Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Unfounded Optimism, aka Character Death

I played in a game of Traveller on Saturday, and had a lot of fun with a character who unfortunately died by the end of the night. It taught me two things: one, I have an unrealistically optimistic view of my character's chances in a gunfight, even when I can estimate the odds pretty well. Two, one of the blessings of the Old School--the opportunity to learn from your mistakes--was handed to me in the form of a resolution not to let my character go on a mission again without some form of armor.

We'd been running a few adventures based on the supplement 76 Patrons, and one had gone poorly: one of our characters got busted by the local police and we had to bail her out, for a net loss even after we got our reward for some street-level industrial espionage. The next went well, if uneventfully, and we were on our way to getting off of the planet Persephone. The third, however, was seemingly routine, if somewhat odd: to recover a notary's seal from his apartment. We got there, found the seal, and while my character was stationed outside as watch, the gunfire started.

It should be pointed out that 76 Patrons is a list of encounters (you may guess how many) with people who will enlist the help of the player characters. Each contains a setup, and a twist determined by a d6 roll. The mission may be exactly as it seems, or there might be something going on deeper and more hidden. The one thing you can't do is try to metagame the GM to see what he would typically do; ours was going strictly by the dice rolls, so there was no point in asking "What would B. put in this situation?" I don't know what the twist in this scenario was, other than that there were other people who wanted what we wanted, and were willing to come in with guns a-blazin' to get it.

In any case, once the shots started ringing out, I got into the fray. My character had Gun Combat (Pistol) - 2, so my odds of hitting things were pretty good. Slightly better, in fact, than the two people who were firing on me. I needed to roll nines against their tens. That's 27.78% vs. 16.67%. The first time I got hit, totally wiping out my Endurance, I should have re-thought what those odds meant. I didn't want to dodge, because I was afraid that the -1 penalty would make it too unlikely for me to hit them. Of course, it also gave them a penalty. I would have needed the tens, and they would have needed elevens. Instead of being having slightly better than 1.5 times the probability of hitting, I would have gone to a straight two times. (I would have had 16.67%, but they would have gone down to 8.33%.) But I was so sure that I would roll a successful shot before they did, I chose to stand there and trade slugs.

I should have dodged.

Also, I should have worn armor. I had the money, and could buy high-quality, inconspicuous protection, but for some reason it completely slipped my mind.

So farewell, Nicholas Langfried, we hardly knew ye. But your death, as un-epic and non-storied as it was, served to highlight the grittiness of the setting and as a reminder to your player that there are consequences to the choices he makes, and penalties for embarking on a mission unprepared.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Edition Wars that Weren't

Periodically, in posts where someone disparages 4e D&D, you'll hear someone say something along the lines of "There have been edition wars ever since the second version blah blah and it doesn't mean that this edition has done anything different than update the rules."

While the first part is nominally true, that doesn't imply the second.

I'm not here to post about 4e in particular, only to point out that other games than D&D have also had multiple editions, and although there might be some bit of disgruntlement among fans, they have not risen to the level of disappointment that certain editions of D&D have, not even when you consider the smaller community size.

The reason, I believe, is that other games, when updating their rules, aim to keep them compatible with characters and settings from the previous edition, so that you can convert with minimal fuss. Tunnels and Trolls, in particular, plays almost exactly the same in 7th edition as it does in 5th, and the differences are orthogonal enough to each other that you can easily mix 5th and 7th edition rules in the same game, if you prefer to use WIZ as an attribute for magic, or want to retain the minimum roll of 5 for saving rolls. The same goes for Call of Cthulhu, or Hero System/Champions--in those games, you could take a twenty-year-old character sheet and adapt it rapidly for the new game, or even use it in the new game and only change what was necessary on-the-fly.

And as a result, these games have kept their audiences, small as they may have been.

I mention this because I'm starting in a new Mongoose Traveller game today. Traveller is a far-future sci-fi game that's gone through several iterations, (including GURPS and d20 versions), but the current edition is very, very similar in style and play to the original (although death during character creation has been turned into an optional rule) Not that there  aren't changes. In particular, the Jack of all Trades skill has been reworked (although the boundaries of this all-encompassing skill was sufficiently poorly defined in the original game that any rules clarification could be seen as a change); but much of the rules updating, like the John Carter of Mars novels, has had to do with updating the "futuristic" medical and computer technology to keep pace with the real world. (Burroughs had to keep making his airships faster and faster as the series went on, to keep them faster than real airplanes.)

With that in mind, I don't envy the tast of the D&D 5e designers, since one of their stated goals is backward compatibility with every edition. There's been a lot of talk about how that's going to work--most of it revolving around the concept of modularity--but we'll see how well it comes out in practice. In the meantime, I hope we all enjoy whatever version of the game is that we're playing.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

5th Edition, and a re-issue

Some people would blog about the recent announcement by WotC of a new 5th edition ("One edition to unite them all") and about the re-issue of the 1st edition AD&D rules in separate posts. But not me; I'm more efficient than that. I can say what I need to say about them in a single post, because it's roughly the same thing: I don't need it.

