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RPGs, science fiction, fantasy, gadgets, and anything else that comes up.Daniel Stacknoreply@blogger.comBlogger526125
Updated: 1 week 10 hours ago

Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #2 - Star Wars (West End Games)

Sun, 06/10/2018 - 00:31

Welcome to the penultimate entry in this journey that has lasted a lot longer than I'd anticipated. I'm one of those Star Wars fans who were there at the beginning, seeing it for the first time at the age of five in a Brooklyn movie theatre - a big one, one with balconies.

In the mid 1980s, Star Wars entered a lull. I still loved it but popular interest in it had waned. At Quassy Amusement Park, where I worked in high school, we had a few gazillion Snowtrooper figures redeemable with tickets from Whack-a-Mole and Skee-Ball.

But it began picking up steam slowly. I remember being overjoyed at the first Star Wars Encyclopedia that I picked up from a Stop & Shop that had a small book section. And in 1987 I remember seeing advertisements for a new Star Wars RPG. I was overjoyed. I'd tried my hand at adapting AD&D for Star Wars but it wasn't right. I'd had better luck with the Marvel Superheroes RPG oddly enough.

The West End Games Star Wars RPG is my favorite incarnation of Star Wars RPGs. I've played them all. Fantasy Flight Games' version is a lot of fun - it just missed an entry on this list. And I think Wizards of the Coast really got Star Wars right with their Saga Edition series of Star Wars books.

So why the silver medal to the West End Games Star Wars? The first reason is that it feels like how I picture Star Wars. No character is incompetent. No skill in starship piloting? Make a roll anyways.

This version of Star Wars uses what would later be called the D6 System. It got its start with the Ghostbusters RPG. Every character has a bunch of attributes and skills. Every skill falls under an attribute. If you don't have a rating in a skill you just use the attribute rating. The ratings are simply the number of dice you roll, plus possibly adding one or two "pips" to the total. You use six-sided dice. So a rating of 3D+2 means roll 3 six-sided dice to the total and add 2. Tasks have difficulties. Characters can take as many actions as they want in a round, though they every action after the first takes one die away from all actions that round.

My favorite version of the game is, oddly, one that is not often even considered one. It is the Star Wars Introductory Game, put out late in the game's license. The versions of the game are:

  • 1st Edition
  • 1st Edition plus Rules Upgrade - the first few adventures had a four-page rules upgrade that gave the game a more standard round sequence.
  • 2nd Edition - Made the game a little crunchier.
  • 2nd Edition Revised & Expanded - Close to the 2nd edition, dialed back the crunch a tad.
  • Star Wars Introductory Game - Boxed set, returned to the simplicity of the 1st edition but in a much more polished format.
Space and vehicle battles are just an extrapolation of normal combat rules - something nice, not requiring you to learn a whole new system. If the game has one weakness, it is the Force rules are a little wonky. Beginning Force users are pretty mediocre, but if they get to a high enough skill level they become extremely dominant. Admittedly, one could argue that's how they are in the movies too... I find the Force rules work well for a Luke Skywalker in A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back - or Rey in The Force Awakens.
West End Games really did a fantastic job in production values. Though the 1st edition was primarily in black and white, it had color plates with advertisements from the Star Wars universe. With just three movies, a few novels and comic books (at the time the game came out), they did a fantastic job filling in details of the universe. These details still find their way into modern Star Wars productions. Star Wars Rebels featured a number of things first seen in the West End Games incarnation - Imperial Inquisitors, Interdictor-class ships, Shantipole being the source of the B-wing fighter,  etc. 
Fantasy Flight Games has a reprint of the 1st edition coming out, albeit extremely delayed. I'm very pleased that people will have a chance to check out the original game. It's worth noting the 1st edition has some concepts that quickly went away - for example, in action scenes, your skill roll also doubled as your initiative roll.
How does it compare with the Fantasy Flight Games version? Fantasy Flight Games gives your character a lot of interesting nuggets and abilities. West End Games' version is a lot simpler. I can definitely see why some might appreciate all the funkiness that the FFG version brings - I've played the game myself on a number of occasions and quite enjoy it. But the West End Game version is more along the line of "spend five minutes making a character (or less) and get playing". 
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #3 - ACKS

Tue, 05/29/2018 - 01:36

I have a special place in my gaming heart for early editions of D&D. I'm not quite enough of a grognard to have played the original D&D when it came out - my gaming career began in the early 1980s. I played a lot of the Basic and Expert D&D incarnation as well as a ton of Advanced D&D. But they didn't quite make it this high in the list.

One of the things I loved about the Companion rules of D&D was the way it brought about domain play. Early in this list I had Pendragon as a game I really like but didn't get a lot of time playing. I really like the idea of PCs ruling domains. It's a reason I greatly enjoy George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. But there were a few frustrations I had with D&D. I liked the idea of demi-humans having their race as their class - it added a certain amount of character - but I also found it a bit limiting. When I played, I liked being a magic-user but I was frustrated by the limits of low-level magic-users. I liked the additional details in AD&D but missed the domain play rules. And sometimes those details got to be a bit too much. And yes, like everyone else, we swapped things between the games.

Along comes Adventurer Conqueror King - ACKS, which for me, emphasizes the things I love about those early versions of D&D and AD&D. It's definitely more of a D&D game than AD&D. It really emphasizes domain play. The designers put more thought into a fantasy economy than anyone I could imagine. They kept race as class... but made multiple classes for each race. This keeps the non-human races distinctive from humanity but still gives a lot of choice. The game (in its Players' Companion) also has rules for making your own classes - and wonder of wonders, all of the classes in the game follow those rules. Magic-users are fine-tuned to give them a pool of spells they can cast from daily, giving more versatility. It adds a proficiency system to add additional details to your character - a bit of a cross between skills and feats from later editions. Non-magical healing, dabbling in magic, blind fighting, navigation, etc.  The new Heroic Fantasy Handbook even acknowledges some of the issues thieves have, being so poor at their core abilities, and fine-tunes that a bit.

Basically, ACKS takes all the things I like about old D&D, keeps them, and fine-tunes them - smoothing over the frustrations I've had. The line of products for ACKS isn't huge but they are all first rate. I especially appreciate the Lairs & Encounters book - an excellent resource for sandbox play. The new Heroic Fantasy Handbook and Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu show how the game can be adaptable to other genres. Heroic Fantasy is good for a lot of literary fantasy, from Lankhmar to Middle Earth. Barbarian Conquerors is excellent for Conan, Elric, Barsoom, and Buck Rogers.

