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What I Look For in a Set of Fantasy RPG Rules

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I been asked many times why I don't like later editions of D&D and still play older editions. I think this can best be answered by listing some of the major things I look for in a set of fantasy RPG rules.

1) I want rules-lite. I'm not interesting in hundreds of pages of rules. I don't want to waste time have to look up everything instead of just making a ruling on the spot. I don't want players to feel they have to study the rules to play well. I don't want them to even feel like they have to buy a copy of the rules to play.

2) I want simple, fast character generation. Character generation should take 5-10 minutes for a experienced player -- and not much longer for an inexperienced player with a more experienced player helping him. Players should not have to make lots of decisions at character generation. They especially should not have to make many decisions that, if they choose incorrectly, will hobble their character far into the future. I don't want a character building subgame -- especially one that gives a major advantage to players who buy, study, and master the rules.

3) I want simple, very fast playing, abstract combat rules. If minis and battle mats are needed or even strongly suggested, the combat system is probably too detailed and tactical for what I want. Players should not need to learn rules-oriented tactics for combat. Again, I want my players to be able to play without having to study and master the rules. Combat rules do not need to simulate reality exactly, but they should be easy to map to reality. Disassociated combat rules are probably the most annoying type of disassociated rules. Average combats should take 10-20 minutes maximum.

4) I want distinct "classes" that vary in ability and skills both in and out of combat. In other words I want magic-users, rangers, fighters, etc. to be actually different in play. I don't want every class equally capable in combat. Not everyone is interested in combat and combat is not the center of my games. Combat is also fast (see 3 above) so those who aren't good in combat (or who just do not find combat all that interesting) will not get bored in long, drawn out combats.

5) I wanted limited "skills" Many things like finding traps, negotiating with others, etc. should be actually role-played by the players. Saying "I check for traps," rolling a die, and announcing the result is boring. If skills are in the game they should not be usable to short-circuit actual role-playing.

6) I want easy to modify rules. I run my campaigns set in my own homebrew worlds. I change the game rules to match the needs of my worlds. I do not change the worlds to match the needs of the rules. This means the rules need to be easy to modify and not so tightly integrated that almost any change will ripple across the rules with unexpected side-effects.

7) I want generic rules. As I said, I'm interesting in running my fantasy RPGs in my own worlds. That means I want the rules set I use to be as generic as possible. I don't want the rules tied too closely to a specific world or even the designers' favorite style of play. The narrower the focus of the rules, the less likely they are to meet my needs.

8) I need verisimilitude. My game worlds need to feel "realistic" -- verisimilitude as opposed to actual realism is fine. Rules that clearly don't feel real (like only NPCs being able to buy magic items in AD&D or powers that work regardless of circumstances where logically they would not like tripping a gelatinous cube in D&D4e) are annoying. All rules sets have some rules that break verisimilitude (the feeling that the world is real), but the more such rules there are in a game, the less likely the game will meet my needs. Players should be able to easily describe what they are doing in terms of the world, not in terms of the rules. If they have to speak on think in "rules" then the game probably isn't going to work well for me.

What I look for in a set of fantasy RPG rules may be very different from what you look for in a set of fantasy RPG rules. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. However, I think what I look for in rules explains why I prefer older TSR editions of D&D to the WOTC editions. Just as what you look for explains why you prefer the games you do. There is no one true way nor one true rules set.

[Don't forget that Original Dungeons and Dragons Goodies Are Available (for Cancer Fund Donors). There is still plenty of time (over a week as I write this) to make a donation and get in on the giveaway. Thanks much to those who have already donated.]

Why is the Fair Market Value of Tabletop RPG Products So Low?

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James Mishler recently devoted a long blog post (The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling) to basically berating gamers because they are not willing to pay the (higher) prices he thinks RPG materials should sell for. He seems to believe the prices are artificially low because gamers are cheap and refuse to pay what it takes to produce high quality material that is very profitable to publishers.

