Friday, May 28, 2010

Eldritch Role-Playing System: Where Defense Pools Matter

Until I wandered into my local gaming store the other day (Gary's Games in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle) I had never heard of Eldritch Role-Playing System (ERP) by Dan Cross and Randall Petras.  This surprises me somewhat because it was published by Goodman Games, a company I've been aware of for a while, at a time, 2008, when I was starting to pay attention to current RPGs.  But, alas, no one I'm aware of--admittedly, a very small crowd--has made any mention of it.  So what compelled me to buy it?  Mostly it was the price; at $19.99, it was cheaper than virtually every other gaming implement of similar size and quality.

What follows is more of an overview than a review; the difference being,  in my mind, that there won't be a lot of delving into game themes or a reflection on why the system supports one type of gaming or another; I'm just not smart enough to pull that stuff off very well.  Plus, I haven't played it.  This is just a summary of a few of the more predominant game devices and overall content.  Now let's have at it.

First Impressions:

It's a slender (96 pp.), softcover volume with cover art supplied by cut-rate rpg illustrator Peter Bradley.  In fact, combined with its mottled beige border, the artwork could easily give inattentive bookstore browsers the impression that they are holding a Castles & Crusades supplement.  I'm not a huge fan of Bradley's work, at least not in the context of the fantasy rpg genre.  His illustrations have a removed, contemplative quality better suited, I think, to a classic comics version of Wuthering Heights or some other brooding psycho-drama.  Even the wyverns tearing at the knight's armor on the C&C PHB give the impression that they have something else weighing heavily on their minds.  [Note: On the ERP cover, is that bard off to the side the Scottish James Hetfield?]

The interior art is provided by Eric Bergeron. My impression of his work is that he found a really awesome set of well-endowed action figures--BBW fans need to check out the bikini-clad ogress on page 63--photographed them against some cool backgrounds, and slapped a few Photoshop filters on 'em.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but if you're looking for clean, bold, line drawings a la Trampier, you won't find 'em here. But this game makes no pretense at Olde Schoolatry, and Bergeron's art does an adequate job of brightening up the pages. 

To demonstrate ERP's New Schooledness, there's a character sheet in the back* that's 7 (seven!) freakin' pages long--I get the sense that despite the brevity of this tome, this is not going to be a "rules lite" game.  I see some terms that beg to be acronymized ("Active Defense Pool"), some acronyms that need some explaining ("MRV"), and 4 different kinds of experience points: Victory Pts, Role Playing Pts, Excess Pts, and Character points.  Other things gleaned from the character sheet: there are lots of skills listed--can you say skillz based system?--and there are no attributes in the Old School sense--no Str, Int, Wis, etc. [but then if you can find me a game besides D&D and its progeny that uses the Wisdom attribute/ability, I will buy you a steak dinner**].

* I also tend to read rulebooks (and magazines) from back to front. 
** Does not include travel or housing expenses. 

The index does not even fill 2 pages.  For an rpg, I think this is a bit too slight too get the job done; we'll see.

Thankfully, there is none of that tedious background/border art crap on every page that virtually every game book finds mandatory to include nowadays.  How much cheaper would these $40 rule books be if they weren't wasting so much ink on a halftone background print of a dragon's hoard plus a border etching of buxom mermaids on every g*ddamn friggin' page?  Probably only negligibly cheaper, I suppose; but in my cantankerous old guy opinion, they just add noise to the page and I refuse to spend money on such over-wrought texts.

The Basics:

You've got the standard menagerie of AD&D character races, nothing new about them.  There are 3 major "occupations"--Fighter, Rogue, and Arcanist--each occupation offering several sub-categories (11 fighter subclasses include your paladin et al. but also samurai, mystic warrior, and Calvary [sic]*) that represent a different bundle o' skills.  That's where you'll find clerics and druids, as 2 of the optional sub categories of arcanist.  Each occupation is discerned by its "basic abilities," "specializations," and "masteries" which are generally more and more refined skill sets.  For instance, Gladiators have Melee as a basic ability, Exotic Weapons as a specialization and Net as a mastery.  This linked set of abilities is, I believe, called an ability tree, and would allow the character the chance to roll 3 dice when using his net in melee.  I could be wrong about this though. 

