Report from a Fallow State

IMG_0024AD&D 1e

I’ve been slightly fallow, after finishing my Star Wars campaign and waiting for my Beowulf campaign to begin. It had been scheduled for this coming Monday, but some core players couldn’t make it, so that means it will be two more weeks before session 1. On alternating weeks I’m taking part in an AD&D 1e campaign. It’s seldom that I’m a player, and it’s even more seldom that I enjoy being a player. But this experience has been great. For the first time ever, I read the 1e Player’s Manual cover to cover. I’m quite impressed with the game. I think it’s a good system. My DM allows every player to be running two characters: my rolls resulted in a Druid (Arty, short for Artemis) and a Cleric (Festus, sometimes called Fester, dedicated to the swine-god Gozer). My DM is about ten years older than I am. He is using all the original materials that he acquired in the 70s, because he never throws anything away, and we’ve been spending most of our time entering, exploring, and then usually fleeing a massive dungeon that our DM has designed. During downtime in the nearby village, Arty has built a hut in the forest and has started keeping chickens in some hand-built mud-and-wattle coops. Oh, that reminds me, the following is what I posted on our Facebook group:

Even after Artemis (affectionately known to those in the Order as “Ma Arty”) had become Grand Druid, those humble beginnings remained in the very center of the Grove Infinite. That dugout trunk and those mud-and-wattle coops functioned as the “Holy of Holies.” The chickens there were said to be preternaturally long lived. Their eggs, with yolks of a positively glowing hue, were said to boost fertility. And those seeking answers to the Druidic Mysteries made pilgrimage to those clucking oracles and contemplated that tired puzzler “What came first, the Chicken or the Egg?” The popular answer was “Neither”, or “Both”, for it is evident that the Chicken is within the Egg just as much as the Egg is within the Chicken. The two cohere in Immanence, which is as much as to say, as Ma Arty frequently has taught, that “the World is all there Is.”

Festus, alternatively, has been spending his time with the clerics in the temple of O-Ka (the Great Spirit), and because of their debates and discussions has come to learn that his own god, Gozer, serves O-Ka. Fester has come to believe that all sentient life — perhaps all life — originates from the Great Spirit, but in the process of incarnation, some life gets perverted or corrupted. These most commonly are the Chaotic and Evil entities, most often Monsters. And Fester’s divine mandate is to free these creatures from the shackles of the flesh so that their spirits might return to O-Ka for purification and eventual re-embodiment.

The Beowulf Campaign

Now and then I have poked along at Part 2 of the Beowulf campaign. I’m designing Part 2 as a bit of a hex crawl, making the PCs lords of Whale’s Head, the main harbor town of the “wind-loving Geats.” The thrust of the adventure, of course, will be for the PCs to try to locate and then possibly exterminate the Dragon who is terrorizing the farmsteads. The overall hex map has been created and I’ve sketched out the main outlines of the dragon’s lair. The rooms of this dungeon have to be detailed a little more, and a few other “dungeons” in various hex locations likewise need to be developed (just in case the PCs decide to explore outside of the narrative track). In this current fallow state, it’s difficult to continue work on this, though I’m certain that I’ll be inspirited once I’m able to begin playing Part 1 of the Beowulf Campaign.

Reading

I’m always reading a handful of texts, and a number of them typically inform ONOSR. Reading relevant to ONOSR has been some handbooks of Norse Mythology; The Land of the Silver Apples, the second book in Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls trilogy; and Charles Watts Whistler’s Havelok the Dane. I suppose at any moment I might, in a gulp, finish my third reading of Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, as well.

Conan the Slayer: Blood in Their Wakes

Ever since Cullen Bunn started writing his first six-issue story “Blood in His Wake” for Dark Horse Comics’s Conan the Slayer series, I’ve wanted to adapt the story — I think the story is original to Bunn — into a game for convention play. Over the last year or so I’ve considered adapting Swords & Wizardry for it (borrowing heavily, I suppose, from Mongoose’s d20 Conan system), but this was until I happened to purchase Barbarians of Lemuria on sale from DriveThruRPG. The iteration I bought was “Mythic,” and it is a prime demonstration of rules bloat. But searching out earlier, free editions of the game proved inspiring. I’m excited about the system and have sketched out a draft of Bunn’s narrative for quick convention play. I’ll probably develop this for my home group after the Beowulf playtest.