Of course, there is one huge problem with his argument. In a free market economy, the fair market value of a product is not the cost of production plus a sizable amount for profit for the producers and resellers. The fair market value of a product is what consumers are willing to pay for the item. If consumers are only willing to pay $19.95 for your product, the fair market value of the product is $19.95. The fair market value remains $19.95 whether the product costs you $5.00 to produce or $500.00 to produce. If the product costs you $5.00 to produce you can sell it for $19.95 and probably make a profit -- even in a two or three layer distribution system. If it costs you $500 to produce and you need to price it at $1000 to make a profit after distribution costs, then your product is not going to sell. The fault is not with the consumers who are only willing to pay $19.95 for it, but with the producer for not producing a product that can be profitable at its fair market value. As much as producers may not like it, consumers, not producers, set the fair market value for a product -- that is basic economics and all the whining and blaming the consumer for being "too cheap" is not going to change a thing.

Perhaps a better question than "how can we shame consumers into being willing to pay more" would be "why is the fair market value for RPG products so low"? Personally, I think the answer to this question is obvious.

From the point of view of a publisher, the problem with the RPG hobby is that hobbyists really don't need anything other than a set of rules (and perhaps some dice) to play. And only a couple of players in a group really even need to own a copy the rules.

Once you have sold those, everything else a player might buy is completely optional. Players don't really even need minis and battlemats for games whose rules seem to require them as one can make cardboard counters and draw a grid on a large sheet of cardboard. Adventures and supplements are nice for those who want them, but they aren't needed and will therefore be bought by even fewer players than buy the core rules for a game.

Optional hobby items seldom regularly sell for premium prices, except in very small quantities. Worse, there are a large number of companies supplying a huge number of these optional tabletop RPG items. No matter how good these optional items are, only a relatively few hobbyists are going to buy them. Lots of product that players don't need to buy to play means that the fair market value of these products is going to be low and even at those low prices few products are going to sell in large quantities to the player market.

Most companies producing such items therefore depend on the collector market for enough purchases to break even or make a profit. RPG collectors are really a separate (but overlapping) hobby. The RPG Collector hobby needs the product to collect far more than the RPG Player hobby needs product to play -- which is probably why so many game companies seem to produce products aimed more for collectors than players. However, the collector market is smaller and needs far higher production values than the player market does. This drives up the cost of production meaning even fewer units will be sold to actual players.

Making a profit off of tabletop RPG players is hard and most companies that try to do so will fail miserably. Of course, that's what happens to most new businesses in any field. Companies who want to survive and make a profit from the RPG hobbyist need to quickly learn to produce what the RPG hobbyist wants at the price he or she is willing to pay. If they can't, they need to move into a different market. Publishers whining to consumers that the RPG hobby is "cheap" because it will not pay the prices the publisher want them to for whatever one publishes just makes the publisher look like a clueless newbie in the business world.

[Don't forget that Original Dungeons and Dragons Goodies Are Available (for Cancer Fund Donors). There is still plenty of time (over a week as I write this) to make a donation and get in on the giveaway. Thanks much to those who have already donated.]

Harry Potter Plus Dungeon Exploration

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For those who don't know this has been an annoying week. I received a relatively condescending email this weekend from a game publisher who shall remain nameless (but one who has nothing to do with the Old School Revival) telling me how folks like me were "ruining the industry" -- and driving down his company's precious profits -- by giving away "good games like Microlite74" for free. Needless to say, this has put me off of doing much posting roleplaying wise this week and made me even more likely to give more stuff away for free in the future.

However, when I haven't been working or ranting to myself over the above mentioned email, I've taken a look at a number of the games readers recommended in reply to my Simple Tabletop RPG for Harry Potter Needed post a week or two ago. While I doubt I'd ever want to run a game for teen characters set at Hogwarts, reading these rules sets gave me a couple of ideas for running a "D&D" style dungeon exploration game set in the same universe as Harry Potter.

