Keep on the Borderlands (Sort Of)

At Free RPG Day, I got to game with a buddy who runs the local RPG con–B/X is his jam, and I love him for it.

He runs his somewhat uniquely, and there are aspects I disagree with (using a d8 base for semi-non-variable damage rather than d6), but there are others which I’ve stolen to make my own game run smoother (rotating initiative by side).

But the most important way he runs his game is that it’s fair–he’s not going to kick you when you’re down, but when you’ve goofed you’re done. PC death can and will happen in his games.

He’d run off some fairly wacky pre-gens from a site that gave stats and equipment that were all over the place. I ran a thief with 17 STR, 18 Dex, 8 Int, 18 WIS 14 CON, and CHA 4. Crusty Jim! I’ve learned from my own players and realized that Thieves have the potential to be the most stupid overpowered class, especially at lower levels. I cut my way through several orcs, bugbears, and giant spiders with my trusty Zweihander. With an AC of 4 and the potential to do over 20 damage in a single hit, I was a force to be reckoned with!

It’s also nice to play Borderlands without the moral quandaries that modernist gaming culture has tried to impose on it. We were told up-front: there are no orc babies; greenskins are creatures of evil that are born from, created by, and composed of evil and chaos taken shape. The goal was to kill them, rescue humans, recover treasure, and work to make the Borderlands just a little bit safer.

It wasn’t run straight from the module, but rather thematic, adjusted for a one-off. The keep was there, but we were given the choice to look for caves, small ruins, or large ruins (all home-made content). So I’ve still never played Borderland proper, but it was still a lot of fun cleaving through gobbos.

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Tabletop Gaming on a Budget

Holy crap, is Cirsova participating in a blog carnival again? It’s been ages! Like, I may have been a guest-blogger at Dice Monkey the last time I did one of these…

Renaissance Gamer is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival with the theme of Tabletop Gaming on a Budget.

Money is usually tight following the holidays, and gamers are not exempt from this. You are likely going into January gift-rich and money-poor. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it might mean your tabletop game spending has to take a backseat for a while.

Or does it? January’s RPG Blog Carnival topic is Tabletop Gaming on a Budget: how to get gold piece value gaming supplies and resources for copper piece prices. Useful just after the holidays? Sure. But maybe you’re new to the hobby and want to dip your toe before diving deep into your wallet. Or you want to try some new games without breaking the bank. Have you considered taking the leap into game mastering, but the laundry list of GM supplies is daunting? This month’s RPG Carnival posts will help you play games without spending big dollars.

This is the anchor post for the month, so if you’re taking part in this month’s carnival drop a link to your blog post in the comments below. If you just want the tips, bookmark this page and stop back throughout the month. I’ll also post a wrap-up at the end of the month, bringing it all together. And keep your eye on the blog, I’ll have my own post on the wonders and delights to be found at your local Dollar Store.

If you’re seriously concerned about gaming on a budget or are new to the hobby, there are a few things to consider.

Don’t: Buy a full set of core books. In fact, I’d say, don’t buy any core books until you’re certain what system you’re playing or running. I’m also not a fan of systems that are spread out across multiple core books (sorry, most editions of D&D!); these can prove to be a big money sink for potential players who don’t know what they want from a game or if they really want to play this or that system. Do: Research the game you want to play. If you’re new to tabletop gaming, there are a lot of great systems out there that are less weighty in terms of both rules and the literal weight of the stack of tomes you’re asked to invest in. My favorite version of Dungeons & Dragons (B/X) can be found for a few bucks in PDF; many clones of earlier editions are available for free–OSRIC’s presentation of 1st ed AD&D is much friendlier than the original in terms of organization of content.

Do: Buy a full set of dice (d4/d6/d8/d10/d12/d20). Don’t: Go all out and buy weird and highly specific or ridiculous dice with prime-numbered sides (d3/d5/d7/etc.). If you’ll be playing in a game that needs these, you can probably borrow rather than invest in the rather pricey sets.

Do: Get some cheap loose-leaf paper, a notebook, and some pencils. Character sheets are nice, but not essential. Still, good ones can be found free online for nearly any system. Don’t: Spend top dollar on a moleskine notebook, day-planners, calendars, etc. IF you’re running a game, a dollar-store calendar might be a good idea, because keeping track of time in a game is an essential aspect of running a meaningful RPG.

