#RPGaDay2015: 27 – Ars Fantasia

I love mashing games together, and do it all the time. Sometimes it’s to fix a game that isn’t working for us. When we played Full Light, Full Steam, the “scripts” just weren’t working. I think in this case, it was because we were doing skype play without a shared virtual tabletop, so it was just too hard to pass pieces of paper around, or even to see them so we knew who to pass to. So we replaced them with some bits lifted from Primetime Adventures, and the game ran much more smoothly for us.

When Amaranthine wasn’t working for us, we rebuilt it using big chunks of Shadow of Yesterday.

And I often start out by creating a mashed-up game. Currently, we’re playing “Smallville“, set in a modern-fantasy alternative world, so the characters are wizards (and possibly fae or the like), rather than supers. I’m a tinkerer, and I’ve played a lot of games, and read even more. So pretty much whenever I sit down with a new game I have to force myself to play it as written, because I almost always see something that I would’ve done differently, or that I’ve seen done better somewhere else, or just a bit of the system that I think my group would enjoy having more or less complexity. (Nowadays, I usually try the game as written before changing anything, because I want to try new playstyles. But if it’s a game I’ve played before, all bets are off.)

But probably the most extensive example of this is my Ars Fantasia rules. I wanted the feel of Dungeons & Dragons and the rules of Ars Magica. So back in the mid-’90s, I sat down to make it a reality. A few years later, I updated it for use with D&D3E, and we actually played a long-running campaign using the rules. Two, in some sense—first someone else switched our existing D&D3E game over to those rules, then a few months later, when he was tired of GMing, I took over, and all the same players and many of the characters transitioned to a Spelljammer campaign.

I can’t share these rules, because they’re full of copyrighted content, plus they’re horribly incomplete: you need to have a copy of Ars Magica and a D&D Players’ Handbook in order to make a complete game. What i wrote ended up being around 80 pages of content. Some of those rules are just reproducing content from elsewhere, in order to cut down the book-flipping a bit, but a lot of it is new stuff, translating D&D content into Ars Magica terms. On the upside, 3rd, 4th, or 5th edition Ars Magica and AD&D2 or D&D3E will work equally well. In both cases, the differences between the editions are mostly in parts that get excised in the process of mashing them together, and those parts that actually vary (such as the spell details in D&D) work equally well—you just end up with a different feel, depending on which edition you use as your basis.

#RPGaDay2015: 16 – D&D Sessions Are Long

In highschool and college, 8-10 hour game sessions were the norm. In highschool I ran my D&D game every Saturday, starting at 4 pm and ending when my parents threw everyone out (usually at midnight). The last weekend before college, we ran a little longer, but that was it. In college, we generally started after dinner, but, you know—college: we routinely ran until 4 or 5 am.

At some point, lives got busier, we got older, and sessions got shorter. So picking out a single longest session is hard. I’m sure it was some time in college, probably either the D&D game I ran freshman year, or the D&D game I played in the next couple years, but a memorably-longer session doesn’t come to mind. Sadly, I don’t have any of those marathon 24-hour or all-weekend game sessions to talk about. But despite that, it’s interesting to me that there’s just something about D&D that tends to lend itself to long sessions—our WoD and Ars Magica games in the same era with the same people were generally saner 6-hr or so sessions, and ditto for just about everything else I’ve ever played.

#RPGaDAY 22: Alma Mater and Bunnies & Burrows

There are three kinds of “best purchase”, particularly when it comes to 2nd-hand RPGs. 

There are the books that I got for a steal, relative to their value to me. For me, the tops of that list would probably be most of the Providence supplements, some of them acquired at 75% off. 

Then there are the books that I’m glad I got at the price I did, because I would’ve overpaid if I’d paid any more. Usually these are real stinkers that I have just for curiosity’s sake—the Actor’s Book of Characters for World Action and Adventure is laughably bad. I’m genuinely curious to some day get a look at the core rulebook, but I can’t imagine paying more than a buck or two for the privilege. To quote the summary linked above, “The amount of detail included is astonishing, but unfortunately little of it is relevant to play.” I think that’s a fair assessment—much effort, poor results. 

But also in that category are games that I feel I should know about, even if they’re not my style. So I wait to find them on the cheap. I bought a boxed set of the D&D4E core books so that I could refer to them, even though I already knew I would never play it—but not until I could them at ~50% off. Similarly, I’m eternally proud of getting a slightly-battered copy of GURPS 3rd ed for $6, back when it was still the current edition and nobody was talking about a 4th ed. I had already suspected that GURPS wasn’t for me, and reading that confirmed it. As a game for me, personally, to play, $6 was paying too much. But after D&D and WoD, it was probably the most-referenced game at the time, so as a game designer it was a steal. 

And then there are the game books that I’ve actively stalked and finally found. Rare books that are hard to find, regardless of the price. For me, the two at the top of the list are Alma Mater and the original Bunnies & Burrows. (Well, it’s the 3rd printing, so there are some significant revisions, but it’s not the GURPS version, which I have yet to actually see.) I don’t remember the circumstances of the B&B purchase, other than that it was a very reasonable price. Acquiring Alma Mater is an interesting, if short, tale: 

I was working my way through a booth at Gen Con with a lot of old books, some a little old, some a lot old; some common, some rarer. I wasn’t the only one, of course. Someone else pulled out a copy of Alma Mater, a game I’d only ever heard of. I must’ve oooed pretty loudly, because he turned to me and said “you clearly need this more than I do” and handed it to me. And on top of that, it was in almost-new condition and under cover price! Yay for geek solidarity! 

#RPGaDay 13: A Hit! An All Too Palpable Hit!

