Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fighter Love 3: First Among Equals

Leadership. O man…another tricky topic.

I’ve run a lot of B/X games over the years for a lot of different people…and by “run” I mean “as a DM.” Small groups and large groups and ones that hung together with consistency and ones that had a constant rotating bunch of faces and more than a couple that were simply “one-offs.” The largest tables had nine or ten active players, the smallest had one. In nearly every case I can remember…and here I mean, “going back to childhood”…in every session I can recall, nearly all groups of two or more players suffered from a distinct disadvantage:

A complete lack of leadership.

Now, I am not referring to the presence of the B/X “caller.” Callers are useful…especially when dealing with a large, rowdy group that’s trying to make their intentions known over the noise of the karaoke at the bar. Especially with large groups, I’ve required the election of a caller, if only to keep some semblance of organization and efficiency. But a caller isn’t a leader; he (or she) is simply a mouth-piece for the group, the medium channeling the spirits that are the other player characters.

Don’t you folks have leaders in your lives? Authority figures…that’s what I’m talking about. People who’ve played team sports are used to deferring to a team captain on the field of play, and to a coach when off. People who work for companies or volunteer for organizations usually are beholden to someone…a boss or manager or supervisor or foreman. And military people certainly understand chain of command and following orders and the importance of both.

Because it IS advantageous to follow a leader…to have someone with an overall vision who coordinates activity and provides a direction (and directives) for activity. A coordinated team with a good leader is more efficient and more effective. I’d think that would be evident to most people just by experiencing it in their daily, real lives.

But at the gaming table? O boy…what a bunch of dithering, bickering, consensus-laden saps!

There are plenty of reasons why groups display a lack of leadership. All the players are “friends” (or maybe they aren’t, having just met each other at the table, but they would like to be), and want to consider each other equals. After all, all the players are Capital H Heroes, right? D&D is supposed to be “fun,” and telling people what to do (or taking orders from someone) creates discomfort or feelings of resentment (depending on which role you fall into). Authority figures remind people (uncomfortably) of their daily lives which they’re trying to escape in game play. Players may not be “A” type personalities (that’s usually the dude who gets assigned the gig of Dungeon Master) and aren’t used to stepping up into leadership roles…this one is especially true of kids who are more used to taking orders (from teachers, parents, coaches) than giving orders.

And perhaps for folks who learned to play D&D from a young (kid) age, this behavior of “free-for-all,” lack of leadership is simply learned behavior carried over into adulthood. ‘We never elected a leader when we played as kids, why do so now?’

Yeah, well, your characters got smoked a lot as kids and you cared a lot less about it, too. NOW, you act all cautious and shit to avoid getting killed…to the point that the whole group dithers around and is hesitant to take assertive action. At least, that’s what it feels like to me. Sure if something obvious triggers a proactive action (“A chest? I’ll search for traps!”), individuals are likely to stand forth. Otherwise, there’s simply a bunch of cautious negotiation (for the players who are wary of stepping on each other’s toes) or outright chaos (for the players inclined to “do their own thang;” though they're a rarity amongst adult gamers).

That’s been my experience, anyway. The intrepid party of adventurers is approached by a group of [insert semi-intelligent humanoid monster race]. “Should we talk with them? They might not be hostile?” “Does anyone speak their language?” “Maybe they speak common. Or we can try signing.” “Who has the highest Charisma?” [lots of consultation] “Do you want to do it or should I?” “Maybe the magic-user should have a spell ready?” “Do we know who’s going to attack if everything turns sour?” “Who’s holding the torch again?” Etc., etc.

It’s not just creature encounters, by the way. I clearly remember, while running a large group through White Plume Mountain, multiple instances when the party got “bogged down” upon being confronted by some trap or obstacle. Multiple ideas for circumventing the hazard would be hashed out, batted around, considered…but no one would make a frigging command decision. At some point, one has to act…someone needs to take charge and say, “hey, this is good enough…let’s try it.”

How many times have I heard, “let’s put it to a vote,” and wanted to pull my hair in frustration. It’s not rocket science folks, it’s D&D and things certainly don’t need to be solved by committee!

On the other hand, you do get the occasional impetuous personality who’s willing to fly off the handle (solo) and put everyone else at risk. I’ve seen this both in games I’ve played (as a player) and games I’ve run as a DM. My buddy, Steve-O, is semi-infamous for this in fact. It’s not that he gets bored or frustrated at the consensus process (Steve’s a non-conflict, Libra-type himself)…it’s just that he sees a void of action, gets an idea into his noggin, and proceeds to fill said void. Sometimes the result is a spectacular success; usually it’s the exact opposite. The thing is: Steve is perfectly happy to follow someone’s lead. I know this from having known Steve outside of gaming for more than 25 years. But no one ever attempts to rein him in. No one steps up and fills the leadership role…and neither does Steve.

[besides, it’s often humorous for everyone to see where Steve’s ideas take him. It’s just less humorous (for the players anyway), when his antics lead to a TPK or other clusterfk]

Now in addition to all the other reasons listed above, one of the problems with establishing a leader in a party…even assuming the players are mature enough people to elect someone to shogun the group, if only for a session or two…is the lack of quality examples in fantasy literature. I mean, most fantasy literature (and cinema) – which is what informs a lot of our ideas on “fantasy adventuring” – showcase a single individual, not a group of individuals. Conan. Elric. Perseus. Whatever. Sometimes there’s a pair, but usually the focus of fantasy stories is on ONE person with everyone else denoted as “side-kicks.” And D&D isn’t about “one dude plus supporting cast.” It’s a group effort. The stories told are not about a single character; they’re about what happens to an ensemble cast.

Unfortunately, other than TSR produced fiction (a la Dragonlance), there’s only one place to find an “ensemble group of equals,” and that’s the prototypical adventuring party found in the prototypical dungeon detailed in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The fellowship consists of an all-star group of adventurers: a couple of heroic warriors, a dwarf and an elf, a wizard, as well as several hobbits (not a single one of which is a thief, by the way). And as a bonafide “fellowship,” everyone’s on a more-or-less equal footing with each other (it helps that most of the characters are princes or royalty in their own way). Sure, most of the group defer to Aragorn, who in turn defers to Gandalf…but Gandalf often asks Frodo what he feels is the best or correct course of action. In the end, of course, the fellowship splinters, but it operates effectively with its “group of peers” attitude, while it lasts.


Written by one guy (Tolkien) with a single agenda (as the author) to spin a good yarn. Real human beings don’t function so well as a true democracy…at least, they tend to be a lot less effective without a brain directing the body.

So then what’s the answer to the quandary? And what (if anything) does it have to do with fighters?

[*inhale*] Okay, here goes:

First off, I think it behooves a group of players to elect a leader from amongst themselves. Now, the leader may only be temporary…should, in fact, only be allowed to remain in power as long as he (or she) is doing a good job…and may only be for a single session. Now a GOOD leader isn’t a domineering tyrant…the wise leader will ask input from his (or her) fellows in order to make decisions, and will respect the opinions of those in the group.

Because truly the player characters ARE all equal…at least in the terms that they are all ambitious, special, and uniquely talented individuals, heroically braving dangers that normal folks wouldn’t dare to encounter.

Okay, having said that a good leader should listen to the opinions of his or her peers, the leader still has to LEAD. That is, the leader has to be decisive…has to make decisions and then pull the trigger and have those decisions executed by the other party members. Assuming the player is elected to the position by the other participants at the table, those “other participants” have to abide by the leader’s decisions…at least until those decisions prove the leader inept, incompetent, or morally corrupt.

