Thursday, January 31, 2013

The RPG Month That Was: January In Review

Well, I certainly didn't expect my New Year to start off with a gaming bang, but that's precisely what happened. Here are a few of the highlights and happenings from January:

-I finally started my 1867 campaign setting (pdf link here), a mix of American Civil War-era alt-history and low-powered superheroes. Sound crazy? It is, but it's also an absolute blast so far. I've been using Savage Worlds, which seems to be handling it very well. The SavWo fan community out there has been frankly awesome in terms of useful advice and tips.

-Our Pathfinder game went on hiatus. This game had marked the first time I had been a full-time player in several years. I'm now back behind the screen for 1867, but I was happy to have the break. I wouldn't be wild about GMing Pathfinder these days, but I'll happily play it anytime.

-Wizards of the Coast came to their senses and released their pdfs for sale online once more!

-I printed and cut out roughly 250 Disposable Heroes for my 1867 campaign. Miraculously, this didn't result in carpal tunnel syndrome. I need to have a cut-out party with my gaming group next time!

-I ran and reviewed BareBones Fantasy, which has been rocking my socks off to no end.

-I discovered a stash of Knights of the Dinner Table back issues, and have been happily reliving some of the greatest (mis)adventures of Muncie's finest gamers.

-My daughter remembered to check for traps before opening a dungeon door for the first time ever.

-My gaming group agreed they still wanted to play on Super Bowl Sunday, which might be the best vote of confidence I have ever received as a Game Master. Of course, I deeply suspect it has something to do with my wife's wassail and buffalo chicken dip...

That's a pretty great month of gaming action and interest. If February can keep pace, I'll feel very lucky indeed.

How was your January in terms of RPG news, play, and excitement?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Forums & G+: Different Worlds, Different Games?

I first want to say I'm very happy to hear that many of you liked Monday's review of BareBones Fantasy, and I even received an email from someone saying how much they were enjoying reading through the game. Thanks for the kind words, and I'm pretty sure you'll find it runs even better than it reads. There's a very good reason I have it rated so high.

Though this was one of the better receptions I've ever had for a RPG review, I noticed an interesting difference between two online realms in their reaction to the BareBones review.

From accounts over at Google+, there seemed to be already some familiarity with the game, and an overall positive reception. It looked as if multiple folks had already given their opinion on the game, and there's even a growing community dedicated to the game.

We're talking about a product that's currently hanging around in the Top 10 at RPGNow, and that's against competition such as The Keep on the Borderlands, Against The Giants, and the rest of the Wizards of the Coast/TSR pdf flood that is dominating just now. So it isn't as if this game doesn't have the attention of someone; it's just curious where or who that someone is.

RPGnet has almost no threads on the game; I can say the same for theRPGsite. Yet it seems to garner a fair amount of mentions on Google+. The game would seem to fit the wants and playstyles of at least a faction of gamers at each, yet the amount of discussion is wildly disparate. It's really a tale of two online community types, and the difference in reception a gaming product receives at each.

Oh, you don't have to tell me that every community has its darlings. Exalted has been vastly more popular at RPGnet than any other forum I can think to name, and even theRPGsite has a few games that are probably favored more than in other communities. And if we were discussing two groups of gamers with minimal crossover, I might not think twice about it. The strange thing is, the communities don't exist in a vacuum. Many of the same gamers I chat with on message boards are also in my circle on G+.

To be sure, BareBones isn't the only game I've noticed this with. And some games, such as Fate Core, seem to have a good push both on G+ and certain message boards.

So what, then, if many of the gamers are shared between the two communities, is the difference between RPGnet and G+? Is one more of the "echo chamber" that ossified forums are sometimes accused of being, or is it just happenstance? Is it harder for a new game to be shared on forums vs. G+?

To be sure, I am very happy for my experiences both on G+ and message boards; I believe they offer different things, and have different strengths. But I will note that how I see traffic and reception for my gaming reviews has changed in the last 6 years. Reviews no longer just sit somewhere, waiting for a thread on some forum to point to them. There's a 6 year buildup in fortified positions, oft-repeated concepts, garnered reputations, alternate sources such as YouTube reviews to contend with. A good or bad review seems more viral with the advent of G+ or Twitter. It's a faster, more connected audience that's reacting, and it's pretty neat to see develop.