I don't need the re-issue because I've got good copies of the originals, and if I want to donate to the Gygax Memorial Fund, I can do that independently. I don't need 5th edition because I've got the editions and retro-clones that I like.

That said, if Wizards does things nice with 5th edition and really can present something that I, as an old-schooler, can use and enjoy, I'll be happy enough to part with my cash. But I don't need them to.

But there's something else going on with both of them, and that's a little harder to get around: by spending my money, I'm rewarding WotC for doing something that I've wanted them to do for a long time--namely, support older editions. And if they release a 5th edition that supports (my idea of) old-school play, then I just might drop the cash to get it. Even if I don't need it, it could signal a change in the gaming ecosystem. When the (second-?) biggest RPG does something, it influences the whole hobby. And that can be a very good or a very bad thing, regardless of  your favored style of play.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Vacation Gaming, part II

A followup to the previous post:

I returned to the store (Tower Games in Minneapolis) later, during business hours, and was pleasantly surprised. Although the tabletop RPG selection was a bit limited, it did include plenty of Pathfinder and Mongoose Traveller materials, so my gamer aesthetic sense was satisfied. I had a brief, but pleasant, conversation with the owner, who was preparing to sell some of his old stuff on ebay; it included the Mentzer Basic D&D and other mid-80s-era TSR products.

I ended up buying no RPG merchandise except for a single d6, but instead bought the Lovecraftian boardgame Elder Sign. Put out by Fantasy Flight, it's a different (and much quicker) take on Arkham Horrror, re-using a lot of the artwork but using a task resolution system that reminds me of nothing so much as the 4th edition D&D Skill Challenge system. The number of dice rolled represent the number of failures you have left, and the type of result rolled on the specialized dice represent the kind of successes. It works for a boardgame, and very well.

The proprietor mentioned their open game nights, and said that Wednesday was D&D/Pathfinder night. So on Wednesday, I returned to check out the miniatures and bulk out my d6 collection--I'm a little retentive about the kinds of dice I lug around--and while I was shopping, I eavesdropped on the games.

One of the DMs seemed to have pitch-perfect narration: succinct but clear description and a fast-paced narrative style. I almost felt pangs of jealousy until I saw that he was reading directly from some pre-printed text, when all the sadness went away. I'm not a fan of pre-packaged narration, because it presupposes when and how players will meet NPCs or encounter other game elements--at best. At worst, it's a sign of out-and-out railroading. The guy did seem to have a good flair for the dramatic when the interaction went off-page, but nothing that a mere mortal like me couldn't pull off.

It turns out I spent the most time looking at Crusader Miniatures.They produce a line of historical figures for old-school wargames: Saxons, Vikings, Medieval Spaniards, Irish warriors, and the like. While not as detailed as the fantasy miniatures for D&D and Pathfinder, they appealed to me more because of their relative historical accuracy (as far as I could tell) and their price. A typical set of 8 figures was priced at $18.00, or $2.25 a figure. I'm told the Old Guard thinks that's outrageously high, but for RPG figures, where the typical price starts at $5.99 for a single piece, it's a steal.

I'm probably going to go there one more time during my trip and purchase some of those minis. I try not to buy on impulse, Elder Sign not withstanding, and I want to have a good look at what kind of historically-accurate warriors I want to collect (even if they're going to be used in a historically-impossible fantasy setting).


Monday, January 9, 2012

Vacation Gaming, part I

Vacationing away from Southern Arizona, I find myself in Minneapolis during what I am told is an "unseasonably warm" week in January, which means that water is frozen into ice, but Nitrogen has not liquefied yet. I still need to bundle up, but apparently not as much as if I were at an Arctic station.

I drove by a gaming store here last night, and decided that, since it's within walking distance, I'd pay it a visit this morning and see what the local gaming vibe was like. Turns out they're not open until 2 p.m. That may itself be a sign that the gaming economy here doesn't support a full-time store. Of course, I've always wondered how furniture stores stayed open when everyone else was at work or in school, so my understanding of retail economics is sketchy at best.

I did take a peek in the window to see what I could; the first thing I saw was a White Dwarf display rack. The next thing I saw was a pegboard full of Warhammer minis. In fact, it seemed like most of the floor space was turned over to miniature-based sci-fi wargaming. In the back, barely lit by the reflected sunlight in the window, was a Dungeons and Dragons display rack. I wondered if there weren't some other games behind that, but I saw no identifiable logos. No White Wolf, no Pathfinder.

But speaking of gaming economy, I do know that a smart retailer apportions floorspace according to the most profitable merchandise, and it isn't really a surprise that miniatures are more profitable than rulebooks. After all, you can get by with only one set per 1-5 people, and with pdfs--not exactly a retail-friendly product--you can get by even without those. But you need bunches of minis to play W40K or other wargames, and there isn't yet a good digital substitute for them.

Still, I plan to visit them again soon, during business hours, and see what tabletop RPG goodness they might have. I'm hoping that, at the very least, it isn't the generic D&D plus White Wolf...I'm hoping that it has a touch of local flavor. After all, we're not that far from Wisconsin and Illinois, where the hobby was born.