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Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games
Updated: 1 week 5 days ago

Kasimir Urbanski and Appendix N on Geek Gab!

Sun, 07/29/2018 - 20:18

Okay, it finally happened. Kasimir Urbanski and I have finally had a big sit down on the topic of Appendix N. Note that we did not have a formal debate; rather, this was more just a friendly conversation on the subject. Anyone that has followed Urbanski’s blog posts and Google+ threads on this topic will, I think, be very surprised by the results here. Yeah, the usual straw man arguments do make a cameo appearance, but it is relatively brief. And for the record, below are my notes for the key points I wanted to have covered during the exchange.

Listen to the whole show and decide for yourself how well they got argued!

What is Appendix N?

** It is more or less a significant subset of the fantasy and science fiction canon– and consistent with what the typical fantasy fan of the seventies understood about the genre.

Does it shed light on why classic editions of Dungeons & Dragons are the way that they are?

** Yes…. See also Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, Marc Miller’s Traveller and James Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha. All of them leveraged a synthesis of weird books in order to get off the ground. All of them took no thought of slinging elements from contradictory stories and series together into one great game of “play anything from any book you like– as a player or a dungeon master!”

Does it have any utility for game masters that are running fantasy campaigns of their own?

** If you struggle with imagining worlds where alignment, spell memorization, and mega-dungeons are “real”, then you are going to get a real kick out of seeing these things in their original contexts. Contrarwise, if you assume that The Lord of the Rings is the starting point for how fantasy even works, you are going to inevitably be frustrated by how classic D&D is implemented and how it plays. Further, a person that thinks only in terms of derivative eighties style fantasy will be tempted to sacrifice player autonomy in order to produce the sort of “epic” story arcs that you take for granted as being the entire point of the fantasy genre.

Are some types of fantasy a better fit for classic D&D than others?

** You’re going to have far less friction adapting situations from Burroughs, Leiber, Howard, and Vance to D&D than you are trying to make it fit with Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Just as one major example: the need for backgrounds and motivations is simply absent from pulp stories in general. This is the first thing that is added to movie adaptations of Conan and Solomon Cane, but it’s pretty well absent from the source material. It’s not an accident there’s no space for “background” on you Moldvay Basic character sheet!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Today’s Forecast: A “Definitive End” to Appendix N Discussion!

Sat, 07/28/2018 - 15:47

Pop the popcorn, y’all! This is going to be good!

Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Urbanski. You probably don’t have the balls to appear someplace where your presence is inappropriate anyway. (h/t Neal Durando!)

It is absolutely baffling to me why the topic of Appendix N is just so triggering to certain people.  It’s been asked before: “why does the idea that Gygax got specific ideas for D&D from specific sources, and that these can be identified, seem to offend some people? Are they invested in the idea that it was all original for some reason?”

Good questions! Maybe we’ll get some answers today on Geek Gab.

And just for the record… before we go onto the show, here are my questions for the RPG Pundit:

  • What is Appendix N?
  • Does it shed light on why classic editions of Dungeons & Dragons are the way that they are?
  • Does it have any utility for game masters that are running fantasy campaigns of their own?
  • Are some types of fantasy a better fit for classic D&D than others?

Seems like pretty tame stuff to me. It doesn’t have to be so difficult to have a conversation about this. But for some reason, it just is.

Don’t miss it! We should be live in a couple of hours here…!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Jack Vance is the Soul of AD&D

Mon, 07/23/2018 - 16:06

From Gary Gygax’s introduction to The Dying Earth rpg:

Aside from ideas and specific things, the very manner in which Jack Vance portrays a fantasy environment, the interaction of characters with that environment, and with each other, is so captivating that wherever I could manage it, I attempted to include the “feel” he brings to his fantasy tales in the AD&D game. My feeble ability likely managed to convey but little of this, but in all I do believe that a not a little of what fans consider to be the “soul” of the game stems from that attempt. Of course there were, as noted, a number of other authors who had considerable influence on what I wrote, so let it suffice to conclude that in all a considerable debt of gratitude is owned to Mr. Vance, one that I am always delighted to repay whenever the opportunity arises. It should go without saying that whenever I see a new title of his, I buy it and read it with avid pleasure.

And ah, note there the reference to other Appendix N authors as having “considerable influence” on the game as well. Also, Gygax appeared as a character in one of Vance’s books. Interesting!

And check this out:

Of the other portions of the A/D&D game stemming from the writing of Jack Vance, the next most important one is the thief-class character. Using a blend of “Cugel the Clever” and Roger Zelazny’s “Shadowjack” for a benchmark, this archetype character class became what it was in original AD&D.

If you have been frustrated by the thief class and how it plays in early editions of D&D, you may want to take a look at these two characters yourself!

Finally… Neal Durando notes here that Vance’s Dying Earth setting is antithetical to the sort of setting splat books that became synonymous with rpgs in the eighties:

There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion.

You know, that’s strange.

It’s almost as if a familiarity with the books of Appendix N can have a drastic impact on how you even conceive of the game– and how you go about setting up your campaign or how you design supplements for it as well.

Somebody ought to look into this!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Jessica Price and James Gunn on Free Speech

Mon, 07/23/2018 - 04:58

Below are Jessica Price’s comment on the firing of James Damore from Google and James Gunn’s remarks on Brendan Eich’s firing from Mozilla.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The D&D fight of the century?

