Saturday, October 9, 2021

SWORDS ARE NO MORE USE HERE! (Monster ratings, damage limits, and a rules-solution in search of a problem?)

"SWORDS ARE NO MORE USE HERE!" Thus warns Gandalf in an iconic cinematic moment. Ai, ai, and alas, for those words are not actually uttered at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum...in the novel. But they sure make a memorable line in the movie. Well, the sentiment is clearly present in the book; Gandalf does caution that "This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way."  And a bit earlier, before the Balrog reveals itself, Gandalf says this about an indirect encounter with the thing: 

What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. ... Ah! I have never felt so spent, but it is passing ... And now what about you, Frodo? ... I feared that it was a brave but dead hobbit that Aragorn was carrying. 

Gandalf and Frodo together - one of Middle Earth's mightiest, and one of its weakest, in the same party. But what sets them apart - for that matter, what sets apart Gandalf even from Aragorn or Legolas - is not merely a greater number of Hit Dice. Gandalf can face the Balrog only because he operates on a qualitatively higher level of power than his companions do, and therefore he must face the Balrog alone. 

In the rules-light horror RPG Cthulhu Dark, "If you fight any [Mythos] creature you meet, you will die. Thus, in these core rules, there are no combat rules or health levels. Instead, roll to hide or escape." That's certainly a decisive way to handle different power levels - Mythos creatures are so far beyond mortal humans that confronting them with violence means you automatically lose your character. But it's a Cthulhu game, so you're going to have to face Mythos creatures ... you just won't be able to face them. Run from them, maybe try to trap or contain them, what have you ... just don't ever, ever expect to win fights against them. 

Hmm. 

Earlier this year I wrote about an odd little game I wrote for really, really fast adventure resolution. One element of that game is its monster rating system, something I initially developed for when I run FKR-ish or freeform games. It's a relative ranking system with seven "Force" levels from your setting's weakest to strongest foes (in freeform gaming, it helps me determine whether either side in combat gets an advantage, and how significant that advantage is; it's as much a heuristic device as a numerically mechanical one). Here's how I described it a few months ago: 

There are no Warrior Stats for Level 7, because Player Characters max out at Level 6. I may still tweak the Fighting Levels chart, but as initially imagined, you flesh it out by placing peasants, goblins, etc., at Level 1, and then placing the most dangerous kind of opponent possible in your campaign setting as the Level 7 standard. The ratio between the numbers might need to be tweaked from campaign to campaign; the chart above doesn't have a really high power curve, but it's trivially easy to create a higher range by boosting these numbers - or just continuing the scale past Level 7. If I develop these rules any further, that's probably one of the things I'll keep tweaking. 

This works well for some campaigns, but it would stumble quickly if I wanted to emulate a more typical D&D campaign's wide range of monster threats. Consider 4e, for example [ALERT / HERESY / ALERT], with its monsters strung across almost 30 levels in three tiers (Adventurer/Heroic/Epic). 13th Age did something similar. Even a freeform evocation of that kind of system arguably calls for a more granular scale. 

Now, one way to handle that is brain-smackingly simple: just keep using the extant monster levels (or hit dice for other games) in comparison with character levels. And that's probably the right idea. But I have been struck by an idea, inspired in part by Cthulhu Dark's insta-kill rule and 4e/13th Age's 3-tier system. I think this could be helpful, though maybe this is a solution in search of a problem. You tell me! But I think this could simplify some things while offering a few concrete game benefits. 

Here it is. 


MSIU&U THE RPG: MAKING SWORDS INTERMITTENTLY USEFUL AND USELESS 

Across whatever level range your game stretches, divide those levels into three tiers (and call them Adventurer / Heroic / Epic if you want full credit as a filthy heretic). Assign monsters of the various levels to those three tiers. 

If you directly engage a monster from a higher tier in combat, you die. Blame your poor life choices and roll up a new character. 

If you have advanced into Heroic or Epic tier and you directly engage a foe of a lower tier in combat, you automatically kill or incapacitate that foe. 

Or, do you want a slightly more nuanced version? 

Advanced Idea & Dragons, 2e: If you engage a higher-tier foe that is just at the bottom of its own tier class, you may fight it, but if it lands a single hit on you, you die. Vice-versa for engaging lesser foes at the very top of the tier below you; you need just one hit to kill them (like 4e minions), but they can fight you.  


BUT...BUT...WHY? AND WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO WITH THIS? 

Now, one possible effect of doing this is that you radically truncate the mechanical ranges needed for a system to work, while retaining the wild, almost bloated power-range of d20 game bestiaries. You need a small range of numbers tailored to your characters' current status in the world. Everything else is beneath them - or way beyond them..."swords are no more use here!" stuff! 

Into the Odd's advancement scheme takes you from level 1 to 5. The expectation is that you can retire (most likely) if you make it to level 5 (not likely). The game employs a fairly tight hit point progression for PCs (another d6 per level, if I recall correctly). The game also offers hardly any leveling-up mechanical benefits beyond hit points, though there's an expectation that in-play circumstances will be changing your character diegetically. 

I'm imagining a triple Into the Odd campaign, but with some extra class benefits.

Run to level 5 as normal - using 'Adventurer' scale monsters as the primary threats (though feel free to throw in higher beasties too, and telegraph that the characters need to run away in terror). 

If someone makes it to level 5, they can level up to 6 - or, rather, "Heroic level 1" - reset their hit points as a level 1 character. Only, now, they're mostly immune to Adventurer-tier threats. If they live long enough toe make it to Epic tier, they will once again drop down from 5 or 6d6 hit points to 1d6 hit points - but this time, they'll be functionally immune to Adventurer AND Heroic-tier threats, and they will be sweating bullets in their initial encounters with cosmos-shaking Epic-tier threats. 

One complaint often lodged against 4e D&D is that the levels go up and up but the hyper-balanced combats create a kind of treadmill feeling; you're always slogging away with relatively similar threat levels. 

In the version I'm suggesting here, instead, you have a meaningful progression from zero to hero at EACH tier level, followed by a period of fresh terror as you learn to navigate the threats of a whole new tier of adventure. 

Huh. I'm sorta spitballing here, but I kind of think this idea could have some potential, whether for Into the Odd or some other rules-light system. Has it been done before? It seems so simple that I assume someone's tried this before. Any thought/experiences, o gentle reader? 

TAKE THAT! Another drawing, and another sale

At it again! I am really trying to get a bit more drawing in these days. I've always enjoyed it, and I suppose I entertain dreams of illustrating my own hobby work someday. I'm in a funny place of being keenly aware of how much I need to improve, while enjoying signs of improvement as I go. 

For today's figure, I wanted something with more dynamic movement than in my previous (hobgoblin) picture. This guy is bonkers anachronistic - the pants and shin ties are medieval Russian, the round chest-plate is from Iron Age Spain, and I guess the cape is straight DC comics. A perfect fit for the average D&D session, then. :-) Anyway, I had fun making this fella. 



Meanwhile - while you're here, please note that DriveThruRPG.com has a big sale running on indie game products. My Brazen Backgrounds (Bronze Age character background generator) and Hunters & Highwaymen (30 interesting NPC encounters for the dark woods or the taverns in them) are both on sale (note: affiliate links), as are many, many good and helpful products by small-press authors and designers. For example, I just picked up Kent David Kelly's CASTLE OLDSKULL - The Book of Dungeon Traps, which looks like it may offer a helpfully different approach to traps tailored for different party levels (another affiliate link). 

 Thanks for all the support! Happy Gaming! 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Hobgoblin Attacking ('art')

 I am trying to get better at drawing figures. I recently slapped out an orcy/hobgobliny figure in a few minutes, and thought it was decent, but recognized that a better anatomical awareness would have helped. Enter the magic of "Magic Poser" (what a name!), a nice free online tool for posing anatomical figures for sketching. Today I tried again. The page isn't cleaned up (you can see some erased earlier marks and what-not below) but I like this fella. Well, I'm not sure I'd invite him to my next picnic, but...



Tuesday, September 28, 2021

[REVIEW] SPACE WEIRDOS: A SKIRMISH HEARTBREAKER - get your off-brand NecroQuisitorGraveFlyWars action on!

 SPACE WEIRDOS: A SKIRMISH HEARTBREAKER is a fun and inexpensive new set of miniature skirmish rules by Casey Garske, author of the "DOOM"-like military Sci-Fi RPG hack, STAY FROSTY.  For Space Weirdos, think Necromunda-type games, but simpler. A lot simpler. The game is sold as a 16-page B&W zine in .pdf on WargameVault, sister storefront to DTRPG.com, for $4.99 USD. [Affiliate link] With purchase, you also get a 4-page supplement with some nice dedicated rules for playing solo. 

DISCLAIMERS: I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This review is based on reading the rules, playing two games using the solo rules, and engaging a bit with the author and the game's community on Discord. The link above to purchase the game is an affiliate link, which helps support this blog's activities at no added cost to you - thanks! 


SO ... WHAT IS THIS? 

Well, that cover art sets the tone right away: zany sci-fi action with guns and swords and hideous beasties, not tied to any I.P. line, with a decent amount of polish but lots of room for hacking in your own ideas, too. Garske's short introduction is worth quoting to sum up the game's intentions.