Traveller RPG

While grabbing Barbarians of Lemuria: Mythic from DriveThruRPG I likewise snatched up the original 1982 release of the Traveller RPG. A close friend of mine is deeply into the science fiction genre, and I thought it would be fun to run an original old school science fiction system to tell a story most likely set in Kristin Kathryn Rusch’s “Diving” universe. What’s great about Rusch’s most recent stories is how like an old school dungeon crawl they are: the difference is that Rusch’s characters, set on salvaging missions, are delving into the “Boneyard,” a strange area of space crammed full of mysterious, derelict spacecraft from a multitude of times and places. A game set in this milieu should be great fun, and if the experiment is successful it might result in yet another game I can offer for convention play.

Star Stealers: My Fantasy Flight Edge of Empire Campaign

IMG_0021The game in my youth that brought me the most pleasure (next to, I suppose, MERP and Champions) was West End Games’s d6 Star Wars system. A quick reason why this was, I suppose, is that that system emulated quite well for me the feel of that first trilogy of movies. Moreover, the GM advice section brilliantly broke down a satisfying Star Wars adventure into a formula: every adventure should contain a Chase, a Blaster fight, a Starfight, and NPC interaction. This formula made Star Wars one of the most dynamic and entertaining games in my collection.

For this reason I was eager to try out the latest system by Fantasy Flight Games, particularly since I had been hearing intriguing things about it. Therefore, when a friend asked me to run a Fantasy Flight Star Wars game, I readily agreed. The rules set most in circulation among these friends is Edge of Empire, so I agreed to that one. At session 0 my players devised a number of ruffians — one freighter pilot, one Niktos brawler, one Mandalorian bounty hunter, and one self-modding droid. The players agreed that they wanted to steal a Star Destroyer and blow up the Hutt home planet of Nal Hutta. Why? Well, because one character in particular had a grudge against the Hutts, because of slavery. That was enough for me, and to the drawing board I went.

I structured the short campaign into three episodes and said that it would take about ten sessions to complete. I think my prediction has turned out to be surprisingly accurate. We got started sometime in January of 2017 and played, roughly, every two weeks. The campaign ended last night. Here’s how the episodes broke down.

Episode 1: The PCs arrive on the volcanic mining planet of Varok on the Outer Rim. They are here because the Niktos has received word from a former contact that something fishy is going on here, and he thinks the Niktos might be interested in it. The information is that a large amount of ore is being moved to a Hutt casino moon some systems away, and the moon can’t possibly be using all that ore. When the PCs cause trouble (which of course they do), they are surprised to encounter an Imperial presence. When the Mandalorian bounty hunter spies a bounty and captures her, she is surprised to learn that this bounty is the new apprentice of her former master whom she left for personal reasons. The bounty hunter still wants to learn the secret of forging Mandalorian armor, so, while evading Varokian security ships, the entire group ends up moving to the forge of the Mandalorian Vo Kess in the heart of a volcano.

After encountering Vo Kess, the bounty hunter learns that Kess now pursues an ideal of Good in the form of the Light Side of the Force. Kess says that he is willing to teach Kida how to finish her Mandalorian armor if she and her companions will provide him transport to the Hutt casino moon: he is convinced that the Empire is using that moon as a fence to occlude the trail of that much ore from the Rebel Alliance. He thinks all the ore is being used for some diabolical Imperial project.

TIE bombers start pounding the volcano, and the PCs decide to flee in their freighter with their new allies. There is a brief starfight before the PCs make the jump to hyperspace.

Episode 2: Arriving at the Hutt casino moon, the PCs bluff security over coms that they are bringing in supplies for a prominent wedding between two Hutt families that is about to take place. This bluff ends up causing problems later on. Disembarking, the PCs enter the casino, trying to gather information. The planet is a crazy jungle planet in the midst of a Pre-Cambrian explosion, except the giant animal life is insect-based. The main structure of the casino descends to the jungle floor, which itself serves as a kind of gladiator space for the Hutts and their gambling clients. Of course the PCs eventually find themselves in it, but not before making contact with an on-leave Imperial recruit who hates his job of sending refined ore that is left hidden in the rings of the moon’s planet on course for an anomaly in spacetime that swiftly transports the ore to that system’s Oort Cloud. While escaping the jungle floor, Vo Kess (who had been captured by the Hutts) sacrifices himself to create a distraction, and the PCs are off to the space time anomaly and Episode 3 of their story.

Episode 3: Rather than fly to the Oort Cloud and start the tedious business in all of that space of finding the location of the drifting ore, the PCs enter the space time anomaly directly. There is a chance of this causing spacial distortions and mutations to themselves or the ship, but this doesn’t happen. They come out into a region of space that has experienced some anomaly. There is some kind of residual energy here that appears conducive to what the PCs are beginning to suspect are Imperial experiments in creating a cloaking device that could operate on something as large as a Star Destroyer, particularly when they see the hulk of a dark-colored Star Destroyer and are drawn into it by tractor beam. Inside the Star Destroyer, they fight a number of droids and make their way to the bridge, where they encounter more droids and the PC droid’s creator, an Ugnaught named Gidget. Leading up to this time, the bounty hunter, who has been growing Force sensitive, has become aware of a chaotic, dark force in the center of the ship and a fierce personality that at one point reached out to her.

