Sunday, August 11, 2019

Let's Talk About Tunnel Goons

Props to James Smith (@st23am) for pointing me in the direction of Tunnel Goons even though I follow Nate Treme (@NateTreme) on Twitter and probably should have paid attention to this rule set sooner.

Let's talk about Tunnel Goons, folks. If you're not familiar with it, you can PWYC* [HERE], and until 5 SEP 2019, Highland Paranormal Society is running a Goon Jam to encourage people to hack Tunnel Goons to suit their own ends [LEARN MORE HERE]. It'll maybe take you ten minutes to read the whole thing if you're a slow reader. Do it, then come back here and we can talk.

At first blush, Tunnel Goons is simple and flexible and could be used in just about any circumstance to create an on-the-fly RPG in nearly any genre. I can see using Tunnel Goons as an impromptu rule set for those occasions (which seem to happen to me fairly frequently) where I'm called upon to run a game on a moment's notice. And all of that is a very good thing. Simple rules, simple character creation, mechanics that are hyper-flexible. After James Smith pointed me toward the ruleset and jam, I immediately wanted to write something that fits my sensibilities but realized that that's not how I work with tools like this. My mind wants to see Tunnel Goons as a set of tools to use to build a game, but not in a premeditated fashion.

But of course, this is Nate Treme's ruleset, his groundwork, and so it's coded for his brain, not mine. While I was first thinking about things I could build with Tunnel Goons, I realized that I actually needed to re-code some parts of the rules to allow my brain to parse the ruleset more intuitively, and that's what we're going to talk about: the (slight) changes to Tunnel Goons that will help my brain navigate hacking the shit out of it.


I love parallelism and alliteration and consonance and anything that makes a pattern out of similar things, even if a pattern isn't necessary. I naturally connect things that don't exactly need to be connected. Sometimes, this helps me remember things better, sometimes it helps me understand them better, who knows. "This is not an isolated incident" is a phrase that keeps popping up in my thought and creative processes, and so I decided that a few things in Tunnel Goons need more consistent naming for me to intuit them better.

Grit, Guile & Genius

Tunnel Rats codes both Ability Scores and Character Classes into three "classes," representing a degree of expertise with a certain sort of thing: Brute, Skulker and Erudite. These three don't have equal weight in my mind. Two are adjectives, two are nouns, all of them are meant to apply to a collection of traits and none of them are categorically used to describe their particular purview. "Brute," for example does cover some "brutish" things, but there's a connotation of connection to Strength and Constitution as well as the Fighter class and possibly subclasses (this is not a tacit connection, but with the use of the term "class," a gamer with old school inclinations is naturally prone to find the connection implicit). And yet not all of those things can, to my mind, be governed by the term "Brute." Instead, I propose a different set of "classes:" Grit, Guile & Genius.

First, there's consonance (or, alliteration with consonants, which works even if "genius" uses a soft "g" sound). Second, all three terms follow the same linguistic rules (they're all nouns, though "genius" can also be used as an adjective). Third, it allows for more latitude when thinking about how characters might do things (my Fighter might be more skilled in Guile than Grit which, I feel, has a different connotation than if he's more Stalker than Brute), pigeon-holing them less into particular roles.

Grit - Strength of body and will.
Guile - Degree of acumen and wit.
Genius - Degree of intellect and inspiration.

These three concepts measure what I'm most interested in when it comes to character ability and makes interesting associations and, for me at least, are a natural reposition of the "classes" of Tunnel Goons. 

Health to Stress

Yeah, I know, this is a very Blades In The Dark change, but it's one that I think is more interesting than talking about just Health. It's hard for me to read Health as anything other than "health of body." There are so many other kinds of health that we can be talking about -- and, indeed, are coded into Tunnel Goons' concept of "Health" -- that considering them all in terms of physical health (even if we're only using language normally reserved for physical health) seems to leave a lot desired.

Whenever a player misses a roll in Tunnel Goons, they take a number of Health points in damage equal to the difference between what they rolled and what they needed to roll. In normal fighty-fight combat, that makes a lot of sense and follows the Dungeon World model of "you miss, you take damage." I like that system a lot; there are consequences to attempting violence. So, if we can do this for Dangerous Actions, why can't it be done for everything?

