Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Roll on the random notes table

 It's been a while: some random notes and impressions.

Roll a d6:

1. Warhammer FRP 4E

The Old World is still as cool, dark, and evocative as ever. This is the one "almost played" game that I've known of for years and never played a session. This edition is massive, detailed, comprehensive, wonderfully illustrated. But there are so many fiddly rules, stats, statuses to manage. XP converted to individual skill percentages! While there are plenty of enhancements to the original system, there are also too many gritty sub-systems.
  • The map on the inside cover should be evocative, but the coloring is too green-grey, the detail too fine, to make it engaging, let alone readable.
  • Years ago, I converted the classic WHFRP adventure "Night of Blood" to RuneQuest 3, and it was an easy conversion and an excellent adventure in play.
  • All the classes and careers would make an excellent sourcebook to convert to Whitehack (see below).
  • Even better, convert to BRP using the SRD (see below).

2. Whitehack 3E

A hack of the original "White Box" edition of D&D, Whitehack uses the familiar design elements: the same six ability scores, levels, accumulating hit points and Hit Dice (HD), armor class, saving throws, classes, and XP advancement.
But these original rules have been ingeniously adapted into a flexible, compact system of their own. The profession-like classes, Fighter, Thief, and Wizard, have been converted to true archetypes: the Strong, Deft, and Wise. You then assign your own groups—species, vocations, associations—and abilities to create professions and sub-classes that can be wholly unique. For the Wise, magic "miracles" are a free-form system to duplicate any powers. Sometimes, the slightly awkward generic phrasing—groups, slots, miracles—makes it hard to follow how these choices mesh together to make a character.
Although it's the version of D&D I'd play if I were to play D&D, it still has the same features of the original. Armor makes you harder to hit, but this doesn't scale much with your chance of hitting or your chance of hitting something else, so you gain an abstract reserve of hit points instead. Monsters have HD alone, so their chance to hit you is always proportional to the number of hits they can take. You chase experience points, and at certain points acquire levels that grant instant access to new abilities that you perhaps didn't have or even practice before.
On the other hand, Whitehack has some brilliant subsystems, like bases to represent patrons and other extraordinary adventuring party resources, and it's concise and clear and engaging. And it has some neat random tables that would work for solo play as well as in-game inspiration.
  • There are a few intriguing pages in Whitehack about converting ability scores to use those of other systems. This means with relatively little work, you could convert content from almost any ability score and hit points system to run with Whitehack. I looked at the old ICE Middle Earth Role-Playing (MERP) modules and the idea was very tempting (Strength=St, Dexterity=Ag, etc.).

3. The One Ring 2E

I only have the PDF, but this is evidently a beautiful book. But you don't play the book design or the illustrations, you play the system, and the rules, though no doubt strengthened and improved, seem to me to have the same issues as with the first edition. As in my previous review, the rules are evocative, but my concern is that in trying to guide play through a Middle-earth experience the systems tend towards being prescriptive or procedural, with multiple conditions and narrative elements to track for every activity. When journeying, or in encounters with major NPCs, this ends up pushing the players' significant decisions away from their sense of the world and towards a series of dice rolls.
  • On the other hand, the descriptions of cultures and locations, the way that Eriador is presented, is exactly how I'd like to play that old corner of Middle-earth. BRP would make a better fit, but also the freedom of XD20.

4. Basic Roleplaying SRD

Chaosium has published the core rules of Basic Roleplaying (BRP) as an SRD, and it's astonishing that there isn't more discussion about this. The BRP system in the SRD is truly basic, in that it's a base, a foundation, for any range of games. It presents only a compact version of the core rules. Sure, it lacks a detailed equipment list, bestiary, or magic system. But if you're a GM building your own campaign from your own sources, these are what you're designing or lifting from other sourcebooks already. 
  • Download it, print a copy, decide on your skills list—you could run your game in the Old World or Middle-earth with this. (OK, for WHFRP you'll have to add the Consume Alcohol skill.)