Mon, 07/23/2018 - 01:34

Daddy Warpig has just announced it on the most recent episode of Geek Gab: “We are trying to get together a show with RpgPundit and Jeffro to come on the show and debate issues of D&D and from what I understand looking at Google+, the RpgPundit just launched another broadside against Appendix N, so I am absolutely sure that if we bring this off, that will come off in the discussion…. Jeffro vs. RpgPundit in the D&D fight of the century!”

Unfortunately, not everyone out there wants to see a couple of role-playing game junkies come to blows over this. As Adam Simpson comments on the video, “RPG Pundit and Jeffro? I will listen to that! I’m not looking forward to fighting but I would like to see both of them make clear their positions on Appendix N. I get the feeling sometimes those are 2 guys who have more in common than in conflict. I like RPG Pundit but I think Jeffro’s insights on Appendix N are worthy of everyone’s attention.”

What does the RPG Pundit have to say on this? Maybe he’s mellowed on the subject of Appendix N over the past year or so…? Let’s check in with him.

Show me how many major references there were to Appendix N in print BEFORE the OSR. If it was so pivotal, that should be easy.

But you can’t. You’ll probably find some dusty Dragon article that mentioned it, once, or some single conversation on some newsgroup from the 1990s.

That’s some pretty tough talk there. You might be thinking he’s ready to throw down in a no holds barred fight to the finish on the subject. And if you are… you’re wrong:

I have no problem debating you about Appendix N, with regards to how important it is, because it just isn’t, and the historical evidence is on my side.

And if that’s a segment of the show, I have no problem with that. But I’d rather be more topical and spend time discussing a much more important subject, which is the SJWs’ attempts to take over the entire hobby.

While reposting the classic rant on my blog, which I only did because it was just it’s turn to be reposted on my list, I literally looked at it and thought to myself “well, we won’t be likely to have time to argue about minor crap like this anymore, not with what’s going down hobby-wide now”.

There you have it.

He’s coming out swinging in the comment boxes here, but as far as any kind of in depth debate on the subject of Appendix N is concerned… he’d really prefer to discuss almost anything else!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

A Breakthrough Moment with G.E.V.

Sat, 07/21/2018 - 17:14

I’ve played this scenario with many people over the years and really… the combination of spillover fire, overruns, and the terrain rules can be a lot to take in for a first time player. Watching a dozen of your G.E.V.’s evaporate due to one bad decision can really take the wind out of a guy’s sails, too. It takes a certain kind of person to go through that and say, “hey… let’s do that again because I’ve got an idea for a different strategy.” We have a name for that kind of person, too: they’re called gamers!

Get those first few trial games out of the way and this old MicroGame suddenly gets serious. Arguments break out about which strategies are better and who is the better player. There’s only one way to settle them: a tournament style set where each player gets a chance to play both sides. This really ups the ante!

Here’s how things fell out when just such a thing broke out at my table:

The attackers move in and pool up. The defense player had just been whittled down in a steady retreat, so he’s spoiling for a combat. He’s changed up his armor unit selection this time adding in a couple of G.E.V.’s specifically to counter the tactics his opponent used previously. But now he has to decide: should he fall back or rush the enemy G.E.V.’s.???

He rushes the attacking G.E.V.s, killing two and disabling one. All hell breaks loose, and when the dust settles, the G.E.V.’s are gone. Eight G.E.V.’s leave the map fairly late, scoring three victory points each. The defense kills a total of four enemy G.E.V.’s, scoring the same amount of points. But the attackers devastate the defense killing ten units altogether for a final net score of sixty points. When the tables are turned, the bar is set: it’s going to take a fairly hefty decisive win to beat this!

The defense this time opts not to rush the incoming G.E.V.’s. This hands the invaders some choice targets:

Not a good start here!

The G.E.V.’s have killed two armor units and disabled another. They position themselves to bypass the defensive line entirely while reserving the chance to pick off finish off the damaged heavy.

More sparing occurs and the attackers achieve this position:

The attackers have to choose. Do they run away and collect a hefty victory point bonus for leaving early? Or do they shoot up the defense for a few easy points?

The chance to wipe out that defending heavy tank is just too tempting!

But good gosh, the 2-to-1 attack on the heavy fails. He shoots back and the results are disastrous. The G.E.V.’s now have the option of abandoning the units that are disabled in return. The attacker looks at the victory point tallies, makes an error in his reckoning, and doubles down. He leaves two G.E.V.’s right on the coastline thinking that the defenders will have their hands full picking off the disabled units.

But the attacker completely forgot about the overrun rules. The Heavy tank shrugs off the pitiful 1-to-2 attack that the disabled units muster and he blows them away. He and the surviving infantry squad move in and disable the two G.E.V.’s that had thought they were going to get to do some serious killing!

The other G.E.V.’s have left the board. The defense has free attacks with no chance of losing any more units. They get a 1-to-2 shot with the infantry squad and a 2-to-1 shot with the heavy tank– any “D” or “X” result will be a kill!

The dice are rolled and… the defense rolls two ones in succession. Miraculously, the two G.E.V.’s that should have evaporated due to their commander’s hubris are in fact going to get away scot-free!

The victory points are tallied. The attackers get 56 points for getting seven G.E.V.’s off the board early and another 38 points for their kills. The defense scores 30 points for taking out five attackers. The final net score here is 64, just four points higher than the previous decisive victory.

We have a new Breakthrough champion at my house here… but if the dice had turned up as anything other than snake eyes, it would have been the other guy!


