Monday, December 3, 2018

Birthday Self Present

My birthday's coming up in a little over a week. To celebrate, I used my earnings from Chanbara from last month to order the fancy hardcover edition of Labyrinth Lord. I've been using the pdf for many years. I think I've still got the old purple cover version with art even somewhere on my hard drive. About time to get it in print.

And does that signal that I'm one step closer to converting my West Marches game to old school D&D instead of 5E? Maybe. Having the LL book will make it easier, since I won't have to risk getting drinks/snacks spilled on my original Mentzer books, original Rules Cyclopedia, or the Moldvay/Cook books I bought several years ago (we play with several kids, it's always a possibility).

I do enjoy 5E in many ways. But there are some things about it that bother me, and I can't really think of anything in Labyrinth Lord that bothers me that much. About the only thing is Clerics getting a spell at 1st level, and sometimes I'm even OK with that.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

So it comes to this...

A week or so ago, Stuart Robertson, who I consider one of the cooler heads in the OSR scene and who I respect quite a bit, posted that he didn't want this OSR logo, which he designed, being used on products, blogs, or other places that supported and contained hate speech.

He politely asked that if you want to post content or publish content which might be considered hate speech under Canadian law (where he lives), to not use this particular logo.

And of course the shit hit the fan immediately. A small number of very vocal people started bitching that somehow this was gatekeeping the OSR, and that their free speech rights were being abridged unilaterally. Another small but vocal group were complaining that they now felt compelled to use this logo or else be perceived as a hateful chud.

And so Stuart dropped off of G+ (it's dying anyway) and possibly the OSR scene in general.

Well, I feel bad because I didn't speak up right away about the issue. Life is hectic, and there are a lot of bigger concerns in my life right now than the latest round of "what is the OSR?" navel-gazing and arguments about what should or shouldn't be allowed in the OSR, and who should or shouldn't be allowed in the OSR. But now that Stuart is gone, all I can do is write this post as a better-late-than-never move to show my support for him.

First of all, let's look at the various claims. Is what Stuart posted gatekeeping? Is it abridging the free speech rights of other OSR publishers and bloggers?

I say a resounding NO. He never said you can't publish hateful content, or questionable content, or risque content, or anything of the like. He said if you do that and it might possibly be considered hate speech under Canadian law, don't use the above logo. You can publish a book on OSR Nazi baby rape if you like. Just don't use THIS logo on it. Your right to free speech is in no way affected by this, just your ability to use this symbol.

Second, is every member of the OSR who's not a hate-filled low life now required to use this logo to show that they're not a hate-filled low life? Of course not. Before this logo appeared, and after this logo appeared, there were plenty of other OSR logos to choose from. Check Google for examples. Yes, Stuart's one is at the top of the list, but there are plenty more.

Now, using the logo created by I think Benoist Poire immediately in the fallout of the above might seem to send a message like that. Hopefully not, as I don't think that was the intention of Benoist (but he'll have to speak for himself on that). But it does kinda look bad when one member of the OSR says he doesn't want his logo associated with hate speech and another member makes a new logo in response. It implies the new logo was created specifically for use by people who want to create hateful OSR products/blogs. Again, I'm pretty sure that wasn't the intention, but it does seem to send that message.

So what should you, the OSR blogger/publisher do? Well, if you're sure you're not creating hate speech products, use whatever the fuck OSR logo you like. If you think your products might contain hate speech under Canadian law, use whatever the fuck OSR logo you like EXCEPT for Stuart's one.

How is this a controversy again?

Monday, November 26, 2018

I may be on to something

Warning -- Spoilers for module DL1 Dragons of Despair (and probably some minor spoilers for the novel Dragonlance Chronicles 1: Dragons of Autumn Twilight).

So today, in my West Marches 5E game, after getting screwed over by the Deck of Many Things last session, the small party (Denis, whose Rogue Ferret Jax got imprisoned by the Donjon card last time, playing a new Gnome Rogue Mervin; Renee, Denis' daughter, playing her Fairy Princess Goldie [reskinned Tiefling Warlock]; Flynn, my son, playing both Calvin the Half-Orc Paladin [current character] and Titan the Dragonborn Cleric [retired character]) entered the 'lost city' for which I'm using the map and key of the ruins of Xak Tsaroth from the first Dragonlance module.

Now, we all know, Dragonlance is a railroad ride of a series of modules. But a long time ago, before I started the West Marches campaign, I had briefly considered making a more sandbox-y game in Krynn using the dungeons from the DL modules. That way I could have all the cool Krynn flavor (which as a teen was my favorite flavor of D&D) without the constraints of having to follow the plot.

But I wasn't sure it would work, and I wasn't sure if the players would dig the Krynn setting (or if I would 25+ years later to be honest) so I dropped the idea. But I've been peppering the West Marches with classic module dungeons, and decided the 'swamp dungeon' would use this one.

So anyway, after last session's debacle before the party had even made it into the ruins really, this time they headed in and things did not go as Tracy Hickman had envisioned.

Just inside the ruins is an ambush of six Bozak (spell-casting) draconians. The new rogue, Mervin, has Expertise in Perception so it's really high, and he easily spotted the ambush. Titan the Dragonborn notices that these "dragonborn" are different, but can't quite figure out what it is that's different. Goldie the Fairy Princess decides to invite them to play. Rolls really well for diplomacy (she's a Charisma caster after all). They come out friendly-like, and invite the party to pray.

The party goes along with this, and is taken to the false wicker dragon plaza, where other draconians are praying. The baaz draconians, at the behest of the bozak priest, give donations of bags of coin. The priest motions for the party to do likewise. Mervin, using his fast hands ability, adds poison to three pouches of gold and hands them over as an offering. The draconian priest takes the coins and gets poisoned (minor damage), and all the draconians rush to his aid.

Not sure if these guys are really friendly or not, the party decides to offer a healing potion to the priest...and notice as they get close that the dragon is a fake. They try to announce this, but the priest shuts them up in time and whispers to them to follow him to meet the real dragon. He leads them to the well where in the book Khisanth appears and blasts Riverwind with acid breath. The priest starts singing a song to call the dragon (Calvin understands, since he speaks Draconic). The party decides to avoid a dragon at this point and heads into the Temple of Mishakal.

After debating whether they could get the massive gold doors out through the swamp or not (I hope they don't forget this part, each door weighs more than a ton! The logistical nightmare of dragging them through a swamp and then through 30+ miles of wilderness to get them to town would make a fun session!), they press on. In the temple, they head down the steps and after poking around a little and recovering a box of gems from a ledge in a room with no floor (using Goldie's mage hand), they meet the gully dwarves standing in line to go down the iron pot lift. Ignoring the dwarves for now, they head down the corridor to the pully room, just as the draconians in it snap their whips to summon the dwarves.

In the confusion, the party decides to attack the draconians, but every single attack in the surprise round misses! The draconians, per the module instructions, flee and jump in the pot to head down below. Calvin and Titan, both very strong characters, jump in and stop the wheel from spinning, then crank it back up. After apologies for the sudden attack, the draconians suggest the party leave and let them get back to work ferrying gully dwarves up and down between the upper level and the mines.

Short on session time, the party retreated out of the ruins, was lucky to avoid further encounters (and being invited back by the original ambush guards, who had no idea the party nearly attacked the priest and did attack the draconians at the pulley).

So, things did not go as planned by Hickman, and that was a good thing. The only combat was a surprise round long, and nothing died. Lots of talking, negotiating, and trying to con (by both sides). And as they venture further into the ruins, they can end up playing the draconians, gully dwarves, and spectral minions off each other as they scheme to get the dragon's treasure and hopefully a golden temple door or two.

And I see that indeed, by ignoring the 'quest' to retrieve the Disks of Mishakal, the dungeon works well for general D&D monkeyshines.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Arena Battle Map Test

Playing around with GIMP, I created templates for square grid and hex grid maps that I can use for my Chainmail Arena game.

They're large size images. If I use this on Roll20, for example, I can post them there. If I use, I'd need to host them somewhere else and include image links in the threads. Google Docs will probably be my host of choice if I do that.

Here's the first test map, a simple circular arena with a 'thunder well' that randomly shoots out bolts of lightning around the arena.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Chainmail Arena Update

Still puttering around with this idea, but I've been a bit busy with work (lots of student writing to grade this semester), Netflix (watched Daredevil Season 3 and watching Ken Burns' Vietnam documentary lately), being a dad...

Quick reminder for people who didn't read (or forgot) my previous post. I'm thinking of running an arena combat game using Chainmail's fantasy supplement. My son got me interested in the phone game Clash Royale again (I stopped playing it about a year ago, now I'm playing occasionally again), and that somewhat inspired this. Reading Jon Peterson's Playing At the World is also an inspiration.

The idea is to have players 'draft' teams of soldiers and creatures, I create several arenas (with appropriate fantasy themes - lava caverns, haunted forests, teleportation gates, floating castles, etc.) and let the players duke it out in turn-based combat. Winners will get prizes and XP, and when you level up you get a larger pool of points to draft your fantasy monster team.