The first idea is set in the Harry Potter universe in the near current time. There have to be a lot of old sites where previous Dark mages and weird orders of witches and wizards had their headquarters. The player-characters would be adult wizards and witches (squibs and even muggles if the GM allowed) who are attempted to improve the fading fortunes of their families (or establish fortunes for their families if they are new to the magical world) by finding and exploring these sites in the hope of finding items and knowledge that they can sell. Needless to say, these sites are usually dangerous with old traps and decaying magic protections doing weird things. Exploring these places would be much like exploring a dungeon. The interaction between the magical world and the muggle world could be interesting as well. Imagine a muggle shopping center accidentally built over the remains of a long forgotten Dark wizard's lair.

The second idea is set in the Harry Potter universe in the 1800s. Imagine graduates of Hogwarts and other wizard schools going exploring in Africa or other unexplored parts of the world hoping to find sites of old magical civilizations and either clean them out or hide them before the muggles find them. Sometimes, they might have to work within muggle teams -- for example exploring ruins in Egypt -- taking care of magical problems without letting the muggles have any idea that they even exist.

I don't know that I will ever run either campaign, but both sound like they could be a lot of fun.

[Don't forget that Original Dungeons and Dragons Goodies Are Available (for Cancer Fund Donors). There is still plenty of time (over nine days as I write this) to make a donation and get in on the giveaway. Thanks much to those who have already donated.]

Original Dungeons and Dragons Goodies Available (for Cancer Fund Donors)

As many of you know, my wife is recovering from oral cancer and that I worked on the original Microlite74 as way to cope during her recovery from 6 weeks of radiation treatment last year. We are some of the 40 to 50 million people in the US who do not have health insurance and do not qualify for government aid as we live in Texas and have no children. The cancer treatments and related expenses have cost over $110,000 so far. While over half of this has been absorbed by hospital foundations and the like, we still owe a lot of it.

We have established a RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund for donations. Everyone who donates anything at all (even a dollar) gets access to a few special downloads (like pdfs of two 1970s D&D fanzines, a special edition of Microlite74, and more) as described on that page.

Special Donor Goodies for July 2009 (Original D&D Items)

Anyone who donates from now through the end of the month (July 2009) will be eligible for some extra Original D&D goodies in addition to the special downloads everyone who donates gets.

First, whoever donates the most during this time period will receive the OD&D special: the three LBB (Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures -- sixth printing purchased without a box in 1979 or 1980, probably never used), Supplement I: Greyhawk (3rd printing but well-used) and Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardy (2nd printing, excellent -- but not mint -- condition). Note: These are NOT the third printing woodgain boxed set I use, these are extra copies I picked up for player use in the 197Os and rediscovered in a box (full of model spacecraft and WWII planes) a few days ago.

Second, the person who donates the second largest amount will receive a copy of the blue Holmes Basic Edition booklet (2nd printing -- I think -- and in nice, but obviously used, condition).

Finally, three other donors will get either a copy of B1: In Search of the Unknown (Used, but only a few pencil markups), a set of Dungeon geomorphs (complete but cut apart), or a well-used and marked copy of Men & Magic.

To get help us pay our cancer treatment related bills (and to get access to some special downloads and possibly the above mentioned items), send a donation in any amount -- small or large -- to me via Paypal. My apologies for having to ask for donations and my heartfelt thanks to everyone who donates. If you cannot donate but wish to help, please spread the word about my request and offer. Thank you very much in advance.

Special Note: I learned my lesson in May. I will email those who receive an item and ASK if you want your name mentioned in a retroRoleplaying blog post, I will not just assume that you do not mind. Fortunately, the offending post was only up for 15 or 20 minutes, but I will not repeat my mistake. Assuming really can make turn one into a donkey's rear end.

Simple Tabletop RPG for Harry Potter Needed

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I have a friend who is looking for a simple (and inexpensive) RPG his kids and their friends can play that could easily be adapted to a Harry Potter/Hogwarts setting. I know there are all sorts of online HP roleplaying sites, but my friend is looking for a tabletop RPG. The child who would be GMing this is about 12, very bright, and reads a lot. The players would be slightly younger (8-11) and are "pretty average kids."

I don't think there are any official Harry Potter RPGs and have no idea what rules would be simple enough for this age group. If any readers have some ideas, I'd love to hear them as I'm drawing a blank on this.