But this is precisely why G.E.V. is regarded as one of the top 100 greatest hobby games of all time.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Unfrozen Gaming Caveman Speaks: The Truth About Today’s D&D

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 19:28


Seriously, just read it:

I used to be an avid gamer. From the moment I first saw people playing D&D in junior high school (1976 or so) to the early 1980s when my life turned into a Hunter Thompson/William S Burroughs mashup, RPGs were my main avocation.

In the years between then and now I’ve played on the rare occasions that a game has been available, but between getting married and raising children and learning to hold down a job and becoming an internationally unknown least-selling New Wave writer, I really haven’t taken the time to seek out a gaming group.

Over the last few years I have been reading and commenting on OSR blogs, mostly from following people who have interesting comments on other blogs (+Jeffro Johnson was my OSR gateway drug) but I haven’t really been exposed to what might be called the mainstream of RPG writing over the last few decades.

Even when my eldest daughter started playing D&D I didn’t pay a lot of attention. A few things she said about her games struck me as odd, but I shrugged it off with paternal indulgence.

Recently, though, I have been following links and reading articles written (allegedly) by gamers for gamers.

And what the actual fuck, people?

This is not like going back to my hometown and seeing that they tore down the old mall and widened the highway and put a McMansion Estates where the old high school stood. This is more like going back to what I thought was my old hometown and ending up in the Silent City of The Dessicated Dead on the lost Plateau of Leng.

What the people I am reading now are talking about is not the game that I used to play. It’s not even the type of game that I used to play–or the category of activity that I used to play. The difference isn’t like Chess and Checkers, or Golf and Bowling.

It’s like the difference between cooking chili in a crockpot and blindfolded bicycle racing. The points of similarity are so rare and so irrelevant that I can’t say it’s the same thing at all, despite using many of the same names and much of the same specialized vocabulary.

I mean, I thought that the OSR gang was exaggerating the differences between Old School gaming and the modern… whatever for effect. I figured that they were just getting hung up on a few rule changes as a kind of group shibboleth–if you use these rules from this edition then you’re not one of us.

Not so much. If anything, what I’ve read from the OSR has been understating the case.

What I used to do that I called playing RPGs was having fun playing make believe Heroes vs Monsters and rolling dice to see who killed who first.

What people are doing that they call playing RPGs today seems to be using writing fanfic as a group therapy session.

Misha Burnett is spot on here.

What little I know of contemporary incarnations of D&D is via the “nobody dies everybody wins” tables that are inevitably next to mine at the conventions. It wasn’t until some of the people that switched to Moldvay Basic D&D as a result of my posts over at Castalia House Blog that I found out what was really going on. Seriously, the first hand accounts of what people actually did in these 5th edition sessions made my jaw drop. Horrible!

David Burge summed it all up thusly: “1. Identify a respected institution. 2. kill it. 3. gut it. 4. wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.”

The few people that stumble their way towards something almost resembling what gaming used to be like find themselves having to reinvent not only things like morale checks, but even non-linear dungeons where the players have control of how far down they delve, whereby they would be handed the capability to select the difficultly level that gives the the sort of gaming they are looking for!

Truly, a dark age of gaming is upon us!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

“It’s pretty much Avatar before Avatar.”

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 14:17

Xavier L. writes in:

I think you got everything wrong. “A Conquest of two worlds” is literally an anti-colonial story. It’s pretty much Avatar before Avatar.

I wouldn’t describe D&D feudalism as window-dressing though, it’s pretty much essential. The people who work for you are called peasants, not natives, and the tax, if you are a cleric, was the tithe, right?

He’s absolutely right here.

The “colonialism” depicted in “A Conquest of Two Worlds” is an over the top caricature. The earthmen are only in it for the resources. The aliens totally didn’t do anything.

And yes! It is absolutely an “Avatar” type story. One character despises the obvious injustice, “goes native”, and then fights both with and for them against the earthman exploiters.

But here’s the difference: unlike in Avatar, the colonialists here cannot be stopped. They are awesomely unbeatable, an exaggerated variant of Sauron’s armies or the Persians from 300. And the aliens have less fight and prowess than even a bunch of ridiculous hobbits could summon.

And the ending that you end up with in consequence of that particular premise…? If Avatar had been written that way, the aliens would have fought to their last remaining outpost only to nuke themselves and their Spirit Tree into oblivion.

It really is a weird story.

He’s also correct about the AD&D clerics. Here’s the relevant rule:

Upon reaching 9th level (High Priest or High Priestess), the cleric has the option of constructing a religious stronghold. This fortified place must contain a large temple, cathedral, or church of not less than 2500 square feet on the ground floor. It can be a castle, a monastery, an abbey, or the like. It must be dedicated to the cleric’s deity (or deities). The cost of construction will be only one-half the usual for such a place because of religious help. If the cleric then clears the surrounding territory and humans dwell in the area, there will be a monthly revenue of 9 silver pieces per inhabitant from trade, taxation, and tithes.

Note that there is an analogue to renegade characters like Edmond Hamilton’s Halkett and James Cameron’s Jake Sully in The Keep on the Borderlands. It’s the Evil Priest, maintainer of the Temple of Evil Chaos in the Caves of Chaos. He has agents and sympathizers in the Keep on the Borderlands, so beware!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Fake Gaming is Real: Misha Burnett on that Critical Role Blowup

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 05:22

Author Misha Burnett weighs in on the recent commotion over the Critical Role show:

I started a thread about the Critical Roll situation in a Facebook group this morning. The group is kind of a general all things geeky group and I can count on them for good discussions without anyone getting political or screaming about being oppressed.

It was, for the most part, a good discussion, with a lot of different perspectives.