Coming back though, I think it's interesting to see experiences and opinions diverge between G+ and message boards. I've often noticed behavior is different from certain gamers between message boards and G+, and apparently their threads of conversation are, too. I'd love to see a breakdown of just where sales and hits on BareBones Fantasy are coming from, because I think it would be quite interesting indeed.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why You Should Check Out BareBones Fantasy

You might say there are two types of rules-light games. There are those that give you the basic essentials you need to run and play a game--the briefest of outlines, so to speak. Then there are those that manage to remain simple and easy to use, but still manage to give robust support to the Game Master, and an excellent outline for creativity and expansion.

It is precisely because BareBones Fantasy falls into the latter, more elusive category that I can happily recommend it to gamers.

BareBones Fantasy (aka BBF) is by DwD Studios, and comes to you by some of the names responsible for the continued support and revival of the old Star Frontiers RPG. Fittingly enough, the rules borrow some of the conventions of that game, albeit in a neatly presented and updated format.

Let's start with the basics. This 82-page dynamo uses a roll-under percentile system, with doubles (44, 77, etc.) being treated as critical successes or failures, depending on if the roll is under or over the target number. 00-05 is always a success on a reasonable attempt, and a 95-99 always fails.

BareBones has 4 stats, or Abilities, which can either be rolled randomly or assigned via point buy. Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Logic (LOG), and Will (WIL), should be self-explanatory for most any gamer. These Abilities are used for checks (STR check to lift things, resist poison; DEX to jump out of the way of something, etc.), and also play an important part in class/skill, as we're about to see.

There are the 4 basic fantasy races in here (though I understand a supplement with additional races is forthcoming)--Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. Each of these races gets a bonus to one Ability, and a few other add-ons as well.

The game uses one of my favorite, and regrettably lesser-used conventions in gaming--class as skill. There are 8 skills, which are Cleric, Enchanter, Leader, Scholar, Spellcaster, Scout, Thief and Warrior. The last three of that list can be used unskilled by all characters; the others must be trained. Each character gets a primary and secondary skill to start with, each of which get a corresponding bonus. The starting percentage (before bonuses) for a skill is half the governing Ability. A list of what each skill can do is provided--Spellcaster ties to your capacity to cast spells, Cleric links to your religious knowledge and divine gifts, and so on down the line.

A brief word on magic: there are only 17 spells in this game, which might seem like a small amount, but the spells can be customized based on desired effect. For example, the Charm spell can be used not only to magically win folks over to your side, but also to drop them into a deep sleep, intimidate them into fleeing in fear, and so on. A Spellcasting roll is required to cast--and that's the danger to the caster really, the specter of a critical failure. A lucky caster can sling spells all day long--there's no worries of Mana or Spells Per Day here.

From there, you pick out equipment from the provided list, and then derive a couple of secondary stats--your starting Body Points (yep, Hit Points), your Initiative, your Damage Reduction (adjusted by your armor choice), and your Movement (how many spaces you can move in a turn). It's all quite quick and painless.

For a rules-light game, there are some cool aspects of rounding out your character. The Alignment code reminds me of Pendragon, with players defining their character as Somewhat/Very/Totally Kind or Cruel, Focused or Unfocused, Selfless or Selfish, Honorable or Deceitful, and Brave or Cowardly. The player also specifies two Descriptors, one negative ("Drinks too much") and one positive ("Well-mannered") to further flesh out the character. I also appreciate the step-by-step examples and inclusion of sample character to help character creation along. It's all ridiculously simple, but it's still a nice, reassuring sort of feature.

Perhaps the biggest positive takeaway for me on character generation is how you can have an interesting hybrid sort of character without having a be-all and end-all sort of supreme "special snowflake". You can have a character that wears heavy armor and can still Spellcast, but he'd better have a high enough Strength to pull it off. And if you throw all your points in making that work, you're going to kick butt, yet you'll still have your weak areas. Players should have a lot of fun diversifying their characters and find the right balance between specialization, and the siren call of being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

There aren't many pages (barely two) spent explaining the basic mechanics, mainly because a) they're simple, and b) the author, one Mr. Larry Moore (along with co-designer Mr. Bill Logan), has a wonderful penchant for explaining things in a clear, succinct matter. There's a brief description of Contested Rolls between characters, Resistance checks (which are the same as doing an Ability check), and a few words on healing, and then we're ready for combat.

