Three Fantasy Games

First of all, I guess a owe my readers an apology. This blog has gone through a long hiatus, and perhaps it does not make a whole lot of sense to revive it now. You know how these things go: life is a b*tch and all that jazz. Somehow, I lacked the energies for regular updates, months went by etc. But the truth is that I am still into RPGs, so it would not be right to just starve this blog to death. I will not promise regular updates but, say, less infrequent updates.

Last Summer and Fall, three new releases caught pretty much all of my attention. Today and in the next few posts, I will offer some personal impressions of these games. Since my finances are limited (ah! euphemism!), I only did manage to put my money on two of them.

First, this Summer saw a triumphant Kickstarter for Zweihander, better known as “That Warhammer Fantasy Role Play retroclone that should have been out by now”. I have been following the beta releases for the game for no less than two years, and I must say that this project deserved my money, if nothing else, for the exceptional love and care that so many people put in it. This game has been conceived, playtested, revised, perfected for years by many, many WFRP fans that wanted so hard a new edition of their favourite game to see the light. I gladly shelled out my 50 euro-bucks for a physical book that, I am sure, will be gorgeous. The fact that the sellers did not charge additional shipping costs was also instrumental in making me opt for the paper as opposed to the mere PDF (shipping costs for large books can be horrifying, at times). At the moment, I have only read selections from the mammoth-sized provisional PDF, but I will give you some impressions in the next days.

The second game is Mythras. As you might remember, I have been aware of RuneQuest 6e for a long time. The fact is that I never managed to get my hands on a copy because the book was just too expensive (even for these days of expensive hardcovers). The news that the game was about to be revised and reissued made me wait a bit longer. At the end of last Summer, the game was finally out and I was (I think) among the very first to buy it in Europe. (This also resulted in a few little inconveniences, which I will discuss in a future post.) The price was just great, not least because of the partnership of the publisher with the UK based company Aeon Games. Anyway, I was super happy to finally have the book in my hands and these days I count it among my selected few favourite systems around.

The third game is, in a way, not new. It is the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy boxset that was launched on a surpise Kickstarter in September. I did not expect it and, I must confess, I just could not afford to support it: after paying for the other two books, a further expense of circa 80 euros was just too much. It is a pity, because the attempt of bringing dead-tree GURPS back (well) from the dead struck me as a great idea, really. I was never the greatest fan of the DF line per se, but that was only because I found that the attention it was getting was disproportionate with respect to the system’s potential. But you know what? They win: people want more dungeon crawling in GURPS? Hell, I am all for that. I will try to get the PDF when it is out for the general public.

 

Are Generic Systems Still A Thing?

Bad news for the few who, like me, love generic game systems. It is by now official that Hero Games has given up its (by now already out of print) Hero System core books for the self sufficient Complete series, which replicate the 6e rule systems in genre specific all-in-one core books. The most recent news are that  Chaosium will make BRP obsolete, and from now on will focus on Runequest and Call of Cthulhu.

What about other games?  GURPS is alive but is now covering less and less new ground, many of its new products belong to the Dungeon Fantasy series, and there is talk of publishing self sufficient books, à la Hero. Savage Worlds still exists, and is now more precious than ever, but mostly focuses on a bunch of pre-written settings. Strangely enough, Fate Core is now the game that most strongly commits to universalism, and this is probably the main reason why I like it, in spite of a few reservations.

And yet, to me universal RPGs are, among other things, a great antidote against two ever widespread evils in the RPG industry. First, the default attitude of players brought up on a diet of D&D and World of Darkness: “Buy splatbooks, read overblown fluff and random unconnected crunch and play the game as the company wants you to play it.” This is still very much alive in D&D and Pathfinder folks, and I really do not get it. A tabletop RPG is not a computer RPG: GMs can write whatever they want, and players can ask a GM to write whatever they want, so why not do it?

