Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"It" Movie Review (We All Float)...

So here's something that doesn't happen every day - a movie review!  You see, every now and again there's a movie event.  Something big based on something bigger that gets a lot of hype in geek circles and either delights or disappoints when it finally comes out.  And this summer, in a season full of lackluster disappointments (my opinion), there's something which, thankfully, succeeds and (interestingly enough) is also a perfect fit for late summer going into early autumn - Stephen King's classic novel IT!

Now, in the name of full disclosure, I'm a rather huge Stephen King fan.  But that's not the big reveal.  We publish fantasy RPGs, so I imagine people think I do fantasy like the Cookie Monster tackles an Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip.  Not so much.  And that's the big reveal.  Aside from a few notables (well, a respectable amount), I don't read an awful lot of fantasy anymore.  Tolkien?  Moorcock?  I love 'em all.  Blood of Pangea is heartfelt.  And I thoroughly enjoyed Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (get it)...

But when it comes to fantasy, I prefer mine as gaming.  To me, that's where it makes sense and feels right.  Guess I'm a crappy geek.  Book-wise (and despite the fact that my all-time favorite is Kingdoms of the Wall, a sci-fi masterpiece by Robert Silverberg), I prefer literary horror after King, Straub, and (the great) T.E.D. Klein.  This is modern fantasy with all the pretensions of John Updike.  Stories about real people facing off against the innumerable monsters in their lives - only some of them supernatural!

And King has always been about people.  Plausibly real and relatable.  There's nothing like our own world with all its intrigues, and his movie adaptations didn't start getting good until the Hollywood types finally figured that out.  Yeah, King loves his monsters.  And he certainly created a compelling mythology.  But his stories were always about people...

Enter IT.  The 2017 Muschetti IT and not the (inferior) 1990 miniseries.

SPOILER ALERT:  The town of Derry, Maine sees a sudden rash of disappearances, and a handful of kids discover the culprit's a monster.  Read the book or see the film.

Disclaimer:  This is a movie adaptation, so it doesn't perfectly follow the original book, which begins with adult characters in the 80s being summoned back to Derry and recalling their childhoods in the 50s - and the evil they temporarily defeated.  The movie focuses on the childhood end of things, with a planned sequel for the adult reckoning.  That said, a few scenes are missing or changed.  Most notably, a giant bird and the animated Paul Bunyan statue.  But movies flow differently, so I mostly forgive them...        

We all float down here...

OK, first things first.  The movie is well cast and acted.  The banter between the kids is a bit frantic at times, but I imagine my own adolescent ramblings were at least as much, if not worse.  And the decision to shift this portion of the story to the 80s was a truly inspired move by the producers.  Some have made unflattering comparisons to Stranger Things.  But I think the choice had more to do with giving contemporary audiences a sense of nostalgia they could relate too.  Remember, the kids come back 27 years later to finish things, and that works out to being roughly in the present day for moviegoers.

At any rate, there's enough 80s pop culture going around that even youngsters can relate to its imagined yesterday and, really, those days weren't all that different (and the movie would doubtless lose some of its magic if the kids were face down and transfixed by their cell phones all the time anyway).  So younger audiences get both a feeling of familiarity plus a glimpse into a lost, but relatable, past.  All in all, a sound choice.  Now, I straddled two decades (I turned 13 in 1980), so it really hit the sweet spot for this reviewer!

And the cinematography?  Well, it certainly delivers.  Its perspective and timing is eerily effective, and the famous scene with Georgie in the rain works perfectly.  I don't like violence against children.  Not one bit.  And I'm not a huge fan of suffering or splatter flicks that glorify it, so this was a little hard to watch on the face of it.  But it's part of the story, after all.  This scene, to me, was the most important indicator (and an early one at that) as to how well the film would perform.  A clown in a sewer drain is pretty ridiculous imagery, so you have to get into the head of a little boy and create something both seductive and menacing  (I've always thought that the two overlap).  And it works because Pennywise is depicted as just human enough in dark shadows, and because Muschetti wisely retained King's original dialogue.  Let's just say I was both pleased and disturbed. 

What the @#$% is this?  The 1990 
miniseries was a floater of a different kind...