I did notice, though, some people getting really defensive when I pointed out that a DM who “doesn’t let player characters die” is a DM who is breaking the rules of the game to force a particular outcome.

One person insisted that she did not mean that a DM should break or ignore rules but instead just “fudge the rolls” to insure that no PC ever dies. Other people said that PCs should only die when it is the player’s choice, and one said that she will only play in games where character death is not a possibility.

And I think I figured something out. I have always wondered why players who emphasize “story-based gaming” and similar terms even bother to use books and paper and dice at all. You can have interactive storytelling just fine without them. If your goal is to just get a bunch of people to tell a story working together you need nothing more than the people and room to talk.

What’s more–the big storytelling advocates tend to have a lot of books, expensive hardbacks with tons of rules in them.

And it hit me that they want the illusion of rules, but not to be bound by them. It’s the same thing as the Soviet habit of holding elections even when there was only one party candidate to “elect”. They wanted to control the outcome while pretending that “the electoral process” put the right person in the right seat.

Storygamers want the rules in the same way. That’s why they got so defensive (I got one commenter tell me “I’m done arguing with you” when she had, in fact, not advanced a single argument) when I pointed out that if the rules weren’t being followed there’s no reason to have them at all.

They don’t want to admit that they are being capricious and arbitrary and just deciding how they want things to go. Instead what they want is a stack of rules that they can point to that prove that they are playing fair and earning their successes and that they all have 20th level half-unicorn bloodmages because they are just that good. And pointing out that they started at 10th level with magic items and have a DM who “fudges” away any negative result makes them livid.

So they keep bringing up “House Rules” and “Rule 0” and about how the DM is the final arbitrator of the rules. And that’s well and good, I am all in favor of house rules. But there is a big difference between a poker dealer saying “twos are wild” as he’s dealing and someone who says, “I’m going to turn this two into a seven to fill my straight” after the cards are turned over.

These people are only cheating themselves. The situations that develop when players are subjected to coherent rules and actual risks are so much richer than those that are derived from what people think would be the most intriguing. And I can almost understand it.

The rules and the dice really are there to protect you. They are like a climber’s rope and harness. They work… but you have to trust them. And when you’re fifty feet up on the wall, you really start to wonder: if I start to rappel down, is this stuff really going to work? It’s scary. It really is! But the moment you throw yourself off that wall… wow, is that ever fun!

It’s the same thing when you’re sitting there with half a dozen people looking at you expecting a good time at your table. I can’t imagine it really, having all of those rpg books, dice, adventures… spending countless hours “gaming” but never once seeing what happens if you just go where the dice and the rules and the adventure and the player choices take you.

I really can’t imagine it.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Pulp Era Colonialism is Intrinsic to Dungeons & Dragons

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 23:00

From Edmond Hamilton’s short story “A Conquest of Two Worlds”, published in 1932 in Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories magazine:

“I don’t know why we should be going back there to kill those poor furry devils… after all, they’re fighting for their world.”

“We wouldn’t hurt them if they’d be reasonable and not attack us, would we?” Crane demanded. “We’re only trying to make Mars something besides a great useless desert.”

“But the Martians seem to be satisfied with it as a desert,” Halkett persisted. “What right have we, really, to change it or exploit its resources against their wishes?”

“Halk, if you talk like that people’ll think you’re pro-Martian,” said Crane worriedly. “Don’t you know that the Martians will never use those chemical and metal deposits until the end of time, and that earth needs them badly?”

“Not to speak of the fact that we’ll give the Martians a better government than they ever had before,” Burnham said, “They’ve always been fighting among themselves and the Council will stop that.”


Within another year Weathering could send word back to the Council that the plan had succeeded and that except for a few remote wastes near the snow-caps, Mars was entirely subjugated. In that year approximately three-fourths of the Martian race had perished, for in almost every case their forces had resisted to the last. Those who remained could constitute no danger to the earthmen’s system of forts. The Council flashed Weathering congratulations and gave Crane command of the expedition then fitting out on earth for the exploration of Jupiter.

Needless to say, a movie like Avatar would have had a completely different ending back in the thirties! And as brazen as this story might seem to the average millennial of today, it is nevertheless something that that is hardwired in the nature of the much more recent Dungeons & Dragons game.

Consider this from the first edition AD&D Players Handbook:

When a fighter attains 9th level (Lord), he or she may opt to establish a freehold. This is done by building some type of castle and clearing the area in a radius of 20 to 50 miles around the stronghold, making it free from all sorts of hostile creatures.

Sure, there is a bit of feudalism baked into the old game merely as a sort of window dressing. But there this talk of “clearing” and subjugating wilderness hexes is very much in line with the spirit of Hamilton’s scandalously retrograde science fiction tale. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the overall posture and attitude outlined there is the very definition of what Lawful means in the context of the grandaddy of all role-playing games– something that would be readily apparent to anyone that’s taken the time to go back and read Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions.

A cursory survey of D&D comments on Twitter reveals people’s inability to even imagine thinking this way is a big part of why they have no idea how to play the game.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

BattleTech: Decision at Thunder Rift

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:57

For many years I have read the many classic BattleTech scenario books with a mixture of wonder and awe. Given that we could blow an afternoon with just a handful of mechs on the board, I just had to know: what kind of person played this stuff…?!

Well, having done one of these now, I can tell you: nobody played them.