The PC droid, in attempting to destroy his creator, is knocked down by a missile from one of Gidget’s Assassin Droid bodyguards. In the ensuing battle with the rest of the party, Gidget collects his prodigal son and hides himself and his charge in an elevator descending to the center of the Destroyer. The PC droid comes to while Gidget is preparing a mind wipe. The droid skewers his creator.

Meanwhile, the other PCs have discovered that Gidget, before escaping, has moved operations of the Destroyer away from the bridge to elsewhere in the ship. They decide to hunt for the med bay to heal their wounds.

A skeletal-looking protocol droid comes to their temporary base in the med bay inviting them to dinner with his master Lord Quon-tik Theiz. The PCs accompany him on a floating skiff that descends through an open construction zone to a dark singularity in the center of the Destroyer. It is here where Theiz is using his Force mastery over subatomic particles and the proximity to tachyon emissions near a black hole to cause the ferrous material to phase with more accuracy, lending it a cloaking effect. The experiment is unstable, however.

The PCs befriend Theiz and, with the PC droid as Theiz’s new assistant, begin work on a sub-atomic bomb capable of disintegrating an entire planet. The implicit understanding, though, is that the droid is to remain with Theiz. Therefore, when the PCs rig the Destroyer to collapse into its dark heart and begin their escape on their freighter, Theiz phases into the freighter’s hold and battles the PCs until, grievously wounded, he phases off ship.

After this, the PCs make their way to Nal Hutta and, well, blow up the planet. The PCs fail to operate the bomb in a manner that leaves themselves unthreatened by the blast, however, so the ship is caught in a temporal rift and crash lands on an unknown planet.

I would finish the description of my campaign with more about Quon-tik Theiz. As a type of Forsaken Jedi, I think he’s pretty cool. He has an understanding of the Force that reaches beyond the organic cellular to the subatomic. As such, he is able to halve damage and teleport through spacetime. As flavor, his lightsaber glitches in and out of existence. During the Imperial pogroms against the Jedi, Theiz cowardly hid himself in the Void, losing much of his soul to nonbeing and destruction, until the Emperor drew him out.

Impressions of Game System

It was a fast moving game. I like the Light Side/Dark Side Force mechanic, and I almost exclusively used my points to add complications and structure to the plot rather than spend them on mechanical benefits for NPC actions. “Strain” as yet a second kind of damage was annoying to keep track of and it never came into play. As GM, after the first few sessions I felt empowered to direct formidable forces against my PCs, secure that they would feel challenged but get out of the situation more or less “okay.” My job as GM was fairly easy, but for the players I feel that the game has more crunch than I prefer. If I felt the urge to tell a Star Wars story again sometime soon, I probably wouldn’t use this system (without much cajoling) but try to talk everyone into using my beloved West End d6 system. Here is a great podcast on that one, and here is a great article.

May the Force of Others Be with You!

Coming-of-Age Swords & Wizardry

IMG_0020I’ve seen a meme or two going around about how nerd or geek (just attempted to look up on the Web the difference between these two terms and decided I didn’t have the energy to explore it very far) dads have children so they can buy them the toys and experiences that they really want for themselves. I’m not buying a whole lot for my latest young child, but I’ll admit that I’m planning on gaming with him. As I think about this, I recognize the disparity between the usually violent nature of our average rpgs and my hope that my son grows up virtuous, moral and nonviolent. Okay, let’s admit it: all children emulate their parents, and therefore most of them, if they become gamers, will explore all kinds of perspectives and play styles by the time they hit middle school. I think this is natural and healthy, particularly if they are gaming (as I once did) with their friends and peers. But for my son’s very first foray into gaming, I’ve decided on some “family friendly” house rules. In forming these, I certainly have consulted John Cocking and Peter S. Williams’s excellent Beyond the Wall, a game I would love to play and modify if I simply didn’t better know Swords & Wizardry and my existing house rules already.