5. XD20 2E

The original XDM: X-treme Dungeon Mastery was insightful, inspiring, and influential, but as I noted in my review, it was also hastily written, oddly organized, and not always adequately edited. So I was keen to join the second edition kickstarter. With the PDF of the page proofs in hand, I've confined myself to checking out the revised in-house system, or XD20, before the printed book arrives. 
It's a promising start. The second edition XD20 is now presented in one version, the simple rules for creating your character makes sense, and the core system—roll a d20, roll high to succeed and then roll again for effect—is elegant and flexible.
I still have no idea what the stat "WAH" means, but I know exactly what all the stats do. It's maddeningly unclear if the combat system means enemies would roll each round exactly like PCs or if it's all combined in the PCs' roll, but it would work either way. It's a system designed to wing it, but now you can wing it with elegance and speed.
  • If TAC=Strong, PSYCH=Deft, and WAH=Wise, you basically have the means at hand to play any fantasy setting.

6. Roll a d100 instead

While reading a certain tome mentioned above, a compressed d100 system kept running through my head. For some actual rules tinkering, see below.

The situation:
  • Grim 15
  • Perilous 30
  • Risky 50
  • Uncertain 70
  • Favorable 85
+/-10 for unusual circumstances

Roll d100 under the situation number to prevail.

Character can use a Quality to reprise a roll (reroll a single die) or change the situation (if feasible).

EXAMPLE: Linz, the boatman, find himself on the river as a possibly magical storm sweeps through. Suddenly, the situation is Perilous! Linz decides to try and run to shore. The first roll is 42! Linz can reroll the 40 die to try and reach safety, or use the next round to steer into the current to find a better course (roll Risky).

Your character has a Station in life (roll situation and read accordingly), a significant Characteristic (Strong, Quick, Smart, etc.) a current Career and two related Qualities.

A character has Toughness (3) points and sometimes armor points (1-3) with which to fend off wounds. Each wound taken then potentially makes their situation worse.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Getting in to Adventure

The scenario is the bridge between the characters and the world. But how do your characters find themselves gathered at the Many Ways Inn?

Roll a die:
  1. Runaway: whether from a cruel or dull situation, you had to escape.
  2. Landless: through conflict or other chances, you have lost all your prospects and must, perforce, begin again.
  3. Summoned: whether by a letter from a patron or some other call, you are brought here to answer.
  4. Commanded: a patron or lord has ordered you to join some mission or venture.
  5. Happenstance: pure chance or a series of unfortunate events brings you to this juncture.
  6. Choice: Perhaps worst of all, you have chosen a life of danger and uncertainty.
What the character will do and encounter (the scenario) comes before mechanics (the game system). And although every scenario needs a setting, consider not just the “where” of the adventure but the “when…”. A scenario is not just a place, it’s a challenge, a dynamic, with constraints and possibilities, that the characters approach organically.

Here’s a simple starter.

Mutton and Marauders


Two ettins, Nygel and Treffor, have crept down from the Garshaws barrens to remedy their hunger, rounding up a small flock of sheep and a shepherd for good measure. Unknown to anyone, grimlock rustlers on a similar mission have picked up the ettins’ trail, and so rescuers, trolls, and grimlocks are set to intersect near a site* at the base of the Garshaws.

Nygel, Ettin [3] - Armed with tree-root club
Towering, massively strong, dull-witted, slow

Treffor, Ettin [3] - Armed with nocked axe, heavy hides act as crude armor
Lean, strong, sly, greedy

Grimlocks [1] a troop of 13 - Armed with spears, daggers, oddments of armor
Ragged, half-starved, nasty; dangerous when cornered, or when able to surrounded and sneak-attack an opponent

* Note that the adventure site is left open, with an eye to continuing the adventure. Is it a cave, leading into greater depths; or a stone circle near a partly exposed barrow-tomb; or a ruined hill-fort, a remnant of better times for the kingdom?

Resolution

The key to play-the-world or FKR resolution (the game system or rules) is not that every action is determined by referee fiat, but that the players concentrate on their characters and the situation, and the referee is ready, through judgement and experience, to resolve their efforts with tools that are both fair and simple to use.

