Sunday, April 25, 2010

Confessions of a Genre Fiend

ME: "Hi, I'm Eric."
ALL: "Hi, Eric!"
ME: "And I am a genre fiend"

The term "genre fiend" to my knowledge first appeared in an old-school Champions supplement called Strike Force, published in 1988 (yes, I consider some of that stuff's 22 years old now). It was a complete campaign sourcebook, and nothing like it has been published since. It was written by Aaron Allston, who already had a storied history in the gaming community, having served as editor of the Space Gamer and Fantasy Gamer magazines, a few Car Wars supplements to his credit, as well as a couple things for Hero Games.  He later would go on to author the Rules Cyclopedia for TSR.  In Strike Force he details what different players may want from their games, and how to appease them. One of these player types was a "genre fiend."
A genre fiend, from what I remember, is a player who is a rabid fan of a certain type of fiction, and would like to see the tropes of the appropriate genre brought into the game. That is, if you're a genre fiend in a Champions game, you would want to see some Marvel/DC influence, and maybe some Ultraverse/Dark Horse too. If you are a genre fiend playing D&D, you might want to see more heroic fiction or swords & sorcery influence. In short, you'd want to see in your games what you loved to read about. 

**WARNING: This is an extremely pared-down version of my gaming history, as it pertains to genre-fiend mania. I have played probably every game under the sun, from those Storyteller games to lesser-known systems like Justifiers and Fading Suns, Feng Shui to Rolemaster and MERP, even Riddle of Steel, Talislanta, and Earthdawn. I don't include those for the sake of brevity.

Well, as time wore on, I began to perhaps sink more and more into the genre fiend mold, and fewer systems were to my liking. I'd like to see a build of Champions that didn't take forever to make a character or have hours-long combats. That's against the freakin' genre! My issues with D&D begin with the ridiculous manifold uses of the term "level" and end with the impossibility of emulating the fantasy genre. D&D does one thing really well, and that's D&D. Anything else is window dressing. I had finally realized that system does matter.
On the advice of others, I began looking at other systems that sounded like fun. I looked at Savage Worlds. No offense meant to Shane Hensley, but it seems to use the dice step mechanic from Sovereign Stone which had been out for a full 4 years before Savage Worlds debuted, and seems to resemble GURPS as to how it handles other things, like skills. There are parts of the system that look intriguing, but I'd played GURPS before and it wasn't to my liking, so I'm not sure if I'd want to play Savage Worlds. Maybe if I hit a demo game at con, I might get sucked in.

I began to take note of systems like Risus or PDQ, and noting how elegant their "freeform with guidelines" systems were. I began to dream how easy it was simply to declare a genre, give some guidelines on creating characters in that genre, and be up and running with a minimum of muss or fuss. My dreams were realized when a nephew of mine (nothing but videogame experience) and my wife and a couple friends were able to make characters for my Risus fantasy game and we ran quite successfully for a few sessions. And it was my world, with my take on things. It wasn't played for laughs. 

One of the problems I have with a lot of games is they take their cues from D&D. All of 'em, whether it's Traveller or GURPS or Warhammer or any of that, there are certain tropes in these systems that are universal. The main one that I have an issue with is that damage is based on the weapon itself, not on the person using it. Some people just accept that and move on, but it flies in the face of not just fiction, but reality. 

A trained sniper is going to do a lot more damage and be a lot more precise in his shot than someone who doesn't know jack. Yet, in a lot of these systems, if the dice fall just right, the newbie sniper hits and does max damage. Which is fairly stupid. Likewise, a guy trained with knives is going to cut you up, and probably kill you in one shot if he cares to. Yet in D&D (depending on edition) he gets a miserable d4 or d6 max, depending on the edition.

Three films, for your review: 

House of Flying Knives - You think those guys were doing miserably low amounts of damage with their throwing knives? I wouldn't want to go against any one of them, even with a gun. 