Core Modifications to Swords & Wizardry Complete for Coming-of-Age RPG

  • Attribute Rolls. Since kids want to play heroes, I might as well let them roll 4d6 (drop lowest d6 value) and arrange as desired. If explanations of the Attributes at the youngest age promise to be tedious, perhaps just make up Attribute values based on how the child envisions her character (make her be less than average in at least one quality). It should go without saying that all characters most likely will be pre-teens.
  • Class. The character can be any Class but Assassin.
  • HP. Characters get their full potential HP value at Level 1.
  • Alignment. Beyond the Wall interprets Chaos as a character trait or a point-of-view, but I’m more comfortable equating it with Evil and requiring all PCs except for Druids to be Lawful. Neutrality in the context of Druids will mean affinity with the animal and natural world and not as a description of a self-seeking nature or selfishness.
  • Equipment. Characters will start with whatever is natural to their Classes as well as any other specific items understood or agreed on before play.
  • Level Advancement. Characters will reach Levels based on play sessions, 2 after two sessions, 3 after three sessions, 4 after four sessions, and so on. I believe this is the Swords & Wizardry Light advancement.
  • People Are People. Every “monster” should have clear, understandable goals, desires and motivations. Few people will be “evil” for no reason. Even goblin minions of a Dark Lord should be worthy of empathy and redemption. The experience I hope for this game to emulate should be more in line with The Hobbit, A Wizard of Earthsea, and Miyazaki’s films. If during play the PCs knock out a Monster or NPC, that creature then has become their responsibility.
  • Corruption. To the end that People are People, if players decide to make what commonly are perceived as “easy” choices by doing bad or questionable things (such as killing or stealing), they gain Corruption points. Of course, the Referee should make it stridently clear that a certain player character is about to gain a Corruption point if he continues in an intended action. Corruption points cannot be removed except for in highly unusual and extreme circumstances. Once a character gains as many Corruption points as his Wisdom value, that character becomes the property of the Referee, perhaps to continue on in the game as an antagonistic NPC. This, in effect, is the only way that a PC can “die” in game.
  • Simplicity. I have been thinking about ways I can simplify the game even more, perhaps along the lines of Swords & Wizardry Light, and particularly with an eye at the magic systems, but nothing really good is coming to mind. Perhaps the Quick Start character templates of SWL or the Playbooks in Beyond the Wall is all I need do when the opportunity comes.

Randomness in Villains and Vigilantes (and Others)

IMG_0019I recently got excited about Villains & Vigilantes after listening to Dead Games Society’s interview with V&V’s publisher and co-creator Jeff Dee. I think what excites me most about the game is its description of character creation. Well, I should back up a bit and say that it is its character creation as described in its original release that interests me. It contains a bit of randomness that also has more or less been a component in every iteration of the Original Game and perhaps many others besides V&V.

With the Original Game I’m of course talking about the Attribute rolls at character creation. Originally a mere 3d6 were rolled for each value, the resulting values assigned in order to the Attributes list, and the player was left to see what kind of character would be most strategic to build with what resulted. An attractive aspect of this is its randomness, an emulation of the “real world” wherein none of us “construct” our own bodies and psyches. If we could, we would determine before conception our parents, our genetic predispositions and, perhaps, the likely environmental influences on our character formations. Instead, in reality, we just “come to be.” My own ONOSR engine uses the Attribute rolls described in Swords & Wizardry Complete with the exception that three additional values are rolled that have to replace three other values. These last three rolls represent the Norns, Past (Urthr), Present (Verthandi) and Future (Skuld). The device allows players some degree of choice at character creation without threatening too much of a possibility of players “gaming” the system towards a preconceived outcome. In fact, it could happen that the player is left with no “good” choices resulting from those last three rolls. That’s fickle Fate for you!

These random formations seem deeply enmeshed in the OSR. In my view, they reinforce just how much the hobby has arisen out of tactical gaming, with strategy games’ sense of randomness and the onus of participants to “play to win.” Early in rpg history, systems arising out of the Original Game and those developing more or less independently alongside it began putting more power into the hands of the players at character creation. Increasingly, players were allowed to develop the kinds of characters they wanted to play rather than characters they randomly rolled. In other words, characters were being created to fit a preconceived notion rather than the other way around, a concept in which characters arose out of random generation and resulting gameplay.

If I’m to make generalizations based on the desires and attitudes of how I played in my youth, I would hazard that a lot of these changes were first innovated in home games. A lot of us got into the hobby as a fantasy escape from the real world. We wanted to play heroes, characters who were greater than ourselves (or at least our idealized selves within worlds unaffected by the mediocrity of “modernity”), not because we wanted yet another number crunching game of tactics and probabilities. So I imagine that it was first in living rooms and in basements that additional dice were rolled for Attributes, that placements were rearranged, that point buys were developed, that class prerequisites were ignored, and I think this was done mostly by young people who wanted to play particular characters. They began with concepts. Then they applied those visions to the rules.

