Thursday, November 12, 2015

Let's Talk About Beyond the Wall

First, before we do anything else, go get this:

https://bundleofholding.com/presents/OSR3

I know you think you have everything in it already, but make sure. If you don't, this is a great way to get it. The three things in this bundle that make it worthwhile to me were Beyond the Wall and +Chris Kutalik's Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. Don't let Owl Hoot Trail turn you sour on the whole batch.

Ages ago (well, maybe not ages, but decently long enough ago) I got the original version of Beyond the Wall. All in all, it's a nice little retroclone with occasional modern mechanics not unlike Basic Fantasy and, much like Basic Fantasy, it had little to recommend it to me other than its admittedly neat magic system. When the new edition came out and I started to hear/read people clamoring for how cool the system was, I just "psssh"-ed it off. "It's just another retroclone that does the same thing every other retroclone does. Why should I play that rather than LotFP or Labyrinth Lord?"

And then people started talking about things like "playbooks" and "scenario packs." I understood playbooks from my time with Dungeon World and scenario packs just made sense (although what separates them from modules or adventures I couldn't tell you). I went back to my older BTW rules and saw nowhere where "playbooks" could interact with character creation, so I was confused.

As I said above, when I saw the Bundle of Holding's "OSR Bundle +3," I was skeptical, thinking I had everything in it already. But, I'll always contribute to a good cause (which the Electronic Frontier Foundation is) and I really really really wanted to know how many nods to Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes were in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, so I jumped in and started checking out Beyond the Wall.

So, there were those playbook things, all in the zip file with the rules, but I didn't start there, no, why would I? That'd be like reading DW playbooks before understanding the basic mechanics of the game. So, instead, I delved into the rule book and found the exact same thing I already fucking had! [Note: I did not make it all the way through the book when I had this reaction. This is an important detail.] Rules for character creation that made no mention of playbooks. Huh? What?

So I opened the playbooks.

Then I started to get it.

I looked more closely at the rule book; there's a section that explains the playbooks and how to use them.

Turns out that BTW's playbooks exist to get your game up and running quickly and easily. Since the point of BTW is that you're playing "hometown heroes" just starting their adventuring careers, the playbooks offer a number of easy-to-use shortcuts to create not only a robust character, but also his backstory and a bit of the world around him. As players develop their characters, rolling dice in a vaguely Traveller-esque (more MGT than CT) that tells them how certain events in their past went down and how it affected them, players get to add locations and NPCs to the settlement they grow up in, officially cutting down on the DM's work and allowing the players to create things of lasting importance to their characters, tying them into the game even more closely.

It's explained that the playbooks are intended specifically to get a game up and running quickly, that they exist because the authors understand and expect that not every gaming group has the time to organically develop the degree of the detail that the playbooks allow to be developed in short order. If you had to come up with this stuff on your own, you could totally do it. What did your character's parents do for a living? How'd you get started in your character class? What was growing up like for you? That sort of thing. The difference between interpreting your character from a series of numbers and small facts on a piece of paper and the playbooks is a simple one: time. Yes, you can do it on your own, or you can roll some dice and play that instead.

I find it sort of ironic that it feels like "narrative mechanics" like these -- if indeed narrative mechanics they be -- are likely to be resisted by a number of old school gamers who are conversely totally okay with playing a luck-of-the-draw, roll-3d6-in-order crapshoot of a character that standard old school games provide. Sure, you can roll with the punch of playing a fighter with a CON of 7 and a WIS of 5, but you can't handle it when a die roll gives them a piece of background information. No, I'm not talking about EVERY old school gamer, just the ones who are vehemently set against narrative mechanics.

For me, the playbooks are nice and a great way to build a character that's every bit as valid as "3d6 in order." [Note: the backgrounds you roll on the playbooks' charts add to your character's ability scores and sometimes give you extra stuff like skills or spells, too.] Further, visual cues that mean things like "now it's time for you, dear player, to add a place to the map" are pretty freaking sweet. I play a lot of games on the fly and I could see BTW becoming a regular one.

Thanks, +Mike Evans, for suggesting I give this game another chance. Now, I'm trying to figure out when I can afford to buy the hardcover...

Just when I thought this post was over, I realized I hadn't talked about the "scenario packs" I mentioned above. These are not modules. Instead, they're like adventure tool kits like the ones that we publish in the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine. You get some tables, roll on them, and instant adventure. But wait! The cool twist on these scenario packs is that you take the things (places & NPCs) that the players added to the campaign maps and fill those in on some of the tables. WHAAAAT? That's awesome! It really inspires me to try out some new stuff in the pages of Metal Gods and even Nova Scream.

Very cool.

I'm eager to get this one to the table soon. So much so that I think I've found my game for our first DSR Actual Play stream of Season Two.