“Decision at Thunder Rift” is a conflict so big, it got a whole novel devoted to it. But the scenario itself is a hot mess:

  • The defenders get three 20 ton mechs, which are supposed to have made a valiant stand on a ridge, using carefully aimed fire to pick off their attackers as they marched uphill. The reality on the game board is… they’re turkeys that spend all of their time getting as far away from the turkey shoot as possible. Not very dramatic!
  • The defenders also get a small army of hovercraft. The rules give you the option to use either quick and easy simplified rules or else design your own version of them with the CityTech rules. If you use the former, then the defense will simply die as the hovercraft will all be wiped out in a couple of turns due to the fact that it only takes a single hit to disable them and a second one to kill them. If you use actual CityTech rules, the units will not only be able to take a lot more hits, but they will also be wherever they need to be in order to have the perfect shot– CityTech hovercraft are going to be two or even three times as fast!
  • And just one note on the original BattleTech box sets. The vehicle counters in CityTech are not numbered or otherwise uniquely identified in any way. If you try to play this scenario with the original equipment available at the time, you have a bookkeeping nightmare on your hands.
  • There are mentions made of potentially using infantry rules with this one, but no details on just what to do with them.

We spent an eternity playing this one. The hovercraft wiped out a couple of attacking mechs early on. Then the attackers figured out that if they simply made a beeline for the “turkeys”, nothing much would happen. (This is due to the to-hit penalties for jumping combined with the extreme resilience of medium mechs– it can take forever to drop one!)

There was one dramatic moment, though. The attacking Locust got to the top of a hill and fired its medium laser at a fleeing Stinger. It rolled a 12 on the all-but-impossible to-hit roll, then rolled a 12 again for hit-location, then rolled a 10 for the check-for-criticals roll. This resulted in a life support and a cockpit critical. A target dropped in a single shot!

So yeah, the turns just cranked by taking a long time to resolve for generally not a whole lot to happen in return. It was exhausting. The way it turned out, I had to be able to drop all three of the light mechs by turn 13 in order to win. (There was basically a die roll that determines whether this scenario is trivial or impossible, but you don’t know what it will be until turn ten.) The CityTech hovercraft meant the attacker had to be lucky to pull this off, but the dice just weren’t there. The fleeing 20 ton mechs were just too hard to hit… and the hits that did land weren’t concentrated in the same hit locations well enough to get the job done.

We did make one critical mistake: the attackers were supposed to get reinforcements on turn 10 and we completely forgot about them. However, if the defense played at all sanely, they should not have made a significant impact on the outcome at all. The light mechs would have had to take a few more shots at slightly better odds due to needing to steer clear of the south map edge, but otherwise nothing would have changed.

We ended up debating some other issues when trying to determine if one side or the other should simply concede. Stuff like… what constitutes an actual kill in BattleTech? (Is two gyro criticals enough?) Also, can the attacker leave the map in order to deny the defense kills? (If so… then they have no chance at all to win, particularly if the dumbed down hovercraft rules are used.)

Anyway, there is a lot of stuff here. There is a very creative use of terrain and units to make a really colorful situation come alive, using everything that existed in the BattleTech game during the mid-eighties. But there’s just one problem with it: it’s objectively the worst wargame scenario I have ever played.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Schrodinger’s Game

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 03:08

D&D didn’t really exist in the seventies.

Or rather, a lot of people were playing it– a close approximation at any rate. Or maybe a Frankenstein’s monster pieced together from a nearly random assortment of supplements and bootlegs.

If only someone could have stepped into this swirl of confusion and chaos, this period in which everyone would simply do what was right in their own eyes– someone with authority, an apostle that could settle once and for all what D&D truly was.

Was Dr. John Eric Holmes that man…? Or did the world need to wait for the arrival of the true prophet of D&D…?

Let’s see….

-No STR bonuses. Yes, that’s right, OD&D and Holmes did not have Strength bonuses. STR was purely a “roll under” stat.

-Magic Users will have their spellbooks with all 1st level spells, some of which they’ll know, others they will not.

-Dex-based paired initiatives.

-No Variable Weapon Damage

-Variable Weapon Speed

Well… how weird can it be, really…?!

The MU character class chapter blatantly contradicts the chapter on magic and how spell learning works.

Magic Missile requires a To Hit roll.

There’s no explanation for how Elves level up other than that the XP is divided between both classes.

It’s not called that, but Monster XP is supposed to calculated according to Challenge Rating.

Number of Monsters Appearing should be based on/adjusted for the number and level of PCs.

The mysterious +3 Magic War Hammer that only Dwarves can use.

On second thought, you know what…? D&D did not exist until 1981. It was invented out of whole cloth by a guy named Tom Moldvay. That’s the only conceivable takeaway here!

Guys…? GUYS!!!!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Space Empires 4X with Close Encounters and Replicators

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 16:13

This is easily among the shortlist of my all time favorite games. Everything about it is enjoyable.

We had three players last night and here’s how we ran it:

  • Standard 3-player starting positions with the home worlds at maximum distance from each other… but with every empty spot having a deep space terrain chit in them because we like having more stuff to explore even if the map isn’t 100% fair.
  • We played with the “standard” Close Encounters expansion rules… but with Flagships and Nebula Mining from the optional/advanced section. (This gives a jolt to both the exploit and explore portions of the game by giving you an incentive to build a bigger economic engine while also making it easy to explore without having to build CA’s first.)
  • We used the Replicators production sheets and monster sized terrain tiles. Advanced construction was available, but nobody ended up buying it. The new advantage and tech cards were in the deck… and the new terrain was all in the mix as well. (And I gotta say, the pirate ships and space folds are an AWESOMELY fun addition to the game.)