Second, this indie kink for ultra focused, narrowly defined settings and game styles: “Generic systems are inherently broken because they try to be good at everything and this cannot be done (I know it is so because God told me in my sleep)”. This really infuriates me, and I am very happy that in the last few years the indie gang seems to have become less virulent than before. Still, this insight is clearly behind some successful recent games: think of  The One Ring, which only allows you to explore a tiny fraction of Middle Earth, as opposed to MERP, or the three (!) Star Wars games by Fantasy Flight Games,  which artificially break the Star Wars universe into three discrete (and very narrow) settings and then sell them separately in outrageously expensive hardbacks. Remember the nice breadth of  West End Games Star Wars? Pretty much the opposite.

 

[EDIT 07 Dec 2015: I changed the title from “Universal” to “Generic”, because it seems to be the most widely adopted term.]

Katana Fetishism in RPGs: Three Offenders

Pop culture has a fetish for katanas. Apparently, they are just cooler than other swords and, perhaps, any other weapon as well. If it were just an aesthetic thing, it would be no big deal. But a mix of third hand accounts by Western authors, B-movies, anime and whatnot seems to have encouraged some very specific factoids about katanas that just do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Matt Easton addressed a fair number of these in a fortunate series of videos, which I heartily recommend. When it comes to RPGs, the following assumptions seem to be widespread: (a) katanas are the supreme cutting devices: they can cut through anything, including (obviously) any form of body armour, solid wood, steel, concrete; (b) in the hands of a proficient fighter, they are exceptionally agile weapons: they can be used to attack by drawing from the scabbard with few if any chances of defense, they can be used to parry all sorts of (melee and ranged) attacks; (c) they are virtually indestructible: only another (better forged) katana can break a katana blade. I will focus on whether katanas are depicted as inherently superior to all other swords, and on whether they are granted any exceptional feat unavailable to other weapons.

GURPS 3e did not include the katana in its core book. The weapon was, nevertheless, included in many supplements, most importantly Low Tech and Martial Arts. On the damage side, the game does not do anything dramatic: compared to its closest analogue, the thrusting bastard sword, the katana inflicts one more point of damage when used to cut and one point less when used to thrust. If one must think of this bastard sword as one of those acutely pointed longswords, it seems to make sense. But when it comes to other aspects, the fetish rears its ugly head. Low Tech, like the core book, states that a bastard sword can only by used one-handed with two severe penalties: it becomes unready after a swing attack and after a parry. Katanas have no such penalties, because, we are told, they are exquisitely well balanced. Martial Arts makes things worse by granting an entirely ad hoc defense bonus to skilled katana wielders: while in GURPS 3e the Parry value equals 1/2 of your weapon skill, a katana can parry at 2/3 of your skill, provided that you use it two-handed. It is hard to say whether this unfair advantage stems from katana fetishism or merely the will to assimilate katanas to fencing weapons (other privileged weapons in rules-as-written). Hilariously, this bonus was inherited by GURPS World War II: so players, do not even think of attacking a Japanese officer in close combat! Luckily, GURPS 4e openly reformed its ways and took katanas and (one hand and a half) longsword on the same level.

For a meaningful comparison in oWoD, you must peek into the old, nearly forgotten Combat supplement. Published at a time when (Asian) martial arts  had become fashionable in RPGs, the book seems to mimic GURPS or HERO in giving martial artists cool maneuvers in order to make them better than anybody else in combat or, at least, more interesting to play. I will disregard this, and focus on the weapon stats. In this system weapons are differentiated by a number of parameters, namely Initiative, Accuracy and Damage. We are told that a bastard sword has a +4 Damage modifier, and and +0 otherwise. A katana, on the other hand, has +1 Initiative, +1 Accuracy and +3 Damage. Again, katanas are so exquisitively balanced that etc.