It’s not that there are no mechanics, but that the mechanics are compact and easy enough to generate the chance element that means that the play is not simply dictated but develops in unexpected and dramatic ways as it runs.

Of course, the right tools that are also fair and simple require some judgement or a sense of what works at the table. This might well come from one’s experience of another game, but for anyone new to this style of play, it means that some guidelines, however slight, are useful.

So, here’s a brief rundown of the Tinkerage’s current resolution toolkit.

Roll and Read

Roll and read for characters assumes that characters have a fair, but by no means certain, chance of success, based on the conditions and their own aptitudes.
  • Roll 2d6 and read the outcomes, adjusting to circumstances: 2–3 (fail); 4–5 (mishap); 6–8 (standard - the expected outcome); 9–10 (good); 11–12 (great).
  • Can roll opposed and read for active opponents. Resilience rank breaks ties in opposed situations.
  • Modifiers of +1/-1 are very rare, for exceptional circumstances (magical gear, terrible conditions).
  • For a specific aim or outcome, like shooting a bow at a distant target, also read to meet a threshold number within the basic ranges: 6-8 is within standard range of difficulty; 9+ hard, and so on.
Combat is a kind of challenge where characters attempt to inflict strikes on their opponents while maintaining their own guard. A hit of sufficient force inflicts a strike, and when strikes are greater than a character’s resilience they are struck down. A character struck down may be stunned, injured, disarmed, or even killed or in a critical condition.

Screening rolls

For the referee, a single die is often the best tool. A screening roll is a quick roll of a die to clarify a situation or filter out a range of possibilities. 
  • Roll for quality or conditions: 1 is worst, 6 is best.
  • Roll for questions of probability: 2+ is very likely, 6+ is very unlikely.

Play the Adventure, not the Rules

Look back and think about Mutton and Marauders. The ettins are tough — unless the characters find a way to weaken them first, they should be harder to hit even for the strongest warrior in the group. Maybe roll and read and look for 9+ to hit? What if a character is hit by Nygel’s tree-root club? Make a screening roll to see how bad that strike is. The grimlocks aren’t strong individually, but what if they get the drop on the characters during the hunt, are they then defending at -1 or worse? What is the weather like when the characters set out to track the ettins — there’s another screening roll, perhaps.

And finally, if you don’t care for 2d6, then grab a d10 or put a classic d20 on the table. Think in terms of percentages? Then roll a d100. Know the rough chances of success and failure, give the characters a decent chance when they make a decent choice, and you have the core of freeform play at hand. Sooner or later the dice will surprise you and your players, and that’s when the adventure begins.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Geting in to Character

 Those who meet at the Many Ways Inn are a curious group, driven by many strange paths to seek adventure, after their fashion.

Every game, free-form or otherwise, rests on the interaction of characters and world. And although the referee is the arbiter of the given world, players and their characters represent the active inhabitants and movers of that world. Player characters are there to question and explore. These questions can reveal even to the referee opportunities and realities that were never before apparent.

Characters briefs: in the world, not the numbers

The peoples of Arihmere, townsman and peasant alike, have long settled within stout walls and hedges.
In a free-form system, characters are not defined primarily by mechanics but the terms of the world itself. 

So, we begin with the character’s descriptive brief: a short summary of abilities, background, and calling.

It’s sometimes useful to throw the dice for inspiration to shape your character's background, but there's always choice and room any character concept that appeals.

Roll or select an attribute, a feature of your character that is distinctive and characteristic.
  1. Strong
  2. Agile
  3. Tough
  4. Clever
  5. Learned
  6. Bold
In the largely feudal realms of Arihmere and about, determine a social station: roll 1d6 low to high, or work out a background with your referee.
  1. Outlaw, outcast, or an outlander
  2. Serf
  3. Peasant
  4. Freeholder
  5. Wealthy
  6. Gentry (petty nobility, knight)

Most individuals come from a manor or village attached to a stronghold, but on a roll of 6 they may originate in a larger city or town.

Weave together station and background with a calling. All along the Wolves Lane, we find those who fight, those who work, and those who study.