Now, something that stands out is how kid-centric the film manages to be.  Adults exist, obviously, and we see glimpses of them all.  But this is mostly a story about kids at a time in their lives when they stop being appendages of their parents and start forging their own identities and relationships.  And sometimes, the adults become the villains by proxy and, in the case of Beverly's character, actual villains of the worst sort.  We see glimpses of who they are through the effect they've had on their children, and this helps keep the emphasis squarely where it belongs.  It's an approach that only occasionally falls flat.

But what about the film's titular villain?  Pennywise the Clown is played with fiendish enthusiasm by Bill Skarsgard and is both closely human and horrifically, well, off.  The depiction works.  One thing I didn't like about the 1990 miniseries (aside from pretty much everything) was how common Pennywise appeared.  He (she/it) just looked like a clown with bad oral hygiene.  And the garb was too similar to what you might see at the circus today.  But Muschetti's version achieves something positively baroque; an outfit from another century that's creepy and profane in the way early black and white pictures are creepy and profane.  It's the grotesque imagery of 1865's advertising.   

And, of course, CGI helps.  Pennywise is portrayed as the cosmic entity "he" truly is (read the book, people), deadlights and all (really, read that book).  And there's something vaguely spider-like in its movements, which also plays into the story, albeit in the inevitable sequel.  This isn't Freddy Krueger or some other lame (and generalized) thing of earthly evil (I like literary horror and not the swill served up in most horror films).  And because the original book began in the so-called present, with a grown-up Loser's Club returning to Derry to end things for good, we know the sequel isn't destined to be some cheap extrapolation of a superior original.  This, alone, gives me high hopes... 

Now, a word about scares.  A few have complained about the lack of them.  I find this absurd because the scenes where each character individually encounters Pennywise are pretty frightening and, in the case of Bill Denbrough, atmospheric and spooky.  But it's doubly absurd because scares are cheap thrills.  Scares are bullshit.  Going to war was scary.  So what?  I can't stand the vapid "jump-scare" crap (some of which was advertised in the trailers) being served up these days.  No, this is a story about people.  Young people facing off against evil and ultimately winning.  And the intended effect is more that of a knight entering a dragon's cave.  Scary, sure, but also rather heroic.

The film has its flaws.  Bill Denbrough's stuttering is shown, but never referenced.  Same with the spoken device used to counter it.  Likewise, Richie's penchant for silly voices is shown in dialogue, but the "beep, beep" reference (used only once in the movie) is likewise never explained and would doubtless fall flat with the uninitiated.  Hurried editing, perhaps?  Maybe an extended DVD release can fix this, and maybe that's the plan.

At a little over two hours, IT never drags.  The film does what it needs to, although I found myself wishing for just a little more.  Movies aren't books.  They can't achieve the third person deep King is known for, leaving the audience to rely on their eyes and the dialogue to get the point across.  And this one pulls it off where the miniseries failed.

And so Stephen King gets what he deserves.  A movie franchise (of sorts) and an adaptation that actually works.  And no John-Boy as Bill Denbrough either.  Yep, that's a bonus!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Five Things We've Learned by Being Humans Who Also Happen to Play Tabletop RPGs...

Earlier on, we posted an article about the role of the GM/referee, and it prompted some discussion (and questions) about what kind of GM I might be.  So instead of flogging a dead horse, here's five simple rules we try our best to live (and game) by:

Disclaimer:  The following is our opinion.  It might differ from yours, but that's not a high crime or misdemeanor, so take it with a grain of salt and humor us.  

(1) Games are great.  But actual people and relationships are (almost) always more important.  You can stop here if you want, cause' the rest is just fluffy window dressing...

(2) Hopefully, the people in your group are also your friends.  And if so, hopefully you value these relationships for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your hobby.


(3) If one of your players offers to sacrifice their +2 plate mail to keep a cherished character alive, it's the a good-faith negotiation that's well worth honoring.  In these situations, just balance the fun everyone had when the character was alive against any reservations about propriety.  The integrity of the rules takes a back seat to these considerations, especially when a player is volunteering to lose something to keep something else.

Really, challenge is about risk and uncertainty.  But it's also about making sacrifices and understanding that everything costs, so don't turn away any paying customers!  