SPACE WEIRDOS is my "Skirmish Heartbreaker." ... a lot of old school D&D people are discovering or re-discovering miniatures wargaming and starting to write rules when they find the big name games too expensive and convoluted. So here's my heartbreaker. ...

More than anything, the goal of this game is to get your minis on the table and killing each other. Break out your oldhammer, your newhammer, your Blanchitsu and Inq28's, your kitbashed Heroclix, the weird 90's minis that you don't remember what game they're from anymore...whatever you got, and get Weird.

So that's pretty straightforward; this is another way to grab some eccentric models and get going (so, a Blood Angels Chaplain, a Wookie, and a Dalek walk into this bar...). Honestly, I think the self-effacing talk of 'heartbreakers' is under-selling the game a bit. The intro initially makes it sound a bit like Garske just discovered wargaming but knows how to do it better. :-) Except, of course, all those references to Inquisimunda-type games sort of give the truth away, right? Indeed, Garske's obviously no stranger to different approaches to pushing minis around a table. Again, from the introduction: 

Some games might aspire to minimalism and totally get rid of anything that might require a token. Some games are more simulationist, with lots of modifiers and rules for all situations. Space Weirdos is sort of in the middle, leaning towards minimalism, but not totally embracing it. There are a couple tokens to use, there is measuring, but it's easy with the sticks, and there are modifiers, but it's fun because you get to use all your D&D dice.  

Space Weirdos immediately makes me think of the venerable, original Rogue Trader that got the 40k line rolling so many years ago - but a far simpler, 16-page pamphlet...So, don't think of the stripped-down detail evoking a certain company's official product line in Grimdark Future Firefight; instead, think of Craig Cartmell's old, delightful faux-40k skirmish game, In the Emperor's Name (Space Weirdos is even less detailed than ItEN, but if my memory of ItEn holds, Weirdos is more dynamic and tactical). The use of diverse polyhedral dice reminded me of Pulp Alley (Space Weirdos omits any narrative elements baked into the rules, but Space Weirdos is less fiddly, and I prefer its combat!). Space Weirdos (as written) won't give you the campaign-able richness of (relatively) more detailed games like Five Parsecs from Home or the recent Stargrave. Space Weirdos is more suitable for hot one-shot games (unless you want to hack in your own campaign system), but what it lacks in detail it compensates for in an elegant, fast to-the-table and even faster on-the-table system. 


WELL, OK THEN ... HOW DOES IT WORK?

The first thing to know out the gate: this is a deliberately simple game offering a good and flexible chassis to support further tinkering if you want to add stuff. The game plays well RAW, but this sort of game isn't meant to offer a million bells and whistles. What impresses me about the design is how flexible and elegant some of the core design choices were. It's simple enough that I'm going to have to think carefully about not giving away the game rules in my description of them. :-) Actually, that's probably not even too much of an issue; what works best about this game isn't Rule X + Y, it's the ways the simple rules interface with each other and with a judiciously limited battery of special conditions and choices. 

The game does use points for force creation (with no pretense of perfect balance), but designing a new soldier for your gang is quite simple; in fact, as-written, the rules limit your choices so designing your team is quick and emphasizes a key concept or role over endless fine-tuning. If you don't want to mess with points, there's also a page of sample gangs/warbands suited for a variety of iconic sci-fi settings, from hard-shelled alien bugs feasting on colonial marines to battle nuns vs forces of "Xaos" in a grim future, or cyber-rigged punk ladies fighting steroid-juiced gangers (ahem...are Houses Escher and Goliath in...the...house?). If you do take the (brief) time to design your own warband, you'll find very simple but evocative key attributes to distinguish your warband from others. I mentioned limits, up above...most non-leader figures only get 1 missile weapon, 1 piece of special equipment, etc. (Isn't half the fun of these games tinkering with your squad creation? Sure, but Space Weirdos opts instead for more iconic warbands that will actually get on the table sooner and feel different in play). Well, a Cyborg gang can choose an extra piece of equipment per figure. A gang of Soldiers get Heavy Armor, Grenades, or Medkits for free. Lots of different ways to create diverse gangs, quickly. Your limited weaponry choices will have real effect, however, with (for example) one kind of gun being more reliably accurate, while another hits harder. 

Depending on the size of scrum you want to play out, you'll end up with a small handful or a large handful of these 'heroes.' Here's what a 'character sheet' looks like: 


The use of polyhedral dice stands out at once. Stats are rated at d6, d8, or d10, but a variety of tactical effects and command choices can raise them up to d12 or drop them down to d4 during your turn. Worth noting: you need two of each of these, but combat rolls are opposed, so convenient play calls for at least 2d4, 2d6, 2d8, and 2d10 per side (along with a single d20 for AI activation, if you use the solo rules). 

2x2' or 3x3' is adequate for a battlefield (I used one of the new Warcry 22" by 30" battlemats). 

Speed and Actions are nicely done; all figures get 3 activations per turn, and Speed tells you how many of those activations can be used to move; Actions describes, basically, the rate of fire of each weapon (so the auto pistol listed above could fire three times, should Velda Dark spend her entire turn blasting away at someone in LOS). All movement uses 5" sticks (though if you already have 6" sticks lying around for another game, as do I, it shouldn't hurt anything to use them consistently instead). Weapon range is essentially unlimited (I am so glad to see this becoming more common in skirmish shooter game design), though a few smaller weapons do have a penalty to shoot past 1 movement stick. 

No IGO-UGO here - except for the solo rules, kinda; in the normal competitive mode, players roll off to win initiative, and then take turns with alternating figure activations. So you'll need to stay at the table instead of going for more chips and calling your Mom during the enemy turn. In fact, stay as close to the table as possible, because gameplay is dynamic. Combat rolls are opposed (roll to hit, then roll on a hit effect table that can be modified by really high to-hit rolls, but can also enable enemies to fire back in a little firefight!). What's more, each commander has a very small pool of command points. 

I really liked the way the game uses command points. 

I am increasingly dissatisfied with any shooter skirmish ruleset that ignores things like overwatch or suppressing fire. No need for perfect simulation (!?!?) but let's try to include some element of that, no? Well, Space Weirdos lets players spend a command point to take a shot on overwatch. In other words, every one of your figures is ALWAYS potentially on overwatch, as long as you've got command points left to spend that turn. This keeps an important tactical element in play, without any need to sit around thinking, umm, should I put this guy on overwatch, or that guy? But it's a tradeoff, because those command points are good for lots of other things, too. Dodging into cover; pushing to move just a little bit faster; shooting a little straighter; etc. Or, if you've finished the turn and never found the right way to spend 'em, you can cash in any remaining command points to better your chances at seizing the initiative on the next turn. Your pool of command points is quite small, making each use a deliberate and precious statement about your tactical priorities. All this means a really simple, one-brain-cell command and control system that nonetheless keeps the player engaged in meaningful decision-making throughout every part of the turn. Nicely done, Garske. 

Oh...except that if you're playing the solo rules, and the enemy have a psychic champion who is out of LOS and keeps rolling well and keeps stealing your command points with a psychic disruption cloud...then you just gnash your teeth. No bitter personal experience there. Nope. 

Yeah, there are psychic rules. Or should I say rules for psykers? Like everything in Space Weirdos, those rules are compact and limited, but also effective and highly evocative. Psychic powers are really fun and powerful, but also risky; roll too low, and face a psychic backlash on your own figure. 

Tokens: yeah, the game uses some tokens, but I think the author's claim is accurate: it uses just enough of them. Mainly, these track movement rates (this felt a bit fiddly at first, but the tactical payoff of tracking movement becomes clear as soon as you break into combat). Downed and Staggered markers also help keep track of wounds (but also incorporate a very basic Suppression system). 

The game includes three different scenarios (and four in the solo rules). Of the solo scenarios, some options keep a fixed number of opponents on the board, and others allow for enemy reinforcements to keep cycling into play. That offers a range of play-styles, but do be aware that scenarios with enemy reinforcements can take longer and become a bit of a grind (that's no fault of this ruleset, but in my experience, it's just a consequence of that kind of scenario. They just take longer to play out). 

So about those solo rules...  The dedicated 4-page solo expansion offers a LOT more than just "um, try to think about the best move for the baddies." The solo rules rework a few of the core game's rules, offering a different turn structure (figures near your leader move, then the opponents go, then the rest of your force activates). They also rely on 7 different kinds of Bad Guys - 'classes' if you will - ranging from grunts and goons to "bigguns," "big shooters," and "psychics." The game's Discord page includes sample themed warbands created by fans - like a Tyranid list and a Chaos Cultist list with stats for troops in each of these 7 categories. The best part of the solo rules comes in a page of dedicated activation tables, one for each of the 7 Bad Guy types. When you need to activate an enemy figure, check whether it's in LOS, out of LOS, or in contact with one of your figures; then roll a d20 on the relevant table, and follow the instructions. Those instructions are tailored for each troop-type's expected range of behaviors, and they offer a pleasing range of unpredictable but basically plausible AI actions. That cultist around the corner might hunker down, cowering, or it might rush around the corner in a sudden charge...or something else again...

For my two games, I actually used the solo rules for cooperative play, by splitting a pool of 3 command points among 3 friendly players. It worked fine. 


SOME ASPECTS THAT STOOD OUT TO ME...