We dealt out two Empire Advantage cards and let everyone pick one. Person to my left chose Powerful Psychics which gave him free exploration-1 plus he could inspect counter stacks next to exploration ships. The guy to my right took House of speed– everything of his was move-7 with an across the board -2 penalty to defense. I took Immortals, which increased the cost of my colony ships by +2 but allowed me to ignore one hit per combat round.

I decided to build Attack-1, Defense-1, Move-3, Fighter-1 carrier groups and sent a couple to attack the House of Speed. I made several mistakes with this attack and it ended in disaster. One, I telegraphed the attack before I needed to by moving into his space just before a turn break. This allowed him to set his production up for defense– a big ol’ stack of defense-2 battle cruisers. Further, I had a chance to fight his fleet piecemeal, but instead moved to where he could concentrate his forces against me. Finally… I forgot to use my empire ability when it might actually have turned the tide.

Okay, so sometimes you have to live and learn in the middle of a six hour game…! Doh!

What to do…? I built more carriers and fighters… possibly for defense at first… but later in order to just have something to throw at someone. It turned into a monster fleet of 21 fighters and 3 destroyers with another carrier group serving as a flimsy backstop.

The terrain ended up placing a Fold in Space and a Warp Point in just the right place that I could attack the Powerful Psychics without exploring the space between us first. (I had no flagship anymore, so that was a great windfall.) I moved into the Warp Point and asked, “okay, who’s with me?” The Psychics waffled and The House of Speed nodded as if he understood. There we go! I move toward the Psychic’s space!

Finishing out the turn, I made yet another critical error in the context of an invasion: I could have moved to destroy his forward ship yards but instead burned down a defenseless colony planet. Stupid! The House of Speed was following me in with his fleets, though, and he chose to go around an irritating base and instead position himself to threaten the Psychics’ fleets. After the turn break, twelve hull units worth of ships appeared at the ship yard.

I’d bid 10 for the turn order and moved away from the defending fleets and toward the home world. My position meant that he could not concentrate both of his fleets on me at once. (Hey, sometimes I learn from my mistakes!) In response to this, the Psychics concentrated their efforts against the House of Speed, and an extremely large battle ensued. By the time the dust had settled, the Psychics were reduce to about 1/3rd of their former number of units… and he had an awesome Elite rated Attack-2 Defense-2 Move-3 Battlecruiser which he was very proud of.

It was of course all for naught because at that point I moved onto his home world and took him out of the game.

Now… was this the correct outcome…?

Well, I had to destroy the Psychics early on or get wiped out myself. The guy was putting everything into first economy and then tech. If he actually made it to Titans my units would be annihilated. I didn’t understand why he didn’t just build twelve point defense equipped scouts to take out my fighters… but thinking it through that would have only eliminated maybe six units on the first round of combat– not that much, really! He thought he had to build a fleet that could potentially stand up against either or both of us… so he went with non-specialist ships in order to have a fighting chance. (Plus, he’d bet on ship size anyway– it’s what he had.)

Now… he really should have turtled up on his home world. Building four mines there would have been enough to keep me from destroying him that turn. (I had no minesweepers.) The consequence of this would have been that our fleets would have simply burned down each of his colony worlds, possible getting into a fight with each other in the process.

I gotta say… fighting the way that he did was way more interesting. It was over quicker, anyway.

The other thing that really ought to have happened was that the House of Speed could have attacked both of us at once. Or he could have feinted against the Psychics and then betray me at the last moment. Would my fleet have been able to stand up to the Psychics’ more advanced units alone…? I think so, especially if I had thought to take out those shipyards when I had the chance!

Would I have been able to stand up against the House of Speed’s betrayal…? I don’t think so. If he had burned my colonies while I was burning down the Psychics’ worlds… he should have come out ahead. Even if I had thought to send minesweepers along with my invasion force, taken down the Psychic’s home world, and then got the 30 CP bonus for eliminating an empire, I don’t think even that should have made a difference. I ought to have been toast!

Yeah, the three player problem is still a significant game design issue.

However… with the Psychics pushing for advanced technology Titans, we had no choice but to join forces against him or die, especially with both of our fleets decimated due to our initial conflict. The gripping hand is… if I had played my initial attack correctly, I don’t think there would have been any conundrum at all. Maybe.

Nevertheless… if you play this one three player, I do suggest you run it under the sudden death short game rules: the first person to destroy an enemy home world automatically wins right there. This creates a dynamic racing game with scads of aggressive action in place of the staleness endemic to most three player direct conflict games. This is a well known problem in gaming and there’s really no need to waste an entire game session on it.

It is 2018, after all!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Today in Bad Dungeon Mastering Advice

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 00:05

This guy is responding to a self-described 22, Taurus, Ravenclaw, INFP asking for advice for their first time dungeon mastering:

Yeah, people sure will play that not knowing each other thing to the hilt if you let them, won’t they? It makes everything that happens that much more tedious, so yeah… you definitely want to deal with that up front. However… you don’t need individual character backgrounds to do that.

Here’s the old way of handling this:

  • You are a bunch of rando asshats with no background and a moderate amount of potential.
  • There is a hole in the ground a few hours walk from town and people came back from it with gold and magic scrolls a few months ago.
  • You can get stinking rich by venturing there yourself… but all of you face an almost sure chance of death by doing so.
  • However, if you are cunning and work together extremely well… you can flip the script on this and turn certain death into a fairly good shot at glory, riches, honor, and legend.
  • Okay, maybe not honor considering how scruffy you guys are, but definitely glory and riches!