I know there's been some chatter in the Twitter-RPG-o-sphere lately about "social combat" and how it hasn't worked out for folks, and that may seem close to what I'm talking about here. In fact, I'm talking about advocating for an even broader interpretation: let's treat all conflict like a Dangerous Action. If it's not Dangerous, why are we bothering to roll at all, right? If there's nothing on the line, rolling dice is pretty pointless.

However, if a Dangerous Action is a verbal confrontation with, say, the Gourmand of Shugab goes south and you flub every die roll, you'll naturally take Health damage, right? There are TONS of ways we can understand that. Mental Health damage, Social Health damage, etc., but it feels like  making sure that each type of Health is tacitly covered by Health takes up too much space, both in print and conceptually. Instead, I propose calling it Stress, which removes much of the implicit connection to physical well-being that's natural to the term "Health."

What I'd Make With It

Other than "whatever game my players wanted me to run at any given moment," there are a few ideas I've kicked around that I think Tunnel Goons would be a great fit for. Way back in 2013, I proposed a "Swords & Colonialism" game based on Whitebox Swords & Wizardry, but I feel it would be much better served by going with Tunnel Goons instead (not to mention the fact that I'm in no way interested in writing anything for S&W now). Why not a Cyberpunk game (since that's all the rage now) with classes of Chrome, Connection and Cool? I even thought about rewriting Dwimmermars for Tunnel Goons, but I very much want that to hold true to my vision of a reimagined 1974 D&D given some narrative chops for the ol' Dwimmermars. Really, any half-baked idea that I come up with and think "I oughta make a game outta that" could easily be fit into the Tunnel Goons format, and maybe I will. Personally, though, I think I'm most likely to use my recalibrated version that I've outlined above to do one of my favorite things: invent games on the fly.

Back in 1993, I went to my first GenCon with this other kid who was a year younger than me, Andrew Minnick. At the time, I was 15 and Andrew was 14 and I had gotten Andrew into gaming about six months before. Somehow, Andrew talked his grandfather into taking us from northern Indiana all the way up to Milwaukee for a weekend and somehow I convinced my parents to say yes. (To folks keeping track, 1993 was the year that Wizards of the Coast released M:tG. The cards I went home with from that GenCon helped me pay for a semester of college in the late 90's.)

Andrew and I blew all of our money, every last dime, and walked away with only a handful of games. Lots of Magic cards and a playtest packet for a shitty GURPS wannabe and a copy of It Came From The Late Late Late Show, but that was it. In the back of Andrew's grandpa's station wagon, we started playing an on-the-fly game that very quickly had its own color and character and by the time we hit Chicago, we had a very bizarre campaign in full swing. Rolling dice in the back of that car would have been a nightmare, so we figured something else out (playing cards, maybe?), but now, looking back, I wish we'd taken 2d6, put them inside a vending machine bubble and used Tunnel Goons to hack up what I still remember as one of the best gaming experiences of my life.

*Pay What You Can, which is a much better line of thought that Pay What You Want. Thanks to @guilhermedenovo for the logic.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Another Unwise Experiment I Don't Have Time For - Or, How To Be Your Own Hargrave

From time to time, I think we all feel like starting over, right? Like trashing everything we've been working on and starting from a blank slate. I feel like, in a lot of ways, that whole "this is what my life was like seven years ago and here's what it's like now" thing from Sunday night was about that, but not really about this blog. It was about an idea I had.

What if we started over with RPG gaming completely. What if we went back, way back, and started where published RPGs began, with that beautiful old white box (or woodgrain box if you prefer) and the three little books inside? Three classes, a handful of spells, some misleading rules... What if we went all the way back to that rule set and started there. Started.

Because it's not going to take long for we to need to add something. It'll probably be a monster, right? Maybe some spell or magical treasure? It's probably not going to be a class, but maybe a race? Doesn't matter, because it's coming. 

And here's where the experiment starts: you make the thing you want to add yourself. Let the answer be your answer. Challenge yourself to make the thing and to make as many other new things as you may need. 