I've not played ACKS in a while - I do find it requires a bit of prep time and my group is a bit on the small side - I also find older D&D-type games tend to work a bit better with larger groups. It is time I'd like to be able to spend. Hopefully when I complete my master's degree later this year some time will open up - as readers of my blog have seen, my free time over the past several months has dramatically decreased. In any case, ACKS is a game I find gets so many things "right" for the way I see D&D which is the reason I have it ranked so highly.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #4 - Fate

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 02:25

Fate was a way harder game for me to "get" than I thought it would be. I suspect if I'd never gamed before it would have been a lot easier.

There's a ton of blogs and reviews that can give you all the details of Fate. I'm going to talk about the Fate Accelerated version where I finally grokked the game. Fate Accelerated and Fate Core are officially the same game, but there are some definite differences.

Fate uses Fate dice - six sided dice with two plusses, two minuses, and two blanks. You roll four of them and add them together - adding various modifiers as well, but the dice give a range of -4 to +4. You're trying to beat some difficulty. It sounds pretty traditional.

Here's where it diverges. Fate Core gives your character traditional skills like shooting, piloting, etc. Fate Accelerated goes for approaches - how you do something, Are you forceful? Are you sneaky? Both a wizard and a warrior can be forceful. But your aspects and stunts give more definition.

Aspects basically describe something. It can be as simple as "strong", but that's a pretty lousy aspect. "Strong and dumb as an ox" on the other hand works pretty well - a good aspect has positive and negative aspects and helps form the picture of who you are. It also can be something temporary - attached to a scene or a character. For example, "warehouse floor on fire" is an aspect. So is "I've got you covered". Aspects can also be a permission to take some action. For example, with the aspect "Dark Lord of the Sith" it would be reasonable to use the Forceful approach to yank blasters out of the hapless rebels' hands.

Stunts are mechanical exceptions - bonuses you get under certain circumstances being the most common.

When you pay you are throwing aspects, fate points, stunts, etc. all over the place. Invoking an aspect typically gives you a +2 bonus. But unless you create that aspect, something that takes an action, or have some other way to get a free use, you need to spend a fate point. Lousy stuff happening to you is a great way to get more fate points.

I've talked about the mechanics. They're pretty simple, but it took me a long while to get the hang of how best to use them. It's a very narrative system, designed to tell stories of exceptional people. I used it for a team of Star Wars rebels and it worked great. But I also had previous so-so attempts at using the rules. You really need to buy into the game. But when you do, it is fantastic at telling stories of exceptional people.

Like everything else on this list, I'd not use it for everything. But I did finally get to see how powerful a system it can be. Still got Dresden Files Accelerated on my bucket list....

Blog note - updates this month have been near-impossible. Lots of family activities, grad school, etc. I'd been planning on going to North Texas RPG Con next month but that's looking less and less likely as the semester progresses. Just one and a half classes left...
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Actual Play: One in Darkness Part 1

Sun, 04/29/2018 - 02:38
Do you think I care if there was just beer in that keg? I know what's in it. I know what you've been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars. You've been telling Ma that you've gone into politics, that you're on the city payroll. Pat Burke told me everything. You murderers! There's not only beer in that jug. There's beer and blood - blood of men! - Mike Powers, The Public Enemy

Based on the adventure of the same name by Doug Lyons with L. N. Isynwill, contained in the Chaosium anthology The Great Old Ones.
Setting:Boston; Wednesday, April 20, 1921

  • Earl Crowley - Antiquarian settled in Arkham
  • Jordaine Furst - Strasbourg-born Great War spy for France
  • Fredrick Tardiff - Great War veteran, Kingsport artist

Summary:After some unpleasant bouts with madness in New Orleans, Crowley and Tardiff had spent the previous two months undergoing psychiatric care. In the interim, the chaos of the early days of Prohibition had seem an increase in mob violence in Boston, with the Crimson Gang cutting a swath of violence through the streets as they made their play for more territory in Southie.
The local papers such as the Boston Leader had been full of news about a recent shootout. The first was dated Saturday, April 16.

On Tuesday the 19th another article had a strange connection to this, one that was retracted the next day...
Later that morning a disheveled young reporter, Jeffrey Daniels, came into Crowley's Boston office to meet with the investigators. He explained he was the author of the retracted article - his editor chose not to publish it after a phone threat from Patrick Malone. He paid a compositor to slip the article into early editions of the Leader - and was fired for doing so. Earnestly he asked they look into it - suggesting they check with the police for verification.
The three had conferred with a Boston police detective, Paul Farrell, when they had looked into missing people at the Museum of Fine Arts. Going to his precinct they found it a cross between a madhouse and a military headquarters getting ready for battle. Farrell explained they were preparing for follow-up battle with the remnants of the Crimson Gang. He explained that yes, the threats to art dealers was indeed legitimate but he tried to assure them, unsuccessfully, that the threats were some sort of prank. However, some snooping revealed some of the survivors of the earlier raid had gone mad and there was talk of some beast that bullets bounced off of...
Going to Digby's Colonial Galleries they met with Bertram Digby. After much haggling and negotiation he admitted to having bought a statuary tablet from a fence, Keyhole Eddie. He sold them the tablet, a strange sone slab about a foot square and an inch thick, made of glossy blue-green serpentine, a brittle rock which can easily be broken. One side has been inscribed with images of a repulsive humanoid face, surrounded by a flowing script. He agreed to call them should Keyhole Eddie return. Crowley returned to his office and Furst and Tardiff went to Anthony Huer's Boston Art Shoppe, located in a less friendly area of the city, off of the notorious Scollay Square. He eventually told a similar story and sold them a similar, though not identical, tablet. He explained how he used the red talisman he'd received with the threat as a bookmark - but he turned it over to police. They noticed the book he had had a red talisman within it... Huer was mystified how it had gotten there and offered it to them. They made some calls to Miskatonic University to have an expert look at their tablets that evening. They noticed before they motored off the tablet was gone - going back into the Art Shoppe they saw it was again in Huer's book. They took the book with them that time. Sure enough, at some point (not when they were looking at it), the red talisman again vanished... back to Huer, this time in his pocket...

