Archive for September, 2009

On pulp detective stories and not always fighting

September 30, 2009

I was recommended Red Harvest and Dain Curse, both by Dashiell Hammett. They’re hardboiled 1920s America detective stories, as far as I can tell. I bought a hardback collection of five of Hammett’s stories from Powell’s when I was down in Portland recently. I’m halfway through Red Harvest now. What’s striking is the lack of physical combat compared to the verbal combat – negotiation, interrogation, threats, planting information, etc.

I won’t spoil the book, though. You should really read it, even if you never thought you’d like that sort of thing. I didn’t, and I love it.

Regardless, how this pertains to D&D is that an encounter generally devolves into combat without hesitation if it looks like that’s the way things will go. But the narrator of Red Harvest seems (reasonably, I’d say) to want to stay out of a fight at all costs. Even when things go south and I’d be rolling to hit in a D&D game, he still tries to salvage things by talking it through. When a fight does happen he gets his hands dirty. Of course fists and bullets fly, but it would happen easily twice as often if I were playing in that adventure.

Maybe that would be an interesting premise for a character. But in order to encourage that kind of play from your players, you’d probably need rule mechanics that apply.

In D&D, you can obviously get in over your head, but especially in OD&D once you reach high levels you know a sword or arrow isn’t going to kill you. There really isn’t a chance. There are still dangers out there, and multiple hits could take you out, but you can weigh your risks and decide that a fight is a good idea.

The narrator of Red Harvest fights only when the fight happens, always reluctant to start it, and only when he knows he has a huge advantage does he seek it out (carrying a gun, stalking a man down an alley whom he knows probably has no gun). A fight is never a good idea. The exceptions seem to appear when guns are not involved – when he is not threatened by a weapon which could kill him instantly.

Furthermore, in D&D wounds can heal quickly – perhaps instantly. If our detective is shot, even if he isn’t killed, he’ll be laid up in bed for weeks and during that time will lose control of his situation in Personville. He’ll also be vulnerable to attacks by his enemies. He simply cannot afford to be injured. A fistfight he could recover from and move on. A bullet to the gut, not so much.

D&D just doesn’t allow for this line of reasoning. Either your enemy is what you think he is, and you can gauge the threat and choose to fight or not, or your enemy is a surprise and you know it only once the fight has started. In Red Harvest’s Personville, anybody with a gun is a threat severe enough to always avoid, and you don’t know who has a gun. Most do.

So imagine a D&D game where there was no level advancement. Even seasoned veterans risk severe bodily harm and death every time they fought. Too tough? Definitely. Games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Middle-Earth Role Play have critical hit tables that make any combat a scary proposition.

Shadowrun handles it by making armor and guns easily available, but you’re always in danger of being injured by a few bullets that slip through. Especially if you’re not wearing armor at all, which can make the difference between a Light Pistol just catching in your armor or outright killing you. And powerful guns are always a danger – they’re just uncommon, expensive, loud, illegal, etc. It’s more complicated, but that explains it well enough.

In any case, with deadlier game systems the player gains more from negotiation and roleplaying than swinging the d20s. Player skill enters the picture more frequently and has more importance. A well-played 1st level character can survive what a poorly-played 10th level character would not. Certainly, this bounces a nickel off the expectations of a standard D&D player, and is more worthwhile as a way of deciding whether to use WarhammerFRP or D&D. You probably don’t want to just houserule D&D to make it “one-hit deadly.”

Why a new game system

September 29, 2009

I want to run a D&D game. I don’t want to use the Little Brown Books, B/X, Rules Compendium, 1E, 2E, 3E, or 4E. The reasons include rarity, density, and quality. Imagine a neat little table with all of these lined up. Some have more problems than others.

Why don’t I just use printouts of Labyrinth Lord? Or GURPS Lite? Same problems.

Why am I writing my own game?

Won’t it be hard for people to learn just to play at one table?
Actually, if they’ve ever played any version of D&D they will pick it up pretty easily. It’s simple – that’s the point. And if they haven’t played D&D before, or even a tabletop RPG before, the game is structured to be as easy to learn as possible.

Aren’t I detracting from the work of other old-school game authors?
I doubt what I write will become as popular as Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry. And if it does, it’s okay, because I’m not writing a retro-clone. It’s a revision that slices off all the rough edges without making you feel like you’re playing a different game. There are classes but no skills. There are spells you memorize and forget when you cast them. But no effort has been made to ensure compatibility with D&D – much compatibility is there because the basic assumptions are the same.

Isn’t it too much work for so little payoff?
I plan on selling exactly zero copies. But I like the writing, editing, all the fiddling and trickery to get everything just right. And if the payoff is that none of my players need to ever buy a book, and they can carry all their gaming supplies in one booklet with dice and a pencil in the other hand, that’s enough. There’s no reason for the rules to weigh more than a Big Mac.

So are all the rules on the DM side then?
The player book contains all the commonly-used rules for the game. The DM books contain more content based on those rules. For example, though there are a number of common spells in the player book, the DM will have a book that contains many other spells. These are rare, or have significant drawbacks or costs, and as such should be treated the same as magical treasure: it is not a guarantee that every character knows of them.

An example of a common player-book spell: enchant some wood so it burns without being consumed until the spell ends.
An example of a rare DM-book spell: clone a creature. If the clone wakes it may be malformed somehow. Fault table and a few rules follow along with required materials.

The break occurs when a spell is very limited or complex. Both of these tend to interest fewer players, and it makes sense they would interest fewer NPCs. So if it’s not very interesting, or it’s very complex, why include it at all? Because there’s a good reason for it to exist in the game world, even if the implementation is complex by neccessity.

And then, of course, things that should be mysterious to players are found outside the player guide. Monster statistics, magic items, that sort of thing.

More on Game XYZ if anyone happens by and cares at all.

Fresh as a daisy

September 28, 2009

I recently left the gaming group I’ve played with since I started in 1997. Well, I played here and there before. And the group’s members have changed. But I and two other current participants were there 12 years ago. Aah, the golden haze of nostalgia.

But I left. Things change. But I want to continue gaming. I posted on my local Meetup groups. No real response. I’m considering just running a game.

Problem 1: My apartment is not really set up for 6-7 people unless they sit in each others’ laps.
Problem 2: No players.
Problem 3: I don’t really have any gaming supplies. I own a set of dice.

Answer 1: I’ll arrange space in the local library. They have meeting rooms that are free to use. But you can’t charge attendees and you must be open to the public. That’s cool.

Answer 2: I need to advertise more. I’ll post a campaign proposal on the Meetup groups, pin fliers up at gaming shops in town, hit the WotC forum, and pimp it on the OD&D board.

Answer 3: I wrote a simplified version of D&D with the Little Brown Books as a fortifying inspiration. Had several booklets printed. And found in playtesting that it would shine with some more editing. I might just use D&D B/X or the Rules Compendium, but there’s no way to guarantee my players will be able to find those books. This way I get exactly the system I want and it’s quite cheap and available.

This creates another problem. I need to sanitize the book because it’s currently lousy with Bigby and Mind Flayer. They’re mainly place-holder names and concepts.

My goals then are as follows:
Edit and print a new run of … the game which has yet to be named.
Pick up some cheap dice and figures, and a mega-mat of some kind. Preferably dry-erase.
Develop a single-group West Marches sandbox setting.
Gather players.

Once I get those ducks in a row we’ll see what happens.