After enough of these alterations, additions and arcana accrue, the experiment is to see at what point does the game you're playing cease to be Whitebox OD&D and start playing another game entirely. And not in an "ooooh, you added something, not it's a whole different game!" way, but in a very real way, just like how Gary chided "Dungeons & Beavers" (read: Warlock and Compleat Warlock) for not being D&D anymore.

That's your Dave Hargrave moment.

Because you're still kind of playing OD&D, right? But you're also very much not.

This used to be normal. This used to just be the way things were. And in the DIY D&D movement, it's still very much how it is, so I don't really expect that folks who read my blog will find this very revolutionary, because it's not supposed to be.

Instead, it's an experiment in differential gaming. Where does that Dave Hargrave moment exist? How much do you have to add or change to get there? How much of you do you have to put into the thing to make it no longer reasonably interpretable as OD&D? Is it even an interesting distinction?

I really enjoy the idea of a sort of alternate reality D&D where instead of someone else making the decisions that shape D&D, the choices made were the ones I would have made. They may not be the right ones, and that's okay. This experiment isn't about perfection. It's about what I would've come up with, and, frankly, I expect it to fail. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Mic Check

Hi, my name is Adam and I like to read, write, think about and even play RPGs.

I started this blog back in August 2012, just shy of seven years ago. A lot has changed since then, and a lot hasn't.

Seven years ago, my wife and I took a vacation to the town we live in now. Seven years ago, I discovered the vibrant OSR blogosphere while on that vacation. I remember staying up late after she'd gone to bed, sitting on the front porch of the house we were staying at (it was my parents', but they were out of the country and we were housesitting, so I guess it wasn't really a vacation), reading Wampus Country later than my wife appreciated. That "vacation," I bought a stack of Savage Sword of Conan at the antique mall in the tourist town (South Haven, MI) my folks lived in. I picked up a battered "Best Sci Fi & Fantasy 1972" paperback from Black River Books. My wife and I fought about RPGs and our wedding (which had been the year before) in front of my brother.

It was all there. Opening my eyes to the actual creative endeavors of the proper OSR (what now gets called "art-punk" or even "sword dream" or some other such nonsense) that beat the pants off of any of the watered-down crap from major publishers spewing out mainstream, readily-digestible swill rather than raising the level of discourse (yes, WotC, I'm bored by you). A healthy diet of Buscema-drawn decapitations and pre-genre-D&D fantasy & sci-fi. The fight with my wife was stupid, but it happened in front of my brother, so he got a glimpse at the real of his brother's marriage.

And then, about a month later, I did what anyone recently awakened to theory or art or thought that they had just scratched the surface of would do: I started a blog.

And in those seven years, a lot has changed.

I met a group of friends for life, the other players and DMs of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign (oh, god, this is my first post since the death of G+; it was my instinct just then to + in everyone by name, but I guess you guys know who you are, right?).

Wayne, Edgar & I wrote, drew & and published the first three issues of the zine we named after our online campaign.

I met a friend-of-friends named Donn and started a podcast with him. That podcast would last three seasons over four years and has a bunch of material that still needs to be released. Donn is now up for an Ennie and you should vote for all things Mothership.

My wife and I had our first child, Stanley, and then moved across the state to that town where we had vacationed in 2012 to be closer to my parents.

After Stanley was born, I couldn't play with the Metal Gods as much and eventually, that group met its end. Everyone blames the drugs and booze.

I started two new jobs, but the last three years at that second new job has been amazing. Basically, I sell RPGs to folks who have no idea what an RPG is.

My sleep issues started getting a lot worse, especially my Restless Leg Syndrome and now I can't sleep through the night without prescription drugs or pot.

I spent a whole year without blogging.

The old Metal Gods zine team decided to get the band back together and we launched a really well-received Kickstarter for the first ZineQuest this year to produce three new issues featuring lots and lots of art from folks I've wanted to work with for years.

My wife Kate and I got pregnant again. The baby is due the week of Christmas. My timing sucks.

And I started reading Wampus Country again, from the beginning.

In the town that I discovered it seven years ago.

And I've got a bunch of Savage Sword of Conan comics and lots of pre-genre-D&D sci-fi.