There you have it.

The thing is, tt’s the challenge that motivates the characters, not some sort of “just so” relationship summoned up from stuff that people made up before any game sessions were actually played. Honestly, though, there’s way more fun to be had in gaming out the consequences of your group casting Charm Person on half a dozen kobolds than there is in find a cure for Zardoz the one hit point thief’s niece who is currently afflicted with chronic halitosis.

But as a new dungeon master you are going to be tempted to undercut the challenge in order to make everything turn out okay. Don’t give in! Because if the challenge is really what’s holding the game together, then the players need to experience a certain amount of failure and player character death. Heck, just the shame of returning to town with zero treasure is pretty powerful in and of itself once things get rolling. If that’s what happens, you need to go with that and not pull any punches or otherwise manipulate things so as to soften the blow.

Because the game doesn’t really start until the players pull together, make a better plan, and get serious about leaving their mark on your game world. Make success too easy or even– as is often the case these days– automatic, and there’s really no reason for people to even sit at your table.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

All Quiet on the Western Breakthrough

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 16:31

So you’ve played the G.EV. Breakthrough scenario and failed to get even a single G.E.V. off the map. Maybe you’ve tried more than once and you’re having second thoughts about playing a vintage Microgame like this. Maybe you’re tempted to go back to your euro games and your “nobody dies everybody levels” D&D. Don’t do it!

I’m going to explain to you the key to leveraging the power of the assault hovercraft of this scenario. I can do it with a single picture, too:

There it is.

The G.E.V.’s have offered up a couple of their own in order to bait out the defense forces. And there’s no way that this turns out well for them.

  • The defense can choose to fall way back, giving up ground to the enemy.
  • They can fall back some… and have those two lead G.E.V.’s snipe at them every step of the way.
  • They can rush the G.E.V.’s… and get utterly devastated in the process!

Here the defense has sent forward two light tanks to deal with these two forward units. This is an objectively bad move! Here’s why: the light tanks might destroy one or even two of the G.E.V.’s. But they will almost certainly die in return. At which point the G.E.V.’s can make the same sort of offer again.

What happens if the defense takes the bait two or even three times…? They’ve be so weakened, the G.E.V.’s will have no problem concentrating their fire somewhere and wiping them out. Exchanging armor units one-for-one in the opening favors the attackers by a fair margin.

Now, it is possible for the defense to fall back repeatedly and attempt to run up the clock. He could even retreat his units off the map at the last moment in order to deny the attacker the victory points he’d get for killing them. How does such an outcome play out with regard to the victory conditions…?

Assuming the G.E.V.’s keep all of their forces and kill nothing, they will score three points for each of their twelve units. That’s 36 points total, a marginal victory. If they can kill even three defending units while doing that, they will pull off a decisive victory.

So falling back and giving up ground is not going to do a whole lot for the defense. Their only hope is to position themselves as best they can and hope that the G.E.V.’s get too greedy and make a mistake… which certainly happens!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

“The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 03:37

I always had a terrible time with Gamma World. I mean, it was always my favorite role-playing game, but I just could not imagine how people could come up with the sort of stuff it would take to sustain an ongoing campaign for it. Back in 1931, this would not have been a problem, though, as this story from Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories demonstrates. You remember the mental mutation de-evolution which gave a character “the power to strip abilities from a mutant opponent by regressing it along ancestral lines”? Well this short piece is all about what the opposite of that would look like.

Check out what each stage of transformation out hapless scientist subjected himself to:

  • “He was transfigured, godlike! His body had literally expanded into a great figure of such physical power and beauty as we had not imagined could exist. He was many inches taller and broader, his sin a clear pink, every limb and muscle molded as though by some master sculptor.”
  • “He was no longer the radiant, physically perfect figure of the first metamorphosis. His body seemed to have grown thin and shrivelled, the outlines of bones visible through its flesh. His body, indeed, seemed to have lost half its bulk and many inches of stature and breadth, but these were compensated by the change in his head. For the head supported by this weak body was an immense, bulging balloon that measured fully eighteen inches from brow to back! It was almost entirely hairless, its greak mass balanced precariously upon his slender shoulders and neck. And his face too was changed greatly, the eyes larger and the mouth smaller, the ears seeming smaller also. The great bulging forhead dominated the face.”
  • “At first glance the great head inside seem unchanged, but then we saw this it had changed, and greatly. Instead of being a skin-covered head with at least rudimentary arms and legs, it was now a great gray head-like shape of even greater size, supported by two gray muscular tentacles. The surface of this gray head-thing was wrinkled and folded, and its only features were two eyes as small as our own.”

There you go: three all-new mutant types that can be dropped directly into your campaign. Even better, read the whole thing and you’ll have everything you need to role-play their personalities and motivations. The brevity and broad strokes of this sort of pulp tale are far easier to improvise with at the table compared to the exhaustive (and exhaustingly tedious) ecology articles of the Ed Greenwood era of gaming.

And given the fact that nearly one third of the Appendix N list was actually science fantasy and not sword & sorcery at all, here’s a bonus gaming tip for you: there’s no reason you can’t add this sort of off the wall weirdness to your AD&D game, either! In fact, doing so would be well in line with the sort of genre mashups you can find in everything from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons to the 5th edition of Tunnels & Trolls.

Go nuts, y’all!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Son of Breaking Through with G.E.V.

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 16:34

The thing about G.E.V.’s break through scenario: the first few times you play it, you are just not that likely to break through. That harsh learning curve in the context of an otherwise simple system is going to be a real kick in the teeth for an entire class of gamer, too. I’ll tell you, though, the ones that stick around for a few more sessions…? They will experience some of the best gaming of their lives. No foolin’!

But before we take a look at that, let’s highlight the some more of that profound agony that goes with those first few humiliating defeats.

Having witnessed entire squadrons of G.E.V.s get eaten by a handful of infantry in the swamps on the northeastern section of the board, our intrepid Combine player decides to take a stab at blitzing up through the western side of the board. The Paneuropeans meanwhile has chosen four heavy tanks and two missile tanks for defense:

What could possibly go wrong? The only thing impeding the G.E.V.s’s escape is this river. How bad can it be?

The G.E.V.’s are in a hurry, so the risk crossing the river with five of their units, hoping to clear a way for the other seven.

Unfortunately for the Combine, they only succeed in disabling one heavy tank. They are now in a critically exposed position, set to be swarmed by angry defenders!

The defense kills a whopping six G.E.V.’s and disables two others. The Combine picks off one measly heavy tank in exchange. This is a disaster!

And once again, the G.E.V. player fails to move a single unit off the north side of the map.

There will be no breakthrough today! If anything, there will be a breakdown.

And then there are the inevitable recriminations: Who designed this game, anyway? This thing is completely imbalanced. The G.E.V.’s are too weak! I would have had a chance if I didn’t roll so many ones!!!!

It doesn’t have to be that way. Because maybe… just maybe… it’s not the scenario. Maybe it’s not the dice, either. Maybe it’s your tactics that are completely broken here. And the only way you’re going to find out is by picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and running yourself through yet another meat-grinder!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Colonial Twilight: A Different Kind of War

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 21:26

A good game forces you to learn something in order to play it well. Colonial Twilight has quite a bit to offer in that regard and it can take several plays to get the hang of it.

The guerrilla forces are of course the most attractive aspect of the game. They fight differently than conventional forces. They have different capabilities compared to conventional forces. They have completely different objectives than they counter-insurgent government player.

But here’s the thing….

If you try to go head to head against France’s elite troops with them, you’re going to get blown away. It doesn’t matter that you can ambush them, subvert Algerian police and troops, and rally new recruits faster than the government can kill them.

Even an experienced wargamer is likely to spend far too much time and materiel playing the sort of game the guerrillas are ill-suited for. But a novice will compound this by neglecting the much more significant battle for the hearts and minds of the civilian population.

Which means that when the second propaganda card turns up, the game can come to a very abrupt end with a very early and very decisive government victory:

Better luck next time!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Breaking Through With G.E.V.

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 00:11

G.E.V. is easily among the best science fiction games ever designed. The rules can be learned in a few minutes. Your first game can be played in about an hour and a half. Mastering the games tactics to the point where you can play well…? That might take a few evenings.

To help speed that process along, here is a session recap that will show you one way to not get your BPC armored hovercraft across the map.

The G.E.V.’s make their way across the river, offering the defense a chance to take their best shot:

What should you do with that? Do you fall back or do you rush out to fight them? In our game, the defense rushed and managed to take out three of the attacking G.E.V.’s.:

From here, the G.E.V.’s throw themselves into the shooting match and collect some scalps of their own from this firing position:

But the G.E.V.’s end their turn strung out in a line, easy pickings for the defenders. The defenders move up, kill four more G.E.V.’s, and disable two more.

It’s a blowout:

The G.E.V.’s fail to get a single unit off the map….

Don’t let this happen to you!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Appendix N: The Game

Sat, 06/30/2018 - 20:52

A lot of people have suggested that somebody make “Appendix N: The Game”. The thing is… it’s already been done. In fact, back in the seventies it was about all anyone could do. And sure enough, if you go back and look at everything from original D&D to AD&D, Tunnels & Trolls and Monsters Monsters!, all of it cribs a tremendous amount from the now forgotten fantasy and science fiction canon and takes for granted that the players will want to play characters types from books that nobody is familiar with today.

In the decades since the trend has been to move away from the literary roots of fantasy role-playing. Products like The Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and Dwimmermount take the opposite tact. And now… with the Heroic Fantasy Handbook from Autarch, you can find out what the original tabletop role playing game could have been like if it had amped up the Weird Tales and toned down the B-moves and comic book elements.

What does that mean specifically…?

  • A Beastmaster class that is note for note drawn from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan.
  • A Freebooter class that hews closely to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
  • An eldritch magic system that is more in line with what you see in Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft stories.

What you won’t see here is anything remotely “science fantasy” in the spirit of… well… about half of the entries that are on the Appendix N list, particularly Jack Vance, Michael MoorcockMargaret St. ClairL. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Fred Saberhagen, and Sterling Lanier. (If you want that sort of thing, check out Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu with takes a more pronounced John Carter of Mars type of approach!) In its place you’ll find something quite different than what most people clamoring for more Appendix N in gaming claim to want: a better treatment of the D&D elements that were cribbed from J. R. R. Tolkien’s works!

Face it, though. Gary Gygax had a lot of great qualities, but understanding Tolkien’s oeuvre was not one of them. Does the Heroic Fantasy Handbook’s more thoughtful handling of iconic characters like Eowyn, Luthien, Aragorn, and Bilbo clash with the other pulp fantasy elements provided here…? Well as far as I’m concerned, the more they clash, the better.

That’s exactly what I would expect to see in “Appendix N: The Game” anyway!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs