Which is why I might prefer blue tiger-people and wingless bird-people (e.g., kenku).

Alien PCs are doable. We often fall on the hybrid problem, but at least their physiology can be different enough to provide some role-playing challenges. For example, being unable to speak or use human weapons/armor.

Likewise for artificial humans (including robots, golems, clones, etc.). Like hybrids, they might have an interesting "find myself" quest, to prove they have souls and maybe can find a way to reproduce. Or just display some challenging non-human characteristics (e.g., no sense of self-preservation).

Finally, there are near humans: red martians, zabrak, etc. Except for the visuals, it is hard to make them interesting. Some cultural differences might help, but even non-"medieval european" customs feel unmistakably  human (e.g., Spartan or Aztec cultures).

I wonder if there are ever only three races: human-like, half-human, and mostly alien. In Barsoom, most humanoids races are indistinguishable from humans, and John Carter repeatedly disguises as one of them. The exception are the four-armed Green Martians. The only "inhuman" beings are apes, plant people, and similar creatures of lesser intelligence.

In "The Witcher", there are humans, elves (dwarves are of the same origin IIRC), Witchers and monsters. 

In Fallout, humans, mutants and androids. 

The Broken Sword has humans on one side, and elves/trolls in "fairyland". Howard and Lieber barely mention non-human humanoids (even Cimmerians are rare in Howard's stories).

In Star Wars, again, characters are mostly human, while different species are portrayed by single individuals (e.g., Chewbacca, Yoda, Darth Maul). There are no distinct "races".

Tolkien might be the only one who was able to create actual distinct "peoples" that are not human, and I am not sure this works in other settings (but it might - I am enticed by Ravnica, for example, although - again - most important characters are human).

Anyway, just a few random thoughts for now, will continue working on it.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Feats and the OSR - "Mother, May I?"

The idea of "character feats" is perfectly compatible with old school games/OSR games.

As examples of cool OSR games that contain feats, I can mention LFG, ACKS, B&T and WWN (other than my own games).

I defended this idea here, addressing the most common concerns: slow character creation, complex games, power creep.

Feats do not cause ANY of these things, necessarily, but you should take measures to avoid that.

But I missed one very popular objection: "Mother, May I?" feats.

I.e., the idea that the existence of a feat stops characters that don't have it to attempting an action.

For example, let's say you have a "disarm" feat, but the fighter chooses another feat. Does that mean that he can never disarm people now?

This sounds like a problem... but it is not real.

And, even if the problem exists, it has nothing to do with feats.

For example: considering that thieves have a talents such as backstab, hear noise, find traps, etc., can other PCs attempt similar actions?

The answer is either yes (and a similar response would apply to feats) or no (and the problem would exist even if feats didn't).


Once you think of it, there are only TWO kinds of feats that apply to most cases (some feats might include aspects of both, but the distinction is clear enough). The examples are from my Old School Feats.

Quantitative feats give you a bonus that applies to an action (or save, HP, AC, damage, hirelings, number of languages, etc.).

Example: "Willpower. You get a +4 bonus to saves against spells that do not cause damage or death, in addition to any Wisdom bonus."

Qualitative feats give you a special power that other PCs simply do not get.

Example: "Aura of fear. You can turn humanoids and ordinary animals in addition to undead. You cannot destroy them, however. Humanoids can choose to flee or stay, but cannot approach or attack you."
These are the "mother may I" feats - if you don't have them, well, you cannot generate an aura of fear!

That sounds obvious - this is how the game already works! 

If you are a fighter, or even a mage that hasn't learned a "fireball" spell, you simply cannot attempt it! If your 3rd level AD&D fighter has no extra attacks, he only attacks once per round.

But what about disarming?

Just look at 3e - the first edition to include feats in the core:
Improved Disarm - [...] You do not provoke an attack of opportunity when you attempt to disarm an opponent, nor does the opponent have a chance to disarm you. You also gain a +4 bonus on the opposed attack roll you make to disarm your opponent. [...]
This contains both qualitative and quantitative aspects, but it is completely obvious that it doesn't preclude other PCs from disarming.

Let's take a harder example: 5e has a feat that lets you get a -5 penalty to attack in order to get a +10 bonus to damage. But what if you don't have his feat, and want to do something similar (say, "aim for the head")? 

It is up to the GM. Maybe he allows you to get -5/+5 (and notice that, in this case, the feat indicates HOW to make a ruling), or maybe he says it is impossible. 

Either way, this is not caused by the existence of the feat, but by the absence of a rule/ruling for that specific situation.

Could there be a game where only people with special powers can do ordinary things such as disarming

Sure. 

In D&D 4e, for example, there is no explicit disarming except for a fighter encounter power. This is not a FEAT problem - it isn't even a feat - it is a 4e problem.

[In 5e, curiously, disarm is both a feature of the battlemaster AND an optional rule that anyone can use, but the methods are completely different IIRC].

The only way a feat can forbid someone to try something is if it contradicts a previous rule/ruling that allowed it

For example, in the RC, backstab doesn't work with bows. In B/X, there is no explicit rule either way. If the GM decided that this is allowed, adding a feat specifically allowing that indicates that it is now impossible for other thieves. It is up to the GM to allow this feat or not - but that applies to everything.

In short, feats are usually not there to indicate IF the PCs can try something - this is either already in the rules or it is up to the GM. 

Feats are there to indicate HOW you can do something that is not already included in your character. How can a magic-user use swords? How can a cleric get better at hunting and foraging? How can you learn multiple languages even with low Intelligence? Etc.