At the university, Furst and Tardiff met with Doctor Ronald Galloway, a prominent Egyptologist and skilled linguist. He explained that the script was in Aklo, the language of an ancient race prior to the Hyperborean world. The tablets were some mechanism to summon and dispel the Black Demon to and from our world. The Black Demon was an agent or avatar of the Black Pharaoh, Nyarlathotep...
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #5 - Cthulhu Dark

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 02:17

Cthulhu Dark is without a doubt the briefest game in this list. The rules take up two pages and that includes examples. I'm going to do something a little weird and reproduce the essentials of the first page of the rules. You can see a the full rules of the first incarnation of the rules at http://catchyourhare.com/files/Cthulhu%20Dark.pdf. You can purchase the newest version at RPGNow which includes lots of campaign settings, interpretations of the rules, adventures, etc.

Your Investigator
Choose a name and occupation. Describe your Investigator. Take a green Insight Die.

All dice, including your Insight die, are six-sided.

Your Insight shows how far you can see into the horror behind the universe. It starts at 1.

When you see something disturbing, roll your Insight Die. If you get higher than your Insight,
add 1 to your Insight and roleplay your fear. (This is called an “Insight roll”.)

Is your Insight real? Can you really see a deeper truth? Or is it just insanity? Sometimes, it is hard
to tell.

When you investigate something, roll:

  • One die if what you’re doing is within human capabilities (the “Human Die”).
  • One die if it’s within your occupational expertise (the “Occupation Die”).
  • Your Insight Die, if you will risk your mind to succeed.

If your Insight Die rolls higher than any other die, make an Insight roll, as above.

Then your highest die shows how much information you get. On a 1, you get the bare minimum: if
you need information to proceed, you get it, but that’s all. On a 4, you get everything a competent investigator would discover.

On a 5, you discover everything a competent investigator would discover, plus something more. For example, you might also remember a related folktale, rumour or scientific experiment.

On a 6, you discover all of that, plus, in some way, you glimpse beyond human knowledge. This
probably means you see something horrific and make an Insight Roll.

Doing Other Things
When you do something other than investigating, roll dice as above. If you roll your Insight Die and
it rolls higher than any other die, then, as before, make an Insight Roll.

Again, your highest die shows how well you do. On a 1, you barely succeed. On a 4, you succeed
competently. On a 5, you succeed well and may get something extra. On a 6, you succeed brilliantly and get something extra, but maybe more than you wanted.

Those are the essentials. If you fight supernatural stuff you're pretty much dead. If your Insight hits 6 your character is essentially insane.

What is it about this game that has it ranked in my Top 5? In my experience, it works fantastically well for what it sets out to do. I still love Call of Cthulhu (hmm, it hasn't appeared on the list yet...), but sometimes you want some "pure" Lovecraftian horror. Cthulhu Dark is fantastic at stories designed to do that. When playing it, my players realized their doom and embraced it, reaching a point where they grabbed for that Insight Die, feeling their characters were facing some sanity-blasting horror.

Though there is nothing about the rules that makes this a requirement, Cthulhu Dark also steps away from the genteel, educated investigators that one often finds in Call of Cthulhu. Instead the characters are intended to be at or near the bottom of the social ladder. It's a different feel that I rather enjoyed. I

As I've mentioned a few times, this list only has games I've played. To be honest, based on just reading, I'd've been impressed by Cthulhu Dark but it would never have occurred to me to rank it so highly. It is a great read but I found it to be an even greater play experience.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #6 - Ghostbusters

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 21:46
Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...
The dead rising from the grave!
Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!- Dr. Raymond Stantz, Dr. Egon Spengler, Winston Zeddemore, Dr. Peter Venkman

I think every "Top N" list needs at least one or two "WTF?" entries. Yes, I am absolutely serious, I put West End Games' old Ghostbusters near the top of my Top 19 list.

Funny story. At least to me. When Wizards of the Coast first released their Star Wars RPG there was a lot of criticism about it being "D&D in space" due to using the d20 rules. While the d20 incarnations weren't my favorite (though I do think they got it right near the end of their license with Saga Edition), I always got a chuckle out of that criticism. By that standard, West End Games old Star Wars RPG, much beloved, could be considered "Ghostbusters in space".

For people familiar with the D6 Star Wars RPG, there is a lot familiar. You've got four traits ranked by the number of dice you have in them. And you can have talents for each trait. In Ghostbusters, it's pretty simple, with every character having a single talent per trait. If you can use a talent, you get three more dice. Check out the very complicated character sheet below.

Brownie points are a cross between hit points, experience points, and hero points. You can spend them for bonuses. You can spend them for permanent increases. And you lose them when you get the crap beaten out of you.

Equipment was handled with cards listing things like proton packs, scuba gear, mountaineering equipment, etc. The mountaineering equipment came in quite handy when we played.

Combat is roll a bunch of dice. No initiative. No rounds really, very freeform. Damage is pretty arbitrary. This all got tightened in the 2nd edition, Ghostbusters International, which at the time I considered a massive improvement. Now I have to confess to preferring the much faster and much, much looser 1st edition of the game.

Here's something else kinda funny about the Ghostbusters RPG. Take a look at some of the credits from the Operations Manual:

Yes, though published by West End Games, for all intents and purposes it seems to have been designed by Chaosium. There's only a few entries left in this list and if you've read my blog at all you know they're going to appear again. It's not surprising - published in 1986, this was West End Games' second RPG, after Paranoia in 1984. With that Call of Cthulhu pedigree you can rest assured there are awesome rules for ghost creation...
Ghostbusters is terrific fun. It asks for a lot of improvisation which may not be for everyone - and it definitely asks you to be in the right mood for it. But it is an absolute blast to play. Go find a copy. If you Google, you can probably find some PDFs of the first edition - some of them not on Russian filesharing sites...
Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!
- Winston Zeddemore
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dan’s Top 19 RPGs - #7 - Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Sat, 04/14/2018 - 22:48

 This was one of the tougher games for me to place. For a long time, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was the main game I played. I’m going to commit some old-school heresy and link the first and second editions of the games together - though there certainly was some stylistic changes, AD&D 2nd edition was more a change along the lines of editions of Call of Cthulhu than the leap between AD&D and Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. One could even make the argument of linking AD&D and B/X D&D but given the number of differing assumptions between the two parallel game lines, I’ve chosen not to do that - though truth to tell, my groups, like most, happily cross-pollinated between the two lines - but we usually preferred AD&D.