* This is the third time in recent weeks that I've seen the word Calvary used instead of cavalry.  Just to see if they're at least consistent in their (mis)usage I checked the index: no mention of either one.  Or Golgotha.

There are no fixed attributes but, rather, all your attributes and skills are lumped into the same Universal Gaming Mechanism.   Basically, you start out with "average" abilities in everything from agility to animal husbandry with some adjustments depending on your race.  You use character points to buy-up a few abilities to better than average: "respectable," "good," "great,"  and "superb" are the superlatives of choice.  As you improve you get to roll bigger dice, starting with d4 at average  until you reach d12 at superb, which is the pinnacle of human mastery.  These dice are thrown against whatever dice the GM deems significant to determine whether you achieve success.  So if you have, say, "good" stealth ability and you're trying to be stealthy in an "easy" situation, you roll a d6 against the GM's d4.  A "moderate task" gets 2d4 and "difficult" gets 2d6 etc., until your d6 seems pretty puny.  

Character Generation As I mentioned earlier, it's a point-buy system where you pay for your race and some advanced abilities.  Unlike a lot of games, there is no price break for buying a human--they have advantages for which you must pay as well.  The process is broken into 5 steps:
  1. Choose race, advantages & disadvantages, 
  2. Choose abilities & occupational path;  
  3. Calculate defense pools; 
  4. Determine character concept, and 
  5. Pick equipment.  
Pretty straight forward stuff, except number 3 definitely caught me off guard.  Is it really that vital that your "defense pools"--whatever they may be--need to be calculated before you develop your character concept?  Especially considering that over at the Goodman Games website, the tag line for their ERP line of products reads "Character concept is king!"  According to this outline, a more apt rank of nobility might be "Viscount" or "Marquise."  Seriously, if you've waited until after you've already chosen your race, abilities, and occupational path to determine your character concept then what was guiding all those decisions?  Your Passive Defense Pools?  Sheesh.

It's also not immediately obvious how one is supposed to "buy" one's occupational path and requisite abilities, specialties and masteries--you won't learn how to do this until you read the next chapter.  Fortunately, there's a narrative of a sample character creation session provided in sidebar format that offers enough guidance to allow a crafty reader to hack his way through the wilderness.  This appears to be the major flaw of this book, however: again and again the  information needed to do what is being discussed has not been covered in the text, forcing the reader to flip ahead to find a useful example or table or flow chart (yes, they use flow charts) to provide edification.  And despite the prevalence of these tables and flow charts, I have yet to find a piece of text that references them.  [If Goodman Games is looking for a technical editor--and they should be if this book is at all indicative--I could definitely set them up--TR]

Combat is all about mitigating threat points with your defense pools.  What the eph does that mean, you ask?  Good question.  Basically, you roll a bunch of dice--the number and size of which are dependent on your level of mastery of whatever applicable combat abilities you possess--to determine your "Threat Points."  Don't call it "damage" or the authors will come to your house and inflict massive Potential Harm* on your ass--which the defending character then "mitigates" by throwing around his own action points and dice rolls: evading pts, parrying pts, armor pts, talking pts, needle pts, whatever.  I believe "hit points" are also mentioned in here somewhere, but they don't mean what you think.  Unmitigated threat points are deducted from the defender's "toughness" score.

* Yes, this is another term used by the authors.  Good luck discerning its significance.

I think I've aptly demonstrated that this is not a 0 to 60 in 30 minutes kind of game--even for seasoned gamers.  Again, I don't believe this to be an inherently unappealing aspect of the game, but it is definitely something to consider if you have impatient players to contend with.

Magic there are 4 sources of power: mystic (normal wizardry), supernatural (summoners; clerics also live here), primordial (druids and elementalists), and psychogenic (psionics).  You use spell points to cast spells, you're better at casting those within your specialty than others, they do stuff.  At this point I'm still suffering from fatigue from the combat section, give me a few minutes to rest my medulla oblongata...