[and even in those cases, it might be best for the leader to remain in charge, depending on the alternatives available!]

The leader should not be a “consensus builder.” Adventuring (especially underground) is the fantasy equivalent of being on a war-time mission, more often than not, and is neither the time nor place for facilitating a brainstorming session. For this reason, the choice of leader should often be informed by the experience of the possible candidates…that is, it’s useful to have a player with more experience (not “experience points” but real, gaming experience) act as the leader. But what about when all the players have roughly the same general knowledge base? Because (as I mentioned earlier) B/X isn’t rocket science, and a person who’s played for six months (or less) will probably know as much as the guy who’s played six years (or more).

Well, after experience, I'd say the choice of leadership more often than not should come down to a question of temperament. Who’s willing to take charge? Who’s untroubled by conflict and willing to become embroiled in confrontation? Who’s ready to stick their neck out and lead by example?

From a game mechanics point of view, the character best suited for the gig is the fighter.

Why the fighter? Why not the intelligent wizard or the wise cleric or the crafty thief? Why the blunt instrument fighter? Because the fighter is best equipped for the job. A character’s ability scores (great knowledge or spiritual understanding) don’t translate to any of those intangibles that make a good leader, they simply give bonuses to languages known and saving throws. The fighter, by the nature of the class, suits the temperament of decisiveness needed for a leader. They are designed for staying power, with their high armor class and hit points. They are built to forge ahead into the thick of battle, with their high strength and attack abilities. The are able to amass power (at high levels) by carving out a barony, attracting troops and vassals to their banner, and making war as needed.

The magic-user is powerful and intelligent, but too weak and easily killed to lead. The cleric is tough, but is looked to for support, especially as he gains in level, and often has his attention divided. The thief, while clever, is seldom considered trustworthy, and suffers from the same fragility as the magic-user. And the demihumans are limited in the role they can play over-time, both due to their level restrictions and their inhuman nature (at least in a campaign world dominated by the usual human settlements).

The fighter is used to taking the lead, literally. Walking point and kicking in doors is a lot easier for an individual with a high strength and wearing plate armor. Assuming the player has the experience and know-how of the game (and is not the newbie at the gaming table, given that “simple, easy role” that undermines the perceived value of the fighter), the player should have the built-in temperament for leadership that comes from choosing the fighter class. Decisive? The fighter is the epitome of the Gordian-knot-solver!

It only makes sense to give the mantle of leadership to the fighter of the party…assuming the players are ready to make the smart move of electing a leader. Best make sure the PC is worth the title.

Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fighter Love 2: Combat Stunts

We’ll start out our fighter love series with that house rule I talked about ripping off from Jon in my last post.

 One of the things I liked about DCC (yes, there are/were SOME things I liked about DCC) was the concept of special combat maneuvers for fighters, as well as the gradual increase in ability to perform those combat maneuvers. Having said that, I found the execution of those combat maneuvers (in play) to be frustrating in two regards:
  1. They happened too infrequently.
  2. Their effects were too limited (too rigidly or narrowly defined). 

But again (and just to emphasize) it’s the execution that tanks. The concept, the idea, is an excellent one:
  • It makes the fighter “special” in combat (where fighting should be the fighter’s specialty).
  • It gives a mechanic that can “spruce up” battle (less “boring”).
  • It adds another bennie that “levels up” (development/growth over time).

Currently, there is a certain “dullness” to Old School combat, only flavored/colored by the narrative of the DM and players. Now, yes, this can still be plenty exciting, especially at lower levels with dangerous encounters when a lucky blow can (or two) can knock a PC dead. But sometimes it would be nice to do a “special effect” with your attack, similar to DCC’s Mighty Deeds of Arms which include (for those who don’t know) blinding attacks, tripping and throws, push backs, disarms, troop rallying, precision shots, and defensive maneuvers. Done with a little tactical cunning, these things can add to a party’s effectiveness in addition to making the “hit point attrition mini-game” a little more interesting.

Because – especially at high levels, and when fighting large monsters – the steady drone of clacking dice and counting HPs becomes tiresome. How many successful attacks does it take to take down a 20 hit die T-Rex? Wouldn’t it be nice to blind the thing or do that cinematic maneuver where you jam something in its mouth (like a big bone or tree branch) to keep it from biting? Is there a way for the heroic fighter to defeat such a monster in heroic (and clever) fashion, rather than just standing toe-to-toe and swinging away? I’d prefer there to be something for the fighter, rather than just waiting for the spell-user to neutralize the big threat…why must my fighter be nothing more than a glorified bodyguard for the artillery?

So, yeah: combat stunts. That’s what I’m talking about. Interesting “add-ons” to the standard attack roll-damage roll game mechanic found in B/X.

Jon’s idea (if I’m remembering correctly) was to roll two different D20s for an attack roll, one a “regular attack die” and one a “special attack die.” If the “special” D20 scored a “hit” you could attach an effect of some sort to the opponent, even if you failed to do damage with your “normal D20” (i.e. even if you rolled a miss). The example he gave might be something like tossing sand in the opponent’s eyes so they suffer an attack penalty in the next round. If you succeeded with both rolls, you got to add damage, too. If you succeeded with the attack die, but failed with the special attack, you’d do normal damage without any added effect.

All that is too complex for my brain to remember, plus I hate asking players to call colors and whatnot (“Which die is the special attack? Which die is the normal attack?”). So here’s my riff:

-        Your character can choose whether or not to do a combat stunt.
-        If you choose to do a stunt, roll 2D20 for your attack instead of 1D20.
-        If both D20s (with normal bonuses) result in “hits” you can narrate your combat effect.
-        If either D20 misses, your attack misses.
-        A successful combat stunt always does normal damage, unless you choose otherwise.

[regarding normal damage: remember that I generally use the D6 default as standard in my B/X games or D8 for slow, two-handed weapons. I might adapt this as well saying, "you can do D8 damage if you choose a slow stunt" acting at the end of the round]

The B/X Companion has two-weapon rules.
This for me is simple and straight-forward. There’s a little risk-reward going on here (it’s easier to roll a hit with one D20 as opposed to two). Fighters, who have better attack rolls, will have an easier time succeeding at combat stunts…and their ability to DO those combat stunts will get easier as they go up in level. Yet other adventurers can still try stunts, too.

Most combat stunts will probably be used in melee, seeing as how fighters (with their high prime requisite STR) will have a better attack roll in melee, but archer-types with high DEX might well attempt “ranged disarms” and “bullseye” type shots. Here are some ideas of the types of stunts that I'd allow:

Cripple: used to give a character a penalty for the remainder of the combat, no more than -2 (though additional crippling results might be cumulative). This could represent a cut that drips blood in the eyes, knee-capping or stomping an ankle, or giving someone a nagging wound of some sort. The opponent can withdraw and spend D4 rounds of self-ministering to recover from the crippling attack.

Delay: a temporary “stun” attack that prevents the creature from taking any action for a single round. This could be a kick in the groin, a trip attack, sand in the face, or a stick in the craw of a large monster (like a T-Rex). The creature cannot move or attack (or cast spells) while delayed. Usually only a single delay can be performed on the same opponent in a single combat. If the combat stunt occurs at the end of the combat round (after the opponent’s normal action), the opponent is delayed in the following round.

