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.

Old School Hack Review and Thoughts

I just finished a read-thru of this free game (link to the lower right, under Free Swag). I am impressed.

I avoided this download for a little while, because I had mistakenly linked it with Red Box Hack. I have no interest in RBH, mainly because I can’t get my head around anthropomorphic animals as PCs. As it turns out, OSH is a hack of the Red Box hack. As far as I know, it uses the underlying systems of RBH and makes it a little more “normal”. I can not attest to the actual veracity of those statements, as I’ve never read RBH, but it is what I gather from reviews and forum posts and the like.

Like I said, I am impressed by this game. It takes some old, and not-so-old, ideas and puts a refreshing spin on them. I’ll lay out some of the things I like, bullet-style.

  • Attributes Rather than “stats” representing intrinsic qualities of the character, OSH uses “Attributes”, which seem to be an indication of the raw, inherent quality in the character, combined with the character’s ability to actually use that quality to best effect. Thus, Brawn isn’t just raw strength and size, it is the character’s ability to use that strength and size effectively. It covers obvious things such as weight allowance, but also provides a bonus to things like intimidation. So, attributes provide not only “stat checks”, they also become a broadly applied sort of skill system.
  • Attributes are rated by their bonus/penalty only. So, rather than having a STR 15, granting a +1 bonus, you would have Brawn +1. The bonuses are randomly determined using 2d10 rolls for each attribute.
  • Talents Each class has a list of Talents associated with it. Each class receives one talent per level, including first. Talents are very similar to Powers in 4E in principle. In execution, however, they are vastly improved. They are generally quite simple, and where ambiguities do exist, it is almost expected. This is an old school game in spirit, after all. Talents are rated by their usage, much like Powers. Some are Constant meaning they are either always on or may be used as desired. Some are per Arena, basically meaning per combat. Some are Rested, being usable once per rest period. The chief difference, aside from simplicity of the individual talents, is that they don’t define the character as much as Powers do. This game has a definite old school vibe, and in the old school role play defines the character. Talents just add a little spice.
  • Spells are Talents, pretty much like 4E. But wait til I get to Awesome Points and you’ll see the difference.
  • In OSH any character can take any Talent, regardless of class. When the character gains a level and is able to select a new talent, he can select from any class. The only real restriction is that a character must have more class talents than cross-class talents. There’s another restriction, but it is related to something I’d house rule out. I’ll get to that later.
  • Weapons and Armor These are rated by categories, such as Light, Reach, Ranged, Heavy, etc, for weapons. Unarmored, Light, Heavy, etc, for armor. The weapon categories are based more on usage than anything else, and armor is based on material/coverage, yielding an Armor Class. There are examples given within each category, but the details are essentially a matter of role playing. As long as the mechanical aspects of the category your character is using are adhered to, it’s all good. A Heavy Weapon could be a shiny bastard sword or an old tree limb covered in broken glass and rusty nails. Mechanically if they’re both listed as Heavy Weapons, it all comes down to the same thing. Most weapons do a flat 1 point of damage on a successful hit. The main thing that differentiates them in game terms is the type of combat they are designed for, which brings us to . . .
  • Arenas I’ll admit, I’m going to have to see an example of this in action. It is a pretty abstract concept, but I have a hunch it plays very well. I can’t put my finger on it, because I don’t fully understand it in practice, but I get a good vibe from it. As far I do understand it, Arenas are areas where combat occurs. It could be a narrow bridge, a tight tunnel, or across steeply pitched roof tops. They’re abstract in that there is no specific map and movement between them is more than just an expenditure of movement points. I don’t really want to say more because I don’t want my limited understanding lead to misunderstandings.
  • Awesome Points I’m not crazy about the name, but that’s just a personal thing. It’s easy enough to call them whatever I want. It’s not hard to imagine what they are, so I’ll just gloss that over. One thing I find interesting about them is that advancement is entirely dependent on using them. The adventuring party advances as a group once all members have used 12 AP. Since AP will only be earned for doing awesome stuff, it means the characters will, by extension, advance by doing awesome stuff. It’s an interesting mechanic and its effect on the game is much more nuanced than its brief write-up in the rules suggests.
  • Awesome Points can also be used to refresh Talents, so Magic Users will likely be hoarding them until a big fight, then spending them like water to keep those spells coming.
  • Task Resolution I had to read this one a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t missing something. To resolve a task, the character rolls (the much underused) d12, adds relevant Attribute/Talent bonuses/penalties and must meet or exceed the target number. In a contested task check, that target number is d12 plus the opponent’s bonuses/penalties. Here’s the wonky portion: In a non-contested check, the target number is simply the d12. That’s right, the target number is totally random. The DM can assign a modifier to it, if the situation warrants, but it is still random. From the perspective of a guy sitting at a table having fun, I like that. Nothing generates dramatic tension like a little uncertainty. On the other hand, from the point of view of a guy weighing the risk to the character I’ve been playing the last 10 months, I’d like something solid to base my decisions on.
  • Power Curve This game has a very modest power curve. Characters rarely have more than 8 HP. Almost all weapons and creatures deal 1 point per successful hit. The Talents, while not particularly balanced against each other mechanically, are pretty understated and no particular one should ever come to dominate play.
I really like this game. It isn’t perfect, but none are. I may do another post with some quibbles, but quibbles are really all I have. No heavy criticisms, and even the quibbles I have are easily house ruled. Anyway, like I said, this is free and there is a link in my Free Swag thing at lower right. Go check it out.