The only hang-up I have is that to fit seamlessly with the 'fantastic combat' table, I should use the man-to-man rules, but they aren't by troop type but rather weapon vs armor. So for every type of human (valkyries, barbarians, knights, etc.), demi-human, or humanoid, I'd need to provide set values for armor/weapons. Or else rebuild the tables using the normal Chainmail combat values but converted to the closest result on a 2d6 roll.

I really don't want to have to play a split system where some units/creatures are rolling d6 die pool style, while others are rolling simple 2d6 rolls. I'd rather keep it at 2d6.

My recent foray into the Dungeon! board game for my West Marches game may also help me here, since that game (inspired by Arneson's use of Chainmail combat in his Blackmoor game) uses a 2d6 combat roll system.

So I'll probably have to come up with an expanded 'Fantasy Combat Results' table that includes the standard troop types. And all the humans, demi-humans and humanoids will mostly just be cosmetically different and operate as whatever troop type they are.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Chainmail Arena

My latest idea for a game that will likely not make it off the ground:

A turn-based arena combat game using the Chainmail Man-to-Man and Fantasy Supplement rules.

Players would make teams using the Chainmail point system, consisting mostly of creatures (but if they want to throw in a mess of human footmen or whatever, sure, why not?), and have their warbands duke it out in large arena spaces.

Arenas would have various types of terrain including things like traps and lava, and some would have goals like capture the flag (or magic sword), eliminate the enemy commander, etc. to spice things up a bit.

I would probably have some player vs player combat as well as player vs DM combat involved.

And I'd probably come up with a roster of heroes, super-heroes, anti-heroes, wizards and dragons that would be unique. Once recruited they're no longer available unless the team manager (player) lets them go. And if killed, they're gone, out of the game for good.

For victories, players would receive gold which they could use to hire new troops. Win or lose, players would gain XP, and levels would determine the maximum number of points they could spend on their warband.

I'd likely run this play-by-post so there would be ample time to review orders and results each round.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Low Level Characters with Nothing to Do

Over on MeWe (yes, I'm on it, not sure I like it though...), Steven Fowler in the OSR community posted about how older players see newer edition PCs as superheroic, while younger players look at older edition PCs and see them as powerless (aside from the Fighter).

Apparently the complaint is that the 1st to 3rd level PCs have only a few spells, poor skill chances, and next to no combat ability, so what should they do in a fight?

IMO (and judging by the types of comments I get, most of my readership is likely to agree) that's a feature of older editions, not a bug.

Of course, we older folks know exactly what you're supposed to do in a fight at low levels - find a way to stack the deck in your party's favor, stay back and support the front line, or just get out of the way. When combat's over, there's time for all characters to participate in exploration, NPC interaction, and problem/puzzle solving (or not if the player doesn't want to).

My son, and the other kids in my 5E game, have been pretty creative overall. They're learning from adults with a mix of experiences and preferences for games, and it's been pretty good for them. They don't instantly look to the character sheet to solve problems, and they try interesting things in combat. The two girls in the group especially enjoy turning dangerous animal encounters into a chance to collect more pets. My son is a creative problem solver, thinking about the creatures we fight and the environment, and trying to come up with interesting solutions (or just smiting things - he is playing a Half-Orc Paladin...).

If anything, it's the other adults in the group who focus a bit too much on what skills they have trained, what spells they have prepared, etc.

In combat, 5E allows every character to be competent, which is fine. But the game is not only about combat.

Every character isn't expected to contribute to a role-play encounter. Sometimes it's best to have the drunk, aggressive, crude Dwarf Barbarian just stay quiet in the back while the party negotiates safe passage across the Withered Wastelands with the Duke of Death. Why should everyone be expected to pull equal weight in combat?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How to Design an RPG (work in progress)

First attempt at putting some ideas in my head out for public consumption. Please feel free to give feedback, this is very much a work in progress.

Part 1: What I've done wrong in the past.

In the past, I've started working on RPG ideas from the ground up often by first thinking of the genre/setting, then moving to character creation rules, then moving to action resolution mechanics, then moving to advancement mechanics. Once all that's done, color/details can be filled in for areas where it's still lacking.

I now think this was a mistake. I had the first step right, of course. But most of the other steps I had out of order. I think I did this because many games are presented in more or less this order. To be a good game manual, it helps to inform you of the genre/setting, show how to create a character, discuss how to handle resolution of character actions, then show how by completing actions in the game the characters can advance and improve.

For game design, however, that's not the most efficient way to go about it. At worst, it ends up with a design that is incoherent (not in a Forge sense of incoherent, in the regular sense of the word). At best, it ends up with a game that is mechanically sound, but lacks something. It's one of those games that rests on the strength of the setting or genre, but the play itself is lackluster.

Part 2: How I think it should be done now. 

Step 1: Genre/Setting

Is this game going to be set in a certain genre (heroic fantasy, space opera, noir detective/crime, romance), a certain era (Ancients, WWII, the Age of Sail), a specific fictional world (made up by the author or borrowed from other media)? That will inform all other choices.

Realize that trying to design a generic or universal game system is a valid option here. The choice NOT to pick a genre/setting informs the other choices just as much as picking a specific genre or setting.

Step 2: Advancement Mechanics

Yes, you read that right. The second step in designing a game should be deciding what types of play will be rewarded and what types will not. This can be informed by genre/setting, or may be free from the constraints of the genre/setting.

To do this, you need to ask yourself what you think the players are likely to want to do, and what you would like them to do, depending on the setting/genre. In D&D, collecting treasure gains XP, as does fighting monsters. So the decision was made somewhere along the lines that this is what players are "supposed" to be doing. It doesn't mean you can't do other things, and doesn't mean you can't reward players for doing those other things. It's just the default assumption. If players have no other idea about what to do for a session, they can find a dungeon and try to bring back treasure from it.

Other games have other assumptions, so reward XP in different ways. White Wolf Storyteller System games reward XP by answering questions about the session when it's completed. And the questions inform players what they are expected to do and how they are expected to play the game. The more questions you can answer after a session, the more XP you gain.

Next, you need to consider how to apply the advancement. In class/level games, it's usually pretty simple (following the precedent of D&D). Just keep a running tally of XP, and when you hit certain milestone amounts, you gain a level. In skill/power based games, XP translates into points that can be spent to improve different aspects of the character. In a few games, advancement is randomized, making it its own little mini-game.

Step 3: Game Resolution Mechanics

Once you know what you want the players to do to get rewarded and advance, you can then design the resolution mechanics you will need for them to do so. Again, the setting/genre will affect these choices. If the game is set in a war setting, combat rules are a must. If it's set in a high school, social interaction rules and ways to track your popularity make sense.

I don't have advice on how to decide on what sort of mechanics are best for what sorts of settings/genres, or for achieving certain play goals for advancement. Whether you like the d20, or a % system, or a 2d6 system, or a playing card drawing mechanic, or a mixture of various mechanics is pretty much up to you.

Step 4: Character Creation Mechanics

Now that we have the general idea for the genre/setting, what we expect characters to do, and how we expect characters to do them, we can finally get down to the question of who are the characters and what defines them. If it's a class/level game, we need classes and levels for them to advance, and need to decide what abilities/powers they gain along the way. If it's a skill/ability based game, we need lists of skills and abilities to purchase, and point costs for them. If it's a randomized advancement game, we still need a system to determine starting abilities and a way to add more random abilities or determine what abilities improve when advancement occurs.

Step 5: Fill in all that Color

Surely some color or detail to match the setting/genre has worked its way into the game already, but there's still got to be more. This is the step where you can design the spell system, tech system, monsters, magic items or technological loot, etc. It's also where you can flesh out the default game world, if there is one. Or you can add in all those notes for adjusting things in your universal system to fit specific genres.


Like I said above, this is still just a rough idea. It's been rolling around in my head, and this is my first draft attempt to write it up. If I get some good feedback, and spend a bit more time thinking about it, I'll edit and clean it up.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Back to Blogging? Plus Chanbara content!

The OSR blogosphere lost a lot of energy five years ago or so, when most people migrated to G+. To be honest, the G+ system, while better than Facebook, was something I found lacking. Yes, you could more easily have a discussion about your gaming ideas. But it was so hard to search through the hundreds of posts every day to find stuff. Blogs are convenient in that what you want to read will be there where you look for it.

Now, most people are moving to different social media platforms. I'm on MeWe now (and keep calling it WeMe because the name is lame) but not sure I like the setup. It's like a cross between a Facebook Group and a KakaoTalk (the must-have app for chatting in Korea) group chat.

And since there are so many people posting on it, and I'm getting notifications of how much I'm missing by not being on it 24 hours a day, I'm not sure if I'll stick around there much. It's good to keep in touch with people I've come to consider friends through blogs and G+, but I envision myself posting even less often to MeWe than I did to G+.