But those were the Nineties. Let us jump back to the present day. Savage Worlds, as we all know, is fun, fast and furious. So why care about verisimilitude? That would be slow, boring and, you know, non-furious. So the author decided to give katanas (a) a higher average damage than any other sword and (b) an Armour Piercing value of 2 against all kinds of armour, something that no other melee weapon has in the rules-as-written. I have not extensively playtested the rules, but it seems reasonable to expect that katanas are going to wound armoured opponents that other swords or pole weapons would not affect. This makes the katana by far the most attractive melee weapon in the game. Interestingly, this was so over the top that at least two licensed Savage Worlds settings discarded the Armour Piercing feat: not only the pseudo-historical Solomon Kane did it so, but even the chambara inspired Iron Dynasty did the same. It seems that katanas cutting through steel like butter are not to everybody’s liking, these days.

On adaptations

I did not play Call of Cthulhu, back in the day. I knew it, though, and greatly respected both its game system (the likable Basic) and its setting. Recently, I have noticed people who lament that CoC was not very keen (or very effective, at that) at recreating Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and typically resulted in more action-oriented pulp fiction. The rule system itself was not explicitly tailored for the purpose (it was a solid, generic skill-based system). This is closely parallel to MERP with respect to Tolkien: Rolemaster (Spell Law especially) did not suit particularly well the source material, and the adventures (while very well documented) had a distinctly sandboxy, wilderness adventuring feeling.

The moral? Maybe I should not say so, being as fond as I am of “genre”, but the fact is that it is not by any means obvious that everything that works in fiction should work in roleplaying. So maybe one should content himself with having RPGs that participate to some extent in the atmosphere of his favourite fiction, and enjoy games in and for themselves. It is a fact that some of the most iconic and influential tropes of RPGs were not inspired by any specific genre of fiction (at least, not directly and recognizably). It is the case with much of what we call “classic fantasy”. It is D&D that made today’s fantasy genre, not vice versa. And this is also why D&D still retains its appeal, even to people that could not care less about Old School Renaissance: D&D is attractive because it is its own thing, it made the rules rather than following them. So who cares if the game system does not make much sense? Same with the World of Darkness: it did not try and recreate one specific genre or the other, but it invented a new blend of dark fantasy/horror/mysticism which is uniquely its own (and largely sucks, IMHO: more on this in future posts).

Why I like the Rules Cyclopedia

[Sorry people, I know the blog is slowing down quite a bit. I have in preparation a good bunch of posts on LotR (both novel and movies) and quite a few on Fate and GURPS. In the meanwhile, a little old D&D.]

Historically, D&D manuals seem to have suffered from bad writing. I am not talking content here: of course, one could have countless bones to pick with this or that D&D edition, or even with all of them. I mean the plan of the work, and its style. I remember lending all of my AD&D2e manuals as soon as I stopped DMing (and never recovering them to this day), precisely because they made such a poor reading: having them for reference when you played was one thing, but otherwise they seemed a waste of space.

The Rules Cyclopedia, on the other hand, has none of these flaws. It is concise, well organized, and lively written. It does not indulge in preliminaries, nor it displays self-importance. There was no room for such things: RC was born to be the first and only comprehensive one-volume D&D rulebook. It includes everything one needs to run not only an adventure, but in fact a campaign that could last years or even decades. Of course, the crunch was the same as the BECMI boxed sets, so many things were simplified with respect to AD&D or later D&D editions: fewer classes, races-as-classes, fewer spells, fewer monsters and so on. And yet, it also included much that would never been included in core rulebooks again: rules for acquiring and governing a domain, rules for mass combat and sieges, not to mention the (however sketchy) guidelines for characters to attain immortality. So, while RC had everything somewhat simpler, it also has the grandest scale ever in forty years of D&D manuals.