(4) Sometimes, the spouse or significant other of one of your players will join in just so they can feel part of what their loved one is doing.  Please understand that in these situations, the dynamic has clearly shifted, and the emphasis should change as well.  The goal now is to keep everyone involved, because the death of a newcomer's character immediately excludes them.  People before make-believe games.  Live it.  Love it, etc.
  
Going easy on a non-gaming guest isn't gonna break your game, and if they become a regular (always a good thing), they'll obviously need to adjust their expectations.    

(5) As long as games are played by people, said people will need to negotiate and resolve their differences in a way that scales to the setting and the things at stake.  I haven't seen a rulebook yet that can prevent bad behavior.  It all comes down to relationships, folks...

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tekumel and the Power of "Maybe"...

We're back from a much-needed break - and maybe we go to a monthly format again.  But until then, we do have a little something to start the week...

So, getting to it, we stumbled upon this old article on the Hill Cantons blog and were immediately reminded of what a kindred spirit M.A.R. Barker was.  Not only did he imagine the weirdly exotic world of Tekumel (which should have been more than enough to secure his place in gaming history), but he also seemed to have the "right" ideas about how gaming should be approached.  I mean, if we're gonna look at a game; any game, under the pretense of adventure, then story matters.  Even if it's just the story created when people get together and make decisions in the heat of whatever battle they've stumble into....

The party flees an approaching band of orcs and finds their escape cut off by a collapsed tunnel.  Now this is a tactical problem.  But it still implies story.  Why are the characters underground?  What are the orcs doing there?  And how did the two parties find themselves at odds?  And, more importantly, how do they get themselves out of it?  At this point, we haven't invoked rule one and really, we shouldn't have to.  If gaming is a participatory social exercise, then the narrative, meaning what happens in the course of an emerging story, is what matters most.  Rules are needed.  But only stories are fun.

In Tekumel, the setting (and story)
overshadowed the system, which is how it should be...

Rules are great (and admittedly, rather necessary).  But I, for one, could never entertain myself just by toying with game mechanics.  The rules always need to map to characters and events.  And story isn't just something built into the background.  Story can also be forward looking - and really should.  In the above example, the characters might hide themselves among the fallen rocks or simply surrender to the orcs and hope to reason with their leaders or successfully escape once a suitable opening reveals itself.  Both make for a great story, but both are only fun when we understand them as a story about characters.

And with that in mind, we're convinced that rules (and dice) are only necessary owing (and ultimately reducible) to the following core principles:

(1) Special powers and abilities necessarily modify outcomes and operate under certain conditions and/or with specified (and generally, quantifiable) effects.

(2) While some actions are always successful and others doomed to fail, many can go either way, and rolling dice creates excitement because an action might succeed, perhaps by the barest of margins.  That is, dice emulate risk and uncertainty.

(3) Moreover, the element of risk and uncertainty is more convincing (and seems more objectively fair) when even the referee doesn't know the outcome in advance!

So let's imagine a hypothetical game where everyone is just a person capable of a general range of actions.  Dice are minimized and the "challenge" lies in thinking up a suitable strategy in the first place.  Melee is easy.  Roll 4 or better on 1d6 or suffer 1-3 hits based on the target's size and/or power (10 hits is fatal).  Success kills the enemy and failure forces another round with the potential for even greater injury.  Non-combat actions, in all their variety, are easier still.  Just roll 4 or better.  If the characters and story are interesting (and if the players get caught up in events), they'll have a blast despite the lack of rules because, ultimately, we don't play to tinker with dice.  We play to become legends!

Of course, precedent would eventually kick in, certain rulings codified, and additional rules developed to account for the stuff of the setting, and at this point, the above becomes a proper game, complete with detailed charts, tables, and source books.  But our hypothetical game simultaneously reveals not only the hobby's biggest strength, but also its inherently self-limiting nature.  Because ultimately, all we need to know is that success is either yes, no, or maybe - and then have 'em roll for the maybe part!  Everything else is just the story...    

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Homunculi (for Diceless Dungeons)...

OK, no dissertation this week, just a little something for Diceless Dungeons; a sorcerous companion that can be magically fashioned, albeit with difficulty, from a forbidden tome that will only be found on adventures (a dragon's hoard perhaps)...