What was it about AD&D? I think what I liked about it was that it was a dense game. The early books were tomes you could explore. It was a crunchy game - not Aftermath crunchy but compared to B/X D&D there was a lot to the game. I don’t know if anyone used all of the crunch. For example, it was only a few years ago that I finally understood how speed factor worked in the 1st edition - each weapon had a speed factor assigned to it, though it was apparently only significant in the cases of a tie for initiative. There were rules for aging, diseases, saving throws for equipment carried by characters, etc. I think what I loved most was the feel of the game. It was a less brightly lit world than that of B/X D&D. Characters were generally assumed to be opportunists and evil characters seemed to be expected - though I recall a lot of debates in Dragon magazine’s old forum section. Of modern games, I’d say Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Dungeon Crawl Classics come closest to the tone of AD&D’s 1st edition. You won’t see LotFP on this list alas, as while I’ve borrowed from it, I’ve never actually had the opportunity to play it and I’ve limited my list to games I’ve played or run at least once.

I do wonder if I perhaps ranked AD&D a little too high - I suspect given the opportunity to play AD&D or AS&SH I’d probably pick the latter. On the other hand, I’ve such powerful memories of AD&D - I think we’re giving a bit of a nostalgia bump...

Looking back, I do think AD&D 2nd edition is a bit unfairly maligned. It provided some much needed cleanup of the rules - in AD&D 2e I actually understood how speed factor worked. It is regrettable how much tidier AD&D got - demons no longer in the game, no more assassin player characters, etc. The cleanup probably was necessary - I wasn’t in an area hit hard by the anti-D&D craze of the 1980s, but it was a real thing - I remember Gary Gygax on 60 Minutes.  The 2nd edition did go for more plot-driven adventures, sometimes with PCs relegated to being mere observers. However, late 2nd edition adventures experienced a bit of a renaissance after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR. There were some interesting experiments in that era - one of my favorites was Reverse Dungeon, where the PCs played the humanoids whose lairs were being attacked by adventurers.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Actual Play: Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign? Part 3

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 00:05
I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. ― Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

[Part One] [Part Two]

Setting:New Orleans, LA; Tuesday, February 1 - Saturday, February 5, 1921
  • Earl Crowley - Antiquarian settled in Arkham
  • Jordaine Furst - Strasbourg-born Great War spy for France
  • Fredrick Tardiff - Great War veteran, Kingsport artist
Summary:Hearing Fowler and Papa Screech back in the estate, the investigators exercised stealth. Crowley and Tardiff prepared to burn the side of the teleportation portal on the estate side of the gate while Furst snuck upstairs to see if there was anything worth seeing.

Upstairs she did find something rather disturbing behind a locked door (which she easily picked) - a shrine to his dead wife and daughter, with a copy of The King in Yellow as well as a tattered notebook. Flipping through it she found it was a set of instructions as to how one might summon Hastur. She pocketed the notebook and, going back downstairs, put the King in Yellow in the kindling they had laid out.

Their attempt to sneak out was not quite successful - Papa Screech heard them and pursued, opening fire with his handgun. Furst and Crowley returned fire, killing him. However, Fowler lived in a wealthy neighborhood and they quickly heard the whistles of police officers responding to the sound of shots fired. However, Tardiff had an ace up his sleeve - a spell he had learned to summon a mist, providing them a cloak in which to escape.

The next day Crowley and Furst monitored the swamp summoning area while Tardiff kept an eye on things in New Orleans.

Tardiff learned that Fowler had been taken to a hospital for a nervous breakdown - and that the portal had indeed been destroyed. He also discovered that Fowler had vanished during the night.
Crowley and Furst saw some of the remaining cultists dragging Fowler to one of the old hits, tied up. From listening to their talk it was clear they were distraught, refusing to believe that Papa Screech was truly dead and hoping he would soon appear so they could complete the summoning ritual.

That being established, the two returned to New Orleans to meet with Tardiff. They decided to make an anonymous tip to the police about Fowler and informed their patron, Charles Sunstram, of all that had transpired.

Keeper Notes:This last part was a pretty quick session, but we weren’t quite able to finish in part two. I was rather impressed by this old adventure - I ran it pretty close to as written, though I did add an extra clue here or there as it seemed there were a few too many pinch points. New Orleans was a nice diversion from our New England based campaign and over the years I’ve come to appreciate the Robert Chalmers that influenced HP Lovecraft.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dan’s Top 19 RPGs - #8 - RuneQuest

Sat, 04/07/2018 - 18:08

RuneQuest is a game I’d love to get a bit more time playing. The first version I picked up was the Avalon Hill-published, Chaosium-produced 3rd edition of the game. For many, if not most people, RuneQuest is equivalent to Glorantha, the default setting of the game. However, the 3rd edition took place on a fantasy version of Earth, with Glorantha detailed in a book in the boxed set.
My own experience with RuneQuest is in using it as the rules for a fantasy version of Earth, with the PCs being either Vikings or Lenape Native Americans, covering a fictional colony set up by Vikings in Manhattan around 1000 AD. It featured evil dwarfs, dragons, and lots of violence. It was a lot of fun. If it went much longer I think I would have thrown in some ninjas and dinosaurs... We actually used a fairly crunchy version of the rules, as designed by Nash and Whitaker for Mongoose Publishing, a set of rules that became the basis for The Design Mechanism’s RuneQuest 6th Edition and later Mythras. Chaosium, after a long journey, has the rights back to both the game and the rules and is in the process of producing a new edition, RuneQuest Glorantha.
What’s the appeal of RuneQuest? For me, it’s the skill-based characters. Without classes, you can make any character you want. With a simple percentile skill system it is easy to know how good your character is at something. And characters will rarely have enough hit points to guarantee surviving a single hit from a sword, combat is very exciting - lots of parrying and maneuvering. The Nash and Whitaker incarnation of RuneQuest greatly detailed the maneuvers possible, with characters getting additional options depending on how well they attack or defend. This was sometimes a little too crunchy for my tastes but it did make combat very exciting. From what I’ve seen, Chaosium appears to be throttling back on this a bit, going back to something closer to the 2nd and 3rd editions of the game. Still quite a few options, but not quite as crunchy. I’m considering RuneQuest to be a single game, unlike the different editions of D&D. Unlike D&D versions, RuneQuest character sheets from one edition tp the next look quite similar to one another, albeit with a lot more details as the editions go up. The editions aren’t quite as similar to one another as they are for its sibling, Call of Cthulhu. This is perhaps not too surprising considering the game has had four publishers - Chaosium, Avalon Hill, Mongooe, and The Design Mechanism. 
RuneQuest is also well known for its magic systems. The base game assumes that everyone is able to use magic, though for most this amounts to very minor magics like sharpening a blade. It is possible to become a dedicated priest in all of the editions and many of them also allow for sorcerers. Nash and Whitaker opened it up to shamans, divine priests, sorcerers, and mentalists. They also provided dials for how magical a world you wanted - you could,for example, take away the ability of everyone to use magic quite easily. It was also used by Mongoose for gaming in Lankhmar, though, truth to tell, I was a bit disappointed by those books. 
I’ve never gamed in Glorantha which makes me a bit uncomfortable commenting on one of its best known aspects. Glorantha is very much a fantasy setting. The gods in that setting are very real. The afterife is a very concrete thing, reducing fear of death quite a bit - and giving an emphasis on becoming legendary for one’s deeds. I like how it gets away from the default medieval fantasy of most games, going for more of a Bronze Age fantasy - and with a strong emphasis on different cultures, from the very primitive to empires. I’ve been giving some serious thought to trying out a Glorantha-based game of late.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #9 - Dungeons & Dragons (B/X, BXCMI)