So, will I move back here and start posting more often? We'll see. I'd like to. It's just that I have a LOT less free time than I did back in 2010, the height of this blog's output. But hopefully I can get some more quality posts up.

This one is obviously a navel-gazing post, so I'll spice it up a bit. People don't seem to talk about the JOESKY TAX anymore, but here's some gaming content for you:

Three Chanbara Lieges

 Lord Isenoumi

Want: The family lineage scrolls of the Isenoumi and his six vassal families, which were stolen by a lone wolf ninja named Ichikawa Goemon.

Need: To prove he his honorable to the Miyasuzu Shrine after its protective bell was stolen by monsters.

Secret: Has secret inside knowledge about the curse of Ghost Castle Hasegawa.

Description: Isenoumi Hatsumi, Daimyo of Enzan Province. Medium-size clan with six vassal families [Hasegawa, Ito, Oikari, Tosanoumi, Tanikaze and Enokido]. Principles – honorable yet ambitious, willing to buck tradition if they see some advantage in it. Long Term Goal – to see their heir, Tatsusuke, married to a high-ranking member of the Tokitsukaze Clan. Short Term Goals – to thwart the rise of the Kasugano Clan, to stamp out a rebellion by ikko-ikki religious fanatics, to reopen the Tama silver mine which was overrun by monsters a generation ago. Opposition – the Kasugano Clan threatens their borders, several vassal family magical heirlooms have gone missing, incursions from the Spirit Realm are increasing in Enzan Province.

Rewards Table:
500 mon: Command of 2d6 footmen
2,000 mon: A sizable stipend (100 mon/month)
5,000 mon: A magic weapon or armor
10,000 mon: A minor position of authority
25,000 mon: Command of an outpost or garrison
50,000 mon: A large grant of land
100,000 mon: A major position of authority

Azuma Shinobi

Want: To serve honorable lords and prevent corruption and decadence by the powerful.

Need: Funds to defeat the villainous Lord Takanohana

Secret: Has been cursed by the Kappa Queen to live forever but continue aging physically.

Description: Led by Master Jin, who is now 230 years old and very decrepit, although still mentally sharp. Their organization is based in ??? Province, but they have operatives all throughout the Jade Islands. The local contact Chunin for the PCs is known only as Yuukichi.

Rewards Table:

50 mon: Access to special equipment
300 mon: 1d4 specialist retainers
Completion of a Mission: A job-enhancing magic item
8,000 mon and Completion of 3 missions: Promotion to Chunin
12,500 mon: Named an instructor
15,000 mon: Command of 3d8 Genin
50,000 mon and Completion of 6 missions: Promotion to Jonin

Kawabe Jinja, Head Priest Miyazaki Shingo

Want: To impress the other local shrine priests with the glory of this shrine.

Need: To gain influence over the Miyazaki clan elder, Sugako, who opposes plans to renovate the shrine (her plans involve setting up a monopoly over the dried seaweed merchants).

Secret: Has influence over Lord Isenoumi for several deeds done in the past to aid the lord and his mother.

Description: The largest shrine in Enzan province, dedicated to the Kami of the River. The shrine employs six priests in addition to Miyazaki Shingo, and over thirty shrine maidens to assist them. The populace always visit the shrine at year's end to get new good luck charms, and at to sacrifice offerings to the River Kami at planting and harvest time.

Rewards Chart:
100 mon: Free travel papers
1000 mon: Access to a spell book
2000 mon and one mission: A minor holy relic
Thwarting Sugako's plans: Assistance on a quest
5,000 mon: Appointed proctor of the inner sanctum
25,000 mon and 3 missions: A major holy relic
100,000 mon: Named Head Priest(ess) in waiting

Sunday, September 30, 2018

More Paper Minis!

I've just completed another set of paper minis, available from my Hidden Treasure Books storefront on DriveThruRPG.


This set is Expert Monsters Set 2, covering all the creatures from the Mentzer Expert Set that weren't covered in Set 1.

For a refresher, Set 1 contains all the creatures from Animal Herd to Griffon. Set 2 contains all the creatures from Hellhound to Wyvern. This is the bigger set, 24 pages plus cover, mostly because the "Men" entry in the book contains so many types of men, with varying armaments. And I've got figures to cover them, including leader types. Also, most leader types get a male/female version to be more inclusive.

$3 per set, so for $6 you can get all your Mentzer Expert monster love going!

As usual, each image on a page is on its own layer, so you can turn off images you don't need to print. And unlike my Basic Monsters sets (which I'm thinking of revising to match the Expert style), there are multiple copies of most of the creatures that would be encountered in groups. This will save paper if you need to print a bunch of one type of creature.

If you're a BX fan (or a fan of a retro-clone of BX), there are a few monsters in the Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert that aren't in BECMI. I've got the list, and will be starting in on those monsters soon. Plus, I'm going to cover the Isle of Dread creatures as well. Because more dinosaurs is always better!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Broom Closet, Wine Cellar, Baths

Broom Closet, Wine Cellar, Baths

Being a continuation of the journal of the stalwart Green Knight of the Eldeen Reaches, Sir Jack Summerisle, and companions various and sundry, as they explore the hidden world of Pellucidar deep inside the world of Eberron and seek to awaken The Spirit of the Mountain Above so that it may rid itself of the infestation of the Ghoul Kingdom within it.

[Editor’s Note: Several pages of Summerisle’s Journal are mostly illegible. There seem to be references to urination on faces of petrified sleeping giants, battles with demonic apes on spiked cliffs, a hunt for a serpent of some sort, travel by polymorphed ‘something’, finding a lost city, and other hints of adventure. It seems as if portions of the adventure have been lost to posterity, unless another of Summerisle’s companions also kept a record of their quest.]

We huddled in the broom closet of the giant’s animated walking house as it marched its steady path to the Temple we sought were we could awaken the Spirit of the Mountain. As we tried to get some rest to recover our energies, we were discovered by one of the animated wooden caretakers of the mansion. It mistook us for kitchen pests, and sprayed us with some poisoned substance and swatted at us with a broom. We tumbled out of the closet and set to destroying the creature, as a few of our companions succumbed to the poison. Luckily, the caretaker was easy to defeat, and Yuv and I were able to revive our companions.

We relocated to the wine cellar, having found a set of keys on the caretaker. In the wine cellar, several of our companions sampled the ancient giants’ wine. I did not, and I am glad for it turned out to be a mistake. The companions who imbibed fell into a deep slumber and had strange dreams of the house. Later those dreams turned out to be of benefit. And luckily, this time our rest was undisturbed.

Now that we were in better shape, we discussed our options. Rhea the Witch had been turned to stone by a trap, and the prophetic dreams hinted at ways that she could be restored. While I dislike her interest in and meddling with the Far Realm (home of my sect’s greatest enemies of yore), she does have her uses and I still hope to one day convince her of the power of the Greensong which is greater than any twisted horror of the Far Realm. For that reason, I agreed to help with the plan to restore the witch to fleshly form.

It turns out, conversing with the walking mansion itself was the key to solving our mystery. The house told us of a “steam bath” that had magical rejuvenating properties. Using a locate objects spell, we then searched the house and eventually found the bath chamber. In it were two strange tapestries, the figures within them were following our movements with their eyes. I detected fiendish presences within the tapestries.

Just as we were attempting to remove the statue of the witch from the bag of holding (how they got it in the bag in the first place is a mystery to me), the figures in the tapestries came to life and attacked. One tapestry showed a noble’s hunting party, the other three men fishing. The noble on his horse emerged along with a demonic hunting hawk. Iggy, the stone elemental creature, tore that tapestry and prevented another hawk and one minion from emerging. The other two minions had spells and a crossbow, and sent them out of the tapestry at us. And the three fishermen sent out their hooks and lines at us, trying to drag us in.

Luck was on our side, though. The demon spell-caster’s fear spell only affected Iggy. The demons seemed to dislike Flagan the halfling pugilist, but he is quick on his feet and good at dodging blows. I had the foresight to chant a bit of the Greensong which wards one from harm just as the fight started, and Yuv was able to effect a banishment spell upon the leader, returning it to its home in the nether realms. When the next demon, with four arms and an equal number of slashing blades, emerged from the tapestry, it was unable to strike me due to the warding power of the Greensong. With help from my allies, we slew it. Also, Feldspar the Bard, a gnome if I haven’t mentioned him before, managed to remove the fear from Iggy, who returned to the battle. However, the fishermen managed to snare Flagan and were drawing him near the tapestry. The spellcaster demon also was tormenting us with fire and ice magic. A combination of spells, weapons, and my ability to Turn the Unfaithful, sent the demons running back to hell. We burnt the tapestries.

With no more challenges, we inserted the petrified remains of Rhea into the steam bath contraption and Feldspar was able to operate it with help from our more mystically inclined companions. And Rhea emerged looking not only alive but freshly cleaned. 


Been a long time since I did an actual play report like this. I've been playing Summerisle, and a few times my alternate PC the githzerai eldritch knight Ryuden Kenjumon, and missing quite a few sessions also for real world reasons. 

