Friday, March 20, 2015

A dual-track XP system?

 Brushing off the cobwebs and blowing clouds of dust.

Just when I think I'm gonna get back on the blogging regularly horse, real life intervenes.  I'm now a university English instructor, which is better than my last job, but since I don't need to keep regular 9-5 hours, I'm spending more time at home with the wife and baby which means less time for blogging. 

Additionally, I received some awesome feedback from JB of BX Blackrazor regarding Flying Swordsmen, and he's got me thinking of all sorts of cool things I could do to create a worthy wuxia game.  I might call it Flying Swordsmen 2nd Edition, but the way I'm thinking now, it won't be a D&D-based game so it wouldn't really be a new edition.  Just another wuxia game (with mechanics to hopefully better emulate wuxia fiction/film's drama elements) that also uses my campaign world of Zhongyang Dalu.  Tentative title for the new game would be "Wu Xing" (that's the 5 Chinese Elements). 

I'm only halfway through my point-by-point response to his lengthy feedback.  Need to finish that up and get it to him. 

And that leaves me pondering just what to do with Chanbara.  Should I keep it as a fairly OSR compatible game like Flying Swordsmen, or start modifying it so it will be compatible with the eventual release of FS2/Wu Xing.  Many of JB's ideas actually already parallel things I've been modifying in Chanbara, but he's got me considering going back to my original idea of a classless, skill-based system for FS2/Wu Xing.

Today (finally getting to the question I pose in the title of this post), I was thinking about the feasibility of a dual-track XP system.  Would it kill the game (Chanbara, where the idea is to have samurai and ninja battling spirit-creatures, demons and monsters in order to protect the lands of Man) with complexity to have to earn XP the traditional way, by slaying things and taking their stuff (then giving the stuff to your lord) to earn levels [hit dice, attack bonus, saves], but also have a "justify your actions" type set of questions for the end of each session to earn Skill Points which can then be spent as you wish to improve your various martial/magical/ninja abilities (or raw ability scores)?

Just to clarify --
Kill monsters, earn XP
Donate loot to your liege (daimyo, temple, clan, etc.), earn XP
Role play appropriately within the tropes of Japanese fiction, earn Skill Points

XP gain you levels when you hit certain benchmarks, continue to accumulate, and are measured in the thousands.  Standard D&D fare.
SP are small awards (1 to 5 per session) and are then spent between adventures/sessions to improve certain aspects, with increasing costs to gain higher levels [borrowing from Star Frontiers].

So, what do you think?  Too complex?  Should everything be tied to only one or the other method of character advancement?  Or would something like this work? 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dragon Fist Reconsidered

Before I try to deconstruct Flying Swordsmen to point out what I think I did right, what I think I did wrong, and what I was sure was a good idea at the time but turned out to be not so good after all, I thought I'd go back and discuss the game I was cloning first.

Dragon Fist, if you don't know (and that's highly likely), was a free modification of 2E AD&D by Chris Pramas, who later founded Green Ronin and became one of the superstars of the d20 boom.  WotC didn't want to publish it as 3E was in the works, so they released it as a series of free downloads (one PDF per chapter, plus TOC, character sheet, an appendix and a single adventure module) through their web site.  This was back in late 1999 or early 2000.

The game comes in at around 128 pages not counting the adventure module.  Despite the length, the rules are VERY cut down from standard AD&D.  There's a lot of white space on each page, and a lot of description (or fluff, if you prefer that term).  And it's the fluff that really sold me on the game, although the novel mechanics also helped.

So what's Dragon Fist about?  It's a game of wuxia action, inspired by Hong Kong cinema.  It is class and level based, with Vancian magic, AC and HP, d20 to hit combat, all the basics of D&D.  But the theme is mystical ancient China, with martial artist heroes facing off against the soldiers, sorcerers, monsters and demons of the corrupted mad Emperor Jianmin. 

What I instantly liked about DF's mechanics was the Stunt Die system.  In order to get a bonus from an ability score, you had to choose which ability and roll a die to determine a random bonus.  You could only roll one of them each round in combat, so there were trade-offs between better hit/damage (Str), AC/ranged (Dex), temporary hit points and poison saves (Con), a floating bonus to use on any one roll (Int), initiative and magic saving throws (Wis), or reaction rolls and charm saving throws (Cha). 