The spell descriptions are provided in the appendix section titled "Sample Spells" which leads me to believe that players and/or GMs are largely expected/encouraged to devise their own magicalations.  Spell descriptions get a 6 item "stat" block that offers you such scintillating info as the source, school, effect, manifestation, range and aspect--all given in analog form; no numbers.  The text underneath is often even more terse; Heal spell reads thusly: "This spell mends wounds."  There are virtually no references to dice rolls or numbers of any sort for that matter; things like range and area of effect are covered by a universal formula involving your ability with the spell ("average," "respectable," what have you) and some multiplier, while the effect of your spells is gauged using the "Master Effects list," which is presumably located somewhere in the Magic section.  Back to the index: none of the following terms are anywhere to be found: master effects list, magic, effect, list.  I hate to say I told you so...  After some digging around in the magic chapter I find that there is, in fact, a list under the heading "Major Effects Descriptions" (pg. 44) that I believe is the intended target of this reference.  That comment I made about a technical editor becomes more and more pertinent, eh?

Misc.  Experience is based on earning Victory Points--by surviving dangerous situations--and Role-playing Points--doled out for playing to your character concept.  Accumulate enough of both types of points and you raise level, which grants you more character points to spend on improving your character.  Nothing outlandish here, right?

There's also a campaign setting in the appendices, though "campaign concept" is really a better term for it.  There's no map or descriptions of geo-political entities or other things one might expect in a campaign setting.  Rather, what they describe is a world where 2 types of lands exist: settled an unsettledSettled lands are those where normal laws of science are followed; grass is green, if you open your bathroom door you will find your bathroom, that sort of stuff.  Unsettled lands, however, are some sort of dreamy alterna-reality where the environs are defined by some concept or emotion and proximity is not based on physical distance but rather conceptual propinquity.  For instance, an unsettled land whose theme is love might be rosy, warm, and comforting--though love can also be tumultuous, I suppose.  Traveling from this land of love, one might pass through the lands of cute, friendly, cordial and various other shades of affection before reaching the land of hate.  Once you get to Hateland you'll likely find a bunker full of Nazis next to an Al Quaeda camp which is directly adjacent to Westboro Baptist Church. An interesting concept, but it belies the rather conservative character race selection.  I would think a game with such a trippy setting would allow for a more customizable character race development system, which only leads me to believe that the authors didn't really have such a setting in mind when they crafted the rules.

Closing remarks (wherein I might give my opinion on something):

Overall, I'm pretty intrigued by this game.  I like the rolling-my-bag-o'-dice-against-yours approach to conflict resolution, though I could see that it would take some practice to become fluent in the numerous branches of the "ability trees" and their influence on various actions.  And I like the notion of the 3 realms of adventuring abilities: combat, stealth & magic. I'm always hoping that some OSR retro-cloner will make a game that removes clerics as a class in favor of a system like this, even though this would immediately disqualify such an entry as an Aulde Skewle gameI'm also a fan of bringing a character to the table that you have invested some sort of concept into, and I think point buying systems generally facilitate this kind of character conceptualization in a way that random generation does not.  ERP also has the advantage that, unlike GURPS and similar point-buy systems, one is not forced to buy a bunch of quantified disadvantages in order to avoid complete mediocrity.  That said, the act of making up a new character without any element of randomness has been scientifically proven to be less fun (1); so there's that to consider.

From the author's afterword: "this game is not 'rules light.' [agreed--TR] Such is not the aim of our design.  Rather... ERP seeks to be Rules Transparent."  Despite this load of gobbledy-gookery, I commend the game-smiths for putting together a system that seems workable, original,* and intriguing.  They could definitely have used some help making the rules more reader-friendly but, overall, I think they're onto something.  That said, will I ever convince anyone to spend their precious few gaming hours on this?  Magic 8-ball says: "Outlook not so good."**

* More knowledgeable gamers will likely be able to trace ERP's antecedents better than I.  Bear in mind that I did spend ~20 years frozen in a glacier.
**Things I just found out: the magic 8 ball has a 20 sider in it. 20-siders are called icosahedrons.