- Again, the gameplay feels very dynamic and tactical. You're always involved (dividing the force in 3 for co-op play weakened this aspect a bit, but not too much), and command points elegantly handle things like overwatch. Suppression is kind of handled by the fire effect tables (there's some small chance of returning fire, too). Gameplay is really fast. In our first game, we actually killed half the enemy force by the end of Turn 1, but the process felt engaging and meaningful (and then we started taking heat thereafter, anyway; it seemed a good sign of the game's tactical potential that one of my kids concluded we were too cocky after Turn 1). 

- modest range of ability levels and potential for lethality: you'll be running figures with d6/d8/d10 stats. That really amounts to "low, average, or high" ability scores - which is not a finely nuanced scale! The different weights definitely make a difference, but there isn't a tremendous discrepancy in power levels between your grunts and your dudes in power armor. Since in-game actions and choices offer ways to boost or lower the dice ratings, you'll regularly find that the lowest guys do have a real chance of threatening their top foes, and even elite troops can miss. This brings a more gritty, perhaps realistic flavor to the world of blasting evil space thugs. So, while this game looks a lot like a 40k-lite wunderkind, it evokes (for me) the kind of "Vietnam in Space" ethos of the original Rogue Trader. This isn't a great game if you insist on commanding unstoppable warrior dudes who reliably scoff at any hail of gunfire. Potentially, all it takes to kill your figures is one shot each, though you're also just as likely to pull off amazing lucky breaks under fire. 

- addictive Weirdo-gang construction: choosing and statting up new figures and gangs doesn't take a lot of effort, and you don't need many figures to play, so once you start working with these rules you also start daydreaming up new warbands. The Marine in Terminator armor and close combat claws, with a Teleporting ability, backed up a fireteam of tactical Space Marines? Check. My little squad of kitbashed armored tactical troops? Check. A patrol using my son's skitarii? Check. For another kiddo, the killer robot with his power-armored ally and their sharp-clawed, bug-eyed alien monster pet? Check, of course. They're Space Weirdos


ANY CRITIQUES?

Enough gushing, Gundobad! The game isn't perfect. I had some quibbles, though they are pretty easily handled.

- As written, the game doesn't clarify adequately the limits for activating Downed figures (they can't take any actions until they spend one to Get Up). The rules implied that, but I had to write to the author to confirm my understanding was correct (it was). Casey Garske's quite active on the game's Discord page, and getting an answer to the question was quick and painless. :-) 

- The solo rules' activation tables for enemies are great. Mostly. In our second game, I found that some of the entries really don't make sense; nobody in the "no LOS to a foe" column should be receiving an order to spend their turn blazing away at foes. These situations are easily fixed by a little judicious ruling on the spot (and in solo play, what's really at stake?) but it was irksome to have what looked like a well-oiled activation machine occasionally spit some of the oil back at me. 

- The game has a one-page summary sheet that is helpful and visually appealing. Unfortunately, it omits the short list of modifiers to Shoot/Fight rolls. They can be written down by hand on the side of the sheet, but...

- Climbing! "Climbing a terrain piece as tall or slightly taller than the model generally costs one action. Use your judgment." Although I applaud the empowering spirit here, vertical terrain adds so much to Necromunda-style games that I'd love to see a more defined stance here. At any rate, this too is easy to rule to your own taste. At our table, we just decided, somewhat permissively, that a figure can climb up to one-half-movement-stick in an action, so long as they can end on a flat surface that supports the model. 


The setup for one of our games. Lots of terrain and lots of stuff to climb over. Does it look like fantasy skirmish terrain? No no, silly, xenoarchaeologists have uncovered an old ruin and now space thugs are en route to claim the loot...but don't worry - the good guys are hidden, deployed behind the walls at left.


Wow, what a crippling and exhaustive list of critiques. Not really. To sum up, in fact, the main thing to critique is also one of the main things to praise: this is a nice, dynamic chassis that will get you down the road, while allowing and perhaps calling for whatever add-ons you want to hack in on top for your own purposes. 


SUMMARY AND FINAL RECOMMENDATION

Some games get labelled Beer & Pretzels gaming. To me, Space Weirdos fits in the category of "Beer & Pretzels, but with microbrewery beer and gourmet pretzels." It effectively evokes the experience provided by more complex game systems, in much less time; enjoyment of the game will likely depend on whether one wants a quick hit of that experience, or the full deal, with all the labors and time required. 

Therefore, I definitely recommend this - strongly - to a certain kind of gamer. 

WHO SHOULDN'T GET THIS? Gamers interested in a light game but with closer and more detailed adherence to a certain British company's IP may enjoy Grimdark Future more. Gamers desiring a complete and detailed simulationist toolkit won't find it here. Anyone wanting a 'tournament tight' way to challenge Bob in Accounting should look elsewhere. Those looking for extensive campaign development won't find it (or they'll need to borrow or make a fan-built version; I've seen one simple offering on Discord). Campaign-focused sci-fi gamers might check out Five Parsecs from Home or Stargrave instead. 

WHO WOULD ENJOY THIS? Gamers with a variety of figures, eager for narratively flexible action in sci-fi settings of their own imagining, will find a very useful basic toolkit here, for 5 bucks. Gamers who want decisive, quick-playing gameplay that demands meaningful decision-making throughout the game can pull in here. Anyone who wants the experience of tailoring their own warband and then trying it out in action without that process taking much time should like this. 

RECOMMENDED

Happy gaming. 


Monday, September 6, 2021

Are reddit self-promotion policies inadvertently hampering the creative RPG blog community?

[EDIT: I asked for discussion, and I got it! The conversation has helped me assess the points I made. I stand by my blogger's perspective-points (as have a number of you in commenting) but I can see too that our points are counter-balanced by equally valid concerns about spam that could have an even more negative effect on idea transmission. I'm noticing that many bloggers seem to be agreeing heartily whereas many primarily-redditors aren't. :-) There are places online in the hobby that I think are excessively restrictive for responsible bloggers, but at r/osr, the status quo is probably a workable balance/necessary evil between different pitfalls. So take my complaints with a grain of salt, but please also hear the bloggers' perspectives described here, too. Thanks, all, for weighing in, and thanks for supporting a healthy blogosphere, however you do.]

I seem to be snarky today. 

So, grain of salt, etc. All that follows is offered with constructive intent. I'm sort of on the fence about posting this at all. But...oops! 


One often hears that OSR blogging is not what it used to be (note a recent, popular r/osr thread listing numberous helpful blogs that have fallen silent or 'dead' over the years). Of course, many of us only started blogging in the few years since G+ went away...there might even be something of a blog resurgence going on in some quarters. That being said, I think most would agree blogs are important and useful for the health of the OSR community, and many would agree that blog culture isn't always easy to maintain, and could be stronger than it is today. 

In fact, blogs may be THE BEST place for long-form, sustained, deep consideration of creative ideas for our hobby (or, perhaps, tied or just behind published long-form games and resources in terms of their impact and usefulness). There is certainly an important place for short, snappy conversations about gaming questions on more fleeting social media, but blogs contribute something that shorter media just...won't. 

So, blogs matter, but many of us carry out much of our online rpg-community interaction these days on sites like Reddit or Discord (or MeWe or Discourse or...ahhh, gasp for air!!!!). Are those sites helping blogs stay creative and active, or not? Discord...look, I've had some great conversations there, but the thing is a total nightmare for asynchronous conversation. Someone might drop a really killer idea and then 7 hours later, when I wake up in my different time zone and idly check the boards, that idea has been submerged in an 87-comment string because someone else LOL'd on something else. Or if I picked that week to try to be a healthy person and not obsessively follow social media every four hours in Fear of Missing Out, it's essentially an entirely lost cause. 

So, Reddit...I may be wrong, but I believe that Reddit is the most active and rambunctious single site (off Discord) for advancing new OSR-related ideas. 

Now here's where I want to advance a contentious idea: 

I think r/osr's current self-promotion policies may be detrimental to blog culture, and therefore detrimental to the vitality of the entire OSR community. 

Before anyone takes my point as overly hostile, let me clarify that I don't think this reflects some failing among our r/osr moderators! In fact, the same issue affects other gaming subreddits, too. Frankly, this isn't an OSR issue at all; I think it's about the peculiar dynamics of subreddits in general. I also don't have any particular beef with the idea of regulating conversations or keeping microphone-hogging off the threads. But I do think there are some inadvertent, unintended negative consequences at work for the blogosphere.


WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT? SUB-REDDIT POLICIES

Two years ago, r/osr got a top-pinned post containing rules for self-promotion. Interestingly, the top-level stated intent was "so we [moderators] don't get overwhelmed by 'this is spam' alerts for things that aren't really spam." In other words, as I read this, the mods were getting bombarded with unnecessary, unjustified complaints about legitimate posts, to the extent that they articulated clearly what was acceptable, so complainers would leave them alone (and, of course, it is obviously helpful to have clear expectations to prevent any of us from actually abusing the system, too). 

IIRC, however, this new guidance didn't shut down complaints. I vaguely remember reading a commenter pointing to this new guidance while again complaining about behavior that was perfectly fine according to the guidance. 

The guidelines cover a lot of things (Kickstarter and product announcements, for example), but the piece I'm thinking of here now is the rule that one should only post their own blog content once per week. R/osr also now offers a dedicated blogroll for collecting/boosting blog posts. In a section below, I'll address why this might be hurting as much as it's helping. 

