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.