1-3: called to toil and trade
4-5: called to arms
6: called to faith and learning

For example, a high station and martial calling would suggest a knight errant. A lower standing a soldier or levy. A peasant, called to toil and trade, may be a sort of crafter, or perhaps a forester. An urban freeholder may well be a merchant or artisan.

Character record

Now we're ready to introduce your character with a few notes and mechanics.

Assign three notable abilities related to to their:
  • attributes (characteristics or physical and mental features)
  • skills and training related to calling and background
  • Player characters have one distinction (a special ability, characteristic, or knack that makes the character unique).


Resilience

For the purposes of play, characters have an initial Resilience rank of [2].

Resilience is used to assess how many major impacts or injuries the character can withstand, and also their general level of ability and expertise.

0: Unranked—weak or untrained

1: lowly — commoners, levies, harriers

2: adventurers (start here) — trained militia, soldiers

3: skilled —veterans, captains, tough creatures

4: experts — strong, deadly

5: masters — champions, exceptional, monsters

6 or more: legendary — heroes, dragons



Sunday, January 2, 2022

Many ways in (to the FKR)

The Many Ways Inn is famous for standing at the meeting of three great roads on the chaotic margins of the Harrowmarch, and infamous for the many adventurers and ne’er-do-wells who gather there seeking rumors of suspect ventures.
Over the last couple of years(!) circumstances as well as interests have guided the tinkerage farther in the  direction of free-form, minimalist rules — or the Free Kriegsspiel Roleplaying (FKR) style of gaming, lead by play worlds, not rules principles.

Now there are plenty of resources online to learn more about FKR, and the Green Dragon and Fighting Fantasy systems I’ve discussed earlier are also an introduction to this style, but in the next few posts I’m going to delve into some of the many ways in to free-style gaming that have developed.

But first, a note about FKR play.

FKR is based on the innovation of the original “frei kriegsspiel” wargames, where detailed and systematic resolution methods were discarded in favor of an experienced referee or adjudicator. 

Hence, a free-form toolkit has these elements:

  • A world, being the shared setting for the game and its scenarios. This world can come from an existing game (like the dungeon-y system), an existing fictional world (like the Star Wars universe or Middle-earth), or, of course, the referee and players’ own invention. That being said, the world serves best as a starting point: it’s a place to enter and explore, to map and develop. And although a trend in some FKR circles has been to lean towards playing in existing fictional worlds and genres, for me it’s the creation of one’s own world with rules-light play that offers the most fun and challenge, while (as I’ve said in my Play ALL the Books posts) it’s hugely productive and fun to ransack all the sources you have at hand for tools and inspiration.
  • A format for characters. This is usually diegetic, meaning that simple description tells you about the character in terms of the game-world, not with reference to detailed metrics like stats and ability modifiers, hit points, skills, and so on. See Getting in to Character here, for an example.
  • A resolution system that is as minimal as possible, so that it operates behind and not in front of the character’s choices. See Getting into Adventure for an example.

The key to play-the-world or FKR gaming is not that every action is determined by referee fiat, but that the players concentrate on their characters and the situation, and the referee is equipped to apply, through judgement and experience, with a set of tools for resolution that are both fair and simple to execute. It’s not that there are no mechanics, but that the mechanics are compact and easy enough to generate the chance element that means that the play is not simply dictated but develops in unexpected and dramatic ways as it runs.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Hwaet! Review of Beowulf Beastslayer by Jonathan Green

The early Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, in particular The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, had a strong influence on both my gaming and my reading. Up until Firetop Mountain, I preferred science-fiction, and while the gamebook made it easier for me to imagine role-playing as a hobby, it also suggested fantasy as a genre, which lead me eventually to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, as a scholar and writer, studied and taught Old English, and so by a curious confluence we find, years later, a gamebook based on the Old English epic poem Beowulf, and if you throw in illustrations by the inimitable Russ Nicholson, there's really no reason to resist.