James Hargrove's Free ZIP! RPG

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James Hargrove has recently a very nice rules light RPG called ZIP! The entire set of generic rules is 3 pages of fairly large print (with room for some art) -- four pages with the OGL. Yes, the entire game is open game content.

According to James, these rules are based on the set of rules he has been using for play-by-email games for the last ten years or so. The rules are modern but have a firm basis in old school style play. Simple rules with a lot left up to the GM. Success rolls are 3d6 with bonuses and penalties assigned by the GM based on the situation and the character's archetype, attributes and weaknesses. The game is designed for a narrative style of play. No minis or battlemats are required.

You can download a copy here: ZIP! Core Rules PDF

James has also released a setting supplement for ZIP!: Hawkmoor. James describes Hawkmoor as follows in his ZIP! Blog:

Hawkmoor is a fantasy supplement for ZIP in the vein of the original Dungeons & Dragons supplements Greyhawk and Blackmoor, though it's not just another retread with the serial numbers filed off. Now, I'm all for old-school settings, but back when I was running Hawkmoor everybody seemed to be reinventing the same old wheel and simply calling it something different. I didn't really want or need multiple clones of settings that I already owned, so I designed Hawkmoor with a few specific goals in mind.

First, Hawkmoor is an implied setting, just like the original Greyhawk and Blackmoor. That is, the setting is conveyed via rules (in this case, racial archetypes, occupational archetypes, a magic system, monsters, and so forth). Second, I wanted to take common conventions of classic D&D and turn them on their heads — for example, Hawkmoor has magic, but it's not 'fire and forget magic; Hawkmoor has werewolves, but they're in thrall to evil sorcerers; Hawkmoor has priests, but they don't cast spells (although they do heal); and so on.

So, Hawkmoor is an homage to original D&D, not a simple copy and paste job. It's not a retro-clone.
While it doesn't set out to be OD&D, ZIP! with the Hawkmoor supplement makes it very easy to run the types of campaign's 0D&D players like with a streamlined set of rules that most players will think of as "modern rules." It would be easy to modify Hawkmoor to be closer to OD&D in feel if one wanted to. The Hawkmoor supplement is 10 pages (11 with the OGL) with large print and artwork. Like the core rules, the Hawkmoor text is entirely open game content.

You can download a copy here: ZIP! Supplement 1: Hawkmoor

While I haven't had a chance to run a session of ZIP!, I really like what I've read. ZIP! looks like it would be another way to introduce "new school" players to the "old school" style of play using a set of rules that probably will not seem "old school" to them. Better yet, it looks like a fun game to play regardless of your "RPG School" affiliation. Give ZIP! and its Hawkmoor supplement a look.

Could CRPG Save Game Functions be the "Real" Origin of the Tyranny of Fun?

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Gamasutra has a new feature article on Computer RPG game design over the years: Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs. The introduction to this very long article is on Original Dungeons & Dragons as, while it was not a computer game like say online poker, it was the basis for the entire computer RPG genre. While I've never been much of a computer RPG fan as I find them very boring compared to tabletop RPGs, I found this article interesting. I had, at least, played an hour or two in most of the non-Japanese games the author discusses.

The section of the article on Nethack grabbed most of my attention, however. First, because Nethack and other Rogue-like games are the only CRPGs that I've ever really enjoyed playing. Second, because what the author said here made me really think about tabletop RPGS:

Nethack is a roguelike, and so I'm required to say something about one of those games' most controversial features: permadeath. (Okay, I admit it -- I've been leading up to this.) Since Ultima and Wizardry, but unlike pen-and-paper games to this day, players are allowed, and even encouraged, to save games and return to them if things go badly, a design characteristic that makes it almost impossible for anything really bad to happen to the player's characters.

I make no secret the fact that I consider this one of the most pernicious aspects of CRPG gaming, that permanent disadvantages acquired during the course of play cannot be used by a designer because the player will simply load back to the time before the disadvantage occurred. Admittedly, the prevalence of this attitude comes from some older games that could easily be made unwinnable if the player wasn't careful.