Also, each class (the basic 4 from D&D) had two or three kits that not only allowed you to customize your character a bit, but also were loaded with setting information, as each one represented an organization within the campaign.

Then there were the Martial Arts Maneuvers.  These were special abilities (similar to feats in soon to be released 3E) that you could choose as you gained levels to further customize your character.  Each, of course, had a colorful name that you could shout out as you used it, just like in the movies!

Setting-wise, the world of Tianguo was only fleshed out at a skeletal level in the first chapter, but the game gave you an appropriate villain to fight (Emperor Jianmin), advice for structuring a campaign that would lead to a face-off with the emperor eventually, and just enough hints to make the game feel like it would be a blast to play through all 10 levels.  Well, actually only seven levels, since PCs started at level 3 in order not to suck at first.  It's hard to feel like a bad-ass martial arts hero with only one hit die, one special maneuver, and maybe one spell.

I liked the game a lot, although I only got to run it twice ever.  When 3E Oriental Adventures came out, I did some conversions of the Dragon Fist kits to 3E prestige classes and some monster conversions as well.  They were well received by the WotC forum community.  When BFRPG, OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord became big deals, that inspired me to work on giving this game its own retro-clone.

What did Dragon Fist do wrong?  Well, the lack of company support didn't help.  WotC released it for free, and did have posts on their main page advertising it.  But there was little support for a game based on the soon to be "obsolete" (from their perspective) 2E rules.  And when Pramas got the rights to the game back from WotC, he made a lot of promises to re-do the game and re-release it through Green Ronin, but that project died a sudden death.

Within the game itself, there are some clunky mechanics and some unnecessary hold-outs from AD&D (damage vs. man sized/large opponents, for example).  The game gives plenty of wuxia flavor, but for someone who hasn't watched a lot of HK cinema or without much background in Chinese history/culture, the game might not resonate enough for a GM to build up that suggested campaign against Emperor Jianmin. 

And the game is high on action, but has no built in mechanics or XP rewards for playing up the human drama side of wuxia.  Sure, you could easily build up a campaign arc around trying to find the enemy martial arts master who killed your teacher in a duel or dealing with a jilted lover turned vengeful or seeking to master the secret technique that only your evil older brother knows because he killed the master who taught him, but there's nothing in the game to suggest that you should (rather than just killing monsters or storming the garrison in the next city to get to the magistrate who can lead to the deputy minister who can lead to the minister who can lead to emperor Jianmin).

To sum up, Dragon Fist gives us a game with mostly familiar mechanics but a few novelties to fit the genre.  It gives us a suitable campaign and setting, but with limited replayability.  It gives all sorts of genre flavor (probably the strongest point of the game), but only really delivers a game that can play one style within that genre.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Coming Out?

No more Lord Gwydion handle anymore.  I'm starting another blog for work related purposes, so I'm going to have to use my real name around here.  Not that I've been hiding it, since I used my real name on Flying Swordsmen and plan to do the same with Chanbara.

I still use the LG handle when I visit message boards (infrequently anymore), so if you see me on Dragonsfoot or wherever, that's still me.

Anyway, Hi, I'm Dennis.  Nice to meet you all again.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

One of those odds and ends posts

Last Saturday, I ran the first session of GamMarvel World.  It went fairly well, although I felt a bit rusty as DM (ran a single session of 5E Isle of Dread just before son #2 was born nigh seven months ago, had only played sporadically since then).  Justin, Dean and Jeremy rolled up some mutants and battled some creatures and found some junk to take back to their village.  And they picked up on some mysteries and hints that should keep them satisfied next adventure, too.

I've got some ideas for revising Chanbara magic.  I'm considering switching from Vancian to a spell point system.  We'll see.  I'll work out the system then post about it here.