While we're on the topic of DSR, the podcast now has a Patreon page which you can find at http://www.patreon.com/DSRCast . You know what to do.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Let's Talk About WhiteHack

First, as with so many of my other "Let's Talk About [Whatever]" posts, let me be clear: this is not a review of +Christian Mehrstam's WhiteHack RPG. Rather, it's a discussion of my impressions of the game and how it's unique and worth my time. But still, not a review. I'm not going to tell you why you should buy it, or why I did (I will say that opportunity is everything); that would make it a review. Instead, I want to talk about a few things that really make it shine and, in my view, fulfill the promise that Whitebox OD&D made that its supplements and subsequent games ultimately shortchanged us on.

The Whitebox Promise

There's this passage in Volume I: Men & Magic that goes like this:
Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as
virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a
player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and
progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign
referee.
That first sentence hits me in the sensitive parts of my heart and wants to make them sing. Subsequent supplements try to deliver on these promises by adding additional character classes and character options like spells, but to me it's always felt like the expansion of options became proscriptive. You could play a thief because you had the rules to play one. You could play a druid. But why couldn't you have played those types of character without those rules and just worked it out for yourself as the game play went along?

I know I just lost some folks there.

I know some folks think that without rules that say you can do a thing, you can't do it. That's actually the sort of unimaginative thought that leads to a proliferation of classes, spells, rules, splatbooks and, in the end, system bloat. Because of thinking like this, we need to have a thief class, but we'd also need a centaur class and a werewolf class because you're not imaginative enough to sort it out yourself.

This is part one of the Whitebox Promise.

Here's part two, from Volume III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures: "... but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?"

Yep. That's the thing.

First, you can be anything. Second, we shouldn't tell you how to be anything.

And yet, TSR kept publishing rules and made a bunch of money doing other people's imagining for them and the game got huge and sold millions of copies and was revised a bunch of times and ultimately the Mentzer edition came out and sold the most copies of any D&D ever, so many that a copy ended up in a Grand Rapids garage sale in 1985 where my grandparents bought it for me. So yes, I get that if it wasn't for TSR blowing up the D&D box beyond the LBBs, I might never have gotten into it. This isn't about irony. And it's not about what TSR should have done, because, at least in the early days, I think they got more right than wrong.

This is about a promise undelivered upon.

The simplicity of OD&D pared with a promised open-endedness that just won't quit.

This is the promise that WhiteHack delivers upon.

Simple Descriptors, Old School Rules

I've mentioned before that I really like the implementation of common language into games as discrete rules elements based upon the interpretation of common language terms. This is one reason I was hoping to love Fate (I didn't) and its use of common language in Aspects. This is also one of the reasons that Dungeon World's Bonds work so well. WhiteHack bases its answer to the Whitebox Promise in common language descriptors (called Groups) while marrying them to a different take on old school mechanics.

I think that the use of the term "Groups" is a little confusing, but really what it means is "descriptors." A Group could be "kobold." It could be "lawful." It could be an occupation (and has to be for certain character classes). It could be a ton of different stuff, and you get the picture. Here, if you wanted to be Gary & Dave's dragon from that quote above, you'd take a "dragon" Group. It would apply to all sorts of dragon-y things. It lets you be a dragon and you can apply it to the things that not only is a dragon good at, but also the things that dragons are bad at.

All of this lies on top of an old school-style "roll low" universal mechanic that feels like an inside-out version of the "d20 System" of the 3e days (in a good way) or an amped-up version of BECMI & 2e's use of ability score checks. This universal mechanic intersects with Groups in a clever way: if your Group should apply in a positive manner, roll twice and take the better result (read here as under the relevant ability score or value but as close as possible) but if it applies in a negative manner, you take the worse (read here as either above the relevant score/value or the lower of the two if both are below).

This is a super-flexible system that I could see using for a ton of different games. I'm slightly afraid it's going to become my next go-to game.

It Ain't All Good

Seriously, where's the pdf? I understand the argument for game books as gaming artifacts. I mean, I make zines, ferchrissakes. I get that things need to be in print to really get the love they deserve. HOWEVER, these days, I want a pdf. I can put it on my phone. I always have it as long as I have my computer. I can share it with the players in my group (and I will; your DRM is pretty fucking stupid, so you might as well knock it off [that having been said, I still have DRM enabled on OBS; I should fix that]). The softcover of WhiteHack is super-cheap, so affording a purchase isn't really the thing. I want to be able to say to a group of people scattered across the country (or even globe!) and say "Hey folks, we're playing WhiteHack!" They can download those rules themselves via pdf... or they could, if it were available on pdf. Not having a pdf is a bad choice and I'm afraid it will ultimately keep WhiteHack from being anything more than a fringe game.

Also, "roll low" always feels awkward. I've gotten used to it in Warhammer & Rune Quest, but it still feels strange to me. Bigger numbers are better, right? Well, I guess they kind of are in WhiteHack; the trade off of a closer die result to the score/value tested being better kind of makes my peace with the ickyness of "roll low."

In the end, I could see WhiteHack taking over a lot of my gaming life... if only it were easier to share with my players.