If I can dredge up the memories of the unrecounted sessions, I will fill in the missing pages of Summerisle's journal (and maybe a strange Ryuden journal or two!). Hey, they're good for XP in the game...

Monday, September 10, 2018

Core Mechanics

Back in 2000, when 3E was shiny and new, there was much discussion of its use of a "core mechanic" of roll a d20+modifiers versus a DC. There's been discussion of it ever since. Maybe there was discussion of it before, but I don't remember it.

Playing a lot of 5E these days, and it's obvious that to the design folks at WotC, they think die rolling is the most important part of a D&D session. Hence the focus on rolling a d20 as a "core mechanic." And yes, I am continuing to use the scare quotes for a reason. It's because WotC completely failed to understand the true core mechanic of not only D&D but of any RPG.

A few weeks ago, discussing things with some 5E people (players, not the design team), I got the distinct impression that many of them were younger and less experienced in RPGs in general than I am. Not that I'm that old. I'll be turning 45 in a few months, and I'm from the third wave of D&D players who started with the Mentzer box sets. I offered the idea that dice are there to be rolled when everything else breaks down, and gave a link to Erick Wujcik's post on The Forge about diceless roleplay. It was one of the key pieces of writing about RPGs that helped me transition out of 3.5/d20 into the OSR (much more so than any of the GNS garbage). I hope I opened a few eyes, but their reaction was hard to gauge. The topic shifted away quickly. Maybe the revelation made them lose some Sanity points! (I keed! I keed!)

Recently, reading Jon Peterson's Playing at the World - more accurately, back to reading it, I'd gotten halfway in and then found myself too busy to continue until this week - he has a section where he talks about the real core mechanic of role playing games.

And that core mechanic is dialogue.

It's one of those things I've intuitively understood from the beginning. And it's where the real fun of role playing is. Sure, there can be die rolls that are high stakes and provide a cathartic reaction when they succeed or fail. Even lower stakes die rolls can have players excited. But the real meat and potatoes is the rhythm of "description, response/question, answer/action, reaction" that comes from dialogue at the table. All of the die rolling is meaningless without it.

So let your game design freak flag fly. Add in subsystems and minigames and weird % Thief skills and weapon vs armor tables (OK, maybe that's a step too far) that don't all rely on a standard mode of resolution. Design games that don't rely only on probabilities with increments of 5%, or a pool of d6's, or whatever.

The dice mechanics are there for when the core mechanic breaks down or isn't enough, as support systems.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Dungeon Board Game as Dungeon

I'm sure this has been done by others over the years, but I decided today that I'm going to use the board game Dungeon (by TSR) map as a dungeon and stick it somewhere in my West Marches campaign.

It might be a good choice for my "8-Bit Realm" where I'll have everyone make versions of their PCs using Retro Phaze (the OSR/classic CRPG mashup game). Should be fun!

I think I've got a file somewhere listing the creature and treasure cards from Dungeon. I unfortunately don't have a copy of the game. But with the list I can make the Retro Phaze (or just normal 5E D&D if I don't use this for the 8-Bit Realm) encounter tables and random loot tables.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Paper Minis Expert Monsters Set 1 for sale

You may remember (and a few of you purchased - Thank You!) my fold-up paper minis based on the monsters from the Basic Set D&D. They're still for sale over at my DriveThruRPG page, Hidden Treasure Books.

And now, the first of three sets covering monsters from the Expert Set is up for sale!

Direct Link right here!

It's got all the monsters from the Mentzer Expert Set from Animal Herd to Griffon.

If you purchased my Basic Monsters sets, you may have been less than satisfied that there was only one image of each monster. I've reformatted this set, so there are multiple monsters of creatures you might encounter in groups, like the giants, herd animals, blink dogs, etc. Creatures that are normally encountered solo, like elementals, devil swine, and golems just get one picture each (but I have different sized elementals for each summoning method).

$5 for 20 pages full of Expert Monsters, in full color. Not bad, I think.

Set 2 should be coming out in a few months. Need to finish the images for each monster. Layout shouldn't take too long once the images are ready.

Set 3 will cover the 20 or so monsters in the Cook Expert Set that aren't in BECMI, and if I get ambitious also the Isle of Dread monsters. Who doesn't love more dinosaurs?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Game Mechanics: 'card' based advancement

A little while ago, there was talk (centered on Jeff's Gameblog and started by Zak I believe during G+ discussion, or maybe over at his blog...I stumbled across it from Jeff's blog anyway) about random advancement tables for D&D and similar games. The idea is to break the monotony of all characters of the same class having the same abilities, but avoid the rules onanism of full customization.

I wasn't thinking of that at first, but my line of thinking this morning brought me to it. So I'd better start at the beginning.

A few days ago, my son wanted me to download a game all his friends are playing on their phones (I use Android, my wife iPhone, and my son has my wife's old iPhone). It's a tank battle game. When he described it, it reminded me of my college days playing Scorched Earth.
Scorched Earth image via Wikipedia
The basics of this new tank game are the same. Choose your projectile. Set the cannon angle. Set the power level of the shot. Fire at the enemy.

Where it differs in that each tank starts out with six different types of projectile and you cycle through them. Once you've fired one of each your arsenal refreshes. In Scorched Earth, you earned money and could purchase whatever you liked. Also different is that when you win a match, you get a loot crate with random contents: gold, gems, or cards. The cards are for the tank itself or for the various projectiles/weapons. If you earn enough cards of one type, you can spend gold to level up that tank or weapon system.

Last year, my son had me hooked on Clash Royale. Similarly, it uses a 'card' system. Every victory gets you a loot crate with random cards and some cash. You unlock new monsters and spells by finding a card in a crate. You power up monsters and spells by collecting enough cards then spending money for the level up.

So, it got me thinking about RPGs. Would a "card" system work for character advancement in an RPG? I don't mean that the DM should be handing out actual cards (although you could), but there could be a random table to roll on at the end of every session to award points to different abilities or aspects of a character.

Zak, Jeff, & Co.'s system (linked above) is just roll randomly every time you level up. Systems like Gamma World (original and maybe 2nd edition too?) had something like this.

Where a "card" system is different is that the player still has some control over how they level up. So every adventure (or session, or boss monster slain, or any time a treasure hoard is discovered, or at "milestones"...when the fuck ever you want to give them out, DM-sama) the players get a random roll to see what abilities gain points. These of course should include hit points, attack probabilities, saving throws, defenses, and skills. They can also cover spells, fighting maneuvers, thief skills, etc.

Get a new "card" and you get a new ability. Thought you were a Fighter? Congratulations, you're now a Fighter who can cast Invisibility.

Get enough points (or cards) in Invisibility, and you can...if you choose to do so...spend money/time training to improve that ability. You also need to spend those cards. If you had more than the threshold amount, you have a few cards left over, it doesn't reset to 0.

Now, for the system, things could get a little complex. Some things like HP and attack bonuses may scale near indefinitely, while other things should be capped. How many points should each ability need to advance? How much gold/time should it require to level up? Yeah, making this system would be potentially a lot of work. But it might not be that bad. Keeping with the Invisibility example, you might get:

Pre-Invisibility (1st card): like an Elven Cloak, it's not really invisible, you just hide so well no one can see you unless you roll a 1 on 1d10.
Invisibility (5 cards, 100gp): like the 1st level spell. You're invisible until you attack once.
Invisibility II (10 cards, 500gp): like the 1st level spell, but if you save vs spells when attacking, you remain invisible until you attack again.
Invisibility III (15 cards, 1000gp): you and 1d4 allies gain Invisibility I.
Invisibility IV (25 cards, 2500gp): all allies within 10' gain Invisibility I, you gain Invisibility II.
Invisibility V (50 cards, 10,000gp): improved invisibility, you don't lose it until you decide to become visible or it's dispelled

Benefit? Balance between purely random advancement and customization. Don't want a power but you've got the cards for it? Don't spend time/money to level it up.

Drawback? It's a lot of work to bolt something like this onto an existing system. It might be best to build a new game from scratch designed around this. Could be good for a Supers game actually...

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mako Miyasuzu, Sohei

My friend Alex of the Busan Gamers, now living Stateside, got in on my online Chanbara playtest game. He created a female Bushi/Sohei named Mako Miyasuzu. She's the next character I want to highlight from Chanbara because there ended up being a lot of emergent world-building from his character creation that I added into the campaign, and it allowed me to tie together several different types of PC that otherwise might not have had any story-relevant reasons for adventuring together.

First of all, here's Mako's description in Alex's own words:
Mako Miyasuzu is the last remaining member of the Miyasuzu family of the noble Akugiri clan. Seven years ago, on the fall equinox, the day that the walls between the worlds of the oni and akuma are closest to the world of man, the day that every family responsible for a Shrine of the Silver Bell must perform the ceremony to keep the walls strong for another year, Mako lost her family.