And, to be precise, not everything was actually simpler than in AD&D2e: the weapon mastery rules (presented as optional) are actually much more detailed than the weapon proficencies in AD&D2e. Whether this is for better or worse, it is up to the reader to decide. Suffice it to say that while the rules complicate the (extremely, almost irritatingly) elementary nature of BECMI combat, they have at least two strong points. First, they greatly increase the offensive capacity of PCs: while this might posit some problems at medium to high levels, it is a welcome change at the lowest levels (PCs have now better chances to survive encounters with low level monsters, and we know that nobody likes to be stabbed to death by a kobold). Think of a poor first level magic user: now, if he spends both his weapon mastery slots on the staff, he becomes a skilled staff fighter, who can attack and defend effectively and inflict considerable damage. Second, it makes it possible to differentiate greatly between individual PCs, which is precious in a game that has always had the tendency to look at PCs as stock members of the respective classes. Two warriors can be finely differentiated not only in terms of their “liking one weapon over another”, but of having entirely different tactical roles and special features: in this sense, RC does not pale in comparison to D&D3.X. Even at first level, you can now create heavy cavalrymen, crossbowmen, archers, skilled halberdsmen or whatever you feel like. Not that the system is without its quirks: the very smart, and valuable, intuition that experts of a weapon are more effective against some opponents than against others ends up giving counterintuitive results, since users of missile weapons have been conflated with monsters with natural weapons (i.e., a swordsman has the same bonuses when fighting an archer as when fighting a dragon, but better bonuses when fighting another swordsman). Does it sound right? I am not sure.

Since we are very much talking Old(-ish) School here, I will go for something nerdy now. RC (like BECMI before it) has, as far as I know, by far the most powerful version of the Meteor Swarm spell: it inflicts an astronomical 32d6 damage on impact plus 32d6 of blast damage, against which a saving throw for half damage is allowed. A high level magic user has thus the potential to inflict up to 384 damage, which would be enough to wipe out the vast majority of opponents in one blow. In Pathfinder, for comparison, Meteor Swarm does not exceed a maximum of 192 damage. One might say that the RC version is “unbalanced” but hey, when DMs let 21st level wizards in their game world, what did they expect…?

[EDIT – 28/06/2016: I was wrong on Weapon Mastery rules. First-level characters cannot allocate more than one mastery slot to the same weapon, so a magic-user would have to wait to do her kung-fu. By the way, the RC as written is not super clear about this, unlike Dark Dungeons, which I strongly recommend for other reasons as well.]

What I have learned about Savage Worlds

This one was long overdue. When I decided to give a chance to recent game systems that I knew squat about, Fate and Savage Worlds were the obvious choices. As readers (yes sir, I have a couple!) might have noticed, I ended up being unexpectedly intrigued (if not entirely convinced) by Fate Core. I read the Deluxe rulebook of Savage Worlds pretty much at the same time as Fate Core, but for some reason I could not bring myself to review it. In fact, this post will not be a proper review either.

I am conflicted about Savage Worlds. First, let me make clear that I am very glad that SW as a game even exists. Put yourself in my shoes: a long retired RPG lover, fan of generic systems, with a preference for a moderate level of crunchiness. SW as a system does seem a bless. And yet, in reading the core book and skimming through the vast catalogue, I realized that some cultural (aesthetic?) obstacles bugged me slightly.

First, I strongly dislike the fact that the use of miniatures and gameboard is taken for granted. The relation between RPGs and wargames is old and well known, but for my generation that was always an option, never the default assumption. In SW the possibility of playing without miniatures is merely acknowledged and left at that: “We’re giving length in inches because we assume you are using miniatures, if you don’t, try handwaving it.” Fair enough, but to me it feels backward.

Second, I cannot say a single good word on the use of poker cards. In SW, for no particular reason, combat initiative must be determined by picking one card each from one large deck of playing cards. Basically, that is it: other uses of cards in the system are entirely occasional and ad hoc. In a game that uses all your usual polyhedral dice (except for d20s) there is no good reason to force the use of an extraneous method of randomization. As it is (ad hoc and underused) it strikes me as gratuitous and inelegant. You know why we should use it, says the author? “Because it’s fun!!!”.