Disarm: usable against opponent’s with weapons only, though it may be possible to maim a claw/claw/bite creature’s natural attack (broken wrist, for example). If the disarm is temporary (the opponent’s weapon can be retrieved), the stunt automatically works. If the disarm is permanent for the remainder of the combat (breaking an opponent’s weapon, crippling an opponent’s natural attack), then the opponent is allowed a save versus wands to resist.

Hamper: hamstring an opponent (or leave a dagger in its paw or similar) to limit its movement. The opponent’s movement rate is halved for the remainder of the combat and for one turn thereafter.

Incapacitate: a knock-out blow of some sort. The character must have equal (or more) levels compared to the level or HD of the opponent; for example, a 3rd level fighter can’t knock-out an ogre. Giant monsters (larger than 7 hit dice), may be immune to this combat stunt unless the PC can provide some justification (like using a girdle of giant strength to slug the creature with a tree trunk or boulder). The opponent is allowed a save versus poison to resist this stunt. The creature wakes up shortly after the combat ends.

Intimidate: perform some incredibly intricate attack or maneuver to break the will of the opponent. If successful, the opponent must make a morale check. This combat stunt only works on opponents with fewer HD/levels than the PC performing the stunt. The morale check may be adjusted if the opponents outnumber the PC or PC’s party. When attempting to intimidate a group of opponents, the stunt must be performed against the leader of the opponents (i.e. the attack roll is made against the biggest badass of the opposing side).

Push: maneuver the opponent in the direction desired, driven and directed by the PC performing the stunt. This can force a creature back over a ledge, or back into a bottle-neck area (like a doorway), or turn a creature so a buddy thief can backstab the opponent.

Take-Down: this combines both the delay and push combat stunts as the character takes the opponent to the ground; the difference is that the PC goes down with the creature and must spend a round (their next available action) in order to regain his or her feet. The PC can decide to maintain the take-down, taking no other action, in order to keep the opponent on the ground in subsequent rounds, but the opponent is only delayed for a single action and may proceed to attack the PC while on the ground.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got off the top of my head for combat stunts (though others may think of others that don’t fit into these categories). I haven’t had a chance to play-test any of these yet, so I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has a chance to use them.

More fighter stuff sometime in the near future!
: )

Monday, August 26, 2013

Five Ancient Kingdoms: PDFs Available!

All three volumes of Five Ancient Kingdoms are now available, as is the introductory adventure. You can purchase them at DriveThruRPG:

Volume 1: Men and Mettle
Volume 2: Magic and Monsters
Volume 3: Dragon Master Secrets
Sorcerer Island (introductory adventure)

Thanks to everyone who encouraged me with kind words and cold, hard cash...especially the latter. Your monetary support finances my future publications and I really, really, really wouldn't be able to do it without that.

There will be more 5AK updates in the future (as I develop some on-line support mechanisms), but for right now I'm just satisfied that there are a couple different mediums for people to acquire the product. And, yes, I'm a little relieved to know I won't have to field questions about "when's the PDF going to be available?" over the next several months.

Happy reading! Please email me any thoughts, questions, or comments you have. If you write a review somewhere, let me know so I can take a look! Thanks again!

One Hit Die (web-series)

Sorry, folks…took the weekend off for “family time” as my wife just got back in town after being on the road for a couple weeks. Also had to deal with the tail end of the crazy houseguests (they left today after nearly three weeks), a flat tire (because my twelve year old car doesn’t have enough issues), the Mariners dropping three in a row (at home), and the general excitement of NFL preseason. Hmm…now that I think about it, do I really need to apologize for my slow posting?

Well, a few quick notes:

I’m heading out of town Wednesday myself (well, Thursday, but I’m sure Wednesday will be crazy in preparation) and won’t be back till the following Wednesday. A quick/short vacation, but a necessary one. What this means is that Tuesday (maybe Wednesday) will be the last day I’m able to mail out copies of Five Ancient Kingdoms this week…if you place your order after Tuesday, the books probably won’t go out in the mail until next week sometime.

In addition, people should be aware that there’re only a couple more than a dozen packages left for mail. I’ve got more books, but I’m currently waiting on the new dice order (which I’m expecting by next week if not this week) so I can do another shrink-wrapping session. If you don’t get one of the next fourteen packages, your order might not be mailed for a week-ten days anyway.

Still waiting on Book 3 and the adventure to be approved over at DriveThruRPG. Not sure what the hold-up is. This is a little frustrating, in part because I haven’t seen much said about Book 3 on the blogs…and Book 3 is (I feel) where I’ve made some of the more drastic departures from other “old school” clones and heartbreakers. If you’re interested in what people are saying, here’re are a couple of the reviews I’ve seen (if you’ve written one I haven’t seen, please feel free to email me a link or post in the comments section).

Okay, that the housekeeping stuff (other than I’m hoping to get my fighter stuff written and scheduled for post in the next couple days). Here’s the “fun stuff.”

Spencer Estabrooks writer-director of the “web-series” One Hit Die, emailed me about a week ago suggesting his new show as something my readers might be interested in, and saying they would be interested in having reviews or doing interviews or “whatever” to publicize the project. Much as I like having that kind of blank check to hold over someone’s head, I’ve never been much of an interviewer, and my reviewing ability is notoriously slack unless a moment’s passionate inspiration happens to coincide with a block of free time. I’m actually backlogged on writing reviews of the free shit people have already sent me (which probably doesn’t endear me to said publishers/writers/creators)…but, well, what can I do? I’d love to spend all day reading, watching, and writing reviews but the gig doesn’t pay enough.

Which is probably just as well, as it allows me to be a little more honest when I do write a review.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Mr. Estabrooks, I have a bit of a dramatic background and I tend to watch more TV than I probably should. I’m not much for “web-series” drama, but after seeing the success of shows like Adventure Time (which is all over Mexico now…backpacks, lunch boxes, etc.) making the jump from web to television, and after devouring the straight-to-Netflix House of Cards, I’m not about to underestimate the power of “what’s possible.” Back when I was in college, a group of actor friends were trying to put together something for public access television with the idea of morphing it into something bigger. However, that pipe dream died due to the strict regulation of PA and its prohibition against commercial gain. The internet is the freaking Wild West for people with the right amounts of ambition, audacity, and organizational ability.

So, yeah, maybe One Hit Die is a hard sell, but it’s not altogether a pipe dream.

OHD is a weird little animal. The one sentence description (provided by Mr. Estabrooks) is “like D&D but shot like The Office.” For those familiar with The Office, this means it’s in that pseudo-documentary style that uses hand held cameras and one-on-one cast interviews, to give it a casual, reality show feeling despite being a scripted comedy. The difference is that shows like The Office and Parks and Rec which it apes all take place in the (more or less) “real world” while the setting for One Hit Die is a fantasy environment/setting. The protagonists are not people playing Dungeons & Dragons…instead, they are actual characters (as in player characters): a fighter, a thief, a wizard, and a healer/cleric.

Or are they? The characters constantly make reference to game mechanics…like “gaining experience points” and “leveling up” or attack bonuses and the effects of surprise…which makes it feel like they are LARPers wandering around in the brush. And yet the world is also “real” with actual monsters (nicely done goblins), and killing and bloodspill and magic. This makes for a jarring effect at times. It’s an additional breaking of the 4th wall (already broken by the style of the production); a break in the (razor-thin) suspension of disbelief that shows like The Office have helped to build with regard to this type of show.