Don’t: Buy a whole bunch of miniatures. Miniatures are a ton of fun, and are sort of a hobby in their own right, but having totally accurate minis is not an essential component of tabletop gaming. Do: Find some cheap, but durable tokens that can be used. Most editions of D&D use combat rules that hinge on some use of miniature combat–some folks like theatre of the mind, but for that to work, you’re discarding a significant chunk of the actual game rules, and adjudication becomes a fuzzy “eh, whatever” instead of a fair game mechanic. The same applies for dungeon props, tiles, maps, etc. Those can prove to be hobbies in their own right as well, but if you’re new or on a budget, they’re extraneous and can be supplemented with all sorts of things (my group breaks out a Jenga set sometimes). It’s not the right time of year for it, but Dollar Tree carries halloween miniatures and decorations that double as dungeon dressing for cheap (I’ve got a bone gazebo! For a dollar!) But again, it’s extraneous.

 

The Real Problem With Story Games

The real problem with story games isn’t that the game has a story. It’s not that a system has too much crunch or too little. Some people think that the solution to a story game is more crunch because they think that the problem is that the story game just doesn’t have the robust mechanics necessary for a gritty adventure. Except it’s almost never the mechanics that leave story games hamstrung but the attempt to use a game to tell a story rather than allow a story to emerge from game-play.

Games and gaming, and especially tabletop rpgs, are about player agency. It’s an interactive medium where the player’s actions and decisions have outcomes and affect the environment, setting, and conclusion. The problem with so many story games I’ve played is that players are denied agency, or at best given the illusion of agency, in the name of ensuring that the story is told.

So many story games I’ve played in, regardless of the system (yes, I’ve been in a B/X story game with next to no player agency), have failed at the “game” portion of story gaming. Instead, what players tend to get are story nodes with false challenges that amount to “roll high enough that you will be allowed to move to the next story node”. There’s not much actually determining what story node you’re going to next, nor is there any real penalty for failing to roll high enough other than delaying the inevitable progression towards the final story node.

No matter what, eventually, the rails are spotted, the lack of agency becomes apparent, and I can’t help but lose all interest in what’s happening.

In a recent game, there was a series of the aforementioned challenges. They were just window-dressing, though: cool things to ooh and aah at that had no real bearing on the outcome of the scenario. Yes, we might scrape a knee from failing a saving throw or two, but even failing every last challenge miserably would only ever result in insignificant damage to characters in such a way as to only delay, somewhat, the inevitable victorious conclusion of the story.

Imagine playing a racing video game: imagine blasting through an obstacle course at over 100 mph, narrowly avoiding all sorts of perils. You think you’re doing great, but then you slip – you run into a wall. Except you don’t. Your car bounces off and continues on, unaffected by your blunder. You begin to ask yourself, was I really doing well before? You begin to try to ram your car into walls, barrels, pylons, tank-traps, you name it, but so long as you’re holding the “go” button down, you keep on going, and the computer keeps the other racers just slow enough that none of them are able to overtake you despite your intentional mistakes. I can’t fathom anyone finding that to be a rewarding experience!

Now, I’ve also been in story games where the party did “lose”, but there, one had an incredibly drawn-out and ponderous route to reach the one point of the game where player action did matter, and it would all come down to one big fight, more or less regardless of how the players got there. And frankly, that’s not all that fun for me either.

Let players actually do things. Let them mess up and lose. Let them sequence break. Don’t make a game a series of rolls to see if you can tell your players the next detail you want to tell them. And if there’s an island that is obviously the important place everyone is supposed to go to and 5 minutes in a player says “Let’s find a canoe and go out to the island”, there’s no point in dithering around for two hours waiting for the “story” to reveal that you’re supposed to get a canoe and take it out to the island!

High level design concept for a Fangbone! tabletop game

This is really just a broadside, where I’d start if I were to make a Fangbone! tabletop game. Needless to say, there’s no nitty-gritty, yet, because I just came up with this in the shower the other day – plus, since it’s a branded IP that I’m not affiliated with in any way nor being paid to design for, fleshing this out into something playable is extremely low on my list of priorities. Still, I thought I’d share.

Fangbone!_production_art

2-4 players

Character-deck based, similar to Red Dragon Inn.

Players:

  1. Drool
  2. Fangbone
  3. Bill
  4. CID

Note that for 2 players, player 2 controls both Fangbone and Bill characters/decks.

Game starts with the Fangbone player in possession of the Toe of Drool.

Drool player plays monsters, cards to enhance monsters, and cards that directly affect human players.

Drool player’s objective is to a) gain the Toe, b) open portal to Skullbania and get the Toe through. A monster gaining the Toe leads to a “sudden death” of X rounds before the Toe is lost and Drool player wins.