(1) Unfrozen Caveman Dice-chucker, 2010. Building characters on a budget: Analysis of character generation processes of the "Olde" and "Nieuw" schools.  An as-yet un-posted blog dissertation

Monday, May 17, 2010

"I Hit It With My Axe" Question

So, how many of you have used one (or more) of Zak's players for a--ahem--solo adventure?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Primordial D&D: Eric Holmes and the 11 year old’s dungeon

Over the weekend I heard the sad news of the passing of yet another figure of the Grand Old School, Sir J. Eric Holmes, OBE; known as Rupert to his friends.* He’s a strange figure to me because even though it was his “Blue book” rules that introduced me to the game in the early 80s, I was not aware of his existence until at least 25 years later. At the time that I started playing the game, authorship of game rules was not a matter of interest—just as I cared not who wrote the rules to Monopoly or Trouble. And since it was a short 2 or 3 months after learning the game through the “Blue Book” that my older sister’s boyfriend generously loaned me his AD&D rulebooks, by the time authorship did gain meaning for me, there was only one name that mattered and it ended with an “x.”

Our gang immediately shunned Holmes’s work for the more detailed, and (slightly) better illustrated world of AD&D. Even to this day I wonder why anyone would be interested in reviving any of the Basic editions of the game; they all seem so limiting and just plain boring to me. [This from someone who has been reveling in playing the even older, more limiting rules of OD&D of late, so yeah, I acknowledge the paradox and mean no offense to those who do enjoy the Basic/etc. versions of D&D.] Despite this inclination, the Blue book and, especially, the Tower of Zenopus (the sample dungeon included with the rules) formed, for me, the primordial soup from which all dungeons evolved, and elements from Zenopus would prevail for some time in my dungeoneering** before they eventually withered from the repertoire.

Anyway, the news of Holmes’s passing has had me reminiscing about those early, primordial dungeons; back before my gang started taking the rules too seriously and insisting that dungeons make sense and all that. Which is to say, before puberty struck. A few key dungeon elements keep coming to mind that were persistent in the adventures that my friends and I subjected each other to in the first year or so of our playing days, and while not all of them are directly poached from Tower of Zenopus, they are intrinsically linked, in my mind, to beginner’s D&D, no matter which version one actually played. Below are a few of these game elements.

  • Enchanted Sarcophagi: I had no idea what a sarcophagus was but after Zenopus came along, I immediately became an eleven year-old sarcophagus expert. Designing intricate boxes to contain the dead and imbuing said caskets with awesome and terrible powers to inflict/pass on to anyone brave/stupid enough to lie down in one. Of course, they were usually crammed with corpses—animate and otherwise— or moldering sacks but once they were emptied, climbing into them often offered some sort of reward. This could be based on our tendency as kids to play in the nearby cemetery—often climbing down into freshly dug graves—or , more likely, just daring each other to do so. I’m pretty sure I never got the nerve up.
  • Underground water body: Absolutely essential to a dungeon experience for those who cut their teeth on the Tower of Zenopus.
  • Giant crustaceans: I offer this as a sub-item because, well, something had to live in or near the underground water. And if it was just a giant pike then staying out of the water eliminated any threat. While I’m pretty sure that there were giant crabs in the river under Zenopus, the crustacean infestation in my early dungeons, I think, was also encouraged by my youthful fascination with, and dread of, the abundant crayfish that inhabited the rivers and streams I played in as a kid. Anyway, they were never giant lobsters in the dungeons. Lobsters are too closely associated with food and, even though they are vile, Cthulian looking critters in real life, the word “lobster” immediately conjures up images of hot, tender, white flesh doused with melted butter and eaten with a dainty, little fork.
  • Cloud city: the inspiration for this one is pretty obvious to anyone who has ever seen the original Monster Manual or DM’s Guide. That’s right, 2/3 of all core AD&D rule books had a cloud city prominently displayed on them. Probably about 2/3 of all dungeons I made in the 1st year of playing the game had a cloud city floating overhead and some means of getting your ass up there. I don’t have any clear recollection of what purpose these cloud cities served; they were just, ya’ know, cities on clouds. They were always ruled by Titans or cloud giants whose good will could not entirely be relied upon, not even for such things as return trips to the ground. What seems strange to me now is that despite their prominence on the covers of the core rulebooks, there is virtually no other reference to airborne urban centers anywhere else in the game; not in any modules or rules. Please, someone correct me if I'm wrong on this. 
  • Peaceful interlude: My early dungeons always had a room that served as an oasis from its dark and dangerous surroundings, usually inhabited by a wizened and kindly old man or elf. The room occupied some kind of intra-dimensional space, often aglow with warm light and equipped with a cozy breakfast nook overlooking a tumbling stream and a sun dappled glade of maple and beech trees—despite its presence 8 levels beneath the ruins of the Castle of Demonic Arcana or wherever. It was usually hidden by a secret door that only chaotic good characters (the preferred alignment of 11 year old boys everywhere) could locate. The wizened gent who haunted these chambers generally did not venture outside of his comfy parlor and offered no direct or material assistance in thwarting the evils of the dungeon; just a moment's respite from the harshness of the environs and, perhaps, a few cryptic words of advice or trivial tidbits of dungeon history. Generally, such a room could only be visited once. Players so gauche as to try to take untoward advantage of its hospitality would either be unable to locate the secret door or, should they locate it, find an empty, un-extraordinary chamber. I don’t recall an actual source within the game for such an encounter area—Tower of Zenopus did not, to my recollection, have one—so it might have been the likes of the Last Homely House or Tom Bombadil’s place or the other oases of safety that are prevalent in Tolkien’s work: Tolkien being, at the time, the only fantasy literature of which I was even aware.