[what I mean by this: regular viewers of the pseudo-doc-comedy are used to the style of this filming and have no problem believing that we are simply watching a documentary of real folks who happen to be buffoons, when the reality is the show is completely scripted and acted by professionals…even the “documentarians” who occasionally appear in later episodes are still actors pretending to be members of the production crew. However, people used to a more traditional television production like, say, How I Met Your Mother or whatever can find the style incredibly distracting. People of my parent’s generation and older, for example, don’t always like or appreciate this type of show and find it “hard to watch,” as I’ve been told on more than one occasion]

I’m used to watching this style of show but…perhaps because I hadn’t known what to expect…it felt disjointed to me. I guess, the way to make sense of the program is to think of the characters living in an alternate dimension called “D&D World” where the people are self-aware of the mechanics that underpin their universe. In our universe, someone “counts calories” because they’re trying to watch their weight; in D&D World, characters count XP to track their sense of self-worth.

Or something like that.

Once you can reconcile that (such that the characters self-awareness doesn’t bug you), it’s not a bad watch. The show currently exists as a four-part “prologue” on YouTube (I’ll posts the links below), each video running around 6-8 minutes. Production values are low as is usual for this kind of grassroots project. Attention is paid to costuming and make-up effects but the armory budget was pretty cheap; none of the characters are wearing the armor one would find in a low level adventuring party, for example. Acting is generally good, but either the script-writing could be improved or (if there’s a lot of improvisation occurring) there needs to be a stronger hand with the editing in order to tighten the soliloquies and dialogue, at least in some instances. Other than that

It’s pretty amusing. I found myself chuckling at several parts, and laughing out loud (something I rarely do) at least a couple times. If you have thirty minutes to spare for cheap entertainment, I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed.

It also pays to watch all four episodes, as the series gets better with each. I don’t know if it’s because I got used to the “D&D World” setting, or simply that the production became better as the show developed. I only snickered once or twice in the first episode, and if I hadn’t bothered to watch the later episodes (I almost didn’t), I probably wouldn’t recommend the thing. Webisodes #2 through #4 (which are set-up by #1) makes the whole thing worth watching, in my opinion.

I really don’t want to talk too much about what actually happens, because I think the characters (their levels, their abilities, etc.) are (humorously) revealed over the course of the prologue series. I’d just say: watch the show with a B/X eye for what is occurring. Really…put on your Tom Moldvay goggles and ignore the non-D&Disms (like any references to “mana regeneration”).

Oh, yeah…and I really liked the opening credits with its mash-up of table-top gaming and “Game of Thrones” style graphics; that also made me chuckle. I don’t know how long the people doing One Hit Die can sustain (or even want to sustain) this project, but with a little more budget and a little tighter scripting, it could be a pretty entertaining series…though at this point it’s probably more fun for table-top gamers than for the average viewer. Maybe they can get picked up by the G4 network.

You can check it out at:

I'm happy to discuss the web series (including spoilers) in the comments section of this post.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sex and D&D

Just so folks don't think I've totally got my head in the sand regarding stuff flying around the blog-o-sphere...

You can see my thoughts on the subject of sex at the gaming table in this previously written series of posts from May of 2010:

Sex and D&D (Part 1)
Sex and D&D (Part 2)
Sex and D&D (Part 3)
Sex and D&D (Part 4)

My thoughts and feelings on the subject haven't changed much, except perhaps to solidify. Folks who've purchased my fantasy adventure Five Ancient Kingdoms will see it includes rules for romance, a strong element of most fantasy adventure stories.

Now can I please get back to my series on fighters? Jeez!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Fighter Love

[boy, it sure has been a week for puncture wounds and bleeding. I won't go into it at the moment...we're all alive and well...but, well, take my word for it]

I know there are plenty of readers (or, at least, subscribers) who continue to play B/X as their game/edition of choice and who wish I would continue to put out more B/X content. And that’s not an unreasonable demand…I mean, the blog IS billed as “B/X Blackrazor,” right?

The thing is B/X is the origin of my “fantasy gaming” passion. B/X was the first RPG I learned and played…it’s how I cut my teeth on the hobby. Even when I (in my childhood) moved into Advanced D&D game play, I (and my fellow players) brought a lot of B/X sensibilities. When rules in the advanced game didn’t make sense or were incomprehensible to our twelve year old minds, we would default back to B/X for our rules frame despite that (as young teens) we were scoffing at the idea of “race as class.”

I still carry those B/X sensibilities with me. I’m writing new games and new rules and new systems, but I’m drawing them up in comparison to B/X. Even DMI which has card mechanics unlike anything in B/X still has pieces of B/X (like class and level and random tables, depending on the version). B/X is my foundation of gaming. When I write a game that has nothing in common with B/X, the press release in my mind is saying, “This game, unlike B/X, uses A, B, and C…”

But the "B/X" is still there. Just so you know.

Anyway, I’ve got an idea for a possible house rule B/X players might want to incorporate into their games. For the record, the basic concept is ripped off from Jon/Red Beard from a conversation we had at Dragonflight…he and his co-DM have been working on something similar for their games. I’m taking it, refining it a bit, and running with it. It addresses a couple issues/complaints I’ve heard more than once over the last couple years:

-        The “boring sameness” of B/X combat compared to later editions (specifically 3rd edition and later). And in conjunction:
-        The lack of interesting maneuvers (or “boring-ness”) of the fighter class…especially (again) compared to the customizable concept found in D20 (through the selection of “feats”).

Now, personally, I am a big fan of the fighter. I like to play fighters. I don’t often get the chance to do this (for a variety of reasons), but that doesn’t matter much since I tend to play all my characters like a fighter anyway…you know, kick-in-the-door, take-no-prisoners, etc. There’s a simple elegance to an archetype that’s the character class equivalent of a blunt object. I mean, let’s face it: the fighter is built to soak and inflict trauma. Any other use of the class is counter-productive.

Fighting is the fighter’s purpose in life. Everything else is incidental.

One of the unfortunate things about this simplicity is that this is the character class most often foisted off on the beginning gamer. Never played before? Be a fighter. They have a high survivability (good HPs and AC) and are pretty effective at the simplest method of “conflict resolution” in the game: charge the monster, roll D20. With the prime requisite of Strength…and Strength’s ability to add to both attack and damage…a 1st level fighter (with enough wealth for proper equipment) is the MOST effective human class in B/X D&D; only the demi-humans (dwarf, halfling, and elf) are more effective.

[why is the prime requisite important? Because in B/X you are allowed to raise your prime by lowering other abilities. You can, from Day 1, give yourself a boost to your fighting abilities. The demi-humans share STR as a prime req, plus they get other special abilities and saving throw bonuses…and they can still wear plate mail and shield and wield normal (D8 damage) swords. It is only over the long-haul that the fighter “out-classes” the B/X demi-humans by surpassing them in level…but that can take a long time]

But when your least experienced players are the ones playing the fighter (because the other classes are too complicate, hard to play, or risky for the newbie) it can lead to a devaluing of the class. Well, no…that’s not really what I want to say. Over time, it feels like fighter is “dump class” because that’s where newbies get “dumped” when they’re still knuckleheads just trying to learn the game.