And even more amazing gaming friends than I had seven years ago.

I'm happy to still be here with you, folks.

The very first post on Dispatches from Kickassistan was the one-and-only ever episode of Korgoth of Barbaria. Maybe you haven't seen it, but you probably have. If not, enjoy. If so, enjoy again.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

An Experiment In Thuggery

At GaryCon IX this past March, I had the pleasure of meeting +Paolo Greco. Paolo and I hadn't really interacted before this, other than a passing admission of admiration for each other's work. I was hoping to meet him last year at GC VIII, but our paths never crossed. This past year, though, I was headed back to our room and when I crossed paths with him (I didn't recognize him at all, since in real life he looks nothing like a My Little Pony -- Geeplussers will get that -- but he was wearing a Lost Pages shirt) it turns out that he was in the room next to us along with a bunch of other great folks! (I'm not sure who all stayed in that room, but I know that +Jason Sholtis+Jeremy Duncan & +Richard G were a big part of the crowd hanging out there.)

Kate and I had the opportunity to play in Paolo's Gangs & Bullshit game, and it was here that we realized that he and I share a particular proclivity for the "thieves' guild" or gang-style game. Paolo's Gangs & Bullshit is just this and, he says, he wrote it as a reaction to Blades in the Dark and Dr +Edgar Johnson's own Street Kids of Ur-Hadad from MGOUH #1. As it so happens, I was planning on running Blades in the Dark as an after-hours game the next night with +James Smith, so there was this really cool confluence of things kind of running together in a few short days that really left its mark on me.

Gangs & Bullshit was a really neat game. I think I can talk about it a little bit without giving too much away -- but if Paolo says to shut this post down, I totally will. Gameplay is structured around two alternating phases: a planning phase and an... action phase? You know, the phase where stuff happens. The thing that really worked for me was that the planning phase had a real-world time limit attached to it: the entire party (gang, crew, whatever) has twenty minutes of real-world time in which to plan what they're going to try to accomplish in the next phase. Once that time limit was up, it's time to get shit done! During the action phase, everyone gets one broad action to take -- and this could be to participate in a heist, investigate leads, cook up a batch of drugs, pretty much anything -- and the phase ends when all of these actions are resolved. Back to the planning phase. It's pretty much this back and forth the whole time, with one cycle of phases representing around one week of time, more or less. Between each cycle, time passes, things move on and then before the next planning phase, the players get to learn about how things have changed in the game world since the last cycle ended. I loved this dynamic; it felt kind of addictive. I kept feeling like I wanted just one more turn... that same sort of feeling that keeps me up late at night playing Civilization.

As I said, the next night, I ran Blades In The Dark with James Smith. We knew this was going to end up a multi-table event because that's how shit happens with after hours con games, so we set up the first gang by the book (ish) and got them started on their nocturnal depredations. This game went pretty well, but suffered from something that Paolo's game didn't: the Kate & Kovacs Effect. You see, when my wife and +Doug Kovacs get together, they pretty much wreck shit. Maybe that's unfair. They didn't wreck this game. They played it precisely the way that they wanted to. That having been said, the way they wanted to play the game wasn't quite the way that the game wants to be played, so they made some table mayhem. All in all, the game was fun, but very little got done and when we added the second table things got confusing and muddled... but still fun.

I enjoy the mechanics of Blades, but it does take some buy-in and a small degree of system mastery (or at least system curiosity) to make its core principles work. Here, I think Gangs & Bullshit has the advantage: you don't really need to have any degree of system mastery to have a fun game where people can play a fun gang-scale game without any of the fancy doo-dad-ery of Blades. That having been said, the fancy doo-dad-ery of Blades is often its strength! I'm not going to say that the optimal game for me lies somewhere in between the two (I think that sort of logic tends to over-simplify things), but that it would likely employ aspects of either.

And so, I propse an experiment in thuggery.

