Saturday, 27 August 2016

A player's view of Kakabad

In lieu of a post about contemporary gaming, what with the sunny weather, afternoons in the pub, and the odd barbecue - and for anyone not in the UK, we get so few really sunny days these must be seized upon - I thought I'd dig out some old player maps and let you see how one of my players interpreted our journey across Kakabad in pursuit of the Crown of Kings.


The Baklands


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Preparation for a jungle expedition... delayed

I was busy making my own version of a very familiar map, and adapting the encounters for Advanced Fighting Fantasy, when my brother invited me down the pub. Ah well, hangover cleared, that gives me time for a bit more polish then...

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Why I play Advanced Fighting Fantasy... #43

"This A4 sci-fi comic, with 20 pages of strip and a six page text story, displays a penchant for the twist ending and poetic justice. The tales of killing, cloning and interrogation are written as if by someone who takes life very seriously. It’s impressively drawn by Bolt-01, with grey tones by Richmond Clements and backgrounds that convincingly evoke the worlds in which the stories penned by Andrew Bartlett are set. 7/10."

In a past life I had a short crack at writing small-press comics. This was the review of one of them from Comics International. And this sums up my problem: 'written as if by someone who takes life very seriously'. And I do, to my own detriment. I'm always in danger of draining the fun from things, for intellectualising (and politicising) the things that I enjoy, rather than just enjoying them.

Fighting Fantasy (Advanced, or otherwise) operates as a necessary corrective to my tendency, when running games, to strive for too much 'realism' and too little of the fantastical and 'adventuresomeness'. I'm just the kind of Games Master who would ruin a Star Wars game by beginning a campaign with this:

"Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.

While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict...."

Fighting Fantasy is Steven Spielberg to my George Lucas.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Ruins of a Future Past

Sometimes, you see an image and the GM in you thinks, 'There's an adventure site!'

Well, this article, in Creative Review, about Danila Tkachenko’s photographs of Soviet-era ruins is full of them. 

This kind of thing so makes me want to run a post-apocalyptic campaign - something that I've never done. I have Other Dust, Mutant Future, Barbarians of the Apocalypse, and, of course, I could turn out a D100 or Advanced Fighting Fantasy based post-apocalyptic game too. Mind you, I think I'd have to work hard not to let my natural tendencies take over and end up with a campaign that has all the joy and vitality of The Road!

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Can YOU climb?

Can you climb walls? I can. Can you scale sheer surfaces without rope and gear? Err...

When I run D&D (and clones thereof) I always try to remind myself that the Thief 'skill' percentages are so low because they are not, in fact, skills. Anyone can climb or hide, and any competent locksmith can open a normal lock. The *proper* (ahem!) interpretation of Thief 'skills' is that they are preternatural abilities, beyond that possessed by ordinary humans (and beyond that of even the extraordinary people with classes and levels with whom they adventure).

This, though, takes some overlooking of what the rulebooks actually say. The rulesbooks often describe most of these abilities in utterly mundane ways, and in the case of the Thief's 'climb' skill/ability I had been dimly aware that, at some point, even the name was mundan-ised, from a version that refers to scaling 'sheer' surfaces to one that merely refers to climbing walls. Bah! I thought I'd check through the versions of TSR D&D that I own to see what each edition has to say. 

Moldvay Basic. Promisingly, the Thieves' Abilities table has 'Climb Sheer Surfaces'. Unfortunately, the accompanying text has the ability listed as 'Climb Steep Surfaces'. The description of the ability does, however, lack the kind of specificity that prevents the ability being interpreted in a preternatural way. (Moldvay B88)

Mentzer Basic (and the Rules Cyclopedia) boils down the ability into the boring and not at all preternatural 'Climb Walls', and the text is unhelpfully specific, saying that this ability "applies to any steep surfaces, such as sheer cliffs, walls, and so forth." (Mentzer B44)

Note: Both Mentzer and Moldvay promisingly describe what we commonly call Thief 'skills' as 'special abilities', which is at least suggestive of these chances being something different, over and above what a mundane person ought be able to do.

AD&D1e has the ability - in the 'Thief Function' (ack!) - table as 'Climb Walls'. The description is utterly mundane. Also, in an amusing Gygaxianism, at high levels, this 'function' is not adjudicated by way of a normal percentile roll. After 10th level, the base chance to 'climb walls' increases beyond 99% by a tenth of a percent each level. Talk about marginal gains! The player (or DM) therefore needs to roll a D100.0 - three ten sided dice. My goodness, AD&D1e is one of the least lovely editions of the game. (PHB1e 28)

AD&D2e might have 'reduced' the special abilities to 'skills'. It might have 'Climb Walls' rather than Climb Sheer Surfaces. But by Crom it gets the description right! "Although everyone can climb rocky cliffs and steep slopes, the thief is far superior to others in this ability. Not only does he have a better climbing percentage than other characters, he can also climb most surfaces without tools, ropes, or devices. Only the thief can climb smooth and very smooth surfaces without climbing gear."(PHB2e 40)

I had expected to find that earlier editions of the game were open to a more preternatural interpretation of the Thief's climbing ability, and had expected that, at some point (under the influence of skill-based RPGs) that this would become mundan-ised as a general climbing ability, effectively disallowing other characters from climbing. What I didn't expect to find was that AD&D2e (which I already have quite a soft spot for) is the only edition of those that in which the Thief Special Ability/Function/Skill is expressly something above and beyond that possible for other characters.

Friday, 15 April 2016

How do you like your 'historical' settings?

