Tuesday 9 October 2012

Back in the Manor

The cover and much of the content of The Manor #2 features Hugo the potion pusher.  On the upside, Hugo and attendant NPCs, location (his shop), seven adventure seeds and a twenty entry random table, amounts to an ingenious take of something as mundane as buying a potion.  On the downside, the reader will immediately identify Hugo (by his picture alone) as Wicked Uncle Ernie and subsequently be forced to deal with The Who’s “Fiddle About” bouncing around in their head for a few days.  Of course, when singing along, Wicked Uncle Ernie becomes Wicked Uncle Hugo.  Sorry.

The rest of the issue is devoted to a location; again with attendant NPCs, plot seeds, map and random table.  Entitled Smuggler’s Inn, Tim twists mundane into profane.  Danger, discovery and decadence follow. 

There is no good reason not to buy The Manor.  Issue #1 offered appetizers and Issue #2, entrees.   Clearly Tim understands the importance of breadth and depth while also possessing a clear sense of what a ‘zine can and can’t do.  Buy the Manor….fiddle, fiddle, fiddle.

Friday 5 October 2012

Inside the Manor

 The delight of opening my mailbox and finding something other than bills and junk mail is, frankly, worth the price of a fanzine.  Tearing open the envelope (after snapping the obligatory photograph of course) confirmed my suspicion that this reward had set the bar far to low.  The Manor #1, quite simply, is pure joy. 

Nostalgia aside, as it’s perhaps the lowest form of flattery, the Manor #1 is worthwhile for it’s capacity to bring depth, that little extra to your game.  In an OSR community that often worships at the altar of minimalism, the Manor #1 refreshingly adds colour rather than build or (re)interpret.  Containing no new rules or even elucidations, there is no canon to be found, only vignettes, textures and illustrations.  Sure, it’s a quick read but the effect is exponential, ideas that create ideas.  Specifically, the issue includes a short  (appropriately titles) “Micro Adventure”, one short random table, one longer table with twenty ‘fleshed-out’ descriptions, an adventure site with a plot hook, NPC seed and hooks and, thankfully, a “Poetry Slam” entitled ‘Umber Hulk’.

The Manor #1 is indeed useful.   But more importantly it’s fun.  And in a niche pastime all too rife with bitterness, bitching and back-biting, goodness knows we need that! 

Monday 10 September 2012

Movement Rates?

Movement rate in B/X (LL, LotFP, ACK) are: 120(40)/90(30)/60(20)/30(10).  Under the S&W (as well as C&T) rules, movement rates are identical except in a “Combat round”.  In an “indoor” situation rates are 12/9/6/3 FEET while “outdoor” 12/9/6/3 YARDS.

Question: In S&W, Outdoor rates in feet are 36/27/18/9, much closer to B/X et al.  Why the discrepancy for indoor movement?  I would imagine this makes a very substantial difference for indoor combat?

Tuesday 4 September 2012

The Rythlondar Riddle

In re-reading the Ryth Chronicle (Here), I was reminded of the 'Weir Riddle'.  In an expedition to the Weir in October 2775, a party discovered the "lesser treasure of Felsicon" behind a secret door on the second level (Ryth Chronicle, Number III, October 1976, p. 6).  Behind the door, in a small room, were four ornate chests.   The party learned that only the "proper" one could be opened on pain of a curse.  To determine the chest to open, the party needed to solve a riddle: "What do a patient assassin and a sleeping glutton have in common"?


Sunday 2 September 2012

Top Secret and the Evolution of Role-playing

 Part I: “Can you afford to know”?

In the aftershocks of the OD&D ‘big bang’, a wave of new games emerged that surely find much of their DNA in the LBBs (et al).  Indeed, from TSR alone, the Olduvai Gorge of RPGs, games such as Gamma World, Boot Hill and Top Secret followed the path blazed by the ‘original’.  Of course, acknowledging similarities also prompts us to consider differences.

I suggest that as early as Top Secret’s 1980 publication not only had TSR produced a new system but also proposed, consciously or otherwise, a differing style of play.  While acknowledging a profound debt to D&D (see Top Secret, Forward, p.4), author Merle Rasmussen readily pointed out there was something different about his game claiming that players embarked on “exciting missions” that, when “interconnected” in a series was “called a campaign” (Top Secret, p.4) Clearly, Rasmussen was up to something.

I propose that Top Secret and its support materials constitute one example of the ways in which some first wave games (OS games?) evolved from the ‘building block’ of OD&D, to offer not just an alternate systems but styles as well.  By considering two specific themes: level appropriateness and the ‘story-line’ as a style of play, this article looks to acknowledge and celebrate the range, innovation and diversity of the first wave gaming.      

A Game to Fit the Characters

Cryptic hints that something was different notwithstanding, Top Secret represented only a first tentative evolutionary step.  In fact, the rulebook contained almost no insight on how to ‘run’ a campaign (Top Secret, 1980, pp. 4, 48) at all.  The only possible hint was that Rasmussen (and TSR) compared Top Secret action “to the excitement of the spy thrillers at the movies or on TV” (Top Secret, Forward).  In the broadest sense, Top Secret characters (and players?) were part of a larger quest (story-line?) to “rid the world of…offensive characters, to set right the wrongs, to bring honor to the organization, and to improve yourself” (Top Secret, p.3).  Perhaps, such notions suggest a meta-plot in the sandbox?

If, however vague and tentative, Top Secret imagined the possibility of ‘serialization’, characters needed, at times, to be protected from players.  Of course, this does not suggest Top Secret was neither deadly nor unforgiving.  As we shall see, it was both.  Yet from the outset, Rasmussen appeared sensitive to a need for lack of level appropriateness as a survival mechanism.  For example, the rulebook makes two claims: “Since new characters are, by game mechanics, relatively weak and inexperienced, the Admin should plan to present smaller risks and correspondingly smaller rewards at the beginning of the campaign, and increase the risks and rewards as the player characters become more powerful and experienced” (Top Secret, 1980, p.4) and “risk must be carefully balanced with reward, and the situations designed must not be so deadly that no one will want to play the game!” (Top Secret, p. 4).  For Rasmussen, clearly some form of appropriateness was required, not only to make the game playable but also fun enough to play at all. Yet, the rulebook offered no concrete advice on how to create, manage or run a game of Top Secret (p. 39 notwithstanding), let alone how to make it ‘appropriate’ or even ‘fun’.  To find out how to do such a thing, would-be Admins needed to look elsewhere.  The evolutionary path then, while beginning in the primordial soup of the rulebook, quickly ‘jumped’ to the next link, support materials.  Indeed, by examining Top Secret’s “Administrator Files” (‘modules’), we begin to see some of the ways in which TSR gaming developed.  

Next...Part II: Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Friday 31 August 2012

OSR and Worlds of Possibility

One of the best (and clearest) statements on the principles, practice, limitations and possibilities of “sandbox” is found in Stars Without Number.  Here we find something of a manifesto that seems to encapsulate the very core of what OD&D, its offspring (thanks Erik) and derivatives do well.  In effect, OD&D (OSR fantasy) and sandbox seem destined for each other.

But let me digress.  Regardless of my thoughts on OSR, if as David Macauley argues “Broadly defined, the OSR is an online community centred on amateur publishing that has taken advantage of the OGL and SRD to produce TSR D&D compatible gaming materials”, then nothing I have to say about either ‘offspring’ or other systems seems worthwhile.  But if, as David also suggests (I think?) that the “OSR was all about getting old school games into the mainstream and getting people playing them” then there may be some virtue in considering other older games, even if the system was different and the corporate logo the same.  Maybe?

Having enjoyed JimLotFP 2008 posting “Is this how D&D is supposed to be played?” (http://lotfp.blogspot.ca/2008/05/is-this-how-d-is-supposed-to-be-played.html), I’ve begun re-reading some of the early non-D&D TSR material with the question broadened to: Is this how these OS RPGs are supposed to be played? 

So far, I’m struck by the ways in which such notions such as D&D as template, Sandbox/Storyline and “game balance” (in the Matthew Fitch “Primer sense”) germinated and evolved.  Based on the reading of early TSR non-D&D line, namely Top Secret and Gangbusters, I will explore the ways in which these notions changed over time.    

Thursday 30 August 2012

Skinning Cats: The OSR Mold

In an interesting posting, serial (and I mean that in good way) blogger Erik Tenkar discussed what he perceived as a connection between complexity in rules and mortality in play. Key to his argument were two questions: “Does Pathfinder not mesh well with old school dungeon crawls? Is the risk of character death in a rule system that encourages players to plan out their skills and feats in advance too great for the "Oh Shit! Run!" style of play?”

At one level I fully agree.  After all, who wants to spend a session making a character that ends up finding out how a bottomless pit trap works…the hard way. 

Having never played Pathfinder, I can’t speak to the rules, character generation or modules.  Yet I do recall that there were OSR era games that did have some very substantial generation hoops.  Early-ish RPGs such as Traveller, Rolemaster, James Bond 007, Palladium Fantasy come to mind.  I would imagine for such games, "Oh Shit! Run!" style of play” might have been less than satisfactory?  Perhaps the answer might lay in reading old non-D&D modules?

Indeed, OSR as "Oh Shit! Run!" may in fact, be more specific to D&D or even perhaps the D&D dungeon crawl? Perhaps "Oh Shit! Run!" might have largely been a notion found mostly in fantasy (D&D?) games?  I wonder if the same phenomenon was experienced at game table favouring other systems?  In my experience, other early games such as Top Secret, Gangbusters and Boot Hill, while not ‘first generation’, rarely followed such a tempo (and play principles).  Indeed, there was ‘running’ but many of the virtues (fun and frustration) found in D&D was simply not part of the equation.  Seen in this way, is "Oh Shit! Run!" more suggestive of OSR-D&D rather than OSR?  Surely OSR can also mean: “Other systems…remember”?