Click on the above link to get this creature (item?) in pdf form.  But also read on to consider the special role of the homunculus in a quasi-medieval world setting...  

Now, this ruleset doesn't go into too much detail about its implied setting, and this is by design (the referee should be free to create whatever they wish).  However, it does suggest something vaguely medieval; a place where magic is rare and, more importantly, widely feared and mistrusted.  That said, any magical writing is going to be exceedingly rare and probably forbidden, and while the homunculus so created offers obvious advantages, clever referees should avoid the tired assumption that magic (and at the very least, magic of this sort) can be practiced with impunity.  All power comes at a price.

That being said, going about in public with a miniature demon on one's shoulder is sure to attract the wrong sort of attention, and even the act of hunkering down for days at a time performing strange rituals will doubtless alert religious authorities!  None of this has anything to do with special rules and everything to do with proper role-playing, which we've always maintained was diceless to its very core.  So roll your minds and get busy playing!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My First Time (Toys Without Tots)...

Remember your first time?  The excitement?  The sweat?  No, not that first time.  The other first time.  I mean, when you first realized that you were a gamer

So, testimonial.  The story of my first time (minus the sweat)...

Back in the sixth grade, I used to catch the bus on a street corner just one block away from where I lived.  We'd been there for years, and I clearly remember walking to elementary school and passing my future bus stop every day.  Hell, I even remember doing the math and calculating how old I'd be in the year 2000, getting the numbers right, but utterly failing to anticipate home computers and the whole Y2K thing.  But yeah, I knew that I'd turn 33 in that future time and was pretty sure I wouldn't get that awesome flying car...

But back in 1978, I found something better.  I found role-playing.

Now, I was a sixth-grader and in the process of outliving my interest in toys.  Sort of.  The truth was, I was still interested in play, but I didn't know how to channel it.  I liked models and still appreciated my Shogun Warriors and Star Wars action figures.  In short, I still loved the stuff of childhood play, but didn't have clue one about what to do with any of that...

Check out these toys.  I mean, who could resist?
(Image courtesy of the talented painter: The Mighty Eroc)

Play without toys?  Adult play?  I craved some mythical next step...  

OK, so, back to the bus stop.  It sat on the driveway of a house on a corner lot.  And sometimes, usually on warm summer nights over the previous season, the garage door was open to reveal people playing something around an elaborate tabletop diorama.  I was intrigued.  And yes, it was a war-game.  But my curious inquiries led me to a friend and his older brother who was becoming interested in a new kind of war-game called D&D.  And so it began.  My first character was Elvor the Slayer, an elf in the old-school, meaning he could alternate between fighter and magic user between adventures.  He died in old-school fashion, but the genie (so to speak) was already out of the bottle and doing stuff. 

So I was a role-player now.  It was a Saturday afternoon in early Autumn.  We were still rubbing summer out of our eyes, and there was lots of pre-game chatter about Star Wars and the latest episode of Buck Rogers coming on that night.  And there was also an adventure; something about exploring the ruins of a crypt.  But what I really remember is rolling up my character and getting a 14 intelligence.  Exciting stuff.  And then there was the game.  It was like playing with really cool toys in my mind.  Only the best toys ever...

We fought some kobolds and got a quick (and rather brutal) lesson in why we needed to search for traps and carefully explain everything we were doing.  There was surprisingly little combat, but I staggered away with 2 HP and decided I was wearing my armor next time, although my one spell had helped us stay alive.  It was chaotic, crazy stuff.  And I was totally hooked.  My love of play had survived adolescence, and I found out who I was.

Now, to be clear, I'm a lot of things.  Most more important than gamer.  But my first time, happily devoid of awkward backseat acrobatics, was still a critical (and accurate) revelation... 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

That Rule Ain't Old-School! (Not!)

Nothing too big, folks.  Yours truly is sleeping off a weekend at KantCon, where we play tested an upcoming adventure for Diceless Dungeons.  We had a great table with a fantastic group who creatively overcame terrible challenges and made me work for it, and Robyn joined the fun as an exiled noblewoman tasked with defending these reluctant heroes (they were all criminal, you see).  The Realm was saved and fun was had by all.