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 01:56

I got my start in the B/X version of D&D and it’s still a game I really like, though it’s been years since I’ve played it. I’m lumping the Basic/Expert game with the later Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immportal sets, later consolidated into the Rules Cyclopedia, one of the greatest single volume games I’ve ever seen. I am keeping it separate from AD&D which will appear in one of the remaining 8 slots - I was a bit torn as to which to rank higher. Part of me wanted to link them all as one game but my own gameplay experiences had them feeling rather different from each other. I certainly borrowed material from one game and used them in the other.

With that out of the way, what was the appeal for me of D&D? As with manu others of my generation, this was my first exposure to role playing. In some ways the game is a bit kludgey, with a variety of mechanics - lots of x in 6 chances, percentile chances, d20 attack rolls, low armor classes are good, etc. Nowadays that’s part of the charm and nostalgia of the game, but in all honesty it got rather confusing when learning. But once I grasped the basics of the game it was a joy to play - four main classes, three demi-human classes and that’s it for your character options. Spell lists of moderate size, not a gazillion special abilities to keep track of.

As I’ll mention with AD&D, part of the appeal of this game was the setting and adventure modules. The Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread are two of my favorite gaming locations. A small fortress on the wilderness with monsters nearby and a “lost world” island to adventure on. The Companion series opened up a frontier region of Norwold, inviting players to settle down and rule their own realms, getting involved in fantasy medieval politics. One area of D&D that I preferred to AD&D was how it handled high-level play, with rules for domain management and its War Machine rules for simple mass combat resolution.

D&D also had a default world that developed slowly over time - from a simple presentation in the Expert set of the “Known World” to more developed Gazeteer modules to the Voyage of the Princess Ark exploring the whole planet. The immediate are, as covered by the Gazeteers, was my favorite. It was a shameless amalgamation of cultural riffs on human cultures - Vikings, Bedouin, Mongols, a Byzantine Empire, etc., all shamelessly close together. You had your Principalities of Glantri, a realm ruled by competing wizard families with a canal city for a capital.

I know there was a certain amount of politics at TSR that kept D&D and AD&D separate games. They definitely had different tones but keeping them as separate games was an incredibly odd business decision it is very understandable that Wizards of the Coast brought the two lines back together for D&D 3.0.

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Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #10 - Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 00:15

I’d originally planned on making this list a “top 10 list”, but given the name of my blog, I couldn’t resist the urge to make it a “top 19”. It’s taking me a bit longer than I would have liked. Unfortunately, over the past few months I’ve had to dial back on my posting frequency. It’s been a combination of finishing up my master’s degree (eight classes down, two to go) as well as actually working on my first gaming product intended for publication (more on that in a few months if it becomes something real).
That said, we’ve made it to the top ten. Another of the reasons I expanded it from ten to nineteen is I wanted to get some retroclones that I’ve played in. Today’s entry is one that I’ve really enjoyed - Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorceres of Hyperborea. Take Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and super-emphasize elements that would fit into Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborean stories - a swords & sorcery corner of the Cthulhu Mythos.
The rules themselves are a close variant of AD&D, with a number of changes that I really liked. No more multi-class characters - but each of the main four classes have a number of subclasses which often borrow from other core classes. For example, one can be a warrior who dabbles in magic. There are no non-human characters, something which feels appropriate for the genre. While characters can create minor magic items, the more techniques of more major magics such as enchanted weapons have been lost.
The setting is a mini-universe - a hexagon shaped sea whose waters drop off to infinity, surrounding a small continent and many islands. There are untold ruins, remnants of many cataclysms, and those cities that remain are often a fraction of their former populations. Above a pitiful dying sun provides feeble warmth.
AS&SH isn’t as open-ended as some other D&D-style games in tone - I think, for example, it would be an awkward fit for heroic fantasy - but it’s not trying to be an anything game. It sets its sights on a specific genre and masterfully executes.

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Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #11 - Vampire: The Masquerade

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 01:21

I saw Vampire: The Masquerade a number of times at the local Waldenbooks in the early 1990s. As a poor college student without a lot of free time I didn't make that many gaming purchases back then - and without a regular book there didn't seem much point in purchasing it. But every time I was there I flipped through it and was amazed - it was different from any other RPG I'd ever seen. From the evocative art to the comic book style story within to its themes. Eventually I wound up purchasing it.

Truth to tell, I've not gotten that much play out of it - in that, it resembles Pendragon - a game I really like but have gotten very little opportunity to play. However, the few times I've played it were a blast - whether it was dark and moody or superheroes with fangs, it was a blast.

There's a number of things about Vampire that I found - and still find - appealing. I love politics and Vampire games can be all about politics - high stakes politics in the style of the Corleone and the Borgia families. I also love history and with Vampire you can play a character centuries old - and you can easily play a historical game, with supplements covering the Middle Ages and Victoria Era

The tone of the game screams 1990s to me. The 1990s was the decade that I came into adulthood. I was an 18-year old college freshman as the 1990s began. I was never a part of the goth subculture but I definitely appreciated it. I loved grunge music. My favorite color was black. Like many people of that period, Vampire spoke to me. Vampire and other White Wolf games came to dominate the gaming industry as the decade went on. Even that had parallels for me, for by the end of the decade I was married, doing well in my career, and would soon be purchasing a house, getting a dog, and having kids.

