Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The New "Heartbreakers"

I am extremely tired, a result of staying up till after 1am the last few nights watching Olympics coverage and then getting up early-early-early (today was 4:30…beagles!). It’s all good stuff with a ton o compelling stories (natch), but my brain is doing a bit of a swimmy thing right now, so just bear with me as I meander a bit.

Spent much of the morning reading on-line reviews for two different RPGs: Adventurer-Conquerer-King System (ACKS) and Old School Hack (OSH). I don’t own either of these games (I don’t think…I might have downloaded OSH a while back, but if I did I don’t remember), and haven’t personally read ‘em (or have forgotten what I read), so you’ll have to take anything I say on either with a heaping grain of salt.

Both of these games could be considered part and parcel to what I call “D&D Mine” – that is, they’re new versions of old edition D&D games, deconstructed and rebuilt (not just re-flavored) by individuals who aren’t buying into the WotC program, understand the limitations of Old School D&D, and aren’t afraid to divorce themselves from standard D&D tropes. Unlike most Fantasy Heartbreakers (to which they certainly bear a certain resemblance) they seem built off a B/X or BECMI base foundation (including race-as-class design preference), though often borrowing mechanics from later editions (including 3rd & 4th edition). Also different from heartbreakers (at least as described by Ron Edwards) they make no great claims to innovations, but instead claim to ape, emulate, or conjure “Old School” flavor or values through the use of 21st century game design…in other words, bringing a post-modern sensibility to contribute to the old school “fun” of the game.

Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) also falls into this category, as far as I’m concerned, and possibly Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP). As with ACKS and OSH (wow, quite a proliferation of acronyms, huh?) I have yet to purchase either of these books…though I’ve read (and played) the Beta version of DCC and perused (briefly) the text of LotFP.

The question I suppose I’m circling around, deciding how to parse is this: just what do I think of this development?

NOT “what do I think of these games specifically?” because, as I said, I really haven’t taken a close enough look at any of ‘em (well, I did play the DCC beta for several weeks and my views were decidedly mixed and, in the end, more to the negative side). But rather what do I think of the tact of these publishers? What do I think of the idea as a CONCEPT?

And just to be clear, here’s the concept I’m talking about:

- Take B/X (or the early stages of BECMI/RC).
- Manipulate the rules to taste using 21st century sensibilities and old school attitude.
- Self-publish in an extremely polished, beautiful packaged form.

Do you see the difference between this and a “fantasy heartbreaker?” These games are not shy about paying tribute to their roots (even, one presumes, including boilerplate OGL language “just in case”). However, they are very different from retro-clones, which attempt to emulate their original editions as best as possible while a) filing off serial numbers, and b) correcting “over-sights” based on existing edition rules (see S&W and LL’s AEC for examples of what I mean).

So what do I think about the concept? Um…does it say something that I haven’t purchased any of ‘em?

On the one hand, they face the same challenge to their business model as an actual fantasy heartbreaker. Heck, they may be more challenged, since their target demographic isn’t newbies, but rather Old School aficionados who already have their favorite edition, retro-clone, or personal heartbreaker for use. On the other hand, the OSR as a group feels much more kind-hearted and open-minded and seem ready to regularly purchase books from their compatriots if only to support designers, steal ideas, and keep the movement going. It IS heady, inspiring stuff…not just the ease with which people can create and publish their games, but the sheer amount of creativity being shared around.

However, I still can’t help but feel that…well, shit…I don’t really know what I want to say here. Let me talk about each of these games in turn:

DCC: I’ve played this game and there’s a lot to like, especially some of the new ideas and concepts included in the game. Unfortunately, I dislike the execution of most of ‘em. For me, having played the game I will probably never buy it, despite the fantastic appearance of the book: it’s too big, too random, too bulky for the kind of game I like to run these days.

LotFP: Knowing what this game is all about and having read a couple of Raggi’s adventures, it would be difficult for me to purchase this one (except for the killer artwork), because I will probably never run it/play it. I’m just not that into the weird/horror genre as far as gaming goes. I mean, I love weird horror having grown up with Lovecraft and the Swamp Thing and those eerie Golden Key comics and Weird Tales and horror comics and such. But I’ve yet to find the game system that does the genre credit (No, Call of Cthulhu does not. No, World of Darkness does not. No, all those various zombie games on the market do not. No, just providing instruction to the GM as to how to set the mood is NOT enough). For Raggi, this is probably a fantastic system, facilitating him in the type of games he’d run anyway using a (tweaked) D&D system. For me, it’s not enough.