I would say that this idea of a starting concept is most important to the superhero genre. It’s no secret that many established superheroes are just plain silly–listen to those folks at House to Astonish pull out a character chestnut or two at the end of each show! And for my young friends and I who in the early 90s were certain we were going to break into writing and drawing comics, nothing was more important than how our characters and their costumes looked. And these looks, of course, had to have appropriate themes. And themes, of course, are constructed, not random at all.

For this reason we were attracted to Champions, whose character creation process follows exactly the process of concept to power level to point buys for abilities. Now in my later years, however, I’m more attracted to randomness. I care less about immersing myself in a particular fantasy archetype than I am in exploring the artistic eureka–systemizing and making sense of –randomly generated, disparate elements. V&V character generation sounds like fantastic fun. In that game, players usually play an analogue of themselves, but they roll on tables to see what powers they randomly acquire. I don’t know anyone, right now, who would have interest in playing a supers game with me (and I have plenty to do with ONOSR anyway), but I’m tempted to purchase this game anyway, just to generate characters for myself. I think I’ll set aside some funds for 3rd edition’s release.

Of Fantasy and Fitness

IMG_0015Tolkien’s hobbits, with their mills and postal service and gardeners, are “historically” anachronistic, and as such even the hobbit heroes prefer their adventures tucked safely away in books where they belong while the hobbits themselves stay snug in their holes with their pipes and their beer and their warming fires. I’m going to use this as a model of modernity, and yet the hobbits’ culture is not entirely our own. It can be assumed that their prodigious amounts of comfort food are grown by themselves, organically, which requires hard work; their children roam the fields and forests in search of physical entertainments, and, again, their more specifically “escapist” entertainments are in books, not in video screens and headsets and speakers as they are for so many in our current generation.

There is much psychological ore to be mined out of this need — even for those of us lucky enough to be living in periods and places of relative safety and prosperity — to yearn for and fantasize for difficult, violent, even horrific times and situations. This little essay makes no attempt to address such a difficult dichotomy. Instead I want to address the apparent disparity between what so many moderns appear to value in their fantasies vs their behaviors in “reality.”

With what I’m about to say, I do not intend to perpetuate the stereotype that gamers are sugar-addicted, fat and lazy (or thin and hyperactive, for that matter). Indeed, I’m not sure if the health problems and lifestyle choices that assail the gamer community are significantly larger in proportion than those within any sub-community within the developed western and westernized nations. What I’m addressing is the disparity between the health of many gamers vs what I’m assuming must be their idealized selves.

A close friend has shared with me that, in his 20s, he struck upon a profound and transformative insight. He had been spending hours of his “real” life exercising his Grand Theft Auto character to improve that character’s abilities. And then he thought, “I can do this to myself. For real.” And he did. He became a lean and muscular man.

I didn’t pay much attention to my own health during high school and in my 20s. Perhaps it had something to do with that legendary sense of invulnerability or that belief that one has all the time in the world (or too little of it, conversely, for the apocalyptically minded who believe they are fated to die like a rockstar at 27). Or perhaps it has something to do with the stereotypical apathy of youth. But I had been raised by a mother who had put good stuff into me — she had been ahead of the curve from everything from healthy, organic eating to avoiding all things artificial such as synthetic clothes and carpeting and perfumes. I had a genetic reserve from which, during my coming-of-age, I made extensive withdrawals. However, as it says in the Bible, raise a child in the ways of the Lord and, when he is older, he will not depart from it: as an adult, I returned to my mother’s “faith.”

Still, though I try to follow a correct diet now, though I get plenty of exercise by walking, whenever possible, to my destinations, and though I get even more exercise through gardening and added benefits from eating organic fruits grown by my own hands, I still don’t exercise enough to reach my fantasy ideal. This is because exercise–real exercise–is just so boring. In a very real way modernity has turned much of humanity into caged hamsters. No longer do humans grow to heroic statures by adhering to the evolutionary tradition of farming by hand, by hunting and tracking and fishing and yes, I suppose, by warring, but instead they run, indoors, on a moving track, or they pull on weighted pulleys, all the while surrounded by glowing screens and inspirational rock or metal music.

So, as I’ve said, I get it. Modern difficulty with diet is one thing, because of addictions to sugars and fats and even more nefarious substances such as artificial colors and sweeteners, but the sheer act of physical activity, without any apparent purpose outside of the act itself, is boring. We try to make this second more entertaining by, as I said, listening to music (I myself listen to Wardruna while on the rowing machine) or watching something on a screen, but, for many of us, this is not enough.