Mako does not know exactly what happened. She heard screams of warning, and her grandfather bundled her up and hid her under the floorboards. From her hiding place, she saw figures, perhaps humans in black, perhaps oni or akuma for some seemed to be wreathed in fire, others in unnatural blackness. Mako hates herself for cowering, listening to the beasts slaughter her family, the screams of her sister, the defiant cursing of my grandfather, the splintering crash as the bell her family was pledged to tend and defend was stolen.

For weeks Mako stayed at the shrine, trying to rebuild it, training herself in the manner her family had, torn between rage and sadness. Eventually, she was found by some pilgrims who took her to her great uncle, Lord Suzaku Akugiri. Mako was raised in the military manner of the Akugiri, but never forsook or forgot the pledge she made to herself every minute of every day she stood on that mountain in the ruins of her family's shrine. She would find whoever murdered her family. She would return the bell to the shrine. She would deliver the curses of her grandfather, to drive home into the bellies of those beasts the swords of her father and mother.
 Mako's stats are a bit out of date - a few things were modified in the final published book, but here's her character sheet:

Name:Mako Miyasuzu
Class: Bushi (Warrior)
Profile: Sohei (Warrior Monk)
Background: Buke (Warrior-Aristocracy)

Allegiances: Azuma Shinobi, Akugiri Clan, The Order of the Silver Bell

Ability Scores
Str 14 (+1)
Int 10
Wis 17 (+2)
Dex 17 (+2)
Con 11
Cha 9

AC: 17
TD: 17
HP: 10   Current: 10
Attack Bonus: +2
Encumbrance: 11 allowed Current Total: 5.75

Bonus Dice: 5   Type: combat

Background Skills

Art (High)
Craft (Weaponry)

WP: Basic, Samurai, Classical
Armor: All

Class Abilities

Frenzied Attack – By spending a combat die, the sohei may make 
additional attacks equal to the result of the combat die, but 
all attacks that round take a penalty to hit equal to the combat 
die result instead of a bonus. They gain no bonus or penalty to 

Spells Per Day: / / / /






Money and Treasure - bag of coins - 1EU
Zeni: 10
Mon: 53
Trade Bars:


Wakizashi - .25EU - d6+1 - +1 to hit
Katana - .5EU - 2d4/d10+1 - +1 to hit
Long Bow - 1EU - d8 - rate: 2 - S: 70 (+2 to hit), M: 140, L: 210 (-3 to hit)
arrows (40) - 1 EU

Backpack - 2EU
Contents: Clothes(1 set plain, 1 set fine), flint and steel, flute, tent,
weaponry tool set, silk rope-50', wineskin, preserved food (10), torch (5)

Her allegiances developed through conversation between Alex and myself. He came up with the background above in a more skeletal form. I added in a few details to tie it to my Enzan Province setting. I had pulled some (very derivative in most cases) organizations from a setting I developed back in the 3E OA days (which I ran with my old Yamanashi Group). One of them was the Azuma Shinobi, based on the 'good guy' ninja from the Tenchu video games.

I'd listed some of these organizations as ideas for the players. They could join one if they liked, and help me flesh it out more, or create their own using the ideas for inspiration. Alex and two other players liked the description of Azuma Shinobi, and we negotiated how his demon-hunting shrine protectress could also be part of a ninja clan. We must have emailed or Skyped the details, because they're not on the RPOL game and I don't remember exactly how we discussed it working out that way, but it made sense at the time.The mission the Azuma gave Mako at the start was to serve as bodyguard to the two dedicated Shinobi characters.

Since two other characters were tied to the biggest local shrine (the Mahotsukai/soryo daughter of the shrine-keeper, and the Mahotsukai/onmyoji protege of the shrine-keeper's old friend), we worked Mako's quest to retrieve the family's Silver Bell as an angle to tie her in as well. The shrine-keeper had some limited information about the bell, and was helping Mako piece together clues to its whereabouts. (Conveniently, the clues led to the adventure location...)

The shrine-keeper's daughter (I'll post her eventually) and another of the Azuma Shinobi characters both also had allegiance to the daimyo, so I was able to bring in a third set of characters. In that way, I brought them all together despite varied allegiances and varied purposes into a party that was prepared to explore the Ghost Castle Hasegawa.

While we never ended up completing Ghost Castle Hasegawa before my dissertation killed the game, I did work up plans for the next adventure to be about hunting down the oni/akuma who stole the bell. Alas, it never got past the idea stage. 

Fun fact: Alex had Mako only speak in haiku form. He'd told me he would do that, but not any of the other players. The first time he introduced himself, several other players also decided to answer his poetry with their own. It was a lot of fun for me to read the threads they were creating.

If reading about this character made you think "That sounds like fun!" then check out Chanbara. You can make your own crazy poetry-spouting ninja/warrior monk, or a drunken calligraphy-obsessed samurai, or a hermit master of the war-fan (always underestimated in combat until the war-fan clocks you upside the head), or a scholarly spy who uses brains and guile to infiltrate enemy camps, or hundreds...probably thousands...of other character types.

Chanbara is for sale in pdf for $10, print (softcover, full color) for $20, or print/pdf combo also for $20. Exclusively through

Friday, May 18, 2018

Jokichi the Vagabond - Chanbara Character Profiles

I've been thinking of interesting ways to promote Chanbara besides just spamming everyone's G+/Facebook feeds with links to the game. No one wants that, and I don't like doing it. So, I'm going to post some of the characters that appeared in the play testing of the game over the next few weeks. Hopefully, seeing the interesting characters that people played in the games I ran will drum up some interest in the game.

First up is Jokichi the Vagabond. Jokichi was played by Justin, who ran the awesome Vaults of Ur campaign that I posted about many years ago (I played Thidrek the Sleestak). In my first round of playtests, Justin came up with a great character so I want to highlight him first.

Jokichi the Vagabond
Class: Bushi/Abarenbo level 1
Social Status: Eta
Allegiances: (undefined)*

Str 15 (+1)
Int 12 (+0)
Wis 11 (+0)
Dex 14 (+1)
Con 13 (+1)
Cha 9 (+0)

AC 14  HP 11
TD 14  BAB +2
PD 12  SP 22
Combat Dice: 4 (d6)
Encumbrance: 1.5/11
Speed: 120(40)

Saving Throws
Wood 12
Water 13
Metal 14
Fire 15
Earth 16

Background Skills: High Sport, Low Sport, Rural Craft, Crime

Special Abilities:
Show of Strength: Spend 1 combat die to increase Str score to 18 (+3) for 10 minutes

Katana (hit +3, damage 2d4+1/1d10+1)
Partial Light Armor (AC +2)

As you can see, Jokichi was of Eta social status which Justin was happy to play up, and didn't get upset when NPCs treated him like garbage. Due to a lucky roll, though, the daimyo's niece was fond of him and there were hints of a "doomed romance" plot started that never got off the ground because Justin wasn't able to play the entire playtest campaign. Too bad, it seemed like it would have been a lot of fun.

Possibly because of the poor treatment he had at the hands of his employers, when the party went after a group of pirates, Jokichi tried to sign up. None of the players were sure if Justin was just doing it as a ruse or if he really intended for Jokichi to become a pirate. As GM, I was willing to let the campaign become one of nautical plunder if the players wanted to. In the end, though, the players managed to defeat the pirates (with Jokichi's eventual help), and continued on to serve their daimyo.

Since Justin couldn't continue playing, we decided that the authorities put the blame for the mission's blunders (they stopped the pirate leaders, but the ship and its cargo got away) on Jokichi's head, and he was confined to quarters. That way, if Justin had returned, we could roll out Jokichi again by saying he'd served his term of punishment.

He was a trouble maker of the first order, and the early playtest games were really lively because of the chaos Jokichi brought to the staid lives of the more honorable characters.

*Since I was trying to playtest the exploration, combat, and magic rules in the live game, I didn't worry about allegiances. In my play-by-post game, I did, and I'll provide some of those characters and their allegiances in future posts.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Element 6: Negotiable Consequences

If you haven't been keeping track, I've been analyzing an academic presentation at a conference on Game Studies by the Danish researcher Jesper Juul, presented in 2003. I had to take a little break in the series due to some real life issues (family issues, midterms, Avengers: Infinity War...). This post discusses the final element Juul uses to define what is and isn't a game, and I give a few thoughts on his definition of what a game is.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Element 6: Negotiable Consequences

Juul's final element gets a fairly long section in his paper, possibly because it is the fuzziest criterion for defining games. Basically, what he's trying to say is that games, as most people conceive of them, do not have serious, lasting consequences...but sometimes, they really do. Several of the sources Juul used to synthesize his definition of games listed something along the lines of being for fun or having no influence on the world at large. And really, when we think of games, we think of them as a form of pastime or entertainment. Games should be fun, right? We play them for fun. It makes intuitive sense.