Beowulf Beastslayer, by Jonathan Green, is the most fun and interest I've had in a gamebook since finishing Steve Jackson's magisterial Sorcery! series decades ago. Perhaps the reason Beowulf Beastslayer is so engaging is that by going back to the Old English heroic sources, Green is able to make the world of the gamebook fresh and fantastical again. The first time you read The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, orcs and trolls and ghouls and skeletons and underground mazes are new and intriguing; but after a while the tropes and inhabitants of the fantasy world become familiar, and therefore less exciting. Translating the Old English world-view and poem into gameable format refreshes the experience by creating that sense of the unfamiliar again. Monsters like Grendel, giants, sea serpents, even dragons take on a new immediacy. Riddles based on Anglo-Saxon sources present a new challenge.

To his credit, Green also adapts the Old English alliterative verse to his prose sections, which makes each passage of the gamebook poetic and even evocative of the sense of the source poem. The passages that one would usually skim to find the next fight or choice point are also a pleasure to read. And, the gamebook uses kennings – compact poetic figures from the period – as progress markers and resources: another evocative turn that makes each achievement more memorable.

Green uses the ACE system for the gamebook series, adapted from the original Fighting Fantasy rules, where the ACE scores Agility, Combat, and Endurance are used in a familiar fashion with standard dice, and includes a Hero Points score which functions much like Luck. It's a familiar and highly workable system, although if you're familiar with Fighting Fantasy in general, it's pretty clear where you should allocate your character points for maximum effect, and, if a criticism can be made of the mechanics, I've never felt in much danger during a fight, or worried greatly about missing a roll.

This, on the other hand, could be intentional. With the earning and spending of Hero Points to overcome key challenges in the book, and initiative providing a bonus in a fight, the best option is always to act like a big-darn hero. This is fun, but also, from the perspective of someone familiar with the Old English heroic mode, sort of educational. Playing the heroic values of Anglo-Saxon epics – bravery, boastfulness, generosity, cunning – is a way to immerse yourself in the mindset as well as win the best outcome.

In early 2021, Green also launched Heorot, a kickstarter campaign for role-playing in the world of Beowulf Beastslayer, based on the same rules as used in the gamebook. Given the ease and simplicity of the system, and the potential of the setting (with the chance that it could even fit Tolkien's view of Middle-earth), I'm following this project with great interest.

Monday, November 1, 2021

One Sheet Rules — Your Old School Experience

The OSR movement (the Old School Rules/Revival/Renaissance, etc.) has, over the years, brought to light a lot of interesting rules and ideas, but a recent instance, namely Bill King's One Sheet Rules, seems well worth the time to consider. 

Taking inspiration from early editions of D&D, The Black Hack, Knave, and other OSR and rules-light systems, the One Sheet Rules are an ultra-light, flexible system that takes many familiar OSR concepts and shapes them into a compact framework that would be just enough for any OSR style adventuring.

The simplicity of One Sheet Rules is outstanding. For example, almost every step in character creation is an easy to remember rule of "three": three points go to three abilities (STR, DEX, INT), you begin with 3d3 hit points, you choose three items of equipment or spells, and so on. The basic system, roll d20 and roll high against a target, is cleverly configured so that, if you choose, only players ever need to roll. To run an encounter, all you need to know is the level of the opposition, which serves rather like the HD rating of older systems. There is a experience system, but "advances", like experience rolls in RuneQuest, are based on rolls, not accumulated experience points.

Is it perfect? No. But it is imminently adjustable, and that's what matters. Personally, I would give characters slightly more hit-points in the beginning, like RuneQuest, but with a flatter accumulation and a maximum of about 18. And I would decouple Monster levels from hit points, so PCs could face a frail but deadly-swift foe, or a weak attack from a massive creature that takes considerable damage to drop. But both of these decisions are but a moment to make and easily ported to the rules.

With the Once Sheet Rules, it's possible to convert adventures and even whole campaign settings on the fly. I've sometimes wondered what it would take to pick up and run an old MERP adventure or start playing in the Old World or Warhammer without the cumbersome original rules. Although Basic Roleplaying is always an option, ultralight systems like One Sheet Rules are even faster to adapt.

Where to find them

The One Sheet Rules can be hard to find, and the Tinkerage only came across them by chance.

