Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thieves' Guild, by Gamelords

As delightfully baroque as an early 80's Gamescience AD&D character sheet, Gamelords' Thieves' Guild products were one of the few series of third party products that accurately captured the tone of early AD&D: dark, mysterious, dangerous, and a little dirty. I always tried to grab their stuff whenever I spotted it - usually cheaply, as most gamestore owners didn't seem to really understand what it was, and would drop it into the "dollar box" with all the cheap traveller knock-offs and weird furry animal rpgs.

The rules, of course, were very similar to OD&D/AD&D, which makes these products very easily compatible with those systems. A glimpse at it, crossposted on the OD&D forums:

Thieves Guild occupies a space between being an AD&D hack and being its own game; it is obvious that the creators built it by expanding on the core AD&D framework, and there are innumerable artifacts of this heritage (e.g. the ability of thieves to use scrolls). The system occupies 33 pages in the initial TG installment, with the understanding that later products would fill out unexplored areas, which they did - if you buy an installment, it is going to be a grab bag of optional rules, modular encounters and small scenarios (usually around a common theme). For example, Installment 2 adds more weapon types (with adjusted damage ratings), combat rules, guidelines for hiring and maintaining hirelings, bandit and highwayman encounters, and The Tombs of Shale-Chuun scenario, which combines the mini-dungeons of Keep on the Borderlands with the traps of The Tomb of Horrors, and is a cool, flexible set of adventures. The approach to the rules is extremely modular, and it would be relatively easy to rebuild them to one's liking.

Ability scores include Strength, Dexterity (subdivided into Coordination and Reflexes), Stamina (also used to derive Magic Resistance), Intelligence (subdivided into Discretion and Talent) and Attractiveness (subdivided into Appearance and Magnetism). Abilities are rolled on 3d6.
Races are a mixture of tolkienesque and fairy tale: humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, hobbits, kobolds, orcs, uruk hai, half-orcs, goblins, pixies and centaurs are all playable. Additionally, random social background, modified by race, is a part of the game, influencing starting wealth, as well as weapon and non-weapon skills.
Damage uses the contemporary 3rd party abbreviation HTK (Hits To Kill); however, HTK is not a function of class, but an average of Strength and Stamina further modified by a table based on the total of these two attributes (e.g. if the total is 10 or less, the character gains +1d4 HTK; if it is 10-19, it is +1d6 etc.). There are separate saving rolls, which are actually roll-under ability checks rolled with 2d12; they are also used for non-combat task resolution.
Combat: the game uses HAC0 (a precursor to AD&D's THAC0, which was listed in the DMG but left unexplained until later) to resolve hits; weapons have different HAC0 ratings, daggers being easier to use than maces or larger swords. Combat actions take place simultaneously, and there is no initiative, so a character who suffers a death blow may still strike back. There are critical hits and fumbles resolved with a relatively simple chart, and thieves are given additional combat maneouvres (backstabbing, coshing (KOs), poison use and striking from concealment. Armour works as in D&D, but the base value is 0 and goes up, so quilted cloth is AC 2, leather AC 4, chain AC 6, scale AC 8 and plate AC 10. Additionally, armour absorbs a small amount of damage (1-3).
Skills: there is a wide range of skills associated with social background; characters must spend double skill points to purchase skills above their social standing! The skills of Thieves Guild are much more socially oriented than D&D's, and include a loving attention to roguish pursuits (which are treated separately, so any social class can learn them without penalty).
Magic: a full magic system is absent from the initial installment, but subsequent modules add it gradually - in the scenarios of installment 1 and 2, there are example spell lists which work on a spell point basis, and are probably more mundane and less interesting than the exoticism AD&D occasionally went into.
Experience: experience is awarded for combat, the sale of stolen goods (very cool!), successful ability rolls and success during encounters (with success conditions set by the DM). Gaining levels results in the occasional extra hit dice (e.g. one is gained at 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th level), hit probability (+2 per 4 levels), dodge bonus (to AC, +1 per 3 levels) and the increase of thief abilities. As a neat way to treat NPCs, Thieves Guild stat blocks classify them as Green (LVL 1-2), Intermediate (LVL 3-5), Veteran (LVL 6-7) and Elite (LVL 8+).
Further guidelines focus on fields thieves may find interesting - these are separate subsystems for disguise, fencing, traders, a treatise on guild membership and structure, a justice system (with a huuuuuge chart to determine outcomes; however, Judges Guild's similar guidelines are more colourful).