But now we're back, and I'm ready to tackle that old debate about what makes an OSR game, not by arguing its definition (I've already made it clear where I stand), but by discussing something I think doesn't make a good basis for one.  Namely, specific game play mechanics!  Now, I bring this up because a few weeks ago, someone argued against a certain game (as belonging to the OSR) because it employed dice pools.  I mean, c'mon people!  Dice pools are a modern idea, right?  New-school nonsense...

Wrong!  Dice pools go back to Tunnels & Trolls from 1975, making them old-school.

The court finds Ghostbusters
"Not Guilty" of being the first dice pool system to hit the 

streets (and the shelves).  It just wasn't...

Which brings up an important fact.  OD&D may have been the first commercially available game.  But rival systems began springing up almost immediately in its wake.  Moreover, the mechanical diversity of these early games was truly immense.  Kind of like the Cambrian explosion.  So here's a list of RPGs, each one released within five years of OD&D, and the innovations they wrought (and before their so-called time, might I add)...

Bunnies & Burrows (1976) - Likely the first skill-based RPG (a break from class)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) - Employed phobias (flaws) that would feature in later D&D
RuneQuest (1978) - An early percentile and roll under system.  Also, classless magic use
Superhero: 2044 (1977) - Divided points between ability scores instead of rolling dice
Traveller (1977) - Introduced life paths vs. class, but also employed target numbers
Tunnels & Trolls (1975) - Resolved combat by means of the aforementioned dice pools  
Villains and Vigilantes (1977) - Had pulled punches and other complex combat feats  

The fact is, there were many creative people ready to pounce on this new idea and build upon it with smart innovations.  And thus, we have dice pools almost from the start and shouldn't appropriate them for "modern" gaming exclusively, however intuitive that thought might seem.  Oh, and it does make the methodological OSR seem appealing...

Flaws seem pretty new-school,
but Chivalry & Sorcery had them (phobias) well
ahead of modern D&D.  Just sayin'...

I mean, if every mechanical approach was there right from the beginning, the only way to designate "old-school" in any meaningful way is to focus on specific systems (D&D) and the retro-cloning of the same.  Or old-school approaches to game design.

And I do accept that a methodological core exists.  But its boundaries aren't fixed.  The core has an outer periphery that overlaps the greater hobby; an overlap made up of hallmark approaches and assumptions that may or may not be shared by later systems, but that were still there from the start.  Approaches that have been abandoned by some new schools of thought.  I've already covered this.  But I'll say again that games that deliberately take up an old-school approach deserve a place in the OSR or in some adjacent category.  

But if there's nothing new under the sun, then what ideas are new-school?  I'd say three things at least, although I'm sure I'm also wrong about some of them:

(1) Consolidated mechanics (something D&D and its early peers weren't guilty of), 

(2) A tendency to automate social interactions and/or problem solving, and... 

(3) Breaking down the traditional division of labor between players and the referee and, in general, a greater tendency to approach the rules (and not the referee) as a final authority while making everyone co-equal partners within an emerging gameplay narrative.

At any rate, what's new is old, because innovation abounded in the early gaming scene, which saw a major creative explosion within its first ten years that isn't over by a long shot! 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Methodological OSR?

So there's this ongoing discussion (and one fairly recently) about the OSR (Old-School Renaissance) and what it means or should mean, or whatever.  And sometimes, it devolves into horrifying exchanges by people who I can only assume labor under the delusion that gaming, however fun, is, well, important.  That is, important enough to brutally attack anyone over.  Watching mutual friends fight (not debate, that's another matter) over something as trivial as games where we pretend to be elves is sad at best.  Usually, it happens when someone insults someone else, and it quickly ceases being about the hobby and more about the fight, which is inevitable.  And sadly, I've gotten pulled in myself. 

This is troubling because I'd really like to see everyone on good terms.  And because our hobby should unite people.  That said, I'm feeling a bit self-destructive this week and think I'll weigh in.  This is just my opinion, and if yours differs, that's cool.  I'm not one for labeling those who disagree (or game) differently from me with distasteful epithets unless they map to dreadful behavior outside of gaming.  It's just food for thought and debate...

OK, so the Urban Dictionary defines old-school as:

"Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect."

Of course, that's painting in pretty broad strokes.  But in tabletop role-playing, it means the earliest state of the hobby and the games as they were played back in the day.  So yes, OD&D is old-school because it was the first commercially available role-playing game.  It's all a matter of timing, and if Shadowrun were (somehow) the first published system, we'd be calling that old-school.  That's not the way it happened, and we can't ignore our history.  But I point this out because it shows just how subjective "system-as-old-school" can be.

This matters a lot because the OSR began as a "D&D Preservation Society" committed to resurrecting older editions of that venerable game through retro-clones.  Later, this expanded to other early systems, be it RuneQuest, Traveler or whatever.  This is fine; moreover, I don't wish to denigrate any of these fine products (we've had quite a bit of fun with some of them, and that speaks for itself).  But there are some who want to say that these early games define the boundaries and parameters of the OSR, which I'm not so sure about.

Although we disagree with their
more fanatical voices, the gatekeepers do
have a point when taken in context...

To these gatekeepers, the OSR means retro-clones of early games, like White Box, or variations, be it Lamentations of the Flame Princess, White Star, or whatever.  And there's something to this, actually.  Back in the day, D&D was the common language, and each campaign, with their innumerable house-rules, was a regional dialect.  Sure, it's sometimes hard to hear through a thick southern drawl.  But once you get the hang of it, you realize everyone is still speaking English.  So yeah, this element really preserves something of the old-school environment and much of what I personally remember from 1978.     

Call it the methodological OSR.  And yeah, this rightly matters because, as at least one gatekeeper put it, you can't just stamp "OSR" and anything and pass it off.  Sure, I'll concede the point.  I mean, the OSR has to stand for something, am I right?

But then, are specific systems the only thing about the hobby that can be old-school?  What about the assumptions, approach to subject matter, and design philosophy of the early games.  Can't they also be considered old-school?  Especially since they can change (and obviously have).  I mean, 4th Edition D&D isn't an OSR game.  But why not?

Now, some have balked at these things as irrelevant.  For instance, the division of labor between the GM and the players was there from the start.  Technically, it's old-school.  But we're still doing this today and in contemporary games.  Even so, this fact is pretty much inevitable.  Homo erectus was an old-school human, but their genes live on in homo sapiens because it's an evolutionary process.  And I shouldn't have to point out that many newer systems (story games, in particular) are veering hard from this model.

Call it the philosophical OSR.  The idea that old-school can also be about the overall approach to design even in an otherwise original system.  And moreover, the idea that this can still inform a potential buyer and steer them towards systems they'll like...

If you lived in the 60s/70s, this
was the popular depiction of elves, and
Tolkien's original artwork readily
invoked these old-world conceptions...

Our hobby developed organically from Braunstein and Blackmoor.  These were games people actually played and developed from the ground up.  And this fact, alone, necessarily implies certain (perhaps inevitable) qualities, including the following...  

(1) The rules were just a guide for the referee to build their own campaign.

(2) Greater emphasis was placed on personal decision-making and problem solving, and conscious effort was made not to automate these processes with spot checks (or whatever) whenever possible.  These were games of strategy, after all.

(3) The referee had the final say because their job was to create a believable world, and this meant putting many things beyond the players.  And if the players hoped to change things, they had to do it through their characters and the choices they made by proxy.

(4) Things were approached from the perspective(s) of those living at the time.  Believe me, four decades of role-playing has given rise to many abiding conventions; among them, the idea that dwarves are miniature Vikings with a Scottish accent.  But back then, dwarves were more often based on the stuff of 19th century fairy tales.  You know, impish little people with colorful cloaks.  Look at the elf on page 32 of OD&D's Men & Magic booklet or the various depictions in TSR's Swords & Spells.  It was all tasseled hats and curly-toed shoes because back then, that's the antiquated lens we saw demi-humans through.

(5) And finally, production was amateur and primitive because that's all one could do.  But it nonetheless paid big dividends.  It felt accessible, like a peer-to-peer exercise.

But what if you grew up in the 70s and want to design games in that mold?  Games that might have been published back then.  Original mechanics derived from bona fide wargaming approaches of the time.  Games that emphasize decision-making and problem solving over the mechanical resolution of things that ought to be left to the players.  Games that approach their subject matter from the head of a 70s-occupant.  Oh, and rulebooks that deliberately emulate "amateur" design and production to top off the illusion.  Games that do #1-5, above, because they represent an intentional (and legitimate) design strategy...   

Would this be old-school?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But if so, it belongs in the OSR!

Now obviously, quite a few modern games embrace at least some of the above and do so deliberately.  And, not surprisingly, many appeal to fans of the OSR.  So let's turn the hat over, shall we, because if you're a game publisher who does this by design, you'd be out of your ever-lovin' mind not to reach out to the OSR community.  After all, its devotees are more likely to appreciate your approach.  Oh, and buy and play your games!  That said, if you're designing specifically to appeal to these sensibilities, you belong to a wing of the OSR, even if it's just its philosophical wing.  But then, our foundational principles matter.

So is the OSR a methodological or philosophical thing?  In the end, I'd argue that it's both!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Barons of Braunstein Update!

Today we've released an updated and expanded Barons of Braunstein, adding two new appendices to round out the game, especially in the realms of combat and historical magic, because each of these was central to the medieval mindset... 

So first off, the new and improved Appendix II (Tactical Combat) offers alternate rules for greater lethality reminiscent of what we attempted in Opherian Scrolls, but also a table of situational modifiers tied to specific weapons when wielded in certain ways.  Now combat is faster and more deadly.  But only when the characters (and their enemies) can position themselves for maximum advantage and stay alert.  Thus, individual weapons matter more and without sacrificing the game's trademark simplicity and ease of play.

Next, Appendix III: Diving Spirits, introduces period-specific divination, whether reading entrails or casting runes.  And even Christian characters might receive visions in the mystic tradition.  Now this is a historical game, so every effort has been made to ensure that this can be interpreted as mere coincidence (much as it doubtless was in the real world) or taken as the real thing.  And if true sorcery and witchcraft are allowed, the new appendix goes into greater detail about culture-specific spirits and the limits of their knowledge when questioned, whether talking to the dead, foul demons, or immortal faerie spirits.

The expansion adds simple rules
to make combat faster, more lethal, and better
tied to the weapon(s) used...  

So there's history.  And magic.  And now there's historical magic; and here, the judge is encouraged to hit the books and build the sort of chronicle they want in the best game setting imaginable.  Real history in the real world of flesh-and-blood toil and intrigue. 

Now, we'd thought about adding a bestiary because, after all, these were considered scholarly truth back in the day.  But every time we tried, it ended up feeling like a fantasy game, and we've already published three pure fantasy-themed RPGs.  So a passing mention of magic and witchcraft?  Sure.  It's always possible that all the magic, faith, and appeals were little more than coincidence.  But even full-on sorcery is limited and understated, putting real history front and center.  And if you really want monsters, the gameplay mechanic is roughly compatible with Blood of Pangea, and we could totally see taking its monsters for a Game of Thrones-styled setting with ease!  In fact, some are already doing so...

After playtesting and putting it all together, Barons now feels complete, although we do plan on releasing a special hardcover edition complete with additional resources for discerning collectors wanting something special for their bookshelves (and their tables).

This is an update, so if you've already bought it, this is a FREE expansion to your OBS library.  But if you're new to all this, it's a great way to spend your $2.49.  Barons of Braunstein is Licensed by David Wesely, creator of the original Braunstein game and one of the founding fathers of the role-playing hobby.  So if history's your bag, check it out here...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Victims of Torture (Gaming Edition)...

Ok, so death happens in games.  That's a given.  But maybe there are fates worse than death, at least while it's happening.  And maybe instead of death, your character is tortured, whether at the hands of their enemies or even the long arm of the law...  

Torture.  The very word conjures up horrific images of racks, thumbscrews, and the iron maiden (not the band, we're good with that).  Humans are very good at hurting one another, that's for sure.  But as bad as we are, most fantasy worlds are inhabited by creatures that personify evil itself.  Think orcs and giants driven by cruelty and the love of violence.  Short of that, there's plenty of human villains who delight in the suffering of others, especially when they hold a grudge and a hated nemesis falls into their hands.

But it wasn't just the bad guys.  In a medieval society, torture was a tool of local law enforcement, and those caught stealing or instigating a barroom brawl might end up in the stocks (if they're lucky) or maybe receive lashes (not so lucky) in the town square. 

Which is to say, unlucky characters just might find themselves tortured... 

Torture could break the body,
badly, but also the spirit and will to fight...

So first off, let's be clear that many tortures were really executions designed to prolong the suffering, although ultimately ending in death.  Here, the goal was to kill, and the best a victim could hope for was to die quickly or somehow be rescued.  And we'd be remiss in our duties if we didn't list a few here (not a complete one for sure, but a decent survey):

RAT TORTURES (gasp!) involved tying the victim flat on their back and placing an iron basket full of live rats on their chest.  Delightful, but we're not done.  Next, the basket was heated, causing the confused and panicked vermin to tunnel through the softest, most yielding surface (i.e., the victim).  Not a good way to die.  And it's easy to imagine sadistic GMs having a captured character subjected to this.  Maybe 1-2 damage per round until dead or rescued?  The thought of playing this out might seem unnecessarily cruel, but if the possibility of imminent rescue exists, why not pull out all the stops?

And there's the additional challenge that if the victim is recovered, they'll be injured and probably too weak to  walk (or maybe reduced to 10'-20' per round with help).  For the victim, troubles don't end with mere rescue.  And assisting an almost helpless friend through an enemy fortress teeming with alerted guards can be a challenging experience.  All of this is gaming fodder on steroids.  And the stuff of Game of Thrones and actual history...

SAW TORTURES were just awful.  Really.  The victim was hung upside down and sawed from the groin downward in hopes that blood going to their head would keep them from losing consciousness.  Ouch.  And while a daring rescue was theoretically possible, once the saw hits the pelvis, the victim is off their feet for weeks and, barring  magic, slowed (again, 10'-20' per round) and permanently out of the adventuring business more likely than not.  Just for fun, let's say 1d6 per round, with the pelvis breached after 1d6 minutes of work, which means it's definitely not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.  Or anyone, really...

The lash was a terrible punishment,
but one that could be survived, albeit with scarring...

Of course, other tortures were meant to extract intelligence, although the victim was often put to death once the desired information was obtained.  Standouts here include:

THUMB SCREWS were vices tightened around the thumbs (or other appendages) and gradually tightened until the subject spilled the beans.  Deliver 1-2 damage per turn of the vice (once per round as the interrogator plies their trade), with saving dice (vs. poison or maybe a wisdom/willpower save, where applicable) each round after the third to avoid saying too much.  And assuming the character is eventually released or somehow rescued, fine manipulation is out of the question for 2d6 days (+1 per turn of the screw).

Finally, and perhaps most relevantly, other tortures were designed to keep the victim alive and deter future indiscretions.  This was often the case with law enforcement or in the military, especially, and most infamously, the navy.  And the big winner here is:

FLOGGING (feared by all) was administered by having the victim's hands tied to a post, baring their back, and then having at it with a whip!  Typically, it was something like 20 lashes.  Enough to get the point across, but not enough to kill, although it probably did feel quite a bit like death.  Assume here 1 damage per blow, and if the victim gets to zero hit points, they fall unconscious.  Barring magic, a flailed victim cannot easily walk without some assistance, per the above, or perform any feats (fighting, stealth, or spell casting) for 2d6 weeks, pretty much putting them out of commission.  Oh, and they cannot heal more than 1 point per full day of rest.  Period.  Gives a person time to think, doesn't it?     

Now imagine a band of marauding orcs attacking a party, triumphing, and robbing them blind.  But instead of killing them, they string up one unlucky character, administering the lash before departing with their possessions.  Now this really is the stuff of nightmares...

Of course, all of this is just a survey.  There were many methods of torture.  Too many, unfortunately.  But the important takeaway here is that (1) torture happened, (2) it had lasting physical impacts, and (3) it was clearly traumatic.  And if your game seems right for this, torture is an alternative to death, albeit a terrible one, and a source of gameplay challenge!