Again, I want to make this painfully clear: I've no beef with our mods. 

Mods, thanks very much for the work you put into such a fun and often helpful resource. 

My beef is with ... the unintended consequences of choices we're making to manage chaos together. My argument today is that the unintended consequence  = blog culture is hampered under the current system. 

Two hot-takes follow, one from my own point of view, and one quoting voices from a completely different RPG sub-reddit.


IMPACT: FROM A BLOGGER'S POINT OF VIEW 

Whew...at risk of sounding like a whiner, I just want to say that blogging sometimes feels like a lot of work alone in an echo chamber. 

Whaa, poor me. In my own experience, Reddit is very useful for getting people to engage with blog ideas. To talk turkey, there is something of a familiar cycle...if I make a dedicated post on a couple of relevant Reddit boards about a new blog piece, traffic to that blog post increases significantly, and every now and then it just explodes. This tells me that people are, in fact, finding what I have to say relevant and worth reading. But if I just drop a new blog post and trust in the blogrolls to advertise for me, things generally stay pretty quiet. 

So there's an obvious incentive for me to advertise my blog posts on Reddit. Yet, in the past year, I believe I've only announced 5 of 24 blog posts in top-level r/osr posts (to be clear, I've also mentioned some in comments, when they seemed on-point for existing discussions). Some of that's because I used the blogroll (but, again, see below), and some of that's because the content didn't seem particularly suitable to r/osr in particular (as opposed to some other RPG sub-reddit). But some of them, too, have been because I had advertised another blog post recently, or because I just didn't feel like counting up the days since my last posting, worrying about whether I was complying with the self-promotion policies, or what have you. 

But the real kicker, for me, is this: there have been times (including this morning) when I thought:

Me: hey, self, I've got some time available to write for the blog! And check out these cool ideas I have for some new blog posts!

Self: ok, sure. But cool your jets, pal; you can only advertise one of them this week. Better postpone the others.

Me: oh, yeah, thanks. Which ones should I delay? Boy, that's kinda discouraging. Um...just never mind. 

Given that blogging already too often feels like an echo chamber, it's a drag to feel that the audience tailor-made for each new blog post prefers those who write for them to make blog posts less visible (but more frequent! Always more frequent!). So sometimes I just postpone writing at all, and we all know how procrastination is a friend to creative writing, right? 

For example: I'd like to write a blog post today about the wonderful campaign send-off we finished last night, in which we used a mashup of Matrix gaming and FKR 'rules' to play out the domain-level multi-season conclusion to a mid-level campaign, which ended with two characters ruling their own kingdoms and the political map of Mystara re-drawn. Sure, I'd like to write that, but I've also been sitting for ages on ideas for a long-form piece about why Merovingian Francia (as opposed to later feudal societies) might offer an outstanding alternate template for a 'vanilla' D&D sandbox, but then again maybe I should type out a micro-setting illustrating that concept, blending some real Oldhammer fun with real late antique history; or, alternately, I could tell you more about the fun co-op swashbuckling skirmish rules that I might co-publish this coming year. I could, sure, but what really got my goat today was thinking about blog culture in general (thanks a lot, DwhizKhalifa!). So I wrote this. And that means that I can either just publish it and consign it to ignominy in the blogrolls, or I can promote this post via reddit, and delay all that other cool stuff for some other day when my time and inclination to blog have aligned once more. 

I guess they'll have to wait. 


IT'S NOT JUST AN OSR ISSUE

Part of the reason this is on my mind is that I just read a discussion of similar issues on r/DungeonWorld. They've got a top-pinned, 6-month-old post discussing new community rules. They initially banned memes, and then took that back after protest. But they also implemented a rule that blogs should only be posted to their subreddit once every 30 days. 

That led to some discussion. Jeremy Strandberg, one of the really prominent creatives in the Dungeon World-adjacent community today, pointed out (see link above) that:

I'm obviously biased, but I feel like links to blog posts--at least ones that are directly relevant to Dungeon World--are a different beast than links to Kickstarters, Storefronts, DrvieThru RPG pages, etc. If I'm posting something on my blog and sharing it here, it's a invitation for discussion, or a resource for folks to use, rather than shilling product.

A mod sort-of agreed, but argued that many blogs aren't inviting discussion. Huh. 

So, there was talk of creating a recurring monthly thread for people to discuss what they're up to (but apparently distinct from blog content?). Comments on that idea included these criticisms:

Except monthly threads like that tend to just die and have a ton of unanswered top level comments. It's basically just reinventing reddit, on reddit.

... 

I hate single threads. I can’t tell what is in the thread without digging through and I don’t know if I want to dig through with knowing what’s in it. I would rather scroll past individual posts on the main page than war through a single thread. All the single thread does in create the appearance of organization by hiding everything in the closet of a single thread. 

Reinventing reddit, on reddit. Hmm. I think there's something to that. I also think there's some parallel here to our practice at r/osr. Blogs are generally funneled toward the blogroll, which will either limit discussion (who wants a 14-thread response to a single blog in the middle of the community blogroll?) or STILL divert traffic away from Reddit. I realize that reddit communities shouldn't be super-keen on existing merely as a springboard to other websites, so the optimal reddit placement for a blog post should welcome discussion right there on reddit. But wouldn't the best way to interact with a blog post on reddit be a dedicated thread on reddit, that disrupts nobody who chooses not to click into that thread, while allowing the motivated to engage at length in related conversation?


SO WHAT MIGHT WE DO INSTEAD? 


So on the one hand, I feel there is a constant drumbeat of pressure from the community to blog more often (which is great, but bloggers have a lot of other things to do too). On the other hand, one can sense a subtle recurring message that sharing creative ideas on social media specifically dedicated to the games we're working with is somehow self-indulgent and insulting to other readers if we came up with those ideas ourselves. So what are we visiting reddit for, if we don't want to encounter other people's creative ideas? Is the problem self-promotion, or is the problem frequent promotion of ideas that aren't really contributing anything new to the RPG community? 

But, by flagging self-promotion as the tag that defines content that should be limited, what have we ended up with instead?

There are many, MANY useful threads on reddit. I've seen some really thought-provoking ideas and inspirational comments, pieces of art, and discussion there. Please take what I'm saying with a grain of salt; I seem to be in a snarky mood today. 

On the other hand...the more the blogs get squeezed out of the limelight, the more an average week on r/osr starts to fill up with repeat cycles of the following:

Folks, I'm new here. Does 'little brown books' mean the same thing as 'rules cyclopedia?'

Look, I took a photograph of the hardcover game I'm running/reading/found at a yard sale! 

If U don't luv BX moar than BECMI UR STOOOPID, lol [ok, maybe this one's rarer, but it shows up]

I'm running a Lvl 1 session for newbies in 13 minutes. Recommend a dungeon? Oh, TotSK? Thanks! 

There is a rightful place for every one of these. I've contributed to conversations just like those, and might again soon. Not too many years ago, I was the one needing clarification on what differentiated weird terms like Holmes, BX, BECMI, ODD, 1e, 2e, 3.5 etc. (I cut my teeth long ago on BECMI and 2e, but didn't really carry around that language). 

But, I can't understand why the door is wide open to things that aren't adding new depth to our conversations, while we build a hedge around the medium that regularly produces new ideas - blogs. 

So, let me end this rant with a hopefully constructive list of questions.

+ Am I missing something here? Why are redditors pushing blogs to the (functional) margins? Is there something we bloggers need to do better at?

+ Am I out to lunch? Fellow bloggers, does any of this match your experience/perspective? Or have I made Mt. Doom out of a Level 1 5-room dungeon? 

+ Should we consider revising self-promotion guidelines? Might we better distinguish between "self-promotion" and "promotion of ideas you came up with yourself"? Should, perhaps, we have policies *encouraging* blog discussion on reddit, but requiring such posts to invite and facilitate discussion right there on reddit? (As a blogger, I'd have no problem including a comment on my own blog post page with a link to an ongoing discussion on reddit). 

Thanks for hearing me out, and best wishes to all. And, really, thanks again to the mods; I don't envy their task. 

Happy Gaming, and - sure! - happy redditing! 



Thursday, July 22, 2021

REVIEW: Savage Worlds: Pathfinder (Part 2 of 2)

 Here's the second half of my review for Savage Worlds: Pathfinder

This follows on from my introductory comments, which you can find here, in part 1. As noted before, this review reflects running the game, not just reading it (gasp!). The game materials were provided as free .pdfs in exchange for a fair, thorough review here on the blog. 

Worth noting: as of early today, the July sale is on at DTRPG.com, and now you can get this game for a few bucks off: HERE for the Core Rules and HERE for the Bestiary (please note those, and any other DTRPG links below, are affiliate links - which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to you. Thanks!). 

Alright! Let's get this review out the gate. In today's post:

+ How does the game handle magic?

+ What else comes in the Core Rules?

+ How's the Bestiary?

+ What were my reflections after RUNNING the game?

+ How does SW: Pathfinder compare to other fantasy-genre SW products?

+ What are my overall thoughts? Final recommendation? 


HOW DOES THE GAME HANDLE MAGIC?

Quite nicely! 