I'd like to spend some time with these rules and see what I like about them, what works for me, what I feel I can take from them and make the game that I want to run. Here, Blades has the distinct advantage of actually being in print. Gangs & Bullshit, Paolo has admitted, is having a hard time making its way into a written format, so maybe we'll try to tackle that one later. For now, I think what I'd like to do is try to run Blades In The Dark for a predetermined number of sessions (maybe a certain number of heists?) and then do a little postmortem where I and my players sort out what we liked and didn't like about how the rules worked. I'd like to be able to do the same with Gangs & Bullshit, but it's not like I can twist Paolo's arm into getting him to write something just for me.

And so, who's up for playing some Blades In The Dark so I can figure out what I want to steal from it?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Michelson, Morley and the Winds of DWIMMERMARS

In 1887, the physicists Albert A. Michelson and Edward Morley, in true model of scientific rigor, sought to test the working theory of the day by a critical experiment. The prevailing theory that scientists of the day used to describe the wave-like motion of light, aetheric theory, posited a medium through which light waves move, particularly in a vacuum. Previous to aetheric theory, all forms of waves described by Physics were known to travel through a medium (consider the very use of the term "wave" as a descriptor for the phenomena and the motion of waters is conjured, is it not?), so was it not meet to attribute to the transmission of light waves a medium as well? How could light travel through a supposed vacuum if there were no medium -- imperceptible to human senses as it may be? After all, we do not instinctively identify air as a thing, as a medium, save by logical inference, primarily in the notable effects of its absence. And yet, even in the absence of air, the transmission of light remains possible, thus the presence of a medium, an aether (after the primordial Greek deity of light), may be inferred.

As one invents experiments to disprove rather than prove any theory, so did Michelson and Morley create an experiment to test the aetheric theory that they trusted. They predicted that if one refracted light far enough that its speed could be measured (the speed of light had been calculated as early as 1676 and accurately from 1729), and compared that measurement against those taken of refractions made at different angles, different times of the day, different points in the Earth's orbit and rotation, were aetheric theory correct, then some of those measurements would reflect a slowdown, an amount of drag, a sort of aetheric wind that would make some measurements of the speed of light slower. The Michelson-Morley experiment ultimately showed no difference between any measurements taken in any direction, at any time, under any conditions and thus was the nail in the coffin of a well-regarded and widely-accepted hypothesis. Aether was dead, despite the hue and cry of conservative scientists and future generations of steampunk enthusiasts.

It is undoubted that the Michelson-Morley experiment would be known, particularly for its revolutionary revelations, to the science-minded attendants at the 1889 Expedition Universelle, such as our beloved Professor Kingsley Bridger of the Royal Society (now peaceably returned to the relative safety of the fortress at Mun-Bur from his convalescent torpor within the Dwimmering Mount). It must have been a shock to Dr. Bridger, then to discover that the alien world of Tellus is cursed by no such deficiency of aether. Dr. Bridger's earliest experiments in Tellurian wireless telegraphy quickly taught the good doctor that not only was there an aetheric wind on the planet, but an entire aetheric weather pattern!

Much as predicted by the aetheric theory that Michelson and Morley disproved, were it to have the benefit of understanding the electromagnetic spectrum upon which future work in light and optics would be based, the aetheric wind affects all manner of phenomena. The long-distance communicators employed by the Tellurians, for example, may be interfered upon by aetheric weather, and the airships they fly sail on foils of light, the aether refracting light to create lift unimagined by the men of earth. Even stranger, the aetheric climate may affect and be affected by the electromagnetic emanations of the nervous systems of living beings; thus it is that those acclimated to such an environment may possess a certain telepathic capacity (I must also conjecture that this same capacity, when exercised, is what gives rise to the powerful mentalists of Tellus).

Professor Kingsley Bridger has learned much of the nature of the aethersphere of Tellus, and yet its greatest secret lies hidden in the depths of the Dwimmering Mount. Now that he has recovered from his suspended animation and nigh-mortal injuries, perhaps Dr. Bridger shall discover these secrets, the features of the Tellurian aether that Michelson and Morley ensured that no other Earthman would learn.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Arsenal of DWIMMERMARS

This post will not be revolutionary, it is merely me discussing the rules that DWIMMERMARS appropriates from other OD&D-ish games. As a reminder, all of the player-facing dice rolls (as I intend it) will be d20's and d6's to keep it as old school as possible. This makes damage and weapon rules of exceptional interest here, right? Well, here's some words about it.