Yet, we look at the real world, and we seem plenty of 'games' being played WITH actual consequences (financial, physical or mental health, relationship, etc.). We can gamble on nearly any kind of game, and it has serious financial consequences if the stakes are high enough. Professional games are played. Games can be addictive and damage our physical and/or mental health if we overindulge. What seems like a harmless family game may cause long-term relationship damage. How do we square this actual observational data with the ideal of games being 'just for fun'?

As I mentioned before, Juul posits a cline or spectrum upon which instances of game play can be placed from no consequences to however serious they may be (some sports have deadly consequences from time to time, and most professional sports have high stakes financial consequences).

I can play soccer with my sons. There is no money on the line. Ronaldo plays soccer and makes big bucks. Is Ronaldo not playing a game because he is making money from it? Caillois, one of Juul's sources (yes, I need to read this, I'll get to it) says Ronaldo is NOT in fact playing a game because he is working. But I think most of us would still consider a pro soccer match to be a game. It is identical to that game my sons and I play in the park rules-wise (well, we may bend them since my younger is only 3). Both have variable and quantifiable outcomes. Players are attached to the outcomes in both, and both valorize winning as opposed to losing. Both require effort by the players. Both fit all five previous elements of the definition. It is only in this last that they diverge. And in order to solve the question of divergence of consequences, Juul posits that the game exists independent of the consequences. A game on its own has no serious real world consequences. People may, though, decide to give a game consequences prior to play (negotiating).

In other words, this is not so much a defining element of games as it is a refutation of Caillois and others who claim that games are ONLY leisure activities void of consequence in a real-world sense.

As such, I think it makes sense to have it as part of the definition - because the question of "Are pro gamers still playing games?" is of academic interest. But it has little useful function in defining what is and isn't a game 99% of the time.

In this section, and later when he talks about the chart of games/borderline games/non-games, he mentions several activities that seem to meet the previous five criteria but HAVE serious consequences in real life. The stock market is one. Traffic and war are also given as examples. The stock market is interactive, has set rules, has variable quantifiable outcomes, involves 'player' effort, valorizes some outcomes and not others, and 'players' are most definitely invested in the outcome (pun intended). Yet trading shares of stock is NOT a game. It could be made into a game, but it isn't. Because the default way to 'play' the stock market (and we do use that verb with it, don't we?) demands real financial consequences of play.

Similarly, we have traffic laws. You won't always get to your destination (you could crash, or get lost, or run out of fuel) so it has variable quantifiable outcomes, and drivers and passengers are definitely invested in arriving at their destination. It takes effort to drive a vehicle. Again, is driving a game? Juul says no, because again the consequences of crashing your vehicle are always potentially deadly.

So, Juul needs to address professional sports again in the realm of safety now, and he does. Some sports carry the risk of injury or even death, even if played just for fun. And professional sports have, over the years, continued to evolve their rules and safety precautions in order to minimize injury and death from the sport. We don't have Roman style gladiator contests anymore, we have things like Sasuke and pro-wrestling which minimize injury and death. We make sure the cars used in auto races are as safe as can reasonably be expected. We are constantly seeing advances in sports gear to protect players from injury in a wide range of sports. The ideal is that games should be consequence free, but in reality they often do have serious consequences...but players know this going in and agree to accept the consequences of play.

Gambling, again, is another example of negotiating consequences. I used to play poker with my siblings as a kid. We never wagered any money, though, it was just for fun (and bragging rights). But walk into a casino. In that location, you can't play any sort of poker, craps, roulette, or other games of chance without wagering money on them. The gambling in a casino has mandatory consequences, but it is a choice on the part of the player to engage in it or not. The activities can be and are sometimes played without consequences just for fun.

Finally, Juul notes that there are some non-negotiable consequences of play, and they are often not consciously considered. Games take time to play. The valorization/attachment to outcomes require mental and emotional investment in the game, and can cause hurt. He again mentions sore losers as people who violate the social contract because of their reaction to these unavoidable consequences.

That's a lot of words by me (for a lot of words by Juul), but it can be boiled down to this: games are activities that can be played without any real world consequences other than the time and effort needed to engage in the activity, and the fact that they sometimes have more serious consequences attached to them does not invalidate the activities as games (although people are free to exclude the instances of game play which involve consequences if they like).


To wrap up the series, I want to re-iterate that this has been mostly a thought exercise for me. I looked at how Juul defines games, and what I see as a missing implication (that most of the elements in the definition are not binaries, but rather sliding scales).

Commenter Mr. T suggested that trying to define games is a pointless task, as no definition will be satisfactory. I think he's right that no definition will ever be satisfactory. But then my academic field, language education/applied linguistics, also has terms that people can't agree on how to define. Yet people DO propose definitions, and other researchers use those definitions (or modify them) in their own work to use as a common baseline for other academics to understand the position of the writer, and to test the ideas presented. The important thing is to spell out your definitions openly so people know where you're coming from.

If I write a paper using a Connectivist Model of Learning, it's fair to critique it using Connectivist definitions. It may be useful for someone else to use a Behaviorist Model and discuss how that would possibly interpret the data and conclusions I present differently, but it's not actually saying I'm wrong because it's using a completely different conceptual framework. It's just saying their framework is different from mine. Any real critique of my work needs to be done first from within the conceptual framework I've chosen, and once the flaws are pointed out in that conceptual framework, THEN another framework can be argued to better explain the data.

Juul's definition of games is a decent conceptual framework to base further ponderings of RPGs and what makes them games but somehow different from other games. Other conceptual frameworks surely work well, too. I'm not opposed to taking what I've written here (or will write in the future) and examining it from another conceptual framework. But academics need to spell out what conceptual frameworks they're working with, so the idea that games "can't adequately be defined" is really not helpful. They can be defined, and while no definition is perfect, the definition can be good enough to work with going forward. I think Juul's definition is definitely in that category.

In the future (I've been reading more on game design theory, as well as Games Theory which both is and isn't related to games), I'm going to be looking at RPGs and design using this model of what a game is, and probably also evaluating them from a few other models or definitions as well.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Chanbara: Additional Content!

Stefan, who playtested, edited and was there for me to toss ideas around with when making Chanbara, is more into anime than I am. I don't hate it, just never really delved deeply into the waters that are Japanese animation. When he was playtesting the rules, he made a few mods to bring his game more in line with anime (while mine was Lafcadio Hearn stories directed by Kurosawa Akira).

Now, he's developing an alternate spellcaster class for the game -- the Ganshu -- based on the 3E/4E/5E Warlock model. I think it may need a bit of playtesting for balance, and so far he's only got one profile up: the Miko (shrine maiden). The other profiles he's working on are the Tsukimono-mochi, which has a very creepy pact with yokai vibe, and Shotokandoka, which is straight out of Street Fighter II or other 90's fighting games.

And if you don't have Chanbara yet and have no idea what I'm talking about, you can check it out here! Only $10 for the pdf, $20 for print or print/pdf bundle.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Other OSR

Part of my readings on game design have got me thinking about other old school games besides D&D that could be used for designing old school games. Yes, this topic has been around in the OSR for pretty much as long as the OSR has been around. And D&D is the biggest name in table top roleplaying. Yet it's still interesting to revisit the topic from time to time (at least for me).

The actual impetus for this blog post was a bit of inspiration I had just yesterday. A while back, JB of BX Blackrazor asked me why Chanbara was a Japanese-themed game when I live in Korea. Of course, the answer is that I lived in Japan for 10 long years (I've lived in Korea for a little over 10 years now, so I've been here longer) before I lived in Korea, and speak the language better, so I have a better grasp of Japanese fantasy. (By the way, I should probably be plugging Chanbara can get it in PDF for $10, print or print/pdf combo for $20, right here!)

The fact is, I wasn't really sure what a Korean OSR game should be about. And not in the indie game sense of "about" but in the Kevin Crawford sense of "what are the verbs?" (A.K.A. what do the players do in the game?). Because honestly, with a bit of palette swapping, either Flying Swordsmen or Chanbara would work well for a Korean-themed dungeon crawl/hex crawl D&D style game. The weapons are similar. The magic system is similar. The themes in the source literature are similar.

If I really want to get a game that's somehow essentially Korean, what the game is about needs to be a bit different. And then my eureka moment started to hit me two days ago and finalized yesterday. We had gone up to Seoul to take care of some business at the U.S. embassy. We brought the boys and stayed the night, and did a bit of sightseeing. One place we went was the Korean Folklore Museum. At a display of civil and military officials' garb and gear, the idea started fermenting. On the KTX back to Busan yesterday, the idea hit me in full. And it's related to ideas that have been in my head for a while now about using other games besides TSR era D&D as a basis of old school design.

Still with me? I hope so. I think my thought process leading up to this is important to the design. Anyway, I realized that a game where civil officials are an important part of the game shouldn't be one where the primary goal is killing monsters and taking their stuff. The game should be about (and XP awarded for) solving a variety of social/economic/military problems [which, from time to time, may include supernatural/monster problems]. People are going to be the main adversaries, and combat should not be a prioritized means of solving conflicts in the game. Basically, a class/level system like D&D, with XP awarded for combat and treasure acquisition, doesn't cut it.