I see Vampire still speaks to people. My younger daughter is the geeky one, the one who loves comics, anime, manga, rpgs, etc., has expressed an interest in playing Vampire and loves the art of the game. I'd certainly take it for a spin again. And with more play, I imagine I'd be ranking it much higher.
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Actual Play: Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign? Part 2

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 00:55
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
- "Cassilda's Song" in The King in Yellow Act 1, Scene 2

Based on the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure "Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign" by Kevin Ross. Originally published by Chaosium in The Great Old Ones, revised version published by Golden Goblin Press in Tales of the Crescent City.

Setting: New Orleans, LA; Monday, January 31, 1921 - Tuesday, February 1, 1921

  • Earl Crowley - Antiquarian settled in Arkham
  • Jordaine Furst - Strasbourg-born Great War spy for France
  • Fredrick Tardiff - Great War veteran, Kingsport artist


After dealing with a bout of paranoid madness, the investigators limped their way back to their hotel to recover from the shock.

The next morning (rather late morning), going over Gavvin's notes, they decided to go to the warehouse being used by the Most Honorable Krewe of Swords. It was a hive of activity, with the impeccably dressed chairman of the Krewe, Denis Bouchard, paying a visit, though it was the oddly dressed and speaking Papa Screech who was truly in charge. Bouchard was friendly enough, especially given Crowley's wealth, inviting them to a Mardis Gras celebration at Fowler's estate on February 9. Screech said little, commenting that the Yellow Sign had come to him in a vision - something that conflicted with their recent reading of The King in Yellow. As they left, they noticed the skylight was shattered - something seemed to have landed on it hard. Something to investigate at a later point perhaps.

With many signs pointing to Fowler, they paid a visit to his estate. Finding it totally vacant, Furst picked the lock and they had a look around. Much to their surprise they found a room with what Tardiff recognized as a teleportation gate from his sojourn to Ka'tori in June of 1920. Knowing how to activate it, they bravely (foolishly?) did so, taking a sanity bending journey... Into the swamp outside the city... They'd arrived in a hut, one of many rundown huts. Looking around they found their way to a clearing with some stone menhirs - a sight they recognized from their visions and from The King in Yellow. It was the perfect place to bring Hastur to take a mortal form, bringing him from Carcosa.

They also found a relatively friendly face, Granny Goudreau living in a one-room cabin. She talked about the wicked voodoo folk, led by Papa Screech. He had been part of the Cthulhu cult wiped out back in 1907. She'd also observed Papa Screech and his people preparing for a ritual - one where they'd summon Hastur to take over the body and destroy the mind of some stupid white man, Fowler, convincing him he'd become a god.

They returned to the abandoned hut and returned to Fowler's estate as the sun set. There they overheard Papa Screech and Fowler talking, with Screech assuring him he'd soon be a god...
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Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #12 - Marvel Super Heroes

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 01:59

There have been a number of RPGs based on Marvel Comics but my favorite remains the original game, as published by TSR in the 1980s. It's been around 25 years since I've played the game but I still have very fond memories of the game.
I believe TSR made the game from 1984 to 1993. There were two main rules sets - the original basic game in 1984 and the advanced game which was releases in 1986. TSR later published a revised basic set. The game reflected the changing Marvel universe - it began with a strong Bronze Age of comics feel, though over time it acquired the Iron Age feel of late 1980s and early 1990s comics - the proliferation of X-Men teams, supernatural characters, etc. Though strongly rooted in the Marvel Universe, the game had rules for your own characters, teams, headquarters, etc. 
The mid-1980s saw a number of "table-based" RPGs - Chill, Gamma World, Marvel Super Heroes, and Conan are the biggies I can think of. Of the TSR games, I think Marvel did it best. Below is the "universal table" from the original game:
In terms of action, the universal table was great - it greatly mimicked the feel of comics, with characters going flying in battle, getting briefly knocked off their feet, etc. The characters had 7 abilities - Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche - to this day, remembered as FASERIP. Each ability had a comic sounding rank - Feeble, Poor, Typical, Good, Excellent, Remarkable, Incredible, Amazing, Monstrous, and Unearthly. It's worth noting I quoted the abilities and their ranks from memory - again, despite not having played in over two decades. That's how well the game was done.
Characters had Health and Karma stats as well. These were based off of their physical and mental abilities. Health was a fairly typical "hit point" style ability. Karma was a character's ability to influence fate - bonuses to dice rolls. In the advanced game Karma could also be spent to try "power stunts" - non-typical uses of power. Spending Karma was also used for improving abilities and getting new powers. Karma could be pooled by teams, giving a common resource. You gained Karma by being heroic - and could lose it by non-heroic actions. Characters who killed lost all their Karma - and a Karma Pool would also be wiped out by a character in it who killed (keep an eye on Wolverine).
Additionally characters had Resources and Popularity, reflecting their relative wealth and how well-liked they were. Villains could have negative Popularity, reflecting how feared they were - and sometimes even well-meaning mutants might fall into that category.
Marvel Super Heroes worked great both in campaign play and for quick games. As I wrote this overview, it occurs to me it had an influence on games like Fudge, Fate, and Icons. One of the things I remember most about playing the game is how much it felt like a Marvel Comic - clearly one of the game's design goals and one it realized admirably.

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Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #13 - Dungeon Crawl Classics

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 01:31

We're entering a region of my Top 19, probably up to number 6 or 7, where I'd almost be inclined to list a 6-way tie. I like all the games on this list a lot and we're hitting the games that I really, really like.

Dungeon Crawl Classics came out around the time I started this blog so it has a special place in my heart. It takes the D&D 3.x rules and strips them down. It then looks at the stripped down rules and decides they've not been stripped down enough. And then it decides to strip them down a bit further. And then it adds a few gazillion tables for critical hits, spells, deities, etc. It takes Appendix N of 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide, the inspirational reading section, as its source material. This gives it a mix of science fantasy, weird fantasy, swords and sorcery. Inspirations like Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, Manly Wade Wellman, HP Lovecraft, L. Sprague de Camp, Andre Norton, etc. It did introduce me to a number of authors I've come to greatly enjoy - Wellman and Norton probably being the biggest two.

Characters begin at 0-level, with a massive dungeon crawl called the "funnel", with each player running multiple characters. Most will die. It's a deadly game - the first game that I ever experienced a total party kill (in a 1st level adventure).