The combat section is short and sweet. First you roll initiative. If you have an initiative rating of 2, you roll 2d10s and pick the best d10 roll of the two. (A bit off the beaten path, but fun). Then you attack, trying to roll under either your Warrior (Melee) or Warrior (Ranged) skill. Your opponent can try to Dodge, using a DEX check. If you hit, you roll damage for your weapon, taking into account any armor worn by your foe and subtracting its rating from the total.

If you want to act more than once in a round, each additional action has a -20% penalty. So, you can try to tumble across the spiked floor, throw your dagger at the high priest, punch the guard square in the jaw, and then Dodge when he tries to headbutt you on his turn, but your chances of success grow dimmer the later in the sequence an action is. Being roll-under percentile, there's always at least a chance of success, but you're also in trouble if you get too carried away.

Leveling up is a matter of earning Development Points (DPs). There's a checklist in here for the Game Master, to reward. DPs are granted each session if the character plays to alignment and descriptors, if they are an active participant, for completing in-game goals, etc. You can spend them on bumping up Skills, learning new languages, or increasing Abilities.

Now, many rules-light RPGs might stop there. If all BareBones did was present a rules-light system, throw in a few monsters and some generic GM advice and call it quits, it would still be an attractive gaming option. But where BareBones Fantasy thrives is in making this light game feel well-supported and full of options and good material.

There's the section on magic items, and magic item creation. There are charts and tables--in abundance, I should say. For the chart-o-phile as well as the harried GM, this game has you covered. There are charts for adventure creations, charts for dungeon creation. There are treasure charts, magic item tables, and even a fun one for alternate rewards--how about a noble title or deific blessing, if your quest was epic enough?

The best part is, none of the above feels hand-wavey or an afterthought. This game is easy, true, but that does not mean it doesn't give the Game Master tons of toys to play with.

A long list of magic items, a very stripped-down, "broad brushstrokes" setting (Keranak Kingdoms, which also has a book all its own), a bestiary, a glossary, and the all-important index round this work out. It's amazing just how much is in this book. I've read 200-page RPGs that offer less and are more impenetrable in doing so. If you want to talk about top page count value, this one just might be it.

If I've heard one complaint, it's that the monster section is too short--there are about 45 creatures presented--but that is mitigated somewhat by a template system to make your own baddies. It's quick, it's smart, and it works. Really, a lot of the game supports tinkering, whether you like running games right out of the box, or tweaking them until they're juuuuust right, BBF has you covered.

Presentation of the product is logical, orderly, with clear writing and a well-considered layout. If you were going to give a clinic on how to present an RPG, you could do far worse than to start here. I have no doubt other RPGs offer much of what BareBones does, but BBF just makes it all so concise and straightforward. Mr. Moore and company should be congratulated for what is an all-too-rare feat in gaming on that account.

BareBones Fantasy is available in both pdf and softcover from RPGNow, and I would recommend gamers looking for a smart, rules-light fantasy RPG that manages to be different, clever, and surprisingly thorough start here. I've seen it mentioned in the same breath as neoclassical and Old School Renaissance rulesets, and I suppose there's something to it, given this game's lineage. Yet I think pigeonholing it as such would be  a disservice to the game, as it occupies its own ground somewhere in the middle. I've used it with Keep On The Borderlands, but I daresay a group raised on Pathfinder looking for something lighter would find just as much utility here, as well.

This game should appeal to groups without the time to chew through 400-page rulebooks, those who want something light yet robust, fans of good percentile-based systems, and even novice gamers just jumping into a system. I plan on running my 8 year-old daughter through a game of BBF quite soon, and I doubt she'll have any issues with it. For parents, I'd recommend checking into this one, too.

I'm not one to always trust reviews from any site trying to sell me stuff, but BareBones has over 20+ reviews on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG, and they're almost all wildly positive. In this instance, they're right on the money. So is BareBones Fantasy when it comes to delivering a lot of smart fantasy gaming at a good price. Consider this an enthusiastic endorsement of the product, start to finish, and one of the few 10/10s I've ever handed out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The WotC PDFs: Thank Goodness

Right now, RPGNow, DriveThruRPG, and DnD Classics are deluged with gamers lining up (virtually) to spend money on the newly-released pdfs of old Dungeons & Dragons products. When the pdfs were yanked by Wizards of the Coast nearly four years ago, it added to a tidal wave of discontent that already been forming due to the handling and direction of D&D 4th Edition.