First, there's lots of it. As the rules state (p. 167), "magic is everywhere in Savage Worlds: Pathfinder," as befits "the magically-charged world of Golarion." Of the 11 class archetypes offered for characters, only 3 don't have (or gain through advances) some sort of arcane or mystic powers (the 3 are Barbarians, Fighters, and Rogues). When you consider how easy multi-classing or extra arcane edges are to pick up over a character's career, you can expect plenty of fighty-sneaky characters to end up with some magic, anyway. 

So, magic is important. But how does it work? 

By my read, the game treats magic as narratively somewhat Vancian (mages squish spells into their brains through arcane study, but casting the spells exhausts the magic words from the caster's mind). Ok, fine...but in practice, mechanically, magic does NOT follow Vancian assumptions (which is music to my ears). I think I prefer this game's mechanics for magic to most iterations in D&D. 

You can get a bit of a deep-dive into the game's wizards here, but I'll offer a quick synopsis. Instead of a massive library of spells divided by class/archetype, there is a core group of Powers (about 60, I believe?). These are about as robust as a semi-grognard like myself might be used to in a lighter OSR ruleset, though of course it's peanuts compared to a full-fleshed magic system in one of the leading modern games. The beauty of SW: Pathfinder's system comes in the way the Powers get built out. 

See, that list of ca. 60 powers just offers some core templates, on top of which your players can build easily. 

Powers are modified, first by Trappings. What the game calls "Bolt" might stand-in for a traditional Magic Missile or Lightning Bolt; "Blast" could be Fireball, Prismatic Spray, or many others. When you first choose a Power, you assign it a default Trapping that fits your character's concept. So, my "Blast" might involve fire, but yours might involve a hailstorm of sharp ice fragments. On the one hand these just provide narrative color - until that color becomes meaningful. Are we fighting a troll? It's going to suffer more from my fire trapping, but your hailstorm damage will get regenerated. On the other hand, are we fighting some kind of fire-mephit? I'm probably out of luck. Each Power in the game comes with a small menu of optional, suggested Trappings, but the sky (and GM permission) is the limit (in our trial game, for example, a mage's spells allowed him to cause giant sticky goo-globs to burst out of the ground to entangle foes, whereas some other caster might have used accelerated-growth vines, ice, or who knows what for a similar effect). In short: Trappings offer customization and color, and they get out of the way completely until they are directly relevant. Well done. 

Second, Powers can be modified using a one-page menu of extensions and adjustments. Each caster has a pool of Power Points, which are expended to cast Powers (they recharge a little bit like hit points, except that this game has no hit points) ;-). You can spend extra Power Points to modify your Power on the fly at the moment you cast it. This includes things like adjusting the Trapping, expanding or limiting the normal scope, range, or duration of the spell, adding extra damage, adding armor-piercing to damage effects, etc. 

Finally, you can choose to cast more than one Power per turn (even the same Power - non-Vancian, remember!) so long as you have enough Power Points. In fact, you can even 'short' a spell, attempting to cast it under its normal cost, if you risk negative consequences should this fail (to be honest, the negative consequences are seriously tame - nothing like Dungeon Crawl Classic's failed magic results here!). You do have to 'ante up' 1 Power Point to attempt to cast a spell, which you'll lose even if you fail the attempt. 

In play, this all worked really nicely. Magic was a useful utility tool and a fun way to express a specific character, with reasonably minimal bookkeeping. 

The game also offers rules for crafting magic items - there's a short-term system, in which a caster 'deposits' some of their Power Points in an item, and a longer-term, slower system, for crafting in a way that doesn't burn through your Power. 

Thumbs up on the magic stuff. 


WHAT ELSE IS IN THE RULES?

There's a fair bit of other content. This is a pretty packed core rulebook. A few highlights:

+ Quick Encounters, Social Encounters, Mass Combat, Interludes, etc.: sections dealing with sub-systems for these. The Quick Encounters system offers (for example) a way to handle a random encounter along the road that might have minimally negative or positive consequences. Not the kind of thing you necessarily just want to hand-wave, but you don't necessarily want to spend half a session playing through these sideshows, either. This offers a little mini-game to sort them out. 'Interludes' offers a little mini-game for adding narrative depth to 'what we were all doing on that journey, or between sessions, or in downtime, etc.' Mass Combat is ALSO kind of a mini-game. It's a pretty decent system, though for some reason (I think based on comments on SW forums) I was expecting something a bit more integrated into the normal play procedures. Don't get me wrong - this mass combat system does reflect the core rules, and it allows players an integral role in shaping how battles go, without sacrificing a core emphasis on which side thrashes the other (the characters are important, but they support the army, not the other way 'round). All in all, these look like decent sub-systems. I didn't try them out in our playtest game. 

+ Some other cool combat elements: unlike the items just referenced, these aren't separate mini-games, but optional tweaks for the game's central rules. There's an intriguing random-roll tale for incapacitation effects (Injury Table, p. 126) when a hero gets taken out. Depending on how well you roll at this critical juncture, you might end up dead, you might be permanently scarred by one of these effects, or you might be debilitated by one until you've had time to heal. They're not pulling punches here, which delighted my evil old-school GM heart. Possible results include brain damage, "Guts - broken," "Guts - busted," "Guts - Battered" (each with different mechanical effects), or the most squirm-worthy: an injury to the "Unmentionables." There's ALSO a fun little table for 'creative combat.' No, we don't need a table of pre-generated results to be creative in combat, but these are some useful ways to spice things up. One of the game's key concepts in combat is the Support or Test roll - instead of making an attack, you do something narratively suitable to help a friend or distract/hinder a foe, and then roll to see whether you earned a mechanical benefit. This short table offers some colorful bonus effects for when a character pulls off a Support/Test roll. The intent, I think, is to encourage this kind of colorful and tactically nuanced behavior (and, aargh, I forgot to use this table during our playtest. But we did a bunch of Support rolls). Using this would make those characters who aren't great at fighting, per se, even more useful as they help their allies (and share a little bit more of the combat spotlight with them). It also adds to the dynamism of the combat system and its unexpected results. 

+ All the expected core manual stuff, of course - detailed gear lists, magic items, GM tips, etc. 

+ A mini-Bestiary: ok, so ... sigh. This mostly includes mundane animals and a few basic human types you might encounter. I understand that the base SWADE genre-neutral rulebook offers a very detailed Bestiary toolkit that lets you customize your own things. This isn't really doing that, at least not in any robust way. More to the point, there is a separate Bestiary volume. I am not really sure why this mini-mini-mini Bestiary is here, because it's not really adequate as a Bestiary. Just ... if you want this game, DON'T use this mini-Bestiary as a criterion for the game; you basically need the separate Bestiary

...well, if you want pre-made critters. There is a substantial list of special abilities here, and you can use them to put together your own monsters or convert existing ones from, say, Pathfinder (remember, in Savage Worlds, there's no HP, so you aren't crunching CR numbers and hit dice, you're deciding whether something is an Extra or a Wild Card, and then adding special abilities on top to suit the fiction and needed role for your adventure). 


WELL SHUCKS, SPEAKING OF ... HOW IS THE SEPARATE BESTIARY???

It works fine. For a separate purchase, you get a 132-page .pdf file with plenty of color art. The table of contents lists (I'm estimating) about 150 different monster entries, which doesn't include the various sub-entries as well. You get all the special abilities for monsters listed again (if I'm not mistaken, this time that content is just a little, little bit longer, suggesting that there might be a few new abilities wrapped into the Bestiary volume). 


Many monster entries include sub-entries for variants. In the picture above, the two centaur variants at the end of that creature's main entry show what a LESS-DETAILED variant would look like; other entries offer more detail for some critters' variants. 

I used several Bestiary monsters in prep (and a couple in play) for our playtest. The entries were fairly easy to run. The file is layered, so you can manipulate the .pdf to make it much more printer-friendly if you just want to print directly the pages you need. 

I only had a few quibbles with the Bestiary. I happened to notice that one of the Spectre's notes (on p. 112) refers instead to the Shadow, but I know PEG has been soliciting Errata on forums, and it wouldn't surprise me to see this tiny error vanish in a near-future update. The organizational choices didn't always agree with me; I first thought that the Bestiary lacked an entry for that classic,staple of D&D combats: the giant rat! It turns out that "Rat, Dire" is on p. 84, in the "Lycanthrope" section, as an adjunct to the "Wererat" entry - even though it isn't listed with other "Giant Animals" (pages 61-65), like the "Giant Stag Beetle," "Giant Leech," or "Giant Spider." On Ye Interwebs, there has been a little snarky howling that the Bestiary cover includes a Marilith ... but the book doesn't have an entry for that creature.

Ok, those quibbles aside, I found the Bestiary perfectly functional and a decent, probably even necessary resource for getting much play out of this game, unless you want to create/convert most monsters. If you DO want to do monster conversion, the Abilities described here and the attendant Size chart should let you sort through that without too much trouble. 


NOW TALK ABOUT RUNNING THE GAME!!!