King Arthur - Eschewing the preposterous premise, the action scenes were solid. And Bors, big, bald, brawny guy that he is, wades into a battle with light armor and kills Picts with twin daggers. Again, not possible in a game, unless rules were made to offset this. And mook rules don't quite give that visceral satisfaction of mopping up the floor with dozens of well-trained guys. 

Lord of the Rings - despite the ridiculous rewrite of the original story, the action shots were pretty good. There is a scene, Two Towers, I believe, where Legolas, in light armor, slides down a bannister and starts killings orcs with...wait for it...twin daggers. In a game where armor type is king and your stuff matters, he'd be dead, with little appreciable damage done to the enemy.

In case you're not a film buff, here's an example from the book I'm reading now, The Legend of Deathwalker:

The man's sword snaked from its leather scabbard and he ran forward. Talisman's right hand came up and back, the knife-blade slashing through the air to hammer home into the man's right eye, sinking in to the ivory hilt. The warrior ran on for two more paces, then pitched to his left, striking the ground face first. As the second warrior leapt forward, Zhusai's knife thudded into the side of his neck. Blood bubbled into his windpipe. Choking, he let go of his sword and tore the knife clear, staring down at the slender blade in shock and disbelief. Sinking to his knees he tried to speak, but blood burst from his mouth in a crimson spray. Talisman's foot flipped the sabre into the air and he caught it expertly.

Again, not possible with meager weapon damage. And more exciting than I've seen in most games, but I digress.

I'm not advocating we raise weapon damages, or merely give some justice to the lowly dagger. I support something I found in Daniel Boggs' excellent Dragons at Dawn, a game based on Arneson's game pre-D&D. In Dragons, Arneson introduces a stat called Hit Dice, and, instead of being Hit Points as Gygax re-termed them, they are instead the number of dice you roll for damage when you hit.
Obviously, Fighters are going to roll more of those dice than Magic-Users and Thieves. Which makes sense. It keeps things balanced, and can even out the damage disparity starting at 5th level, where you can do 1d8 + whatever with your sword and your magic-user buddy can do 5d6 -- at range!

To avoid confusion, we'd probably have to call it something else.  How about the Battle Factor?  You could even work up a table for the Fighter, like this:

Level    Exp    Battle Factor
1            0       1+2
2         2,000      2
3         4,000      3
4         8,000      4
5       16,000      5
6       32,000      6
7       64,000      7       Bonus attacks
8      120,000     8
9      240,000     9       Lord (Lady)
10    360,000    9+2*
11    480,000    9+4
12    600,000    9+6
13    720,000    9+8
14    840,000    9+10

That way, at 7th level, while a 7th level Magic-User is doing 7d6 damage with a Fireball, the Fighter of similar level is doing 7d6 damage with his twin daggers. :)  Of course, in the meantime, if the Magic-User is forced to use his sword*, he does, say, 4d6-1 damage with it.  In this way, balance is maintained, and not artificially.  Plus it mirrors both heroic fiction and real life.  The best of all possible worlds, eh?

* = Of course, the weapons appear reversed here, but that's just aesthetics.  If a warrior chooses to use daggers, that's his choice.  With the damage now being based on the character class, anyone can choose any weapon they want.  Gandalf used a War Sword in Lord of the Rings and it didn't break the Trilogy...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

XP 1: The Spider-God’s Bride Review

XP1: The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery
Copyright ©2008 (Standard Copyright License)
200 pages

"Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and in the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars -- Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."
-- The Nemedian Chronicles 

Very recently I purchased my PDF of XP1: The Spider-God’s Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery.  I had read a review on Grognardia as well as having read their free preview pdf, and I was practically drooling.  So, I've had my nose in it for a bit, and this is what I've found.

A caveat: The product is for d20.  I intensely dislike the d20 glut, as well as the too-many-rules syndrome that has taken over D&D.  Basic D&D was okay, Advanced took things and UNstreamlined them, then 2E came out and layered more and more confusion on things, then came 3E and 4E and while their ideas were okay, the execution was extremely poor (min-maxing characters to compete is not my idea of fun).  There are a few d20 products that are worth the money, and I felt at the time of my purchase that this was one of them.