Weapon Categories

Some definitions before we go too much farther. Obviously, we have the distinction between melee and ranged weapons, but largely we're going to treat these types of weapon the same, just use them at different points in the combat round. Instead, we're concerned with three different sorts of weapon at this stage: light weapons, hand weapons and large weapons.

Hand Weapons

Hand weapons are the easiest to sort out. They are used at the normal point in the initiative and combat round order, whether they are melee or ranged weapons. All hand weapons do 1d6 damage (bonuses for high Strength or Agility or range [see below] apply normally) and require only one hand to wield. At the Judge's discretion, certain weapons may be wielded with two hands and be treated as Large Weapons (see below).

Light Weapons

Light weapons are small affairs and may only ever be wielded in one hand, things like daggers or saps or small holdout pistols. All light weapons do 2d6kL (roll 2d6, keep the lower of the two rolls; modified for high Strength, Agility or range as normal) during normal combat situations, but allow the wielder to act before any character using a heavier weapon during the appropriate phase of combat (ties follow standard initiative order). Further, if the wielder of a light weapon has Advantage on his attack roll (for surprise or any other reason), the weapon is treated as a Large Weapon for purposes of determining damage (see below).

Example: Osterhagen has sneaked up behind the leader of a group of swinemen and strikes the unaware fiend with his dagger. Since the swineman leader is not aware of Osterhagen's attack, he has Advantage on the attempt and, since he is using a light weapon, he may treat it as a large weapon for purposes of determining damage! Phil, Osterhagen's player, rolls 2d6 and gets a 2 and a 5, and thus Osterhagen scores 5 damage against his foe. In the next round, since Osterhagen is still wielding his dagger, he gets to attack before the swineman leader does with his battleaxe in the melee portion of the round. Phil rolls a hit and then rolls 2d6 for damage. This time, he rolls a 3 and a 6; sadly, Phil ignores the 6 and Osterhagen deals 3 more points to the swineboss, a total of 8 points before the villain could even react!

Large Weapons

Large weapons are weapons that, by definition, must be wielded in two hands, things like halberds, pikes and rifles. When a hit is scored with a large weapon, roll 2d6kH (roll 2d6, keep the higher die value) for damage (modified for Strength, Dexterity or range as applicable). Due to their large size, however, large weapons always act last during their normal phase of the combat round (ties follow standard initiative order). At the Judge's discretion, damage done in excess of that needed to fell a foe may be applied to another nearby foe. Similarly, at the Judge's discretion, some large weapons may strike as a Light Weapon (before any weapons heavier than light) only during the first round of a conflict. It is not recommended that the Judge allow both of these options, however.

Example: Fonso the Remarkable is fighting a brace of swinemen while Osterhagen dispatches with their leader. Enduring a hail of blades from the swinemen, encountering only the most superficial of injuries, Fonso strikes back against the brutes. He swings his heavy maul into the side of one of their number, and Gabriel, his player, rolls for damage. He rolls 2d6, getting 4 and 6 for his rolls, taking the higher and adding one to it due to Fonso's prodigious strength, dealing a total of 7 damage! The maul strikes true and crushes the swineman's rib cage with enough force that the Judge rules that the strike carries through and strikes the proximate swineman, though without enough force to slay that fiend as well. 

Range And Ranged Weapons

At Long Range for any ranged weapon, that weapon strikes without penalty or bonus to either attack or damage rolls. At Medium Range, however, both attack and damage rolls gain a +1 bonus. At Short Range, these rolls gain a +2 bonus, making them exceptionally deadly!

Post Post Mortem

Turns out, this post was in no way about the weapons of DWIMMERMARS, and I should probably rectify that in a future post. Also, it became apparent that a post about combat procedures should happen soon because, in a way, this was one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

DWIMMERMARS: Rules & Goals

The brain-hurricane that is DWIMMERMARS has a series of discrete design goal, and each of these goals is as much of a consequence of my thoughts on what would make DWIMMERMARS an awesome campaign to run and play as it is a contributing factor to those thoughts in the first place. It's a sort of ouroboros-style system that would make a coherentist proud. 