Those four years have seen a lot happen in gaming. 4e lies quiet, near the end of its initial lifecycle. Retro-clones, neoclassical gaming, Kickstarter, and a better understanding of open game licenses and products has changed the landscape. Now, WotC has brought back the pdfs, and their popularity and positive reception cannot be ignored. As I write this, the servers for DriveThruRPG/RPGNow sites have gone down at least twice, presumably due to sheer customer volume.

I find myself wondering, how many people downloading these titles are doing so because they were first introduced to classic RPGing by products such as Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and Basic Fantasy? Alternately, how many people rediscovered a love of gaming not only because of these products, but of the active, productive gaming community that made them possible?

There’s a place for these OSR products; they have excellent values, are often free to download and use as creative tools, and most importantly, have inspired collaborative communities all their own. But getting to use them in conjunction with Keep on the Borderlands, Against The Giants, or other early TSR products just makes it sweeter. They also remind us that this is not a simple move for nostalgia’s sake, but an active, living movement of people who prefer a certain style of gaming.

Half of me wants to really stretch an analogy, and describe the OSR as some sort of Robin Hood character, protecting and guarding what they could until King Richard came home, but that’s not really apt. It’s more like waiting for King Richard to come to his senses and start acting like the paragon of what a king and leader should be once more.

To Wizards of the Coast, congratulations, and yes, thank you. By showing at long last the common sense on this issue gamers had long been pointing out could only work to your benefit, you have also engendered plenty of goodwill, and helped repair a lot of the damage done by years of PDF-Gate, snotty 4e commentary to fans of older editions, and generally poor gamer relations. You’ve also instantly become relevant once more to a group of gamers that had felt shut out for years. I’m not sure yet what form D&D Next/5th Edition will take, but I am sure you’ve just bumped up the number of people that will at least give it a look. If you were considering a special reprint of, say, the Rules Cyclopedia, I would hope this would inspire you in that regard…

When the D&D titles I downloaded pre-2009 show up, I’m pretty sure I’ll download about 12 copies, putting them in various secure locations, just in case this ever happens again. And should WotC/gamer relations ever sour once more, I’m happy we have bulwarks against that, in the aforementioned OSR titles and so many more open and creative works. Gamers have the best of both worlds now, and that’s great news for just about everyone. Create, be inspired, and game, using all these wonderful tools both old and new.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mini Solutions: Disposable Heroes

Preparations for my Savage Worlds 1867 game (see the player handout here) have continued nicely, but one thing I was dealing with was finding the right minis for my game. Fantasy is no problem, but when you're doing an alt-history Civil War-era game that features low-powered supers, Union soldiers, and British/French invaders, you just might have a problem on your hands. Since I'm beginning to see just how handy it is to have minis to run SavWo, I wanted to make sure I had this locked down.

Now, I was able to buy a few plastic Civil War toy soldiers to get things started, but that's not all I need. Still, it was fun...ahem...checking them out, you know, just to make sure everything worked properly:

History regards the Battle of the Dining Table a minor, but important skirmish in American history.

So, this wasn't going to be enough. Here's the great thing: Precis Intermedia's Disposable Heroes line had literally everything I needed for my minis.

Civil War American soldiers? Check.

British and French troops? Check.

Various 19th century townsfolk, civilians, and the like? Check.

This isn't the first time I've mentioned Precis Intermedia line of paper minis, but I was struck by just how handy they were. They offer something for underserved and obscure gaming genres, and am I ever grateful they did. The minis printed out beautifully on a simple inkjet printer with regular cardstock. Here's a quick sampling of some of what I printed out:

If I didn't have a printer, Precis Intermedia does offer them preprinted from their website. I do, however, like being able to print what I need, and get large numbers of troops for melee scenes. For less than $15, I was able to get hundreds of minis that suit my game just perfectly. (Even though the British and French soldiers are from the Napoleonic era, they're close enough to work).

So, my Savage Worlds campaign is scheduled for kickoff on this upcoming Sunday. I'm still working on some final touches, but it's nice to know because of Disposable Heroes, at least one aspect of my campaign is all set.