One reason I'm considering the spell point system is the feedback I got from JB of BX Blackrazor about Flying Swordsmen.  I need to do a post that answers his follow-up questions about just what I was intending to do with FS, and why I think it failed.  As he said (and many other people said before him), there's a lot of cool stuff in the game, but when I try to run it something feels off.  And I don't know of anyone else trying to run it.  But that's a post for another day.

And I need to get another Mentzer Cover to Cover post done.

So why am I procrastinating and writing this instead of one of those topical posts?  Well, I'm just too damn busy.  I start a new job next week, teaching at a university instead of a kindergarten/elementary.  It requires some adjustment and attention from me.  Fingers crossed, I'll get to all of the above post topics (plus maybe a 5E post based on some recent G+ discussion, and maybe a post about the d20 Darwin's World game Josh is trying to get going).

Monday, February 16, 2015

New Host for Flying Swordsmen...third time's a charm?

Thanks to Fabio for pointing out that the link to Flying Swordsmen has gone dead. 

I'd been hosting my files on blogger Brad Ncube's website, but that's apparently down.  And I haven't heard anything from Brad in a long time.  I hope everything's alright with him.  He's a good guy.

To get my game back up on the web, I'm now hosting it at Google Drive.  The sidebar link has been updated and I'll update the links on the Flying Swordsmen page directly.  I'll get my other file links migrated to Google Drive and links fixed in the near future (if anyone's clamoring for the Unique Magic Items series or one of my adventures, which I doubt, shoot me a message here with an email addy and I'll get it off to you pronto).

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Introduction and DM's Job

The introduction to the Mentzer Basic DMR gives us the three elements of a (basic) D&D game: monsters, treasure and dungeons.  After providing some examples from the Players Manual tutorial, it tells us that there are more of all of these things in this book, plus ways to put them all together to create your own games and have a lot of fun.

Terms and Abbreviations:
The preface to this section actually gives us a good bit of advice to remember when playing RPGs like this, and one that is easily overlooked or forgotten:
The D&D games you will run are actually stories about the PCs in a fantasy world, and you and your players will make up these stories together. [p. 2, emphasis added]
The stories are not the sole province of the DM, or the module writer, or the game designer.  They are developed cooperatively by everyone at the table (implying also that you don't get a "story now," you get a story later when all's said and done).

Next is a list of common terms defined for us: player, character, class, dungeon, DM, NPC, etc.  This is followed by a long list of abbreviations for common terms, including the above defined terms, ability scores, monster stats, character classes, and treasure.  The only real interesting definition I find is the definition of alignment:
A term generally describing the behavior of any creature -- Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic [p. 2]

The word "generally" is important here.  Alignment in BECMI is not a straight jacket, and should not prevent one from role-playing their PC as they like.  No one is 100% consistent in their behavior in all situations and every day.

The Most Important Rule:
 This section gives us the golden rule of the Game Master: be fair in how you adjudicate the rules, don't play adversarially against the players, and make sure your rulings and house rules are applied consistently to the players AND the monsters. 

The Dungeon Master's Job:
This section tells us that the game consists of encounters, connected by other activities such as movement and problem solving.  The dice rolls (mechanics) are used to find results of choices.  Players get to make most of their own rolls, while the DM rolls for NPCs and monsters.  Simple enough.

The DM's Roles:
This section gives the fledgling DM advice on how to run monsters (and NPCs) in the game, and while basic, it is still good advice.  First off, while a DM has many more creatures to play than the players do, the creatures are usually simpler to play and die rolls can help determine their actions.  Think of how the creature feels, and what it wants.  This may alter what the dice tell you.  Mentzer advises the DM to not be slavish to the dice with reaction rolls, modify them based on the creature's intelligence, alignment, and feelings (or in my terms, Wants and Needs).

Finally, the DM should remember that the monsters exist not to give the DM tools to defeat the players, but to entertain everyone.  Once they've served their purpose, forget about them.  Good advice for the new DM.