The One Sheet Rules by William King are available on itch.iohttps://billk.itch.io/one-sheet-rules

You can also subscribe to the One Sheet Review mailing list (links in the rules), which allows you to receive the One Sheet Magic and Monsters edition, which includes a basic bestiary and spell list (highly recommended).


Friday, June 25, 2021

Solo: Play ALL the Books II

 In the first Play all the Books post, I tinkered with solo play and roll-and-read rules in the "play the world" style, mixing inspiration and rules from various rulebooks. In this post, I revisit these approaches with more detail about managing play when the GM, world-maker, and player are all the same soul.

The key to solo play in general is the the randomized oracle, which the solo player leans on to generate hints, plot points, and twists in general terms, since humans are generally brilliant at sketching these suggestions into scenarios. In this, I rely on Trevor Devall's dictum that you don't what to know what's doing to happen; what you need are suggestions that lead the game in directions you couldn't anticipate.

While there are plenty of great oracle systems out there (like Ironsworn, or the the classic Mythic GM Emulator), play all the books means exactly that: at the moment you're unsure or need inspiration you needn't refer to a custom solo rpg system; you look at your whole library, all the games, and select the random table or resolution system that answers to the needs of the moment.

For example, need a career or background? Grab the class and career tables from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Not sure where to start and need a patron? Grab the patron encounter tables from Classic Traveller. By weaving between books, you not only keep inspiration fresh, you find a virtually a custom approach or tool for everything.

A campaign begins

To follow this in practice, several examples follow. And, of course, this style of play can work with multiple players as well.

Broadly speaking, we're interested in an open campaign, starting from the general idea of exploring and mapping a wild-region at the edge of the empire — perhaps a corner of the Harrowmarch?

So assuming a single fortified city as a base, I generated four random pieces of terrain from the Advanced Fighting Fantasy Allansia book, each with a theme from the various oracle tables in Ironsworn. Of the four potential destinations, I randomly selected the hamlet of Osfo (Hills, Hamlet, Innocent, Omens).

After investigating, the omen proved to be "Betrayal" — and the "betrayers" of the innocent village, while human, were revealed as acolytes and cultists of an ogre god of a long-vanished empire.

Looking for the next location, AFF provided a substantial castle, and so I speculated that the cultists were somehow connected to a yet more distant castle (ruled once by ogres?) and generated a handful of half-ruined towers and a keep using the dice-drop method from the Advanced Fighting Fantasy Second Edition rules. 

Running the scenario

Now, we come to point-to-point exploration. For each space, if occupied (likely, roll 3+ on a d6), I grabbed the dungeon encounter table from Out of the Pit, one of my favorite bestiaries:

  • In the gatehouse, a WIGHT (interesting, I used the FF interpretation of a wight, an undead servant—perhaps a cursed minion of the ogres?). With a lucky roll, our scout dodged this one.
  • In the first watchtower, a MANTICORE (I determined this beast has made its lair in the ruined tower, rather than being native to the castle). It took some climbing and sneaking to avoid.
  • In the attic over the inner gatehouse, four ZOMBIES (very curious!). There was a brief and dangerous fight. By chance, the zombies were guarding a substantial hoard or jewels.

At this point, I like to inject a twist or complication into the adventure, so having the Whitehack 3rd Ed. on hand, I rolled on the handy Modus table: "Shortage".  This lead to an interesting bit of GM-side decision making. Of course, shortage could be the simple twist that the adventurers run out of something (like arrows or rations), but that hardly alters the trajectory of the scenario. On the other hand, finding all those suspicious undead in the wrecked castle of the ogres suggested a darker possibility. Perhaps the ogres, once the terror of the region, were besieged and starved in their castle by the ancestors of the people of Osfo. First, the servants of the castle perished, or were sacrificed, to rise as undead servants. But later, the starving ogres themselves turned on each other in a horrible struggle, the strongest devouring the weakest...

So the final encounter was with a hideous ogre-GHOUL in the ruined keep. Curiously, the ghoul had no treasure (lost, perhaps, under the rubble) but I decided to roll for an item (Whitehack), a note, which from Ironsworn was about a "hidden weapon" — more than intriguing enough to launch a new adventure after a suitable rest.