* Mr. Holmes was not, to my knowledge, actually a knight; an oversight that I'm sure the queen will soon be addressing.  Also, probably no one called him Rupert either.

** I use the "-eering" suffix here not in the mountaineering sense--as in exploring dungeons-- but in the femineering sense

Sunday, May 2, 2010

CotMA Continues

It’s been an awfully long time now since I mentioned my ongoing foray into Joseph Bloch’s Castle of the Mad Archmage (CotMA); in fact, there’s a new version of said dungeon out now. My friend Bob and I started out sometime before the Olympics and though we played 2 sessions in rapid succession, we’ve only managed one session since. What follows is my vague recollections of these sessions—bolstered a bit by some notes I took in a rare show of foresight on my part.

Whence last we ventured, the party was picking on some skeletons in a closet... and only right now do I finally get the joke. Oy veh. Anyway, suffice it to say that our boys polished them off and continued their quest for dungeon dominance.

As we continued, we met up with a statue of an ape whose secret I shall not reveal here and some olive slime and its offspring. I assume this must be a Monster Manual II critter cuz I can’t find it in any of the sources I’ve checked (AD&D Monster Manual, OSRIC, S&W Monster Compendium, Laby Lords, Castles & Crusades) and it's far too sensible sounding to be a Fiend Folio creation. And since I don’t feel even slightly compelled to purchase the MMII--or the Fiend Folio for that matter--it shall remain a mystery to me until some beneficent Olde Schewle scholar provides a description in their freely downloaded bestiary.

Anyway, since our fearless party already blew off the troglodytes a few rooms back out of sheer ignorance (at the time of this session, we had only the S&W rules pdf on hand), we felt compelled to take action. We extrapolated a bit based on the info in the module and our knowledge of the more famous green slime and decided to torch the stuff and it’s offspring. More fudging was necessary a few rooms later when we were surprised by giant frogs. We surmised, given their hp totals, that they must have 3 or 4 hit dice and, based solely on ancient memories of the murderous frogs at the Moat House in T1 The Village of Hommlet, I gave them 1 attack for 1d6 plus, if they hit you, they grab you with their tongue and automatically do an additional 1d4 dmg/round thereafter.

This is a battle we barely survived intact. Because we were surprised, Borrance the MU took it for the team before he was able to cast the sleep spell that might have saved our asses. Sigurd the ranger, Glebberd the Halfling and Borrance all got knocked to 0 hp. Only with S&W’s optional wound-binding and Negative Hit Point rules did we manage to drag the entirety of our party back to the surface alive. First level clerics without Cure Light Wounds are not worth all the sanctimonious posturing.

Since it was now getting late in the real world, we decided to clear out of dodge rather than leave our party to sleep in the dungeons. On the way out we encountered our first wandering monster: a “Floating pearlescent bubble.” We had a moment of silence in memory of Patrick McGoohan and then loaded it full of arrows. Our first day of adventuring yielded us a massive total treasure haul of 15 silver pieces! Not too impressive, especially at the cost of 3 near-dead characters.