For awhile there I thought our fantasy entertainment itself might save us from our sedentary disasters. It’s no secret that many of us seek greater and greater immersion in our fantasy entertainment. Hence the Oculus Rift. But before I gave up playing video games, after completing the beautiful Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I would have thought gamers would want more than mere 3D surround. I was waiting for full interaction. You know what I’m talking about, right? If a player desires to swing a sword, she would have to actually swing a virtual weapon, not press a button. If he wants to run to or from enemies, he would have to actually run, not toggle a joystick. In this way, I had dreamed, one would be able to fully immerse oneself in the fantasy. As a fortunate side effect, one could get physically fit, getting all that closer to being the actual ideal rather than just dreaming about it.

Innovations slightly like this, I understand, have been attempted. But I hear that they haven’t worked so well. First, shortcuts around the fully intended effect have been found (flicking the wrist, for example, rather than fully swinging the arm). Second, anecdotally I have heard that many gamers have pushed back at the notion of true physicality in their games. In other words, they would rather that the experience remain wholly in the realm of idealized fantasy in the mind rather than it actually intrude onto their physical bodies in the form of sweating pores and racing hearts.

One reader of the current Dark Horse run of Conan comics, in criticizing a leaner representation of a youthful Conan, said he read and looked at Conan for workout inspiration. I can relate. When I read Conan, and feel his savage heart burning inside my own, and look at all those beautiful bodies that Conan gets to enjoy, I am motivated to do the same. So I’m surprised that this doesn’t happen more often. It seems like the marriage of the ideal forms to real action in a video game should be the answer.

But I suppose that some people — perhaps even most of us — just don’t like physical activity. Moreover, maybe people aren’t motivated by fantasy because the nature of their favorite fantasies themselves might be different from what I’ve been talking about. Both Tolkien’s and Howard’s fantasies, after all, were more grounded in reality than not. Off hand, I can think of no better articulation of this than what is described in ACKS’s recent Kickstarter. These days, however, our heroes don’t need to work for it. They receive or are born with these “powers” and bam wammo! (In fact, many characters receive their powers through victimization of some sort — what might this say about our psychological zeitgeist?) No need to work out, no need to eat right, no need to do much at all unless one is drawn into a situation or happens to have a sense of moral uprightness or social responsibility. Even properties that are allegedly backward-looking towards premodernity, such as the furthest iterations of D&D and Pathfinder and World of Warcraft and (possibly?) League of Legends, have lightning blasting out of people’s fingers and atomic-blast magic swords so large no figure that slight possibly should be able to lift them and spells that give the powers of speed and flight and even teleportation. When these figures are the ideals it’s clear why actual physical activity is, at least in the popular imagination, so devalued.

To reiterate, I’m not sure what all of this means for our psychological zeitgeist, but I hope to use my gaming to inform my active life and, conversely, my active life (through endorphins and actual experience and inspiration — exercise has been proven to increase creativity and intelligence, after all!) to inform my gaming life. Skol!

Simplified Mass Combat Rules

IMG_0014I get the impression that, in the gaming community, Grappling rules are the bane of many. I don’t disagree. I’ll say, though, that I find the recommendations in Swords & Wizardry Complete to be fairly serviceable. I’ll withhold ultimate judgment until I see how they run in my Beowulf campaign. (Hint: the SW grappling rules might be the only tool players might have to overcome a certain creature who is entirely immune to natural weapons!)

Another component of the rpg world that I often have problems with is Mass Combat. The foundations of the industry are fascinating in this respect, considering that, though roleplaying appears to have arisen out of the culture of large-scale wargaming, in most rpgs a truly serviceable mass combat rules set (at least for me) is difficult to come by. I myself have not read the Original Game, but I believe that, at that time, if combat were to break out during a session, the players were directed to refer to the Chain Mail rules also published by TSR.

Anyway, it’s no secret anymore why mass combat might feel out of alignment in a roleplaying game: roleplaying is about the small scale, the individual, the single against the one, or against the many, or against the room or wilderness. Roleplaying games are designed to tell stories about discrete characters; they’re less interested in platoons. What’s more, roleplaying games are supposed to be exciting. They’re supposed to be about the threats against the players’ single (or handfuls of) characters. They’re supposed to be about these individuals surviving, about consequences that matter, not about nameless troop numbers lost over a series of military engagements. Roleplaying games are about managing an individual’s resources, not about managing a war (and consequently a kingdom).