But a system like Star Frontiers, which is classless and skill-based, with an XP system based on how well missions are accomplished rather than the exact amount of foes defeated/wealth gained is perfect for this.
If you've never played it, Star Frontiers is a d% based game. Characters get eight stats (arranged in four related pairs) that can range from 1 to 100, and that's your percent chance to accomplish something based purely off of those stats. That includes saving throws, which get keyed either to your Stamina (which are also hit points...and saves are usually at current STA rather than total, so it's harder to stave off poison or disease or knock-out gas if you're wounded) or Reaction Speed (it's all in the reflexes). In addition to ability checks, there is a skill system where you either get a set base percent chance plus 10% per level in the skill, sometimes lowered by 10% of the level of the opposition, or 1/2 a related ability score plus 10% per level of the skill (again, sometimes minus other factors).

Each skill is actually a group of related subskills, each with their own different base percentage of success. So a PC with Computers has a chance to bypass a computer's security. The base chance is 30% +10% per skill level -10% per computer level. So with Computers level 1, bypassing a level 1 computer has a 30% chance, and a level 2 computer is only a 20% chance. At skill level 6 (the maximum), the PC has an 80% chance to bypass a level 1 computer's security, and so on.

For combat, melee is 1/2 of Strength +10% per level of Melee weapons. For ranged combat, the skills were divided into type (beam weapons, projectile weapons, etc.) and the chance to hit was 1/2 of Dexterity +10% per level of the appropriate ranged weapon type. Armor absorbs damage rather than reducing chances to hit.

XP awards are small (1 to 5 per session, usually) and XP was spent to increase skill levels and to raise ability scores (and some of the alien races had % based racial abilities that could also be improved by spending XP).

Pretty simple base system, right?

So for my potential future Korean fantasy OSR game, I shouldn't try to do yet another version of medieval Asian D&D. I should do medieval Asian Star Frontiers. All I need to do is set up the skill system to reflect what Joseon (or Goryeo if we want to go farther back in time, or Silla/Paekchae/Goguryeo/Gaya if we want to go even further still) officials and citizens were doing. Then set a system of XP awards for doing what you should be doing well.

Related to this idea (of using other, non-D&D, games for OSR designs), I'd been thinking recently that for an OSR supers game (yes, I know MARVEL FASERIP is available free online and does it well) that Gamma World would be an interesting base game to use. I'm most familiar with the 4th edition of the game [1992, not the 4E D&D one], but any older edition might work.
Gamma World's mutations are basically a list of superpowers and some super weaknesses. And the artifacts are high tech play-toys. Create a system for Batman/Iron Man/Green Arrow/Black Widow style (pure-strain) humans to roll or purchase high tech items, while altered/mutant/alien characters roll some powers (and maybe get some tech too) and you've got a supers generation system. It just needs a few tweaks to change it from a game about scouring post-apocalypse ruins for artifacts to a game about stopping super-villains.

GW more or less uses a D&D design (except for 3rd edition, which uses does Star Frontiers' Zebulon's guide), but it's got some differences. And I might want to think about FASERIP now that I think about it, as well as WEG's d6 system (the old Star Wars game) which is now open game content.

So, it may be time, for me at least, to take a break from the D&D-based OSR design scheme, and try out a few ideas for other games based on other designs. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Elements 4 and 5: Effort and Attachment

Jesper Juul (2003) gives a definition of games based on six elements or criteria that can be used to define a game. My initial thoughts on Juul's paper can be found here, a discussion of element 1 here, and discussion of elements 2 and 3 here.

Element 4: Player Effort

In order for a game to be a game, players need to put forth some effort. This seems fairly obvious, and Juul doesn't spend much time describing this element, even though it's arguably the most relevant trait (Chris Crawford, whose On Game Design I'm currently reading, lists this as the final definitive difference between games and other types of play such as toys and puzzles, for example). Here's what Juul has to say in its entirety:

Player effort is another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict, or that games are "interactive". It is a part of the rules of most games (expect* games of pure chance) that the players' actions can influence the game state and game outcome. The investment of player effort tends to lead to an attachment of the player to the outcome since the investment of energy into the game makes the player (partly) responsible for the outcome. (p. 7)
*He obviously means except here, emphasis added.

This seems hard to argue against. If games imply challenge. Win or lose. They also imply interactivity, even though there are solitary games. However, this rules out 'games of pure chance' doesn't it? In a game of pure chance: Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, not to mention many kinds of gambling, does the player put in any effort? Is there any challenge in the game? Or is it just luck?

Later, Juul's graphic taxonomy of games, borderline games, and non-games places these games of pure chance in the borderline category. Even though the player's actions do not affect the outcome (aside from cheating), there is an illusion of agency created by Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome. I'm sure we've all been in a situation where we were playing a pure chance game and thought, If I roll the dice just right... and then hoped for that exact number we needed to win (or at least achieve some specific result within the game). And every now and then we're going to roll that number by chance, and our false belief that holding the dice a certain way, or blowing on them before the roll, or tossing them hard or soft actually caused the wanted result to appear. Juul doesn't say any of this, it's just me speculating.

Juul does discuss some activities that fall completely outside of the game definition for violating this element. For one, he lists movies/storytelling as not having a variable outcome (element 2), not requiring player effort (element 4, which we're looking at now), and player attachment to the outcome (element 5, which is discussed below). Now, obviously a movie or story has a set ending. And it doesn't require any effort by the audience other than to devote their time. Nothing the audience does will influence the outcome, it's simply a question of whether you're willing to put in the effort to reach the end of the story or drop it. I'd say many forms of fiction do inspire player attachment to the outcome if it's well crafted. But it's not a requirement. A crappy book or movie still will play out to the end, even if you the audience no longer care about how it ends. But we'll discuss this more below. Fiction, Juul proposes, is NOT a game in any sense. And I would agree, because the outcome is fixed and not dependent on any input from the audience.

Now, looking at RPGs, I'd say that player effort is the whole POINT of the game. We play RPGs because they challenge us. They challenge us with rule mechanics (can we beat the orcs or will they beat us?). They challenge us with puzzles (can we avoid the trap to get to the treasure safely?) and resource management (do we take all the copper coins or leave them because they slow us down?). They challenge us with in-game interpersonal conflict (should we kill the sleeping goblins or just tie them up?). They challenge us with out-of-game interpersonal conflict (do we play without Jim's wizard this week, or put the game off until next week so he can join us?). They challenge us to be creative (how can I make this character interesting and fun for everyone at the table?) and more empathetic (how can my assassin work together with Sarah's paladin?).

Story (Narrativist) games, as opposed to regular fiction, do have a strong element of player effort. The story game tends to give you some guidelines about what the story should be "about" but the story is not there yet. It takes player effort to flesh out the story, and the whole point of those games is to be able to narrate the story your way.

Again, this is my speculation, but it may be that Juul gives RPGs a borderline status despite them not adhering to Element 1: Fixed Rules because of the above. Juul seems to place a heavy emphasis on games having fixed rules which RPGs violate, but because they are exercises in player effort, they pass muster. RPGs crank the dial up to 11 on this one, where games of pure chance dial it down to the minimum effort/decision point of play/don't play.

Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome

This is one element of Juul's definition that I'm not sure is 100% necessary. It basically is just a further elaboration of both Element 3: Valorization of the Outcome and Element 4: Player Effort. And Juul seems to realize this, as he himself states that this is a purely psychological aspect dependent on the player having the correct attitude, and stems from player effort.

And it does make sense. We tend to put value on things for which we put in effort. If we did not, then why expend the effort? And if certain outcomes are preferable to other outcomes (valorization), then it is only natural that we feel attached to achieving one of the positive outcomes rather than a negative one. And for a game of pure chance like Candy Land or craps, the fact that the outcome is valorized and there is a competitive aspect to the game (and in the case of gambling games like craps there is a real world consequence at stake), we get attached to the outcome.

Juul discusses the social contract of games here. He mentions poor sports who either refuse to enjoy victory or feel bad about defeat - which is not really something we can lay at the feet of the game, can we? If a game fails to inspire attachment to the outcome THIS TIME we play, is it not a game? In a way, it may not be, but that's not a useful criterion for deciding what is a game and what isn't.

Personally, if I were to revise this definition, I'd roll the various aspects of this element into #3 and #4. Social contract and player attachment are important, but agreeing to the social contract is a form of effort (#4) while attachment to the outcome is an extension/consequence of valorization of outcomes (#3).

Looking at RPGs, whether traditional or story games, I would say that player attachment is an important aspect of play. But it's not completely necessary to have a good time. I've played in one-shot games before, with pregen characters. And in these kinds of games, players tend to have little attachment to the outcomes of their PCs. Yet they still have fun.