I ran one quick combat scene with my kids, and then ran a proper full session with my adult gaming group. For that full session, I heavily expanded on a recent One-Page Dungeon contest entry (thanks, reddit user u/derekvanzarovich2 !!!), adding my own monsters, extra rooms and plot elements, etc. In my version, the PCs were sent to break up an assassination-and-abduction ring that had sway over a local governor. The bad guys ran a murder-for-hire racket with a deluxe option for customers: for an extra fee, they'd kidnap the victim, and make them fight to the death in an underground slave fight pen - while the person who paid to hire the 'hit' could come watch or even gamble on the outcome. The catch is that the ringleader was secretly a Doppelganger, who had magically gained the surprising cooperation of an undead serial-killer revenant, a Mohrg, making it willing to sometimes abduct victims to increase their net personal suffering as gladiator pit-slaves, instead of just killing them. Ok, weird premise, but it worked to pull a session together. The underground lair was under an abandoned abbey; the PCs were a paladin, a monk (battle nun!), and an elderly wizard (all with only 3 advances). They had the option of bluffing their way in as 'customers' for an evening fight at the ring, or staking the place out and trying to infiltrate it earlier. The players chose the latter option. 

Here is a shotgun-array of various impressions from different moments running the game.

+ Hindrances are awesome! SW: Pathfinder characters can take on a few of these drawbacks or vulnerabilities at character generation. As you Advance, you can buy them off, but I think I'd strongly advise AGAINST getting rid of hindrances - they're that useful for the story and characterization! Don't use that knife! Hindrances. Our three characters included a martial Paladin who is literally afraid of the dark (Phobia: Minor), which meant that he had to muster his courage and face his own fears before going off to smite real foes in the darkness. The wizard had the "elderly" hindrance, with its attending penalties to many physical actions. The monk had taken vows never to touch money (thanks, St. Francis of Assisi!) and never to wield a weapon. Why were these useful? Well, for one thing, they immediately reveal interesting sides of these 'archetypal' characters. Moreover, these problems became directly relevant in play ... which meant that they helped earn the players new BENNIES (basically re-roll tokens on steroids). 
    For example: the heroes found the outline of a secret door in the ruined abbey, but the door obviously opened outward, and had no handle facing them. They tried to pry it open. The wizard used a dagger as a crowbar. The quite strong monk offered to help the weak wizard with a Support roll ... Now, why wasn't the quite able Monk the one attempting to pry open the door? Because she had taken a vow never to wield a weapon, and was therefore unwilling to use a dagger, even as a tool for ingress. So she just tried to tug at the door with her bare fingertips (penalty on the Support roll). Unsurprisingly, she failed to Support her ally adequately. Making things worse, the wizard rolled a critical fail (double 1s) on his roll to pry open the door ... so his dagger snapped. A bitter argument ensued between the characters (just in roleplay...the players are married to each other quite happily) :-). That was a bit of small drama mid-game that perfectly fit the characters but wouldn't have happened without their Hindrances - and the Bennies-for-hindrances system actively rewarded them for playing into it. 

+ "Can I use Stealth to climb down the well?" "No, you can't. You can use a rope to climb down the well. I'll tell you if you need to roll for anything." After failing to enter through the secret door, the players instead descended an old well-shaft. Just before, the conversation above occurred between a player and me. I noticed a recurring temptation for a player to see MECHANICAL SKILLS as the answer to in-game problems, rather than imaginative thinking about the fictional situation being described in-game. This is a problem (well, I see it as a problem) that I usually push against actively when running games. Here, again, you can see an artifact of my old-school/rules-light style of running games. 
    That being said, I was chatting with a local friend who GMs 5e games, and we agreed that this could just be a symptom of a player adjusting to a new, unfamiliar ruleset. I think that with further play, a GM could wean players of SW: Pathfinder away from seeing the Skills list as the actions menu, but a game like this, with Skills and Edges up-front, may require care if that is an approach you want players to avoid. 

+ Yes, the dice will explode! As I noted in Part 1, Savage Worlds uses exploding dice (a 6 on d6 is kept and re-rolled, over and over again if you keep rolling the max #, so you can potentially roll a very high number on a low die). Some of the most memorable moments in our game involved exploding dice. First, the monk blew a Stealth check out of the water via exploding dice (yeah, that time I did call for the Stealth roll!). Faced with a really spectacular success, I allowed the player character to accomplish quite a lot of active infiltration around several corners while 'riding the high' of that one roll. Later, the same player rolled a melee attack against the villain, and ... exploded a d8 with 3 rolls of 8 in a row. JAW DROP. I think the mathematical odds of that happening are 1:512! Well, it happened. This gave a result that was technically enough to earn 10 Wounds against the BBEG in a single hit. Now, the game actually says that no single attack can cause more than 4 Wounds, so this is capped. Even with that cap, this was enough to kill off the villain in a single hit. But...

+ To soak, or not to soak? The GM gets a few Bennies too, and 'wild card' (significant/powerful) NPCs have their own mini-pool as well. This allows the GM to roll to 'soak' (basically, nullify) Wounds for a BBEG, just like a player with Bennies can for their PC. Well, I've seen recommendations online that GMs should use their Bennies to re-roll missed hits, etc., etc., doing what they can to keep up pressure on the PCs, but NOT pay Bennies to Soak Wounds - in order to prevent fights from dragging on forever. In light of that recommendation, and because our spunky monk had just dished out UBERDAMAGE on the villain, I faced a little dilemma. At that moment, I had about 5 Bennie tokens available to spend on the villain's behalf. 
    I decided to soak just enough to leave the villain standing, but unable to take more than one further hit (the monk hit him again when he tried to run away, and killed him). 
    All good, and pretty easy to adjudicate, but this did leave room for a lot of subjective interpretation of the best strategy to take as GM. That's probably a net positive, in the end - had this been earlier in the session (if the PCs had made it initially through the secret door and dropped right into the villain's bedroom, for example), then I probably would have Soak, Soak, Soaked away. 

+ More on Bennies...I was apprehensive, before our game, about the Bennies economy. Would I give out enough? Would I be too stingy? Bennies are often described as the real currency driving the action in a Savage Worlds game. I think I agree. Again, this is something that will reward GMs who want to keep a finger on a game's pulse and adapt to changing situations, but it might frustrate GMs who only want a really by-the-book, rigid way to run. In my case, I found that the Benny economy just kind of fell into place in the game, though (as noted above) this was a lot easier because of the Hindrances. 

+ Multi-action turns are sweet - PCs can push beyond their normal action limit, performing up to three actions per turn if they accept dice penalties to ALL rolled actions that turn. This opens the door to some pretty frantic action now and then. Right after our elderly flubbed an Athletics roll to jump over a pressure plate (when I say 'flubbed,' I mean 'rolled a critical failure'), he face-planted right onto the pressure-plate, opening a hidden cabinet with a vicious undead killer waiting inside. Melee time! As the other two players got busy fighting, the wizard pulled off a really sweet 3-action turn...he successfully rolled to cast a spell weakening the monster, then successfully rolled to cast a spell that damaged the monster, and then he calmly stood back up. Nice turn, but good thing he made those rolls. 

+ Player reflections - we did a little debrief at session's end. Overall, all three players said they enjoyed playing SW: Pathfinder, and expressed interest in trying it again (with more advanced characters next time). One thing that really struck me about their comments was how they echoed a lot of the overall vision (hype?) for Savage Worlds: fast, furious, fun ... my players really felt that this is a game system for pulpy, unpredictable action. Memorably, one player said, "I feel like if we wanted to run a 'space cowboys' kind of game, this would be perfect for it." The flipside, of course, is that they weren't sure this is ideal for a more subdued, deliberate kind of play. 
    They commented on the importance of exploding dice and swingy results. "Because you can't really predict how things will turn out," one player said, "you kind of just have to 'go for it' with your actions, and see what happens."

I'll come back to those reflections in my final wrap-up below. But first: 


HOW DOES SW: PATHFINDER COMPARE TO OTHER FANTASY SW OPTIONS?

Note that I haven't played the other options described below, I've just read a bit about them. 

When you dive into SW: Pathfinder, you aren't just choosing to play fantasy Savage Worlds; you're choosing one particular approach to fantasy in Savage Worlds. The core SWADE system is, again, genre-neutral (aside from that general suitability for big, pulpy action), and is designed explicitly for customization to whatever type of game you're running at the moment. There is a Fantasy Companion that offers genre-specific options, but 1) the current one dates back to the edition before SWADE, and 2) PEG is at work right now on a follow-up Fantasy Companion for the new edition. Additionally, there are several setting-and-game packages for running fantasy SW of different flavors ... to cite some leading examples:

+ Beasts & Barbarians - Conan-esque sword-and-sorcery, heavy on the loincloth art. 

+ Gold & Glory - tips and tweaks for running old-school-flavored dungeon-crawls in SW

+ Tyrnador - a high fantasy setting and campaign, tonally somewhere between Mystara and Dragonlance.

I can't speak to those others, but the point should be clear: again, SW: Pathfinder offers a specific kind of fantasy for Savage Worlds. Relatively high fantasy; class-based archetypes dominate; magic items are plentiful (though I'll say 'when you want them' - you don't really need to load your characters up with them in this the way you might in normal Pathfinder). And, to put it frankly, it's mid-edition D&D as Savage Worlds, with all the pros and cons that might entail in your mind. 


FINAL THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

So where does all that leave us? Is this a good product? Who will most appreciate it? 

In short, I think this is a very good game, with a growing list of resources (PEG is at work on a bunch of things from the Kickstarter that are pending release, apparently soon!). 

The catch is that this may or may not be the right game for you, or for this moment

If you don't want to play a game that puts classes front-and-center (though they can be tweaked easily), don't get this. 

If you don't want a high fantasy, D&D-style system, don't get this. 