Aha, you say. Yes, I admit it. You have got me there. True, at high enough levels, the OSR is too about managing kingdoms. Unfortunately, however, my games have yet to reach those levels. My Pathfinder game died, I suppose, at the time when PCs were supposed to be thinking about settling down and raising their kingdoms. I hope that, in the future, I can experience kingdom building within a more manageable rules set. I understand that the Adventurer Conqueror King System has excellent rules for every stage of the hero’s journey (that journey, incidentally, is described right there in the game’s title), but I foolishly ignored an opportunity to get every PDF in that system during a Bundle of Holding drive, and now I’m stubbornly waiting for that sale to come around again. (Another important drive I missed was The One Ring — arggh!)

Old Norse Old School Roleplaying presents a challenge for a creator who does not appreciate nor particularly care for the minutiae of most Mass Combat rules. This is because, obviously, Norsepersons (yes, usually Norsemen, but I’m being inclusive here) went to war. Swords & Wizardry Complete again presents a pretty serviceable vehicle for mass combat resolution. Still, it’s a mite too finicky for me. The tracking of individual units seems cumbersome. My philosophy for roleplaying, I suppose, is that a mass combat situation is supposed to be a backdrop for the continuing adventures of the player characters. This does not mean that the mass combat situation is unimportant. It should be important, and it should be important enough that player actions should influence the outcome of the combat. But I also believe that, during a large scale battle, neither the players nor the Referee need to pay close attention to what is going on outside of the players actions.

The inspiration that came to me, then, was to allow the outcome of the battle — the backdrop for the PCs — to be determined by probabilities, probabilities that could be affected by PC actions. I decided on a 6-sided die as a suitable range of probabilities, this choice reinforced by the further inspiration of using a traditional Random Encounter roll (usually a 1 in 6) to add dynamism to a mechanic that could, quite quickly, become a few tedious minutes of rolling dice in pursuit of an inevitable conclusion. Here’s what I came up with:

Simplified Mass Combat

For mass combat rules, it can be assumed that the forces are equally matched (otherwise why would the lighter force even risk an engagement). For unequal conflicts, the Referee should rule whatever outcome is most probable. The outcome of roughly equal mass combat is resolved through a series of rolls of a single d6. Simple mass combat, as suggested in Swords & Wizardry Complete, is timed in Turns.

During the first Turn of mass combat, each side has a 3 in 6 chance to begin to gain the ascendency. The force opposing the PCs’ side wins a Turn on a roll of 1 to 3; the PCs’ side wins a Turn on a roll of 4 to 6. This probability is modified with terrain and the usual effects. Usually a single effect is a .5 modification with no group of modifications typically exceeding 1.5 on either side.

The die is rolled at the conclusion of a single Turn, after PCs have attempted their individual actions (see below) and after the Referee has rolled and resolved a Random Encounter.

If either side wins a Turn, its probability of winning the next Turn is increased by one.

PCs in Mass Combat

Each Turn the PCs decide with the Referee what they are going to do to turn the tide of battle to their side’s favor. Together they decide if these collective actions will be worth a modifier of .5-1.5 on the die roll. Once everyone is agreed, the PCs perform their actions. These actions could be engaging in melee combat with the opposing force’s leader, sniping the standard bearer from afar, leading a special force against the opposing force’s flank, etc. If the PCs succeed in these actions, using up as many Rounds in the Turn that these actions might require, the bonuses to the next die roll might be gained. Alternatively, depending on how drastic their failures were, the PCs might suffer a penalty to their side’s die roll.

The winner of the die roll raises the odds in that side’s favor by a whole point, and the process begins again with the beginning of the next Turn.

Random Encounter

Moreover, near the end of each Turn, after the PCs have decided upon and begun their independent actions, the Referee makes a d6 roll per the typical Random Encounter check. On a roll of 1 (or more, depending on the situation), some unforeseen circumstance occurs to shift the battle away from the favor of the PCs. This might be surprise enemy reinforcements, a landslide, a sudden betrayal, etc., and should directly complicate the PCs’ actions. If the PCs are not able to deal with this development, or if it nullifies the PCs’ intended actions, that Turn’s die roll favors the other side by 1.

The side that wins is the side that eventually gains enough modifiers to remove the necessity of a die roll per Turn. This is below 1 for the PCs and above 6 for the opponents.

Swords & Wizardry Light for my Beowulf Campaign?

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So Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day comes along, and I finally get to “go live” with my announcement of Old Norse Old School Roleplaying (thanks, everyone, who celebrated or noted my contributions on social media). On that day, after joining the Swords & Wizardry Legion on Facebook, I started paying more attention to this Swords & Wizardry Light (SWL) stuff. I’m unsure of exactly when and how this “Fast-Play Fantasy” first caught my eye. I’m deciding that it was at Gamehole Con 2015 (I have the four-page pamphlet in my stuff). I’m guessing that I looked at it, thought, “What would I do with this?” and then tucked it away in my “big” books of Swords & Wizardry Complete and sundries.