Having clocked some time with it, there are a few things I'm less than crazy about. Probably the biggest is there is a lot of deliberate "we're not going to give a rule for that" moments. In some respects I can appreciate that, given the variety of campaign worlds possible. - encounter tables and magic items come to mind. In others I'd really have preferred some more guidance. I'm thinking of things that were found in early editions of D&D - more details about wilderness travel, strongholds, etc.

I am greatly looking forward to the Lankhmar boxed set coming out this summer from Goodman Games for DCC - it really is a setting that seems perfectly matched for the game.
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Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #14 - Icons

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 01:49

I have a mixed record with superheroes. I love superhero comics, but my success rate with superhero campaigns is rather limited. That said, there will be some superhero entries on this list - games I have had the opportunity to play and enjoy.

I had the opportunity to clock some time running an Icons campaign and definitely had a lot of fun. It's clearly a relative of Fate, though with a good dose of TSR's old Marvel Superheroes RPG in the mix as well.

Icons does a good job of emulating what you see in a comic book. Characters can slam foes and send them flying. By using Determination, characters can activate Qualities (like Fate Aspects), avoid Trouble, and up their effort to retry failed tests. A character who dies is out of play for at least an issue, but after which may make a miraculous return based on an explanation come up with by the GM and player. No, this is not a gritty simulation of realism. Superman, Captain America, Phoenix, Bucky, Professor X, Doctor Doom, Magneto, the Joker and countless other comic book characters are shocked, shocked I tell you that it is so easy for a character to come back from the dead.

While Icons allows for deliberate character building, it assumes random character generation - again calling to mind the old Marvel Superheroes RPG. Characters might not turn out balanced and there can be some really odd assortments of powers, but in my experience that's half the fun of the game.

My Icons campaign was pretty brief, but nothing I ran into suggested it would be inappropriate for a longer term game. It's probably not a good game for simulating Alan Moore's Watchmen or Neil Gaiman's Sandman. But for someone like me whose favorite comic books are from the Bronze Age of Comic Books, it's a super-fun game. It requires minimal prep time - indeed you could block out say 30 minutes for character generation and still have time for a full adventure.

Interestingly, Icons was created by Steve Kenson, who had previously created Mutants & Masterminds, another, far more crunchy (but also fun) superhero RPG. Kenson in the introduction discusses this, pointing out that there's no "right" way to do a superhero RPG. I can see times where I'd want more detail, something I could get from Mutants & Masterminds or Champions. There's also times where I might want to stretch the genre quite a bit, something I think games like Wild Talents are great for. But sometimes I just want some superheroes to save the city/planet/universe, and Icons is great for that. I also want to call attention to Dan Houser's art, giving the game an attractive, consistent "look" which really adds a lot to the game.

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Actual Play: Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign? Part 1

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 04:17

In early1921, the investigators depart Massachusetts to investigate a mysterious death in New Orleans...

Based on the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure "Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign" by Kevin Ross. Originally published by Chaosium in The Great Old Ones, revised version published by Golden Goblin Press in Tales of the Crescent City.

Setting: Boston, Mass. and New Orleans, LA; Friday, January 28 - Monday, January 31, 1921


  • Earl Crowley - Antiquarian settled in Arkham
  • Jordaine Furst - Strasbourg-born Great War spy for France
  • Fredrick Tardiff - Great War veteran, Kingsport artist


The investigators received a telegram from the great occultist, Étienne-Laurent de Marigny of New Orleans asking them to travel to New Orleans, indicating he required their services in an investigation.

Leaving Boston on Friday the 28th, they arrived in New Orleans two days later after an uneventful rail journey. Much warmer than Boston, New Orleans was apparently unaware that Prohibition was in effect. de Marigny met with them briefly, explaining he had business in Arkham that prevented him from giving a curious case the attention it deserved but that their reputation made him confident it would be in good hands.

De Marigny showed them a letter he had received from Charles Sunstram, editor of the New Orleans Daily Gazette. Sunstram's letter indicated suspicion that one of his reporters, Peter Gavvin, had been murdered after stumbling upon a conspiracy. According to the police, Gavvin jumped to his death from the roof of a Tulane University building. Sunstram did not believe it and was concerned about a drawing found in Gavvin's hand - an occult symbol, de Marigny was quite certain...

Sunstram was able to meet with the investigators, with the newsroom beginning to fill up as with Sunday evening setting in and the Monday morning issue being finalized. Sunstram explained how Gavvin had been reporting on various Krewes preparing for Margi Gras (February 8th this year). He shared with them Gavvin's notes:

Going through the newspaper morgue's they learned a number of bits of trivia:

  • Randall Fowler's wife and child had been killed in an automobile accident
  • The Fowler family was once known as the LeFleur family. They changed their name after the Civil War owing to Gaston LeFleur's reputation as a slave-trader.
Sunstram wrote them letters of introduction and secured them lodging at the Lafayette Hotel. On the way to the hotel, they kept seeing examples of the symbol found on Gavvin. Though the hotel was very nice, they were plagued by dreams - dreams of the symbol, yellow-colored, and of an abandoned city of towers on a lake. Tardiff secured liquid courage to help him find his way back to sleep.
On Monday the 31st they sought out information on the strange symbol they were seeing. They found their way to the Avedon Antiquarian Gallery. Avedon wasn't around but his trusted assistant, Rodrigo Vargas was. From Vargas they were able to obtain a blade Imbued with the Might of the Elder Ones.. 
They learned quite a bit from Vargas:
  • Gavvin had met with Avedon. He was looking for a copy of the infamous French play, The King in Yellow. Avedon was going to check his personal library for a copy. He hasn't been in the shop since.
  • Papa Screech is rumored to have been part of a cult shut down by the New Orleans police over a decade ago.
With some persuading, they got Avedon's address. Traveling to his small courtyard house, they were able to meet with Francois Avedon, though he was only partially sane. They did manage to find his private copy of The King in Yellow, in its original French. Furst read it and summarized it for Crowley and Tardiff. The experience was somewhat sanity-rending for all of them, learning strange tales of Carcoa, Hali, twisted royal families, and the Phantom of Truth. All were infected with a strong paranoia, Crowley and Tardiff much worse and indefinitely...
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Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #15 - D&D 5e

Thu, 03/01/2018 - 22:22

Back in 2015 I gave my first impressions of the 5th edition of D&D. Beyond that brief campaign I haven't clocked much 5th edition time but my impressions remain - it's a great game. It takes a number of lessons learned from the 3rd and 4th editions of the game.