There are allusions in the books to parts of The Fantasy System that would be presumably released later (and might have been - I only own the first two installements) - classes such as Archers, Centurions, Healers, Mages, Priests, Priestly Mages, Illusionists, Assassins, Troubadours, Traders Hetearae etc. are mentioned but not detailed.

An NPC stat block for Thieves Guild may look like this:

Torban the Turbulent: VET HU FTR [Veteran Human Fighter]; ST 18, CO 16, RF 16, SM 17, MR 11; Weapon BDSWDe [broadsword wielded with expertise] HAC0 4, Damage 3d8, L BOWe -2/2/6 1d6, Spear 3/6 2d8; AC C/S [Clothes/Shield]; HTK 44; WRHOR [Warhorse].

In conclusion, it must be added that the scenarios and playing aids of Thieves Guild are done with obvious care and understanding, although they are not typical D&D fare - better suited to a game with more emphasis on social simulation and social encounters than improbable dungeon crawls. For example, the first installment has very detailed encounter modules with merchants, locales for cat-burglary (one set in the Street of Silk Veils, a red-light district; another in an area of magic and curio shops) and random encounters.

The production values of Thieves Guild are spartan; first printswere supposed to be three ring-bound, and were laid out on some primitive computer (most likely); reprints are in the shape of small booklets. However, they are also extremely dense with material and more material. Secondly, the artwork by Janet Trautvetter, if amateurish, is full of character and a human warmth that is missing from RPG art; her depiction of sensibly dressed fighting women is a particular plus.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Troll Hunter!

I wonder if they regenerate?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Looking Forward

In the old-school blogosphere, we tend to devote a lot of energy looking backwards, deciphering the often "lost art" of old-school gaming, and bringing that energy to our contemporary game tables. I, at least, often forget (or just don't care) that our hobby continues on. Not, all that often, as I would like it to, but it continues nonetheless.

The picture above is from a local museum which has a large exhibit going about video games and their history. The most popular cooperative online game being WoW, they devoted a window to its history and inspiration, and there sits a old original D&D boxed set!

Recently, Bill Slavicsek has "left" his post as lead R&D for D&D after twenty years with TSR and WotC. This, inevitably, has started a flurry of speculation that "5E D&D" now looms on the horizon (as if Bill was somehow standing in the way of that, like Gandalf on the bridge in Khazad-dum).

I have to admit, it is fun to speculate, sometimes, on what a possible 5E could look like. If I had my way, it would be a sort of "D&D Classic" somewhere along the lines of the rules mechanics of B/X with all the flavor and options of 1E.

That, of course, will never happen.

Simply because the hobby is not popular enough anymore to support a company on the sales of single (or even triple) rulebooks alone. If the hobby shrinks to a tenth of its former fan base, the financial solution is apparently to try and sell ten books to every customer instead of one. If it shrinks to a hundredth, well...

4E and 3E (or Pathfinder, as it is now called heh) are brilliant money makers! Where once a DM bought a book and an adventure and players developed their characters according to ingame development, 4E and 3E characters are "builds". This means they are a framework that players can hang all kinds of compartmentalized options off of. Like a christmas tree. Actually, more like an iPhone, because few of those cool "apps" you want your character to have are free - you must buy splatbooks to get them all.

Some of you may be surprised I've included Pathfinder in the above observation; they have a reputation as "the People's Game". But I offer you the "Advanced Players Guide" and the new Arcane characters splat, and the forthcoming Martial characters splat and so on. A recent Paizo adventure I flipped through described a monster, instead of with a stat block, as "Bestiary 2 pg.33". Not even the successive monster books are optional! You must purchase everything to "fully experience" the game.

