Errant RPG from Chubby Funster

Here, it is, the “thing” I mentioned. It is the Errant RPG, by independent game designer Greg Christopher. Ina nutshell, this is an outstanding game. It is a free download, click the image to go to the site (I’m loving WordPress already, I could never figure out how to make blogger do that).

OK, so what about the game, besides being free, makes it so outstanding? Quite a few things.

Before I go any further, I must point out that the die mechanic here is roll under, in all situations, including combat. All modifiers are applied to the target number, NOT the roll. I saw a comment somewhere about modifying the target putting the onus on the referee, whereas modifying the roll put it on the player. The person making the comment feels that will speed up play, since the player only has to announce his roll, rather do any math. I’m not sure I agree with that. Either way, the math is getting done. The only real advantage to modifying the target is that it supports the roll-under mechanic in a logical way. Pluses are still bonuses, and minuses are still penalties. It keeps things from being confusing.

I’m not sure which label to apply. OSR, supports old-school style play, simulacrum, whatever. I’m not real handy with labels. It reads like it will be old school in deed, if not in word. It has the classic six attributes, and they pretty much do the classic things. They are determined in the classic way. There are a couple of additional “stats”, Luck and Karma.

Luck is a metagame feature, as is typical for things of this type. Starting Luck is rolled on 2d6, and may be modified by race. It’s use is interesting. Luck can only be used with a d20 roll, so it can’t be used to reroll damage, for example. When it is used, the player adds the character’s Luck value to the target number. If this raises the target number over the failed d20 roll, it becomes a success. (Remember, this is roll-under, and modifiers are applied to the target number.) Then, the player must subtract one from his available Luck. Pretty simple.

Karma is this game’s answer for Alignment. It ranges from -25 to +25. Most folks hover right around zero. The extremes represent extremes of Good and Evil. The number fluctuates based on the character’s actions. Interestingly, changes to a character’s Karma are decided democratically by the players at the table. They nominate each other, debate the degree of Karmic shift, and vote. In the right situation, this should be really cool. A group that has shades of dysfunction, rules lawyering (since they like to bitch over details), or whiny little munchkins may have problems. Likewise, small groups of only 2 or 3 players, unless mature gamers, could run into issues. The Karma rating comes into play with things that are dependent on the relative Good/Evil of the subject in question.

Hit points are handled a little differently. They are rolled pretty much as you would expect, based on class and level. They are explicitly stated to represent the character’s ability to endure physical hardship. They represent fatigue and minor scrapes, cuts, and bruises, most often. Once they are depleted, shit gets real. When HP are at zero, subsequent damage is taken against Attributes. Not a terribly new idea, right? Well, in Errant, they are taken against random stats. Each time the character takes more damage, another randomly determined stat takes a hit. Gritty, brutal, and delightfully evocative. Once a single Attribute reaches zero, the character is dead. Obviously, you won’t be hacking at goblins until one of their Attributes hits zero. Such third-tier creatures and NPCs are dispatched at the end of their HP. I almost forgot to mention: there is a chance Attribute damage can result in scarring and permanent injury. Good stuff.

I was intending to do this in one post, rather than the multi-part series I’ve done in the past, but there is too much more I want to say. I don’t want to gloss over anything and leave someone with a misconception. This game really is worth a look, and I would hate for hurrying the post to leave someone with a wrong idea about something, and that keep them from checking it out. So, until next time . . .

Microlite Free Goodness

Randall has released a beta of his Microlite74 Swords & Sorcery hack. It looks like a lot of fun, and he has incorporated some changes to Microlite 74 that highlight the swords-and-sorcery style of play.

The first thing that caught my attention is the rolling method for character creation. It is the same as Microlite 74, it just didn’t catch my attention in that. The player rolls 3d6, and assigns the roll to the desired stat. Then, he rolls again, assigns that roll, and so on. I find this very intriguing. It gives the player a hint of the “arrange to taste” method, but not without a dose of choice-and-consequence. It impresses me as having a subtle, yet important, impact on rolling characters.

There is only one race, human, and two classes. We have the catch-all Adventurer, and the dark and mysterious Sorcerer. The Sorcerer is able to use any armor/shield and any weapon. However, the use of shields or heavy weapons can interfere with spellcasting.

Each class has an advancement table, listing two new things: Physical Combat Bonus (PCB)/Magical Combat Bonus (MCB), and experience points. There is no “experience multiple”. The PCB is added to a d20 roll + STR bonus in combat. It can also be used for other overtly physical activities, such as bashing down doors. I would hazard to say it would make a nice addition to things like intimidation, as well, since a character with a high PCB would have an air of menace about him. I didn’t see any reference to the use of the MCB, however. This is the first beta release, though, so I am sure it will turn up.