If you don't want a game that will surprise you frequently with BIG plays by heroes and villains alike, don't get this. 

And the flip side:

If you want a game that feels like 3-ish ed. D&D but is much simpler, check this out. For that matter, if you actually want to play some Pathfinder material, but you want to finish a combat before real-world humankind achieves insterstellar flight, try this out. 

If you want D&D classes front-and-center, but you'd like easy room for fast character customization, this is a great option.

If you want to run something that fits a dynamic, pulpy style, this is a great fit (I've seen comments online that some prefer running D&D's fantasy pulp setting, Eberron, in Savage Worlds instead of D&D!). 

If you like having competent characters who have cool abilities, check this out. SW: Pathfinder produces characters who are marginally more competent than regular SWADE characters, but it doesn't require you to produce 'superheroic' characters (unless you're trying to). 

In fact, I think that if you really want to 'play D&D' but in the Savage Worlds 'fast, furious, fun' style, and if you'd like to take solid resources off the shelf and not have to invent everything yourself, then you're likely better off with SW: Pathfinder than with other SW fantasy options, or even with SWADE. If you prioritize your own content customization or other approaches to fantasy, look afield. 

Finally, for myself? 

There is some chance this will become my next ongoing campaign system, though it faces steep competition. The fact that this one system builds player familiarity with simple rules for many genres is a big plus, since we switch stories and even systems...oftener than I'd care to admit. :-) 

When I want to run something 'fast, furious, fun,' I will probably still reach first for Dungeon World or another light game, especially for one-shots, but will reach for this instead if I want that dynamism with more mechanical crunch. 

And, surprisingly, this might fill in on those rare occasions when I feel like busting out 4th edition D&D for some precise fantasy skirmish boardgaming, because underneath everything, Savage Worlds remains an evolution from a skirmish wargame, perfectly capable of running gridded movement, counting squares, etc. But by avoiding the hamster-wheel of slow hit point ablation, and by dropping a lot of unnecessary administrative encumbrance, SW: Pathfinder makes possible that kind of fantasy battle, with unique and memorable characters and foes - but fast. And, yep, furious. And fun. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

[REVIEW] Savage Worlds: Pathfinder - a Rules-Light GM's Perspective (Part One)

Not too long ago I had one of those "wait...what?" moments, as my DTRPG.com feed showed an unexpected but intriguing new product: the Savage Worlds: Pathfinder core ruleset. 



I was only familiar with each of those systems from a distance, but I knew enough to find the mixture surprising. That being said ... my ongoing Iron-Age Mystara campaign has just wrapped up a long trek across the Isle of Dread, using an OSR-influenced hack of PbtA rules like Freebooters on the Frontier, Dungeon World, etc. ... and as we consider the possibility of continuing our main campaign with higher-level characters, I'm pondering whether an alternate system might be better for handling such advanced-level play. And so, as I thought about various options, I wondered about Savage Worlds...and the new kid on the block, Savage Worlds: Pathfinder

So I asked the folks at the Savage Worlds subreddit whether this, or 'generic' Savage Worlds (the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, or SWADE) would best suit me. They stressed SWADE's flexibility, and I initially leaned toward that. But ... but... SW: Pathfinder just looked so neat and shiny, and - as I'll discuss below - it really did offer some interesting bennies (that's a Savage Worlds in-joke, yo). I wrote to the folks at Pinnacle Entertainment Group (PEG), and they kindly agreed to send free review materials (core book, bestiary, and some other accessories in digital form) in exchange for a fair, thorough review here. Et voici

Although this product is pretty new, I'm sure the interwebs will soon be awash in discussions of this ruleset. This particular review should offer two more specialized contributions. First, I was able to get a group together to try this game in action, so I can talk about how the game plays, not just how it reads. Second, as regular readers of my blog know, I dabble in a lot of different game systems, but I tend to favor running quite light systems that rely on GM rulings over 'crunch' (in the early years of grad school for ancient history, as my day-job routine came to involve excruciating amounts of analytical activity, my gaming tastes rapidly turned away from highly complex rulesets). But every rule is made for its exceptions, right? I also enjoy running the occasional skirmish encounter in 4e D&D (played as tactical wargame rather than story-telling RPG). So I can hang with the big dogs when needed! Most of the time, though, I'm running OSR, PbtA, narrative, or even free-form games. 

So ... what does a rules-light GM like me think of this new SW: Pathfinder ruleset? Does it have anything to offer in my world? Short answer: yep, and my players want to play it again! Long answer: please read on! 


WHAT'S THE ACTUAL PRODUCT, HERE?

I'm reviewing a 260-page .pdf of the Core Rules. The file is large (a bit slow to open), but works fine once open. It's bookmarked, indexed with hyperlinks, and has layers, so you can make it more printer-friendly. With the layers visible, the book is visually appealing and extensively illustrated (with existing Pathfinder artwork, as far as I can tell). Printed copies will be available. Currently, you can buy the .pdf rules from PEG, or on DTRPG.com. It costs USD $24.99 for the .pdf, which - let's be honest - will give some customers sticker shock. Whether it's worth it is part of what I'll be reviewing, of course! (Advance notice: I do think the cost is a real issue, but I am going to offer an overall positive verdict on these rules). The Bestiary is a separate volume, available in .pdf for USD $14.99

[NOTE: links to DTRPG.com in this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to customers. Thank you for any support!]. 


SO, WHAT HATH ATHENS TO DO WITH JERUSALEM? AND WHAT HATH SAVAGE WORLDS TO DO WITH PATHFINDER

Guilty confession: Pathfinder was sort of responsible for my adult re-entry to the RPG hobby. Well, actually, it was the Wayne Reynolds art that drew me in;  reading up on the actual game system turned me off really quickly (so I went and discovered Dungeon World instead, and then later found OSR games; the rest is history...)! Pathfinder, by Paizo, is actually an adapted version of old 3.5 edition D&D, and was long the giant behemoth dominating the RPG industry (until WotC clawed their way back on top, I believe, with 5e). Anyway. As a game, Pathfinder itself (not the SW: Pathfinder under review here) is profoundly crunchy, offering a simulationist focus and enormous scope for character customization ... at a cost of wildly bloated rules and a character-generation process that takes more time than carving the Grand Canyon or naturalizing as a citizen of a new country. 

The game's default setting is the kitchen-sink fantasy world of Golarion. In my understanding, Golarion (compared to, say, WotC's Forgotten Realms) offers a wide-open canvas for whatever kind of adventure you want to run, tinged by elements of both mundane and cosmic horror, in which player characters - i.e., NOT ELMINSTER!!! - can decide the fate of nations. All that being said, Paizo's "adventure path" campaign super-modules offer interesting premises, but they take heat (in my parts of the internet) for tendencies toward railroady narratives and filler fights that serve no purpose beyond grinding for XP (they also get some love, if under severe constraints). 

Savage Worlds was released back in 2003, building on earlier foundations. That date is worth noting: SW's motto is "Fast! Furious! Fun!" but the median game complexity back in 2003 was a lot higher than is the case today. The SWADE edition is a much more recent update, and the game certainly still produces "fast, furious, fun" play right now in 2021, but it isn't rules-light by modern standards; it's a more complex and 'crunchy' game than the lighter end of the spectrum, even if it's light-years more simple, still, than Pathfinder. If you want a quick intro to the rules concepts across SW, I'm not going to re-invent the wheel here: just go read this two-page comic-strip summary. Boom. That being said, the game has some significant differences from any version of D&D, differences that involve more than just a sliding scale of complexity. Some of these differences were summed up very nicely in a recent text interview with the design team behind SW: Pathfinder. One of the most notable differences is that characters have no Hit Points. "Wild Cards" - PCs and the most significant NPCs - can take 3 wounds before they're incapacitated; most 'extras' can only take 1 before being knocked out of action. Dice used in combat and task resolution may also explode, which means that you can get some very unpredictable, but easy-to-administer, outcomes during combat. In effect it means that a bandit with a short sword is still, potentially, a threat to a high-leveled character (I really like that! I hate the 'that peasant aiming at my face can only do 6 hp damage, so who cares...' phenomenon that often pops up in D&D). Overall, I'd say that Savage Worlds offers more precision, crunch, customization, and explicit tactical options than the lighter games I tend to play, but without too high a cost; it also offers a much looser, more flexible, and more dynamic approach than the big crunchy games. The game is often hailed as a great choice for pulpy, swashbuckling games with big action. [Interestingly, I've seen several comments in forums from people who consider Savage Worlds a superior system to D&D for adventures set in Eberron, WotC's pulp-noir fantasy setting].  After our playtest, my players agreed that the game is a great fit for that pulpy playstyle. 

So, the idea with SW: Pathfinder was apparently to make it easier to run Pathfinder adventure paths using the SW rules framework. Personally, I don't have a ton of interest in running those APs...but I am very interested in new ways to play D&D that don't over-burden the GM, but offer a bit more rules content for players to engage with. And this is definitely a full, coherent ruleset. After reading the rules and running this game, my initial take is quite positive. In various online forums of yesteryear, many Savage Worlds fans have recommended against shifting D&D veterans to a fantasy game on your first outing with Savage Worlds, since they say going in with expectations shaped by D&D can lead to trouble. Well, no more...this version of the SWADE toolkit is designed explicitly, from the ground up, to evoke a mid-edition D&D 'feel' without the associated simulationist baggage. That's a real plus in my book. Reading and running SW: Pathfinder, I keep feeling reminded, oddly enough, of a modernized, streamlined AD&D - a big expanded toolkit ready to support you with a million little special rules (that nobody fully utilizes all at once), but perfectly capable of collapsing smoothly down to the very basics when you don't want all that cruft to get in the way. 