Hmmm…you know, I don’t really have many memorable character deaths, off the top of my head. Partly because I tend to be the GM, so I only have half-a-dozen long-running characters in my history, and all of them survived to the end of the game. Partly because I’ve never played particularly lethal games, and never played with (or as) an adversarial GM. So, outside of games that were designed to be about PC death (Dread, Call of Cthulhu, Fiasco, etc.), there haven’t been a lot of deaths in the games I’ve played. But mostly, I suspect, because the deaths didn’t stick with me, perhaps because they weren’t notable even at the time.

So instead, I’ll tell you about the worst character death from a game I was in—the incident that showed me what happens when people don’t communicate their playstyle expectations. 

Continue reading

#RPGaDAY 2&3: “D&D”

So I played a single game of D&D and loved it. Then some time passed. I really have no idea how long, but it might’ve even been a year or more, because these events happened on two different vacations, so there’s a good chance they were different summers. In the meantime, I’d played Dungeon! (the boardgame) every chance I got—we had a set in the school library. Then on vacation I convinced Dad to buy me a copy of Dungeon!. Except I accidentally got the D&D Basic Set —the 1981 Moldvay Red Box version. [Which, now that I look things up is odd, because I can pretty much guarantee this was summer ’83 or later, so maybe they were clearing it out due to the new edition?]

When I opened it, I was baffled. Since I couldn’t figure out the rules, I instead made my own. These were considerably more complex and arbitrary than the actual rules. And the concept of game balance, illusion though it may be, was completely foreign to me.

I must’ve been about 10 at the time, and since we were visiting relatives I didn’t have any friends to play with. However, my grandma and a couple other relatives (my aunt? I forget now) indulged me and tried to play this game that I called “D&D”. I’m pretty sure they had no idea what was going on, due in equal part to my “skills” as a 1st-time GM, and a complete lack of exposure to fantasy literature. Strangely enough, this didn’t turn me off or disappoint me. Once I was back home, a friend’s older brother set me straight, and my best friend started running a game of D&D. Not too long after that, I started running my own D&D game, this time using the AD&D rules—the actual AD&D rules.


Probably not that surprising, but my first time playing an RPG was D&D. We were visiting college friends of my parents, in Chicago, and after playing River Raid on the Atari for a while, one of the older kids suggested D&D. I can’t remember if he actually told us what it was, or if he just said “let’s play this” (or words to that effect). Anyway, we played a quick game—I think I made my own character from scratch, but I’m not sure: a 1st-level wizard. I remember almost nothing about that game. It can’t have lasted more than 2 or 3 hours, including character creation. At some point, I got hold of a horn of bubbles, and used it to save my character’s life. I was hooked!

But there were a couple hitches before I really became a roleplayer. But that’s for the next post.  

What’s a “Cleric”?

I haven’t been following the discussion of “D&D Next” particularly closely, but I’ve liked much–but not all–of what I’ve seen. I finally read Mike Mearls’ discussion of their founding principles for the cleric class , and I think my response to it sums up my feelings, pro and con, towards the whole endeavor.

In general, it looks like the next edition of D&D is making much better choices than D&D4E–or D&D3E–did, at least for my tastes. Specifically, capitalizing on what people like D&D for while fixing problems, rather than making significant changes to the core of it or trying to make it into a different sort of game. Of course, reasonable people can disagree on which parts are the “core” of D&D, so I don’t claim this is a universal answer. After all, while D&D3E failed to fix many of the problems I had with AD&D1&2, and introduced some new ones, it was obviously wildly popular. But I think I have some idea what I’m talking about, given that those who eventually were turned off by D&D3E seem to have been because of exactly the problems I had with it, and D&D4E was, in part, an overreaction to those same problems.

Continue reading

The Worst Die Roll Ever

Those who know me know that I seem to have extraordinarily poor luck with dice in games — not all randomizers, just dice. I’m sure some of it is selective memory, but, nonetheless, I have a story to tell of the worst die roll of my gaming career.

I was playing AD&D, and I rolled a natural 20, followed by another natural 20, killing the arch-villain that had been taunting and tormenting our group for a couple years of gaming.

Ok, that’s two die rolls, so I’m stretching a little bit. And for anyone who knows D&D, I probably need to explain why this was so horrible — and then I’ll share the revelation it gave me.

Continue reading

What is the Essence of Goblinness?

Several years ago, as part of a still-unfinished project, I decided that it would be cool if there was more to races in D&D than there currently is. In most D&D versions and variants, race might limit what classes you could take, or give you some bonuses/penalties that are either explicitly for certain classes, or stack particularly well with certain classes. And some races might give you some nifty abilities, or even the equivalent of a couple levels’ worth of abilities (at the cost of a level ajdustment, or XP penalty, or some other such compensating mechanism). Though in most core rules, they deliberately avoid that, up to and including watering down a race in order to keep it at that power level.

And that, in fact, was the real genesis of this thought process: I’ve always preferred verisimilitude to balance, but, more importantly, i prefer verisimilitude to sameness. AD&D1/2 had some real problems with this, however, with elves, in particular, being noticeably overpowered. I don’t recall, now, how they dealt with really powerful races like drow in 2nd ed, but i know that 1st ed didn’t really balance them at all. So, along comes D&D3E, and introduces a much more robust system, with a lot more room for compensating and balancing things, and even the level adjustment mechanism. So, finally, we have a way to balance elves: we give them some meaningful penalties, or a level adjustment, to make up for all their nifty abilities. But, instead, they thought that keeping everyone at the same level was more important, so they watered down their elf-ness. And while I understand their reasoning, given the choice between very folkloric (or Tolkien-esque) elves with a LA+2, say, and which therefore can’t be played at 1st level; or LA0 elves which don’t feel much like elves, I’ll take the former. IOW, I think that their solution throws the baby out with the bathwater.
Continue reading