The reaction roll is briefly explained, as well as ways monsters might react to adventurers (and adventurers to monsters).  And it's fairly explicit that while some monsters (like ghouls) will attack anything living on sight, most monsters will not, and the DM should roll reactions (unless the PCs just charge in and attack).  I'm not sure where my friends and I picked up the bad habit, shared by many gaming groups I've encountered or read about, of the DM saying, "You enter the room.  There are seven orcs.  Roll for initiative."  Mentzer is pretty straightforward in stating that this should be rare, and dependent on the monster encountered.  Maybe it came from modules (not that we were playing any in our early games), and maybe it came from video games, where the monsters always attack.

Running the Game:
It's the DM's job to set the stage for the players, then sit back and let them act.  Reading this again, I find it interesting just how proactive the players are assumed to be by Mentzer.  He even quips that as the players explore and problem solve, the DM can sit back and relax!  It's only when monsters are encountered, and during combat, that the DM needs to be in careful control of the situation.

Mentzer notes that running multiple monsters and characters is hard, and so is playing monsters fairly so that the DM doesn't favor either the monsters or the PCs.  And it takes a bit of experience to do so (implication, don't worry too much if you have trouble with this at first, it will come with practice).  In order to help the DM concentrate on running the monsters fairly, three guideline charts are given.  The first is "Order of Events in an Encounter" followed by "Order of Events in a Game Turn" and finally "Order of Events in Combat."  Obviously those first two should have been switched around, but for some reason they're not.

One interesting thing is that "Number Appearing" is listed as the first step of running an encounter, and this doesn't specify it's only for random encounters.  I suppose in a dungeon setting that is run as a "living dungeon" that makes sense.  There are normally wolves or orcs or whatever in this area.  How many of them are here now?  Most modules, and the sample adventure later in the book already have the number listed though.


The next section begins the DM Tutorial sample adventure.  Tune in next time for that!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

You're just like school in the summertime... [Chanbara post]

...No class!
So yesterday, after posting about my ruminations on simplifying Chanbara, I used Google+'s survey feature to run a quick, non-scientific poll.  Out of exactly 100 at the time of writing self-identified OSR gamers (or gamers who at least like to keep abreast of what the OSR is doing by joining the G+ OSR group) who use G+ and respond to surveys there, half of them (51%) favor having a small number of character classes, but having options to customize them.  So my idea to strip down Chanbara to three classes and have Profiles (like 2E kits or 5E backgrounds) for customization, along with special abilities, may indeed be the most popular way to go.  I was probably going to do that anyway, so there's a bit of a morale boost for me.

Interestingly, 10% clicked on the "classless" option, which I had added as a bit of an afterthought.  I was sort of curious how popular such an idea might be with the D&D-centric OSR crowd. 

Before I decided to make Flying Swordsmen as a retro-clone of Dragon Fist, I toyed with the idea of a classless wuxia game, partially inspired by the classless skill system of Star Frontiers. 

For those not familiar, Star Frontiers (Alpha Dawn, Zebulon's Guide does it a bit differently, I think) has you pick your alien race, then select a "Primary Skill Area" of Military, Technoloical, or Bio-Social skills.  You then select two skill sets, one of which must be in your PSA.  Having a skill grants access to all related subskills.  As you adventure, you gain XP which can be spent to raise your skill levels or gain new skill sets.  It's cheaper to purchase skills in your PSA.  You can also use XP to improve your ability scores or racial special abilities. 

Had Flying Swordsmen gone the classless route, it would have been something like this.  Different martial arts schools, adventuring skills (wilderness, thief skills, etc.) and types of magic would have been skill sets, and characters would have gotten a PSA and two skill sets at character creation.  It would have been quite customizable, expandable, and fairly easy to manage. 

Some people dislike the Star Frontiers skill system as being fairly limited, but I find that the constraints of the skill system are what inform me of just what the game is "about."  The designers imply that these things are what your characters should be doing: exploring worlds, communicating with aliens and helping explorers deal with the rigors of space travel, dealing with alien technology and robots and vastly complex computer systems, and of course fighting the Sathar and their terrorist agents with a variety of future weapons and some primitive ones as well.

I'm not planning to go this route with Chanbara at the moment, but maybe in the future I'll go back to this idea and create a new fantasy RPG (possibly Asian-inspired, or maybe not) using this kind of system.