Hmm, I guess that was a bit of a TL;DR already! Lots more though ... in what follows, I'll more closely address some aspects of the game that stood out to me. 


Art from the Core Rulebook (this one by Wayne Reynolds, I believe). I'm not crazy about ALL the art in the book, but some pieces - like this one - really make me want to go run a game right now. The Savage Worlds ruleset is a good fit for this sort of small-party-vs.-hordes-of-thugs action!


MAKING CHARACTERS

Character generation uses a point-buy process for Traits (Attributes and Skills) supplemented by Edges (like Traits) and Hindrances (which may have mechanical effects, and can also earn you bennies, or re-roll tokens, when your hindrance makes life rough for you). SW:PF lets you build the kind of characters you'd expect in a mid-edition D&D game: humans and the leading 'demi-human' ancestries are present (dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings). You also get (as a free Edge) one of eleven archetypal classes (barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, or wizard). It sounds like PEG may more of the other Pathfinder classes in future, too. You aren't FORCED to play one of these classes, actually - if you really want a fully customized character, you can get a bonus Background or Professional Edge in lieu of a Class - but the archetypal classes are really one of the important things this version of Savage Worlds contributes. Don't think, however, that you are being pigeonholed into a narrow archetypal box. It's also really easy to get a couple of other Edges, which means that your free Class Edge isn't cutting too much into your personalization options. You've got room here to min/max toward a special design vision, but it's quite easy instead to make characters who feel unique and colorful. For example, when designing sample characters, I whipped up a Paladin on the run from powerful enemies, who has the Streetwise Edge thanks to a life hiding in the shadows (so, Batman, kinda...). In the game I ran last weekend, one player ran another Paladin who is literally afraid of the dark (a phobia Hindrance), who had to challenge his fear of unlit environments in order to go destroy the evil within them (using his cool Paladin Edge abilities). You could make a Barbarian who happens to be something of a scholar, etc. Character design feels very customizable, without too much work. 

Every few Advances, you're going to go up in Rank (from Novice to Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, and then Legendary). Most of these Rank advances grant a new little package of powers to each Class archetype. This means that over a PC's career they will keep getting more powerful in their chosen archetype (duh!) while still having tons of room during most of the advances between Ranks to round out the particular, i.e. 'non-archetypal', vision the player has for this character (like boosting skills, buying a new Edge, removing a Hindrance, etc. - though I find many of the Hindrances quite helpful for play, ironically, and might discourage players from dropping them). 

I found that designing a new character from scratch currently takes me about 20 minutes. That's longer than I'd like, but not too long. I think that greater system familiarity would speed this up quite a bit. Additionally, the game comes with a sample 'iconic' character for each Class archetype, showing a suggested advancement scheme for their full career. That means that if you just want to play NOW and you aren't worried about customization, you can pick an archetype, pick a number of Advances/Rank, print, and go (PEG has also released some archetype cards with further options for quick character pregens). Each class archetype takes up just 1 page of the rules, plus 1 more page for the sample character (with a few, justifiable, exceptions, like extra information on sorcerer backgrounds). 

How about those class designs, anyway? 

Each of the Class Edges offers a compact, evocative distillation of a D&D class vision, emphasizing cool stuff you can do in-game, without a lot of needless chaff to clog it up. Let's talk about the classes that made me sit up and take notice ... usually, but not always, in a positive way. 

BARBARIANS are fast, hit hard, and rage. If things go poorly, they might hit their friends by mistake, or run out of steam prematurely. A solid combat build; certainly a functional and evocative design that fits current tropes. That being said, I'm glad SW:PF makes it easy to round out a character with extra flavor through other Edges. 

BARDS gain power points, the way Clerics and Wizards do, (more on that, later) along with 3 starting powers -- but they choose from a more limited menu of powers. Upon advancing a little, they gain 'inspiration tokens' that grant re-rolls to friends and allies in a fight. The Bard seems like a flavorful but mostly combat-centered class, albeit one that favors a supporting role. 

CLERICS: They all get Healing for free, and then choose other powers from a limited menu supplemented by a chosen Domain. Note that in Savage Worlds, you don't really need to have a cleric or designated healer to the extent that you do in most D&D games - you can spend Bennies to try to Soak/prevent Wounds in combat. Letting EVERY cleric get Healing for free is a nice boon on top of this, but clerics also retain good room for customization beyond being the 'adventure ambulance.' 

FIGHTERS: Hmmm. Hmmm. I really like Fighters, usually, but I had a very bittersweet reaction to this Class. The Fighter's base ability lets them activate any one of the Combat Edges in an encounter, even if the Fighter doesn't have that as one of their assigned edges. In other words, the Fighter has full access to the game's menu of Combat Edges ... that's a 4-page menu! (about 1.5 pages in the abbreviated summary list). This means that a Fighter is really good at adapting on the fly to each new encounter's tactical situation, better than any other kind of character at having just the right trick available to excel in combat. The downside is that this calls for extensive player system-mastery (did I mention '4-page menu'?). It only happens once per encounter, but I imagine this could lead to players spending most of an encounter delaying their choice, thumbing through the list looking for juuuuuust the right Edge to employ...If this were a boardgame, I would love, love, love this design choice. However, in RPGs, I (personally) am firmly in that school that encourages players to think about the fictional reality emerging in play MORE than the list of mechanical options available. This is kind of a staple of OSR approaches to gaming, spawning the dictum, "the answer isn't on your character sheet." What I'd really value would be a Fighter that enables cool combat maneuvers and makes characters really good at them ... without requiring that character's player to break narrative immersion in order to thumb through pages of rules options. Not saying it's a bad choice, but it's the one choice that most disappointed my own play-style preferences. 

I'll note, though, that Savage Worlds lets you custom-build Fighters on your own, already. If I run any Fighters, I may just offer them an extra 2 (or even 3?) Combat Edges instead of the book's base ability. 

PALADINS look really fun to play and aren't complicated. They are good at identifying whether someone/something is evil, they are good at smiting things that are evil, and they can encourage their friends when they face fear (at higher levels, they gain a loyal steed, mystic powers, etc.). One of my players ran a paladin in our trial game and seemed to have fun. As noted above, customizable Edges make it easy to escape the cardboard-cutout stereotypes typical of many paladins in simpler systems - if you want to. 

RANGERS are likewise cool and straightforward. Notably, they aren't primarily wilderness warriors; they're hunters and stalkers of *some* specific environment. They pick a favored enemy from a list of 13 broad categories (like 'undead' or 'humanoid' or 'aberration,' so you don't have to worry about those 'Oh no, I hate orcs but not hobgoblin' moments). Fighting a favored enemy, the Ranger gets a free reroll on combat attacks; fighting on favored terrain, the Ranger gets an extra initiative card (Savage Worlds uses cards dealt each round to determine initiative order, and some abilities/edges key into these cards). I will confess that I wasn't sure whether this extra card grants an extra activation, or just another chance to go earlier in the round. Like Paladins and several other classes, Rangers end up with a limited range of mystic powers once they've advanced a few times. Here is the note I made to myself upon initially studying the Ranger archetype's advancement benefits: "The advancement structure here remains quite simple, but really tracks a progression not unlike that of a classic OSR or 1e D&D character - but maybe feels even simpler. Or maybe simple isn't the right word...it's more focused on stuff that's actually cool."

ROGUES have a dirt-simple base ability: extra chance to cause Wounds on sneak attacks (Ye Olde Backstab). Later advances involve Notice rolls for spotting traps, and then it's all Agility, Agility, Agility, for dodging Area of Effect attacks or making better opportunity attacks against retreating foes. The SW:PF Rogue struck me as a bit flat as a starting character, but later in the advancement they look more like a balanced 4e D&D Slayer Rogue.

SORCERERS and WIZARDS look really fun! Sorcerers have fewer powers but more Power Points; Wizards, the opposite (so, depth vs. breadth). Wizards can be generalists or specialists, and there are simple rules for familiars and bonded magic objects, like a wizard's staff, which grant a +1 to spellcasting attempts. The player who ran in a wizard in our playtest had a good time. 

MULTI-CLASSING looks really easy, at least on paper! IIRC, you can take another class Edge once per Rank (not once per Advance). I've seen on forums, however, that this can cause some issues with conflicting class Armor restrictions in weird, unexpected ways. 


PLEASE STAY TUNED FOR MORE...

This is a sizeable book, and it's giving me plenty to say. I'm going to break this into a couple of posts, rather than try readers' patience too much at once. I'll aim to have the rest of the review up within the next week, or sooner. 

Still to come: 

+ How does the game handle Magic? (It's pretty cool!)

+ What else is in the Core Rules?

+ How's the Bestiary?

+ What were my reflections after RUNNING the game? What feedback did my players offer?

+ How does SW: Pathfinder compare to other Savage Worlds fantasy options? 

+ What are my overall thoughts and final recommendations? 


MEANWHILE...if you have questions based on what I've written so far, or if I need to clarify anything, comment away! 

Happy gaming.