Now, please don' t take this as an indictment of 4E or 3E - lots of people love playing these, I've enjoyed them both myself. My point, as in the title of this post, is Looking Forward. My point, is that, in most ways, RPG development in the future will continue to be largely revenue-motivated, with actual play experience taking a back seat to financial concerns. Like WoW, we will always be able to trace a game's "roots" back to the original boxed set of D&D, but I suspect future products will resemble that game less and less as the years go by, as opposed to more.

What do you think?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gygax Spellcaster Houserule

Thanks for a very interesting post over at Risus Monkey - be sure and read this today!

This in particular caught my eye, which appears to be a house rule, or even clarification, for Magic Users and Clerics (I'm guessing for OD&D per the combat tables) suggested by Gygax:

"The "Spells Table" gives the maximum number of times a Magic User or Cleric can cast spells of the indicated levels during an expedition. This means that a third level MU (conjurer) can cast one second level spell once and three first level spells once (or one first level spell three times). The particular spells need not be selected in advance, but can be chosen during the expedition as circumstances require. This will balance the game more and will make the expeditions even more interesting."

As this is apparently from the mid-70's, its an interesting example of how fluidly Gygax approached OD&D, which is very different from the attitudes he seemed to express by the time AD&D was ascending.

Makes one wonder: what changed?

Or were they simply appropriately different opinions for different versions of D&D?

Cool houserule, at any rate, and would be great for open games with lots of new/circulating players.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What's your inspiration?

As a GM, I have found that, since I first entered this hobby, books have been my primary inspiration. As a voracious reader since age 5 or so, it's only natural that this would be the case, and RPGs are a very adaptable framework to hang those inspirations from.

But I can't help but wonder: if I were, instead, primarily a movie buff, historian, video gamer, or so on, if those would have influenced my games more, and how much different would they have been.

What's your primary gaming inspiration, and how do you think that affects your hobby differently from other inspirations?

Friday, June 10, 2011

How badly do I need another D&D?

Unless you've been hiding under a Galeb Duhr, your blogrolls have likely been pummeling you in the face with the previews and early reviews of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. I took a quick peak at it, but felt strangely empty. Good and bad things jumped out immediately. Good - holy crap lots of awesome art! Bad - hey you creative GMs: you are never, ever, ever (did I mention never?) ever going to be creating your own spells. Ok, you might try it one time. But you'll never do it again.

The empty feeling I mentioned, though, is certainly not Goodman Games' fault. I've played the system, and found it to be enjoyable enough. No, the problem I think, is that I'm just not interested in any more versions of D&D. I've got quite enough of them already, thanks. $#!%, I've got a different one of choice for every occasion, I think.

My regular bi-weekly game is Swords & Wizardry. It is just rules-lite enough that the group of artists and writers I play with can be just as creatively involved in the game as I am.

My Forsaken Halls Megadungeon demos use B/X (or its nearly identical retro Labyrinth Lord), because, well, its the best and clearest dungeon crawling system ever designed.

If I was ever to get into a regular weekly game again, with long sessions, I would just dig out my old AD&D books. If you have the hours to put in, I think its still the king of all iterations of D&D, the perfect combination of undeniable flavor and rules complexity, and I don't even play it anymore.

"The Vault" (otherwise known as the closet my wife will not go near for fear of being crushed to death beneath an avalanche of decadent geek hoarding) contains at least another half dozen versions of D&D, as well as another dozen RPGs of various sorts. That will probably never, ever, ever, get played. I would probably give them all away to charity or something, but I'm still holding out hope that I'll spend my dotage in the coolest retirement home ever.

So, I fear the DCC RPG will just have to be happy with no more than a cursory glance from me. At least for now. I just don't have room in my life for another D&D. Maybe when we were younger, before I was so set in my ways, when I could start and end passionate romances with an endless stream of RPGs, running whole campaigns in less than a month deep in the bowels of USF's Business Administration building. But not now. Besides, what would the kids say if they found out?

No, definitely, no. Not happening.

At least not until my Gamer ADD kicks in again next week.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Something the OSR is missing?

One of the new players in my S&W game brought his 1E (Tramp cover) PHB with him, and was flipping through it during character generation, finding stuff he liked and then looking for its closest approximation in the S&W books. He kept in front of him throughout the session with his dice, sheet, map, etc.

It reminded me of how much I enjoyed my 1E PHB, and the seemingly endless possibilities it presented. It not only included all the class and race info, but lots of adventuring advice, lengthy equipment lists, and so on. A lot of content, but not a single combat chart or stat block, and was a constant means of engagement with the hobby. All the number crunching and magic items were a mystery.

It made me wonder: could this be something the OSR is missing? The three "big" retros at least, S&W, LL, OSRIC, are all a complete game in one book. But no Player Handbooks.

I'm going to assume this is due to expediency: one book is a lot easier to produce than three. I'm sure it also has some roots in the original point of the retros, which was not to replace the original games they were modeled on, but to facilitate the publication of new supplemental materials for those original games.

But now I have a nagging feeling that there is at least one cool aspect of the hobby that retroclone players are missing out on. You either don't get your own book at all, or get a book with all the game's statistical mysteries revealed.

My first instinct is to just print up some home-made PHBs, maybe the character and spell sections of the S&W rulebook .pdf with Matt's Primer for Old School Gaming thrown in, but I can't help but think there could be more to do with this.

I spotted a stack of five or so 1E PHBs at a local game store a few weeks back. I'm thinking I might go back and buy them all, so I have them if I ever decide to play 1E again, and want everyone to have their own PHB. The secondary market supports their fairly easy acquisition right now, but who knows what the future holds?

What do you think? Would you like to see some retroclone PHB's? Do you make your own already?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Character death = Fun!

I'm not sure if the difference between old and new rpgs can ever be rammed home (if you'll forgive the pun) as effectively as when characters die.

Last Friday's game saw a new bunch of 1st level characters spend about 3 hours of a five hour session rambling around the frontier town of Hullford trying to find rumors about, and directions to, the Tomb of the Iron God. Once they finally got there, exploration began.

Which was fun, but really only moderately so. They investigated a couple of rooms, kicked a talking goblin head around, started mapping the place. Then the thief fell in a pit and died.

Suddenly everyone was laughing, cheering, nervous, engaged. While they were greedily divvying up the thief's possessions, a small group of goblins came to see what the fuss was, and attacked. One of them ripped the dwarf from neck to groin with a rusty shortsword, killing him instantly.

We played an hour longer than we planned on.

The players of the dead characters? Well, they had new characters rolled up in five minutes (this helps character creation time stay short, btw) and were back in game shortly, as the adventure was a site-based dungeon in a sandbox setting, another old-school icon, which means there can be lots of adventurers wandering around at any given time.

I still haven't forgotten what a miserable thing it was to have a PC die in a linear, "story based", 3.x game. Spending half the session building a new PC; waiting for time the story allows a new character appear.

So thank you, you poor crushed, mangled, looted, old-school thief.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Swords & Wizardry tonight

If you didn't already know, there's a new, updated version of Swords & Wizardry available. This is the "Core" game, as opposed to White Box or Complete. I don't see too many changes per se, more a lot of additions, such as encounter tables and thief class being added to the "standard" roster. Looks like demi-humans and ability score modifiers might have been tweaked a bit. Check it out right here.

I'll be looking at it more closely at tonight's game. I'm keeping the "Complete" version handy in case someone desperately wants to play a monk or ranger, etc. Three new players tonight!

It looks like Frog God Games is starting to catch up with their production schedule. I've been waiting for a look at their Hex Crawl Chronicles, which are purportedly out this weekend.

I've picked up a couple of their Swords & Wizardry offerings to date, and they seem well done. I believe Mythmere has a pretty active hand in their development / conversion, so why shouldn't it be. I'm surprised not to have heard more buzz about these products in the OSRosphere, but perhaps other folks, like me, have been waiting for these cool-looking hex crawls to come out before buying a ton of adventures to go with them.

We're starting a new campaign, a little more straightforward / traditional than my usual Omegea campaign (still Omegea, but a more "traditional" area of it, the Westlands), which should help accommodate both the easy entrance/exit of players, and my busy writing schedule. The usual Omegea campaign was very demanding both on my creative well and on players being at every single session to help grow the storyline. The new campaign will be more sandboxy, and with more short-term objectives.


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