However, it's reached the point where "adventuring" in an RPG rarely feels risky. Gaining experience is supposed to carry the risk of harm and failure. Without that risk, gaining power becomes a foregone conclusion.

It has reached the point where the mere act of spending time playing the game appears to give players the right to have their characters become more powerful. The obstacles that provide experience become simply an arbitrary wall to scale before more power is granted; this, in a nutshell, is the type of play that has brought us grind, where the journey is simple and boring and the destination is something to be raced to.

Nethack and many other roguelikes do feature experience gain, but it doesn't feel like grind. It doesn't because much of the time the player is gaining experience, he is in danger of sudden, catastrophic failure. When you're frequently a heartbeat away from death, it's difficult to become bored.
I've never really thought about it before, but perhaps one of the main reasons some tabletop gamers can't stand anything bad happening to their character -- even just losing a magic sword to a rust monster -- have that attitude because their first encounter with RPGs was the computer variety where if anything bad happens to your character, you just restore your last saved game and undo the effects. Magic items can't be damaged for long because you can restore a saved gamed. Did your character just suffer a nasty curse that will take a lot of time and trouble to remove? Restore your last save. Make a bad decision? Restore your last save. Lose an important combat? Restore your last save. Etc.

Computer RPGs may have taught a much of generation of players that nothing truly negative should ever happen to your character -- and if it does, it shouldn't last any longer than it takes to restore a saved game in a computer RPG. Could this be an major part of the origin of the school of RPG design that wants to eliminate everything that causes permanent harm to the character while making rapid level gains and showers of treasure standard? I don't know, but I strongly suspect it has played a part in the so-called "Tyranny Of Fun."

Tyranny of Fun Squared: Get Rid of Hit Rolls as Missing is not Fun

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There are times I think the various Tyranny Of Fun arguments about D&D4's design are slightly overblown. Then I read things like No Roll To Hit: Rationale on Eleven Foot Pole and change my mind. There apparently are a good number of players who think anything that does not go their way means the game has become double plus unfun.

From the post:

It's a truism to say you can only enjoy playing the game if you are, in fact, playing the game. When a player has no meaningful input into the proceedings, they're not a player, they're a spectator.
Later in the post:
The fourth and final situation is the most relevant for our purposes, and that is when, during the player's turn, they take a null action. That is to say, an action which creates no change to the state of play. The most common example is rolling to hit and missing. Play goes on, with the player having contributed nothing.

Missing is simply not fun. Having waited a full round of initiative and then achieving nothing is functionally identical to skipping your turn. If you expend an encounter power or daily power and miss, you're actually worse off than when you started.
I think I want to cry. The post goes on to give some other reasons for eliminating the hit roll, but they seen just as out-of-touch with reality to me. The chance of missing somehow invalidates player tactical skill because it makes the result random. Rolling to hit and then rolling damage if you hit is redundant. The hit roll 4e is too complex mathematically -- it might hurt the brain of those who can't handle addition and subtraction and therefore might be unfun, I guess.

Sadly, there are apparently RPG players out there who think this is a wonderful idea. All I can say is, they better not try to play in any of my campaigns.

X-plorers: What if Gygax and Arneson had done Science Fiction instead of Fantasy?

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I jusrt saw this mentioned in the Swords & Wizardry forum:

X-plorers is a "what if?" game. In this case, what if the fathers of the role playing hobby were more into science fiction than fantasy when they wrote that first set of official rules back in 1974? What if that game was about humans expanding and exploring their universe, instead of delving into deep dungeons to kill monsters to earn treasure? These are the questions X-plorers attempts to answer. X-plorers takes the original fantasy role playing game as a starting point, and morphs it into something suitable for science fiction. Get in on the playtesting of this old school sci-fi game!
You can get a free pdf copy of the current playtest rules here. When completed, X-plorers will have both a free PDF version and a print version. From a very quick glance, this looks interesting. The only thing I immediately dislike is nothing in the document is open game content.