Rules Goals

First, I want, no, personally, I need rules to be simple. To not get in the way of the game. To be the thing that we fall back to when in doubt. Something that assists play and does not intrude upon it. Like you do, I've been tinkering with what this means to me for the past few years and finding that I really want less and less in the way of rules since I'm going to ignore large swaths of them anyway. 

I can't describe the thought process that led me to decide that I wanted to run a Barsoom-influenced game, but I'm pretty sure that somewhere in there was picking up Warriors of the Red Planet by Al Krombach. Now that I think of it, I was pretty inspired by some early readings of Traveller and thinking about how to Barsoom it up, and a lot of those thoughts have been with me for awhile. But I really loved Krombach's approach of a Barsoom-flavored game that wasn't quite Barsoom, but was recognizably Barsoomian. Also, in its style and format, Krombach's book reminded me of an earlier text, Gygax & Blume's Warriors of Mars, which, I suppose, is the point, right?

G&B's Warriors of Mars was written as a wargame, but hey, this was 1974 and back then D&D was still considered a wargame. WoM does include 1-to-1 scale rules, which makes me think that it was intended to at least occasionally be run as an adventure-style game the same way D&D was, or at least it was designed to include that mode of play as an option, perhaps using D&D as an adjunct to facilitate it. This is probably where I started to think that what I wanted to run was an OD&D Barsoomian-style game, the white box-ier the better. 

When it comes to White Box-style gaming, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to look at three specific rules sets: OD&D itself, Swords & Wizardry Whitebox (duh) and Delving Deeper. Regular readers of the blog (any of you who are left) will know that DD is my go-to rules set here, but I have some commentary that goes beyond "Adam likes Delving Deeper the most-est." First, while I do want the rules to be simple, I also need them to be clear. I don't feel that OD&D adequately hits that particular rubric; you'll often have to re-read the same passage over and over before hitting the ODD74 proboards to sort out what other meanings people have teased out of that oracular text. Aside from clarity, there was a degree of authenticity that I wanted to preserve as well, a sense of playing the game the way it was played in 1974, and I don't get that feeling from S&W's ascending AC and single saves. There is one thing, however, that I feel S&W White Box hits squarely on the head and that's ability score adjustments. 3-6 is -1, 7-14 is 0, 15+ is +1. I love that sort of simplicity, so that's something that we're stealing right there. As far as the nuts and bolts of the game go, I a huge fan of how Delving Deeper handles... pretty much everything else. So, with some minor substitutions, Delving Deeper is the chassis onto which the important moving parts get bolted with some important replacements. 

But that isn't where I stop because something big is missing to me. So far, we have a few rules for the thing that's hardest to adjudicate in games without those rules; combat. As an aside, I'd like to go out on a limb with a wild supposition that I just came up with right now for why so many games have rules for combat even if combat isn't the thing they're supposed to be about: think back to when you were a kid playing in the backyard or on the playground with other kids. My big childhood example is Star Wars, but yours could be anything. When imaginary play comes down to shooting each other with imaginary blasters or dueling with imaginary light sabers, eventually one kid asserts "I killed you!" to which the other kids' options are either to die or to "nuh-uh!" as loudly as they can. Either one of these options are equally possible, and imaginary play gives us no structure for how to adjudicate the possibility beyond "nuh-uh"s and "yeah-huh"s and name-calling and threats to call someone's mom, which never ends well. Instead of that stuff, in D&D-ish games, we have rules for combat, but that doesn't mean that's what the game is about.

Old Dogs, New Rules

In keeping with my goals of simplicity and clarity, I want a way to adjudicate non-fight-y stuff that comes into question. Where does one character's wheelhouse butt up against the world in a way that requires a method of sorting out which wins? 

Bear with me a moment, friends, as I take you on a little trip through my own thought process about a number of topics, because we're about to mash up a bunch of rules into a huge mass of that thought-ouroboros that we were talking about earlier, only to end up with a coherent system where the parts of that system end up making sense out of the influences and the answer. Here goes.