Fangbone/Bill player(s) goal is to defeat X number of Drool’s monsters while keeping the Toe between the two characters/players. Fangbone/Bill players always win and lose as a team (b/c battlebros). Certain cards may enable trading the Toe between characters – e.g., a monster seizes Toe from Fangbone, Fangbone player has a card allowing him to pass the Toe to another character to keep Drool player from capturing it.

CID player’s goal is to be in possession of the Toe when Drool’s final monster is defeated in the round. CID player may actively help or hinder Fangbone/Bill player(s) throughout the course of the game, but will lose if Drool possesses the Toe and opens the portal.

Drool would have two decks; one would consist of monsters and minions with different strengths and abilities-a round would begin with Drool playing a monster/minion with which he will attempt to seize the Toe. The other deck would consist of spells and actions that would allow the monster to take the Toe, evade attacks, weaken other player’s characters. Monster would have its own stats and fixed set of actions it could take in addition to those played by Drool.

Human players would have cards similar to the monster, but actions would be limited to playable cards. Characters have a limited amount of “health” each round. If the character becomes KOed, they lose action(s) and the player/character/monster that KOed them takes possession of the Toe.

Fangbone’s deck would consist largely of offensive actions, featuring weapons, animals, and Skullbanian characters.

Bill’s deck would consist largely of defensive actions, featuring earth stuff, classmates, etc. Bill’s damaging actions would make up a smaller portion of his deck, which instead would provide assists, and combos to Fangbone and recover/prevent loss of the Toe. Slightly more health recovery cards.

Cid’s deck would consist of thiefy “Shadowstepper” tricks, largely to prevent damage, prevent loss of the Toe, and to take control of the Toe.

Note that for balance, a game featuring Cid or any other additional characters, Drool player may need additional cards/actions/monsters.

If I were somehow tasked with actual creation of a licensed Fangbone game, I’d almost certainly opt to take these design notes and approach experienced card game designers (Red Dragon Inn or Epic Spell Wars teams) with additional setting info, characters, monsters, cards, and go from there rather than try to build it myself from the ground up. But hey, the 1st stage thinky work is already done!

Bull Run Pt. 2

The first part of our playthrough of Avalon Hill’s Bull Run can be found here.

My dad & my first play through of Bull Run is turning into a big flanking battle: we’re each delivering a strong punch from our right as our lefts collapse.  The question is who will deliver the knockout blow first?

We’ve made it into early afternoon and don’t anticipate the battle reaching evening.  Bee and Bartow’s brigades were surrounded and routed from hillock just northeast of New Market, but they managed to slow the Union advance just enough to allow a number of highly beneficial pieces to fall in place for the Rebs.  EK Smith arrived by train in time to ensure that my camp in Manassas won’t be a gimme.  Stuart along with some of Smith’s rear-guard regiments have been able to pick off the union men who got too far ahead of their column.  Meanwhile, Longstreet and “Rolling Thunder”(as he will be known hereafter in this alternate universe) Jackson have been making a coordinated push through the woods towards Centerville as Beauregard has ridden out with Ewell to attack the Union HQ from the East.

Early game, Command Path rules did not seem like a huge deal, especially when regiments were being automatically activated by proximity to enemy units.  Mid game, this turned into a real game changer.  With Confederate troops suddenly eliminated from Henry Hill to Flat Run, the Union commanders suddenly found themselves at a loss for what to do.  McDowell had ridden out back across the river down Warrenton Pike to shepherd a desperately needed relief brigade towards Centerville that had four brigades bearing down on it, leaving the bulk of the Union Army without orders.  McDowell literally spent two hours riding back and forth while three and a half divisions of Union troops sat with virtually nothing between them and Manassas!

My own issues with Command Path seem rather minor in comparison.  With both Jo Johnston and Pete Beauregard respectively leading the charge and flank through the woods south of Centerville, my batteries overlooking Blackburn’s and McLean’s Fords, as well as the infantry guarding the Union Mills Ford, have been left without orders.

1024px-First_Bull_Run_July21am

“First Bull Run July 21 am” by Hal Jespersen, cwmaps.com CC by 3.0 via Commons

Bull run map

Troop movements from morning until early afternoon.  Crosses where Confederate Brigades have been routed.  (original image from BGG).

My dad thinks I’ve won.  I think he may still have a chance to dislodge Smith if plays a hurry-up offence.  I’ve gone for an all or nothing gambit, as there’s no way I can hold that little church (red starred hex, lower portion of 2nd map board from left) for another 10 or so turns.  I’m hoping I have enough numbers I can overcome even the relief forces reaching Centerville, but a series of bad rolls could stall me out.  We’re already talking about setting up Malta next time we get together, so this game will hinge on the next few turns around Centerville I’m guessing.