Thinking of games like Call of Cthulhu, or D&D modules like The Tomb of Horrors, though, I would consider them to be an inversion of the valorization of outcomes. In CoC, the ideal outcome may in fact be the death or insanity of your PC. When playing Tomb of Horrors, the idea may be to see in what humorous/grotesque/idiotic way your PC dies. That may be the prized outcome of the game. Looking at the one-shot game through this lens, it may simply be a flipped valorization scenario, in which case players are in fact attached to the outcome of their character - it's just that the outcome they are attached to is the one they normally try to avoid in standard play.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Elements 2 and 3: Outcomes

This is part 3 of my analysis of Jesper Juul's (2003) article The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness The first part is here, the second is here. The original article by Juul is online here (page numbers are from the PDF version).

Juul, as noted previously, outlines six criteria that he holds up as being necessary and sufficient to label an activity as a game (or not). Yet, as I noted when discussing the first one (fixed rules), he mentions several 'borderline' cases, including tabletop RPGs, which still seem to be games, but don't conform to one or more of the elements of his definition. My hypothesis is that each element is a cline or gradient, and the dials can be turned up or down along the axis of each of these elements. In this post, I'm looking at his second and third elements, which are related: Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes and Valorization of Outcomes.

Element 2: Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes

By variable outcome, Juul means two things: first the system of the game must allow for chance and/or skill to affect the result; and second the skill level of the players must be such that the outcome is uncertain.

He doesn't spend much time on the first point, only giving the example of ring-a-ring-a-rosies (or as we called it as kids, ring-around-the-rosie). For young children, this is a fun activity. It has set rules (link hands in a circle, sing the song, move clockwise as you sing, fall down at the end). But it only has one outcome: everyone sits down. So, by this definition, it is not a game.

The second point he goes into more detail. He again uses a game for young children, tic-tac-toe. Anyone who knows the system well and plays against another player who knows the system well will ALWAYS result in a draw. Someone who knows the system (an older child or adult) who plays against someone who doesn't (a young child) will always win or draw, never lose. Only two players who do not yet fully understand the system will have a chance of winning, losing or drawing when they play. Hence, tic-tac-toe is a game, but only when played by young children or others who do not yet fully understand it. Once you learn the system, it ceases to be a game for you and becomes more of a puzzle.

He then mentions several games that have handicap rules to allow players of various skill levels to compete. Without the handicaps in place, those instances of play are unlikely to have variable outcomes. Related to this is the phenomenon of a player purposefully not playing at full potential, such as a parent purposefully allowing their child to win a game in order to build interest and confidence in the activity.

This reminds me of my college days. One of the students in my dorm, Eugene, was a chess master. We'd play from time to time, and of course I knew going in that there was no way I could beat him. I just play chess casually. He competed in and sometimes even won tournaments. Yet, it didn't stop me from playing with him now and then. And there WAS a variable outcome. It just wasn't 'win/lose.' Instead, the variable outcome was to see how many moves I could last before the inevitable defeat.

So, again, I think Juul may be being too strict when he posits an either/or dichotomy in his definition of games. This also leads into the second part of this element is what he terms "quantifiable" outcomes. Just as a game has strict rules, Juul says that "the outcome of a game is designed to be beyond discussion, meaning that the goal of Pac Man is to get many points, rather than to 'move in a pretty way'" (p. 6). In other words, outcomes are objective rather than subjective. To me, this seems fairly non-controversial. Game systems define the 'win conditions' but it's also possible for players to decide on their own 'win conditions.' 

The obvious example of computer games without quantifiable win conditions seems to be Will Wright's games like Sim City and The Sims. There are no intrinsic goals for these games. Nothing within the game will tell you that you've won or lost. But players are able so self-assign goals and try to achieve them or fail to do so. Juul puts them as borderline games because of Element 3 (see below), but several other writers I've been looking at, including the creator Will Wright, see them as toys rather than games because of this trait. 

Element 3: Valorization of the Outcome

Valorization is a fancy term to use, but what Juul simply means is that for an activity to be a game, some outcomes need to be better than others. If all outcomes are equally good, then there is no point to the challenge of the game. In Game Theory (which both is and isn't about games), Zero Sum and Fixed Sum games are set up so that one player can only achieve a positive outcome if the other player achieves a negative outcome (or at least a less positive outcome for Fixed Sum games). In cooperative games, all players work together to either beat the game or fail to beat the game. In RPGs, you can slay the dragon/blow up the space fortress/prevent the Great Old One from rising. Or, you can get roasted to a crisp/get disintegrated by droid ships/go insane and join the cult. In many RPGs and computer games, live or die is a commonly valorized dichotomy of outcomes. 

Again, an open ended simulation like The Sims doesn't valorize outcomes. While it's possible to give yourself goals within the game, there's no pressure to actually achieve them other than personal satisfacton, and no award of any kind when you (inevitably unless you choose to give up) achieve that goal. Juul also notes Conway's Game of Life (the computer microbe simulator) and watching a burning fireplace as systems with rules and variable outcomes but without any positive or negative value assigned to those outcomes.

There is a tendency that the positive outcomes are harder to reach than the negative outcomes - this is what makes a game challenging; a game where it was easier to reach the goal than not to reach it would likely not be played very much. (Juul, 2003, p. 7)
This is an important point. Especially when we're talking RPGs. I'll have a bit more to say about this below.

This element is, in my estimation, an actual dichotomy, rather than a cline. I'm having trouble imagining an activity where the outcomes are all somewhere equally positive or equally negative yet still being able to call such an activity a game. If all outcomes have the same value, then where is the challenge? The activity may be play, but it is not, I think, a game. If someone can give me an example of a game with only partially valorized outcomes, I'll be happy to change my stance here.

What these Elements Have to do with RPGs

First of all, I don't think there's any doubt that traditional pen and paper/tabletop RPGs like D&D conform to both of these elements. There are definitely multiple outcomes, and a combination of chance and skill determine what outcome you achieve. There are system outcomes like how much XP you gain, or whatever advancement reward system the game uses which is variable and quantifiable. In addition, in-game outcomes - save the town/defeat the bad guy/complete the quest - are also variable and quantifiable. Basically all of these outcomes, whether looking at system or in-game, break down into outcomes where you advance your character/continue playing it (positive) or else fail to gain XP or die (negative).

Narrativist/Indie/Story games, however, are a bit different (remember, this line of posts was inspired by Zak's close analysis and criticism of GNS theory). Now, my experience playing them is very limited, but from what I've experienced and what I've read about them, the system of those games is probably higher up the scale of Fixed Rules (element 1) than traditional TTRPGs. This is because the rules of these games aren't designed to provide guidance for actions taking place within the in-game fiction. They're designed to assign narrative agency to various players. In these games, when the rules come into play, you're not rolling to see if you can jump across the chasm, you're rolling to see which person sitting around the table gets to decide if you manage to jump across the chasm and what complications or benefits may arise because of the jump. [Again, people with more experience in these games correct me if I'm wrong here.]

The stated outcome of these games is to, through play, craft a compelling narrative about a theme. As Zak posted, Ron Edwards originally believed a morality play to be the highest form of the genre but other game designers have moved away from the explicit moral judgment of the narrative. Which is funny, because Edwards' original intent was an attempt at valorization of the outcome while actual practice (if Zak is correct, and my limited experience agrees with his) has tended to unvalorize the outcomes. The goal is simply to craft a narrative. If a narrative is crafted, the goal is achieved. And I can't help but think that no matter how you play these games, a narrative WILL be crafted. That is not variable.

Juul points out that interactive fiction, like text adventure games and I assume the analog version of Choose Your Own Adventure style books, don't really have variable outcomes...there are numerous outcomes but they are finite and unchanging if I always make the same choices every time I play/read. If I play a story game, but my character dies at the end, it still may be a satisfying narrative - a heroic tale of loss, or a tragedy in the classical sense, for example. Is it quantifiable? I suppose you could make an argument about whether the narrative is 'good' or not, but Juul again suggests that subjective appeals to art (making Pac Man move in a beautiful way) are not quantifiable. Even if we give story games this, that a good story is a better outcome of play than a bad story, how do we judge if the narrative is good or not? It goes back to Element 2, that the outcome must be beyond discussion for the activity to be a game rather than just a form of play.

So one of three conclusions are possible: a) Juul's definition of a game is incomplete [the null hypothesis],  b) story games fail the game test because of a paradox of not being able to uphold both Element 2 and Element 3 at the same time, or c) I'm missing some way to put valorization of outcomes on a cline rather than a binary which would allow story games to exist somewhere in the middle.

I think story games, like traditional RPGs, would likely fall in the borderline zone if they do fail the test. Just like Juul places The Sims/Sim City in the borderline, story games DO have definite rule systems, require player effort, have players attached to outcomes, and have no or negotiable real-world consequences. And they either conform to Element 2 or 3 as well. I'm liking this line of thought because it not only explains the difference between role playing and other games in general, but also easily shows how traditional and story RPGs are different.

If anyone can debunk me, though, I'll be happy to review this again. Next up, I plan to cover the player in relation to the game with Elements 4 and 5. Then I'll wrap this up with negotiable consequences and some final thoughts in the last post.