OSH: I’ll probably have to search my hard drive at home and see if I already have this, but jeez, I’m just not feeling the “awesome” that people dig on this game. I’m NOT really about the free-wheeling style, and so the central feature of the game (the “awesome” mechanic) doesn’t appeal to me much…just as the Feng Shui RPG doesn’t really do it for me. I already tried some similar ideas a while back but, well, my experience is that not all players ARE “awesome.” I’d rather provide players with CHOICES to make than wide-open metagame mechanics.

ACKS: ACKS, oh ACKS. I remember now (after reading half a dozen detailed reviews) why I didn’t pick this game up. Too depressing. From what I’ve read, it sounds A LOT like what my first stab at D&D Mine was going to look like: compressing BXC (including my B/X Companion) into the 14 levels of B/X and using tiers to distinguish different stages of development. There are other similarities, too (including high level “ritual magic” and undead that only go up to vampire), but this isn’t what bums me out. 270 pages. That’s just so…ugh. Not that I think my version of D&D Mine is going to be fitting into 64 pages (and that’s by design…I’d rather emulate the LBB format with the work I’m currently penning), but I really don’t expect it to be over 100 pages.

Is it fair to downgrade a product for a high page count? I don’t know…what I feel is that it’s pretty weird for these types of games to run to the length of ACKS or DCC or Hackmaster Basic. I know the page count gives the publisher the ability to include more art and a bigger font and longer, more detailed examples of play, etc. I know there’s precious little “padding” in these games and a book should include “just as many rules as it needs” to run an effective game.

And anyway, I’m rambling now (tired, right?). Like I said, I don’t know what I feel about these games. Except this: none of them really excite me. Not enough to make me want to play ‘em, let alone buy ‘em…but that’s not saying a whole lot. It’s been awhile since the last time I came across a game that really excited me (one of the reasons I keep writing my own); certainly I would not discourage someone from writing and publishing these games.

Do I think it’s a lost cause to do so? No. And I mean that on a number of levels: it’s a good mental exercise. While you may not make a living doing it, you can certainly make SOME money. And these games ARE fun (for some folks) to play…if only the games’ authors (which is why I call this concept “D&D Mine”). On the contrary, I want to see MORE of these things. Where’s Urutsk for goodness sake?

[that’s rhetorical…it is apparently in an editing phase at the moment]

Writing is a good thing. Sharing one’s creativity with others is a good thing. Supporting another’s art is a good thing. Playing games with others is (generally) a good thing. Building an open-minded, inspired and creative community is a good thing.

But excitement helps.

You know what? This is a stupid post. It’s obvious I need to get some sleep.


  1. Yah... this is generally where I stand. In theory, I love the proliferation. At least for the ones with free rules out there, I can see how dozens upon dozens of others are house-ruling themselves into new ways of playing. Natural selection at its best! :-)

    But I certainly don't see myself shelling out cash for this stuff. Sorry if that means I'm not being sufficiently "supportive" of the hobby, or whatever people say. This is why my own iteration of the D&D Mine phenomenon will be distributed freely, if I can ever get the darn thing finished.

  2. I think I know where you're coming from. The proliferation of all these heartbreakers got me back into the hobby. I am grateful to them for that. BUT, they led me back to the roots of the game, and once I got there, I found that I would much rather play Basic D&D, using Basic D&D rulebooks/rules. So, the retroclones/"second generation" retroclones/ heartbreakers served a great purpose in my own life. I will steal from them liberally, but what I steal I will use as additional rules/ideas for my Basic D&D games.

    Strangely enough, I have no interest in going back to original AD&D. I'm much happier with Castles & Crusades. Strange...

  3. Were you aware that you can download a free copy of the LotFP rules, without art? You can look them over to see if there's anything you want to snag, such as the lack of fighting ability advancement in non-fighter classes, the interesting d6-based skill system tied to the thief-substitute class, and so on.

    1. Yep, that's the version I've read/skimmed.

  4. For what it is worth, there were apparently major revisions of DCC as a result of the beta. I can't speak directly though only having played the release version.

  5. Heartbreakers are much older than the current batch of OSR books.

    Generally speaking I like them, even if most are just someone's house rules. I was even considering reviewing a different one in depth each month.

  6. LOTFP is less intrinsically "weird fantasy" than you might think - just a couple of changed spell descriptions as homage to that genre. The rest of the weirdness is just Raggi's taste in art and adventure writing sensibility.