[which, of course, is ridiculous since BASIC D&D is, by definition BASIC. So long as the level of play is under 4th level, you might as well let anyone play any class]

Now, readers may think I’m pointing fingers at their blogs or campaigns or DMing ability and may have objections to my “assumptions” of their style of play. No, that’s not the case. I’m talking about my own experiences – as a DM and as a player in D&D games – and how, at least when I was younger, I would encourage newbies to try the game as a fighter. And this despite actual evidence in play that it’s possible for the best player and the biggest badass to be a simple (SIMPLE! No feats! No weapon specialization!) fighter.

Because she was.

Having a high survivability and great ability to dish out damage in melee makes the fighter the ideal leader of an adventuring party. And do you want the least experienced player at the table leading your group? I sure don’t!

But I’ll be honest: the fighter as “heroic leader” is not something I’ve seen in play very often. In fact, in my B/X games I’d go so far as to say “almost never.” But then, a lot of times I see a lack of leadership in general (boy, that is a topic that REALLY deserves its own post!). Instead, the fighters I usually see are:

-        Big, dumb, plunge-ahead guy. “I’ve got an 18 strength and a two-handed sword.” This is the guy that leads with his foot (kicking in the door) and blade. They don’t usually last too long (though, they may be the last man standing if they, say, draw their party into a battle with a nest of troglodytes).
-        Skulking “hero.” I don’t really know how to describe this. Oh, wait…sure I do. This is the guy who takes a fighter as a character because “the party needs a fighter,” but he doesn’t really WANT to play a fighter. He might walk point, but he’s hesitant to get into combat until the battle is joined and he’s still acting in a “support” role…it’s just that his “support” is in melee. These guys tend to survive a long time (because of cautious play coupled with high survivability) unless they blow a saving throw but, man, they are armored wussies.

Maybe it’s just a guy thing. It’s funny, but when I think about it the best fighters I’ve seen in D&D games have all been controlled by female players.  Yes, yes, there are women gamers who can act dumb or who “just want to kick ass” (I’ve had that argument with people before), but if given a chance (in game) to think or interact, females playing fighters will usually step up to the challenge.

In my experience, this is in direct contrast to male players who are playing fighters. Not that male players don’t want to interact with NPCs, puzzle out obstacles and riddles, or think of clever things to do…plenty do. But (it’s weird now that I think about it) not when they’re playing fighters. It’s like they step into the role of a fighter and they decide to turn their brain to “off.” Even the “skulking fighter” described above becomes TENTATIVE in play…while the same player as, say, a cleric brings more to the table in the role. Also, it’s worth noting that this “turn the brain off” mentality doesn’t apply to fighter “subclasses” like paladins and rangers and archers and scouts (though, upon reflection, it still applies to barbarians).

Maybe, male gamers are cerebral people who are over-thinking (or under-thinking) the fighter class and don’t see the potential in being a blunt object.

Dammit…this post is getting long, and I haven’t even gotten to my whole B/X house rule I wanted to write about.  Along with my thoughts from yesterday (the simultaneous combat of melee), I think I’ve got fodder for a couple separate fighter posts.

In fact, in reading over the blog, I see I’ve written LOTS of posts on the other classes of B/X D&D and very little on the fighter, other than to justify the abstract combat rules of D&D. Looks like it’s time to rectify that situation.

[to be continued]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Frustrating Blood Bowl

All right…just a quick thanks to all the folks who’ve purchased a copy of Five Ancient Kingdoms so far. I’ve been making a run to the post office pretty much every day, and I’ve got another batch of dice ordered from Chessex (originally, I only order enough for half my initial print run…really didn’t know how the whole shrink-wrapping thing was going to turn out. Pretty well, as it turns out).

Okay, now onto Blood Bowl.

Once again the usual frustration sets in…Blood Bowl is NOT football. And I’m not just talking about the obvious differences like the presence of man-eating monsters or a player roster calculated in gold coins. It just doesn’t model the game very well, especially in terms of stats and player development.

For example, Russell Wilson is the current quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks. He was pretty stellar last year as a rookie, tying Peyton Manning’s year one record for touchdown passes (and not coming anywhere close to Manning’s interception numbers from his rookie year). Now in Blood Bowl, passers are not awarded Star Player Points (the BB equivalent of XP) for “touchdown passes” but they do get points for rushing touchdowns and completions at a rate of 3 points and 1 point each (respectively). There’s no such thing as “preseason” in BB, but there are play-offs, and play-off achievements count towards player development.

Wilson in his first and only (thus far) season had 252 completions (64% accuracy with a 100.0 passer rating) in the 2012 season and four rushing touchdowns. He added 39 completions (62.9% with a 102.4 rating) and added one more rushing TD. This works out to a total of 306 SPPs.

306 SPPs after a single season…and that’s not counting game balls he may have received (the NFL equivalent of a match MVP award, worth 5 SPPs); I’m sure he received one or two of those. SPPs max out at around 160 if I remember correctly? Certainly by 250…it depends on the edition, and the fact is there are few players who EVER get that many SPPs. It’s just a lot harder to get completions and TDs in the Blood Bowl game based on the design of the game.

But even trying to compare the two games is dumb because BB does not emulate football. At least not American football…the game is much closer to a soccer match with a constant move up and down the field, changes of possession, and an eventual (one hopes) goal that resets the players in the middle of the field. Yes, there’s a kick-off, but there’s no punting. There’s no striving to get first downs…or struggle to prevent first downs from an opponent. No one is trying to get out of bounds to stop the clock (going out of bounds is a Very Bad Thing)…and if the ball does go out it is thrown back in…again, like soccer. Also, like soccer, games are referred to as “matches” and the field as a “pitch.”

Can you tell BB was written and developed by English game designers?

So it kind of bugs me. Not because I’m not a fan of soccer (my Mexican wife cured me of any bias against the sport many years ago), but because I want my Blood Bowl to play like football. American football is an intense number of big play snap shots, strung together. Back at the fencing salle, we used to refer to our sport as “physical chess” (at least, I remember hearing that term bandied about quite a bit), but for my money the move and counter-move of football (with breaks in-between plays) is much more like pacing out a turn-by-turn strategy game.

[that’s not meant to offend my readers who fence, by the way. But in my experience, the thought process in fencing, the move-and-countermove is much too quick to compare to chess…it’s more about intuition and instant recognition and the training of the hand and footwork. I think fencers like to compare their sport to chess because they pride themselves in the anachronism of the two classic art-sciences…and because both fencing and chess has more than its fair share of intellectual arrogance]

In football, coaches draw up plays and strategies and “schemes”…often specifically designed for their opponent of the week…and then attempt to execute those plays. The opponent counters…and then you tweak and try to “counter the counter.” What part of that doesn’t sound like a turn-based strategy game…played out on a giant stage with giant playing pieces?

Of course, the other problem with trying to mimic a single snap of football is the same problem that arises in your average fantasy RPG combat “round:” players need to act and react simultaneously. A melee combat is not a swing-by-swing turn-taking process, nor is it a choreographed cinematic swashbuckling affair. Instead it’s an explosive “ATTACK!” with everyone going at everyone else at the same time. I guess, in an ideal world, you’d just submit your instructions to your team (or party), press “go” and see how they execute against the other guys.

Oh, wait…they already have video games that do that kind of thing, right? Madden NFL and whatnot?

Well, I’m not terribly interested in playing out computer games featuring normal human NFL teams…I prefer to watch those on TV. What I’d like to play is a fantasy football game where the troll player eats the hobbit he just tackled, or where the dark elf magician brings down the ogre running back with some fancy evocation. I just want to do it with downs and schemes and play-calling. I don’t want the fantasy board game equivalent of that vibrating metal board.

ANYhoo…you know this is actually a good segue into another post I’ve been working over regarding combat options for B/X (What, JB? You still have an interest in B/X gaming? Of course, folks). I’ll do what I can to get that one up on Ye Old Blog by tomorrow…though that might turn out to be a two- (or three-) parter.

[sorry, not trying to be a tease…I really am just busy, people]

I will say that this whole conversation – the frustration, thinking about it, writing about it – has put me off my urge to break out the minis this year. That and the lack of time to paint, of course.

At least I get a chance to watch the ‘Hawks take on the Packers tomorrow. Too bad it’s still only preseason.
: )
The uniform colors will be reversed, of course.

A Little Late News

As some folks have already realized (judging by the purchases), two of the PDFs for Five Ancient Kingdoms went live yesterday (August 21). I would have let folks know sooner than this, but I was busy spending quality type with my child, eating pizza and watching episodes of American Ninja Warrior before the bath and bedtime ritual. You know how it is.

Anyway, better late than never.

Volume 1: Men and Mettle is available for $4.99. That's a pretty low buy-in to see if the system looks like something that piques your interest. Volume 2: Magic and Monsters provides the info on the magic system (a bit different from with combat, I went back to CHAINMAIL as a foundational base) as well as the requisite "bestiary" for a game of this type. Of course, I bothered to provide a Monster Cosmology to explain why we have the monsters listed (spoiler alert: not based on Tolkien). Volume 2 is the same price in PDF as Volume 1 ($4.99). Between the two, you'll have everything you need to participate in the game as a player (the third book provides the info referees need to run the game).

Personally, my preference is that people will order the print copy of the game rather than download the PDFs...they are, after all, designed to be used at the table in-play. I realize that some people are simply purchasing these as a matter of "curiosity;" a look at one man's version of D&D Mine. Fine and dandy: this whole project was started due to my frustration with the stupid-ass-ness of "D&D Next" and the belief that ANYone could write "a new version of Dungeons & Dragons." Despite the use of Chainmail, despite the specific setting, despite the lack of "armor class," most folks should easily recognize many familiar parts of their favorite fantasy fact, some parts of it may be more recognizable than what you find in the latest editions of D&D. Other things, well...

Look, folks, this is not my personal attempt to conquer the fantasy gaming market from the power players. I wanted to show what could be done, given a little work, some public domain art, and MS Word. If people play it, I'll be elated...that's the reason it's in the format it is. That's the reason I sell it in print with dice. But if people will only use it to inspire themselves and write their own game rather than sit around waiting for Hasbro to gouge them with D&D Next followed by editions 6th, 7th, and 8th...if you'll just do that with my little game, then I'll be well and truly satisfied by the exercise.

One person folks; I'm just one person. The thing turned out pretty good for just one guy (and a couple-three proof readers). And I'm not the first or only person to go this road.

Links posted below.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Bloggers aren't writers. That is to say, just because a person has a blog doesn't automatically make them a "writer." Yes, there are writers that have blogs, but there are many, many non-writers that have blogs, too: artists and chefs and journalists and house-spouses and athletes and humorists and hack game designers. Blogs are a wonderful outlet for creative expression, and people of all-stripes have made good use of doesn't mean they're all frustrated authors.

Really. I didn't get into blogging to write books (or even game supplements), even though this particular blog has led to that activity. But I'm certainly not a guy with an unpublished novel sitting on the shelf. I tried my hand at writing a short story the other day for Tim Shorts's little writing project, and after reading back over the first three pages, realized what I'd written is absolute crap. I'd post it here, just to show you what I mean, but people already think I beat up on myself too much.

Well, this isn't about beating up on myself, or anyone else. Just because bloggers may not be "writers" in the sense of being trained to write with plotting and pacing and all that jazz, doesn't mean they don't have value. There's a sharing of ideas that occurs in airing one's views in the public forum of the internet, a rolling around of thoughts and concepts that can lead to constructive discussion and (sometimes) constructive action. Sure, it can lead to a lot of dumb-dumb posturing and "flame wars" and whatnot also...but the potential for good stuff still exists.

Plus: outlet for creative self-expression. Blogging in and of itself is valuable to the participants.

But that's not what this post is about. I just wanted to point out that bloggers aren't writers because I wanted to put a pin in the notion that bloggers suffer from "writer's block." Writer's block (according to my handy-dandy wikipedia reference) is a condition that affects a writer's ability to produce new work. Bloggers don't have this problem...posting to a blog is as easy as snapping a picture of your sleeping dog and uploading it to the internet with a funny caption. Producing "new work" is as easy as typing "I've been sick this week" or "the in-laws are in town" and hitting publish on Ye Old Blogger. A blogger is never "blocked" in his or her ability to produce new blog posts...unless they suddenly lose access to the internet.

However, bloggers definitely suffer from slumps.

A "slump" is a sports term, one I hear most often applied to baseball. It's used to apply to a period of subpar when an otherwise decent batter fails to get a hit or draw a walk for a couple weeks, or when a usually competent closer blows three or five saves in a row. Sometimes a slump - if it's extended long enough - can lead to a player being "sent down" to the Minor Leagues, and may be a precursor to retirement from the sport...if you can't perform at the same level to meet their own expectations, some folks will hang up their spikes and look for a different line of work.

[I've been watching a lot of baseball this season, and following the Seattle Mariners means being subjected to a LOT of slumping players, unfortunately]

The hope, of course, is that players will "play through" and eventually break out of their slump, coming back to their former quality output of play (at least, if they're a young player) or a state of relative adequacy (for older veterans intending to retire soon anyway).

Bloggers go through slumps. Periods where their creative output is "subpar," either in terms of quality or quantity or both. Sometimes this leads to a blogger's "retirement" from the game of blogging. Sometimes, it's just a down cycle and the blogger eventually returns to form...or at least an "adequate level" of performance. As in baseball, a lot of different factors can contribute to slumps, both on the field and off (i.e. on the internet and in the home life).

I'm going through a bit of a slump myself right now. I'm hoping to break out of it soon, but I do want to post more than just "updates on book sales." That's not really what this blog is about.

Just so you know.
: )

Monday, August 19, 2013

Five Ancient Kingdoms: PDFs Updates

Just a quick FYI:

My recent ocular injury prevented me from getting the PDFs for 5AK uploaded to DriveThruRPG this weekend (as was the original plan). Fortunately, I had time this morning to rectify the situation.

The PDFs are currently being reviewed. Once they're available for sale, I will post an announcement (with links) on this web site.

Later, Gators!
; )

Saturday, August 17, 2013

It's All Fun And Games...

...till someone gets stabbed in the eye. That's what happened to me tonight (Friday) when my child accidentally gouged me with a lollipop stick.

It's not the first time he's jabbed me, but it's the first time it's been bad enough to go to the emergency room. Unfortunately, being single this week means I had to wait a few hours till my mom could come watch D, while Steve-O drove me to the hospital. Lots of pain...the howling kind. It was scaring the child, you know.

Beer helps.

Anyway, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, I hate doctors. Not the doctors themselves (nice, caring individuals) but the "modern" practice of medicine.  As I told Steve-O, a trip to the doctor (generally) ends with them doing nothing for me except prescribing heavy duty narcotics. Like I need that.

[it's not that I can't sleep...I just don't have time to sleep]

But we went to the doctor anyway. The diagnosis: corneal abrasion. My vision seems not to terribly affected (a little blurry, but it should recover soon) and a lot of pain. I should heal with time.

In other words, the doctor could do nothing...though he did prescribe me a huge allotment of vikes for the pain.

So, while I have enough vikes (in street value) to fund a small print run, I am instead not taking the drug, but rather killing the second half of this growler...

[and I fell asleep...woke up to about 5 pages of "wwww..." on this post]

Today was bad...couldn't drive today (though I tried). Had to take a Vicodin, and it helped, but most of the day I was pretty worthless (well, D and I had fun doing puzzles). Right now we're doing beer, pizza and Seahawks in what was billed as a "possible Super Bowl preview." I can only hope the Super Bowl looks like this (33-7 over the Broncos at halftime).

Ugh. I still have to get those PDFs uploaded for sale in the next couple days. AND I have more shrink-wrap and mailing to do. I had a LOT of things on my schedule for this weekend and this downtime has just SUCKED! Aaaarghh! Hopefully I'll be back in action by tomorrow or Monday.

More later.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Big Boy Business

Okay, so I lied a bit in yesterday's 5AK update: I did get those three packets in the mail before the post office closed, but I didn't get "all" my mailing done, since I got three new orders the same day. Looks like another Jimmy Johns/USPS lunch for me today.

Thanks for the business, though.
: )

And speaking of business (or "bidness" as I sometimes pronounce it): because I'm selling a complete game now (and not just supplements for use with B/X), I've decided it's time to actually build a web site  "for support of the product." This is going to be nothing super-exciting...remember, I'm just a little above neanderthal level when it comes to technology. However, it will be a place to move my product
"buttons" to (off the blog) and will include forums for discussion of Five Ancient Kingdoms and other products. I will, of course, let people know when it's up and running (hopefully in a couple weeks).

After that I can get business cards, and a facebook account, and a car with my logo on it....

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Dresden Files

Okay, first a quick 5AK update: almost all my mailings have gone out, and I should have the last three in the mail today. I have the car this week (one o the “perks” of the wife being out of the country) and I’ve been using the opportunity to make daily post runs on my lunch break.  Postage costs have been higher than I anticipated because all the packets have been an ounce heavier than my original “test” mailing…which is just weird. Did I use a different size envelope with first one? Did the addition of the adventure really add a full ounce?

Well, whatever…I’ll just eat the cost for now. The thing that REALLY bites, though, is the way the post office has changed their customs forms. They now have to manually enter all the info off the customs form into their computer for each mailing? WTF? I never had this issue with my last two books…just sending a single packet to Canada added an extra 5-10 minutes to my time at the post office yesterday. And today I’ve packets going to both the UK and France! Good thing I’ve got a Jimmy Johns just a couple blocks away.

[my lunch break is only 30 minutes]

So, yeah, people should start seeing their books arrive in the next few days. I know Gary’s Games (my local retailer) has sold a couple copies and asked for more, so the game is already in the hands of some folks.

Okay, so…Dresden Files. Had the chance to play this at Dragonflight this year and wanted to talk about the experience. Especially with regard to “role-playing” and in comparison to my recent play-test of D&D Next (i.e. 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons).

[oh no! Not this can o worms again!]

Yep…a little bit.

Dresden is one of those games that I don’t own, haven’t read, and (previously) had no interest in purchasing or playing. It uses the FATE game system, itself a derivation of the FUDGE (universal) game system, and I’m not a fan of FUDGE. I’m not a fan of “universal systems,” as they tend to be bland and generic (duh), drawing any flavor from the setting material or theme assumptions you try to slap on…and I prefer a system that synchs game mechanics tighter to the gameplay/style of the game. FUDGE with its subjective, descriptive phrases makes me cringe even more. What’s the difference between “good” and “great,” really?

Whatever…I’m an old fuddy-duddy curmudgeon in that regard. FATE offers a couple upgrades over FUDGE, and I enjoyed playing Spirit of the Century (which uses a version of FATE as well) the last time I was at Dragonflight. A lot of fun actually.

But then, SotC allowed me to live out some of my pulp fantasies (I absolutely love early pulp...). The Dresden Files? It’s “Harry Potter” meets detective noir. At least, that’s what it looks like, and I’m not a fan of Harry Potter. Yes, I’ve read the books and watched the films, but that’s because I’m a completest: I want to know how the story ends…even if the story’s not particularly compelling. The idea of a magical world living side-by-side with a mundane world, basically cooperative, kind of not-so-but-somewhat-secret…it’s like “World of Darkness Lite.”

More fun than it looks.
So yeah…not a big fan of the “fudgy-ness” of FATE, not a big fan of the Dresden theme (haven’t read the fiction nor watched the show), so why would I be interested in the game?

Well, turns out it’s a lot of fun actually.

And in ways I wasn’t really expecting. For one thing, the game made it very easy for me to role-play, and here I mean it in my own terms of putting myself in my imaginary character’s shoes. And this despite being an “indie” game…remember me talking about how “authorial stance” doesn’t facilitate role-playing because it takes you out of the character’s perception? You don’t remember that? Well, it was a pretty rambling set of posts.

Let me walk you through my experience: I wasn’t doing anything so I showed up at the Story Games Lounge just as they were deciding what game to play. A couple people voted for Dresden and I wasn’t about to rock the boat. Ogre (the GM) had a “canned adventure” ready for Dresden and handed out pre-gen characters…characters that had been played before and thus were a little developed based on past players.

My character sheet was a mass of gibberish…or rather, a mass of jargon with which I wasn’t familiar. I had a bunch things that looked like skills, ranked from +1 to +5. I had a bunch of magical gear, some of which was self-explanatory (healing potions), most of which weren’t (“vial of tears?”). I had a bunch of “aspects” which were descriptive one-liners…these things I remembered vaguely from 2010 (when I last played a FATE game) but I didn’t remember exactly how they worked mechanically. Some, like “good kid from a bad family” looked useful while others, like “channel my inner Admiral Ackbar,” were baffling to me (and I say this as a Star Wars fan who knows Admiral Ackbar). My character’s concept was something like Young Wizard Malcontent or something…a slacker 20-something who’s part of the local “wizard council” (or whatever) but has issues with authority (mainly due to his own apathy, probably).

Not every character at the table was a wizard: one dude was a (mundane) cop assigned to the Special Investigation (“supernatural”) unit. One was an older wizard “warden” (like the badass, magical “sheriff” of the territory). Two characters were supernatural non-wizards: a half-goblin/fae/changeling prankster and a dude who was like Wolverine without the claws (a brawny brawler with super-hard bones and regenerative abilities). The adventure was the kind of throwaway one-off you’d expect: someone got murdered, the police figure out supernatural beings are involved, SI cop drags his usual supernatural cronies into the investigation, and hilarity ensues. Or bloodshed. Or whatever. You get the gist.

What I’d like to do, though, is note the similarities between the (real life) circumstances of this game and my play-test of D&D Next. In D&D Next I also sat down with a group of (mostly) strangers and (very) casual acquaintances. I was given a rule set similar to something I’d played before, but that I still needed a little over-view of. I was given a character sheet for a semi-developed character with a bunch of (to me) gibberish…about the same length, too...including equipment, skills, and some special feats/stunts, abilities. Like the Dresden game, I was presented with a fairly obvious scenario: there’s a subterranean gnome community that needs help reclaiming their ancestral caverns that have become infested with non-friendlies. The players have a diversity of character concepts, all of which interact (mechanically) with the game environment in similar ways, if with different color.

Challenges will be presented. Players will address those challenges. “Stuff” will happen.

Now there WAS a difference in the type of character I played in the games: my DDN character was a dwarf fighter, while I purposefully decided AGAINST taking the “basic fighty-guy” in Dresden. It was offered to me (perhaps because it was my first foray into Dresden and only my second time with FATE), but I declined it in favor of the “snot-nosed kid.” I wanted to try something different.

[not that it really matters that much…I tend to play all characters the same regardless of concept]

The scenario in Dresden unfolded the way one would expect: you find clues in a scene, it leads you to a different scene. Sometimes there’s a fight at a scene. All leading towards the inevitable showdown with the “main bad guy” in a final, climactic scene. I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot over the years (typical World of Darkness type scenario). Having not read the rules, I don’t know if this is the typical Dresden scenario (the protagonist, Mr. Dresden, is a detective, right?).

All in all, pretty standard…which is what I would say of the D&D Next scenario, too. Not much surprising, fairly linear in the lay-out from “start” to “objective.” The players in both cases were a mixed bag, both regard to skill level (with the rules) and level of engagement (with play itself). In both case the DM was perfectly competent to run and referee, neither limiting the players through their decisions, nor providing exceptional surprises or “twists” in the action of the game.

I should also point out that both systems (DDN and Dresden) provide little kewl things (feats, stunts, powers…whatever you want to call it) that allow your character to operate outside the standard rules of the game, generally as an expendable resource. Okay? Same stuff with different jargon.

Having said all THAT, I will say that the Dresden Files most definitely facilitated the act of role-playing and D&D Next most certainly did not.

The difference was not the GMs running the game. The difference was not the players participating or the quality of their interaction with each other. The difference was not an exciting “adventure” that required a bunch of brain power or socializing with NPCs. The difference wasn’t minimalist rules or character sheets. The difference wasn’t a “lack of dice rolling” (I rolled more dice in Dresden than I did in the game of D&D Next). The difference was a lack of combat or danger: I actually missed a good section of the adventure (as I explained before) but came back in time for the whole climactic showdown with big, mean sorcerer and bunches of gun-wielding goons.

The difference was the SYSTEM…the mechanics of the game. One game (Dresden) forced me, again and again, to consider who I was as the imaginary character. It put me firmly in the shoes of my character…making me consider my game play from my character’s perspective. Here’s how:

When your character tries to do, well, pretty much anything at all interesting, you roll four “FATE dice” to see how effective you are. A FATE die is a six-sided die with two sides marked “+,” two sides marked “-,” and two blank sides; these stand for +1, -1, and 0 respectively. The result of your roll is added to your skill (+1 through +5) to arrive at a number that tells you how good your attempted action turns out. Especially with regard to combat and damage, these results are fairly objective…many times you have to overcome a specific target number (like the skill level of an opponent) in order to succeed.

I don’t own FATE dice, so I was rolling a set provided to me by the GM. My dice rolled shitty the entire session, mostly rolling negative and never rolling higher than +1 (that I remember). To compensate for this, you are allowed to tap “aspects” (those one-line descriptions) if you can apply it to the action; each aspect can be tapped once per action and gives you a +2 bonus to the result of your roll. You are also required to spend a FATE chip (like a poker chip) for each aspect tapped. Whether because my character was a wizard or young or both, I started with fewer chips than the other PCs (I believe I started with three), but I was awarded one every time I did something clever or interesting or made a cool choice of action based on my character’s descriptive aspects.

The thing is, I was forced to take actions (or motivate my character) based on my descriptive aspects because of my shitty dice rolls. Even when I didn’t roll terrible, I was still spending chips and tapping aspects because I wanted to get bigger successes. I was milking the system, constantly emptying my chip total as fast as they were awarded, and fully engaged in the mindset/personality of my character, because that was the only way for me to achieve effectiveness in the game. It didn’t matter, that my character wasn’t the strongest-toughest, or the biggest badass wizard, or the goblin-girl who’s stealth rolls ended up with “legendary” results every time because of various stacking feats and stunts and circumstance bonus. I, as a player, was fully in the mindset of my character AND still affecting the outcome of the adventure scenario simply by using the built-in mechanics of the game. I was the character that ruined the Big Demon-Summoning Ritual, and put a bullet in the Head Witch, and then later found said-witch (after she made a magic “quick escape”) with a ritual designed to follow the bullet I’d left in her. Pretty good considering my character seemed to have been designed to control wind and water and heal folks.

[as I’ve said before, I don’t really do “cleric.” In the end, as usual, I ended up leading the charge into battle and mucking everything up for the bad guy in my typical show-boat fashion. The GM later told us he’d run this scenario several times in the past and this was the first time anyone had ever actually stopped the demon from being summoned…most times the Wolverine guy would charge the summoning circle and get possessed and then turn on his buddies. I used my “wind evocation” to fly ahead of everyone and then used “water control” to wreck the summoning circle. The gun-play only came about because there’s a prohibition on wizards using magic to kill people, but in the end it worked out for the best when I had the idea to track the bullet]

I never did “channel my inner Admiral Ackbar,” though.

The aspects I did use included things describing the character’s personality, ethics, likes and dislikes. Things like “my friends are my family,” “mortal lives are in danger,” and “Erik’s not a bad guy…when people are trying to kill us.” The last referred to the character’s prickly relationship with the wizard warden – the stereotype “old guard vs. young buck” kind of dynamic. The other PCs used their aspects to do cool things as well: in one memorable instance, the cop used his cop authority to make all the mook cultists throw down their weapons, instead of doing the otherwise inevitable (and drawn-out) gun battle with a bunch of AK-47-armed, meth-head Satanists.

[just to contrast, back in my Vampire the Masquerade days, this is exactly the kind of thing that would take up hours of game play without being exceptionally interesting to the game]

SO…fun time had by all and quite a bit of (what I would consider) actual role-playing. Based on the mechanics of the game and the way the game-play unfolded. Now, am I anxious to get down to the shop and pick up a copy of Dresden Files? Or some other FATE-based game? No, not really.

Why not? Because, fun as it was to play I’m not terribly interested in running the game. I had a blast playing a character in the game (even someone else’s pre-gen character) but I would not want to act as a GM for the game…and if I purchased Dresden with the idea of introducing it to the players at my table, chances are I’d be running it. And the GM part of Dresden just doesn’t look all that fun to me. To me, it looks like the GM’s game (with Dresden) is very much dependent on what your players are bringing to it.  In D&D (and similar games), this isn’t the case: if the PCs don’t bring their “A” game, it just means they get killed…and killing players is plenty fun. I get the impression that character death isn’t really a feature of game play in FATE (judging by how difficult it is to even damage a non-mook NPC)…so unless your players are ready to dive in to the role-playing and start burning those chips, your game’s just going to be dull, dull, dull. I’m also not sure if or how the “character development” works in FATE; as a one-off session, the game worked great, but how do characters change over time in an extended campaign/saga?

ANYway…I was impressed with the gameplay and wouldn’t mind playing again (as a player, mind you). After dipping my toe into FATE on two occasions, I find myself a bit intrigued with its particular mechanics, wondering how it might be used in other settings/themes, perhaps in a streamlined form. Maybe I’ll check out a couple of these other FATE games (like Bulldogs! or John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded). I just wish the books had fewer pages.