It seems to me that there are a variety of way in which to use 'history' in fantasy RPG settings. While the degree to which an RPG setting uses 'historical elements' is related to the level of magic in the setting, that's not all that there is, I'd suggest there are five levels of 'historical-ness' in fantasy RPG settings:

1) Little to No Historical Elements: I haven't played any of this kind, but a setting such as Eberron or Planescape probably counts as belonging to this category. In those settings, the level of magic renders the world quite alien from any particular historical analogues, but I'm sure one could imagine a low-magic fantasy RPG setting that is similarly devoid of historical elements.

2) Loosely Inspired By History: Here, I'm thinking of setting such as the Forgotten Realms or Mystara. The historical analogues are fairly clear, which enables the players and GM to collectively imagine the game world. However, the level of magic (and the bricolage of historical-like elements) means that while the setting might superficially appears to be (say) 'medieval', the way in which the world works is actually quite different.

3) Strong Analogies To Historical Elements: In this category I would put settings such as the WFRP1e Old World and Dragon Warriors' 'Legend'. In both these cases the game world isn't Europe, but it isn't too far off. It is probably not a coincidence that both settings are pretty low-magic, which means that the close cleaving to the social and political structures of the historical inspirations are not implausible. These settings allow the players and GM to use their rough knowledge of a historical era while placing few demands to 'get things right'. Of course, it needn't always be not-quite-Europe - Kevin Crawford's Spears of the Dawn is not-quite-Africa, for example.

4) 'Real World' With Overt Fantasy Elements: Here we get things like RPGPundit's Dark Albion of Cakebread and Walton's Clockwork and Chivalry. In these settings, the fantastical and magical is certainly part of the world, but many of the historical elements are drawn straight from history.

5) 'Real World' With Subtle Fantasy Elements: While the level to which the fantastical intrudes depends on the GM and the play-style of the table, settings such as Mythic Iceland and Mythic Britain, or TSR's Historical Reference series for AD&D2e are built almost entirely (as closely as is gameable) from 'historical elements'.

What sort of levels of historical-ness do you enjoy playing? And running?      

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Skills as Saving Throws

As someone, somewhere, somewhen said, a knight never fell of his horse until they invented the 'ride' skill. I've had PCs fall over when running because the GM, seduced by itemised skill lists and the possibilities that they present for demanding a dice roll, has called for an 'Athletics' check!

I detest skill systems in RPGs. No, that's not quite right. I like the idea of a skill system in principle, the way in which they can add texture to a PC and give colour to the world in which the PCs live. But I detest the way in which skill systems are usually implemented, either through the advice given to the GM in the rulebook/s, or the way in which published adventures set the precedent for their application. Introductory adventures (in particular) for RPGs with skill systems all to often 'teach' the game by demanding that GMs ask for a whole series of pointless, inconsequential skill rolls. Look at Through the Drakwald for WFRP2e, or Caravan from RQ6's Book of Quests. Whatever the other merits of these scenarios, the extent to which they 'teach the system' involves skill tests being called for at inappropriate moments; moments that are either not the result of player choice - railroad skill rolls - or that have no consequential bearing on the adventure - quantum skill rolls - or, worse BOTH. 

But I do run (and sometimes play) a whole host of games which have some kind of skill system - a variety of BRP-derived games, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Traveller, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, even RC D&D etc. - while always feeling a dissatisfied with the way in which I find myself applying the mechanics of the skill system.

And why is that? That's because most skill systems are written as if they are 'rolls to accomplish'. Rolling to accomplish means either a lot of failing on the part of the PCs, or dice being rolled where, whether by way of modifiers or very 'competent' characters, there is little chance of failure. It wasn't until I read this post on Tales to Astound! that I 'got' how I ought to be conceptualising skills systems, and refereeing their application in my games. Take out the Traveller specific stuff and concentrate on this extract:

You poke and prod things fictionally (that is, through conversation between the Players and the Referee), building the world and the situation, until something involving danger happens. [...] No one will be making a skill roll to see if they are competent in some way with their skill. [...] there really is not such thing as a Pilot roll [...] There are Saving Throws… and certain skills and and Characteristics can act as D[ice] M[odifier]s to those rolls.

This! Yes, this. Couple this with an understanding of Saving Throws that stresses player agency (from Courtney Campbell) - "The saving throw versus death, especially at low levels is a roll called for when the player has already made a poor choice that results in certain death. It is a chance to avoid death caused by a bad choice" - and we have a way of interpreting RPGs with skill systems in way that is consonant with 'old school' play, which stresses player agency (and player skill) and which reserves dice rolls made by the players for moments of peril and danger (perhaps not always physical). You're not rolling to accomplish. Rather, as in combat, you are rolling to see if your PC escapes without something terrible happening.

So, under this interpretation, skill systems present a more granular breakdown of Saving Throw categories. Of course, Newt Newport's Crypts & Things, a Swords & Wizardry variant, uses Saving Throws *as* the 'skill' mechanic, which is a neat and simple way of doing things. In a D&D alike such as Swords and Wizardry Saving Throws start off around 15 or so (just over a 25% chance of success) and reach about 5 (a 75% chance of success) as PCs reach name level. Which is just about perfect for a skill percentage, where it is understood that this represents a roll to prevent something awful that would otherwise happen from happening. It puts the skill ratings of starting RuneQuest, and even starting WFRP characters, into perspective.

Now, perhaps none of this is news to you. Great, you've been playing a better game than I have. But given the precedent set by the examples in the rule books and in published adventures, it is something worth putting down in explicit terms, even if only to remind myself to referee skill rolls in a better way.