  7. Another recent addition to the types of games you're discussing is Jon Stater's Blood & Treasure.
    Basically, he's tried to reconcile the entire SRD with the OD&D/S&W style of play.

    I liked ACKS a lot. It's something I'd probably run without too many changes, since most of the house-rules are already in line with my preferences. It's still a compilation of someone's house rules, but it's a really clean, polished version of those rules.

    LotFP, to me, just feels too much like crashing someone else's party. It's got a ton of character and some great ideas, but for me, it's just too distinctly Raggi's house game, and I'd have a hard time making it my own. Raggi has done a ton to help out a lot of other people and is definitely one of the "good guys"...I just don't want to play his specific rule set.

  8. Regarding ACKS page count. Much of that is what I would call "accordion" content; it can be increased or decreased to taste. What constitutes accordion content? Classes, monsters, magic items, spells, etc. The core of the game is much smaller (though it is bigger than B/X). It constitutes the encounter and base proficiency rules, and the domain creation stuff.

    I like ACKS a lot, but when I tried to use the domain creation stuff, I found it to be insufficiently prescriptive, at least the first time I tried it (I have not yet finished the test setting, Isle of the Dead, that I started to build as a test).

  9. To be fair, Old School Hack doesn't have much in common with D&D in terms of mechanics; it's a different set of rules intended to sort of emulate something that might be D&D if you turn your head and squint, while chugging a gallon of Mountain Dew and watching a Jackie Chan movie.

    I can understand why you don't like it, and that's fair enough; I just thought it was a bit odd to see it alongside games like LotFP and DCC that, for all their changes and tweaks, are recognisably D&D.

    1. @ Kelvin: I don't think it's fair to say I don't like it...I don't KNOW it and don't see much that makes me excited.

      I realize that games like LotFP are much closer to D&D than some of these others. The similarity between all of 'em is this: they all have the same objective of game play. They're ALL supposed to be about a team of adventures that fight fantasy monsters with sword and spell while searching for treasure, increasing in ability ('level') over time based on their actions and hoping not to be killed. In this sense, they're all 'D&D.'

    2. That makes an awful lot of games "D&D."

      OSH doesn't share any mechanics with D&D. Concepts, but not mechanics.

  10. I have seen all of the above games, and all of them left me somewhat "cold." ACKS does essentially what BECMI already does, or the Birthright setting if I want to go the AD&D 2e route. So nothing new for me there.

    LotFP is more of a "concept" than an actual rules-system; the rules simply don't support the weird and horror which are supposed to be part of the game; I look at games like Fear Itself or Trail of Cthulhu, and I see how weirdness and horror CAN easily be translated into rules, and LotFP simply doesn't make the cut. The other changes to the BX core are interesting, but not enough to make me want to swap my current game for it.

    OSH is interesting. But it seems to have potential only for one-shots or very short campaigns.

    DCC...I bought the book, but the fact that the first printing is riddled with errors and chunks of missing text made me sell it shortly afterwards. Still an interesting concept I will probably try again in the future with later printings.

  11. It is disappointing to see OSH dismissed without even a decent look at it.

    If it's campaign play you want, I've arranged for that with my version, Fictive Hack.

    When you look at the flexibility of the Awesome Point system, the genius of interlocking weapon types (very flexible) and arena types (very flexible) you can make cinematic combat the likes of which is impossible in D&D.

    The talent system combines arcane magic, divine magic, feats, skills, spell like abilities, and racial traits into one format package.

    Making characters is fast and easy. I've made a way to have race or class and race and class at the same game table.

    There is so much good stuff in this system that is NOT D&D that it amazed me, I fell in love with it on first sight.

    However, I think it's probably best you continue to ruminate on the game based on what reviews you may have read, and stick to the passive aggressive faint praise. It works for you.

  12. I think ACKS is much closer to B/X than you give it credit. Considering the two B/X books were, what, 128 pages if you put them together (not to mention the additional pages from KotB and IoD that are nearly essential 'how to' for DMs, the fact that it includes some new material (including a few new monsters, spells, and classes) and elaborates on one of the most repeatedly poorly done sections of D&D throughout all editions (domain building/management), and I think it's pretty awesome. The hardback isn't that big, for such a complete game. Mechanically, though it includes an optional proficiency system (which is very similar to your own Exceptional Trait system from TCBXA) and a few of the X in 6 mechanics (but not all) have been switched to a d20 roll, the system is B/X with just a couple of 'house rule' style changes (fighters are stronger, vancian magic is slightly different...and that's about it).