Monday, March 30, 2015

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Your First Game

The next several posts in this series cover the tutorial group adventure, which is designed to teach a neophyte DM how to run a game, just as the tutorial games in the Players' Manual taught a new player how to play the game.

This post will focus on the introduction to the Group Adventure, and the next few posts will cover the adventure itself.  Because the introduction is less than half a page, this post will be brief.

First of all, the adventure is written in such a way that, as Frank states right off the bat, it will give you all the information you need, up to what to say even.  Yes, there is the infamous boxed text for the new DM to read.  Love it or hate it, it serves a specific purpose in this adventure.  While I've read many (veteran) DMs complaining about it, I used it to learn what sorts of things I should be communicating to players in my games by riffing off of it.  When I first moved from making simple dungeons with notes on monsters and treasure written right on the map (my earliest dungeons) to more nuanced adventures, I made my own boxes of text in my notes so I would remember what to say when the players hit those encounters.  Later I moved on past the need for that, but at first it did help me.

Next, it is suggested that we at least take a look at the rest of the book, but there's no need to read it all in detail yet.  Everything important has been provided in the adventure key.  Of course, things could easily go off the rails with an experienced set of players, but I remember running this adventure for the first time with Killingmachine and my cousin Ben.  They, also being new to D&D but having experience with CYOA books and video games (Atari, this was pre-Nintendo when we all rode dinosaurs through 10' of snow to school, up hill both ways...) they pretty much were content with the options they were presented with and didn't try anything unusual.  When I ran this module for some veteran players a couple years ago, it was quite different and I never would have been able to handle it as a newbie DM.

We're given a DM's Player checklist to prepare for the game (paraphrased):
1. Does everyone know how to play, and have they read the starter adventures in the players' book?
2. Have you the DM read the book so far, and looked over the rest?
3. Can all of you answer the 5W of the adventure?
4. Do the players have their characters ready?
5. Is there a Caller, a Mapper, and does the mapper have graph paper and pencil?

The checklist is somewhat useful, but obviously points 1 and 2 will not always apply.  Questions 3 to 5 are more generally useful and it's good to be in the habit of checking these things at the start of every session.  In my early days, we often skipped #3.  I had a dungeon.  The players had adventurers.  There were monsters and treasures inside.  That was enough.  These days, I find making sure the players have enough information to know what they're doing and why helps my games run more smoothly.

The next section is again good advice for the beginning DM.  Make an adventure checklist.  Write down the name, class and AC of each character on the adventure.  Note the marching order.  Use the rest of the sheet to keep track of time, monsters encountered, treasure found, etc.  Again, in the very earliest years, we'd go into a dungeon.  After an encounter, I'd award XP and players would divvy up treasure and add it to their sheets.  Yes, every time.  I have mentioned how easily we were influenced by video games, right?  Nintendo hadn't appeared when I first got the Basic Set, but it was just around the corner...  Now, I realize the importance of waiting until the end of the game to award XP.

Well, that's enough reminiscing about my early days as a DM.  It's good to think back on it now and then, to see how far I've come.  I'll do my best to not be so lax about posting in this series.  It's already the end of March and I'm still only on page 4 of the book.  Look for the next installment next Monday, because I've got a split shift on Mondays with plenty of time to post on the blog now that I've settled in to the new job.

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.