At the end of August there will be a gaming convention right next door to me, and, if everything works out, that will be the first convention at which I will run my Beowulf campaign. So I got to thinking if, so as better to meet the mission of the Legion to expand awareness of SWL in particular, the campaign might be adapted to SWL. As a result, I spent a very happy couple hours on Appreciation Day doing just that.

Introducing SWL to my ONOSR/Beowulf game was an inspiration. In the game’s first formation, my Beowulf campaign was going to make ample use of pregens. But SWL, by limiting and streamlining options, paradoxically empowers players to create their own characters before a session, which in all likelihood, at a convention, will be a one-shot. Of course, characters can be rolled up before nearly any traditional Swords & Wizardry (SW) event, but I suspect that ONOSR presents some innovations and alterations that might present a learning curve for even the most experienced SW gamers. After looking at SWL, it appeared to be a wise move to minimize the Aspect options of ONOSR and to use the time saved to clearly and carefully present the other ONOSR innovations. To do this, I used Tenkar’s template and order of rules of SWL. I was able even to shorten the document by outright deleting Races (I chose not to use the ONOSR Race options) and a lot of unnecessary items such as Equipment and Monster lists, which I know, at a moment, I can draw out of many other materials at my table.

All of this was proceeding easily enough until I encountered two snags, the first of which, Tenkar’s formulation of the Fighter, was fairly easily avoided. Here was the apparent snare: the Fighter in SWL enjoys a Base Attack Bonus of +1 at 2nd Level and +2 at 3rd Level. All characters in ONOSR are Fighters. Moreover, the Beowulf campaign had been designed for ONOSR characters (Fighters) of 8th Level. Now, SWL only provides rules for up to 3rd level. For groups who want to play beyond third level, SWL says, consult Swords & Wizardry Complete. I suppose this would mean, then, that Fighters moving onto Complete would remain at BAB +2 for two more levels per the normal rules. No problem then: my 8th level PCs would enjoy the +5 BAB as usual. (After thinking this through, I’m really looking forward to what Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is going to do with this; the apparent pattern, according to SWL, is for Fighters to receive a +1 BAB at every level!)

Now that I think of it, the second SWL innovation didn’t give me much trouble either, but it incited a fair degree of thought about game design. This second innovation, of course, is the limiting of dice to just 20s and 6s. I began my Beowulf conversion by keeping true to the vision of SWL (otherwise it wouldn’t really be SWL, right?). Okay, I said to myself, working my way through a copied version of my Beowulf campaign, that damage roll can be 1d6-1, that one a 1d6. But when I started coming across my homebrewed percentile charts and Encounter Tables that, in the time of original composition, I had made to use dice that are not 20s and 6s because, well, because I own dice like that and I might as well make use of them, that I decided to give the thing up. Well, okay, to clarify, I decided at first that I would allow those dice when required for my charts and tables. But then, I thought, if I was going to allow those dice on one side of the screen, why not on the other, as well?

Yes, it came around to me, why? The desire for even smaller rules I understand. As I started asking these questions, I investigated what others were saying on social media. People are asking a lot of questions about SWL, and it seems that the best answer to the overall question of why a micro-game like SWL is because it is conducive for convention play. And this is precisely the reason why I experimented with the Beowulf conversion and am very thankful for it. In fact, I think my Beowulf game is going to be better for this! But what I still don’t understand is what benefit is received by leaving out those other dice in the dice bag. I mean, who doesn’t have those dice? If someone can own a 20, it’s likely that that same person can own the rest. This is not the 90s wherein I can still relate to the writer of the Hero System who says go pillage Yahtzee and those Monopoly sets in the family game closet so that you can play a roleplaying game you out-of-money kid; aren’t you glad my system eschews polyhedrals? But polyhedrals are cool! Who doesn’t enjoy a vast variety of polyhedrals? For a while I was enamored with systems that used only one kind of die. For some reason I had the idea that those systems were cleaner, more elegant. But this isn’t true. I’ve found it’s much more useful to have every tool at hand when one needs a number between, say, one and four rather than to make do with something formulated out of a d6 and a d10 for no other reason than that those are the dice that that particular game uses.

Anyway, what I ended up doing was to use the SWL idea but to key characters to Swords & Wizardry Complete level advancement and to a full dice bag. I hope this still will qualify my game for the Legion. And in the meantime, I wonder why Tenkar made the choices that he did.