And now I come to the most general problem. The style of the book is so self-promotional and euphoric that it becomes irritating very fast. SW reiterates obsessively that the game is “fast, fun and furious!!!” (Exclamation marks are always in the way, and if not, they are suggested). Well, is that true? Not necessarily. I cannot think of one reason why the game should play especially fast. SW is no super abstract, free form game: it is a very traditional game with many detailed mechanics and a good number of factors to take into account. So why insisting on being fast? Marketing, apparently. SW is often marketed as ideally suited for one shot adventures (called “one sheet adventures”, because they can be presented in two pages at most). I am sure these work great, but apart from character creation (which is actually comparatively fast), I am not sure that the game plays any faster than Tri-Stat, Basic RPG or the D&D editions I am most acquainted with. Is it fun? Well, fun is the eye of the player. I can imagine of having plenty of fun with SW, but I have fun with GURPS also, so maybe I am not the author’s target.

Ok, now the good things. I must admit that (style aside) the Deluxe rulebook is a great piece of gaming literature. It has everything a generic system should have. The situational rules are complete enough to run most of your classic staple adventures. The combat rules, in terms of crunch level, are somewhere in between D&D 5e and GURPS: that is, medium crunchy. The character generation system makes sense, even though its granularity is very low. The very rudimentary “power design” system, for instance, cannot hold a candle to Tri-Stat/BESM, let alone GURPS or (God forbid!) Hero. It is just enough to have one or two nifty supernatural tricks under your character’s belt. Racial and professional templates for most run-of-the-mill settings are included, and so is a reasonably complete monster bestiary. With its low page count and its exceptionally cheap price, the SW paperback rulebook worth the buy even if you are not sold on the game yet: it might always come in handy.

From a strictly mechanical point of view, the game seems satisfactory, even though some of its quirks might not be to everybody’s liking.

The basic notion that attributes or skills are rated as dice type (1d4, 1d6, 1d8 etc.) is nice enough. It is is worth emphasizing, though, that because the difficulty for most tasks is set at 4, characters with low ratings have pretty meager chances of success: keep it in mind, when you think of letting your goofy wizard climb that rope! On the other hand, dice can Ace (explode): a roll of N on a dN dice lets you roll again and add the result.

One of the very few mechanics that Savage Worlds shares with Fate is the difference between Wild Cards (PCs, main NPCs) and Extras (unnamed NPCs, in Fate parlance). Wild Cards have two main benefits. First, they get to use an extra Wild d6 Dice, which can be used instead of your regular dice whenever it rolls better. Second, Wild Cards can take up to two three wounds before being incapacited and, potentially, die. Extras can only take one wound, then they are incapacitated or dead. Obviously, this  is conducive to a style of game that is antithetic to the Old School ethos, where the death of PCs happened all the time.

One aspect that I liked is the compromise between development based on leveling and on skill improvement. SW does not have levels as such, but it has a bunch of power layers, the first one being Novice. Experience points let you upgrade your layer every now and then, and this unlock more powerful Edges (think Feats, Advantages) and Powers (Magic, Psionics etc.). This makes it possibile to distinguish between a young hero and semi-god without introducing the metagaming pedantry related to levels.

All considered, I am glad this game exists, but there is something about its selling strategy which does not appeal to me very much. The biggest selling point, to me, is how much you can get out of this core book alone: most classic genres can be at least attempted without buying anything else. The big exception, I think, would be games which rely heavily on gear, especially science fictional technology. Being curious about it, I have just bought the Science Fiction Companion for the game and I am likely to review it soon.

[EDIT 02 Nov 2015: I noticed that I forgot to mention the Wild Die. This mechanic, which is exclusive of PC and main NPC, change the chances of success of any task pretty dramatically. Our goofy wizard, provided he is a PC, should manage to climb that rope pretty well in spite of his low Agility, because he always roll a Wild d6 together with his d4 attribute, and gets to choose the best result of the two.]