Here's my big takeaways on the 5th edition. First, it takes away the necessity of 3.x games to very carefully balance encounters and to plan player characters from first level. It removed the "grind" often found in D&D 4th edition and stepped back from a number of decisions made in there that made the game feel less like D&D. One interesting lesson it took from 4th edition was a "proficiency bonus". When making a roll in something core to your character you add it to your d20 roll, otherwise you don't. A fighter would add it to attack rolls with his sword, a wizard would apply it to her spell rolls. Any character would use it for skills he or she is proficient in. It applies to certain saving throws for your character. Otherwise you pretty much roll a d20 plus ability modifiers. However, the proficiency bonus is modest, starting out at +2 and maxing out at +6 at 20th level. Magic items are also made a bit more modest - and one could easily do a game in a low-magic world.

Mechanically, the only real complaint I have with the game is characters seemed a little too tough to me and advancement seemed a bit too quick. The second of those issues is certainly very easy to remedy, assuming all at the table are in agreement.

In many ways 5th edition feels a bit like pre-3.0 versions of D&D and AD&D, albeit much cleaned up. You could probably take Keep on the Borderlands for Basic D&D and run it with perhaps a half hour or hour of conversion ahead of time - and I suspect your game wouldn't hurt much if you converted on the fly. It wouldn't be as smooth as running a 1st edition Call of Cthulhu adventure with 7th edition but it would be far easier than trying to run a 3.5 adventure with 4th edition D&D (I can't imagine doing so on the fly).

That said, there's a few things that stop D&D 5e from having a better ranking. Mechanically, it's a superior game to Basic/Expert D&D. Despite that you'll be seeing that version of D&D later in the list. Why is that? This list is my top list of games, trying to rank the "fun" I have with those games. For me, there's a certain magic in those older versions of D&D - from the world building advice to the art to the feel of the game to the supplements and adventures that come out. For me, 5th edition is a bit lacking in that intangible aspect. If it were the first version of D&D I encountered, I might very well rank it a lot higher.

D&D 5th edition does seem a bit like an "evergreen" edition. Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro doesn't seem interested in a stream of supplements or adventures, releasing them only occasionally and has outsourced some to other companies. This is probably both a plus and a minus - over time, games like 3.x and 4e changed quite a bit, with an unending stream of splatbooks. It's nice to get away from that treadmill. However,  sometimes one might want a bit more.

With 3.x I said I'd join a game as a player quite readily but I'd need some time to think about DM-ing such a game. For 5e, I could see doing either quite readily.
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Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #16 - D&D 3.x

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 23:50

One of the oddities in this list is variants of D&D will appear multiple times while games like Call of Cthulhu will appear once. However, I've found many of the editions of D&D are extremely different from one another. If you showed up at my Call of Cthulhu 7th edition game with a 1st edition character, we could probably convert on the fly. On the other hand, bringing a D&D 3.5 character to a 4th edition game would not work.

Additionally, there will be a few retro-clones on this list - primarily if they bring something very new to the gable.

While D&D 3.0 and D&D 3.5 do have some fair-sized differences, it is clear that 3.5 is an evolution from 3.0 as opposed to an entirely new game, as was done in 4e.

It was tough for me to figure out where D&D 3.x should rank. I want to point out that any game on this list is a game I've both played and enjoyed - and there are a few games not on the list that I've also enjoyed quite a bit.

The 3rd edition of D&D was a massive change to Dungeons & Dragons. While Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had introduced non-weapon proficiencies as early as its 1st edition, D&D 3rd edition introduced a fairly rigorous skills system, incorporating a number of special abilities such as what had once been ranger and thief abilities in previous editions of the game. Nothing technically stopped you from making a wizard good at picking pockets - it probably wasn't the best use of limited skill points and you'd never be as good as a rogue, but the ability to customize was nice. Similarly, the use of feats allowed for further customization - the crafting of magic items, mastery of two-weapon styles, access to weapons your class wouldn't normally have, etc. You could also multi-class quite easily, taking one level of rogue, then one of wizard, etc. Doing it too much would make your character spread too thin, but a bit of dabbling made for interesting characters. The game also introduced "prestige classes" to the game - special classes you could qualify for over time, giving you some interesting abilities. You could, for example, become an eldritch knight, advancing both in fighting and magical abilities at the same time. You'd lose some of the abilities you'd have gotten by staying in one class, but it was more beneficial than multi-classing.

The game also introduced a universal mechanic - roll a d20, add and subtract modifiers, and try to beat a difficulty. This was actually pretty revolutionary for the game. Previously, a saving throw vs. a minor spell effect was just as difficult as one for a major one. Similarly, the difficulty of picking a lock was solely dependent on the skill of the thief. Sure, most of us threw bonuses and penalties in as house rules, but it was nice to see it made official.

I found this version of D&D a ton of fun to play and to run. However, as I got experience with it I found things that bugged me. Perhaps the first of these is it was a game I found extremely difficult to house rule. In my experience, D&D 3.x was a very precise machine and modifications could have side-effects. For example, the game really assumed miniature use and if you didn't use them  a number of feats became either useless or difficult to adjudicate. If you removed those feats then you'd have to address other feats that they were prerequisites for. It was like pulling a thread on a sweater.

I also found the game to be a bit too complex for my tastes, especially when it came to creating adventures. I found I still loved coming up with ideas for adventures but actually implementing them wasn't as fun, what with the need to finely balance encounters, give out the right amounts of treasure, etc. As a player, I also found it somewhat frustrating that you often needed to start planning for prestige classes at 1st level. Especially frustrating when a new book came out after you started play...

While you'll see some skill-less versions of D&D ranked better than 3.x in my list, it's worth noting that, in general, I prefer skill-based games. I've had a lot of fun in versions of AD&D relying on player skill to come up with clever plans but I do like having things like a characters's ability to sneak around spelled out. And I especially like the existence of social skills - just like most players aren't great warriors in real life, most aren't also masters of deceit or oratory. That said, I found D&D 3.x to be a bit too rigorous in its skill definition, particularly when combined with its expected use of miniatures.

In spite of those paragraphs of complaining, I did have quite a bit of fun with D&D 3.x. When you played the game the way it was expected, it played very well. Combats were rather fun as characters danced around the battlefield, tumbling past opponents or trying to flank a foe. If I were invited to play in a D&D 3.x game (or its successor, Pathfinder) and I had the time, I'd gladly do so. I occasionally join in a D&D Online game which is based on the 3.x rules. I would probably need to think hard about running such a game though.
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