Way back when this blog got started, I was really excited about the Fate RPG. For a moment, let's suspend our later judgments about the faults and failings of that system (yes, even my own!) and think about the one way that Fate got one thing fantastically right: it uses common language to define details about characters in a contextual way. If my cowboy is The Fastest Gun in the West and has that detail as key part of his character (in Fate terms, an Aspect), then that detail, that rule element can have a bearing on gameplay whenever it is appropriate. This hits my sweet spots as far as rules go: common language is used and it's contextually applicable. 

Another game that does things well even if I'm not 100% on board with everything it does is Christian Mehrstram's WhiteHack. In a lot of ways, I think that the biggest thing that WhiteHack gets wrong is only being in print and not offering a pdf version, but that's a shot that I'm obligated by own personal goals to include, not because it has any bearing here. The applicable rules element from WhiteHack is what that system calls "Groups." As bland and obfuscatory as that name is, Groups are basically the same thing as Fate's Aspects: short, common-language terms that define details about the character. While the name is strange, one of the cool things that WhiteHack does is give some PCs more Groups to make up for poor stats; after all, if you're the incapable, unwise, clumsy guy in the party, why are you even there? Groups give us an answer by providing a competency for each deficiency, often in the form of a tie to a group beyond that character themselves, called an "Affiliation" in the text. 

However (and you knew there would be a however, right?), I take issue with one thing in WhiteHack and that's its roll low mechanic. Ugh. Not a fan. The "roll just under" mechanic and the "roll below this but above that" mechanic that show up here and there make it a little more interesting, but rolling low just isn't my bag. Also, I'm not a fan of the lack of strong central tendency in the distribution of a d20. (This is the point where I grudgingly admit that Fate got something else right, even if I don't like their implementation of it.) Instead, I'm a bigger fan of "success counting" mechanisms like that of Shadowrun or The Burning Wheel. Let's all take a moment for ourselves to scoff at the complexities and time-sinks of these games before we all come back and actually give their mechanics the attention and focus that they deserve. 

I love dice pools, but they have to be of a manageable scope. Rolling 36d6 is not an option. BW does a better job here than SR. Also, I don't want to track a bunch of discrete skills the way either of these games does, so we're going to do something different instead. Some of you may remember my post about my negotiated skill system [HERE]; in this post, I posit building a dice pool based on a dialog between the player and the DM where, in the end, you've managed to roll a die for each relevant factor that you can apply (or convince the DM that you should be allowed to apply). For DWIMMERMARS, I take this basic concept and tie it to Mehrstram's "Groups" (but we really need a better name for them, any thoughts? Maybe "background elements?"), so that your short descriptions of story elements of your character can have a real impact on the game itself. Thus, +Gabriel Perez Gallardi's Fonso, the fugitive anarchist, may negotiate bonus dice whenever he has to deliver a screed against an unjust power structure, hiding from the authorities or when making explosives. Oh, and we'll give Fonso a bunch of bonus Groups/Aspects/Whatevers because he has a 6 (-1) in one thing and a 5 (-1) in something else. That's how we roll, but literally and figuratively. 

A perfect use for these dice
In the end, our skill system works like this: tell me, the DM, some junk about your character. We're going to pick some of that stuff as being important, relevant from a rules perspective. If you didn't come up with a detailed enough story (because we have some "open slots" yet to define), let's make your story more convoluted. Every time one of those relevant elements comes up, you get to add a die to your dice pool and we'll count successes. Since I don't want to get into a "number of successes necessary" trap here, let's say that all you need is one success to do the thing; since we're requiring so few successes, it makes sense to make those successes scarcer than they are in something like the Burning Wheel. For most heroic tasks, you succeed on a 6; for easy ones, you succeed on a 5 or 6. That's it. While we're at it, let's throw binary success/failure out the window, too. If you don't roll any successes, the DM can rule that you do succeed, but at a price; or introduce a complication that explains why you didn't do it. Basically, if you succeed, dear player, you take authorial control of the situation; if you don't, you pass that baton to the DM and they take control. 

What do you think? What's a better name for the Groups/Aspects thing? What problems can you see taking shape here that I haven't foreseen? How can you see this working (or not) in your own games? I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback.