Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Ridiculous and The Sublime

Ron Edwards once wrote that (with regard to Fantasy Heartbreakers):
...nearly all of the listed games have one great idea buried in them somewhere. It's perhaps the central point...that yes, these games are not "only" AD&D knockoffs and hodgepodges of house rules. They are indeed the products of actual play, love for the medium, and determined creativity.
Emphasis added by Ron, BTW, not me.

Edwards suggested that every RPG designer has a FHB lurking inside themselves, wanting to be born, and that we should write them (though not necessarily publish them!), both as an exercise and as a bit of cathartic release.

Myself, I came to the conclusion that we might as well all be writing Heartbreakers...yes, ALL of us...AND publishing them because...well, you can read my first thoughts on "D&D Mine" way back here.

D&D Mine...ol' JB's rebuttal to "D&D Next." We've seen it all over the place in the last three years (gosh, was that really 2012? Sheesh...lots o water under Ye Old Bridge since then...)...self-published variations on the original fantasy RPG. Sure 5E has come out and procured a decent following for itself (are there still folks playing and loving the hell out of 4th Edition? If there are, I'd be curious as to how many) and Pathfinder appears to be as strong as ever. But the independent fantasy adventure games haven't stopped popping up...if anything, I think they've become more prolific.

Are they "diluting" the fantasy RPG marketplace? I don't really think so. What I think they ARE doing is:

  • Giving people an outlet for their creative expression.
  • Showing other folks what is possible.
  • Providing good ideas into the collective headspace (to be acquired and added to our games).
  • Demonstrating that you don't need to shell out cash for the latest-greatest.
  • Inspiring others to do likewise.

As a dude who (long ago) decided to stand for the possibility of full and creative self-expression in all people, it warms my heart to see so many games.

[hell, even Edwards just self-published his own FHB (Circle of Hands). Ha!]

From Zero to Badass in under 40 pages.
Most recently, Venger Satanis provided me a copy of his entry into the retro-clone/D&D Mine/FHB realm: CRIMSON DRAGON SLAYER. Actually he provided me with several PDFs for review, but Crimson Dragon Slayer is the one I'm most interested in discussing. Because it's a damn mouthful, I'm going to abbreviate it CDS in this post (though Venger does not do so in his text).

Not all retroclones/FHBs are serious in nature; many either strive for parody or (perhaps more accurately) simply embrace the ridiculous and silliness inherent in the "Dungeons & Dragons genre" (is D&D a genre? I think it might be). Hackmaster was perhaps the first to not take itself seriously, but there are others...Drowning & Falling is one I find especially amusing. CDS falls into this "humorous" category of 'clone, as it seeks to create an emulation of 1980's fantasy...and I mean EARLY 80's fantasy. The default setting is 1983 and you (yes, you) have been sucked into your Commodore '64 in a Tron-like mishap, forced to adventure as your alter-ego through a land inspired by B-fantasy movies, Savage Sword of Conan comics, Lovecraft, Star Wars, and old video (arcade) games.

Gamers of my generation (born in the 70s) will find a lot of recognition in this kitsch: it's the stuff we grew up with and (as such) the stuff we threw into our early days of gaming in huge, heaping handfuls. That doesn't necessarily mean it will tickle your funny bone or anything...some people hate this kind of thing. But for me, it's a reminder of my roots in the hobby. I may (these days) wince at the sight of Marc Singer's oiled pecs and feathered hair in The Beastmaster, but shit like that was a tremendous inspiration "back in the day."

Heck, it's STILL an influence (note the "beast master" class in both The Complete B/X Adventurer and in the appendix of Five Ancient Kingdoms). I can TRY to appear all "literary" and say these things are an homage to ERB's Tarzan but, no, it's all f'ing Marc Singer, dude.

*ahem* Anyway, that's not what I want to talk about. You may dig the jokey nostalgia of CDS or not (kids born in the 90's are probably going to miss a lot of these references unless they're some kind of 80's-philes), depending on your temperament and stomach for such things. I want to talk about the game itself...there's some good stuff here.

First off, if you knock off the style of the thing, you find there's not a whole lot of cloning going on. CDS uses a D6 dice pool mechanic that's fairly cool. I've been working with similar dice pools in my own designs lately (probably makes me a bit biased), but Venger's got a neat one that still manages to link well with the 3D6attribute/class/race/level-thang. Basically, you roll a number of D6s based on the difficulty of the task being attempted and your character's effectiveness at such a task (usually no more than 4 dice) and count the highest number rolled on any single die to determine the result of the task.

Folks who've been around have seen this kind of thing before, of course; usually designers take one of two tacts with it:

  • A binary pass-fail (like "all even numbers are successes") where one counts the total number of successes to determine the "quality" of success at a task. See games like HEX, Sorcerer, etc.
  • An incremental quality based on the actual number rolled...like Extraordinary success, Good success, Partial success, etc...with a subjective (GM) interpretation of what exactly "extraordinary" versus "good" means. See games like Other Kind, InSpectres, etc. This kind of mechanic is one of the staples of "story games."

Venger's mechanic uses an incremental interpretation, but it's not subjective (at least not for successes). Instead, the die result has set-in-stone interpretation based on the actual number rolled.  A 5 or 6 is a success, for example, a 4 is a half success (like "half damage" in combat), a 3 is a minimal success (or what he calls a "mostly fail;" minimum damage or penalty to next action), a 2 is a straight fail, and a 1 is a critical fail (where the GM gets to subjectively hose the PC). Since you only look at the highest number rolled, rolling more dice gives you a much better chance of succeeding (i.e. "not failing")...and since you can boost your dice pool with "genre emulation" (in this case, making an 80s reference or using some sort of cheesy, B-fantasy one-liner), it encourages specific gameplay AND gives characters a chance to be pretty badass...again in the same way as the genre being emulated.

Another neat aspect of the mechanic is "dominance." Rolling a "6" doesn't just mean you succeed by you get to add a "perk" to the task (like double damage or triggering a stunt...there's a short list of six perks from which to choose). Rolling multiple 6s allows you to choose multiple perks, so your badass gets even MORE badass when you triple-up or quadruple-up on damage (for example). 666 really IS "the number of the beast" in CDS...and your character is the beast!

[by the way, I love having titles for specific dice pools: Advantaged, Super-Advantaged, Super-Duper-Advantaged, Advantage Supreme all make me chuckle...but it's useful as well as fun to put finite restrictions on dice pools]

The available classes are cool interpretations of classics. Of special note is both the thief (the way its sneak attack/backstab ability works) and the ranger (wow, who thought I'd ever have anything nice to say about a ranger?). In fact, the CDS ranger is cool enough that I'd probably adapt it to B/X (or any similar game)...low-powered (compared to most versions of the class), but interesting and effective in its own way.

[also, while the subclasses are interesting, I really like the shaman variation with its specific set of animal metamorphoses. It may be a "joke list"...how useful is it to turn into a turkey?...but the idea of limiting the shapes is a good one. The defender is a bit more practically useful, but less fun]

The idea of a three aspected alignment - what a character IS, what a character THINKS HE IS, and what other characters THINK OF HIM - is an especially interesting concept. It would be cool to develop this a bit (though it does have some practical aspects in CDS as written...a person who thinks they are good and righteous may find it impossible to activate a Holy Sword, based on the DM's determination of actual alignment), but regardless it's food for thought.

The simplified "effects" for weapon types (edged weapons explode, blunt weapons stun, etc.) are well done. Another thing worth stealing.

I really, really like the magic system, and it's quite adaptable to other old school games. Wizards can cast any spell equal to their level of experience or lower, but it costs them a number of Willpower ("Wisdom") points equal to the level of the spell. The mitigating factor to this is that wizards can siphon off willpower from living beings (blood magic!), as well as that a caster can "go negative" by casting a spell (which knocks the wiz out and requires a death saving throw). Wizards can ALSO cast spells higher than their level, though at three times the normal cost...so if your 3rd level mage wants to pull out an 8th level FACE MELT (yes, that's an actual spell), it's cost 24 points of Willpower (probably putting your character in a deep, dark hole of negative willpower).

[I like Venger's take on alchemy, too]

The spells themselves are pretty cool: three per level starting at 0 and going up to 10 (actually, there's only one 10th level spell: WISH). Many of these are pretty humorous in tone (the 6th level spell TASTE THE RAINBOW, for example, or the aforementioned FACE MELT), but level-wise they seem pretty well scaled. They're certainly cool enough that I wouldn't mind playing a wizard in this game.

Especially with the weapon proficiency rules. Yes, characters start out with limited proficiencies  based on class (save warriors: they start proficient with all weapons). However, if a character wields a particular weapon enough (i.e. in enough combats) and survives being disadvantaged, they'll earn the ability to use said weapon. That's a nice touch.

Let's see...armor does damage reduction which is sensible given the task resolution system (and easier than the alternative: a Warhammer-like armor save). Initiative (turn order) is determined by action taken, with similar actions being simultaneous. The equipment list is suitably nutty, but if you're going to reference the A-Team in the text, you should at least have the van on the equipment list (they've got an Air-Wolf chopper, after all).

Lastly, I wanted to review the advancement system, which is downright awesome: characters begin at 0 level (having just been sucked into their computers, natch), and then may advance as high as level 10. Leveling up gives your character more hit points, and a daily number of bonus dice (equal to level) to spend on boosting those task resolution rolls. Oh, yeah...most classes also have some sort of level-tied abilities (like wizards and their spells). While this is all well-n-good, the interesting part is the way characters advance in level. There are no experience points in CDS; instead, advancement is based solely on accomplishing specific actions. To me, that's The Oldest of Old School (when Arneson would award someone "hero" status based on finding a magic sword, for example). Gaining level one requires the PC to "adventure, explore, and kill a humanoid or creature without aid." Gaining level 8 requires the PC to "acquire an unbelievably powerful artifact or relic." The scale is pretty good, and requires characters act like their level title to gain their level title. For example, characters don't achieve the ability to build castles at 9th level...instead, they only gain 9th level by building a castle.

That's pretty hip, and in an FHB (where characters are supposed to kill and loot their way to the top) easily...or, at least, practically...accomplished within the parameters of game play.

The game is short...it's about 27 pages of rules plus a 7 page adventure. But there's no bestiary (that usually accounts for a third of OS rules' page count) and there's precious few magic item descriptions (though the ones there are tend to be "packed with flavor"). The adventure has plenty of monsters from which to extrapolate a whole world (if one wanted to use the setting), but CDS actually has more potential than the beer & pretzel use for which it seems destined. There's a stout little game foundation under all the smirky. I dig it.

Having said that...

I wrote a little post the other day about the latest Appleseed film, and how I disliked it, in large part due to the re-skinning of the main character's personality as well as the way she was drawn. After writing this, Venger emailed me to say that if I found such light fare as Appleseed Alpha "too sexualized" than I should burn his PDFs without bothering to open them. See, Venger makes no bones about the fact that he enjoys 'racy, sleazy, sexualized, objectifying "soft core porn" artwork' on his book covers. That's what he likes to look at, that's what he finds aesthetically pleasing. To put it mildly, Venger's a bit of a perv.

I point this out because there are folks who are turned off by his aesthetic...and yet, Crimson Dragon Slayer is surprisingly devoid of anything I deem terribly offensive. Yes, there are a couple "damsel in distress" type Conan drawings in the book (which is, if anything, part of the genre being emulated), but the male characters are as scantily clad as any of the female characters who (aside from the aforementioned damsels) are depicted in dynamic or bad-assy poses. CDS is a world of naked (or semi-naked) barbarian action heroes, and the aesthetic presented doesn't seem especially gratuitous.

Nor does the game system seem to be especially, offensively sexist. Yes, there are aphrodisiac spells and mechanics like needing sexual gratification with another person in order to refresh bonus dice, but such can be applied to either male or female protagonists. As the author points out, it's part of the R-rated, 80's genre. There's no objectification of "buxom serving wenches;" no "wandering harlot" tables, no treasure hoard consisting of "nubile slave girls." Still, if you find this genre (or the 80's!) patently offensive, then CDS probably isn't your cup of tea.

Honestly, it's not really to my taste these days (probably hasn't been since I was a teenager). But I've seen worse...and when I say worse I mean recently (within the last year) and blatantly (whether intentional or not) and perhaps even maliciously. I don't see that in Crimson Dragon Slayer.

Most of us have vices, and probably all of us have "guilty pleasures." Compared to a couple of his other works, Venger's RPG seems more the latter than the former, but regardless of how you feel about the style, there's some interesting things going on in the game. I only wish I'd gotten this review out sooner as he was selling the book at 50% off during the Memorial Day weekend.

You can pick up the PDF for $7 over at DriveThruRPG.


  1. Your "D&D Mine" post inspired me to put out my own homebrew rules.

    With Lulu and DriveThruRPG it is easy enough. Why not share with the world. I think some of my mechanics are slick, and if someone gets inspired by them great, If I just have a fancy book to hand to my players and say this is how I play D&D that’s good too.

    Thanks J.B. for a post from 2012 and the inspiration it gave me to contribute to this great hobby.

    1. @ 7:

      You're totally welcome. Hopefully your game will inspire others!
      : )