One last note, It turns out that there’s very little “rallying” going on.  It could just be the way we’ve been playing, but by noon, all of my commanders were too busy driving towards the enemy or too busy being dead/captured/fleeing for their lives to spend a turn rallying a regiment.  The great mid-day stall-out of the Union advance gave my dad a chance to pull a few guys from the Rally-box, but the overwhelming majority of guys who go there are probably gone for good.

Dungeon Crawl Cowards

One of the most fascinating things about the DCC game I’m in is that I’ve never been part of either a larger or more craven group of adventurers in all my time at the table.  My AD&D group hovers on the lines of mid-sized to large depending on who shows up (4-7), but we’ve fought our way, tooth and nail to low-middle level, tough, brazen and cocksure; “surrender or die!” is much more often “surrender and die!”  The DCC group, however, has over a dozen characters, with 1-3 per player over around 8 or 9 players (not everyone shows up all the time, but we have had HUGE groups now and then); it must be an astonishing sight to see a veritable platoon of would-be heroes cling to one another like Shaggy & Scooby and cower their way through the haunted towering ruins of west Strigostat.

I joke that we ended up with an “evil” party after our first session because of the simple luck of who survived (and we’d rolled our alignments and genders randomly), but as we’ve added more players and many more characters to those three who made it out of the meat grinder, things have gotten worse instead of better.  It’s not that these new characters are evil or bad (chaotic), it’s that the desire for self-preservation when everyone is so very weak leads to the sort of situation where everyone is struggling to hide themselves behind someone else so they’re not the one to take golem fist to the face or giant wasp stinger to the torso, resulting in a very mercenary and uncharitable character to this group of misfits with no common bond other than a criminal past and a desire for riches to be found in the abandoned quarters of the city.

If heroism is not stepping forward, but rather standing still when others step back, my 1st level thief Elyse is perhaps the most heroic of the party.  Because no one else can decide who will take point and scout ahead, it’s usually left to her.  Nevermind she has -1s to strength and con and no positive bonuses.  I probably play her smarter than her stats allow, but to make up for it, I make her have more of a weird animal cunning from living in the gutters, sewers and on the streets.  She’s selfish, but (unlike our mage, who used a level 0 character to power a spell* and left him a husk) not cruelly so and is mostly just trying to stay alive.  This could end up being a problem surrounded by thirteen or so greedy PCs who’d probably just as soon tear her apart for her scant equipment** as work with her while respecting her boundaries to solve puzzles.

Our party finally solved the puzzle of the Stone Golem, though Elyse decided to sequence-break when she became increasingly afraid for her safety; as long as she had the library card, the golems wouldn’t hurt her, but her own party was beginning to terrify her.  Rather than have the card violently taken from her, Elyse just ran up the stairs past the golems, hid in shadows (mostly from her companions) and found the books everyone was looking for.  The rest of the party eventually figured out that the golems were slow enough that they could be kited and while one person kited them, the rest of the party could make its way up to the top of the library.  By the time they made it past the golems, Elyse had already found all but one of the books and was hanging out with a creepy mage lady on the 5th floor.

So now Elyse doesn’t trust or feel safe around her fellow party members, and there are probably a few that she will murder if and when she gets the chance.  In the meantime, she will hope and pray that she will live to level 2.  She will probably also start worshipping the godling Vespia whose domain is the wasps that have overrun much of the abandoned city.  She figures that maybe if she can get on the good side of the swarms of giant wasps, she’ll be safer in the abandoned side of the city than the inhabited side where the town watch has a penchant for turning misdemeanor criminals over to snake cultists in the sewers.  She already knows she’s safer in the company of stone golems than in her own party.

I don’t know what it is about DCC that encourages everyone to behave as though they’re in some sort of survival horror.  What is more interesting was this phenomenon was not emergent in the exact same setting when we were using Lamentations of the Flame Princess; there, we would throw ourselves into the frenzy, die in a blaze of glory and have a new character rolled up in time to meet the party just around the corner.  And keep in mind I’m not saying that any of what happened was a bad thing.  It was actually rather intriguing, because I’ve never seen the levels of paranoia, backbiting and cowardice in a dungeon crawl that I’ve seen with DCC.  It could very well be the low power levels or it could just be my friend’s setting (which is creepy as hell) but everyone is perpetually terrified, and it’s abundantly clear that there’s NOT safety in numbers, only a better probability that you won’t be the one killed this time.

Tomorrow, I announce the Lineup of Cirsova Issue 1!

*:Because of DCC weirdness, spiderclimb does 1d4 damage to either the caster or a (tricked but) willing vessel.

**:When a level 0 PC died last session, a few other players descended like ants, immediately stripping him of his “valuables” consisting of maybe a dozen copper, his belt and a hammer.

Fortress Europa pt 3

The Allied push into France may be starting to slow.  I tried to make the most of my early break-outs in Brittany, but now that the shock and awe has passed, the Nazis are beginning to re-trench behind rivers and in numbers that can’t quite so easily deal with.  Odds in Fortress Europa heavily favor the defender, so once the Nazis are able to stack 3 deep in hexes behind a river, it usually takes all of your available air-power (better hope that the weather is nice) to displace them.  This is especially a problem where adjacent zones of control will force you to attack multiple piles, splitting your attack power, at unfavorable odds.  So, I’m surprised that my dad surrendered the Seine.  Still, he’s managed to form an impressive line to slow me down, and, as he pointed out, there’s a lot of ground between Paris and the Rhine he has to work with.

While the Brits keep slowly pushing east across the north of France, the Americans have struck deep into the heartlands; my toughest armored units cut all the way south to the Mediterranean and are coming back up the Rhone/Saone valley.  Hopefully, those guys will be able to disrupt the south flank of the German line.  I’m probably going to just leave a token force behind to keep the Italians from going anywhere.  There’s no point in wasting time on Genoa or Torino, since even though Innsbruck is on the map, you can’t cut through the combat results table* to get to it.  It’s actually a pretty annoying design oversight, as it forces allied troops through funnels and renders nearly ¼ of the map useless.  I’d much prefer to be able to modify my strategy and sneak some elite mountaineer units across the Alps.  I guess I could send an HQ into that little nook and paradrop a couple divisions on the other side of Switzerland, but I don’t know if it would be worth it.

So far, I think the most obnoxious element of the game is the “Defender Retreat” result on the combat table.  In theory, it is a preferable result (achieved by a better roll) than an Exchange (attacker and defender each lose one strength step, defender retreats) or Exchange 2 (attacker loses two strength steps, defender loses one and retreats), but in practice is the “Nazis get away free card”.  Several times, I would have gladly knocked two infantry divisions down to half-strength to knock an SS Panzer division to half strength or to eliminate a fleeing Wehrmacht.  Though the retreat forces the enemy to cede ground, it allows the Nazis to gradually retrench behind advantageous terrain.  The worst thing that can happen is when your once-per-month carpet bombing mission (add +2 to attack roll on one attack at no better than 2-1 odds) yields a “Defender Retreat” result.

Honestly, though, most of the mechanical issues I have (such as ZOC extending across rivers, forcing ‘soak-off’** attack troops to retreat even when stacked with units who “win” their attack, or DR combat results having virtually no downside for the Nazis) are balancing elements to help the German player, who needs all the help he can get.  Early game play is the most interesting, as the Allies have the most options as to where they can invade and what strategy they can pursue.  Midgame ends up being kind of samey, since the Germans can really only pursue the one strategy of forming a line between Normandy/the Low Countries and Switzerland and the Allies don’t have the options to do anything but a frontal assault against said line.  The strategy of trying to land paratroopers in Austria from northern Italy is akin to trying to glitch through a wall.  But it’s interesting, so maybe I’ll mix things up and try it.

Overall, it’s a much quicker paced game than some of the others we’ve played recently, but I think I need to start writing my troop strengths down on scratch paper.  I’ll be having to count upwards of 20 chits in a turn in 3-4 separate engagements to figure odds, and by the time I get around to resolving battles, I’ve forgotten the troop strengths and have to count them each again.  I’m embarrassingly bad at head-math.  Not that I don’t know the math, but while I’m trying to figure out odds in my head for one battle, I’m trying to remember how many guys I have in all of my other piles at the same time.  A part of me almost wants to come up with little cover-counters so you don’t have to recount piles every time.  Lord knows the biggest downside of these games is picking up the pieces every time to count and then accidentally bumping other piles and the next thing you know you have no idea where Army Group West was before you started knocking things over.

*As you can see, this on-map inset takes up an area roughly covering Milan to Venice and the roadways Verona to Innsbruck.pic1041823

**If a stack is in two enemy stacks’ ZOC, at least one other unit must make a screening attack against one enemy stack to attack the other enemy stack.