There is a listing of class-specific special abilities to choose from. Players select one at 1st level, then additional abilities at levels 2, 4, and 6.

Magic is a blend of the standard Microlite take on magic (casting costs HP) with the Colours of Magic house rule from Akrasia (man, that dude’s house rules are getting some press lately, and deservedly so). In true S&S form, it is also noted that “Sorcery takes a toll on the caster’s body”. At 2nd and 5th levels the sorcerer suffers a handicap. It is either selected, by referee or player, or determined randomly. Interestingly, there is no chance to avoid said handicap, but there is also no chance of “extra ones”, such as from botched casting rolls or whatever. I don’t see that as a problem, it’s merely an observation.

Magic Users Sorcerers are only able to cast 1st level spells until 4th level, when they gain access to 2nd level spells. This is the highest level they may cast from memory. Spells of 3rd level or higher are only cast through Ritual. Generally speaking, any sorcerer can ritually cast spells of any level, provided he has access to the ritual. Rituals take longer, and in some cases, require more HPs to cast. There is an optional section covering sacrifices, which if allowed, will help mitigate ritual casting costs.

The idea of Talents is introduced. It is essentially the “good at” house rule. I’ve seen it before and thought it looked good, but now for the life of me I can not find it again. So, I can’t properly attribute it to its author. I apologize for this. My google-fu has deserted me this morning. Anyway, having a particular Talent means that your character is “good at” something. There is no set list of Talents. It is understood that the player will devise whatever seems appropriate to the character’s concept. They are narrowly defined, however, basically representing an area of singular knowledge and/or ability. The player selects one at each level, beginning with 2nd level. It is possible to select the same Talent more than once, representing further mastery in the talent at hand.

There are rules for Spirits, and the summoning and binding thereof. Definitely cool, and definitely S&S.

The last thing I want to say about this S&S edition concerns character levels. They are capped at level 6. Hallelujah! This puppy is E6 right from the box. I love it. Low, gentle power curve, superheroes need not apply. This should keep things nice and gritty. Once characters hit 6th, they can still advance, through the acquisition of “Epic Points”. These can be accumulated or used immediately. They have a variety of uses, from a measure of narrative control (surviving an otherwise fatal situation) to adding more talents or special abilities.

All in all, this is a very well thought out selection of changes that brings Microlite in line with gritty S&S play, especially considering it is the first beta. There’s a couple of rough spots that need sanded down, such as a use for the MCB, and a somewhat convoluted system for tactics points. But, to borrow a phrase, those are minor quibbles. This is a great first beta, and it’s free, so give it a look.

More Swords & Shield Goodness

Whew! This guy works fast! Follow the link previously provided to find an updated Pocketmod, and the sample adventure brought up to speed with the updated rules. Also therein you will find the aptly named Longsword & Shield. L&S is the full version of the rules from the Pocketmod. Weighing in at a svelt 6 pages, it is still light. Pound for pound, though, this little gem packs a punch. All that’s missing is a more developed spell list, monster “book”, and magic items. But, hey, we’re OSR folks around here. We live to make that shit up ourselves, right?

My original assessment of this being a good beer-and-pretzels game hold true in Longsword, but it is definitely suited to more campaign play. A little setting-specific fleshing out and this game will do swords-and-sorcery with a bloody vengeance.

More Free Goodness

Sword & Shield RPG

Do not let my interest in PFBB mislead you, my friends. I remain fully devoted to light-weight, old school rules. It is with that feeling that I direct your attention to Sword & Shield. This one hits me with a real one-two punch. It’s rules-light old-school AND it’s a Pocketmod. Take little folded pad of gaming goodness and a few dice along with you and a game can break out anywhere, anytime. Give it a look, it is a pretty neat little system for quick pick-ups, beer-and-pretzel, or intro to rpgs duty.

Searchers of the Unknown, Impressions

Ok, how many of you have checked this out? I think I’m in love. I pulled out pages 5, 8, 9, and 13, and combined them into a new pdf. That is my basic fantasy SotU, and it fits on both sides of a single sheet (printed in booklet).

See, I often jump the fence that separates rules-lite from rules-medium (I rarely dabble in anything heavier than medium anymore). They each scratch a particular itch for me. Lite demands more system work, things like monsters, spells, etc. Medium leaves me more free to do campaign work, settings, etc. But, Lite doesn’t place its own demands on setting work. And so it goes.

For now, though, I’m really digging this little game. It’s not simply a distillation. The author seems to have said “If a stat line is good enough for monsters and NPCs, why can’t it work for PCs, too?” This required some changes to mechanics and subsystems. These changes are simple, and dare I say it, elegant. That is a word that is currently much overused, but in this case deserved.

I love what I’ve seen here. It makes me want to extract the stat line from every OD&D monster I can get my hands on. It makes me want to create books of spells, waiting to be found. It makes me want to create rare and mysterious NPC classes to tease players with. It makes me want to create. It makes me want to imagine the hell out of things. And that, my friends, that inspiration, is a rare and marvelous gift.

Searchers of the Unknown

From the Introduction

Searchers of the Unknown is a one-page roleplaying game where player characters are entirely defined by a minimalist old school Dungeons & Dragons one line stat block (e.g. “AC 7, MV 9, HD 2, hp 9, #AT 1, D 1d8 mace”) something like monster stat blocks in early editions of D&D. All actions are based on those stats. Armor class is the old school “lower is better,” but the way armor class is used in  SotU it makes sense with armor class generally helping against attacks but  hindering initiative and attempts to be stealthy. The basic SotU generally uses a level plus AC roll under mechanic, using an opponent’s AC when attacking or the character’s own AC when trying to be stealthy. Saves require a roll under level plus 4. Variants versions of SotU use D20 or Target20 rolls. In the basic game, all characters are human adventurers. Supplements add demi-humans and spell-casting classes.

Like Microlite20, the original Searchers of the Unknown rules inspired a large number of similar games based on the same principles, ranging from simple variants like SotU Refired to modern day games, science fiction games, after the holocaust games, etc. Most of these games are complete in one or two pages. A few have additional supplements of their own.

This is a 56 page compilation of SotU based games. It is well worth the time it takes to download. It actually looks playable, as well as fun. The basic rules take up the front of one page. (This would be an excellent candidate for a pocketmod . . . ) The stat line format for characters makes it instantly compatible with virtually everything pre-AD&D right out of the box, including clones thereof. AD&D wouldn’t be a hassle, either, just not quite as automatic. 
So, download it and give the basic rules a read. It will be 10 minutes well spent. Many thanks to Randall over at RetroRoleplaying: the Blog for putting it all together. Be sure and go by his blog, he has a ton of great stuff on offer, not to mention insightful commentary on gaming and the OSR.

Searchers of the Unknown

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Initial Impressions

I just downloaded the Beta Rules (available here). I haven’t had time to do more than skim through it, but I did want to post my early impressions.

I sincerely hope this game is as much fun as it looks. This is possibly the most evocative art I have ever seen. Almost every single piece makes me want to grab a sword, staff, holy symbol, lockpick set, or bag of dice. Or maybe all of the above. Reading this I feel almost like I’m in high school again and can’t wait to get together with John, my gamer buddy, and play all night long.

The interior art is provided by no less than the  luminaries from the glory days, such as:

Jeff Easley,  Jim Holloway, Diesel Laforce, Erol
Otus, and Jim Roslof. Even the “whippersnappers” possess the old school aesthetic.

Finally (for this initial impression), I want to mention pg 4. In the ToC it is listed as “Proclamations”. It is a really cool manifesto, which opens with the following:

So, I deeply hope this game lives up to the initial impression it has made on me. If so, it could be my holy grail, the Way-back Machine that will take me back to the halcyon days of the beginning of this hobby for me. A time of wonder and mystery, discovery and exploration unequalled in the many years since.

More to love about OSH

I’m trying not to turn into a raving fanboy, but posts like this make it difficult. For a few months it has been nagging at my mind that to-hit bonuses are not the carrot I always thought they were. I love playing fighters, so to-hit bonuses were the bread-and-butter to my character growth (along with hit points, those being the only things a fighter gets for leveling, oh, and better saves).

A lot of digital ink has been spilt over lengthy D&D combats and that is, in fact, a major selling point for any game comparing itself to D&D, including inter-edition in-fighting. At some point it started dawning on me that combats take so long because to-hit numbers don’t really change. Creature AC gets more challenging almost in lock-step with the character’s ability to successfully engage more powerful creatures. The thing that doesn’t scale, especially from the character perspective, is damage output. HP go thru the roof, eventually, for characters and creatures. So, when the chance to hit remains fairly constant, damage output remains fairly constant, and HP scale upward with level, combats will get longer and longer. It’s simple math.

Old School Hack breaks that paradigm. Hit Points not only start stressfully low, they stay there. The chance of hitting an opponent does not scale with level. Fighters get a one-time +1 to hit, by virtue of being fighters. Fighters also have the intrinsic ability to cause an extra point of damage. To someone who is more familiar with later editions of the game I’m sure those “bonuses” aren’t worth the graphite it would take to write them on your character sheet. To old school gamers and devotees of a more reasonable power curve, those bonuses are sweet indeed.

This does raise a question, though. Once the characters pass into the 5-8th level tier, and 9-12th beyond that, I wonder if there will be Talents introduced to increase survivability. Personally, I would like to see some that affect an enemy’s hit chance, without having crazy AC numbers. I know shields soak damage, so maybe enchanted shields that can soak more than normal. There is also the use of APs to soak damage, but that is “expensive”. Some sort of Dodge talent or the like would be good. Just something to get the fighter more comfortable with being on-point heading into the dragon’s lair.

Old School Hack Further Thoughts

There were a few things I didn’t get into my review, and a few things that a re-read and further thought have brought to mind.

  • Movement Between Arenas

     I wasn’t exactly accurate about moving between Arenas. It is as simple as taking a Move action on your turn. I also want to note that Arenas can be vertical relative to each other. For me as a DM, this is significant. I can’t think of ever designing an encounter with real vertical options. My abilities were already strained in two dimensions, three was out of the question. Pit traps notwithstanding. I never felt comfortable mapping things of that nature, let alone having players all over the place like that during a fight. With Arenas that isn’t a concern. A simple schematic showing the Arenas relative to each other is all that’s needed to have some high-flying fight scenes, literally.

  • Arena Talents are more useful than Encounter Powers

     I had said that Talents are similar to Powers, just with better execution. I overlooked one very important, but subtle difference. Arena Talents are roughly similar to Encounter Powers. However, Arena Talents refresh upon entry to a new Arena. Upon my first read, I had mistakenly thought they were essentially usable once per battle, a misconception that was tied to my lack of understanding of movement between Arenas. An immediately obvious benefactor to this is the Magic User, who can blast away in one Arena, relocate, and fire away again. I like this, because it helps keep magic users from using their useful spells, then cowering behind something, hoping they don’t have to actually come out and fight.

  • Niche Protection in a game where any class can select any Talent

     In my review I made a cryptic reference to something I would house rule out. I was referring to a rule that there can be only one of any particular class in an adventuring party. I tend to read new rules in a very insular fashion. On my first read-through I don’t always recognize the synergy between systems, thus some features don’t always make sense to me until I go back and re-read. This is one of those times. D&D, and by extension, anything based on it, relies on niche protection because the character classes are based on archetypes. When a game, like OSH, opens the door to classes possessing one another’s abilities, the niches can slowly erode. In that character development environment, I can see the need to maintain niche protection. The rules present the naked mechanics for such protection, which was one of my initial put-offs, but with a little “window dressing” it all makes sense and plays just fine. There are a lot of rules in a lot of games that don’t look that good in a vacuum, but with a little context they can be seen for the useful additions they are. This is one of those.

  • Tone and Layout

     The tone of writing in these rules walks a fine line. On the one hand it is familiar and conversational (one of my favorite lines is “Every player picks one of the seven Class Sheets. Once you’ve picked a class, that class belongs to you, and no one else can play it, so don’t be a dick about it.”) On the other hand, it is authoritative where it needs to be. Too many games coming out of the OSR go too far with portraying themselves as “just guidelines, not rules, play however you want to”.
     The layout and graphics are superb. Each page covers one or two topics. No topic spans more than one page. The rules are presented in a very visual fashion, which appeals to my short attention span. The fonts really add to the presentation, and though I’m no authority, strike me as being quite print-friendly. There is virtually no art, aside from the cover, but between the fonts, layout, and iconography, these rules do not suffer for the lack.

  • Cover is minimalist awesome

     OK, so this has nothing to do with the game as a game. It has a lot to do with the evocation of the mood of the game. It is minimal, yet it speaks volumes. The image is a village (at least that’s how I see it), on an island in the sky. There is something hanging off the side. At first glance, it looks like some sort of lantern or street light, but that isn’t right. It’s a tower or other dwelling. The Lord of the village? Maybe the local wizard? Who knows? The whole thing looks magical to me, without the artist feeling like he needs to beat me about the head and shoulders to make that point. In short, it is a cover that makes me want to see what’s inside. I am very glad I accepted that invitation.