One of the little mysteries of my life was where D&D took a left turn from its source material.  In the Red Rulebook the author, Tom Moldvay, mentions Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft in the Inspirational Source Material section.  Yet, these influences seem strangely absent from the games that I've played, and the system as presented.  You don't see names like Haon-Dor, Az├ędarc, Vulthoom, Dylath Leen, or Hyboria in the campaigns I'm familar with.  And the various flavors of D&D don't seem to lend themselves readily to the wild heroics and the brutal combats.  All the pluses, feats, and battlemats don't do it for me.  The magic system is sorely lacking, all the danger and mystery taken out of it with spell slots and predetermined ranges and such.  The low magic setting seems in short supply, and those supplements that were out didn't seem to do much for the Swords & Sorcery genre.  Weird fiction just seemed to be the redheaded stepchild, fun to read but no one seemed to want to game it.  Case in point: this product is 2 years old, and I just recently found out about it.

Enter The Spider God's Bride.  The author set out deliberately to emulate a weird fiction setting in this book, as opposed to the Tolkien-inspired settings that usually make it to publication.  This product describes the setting clinically, but is still very readable.  The art that accompanies the text is not too bad.  Where it stands out is in the section on religion, unsettling you with some statues that look as if they were ripped from prehistory.  It is sprinkled with snippets of tales by Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, and others.

The document starts out with an overview of the book, and then explains the key differences between the Sword & Sorcery genre, as opposed to the standard settings usually found in D&D (for the most part, "high fantasy").  He lists the main elements here briefly, the bloody combats, the absence of nonhuman races, sorcery is evil and mysterious, monsters are scary, etc.  He also lays out sets of rules following the those sections to set the game more in line with the genre.

The next section covers characters.  The Nomad (wanderers of the desert) is one of the two core classes, and an appropriate take on the sorcerer -- the immortal, corrupt, power-mad type usually found in S&S.  After this we come to the races of man, everything from giant-kings, to pygmies, to cannibals.  The races section details various Racial Traits (in rules form) and cultural information.  i don't know if this was due to the author's style or my enthusiasm, but I found them to be an interesting read.  Despite my interest in archaeology and social anthropology, I find the cultural sections in most settings serious yawn-fests.  

After that the author details the Feats specific to this campaign.  They range from the mundane (like a specific weapon proficiency) to the bizarre (cannibalism to gain a buff), to the truly twisted (such as human sacrifice to gain bonuses to various things). I don't find human sacrifice, as he presents it, to be particularly heinous, though I'm not sure I like the idea of my players doing it...

An eighth of the way through, we come to the chapter on Sorcery.  Here he shakes up some of the elements of D&D magic, and presents his own take.  In the author's words: "The sword and sorcery feel can be achieved in a campaign by restricting or changing a few key elements of the core rules which interfere with the low-magic paradigm, without totally abandoning the fantasy that players expect and enjoy."  Entirely logical, and gives us more options that fit, while taking away the ones that don't.  One thing this product introduces is Taint, which is caused by casting spells that summon evil beings or do harm to others.  Acquiring taint means the mage is afflicted with a variety of insanities, from mild paranoia to cannibalistic urges.  New spells are also discussed; spells that break limbs and drain life force, animate bones and create enchanted heads to learn secrets.

A section on Religion discusses the various gods, cults, and demons that may be found in the World of Xoth.  Worshipping a particular god will give the priest a package of spells, "cult secrets" that the can use.  The campaign assumes that gods are just extradimensional entities in some cases or lies by the priests in other ones.  Which is fitting -- in Howard's Hyborea divine intervention was nonexistent except for "The Frost Giant's Daughter."

Since characters are wont to shop, there follows a chapter on Equipment.  This details weapons, armor, what-have-you that are appropriate to the setting.

148 pages are devoted to 10 adventures in the World of Xoth.  This, IMHO, is where the product really becomes useful.  I've owned various incarnations of weird fantasy supplements in the past, and what has made them fall down is the lack of supplementary material.  I had usually contracted a case of "this-is-cool-what-now" syndrome.  To review too much about the adventures might spoil the plot twists, but I'll list the adventure titles, and if you're a fan of this genre the titles should seem fresh but familiar: "The Necromancer’s Knife;"  "The Spider-God’s Bride;" "The Jewel of Khadim Bey;" "The Eidolon of the Ape;" "The Crypt-Thing of Khorsul;" "The Vault of Yigthrahotep;" "The Swords of Zimballah;" "The Slaves of the Moon;" "The Daughters of Rahma;" and "The Call from the Abyss."  Fantastic, evocative names, that draw me in and make me want to know more.  From the cover blurb: "Sunken Temples and Serpent-Haunted Vaults: Enter the City of Stone and slay the high priest of Jul-Juggah! Plunder the ancient gold of Namthu! Seek the fabled jewel of Khadim Bey, but beware the nameless horrors of the Al-Khazi desert! Fight the dread adepts of the ape-god, or succumb to the pleasures of the Moon-Juice of Yaatana! Or perhaps you will perish by the curses of Ur-Kharra, the long-dead sorcerer-king of Elder Kuth?"  That should give you quite enough to whet your appetite.

At last we come to Part 3, the Appendices.  The Appendices have to do with New Monsters, References and Bibliography, Miscellanea, and the OGL.  The new monsters are appropriately horrific, everything from undead to "things that should not be."  The References and Bibliography even includes games, most of which I own.  The Miscellanea section is a random table of genre elements, which you can use to springboard your own adventures.  

The Final Word
I find this to be a very solid piece of work.  I say this in part because it is long overdue, but it also presents a fantasy milieu very much to my liking.  Old, but new.  The adventures are fantastic and well done.  If any of you remember your first time playing D&D, when you didn't know what was coming, and you felt the tingle of danger, the excitement of the unknown; when you saw Erol Otus' art and realized this was something truly different, the feeling I got reading this was similar.  

One quibble I have is the maps.  It helps to have a map to flip to while you're reading, and all of these, including the World Map, must be downloaded from their website.

The only other quibble, and this is truly nitpicking, is that the author didn't revise d20 enough for my tastes, but that was not the point of the book.  He did enough to give it a swords & sorcery flavor without changing the rules overmuch.  He kept it D&D, which should have players & DMs breathing a sigh of relief.

This is a top-notch product, and I would recommend it to anyone who has read the tales that inspired it, and has wished, albeit briefly, that they could play a character in those worlds.

Crunch 4/5 (While this product has a bit more crunch than I like, I realize it's the nature of the beast and it's not overwhelming)
Flavor  5/5 (A fantastic and weird setting, complete with many adventures to complement)
Ease of Play 4/5 (Since I don't find d20 flows all that nicely, I'd have to downgrade it.  Otherwise everything is well-presented and I didn't have to read a sentence twice to understand it)

Overall: 4/5 (This is great!  It makes for interesting reading at the very least, and a very playable product as it was intended.  My money was well-spent, I think)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dragons at Dawn Review

Dragons at Dawn
Southerwood Publishing
©2010 Daniel H. Boggs (Standard Copyright License)
62 pages

This product can be found as a downloadable pdf at
or as a softcover at

I just downloaded Dragons at Dawn, the new release from Southerwood Publishing.  This product is meant to simulate, as closely as possible, the original rules that Dave Arneson ran his games with in the days before D&D. For those who don't know, Arneson was co-designer of original D&D, and TSR had agreed to pay him royalties on all D&D products.  When Advanced D&D was released he was not compensated as TSR felt it was far different from what was originally published.   He finally got credit as a co-creator, and nearly two decades later was paid off by Wizards of the Coast to relinquish any rights he had to D&D.  His huge contribution to the hobby has been largely ignored until recently. 

As a general overview, Dragons at Dawn is a pdf 62 pages in length, and set in some font that I can't readily identify.  The art ranges from pretty good to okay; I didn't find any particular piece all that evocative.  Quotes from Dave Arneson are scattered throughout, justifying various rules.

I despise the general layout.  There's no actual "Chapter 1: Introduction" type of headings; just a list of the contents of the book in the beginning.  Each topic is divided by a header in blue, each section has a slightly darker blue header.  The section header is the same font and size and could be anywhere on the page, which makes it bloody hard to tell a section from a topic within the section.  I would hope, if it goes through a revision, that they would make the section breaks more obvious.  Perhaps a better way to do it would be to just end the section wherever it ends, then the next page would start a new section.  Just a suggestion.

The first chapter is the introduction, wherein they detail the reasoning behind writing and publishing this.  I always love designer notes, the "why's" behind the rules, and these are no exception.  Their love of the hobby shows here, as does their reverence for one of the godfathers of gaming.  Bear in mind that the author quotes a friend who called this product "Classic fantasy roleplaying in the style of Dave Arneson rather than Dave Arneson's classic rules for fantasy roleplaying," so, if you're looking for the original rules, this is as close as you'll likely get, but not precisely.

Second comes terminology.  The author did a great job of laying out the terms and abbreviations you'll need to know, wisely avoiding the problems many early rpgs had. 

Third is character creation.  There is nearly nothing new here.  4 standard races, a handful of classes, a +1 here and a % chance there.  When we get to the Ability Scores section, here we have the old standards plus a few different ones.  They are Appearance, Brains, Constitution, Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom.  One difference is the range; they're rolled on 2d6-2, reroll 0s.  Another difference is the application, as Dexterity is used in the "to hit" calculation.  Some things I would not expect in an old-school game are here too:  Personality (a 1-3 word description of your character's traits) and Education (free-form-name-it-yourself skills).  There are Alignments to be found here, too, divided into Chaotic, Selfish, and Lawful individuals.  Lawful people are good, chaotics believe the end justifies the means, and Selfish individuals are total bastards, just out for themselves. Each class progresses through levels based on how much experience they have acquired.  If you gain a level it might increase your Hit Point Value, which is static and only increases once every few levels.  When it increases, it merely doubles or quadruples, except for Priests and Mages, who have a different, more gradual progression.  No rolling is involved.  Each classes also has Hit Dice, which in Dragons at Dawn is used to calculate Attack and Defense Values, as well as dice of damage.  Obviously, the Warrior has the highest values for HPV and Hit Dice, making it extremely unlikely for a Warrior and a Mage of equal level to do the same damage using the same weapon.   

The next section is titled "Equipment," but strangely only covers Armor and Armor Class.  Yes, this system uses Armor Class, and it ranges from 1 to 8.  Armor Class is the target number rolled under on 2d6 to see if you penetrate armor.   Negative armor class was intended for Spirits and such, that can't be hit by nonmagical means.  Armor Class scales upward, too, so a 5 AC is better than a 3 AC.  

After the Armor section comes information on how to set up a campaign.  In true wargame fashion, it assigns 2.5 points per monster Hit Die and informs you of how many points a particular room should have, 5 for a dungeon intended for first level characters, and increasing by 10 each level after that.  The points for the whole place is multiplied by the number of rooms.  So a first level dungeon with 10 rooms would have 50 points.  The game also suggests the use of various cards to introduce more random elements -- Rumor Cards (self-explanatory), Fortune Cards (which can include fortunes, one-shot benefits, or advice), and Chance Cards (random events which occur during the campaign year). 

Moving further through the book we come to Combat, which bears very little resemblance to D&D or much else I've seen.  It reminded me a bit of Powers & Perils or Arduin.  The outcome is decided mostly by Hit Dice and Armor.  Combat is divided into Rounds (individual actions) and Turns (equalling 10 Rounds).  You roll for Morale (the will to fight), determine who goes first, and calculate Attack and Defense Values (using the differences between Dex, Size and Level of each combatant) and add it to the Hit Dice of the combatant with the highest Hit Dice in that round.  Compare Attack vs. Defense Value on the Combat Matrix, make a 2d6 roll, and determine if you hit.  If a hit is scored, roll the Armor save and if the roll is higher, apply your Hit Dice in damage.  The section goes on to describe healing and disease, etc.  

Magic, the next section, is definitely different than the pseudo-Vancian magic that has never left D&D.  The very first paragraph reads: "Wizards can channel raw magic energy to make Wizard Light, Lightning Bolts and Fireballs.  This
magic may be thrown at will but requires the Wizard to make a Saving Throw versus Constitution for the spell to successfully trigger.  Failure of the Saving Throw means failure of the magic and causes the Wizard to collapse with exhaustion..."  The rest of the section describes the spells and explains they use material components.  After a quote by Arneson about wanting to use spell points, it describes a system of magic using Spell Points.  I know many people who think Spell Points are broken, but Spell Points allow a freedom that hundreds of pages of rules could not.

Dragons at Dawn next details Magic Items.  The magical items are again different than what many roleplayers are used to.  For starters, each item has an alignment, and merely touching an item of a different alignment will cause harm to the perpetrator, from a damaging jolt, to indefinite paralysis and even instant death.  The pdf then describes some magic items that were used in Dave Arneson's original campaign.  Reading further you will find that magic weapons are "unique and special creations" and they have the ego and alignment similar to the intelligent swords in D&D.

The book also includes a very short monster section describing various monsters.  This is fairly standard stuff, including Barlogs (presumably renamed to avoid legal action), Dragons, and Trolls.  Orcs seem strangely absent, though a quote by Arneson at the start of the section clearly mentions orcs.  A strange omission, given the quote.  The point of the quote was not about orcs in particular, but still...

After the Monster section, Experience is explained.  Experience is earned for spending gold in accordance with your character; Priests donate to their religion, Wizards create new spells, etc.  Leveling up is not automatic, you have to be trying to do so, and the GM has to agree you've met the requirements of your class.  You may only advance one level at a time, and any excess XP simply disappears.  You start over from 0.

The next section, Keeping Track, discusses hirelings, party order, sleeping order, wilderness travel, etc.  

Appendix I details costs and weights for various items an adventurer may want to purchase.  Weapons have no other stats other than price and weight.  Appendix II contains spell descriptions.  The Spells are pretty standard, having different ranges and areas of effect, Fireballs are able to hurt your party, etc. 

The Final Word: 
(Note: This is my opinion, not yours.  YMMV)
I think this is a fantastic rpg, and I would probably play it over D&D if given a choice.  A few reasons: 
  • Open-ended skills allow a customization usually unseen in old-school gaming.  And the more popular modern games lack this as well (I'm aware that Risus and PDQ have systems entirely based on this).
  • The Combat Matrix pits combat skill against combat skill, making battles seem more vibrant.  
  • The Magic and spell point system are superior to Vancian systems, and are at least a nice start, and seem compatible with D&D at least on the surface.  The flavor seems more true to what I'm familiar with.  
  • The Hit Dice mechanic has a great philosophy behind it -- it's the hero (not his stuff) that makes him great.  It helps make a more cinematic game, one that doesn't saddle a character with lousy damage because of weapon choice.  Weapons can be selected with aesthetics in mind rather than "because this does more damage." 
  • There is not a rule for everything.  This hails back to the days when you had to be clever, not a rules lawyer. 
One question remains unanswered: How much of this is truly Arneson and how much of this is Mr. Boggs' work?  A couple readings of this book sort of leave me feeling that some of this is what Mr. Boggs thought Mr. Arneson would have wanted.  And that's okay.  Rather than celebrate this as the hidden vault of  Blackmoor from the 60s and 70s, celebrate it as a worthy addition to the old-school gaming category.  It is at the very least an interesting look at what D&D could or even should have been. 
Crunch 4/5 (It's got enough rules to be functional, but not too many)
Flavor  3/5 (While not a setting in and of itself, it does have a definite tone to it)
Ease of Play 4/5 (Should be fairly easy to explain to someone who is interested)
Overall: 4/5 (This is a neat game!  Part of me wishes this had been published in '74 instead)