Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Effective use of Lethality in Old-School RPGs

A few days ago I wrote about lethality in older-school RPGs. Many responses were enthusiastic; other correctly criticized my post regarding arbitrary as opposed to non-arbitrary death; after all, "gotcha" death usually sucks in RPGs, and if the Referee just wants to kill the PCs, he could always bury them in a landslide or under a collapsing ceiling. This, of course, will be no fun. So I am obliged to further elaborate regarding the use of lethality and Save-or-Die elements in older-schools role-playing games.

Lethality should always be the result of a choice. An informed choice, at least to a certain degree. As I've noted above, and as obvious to any good player or Referee, "gotcha" lethality is not very enjoyable. A Save-or-Die situation should arise as a result of a player choice. Taking risks sometimes warrants an immediate risk of death. For example, if you choose to go toe to toe with a venomous snake, you take the risk of getting bitten, which may be fatal. Typically, a good Referee will describe a snake or, at least, hint at its existence. If you choose to ignore the warning and take the risk, you can definitely face death. After all, venomous snakes are scary for a reason - many of them can kill you. A dead king's tomb still containing treasure after centuries of potential grave-robbers is bound to be trapped to the hilt, and its exploration warrants great care and many precautions. If you take the risk and rush your exploration of such a dungeon, a trap may kill you. There should always be a chance to avoid the trap by player skill and attention to details. But deadly traps in such tombs are part of the adventure genre. If you choose to drink a mysterious potion found in an underground temple of Chaos, you risk being poisoned or worse. If you enter the dungeon corridor strewn with many human bones and skulls of possible victims of a horrible monster - you might actually encounter the monster itself, and you risk turning into yet another pile of bones in the corridor. If you enter the curious garden of strange statues, you might face the Medusa - capable of turning you to stone with a single gaze.

The thing common to all of these cases is that there is a warning before the decision to take the risk or avoid it. Either an explicit warning, such as the town's elders speaking in hushes whispers about the horrors of a haunted tomb, an environmental cue such as bones of former victims or the petrified victims of the Medusa, or a risk known to common sense such as the notion that strange liquids in deep chapels of Chaos might have negative effects on you or the basic fact that venomous snakes might kill you with a bite. Taking the risk is a player's choice, and typically holds a potential reward. A pile of gold under the slithering snakes, rumors of great treasures guarded by the Medusa, stories of potions holding wondrous effects on their imbibers. If you wish to reduce risk, you also reduce the reward in many cases. You wish a big reward - you'll have to take risks.

The same goes in Traveller. In character generation, if you choose to be a Marine, you should be tough as nails - as a Marine should be, or you face a high risk of death in the line of duty. Even if you're tough, Marines are people who get kicked out of a starship in orbit and told: "conquer that planet!". This is badass, but very, very risky, especially in times of war. The reward is first the badass title of a Star Marine, and also all manners of combat skills, easy retention and relatively easy promotion. Scouts are more extreme - you die easily in the line of duty just like Marines, because you go into the Unknown and the Unknown has teeth, claws, and tentacles, but you may receive the ultimate reward - a free starship of your own! A clever character entering the Merchant Marine risks a far lower risk of death, but if you do gain a starship, it has a heavy mortgage attached. You can try and save hard-earned Credits by travelling in Low Passage, but you risk Low Berth failure and death. You can try and save on expensive refined fuel by doing frontier refuelling, but unrefined fuel can do bad things to the delicate and finicky civilian systems of your Free Trader.

Risk and reward, accompanied by at least some hint regarding the risk and reward at hand, are key to enjoyable death threats in older-school RPGs. This could add much tension, excitement and thrill to your game of handled right. This is why Save-or-Die effects are so useful in such games.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

In praise of lethality in old-school RPGs

A common complaint about older-school role-playing games (RPGs) is that they are highly lethal and, as the complaint goes "unduly and arbitrarily punish characters and players". And indeed, many newer-school players view such lethality in disdain and prefer their games to include more moderate dangers, less "arbitrary" threats and much stronger player characters. Dungeons and Dragons(TM) 5th Edition is a prime example of this. Around levels 3-5, player characters are already very powerful and are rarely killed by ordinary monsters; I found my 5th level party mowing through undead supposed to be scary, and only moderately challenged by a mummy, energy-draining wraiths and shadow-demons capable of moving through walls. Risks were mitigated; healing was made much easier; and many frightening abilities from earlier editions, such as level drain, poison and disease, were made far more forgiving. Don't get me wrong - we are enjoying the hell out of our D&D 5E campaign set in the Barbarian, Conqueror, King setting with some ACKS rule additions. But the ruleset feels to me more and more forgiving - and sometimes "flat". Risks and threats seem a bit minor compared to what the horrors of a haunted dungeon, a cemetery in midnight or a giant-toad-infested swamp should be.

Older-school games were certainly lethal. Highly lethal. A venomous snake could kill you. Green slime could kill you. Triggering a trap could kill you outright. A fight with several zombies at low level could certainly kill you. Medusae could turn you into stone with a single failed saving throw. At low levels, one or two sword swings had a potential to kill you. In Classic Traveller, you could die during character generation as well, using unrefined fuel could kill you, a single well-placed and lucky laser shot could blow your ship out of the sky, travelling in low passage could kill you, the "first blood" rule could get you severely injured from a single shotgun blast.

Why the lethality? There are plenty of reasons why this actually enhances your game. First and foremost, you typically play adventurers. Why be typical "Normal Man" level 0 villagers eke out a living at 1gp a month from the sweat of their brows, toiling on the harsh soil under the constant threat of starvation - when there are dungeons laden with marvellous amounts of gold and wonderful magical items a day's travel from the typical hamlet? Becuase dungeons are dangerous, and most who venture there do not come back. Adventurers are those brave - or some might say insane - souls who dare delve into these deadly places reeking with the stench of death. The YouTube video linked above - a promotional video for the excellent old-school dungeon called "Barrowmaze" - strikes the nail right on its head. Horrors await those who dare stray away from civilization into the wilds and the ruins of the eldritch past. Villagers huddle in the relative safety of their hovels and even soldiers - typically "Normal Men" as well except for the most grizzled veterans - find safety in their numbers and rarely dare fight anything but other Men, or at most Beast-Men hordes. Only a few foolhardy adventurers dare descend into dungeons in hope of finding gold and glory. Most find their untimely death. But a few survive and carry back sacks full of gold back to civilization, eventually becoming lords and magisters.

But adventuring carries risks. Horrid risks. This is part of the challenge of the game. This is a major source of excitement for the players. A mistake can kill you. Monsters can rip you limb by limb. A venomous snake, like a real venomous snake, is dangerous and frightening - a bite is very likely to kill you. Rush into combat like a fool - and you will typically get butchered. Tread carelessly, and you risk death. Player skill is important. This is a similar challenge to the "Roguelike" genre of digital games which is now enjoying another golden age after existing from the very dawn of digital gaming, from the sci-fi FTL: Faster Than Light, through the post-apocalyptic N.E.O. Scavenger to the fantasy Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. In these games, unlike more typical digital games of our day and age, you die easily. And death is permanent - you can't just reload a saved game when you die. When you die - you die. Yet players - myself included - come back and play these games again and again. Why? Because the challenge is exciting, because facing the challenge is enjoyable. Survival is its own reward, is a thing of pride. Player skill is important. Learning how to survive in the N.E.O. Scavenger world, for example, is something you - the player - have to learn; no character skill will save you from contaminated water, hypothermia and infection setting into your wounds; you have to learn how to cope with them. This is challenging. This requires thought and learning. This is also enjoyable for many gamers. An old-school RPG is the tabletop equivalent of "Roguelike" digital games; player skill is important and survival is a challenge - and its own reward.

Finally, having survived the horrors of the low levels, when death hangs over your head each and every moment in the dungeon or in the wilds - is the best background your character can have. Not even ten pages of backstory can mean as much for your character as actual experience you and your fellow player went through with your characters. You start, more or less, as a nobody, and you build your character, your personality and history - by actual adventuring. Classic Traveller adds to this a "lifepath" character generation system where you actually - though briefly - go through risky careers and face a threat of actual death for your character, making your choices and risk management crucial for your character's survival even during that early phase of the game. But even in Classic Traveller, the background your past career - rolled on a few tables in 5-10 minutes or so - is only a paragraph of text in most cases, and then you strike out to the stars to make a real name for yourself. But facing risks and threats builds your character. When a significant portion of the encounters in the game might end in a Total Party Kill (TPK), reaching Name Level - typically the 9th level in D&D-type games - is an achievement to be proud of and not just a given stage in the game.

In short, lethality in an RPG - when done right and framed correctly - can be a source of challenge, excitement and enjoyment. This is what makes older-school so appealing to many people, and this is something every tabletop gamer should try; some might not like it, but others will be thrilled.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The lessons of Mass Effect for military sci-fi RPG campaigns

The Mass Effect trilogy is one of the best computerized sci-fi RPGs in existence, with the first game earning a 89% rating on Metacritic (the second game even got 94% and the third again 89%). In it's most basic essence, Mass Effect is a third-person shooter with RPG elements, set in a wide open galaxy with an enormous number of worlds open to exploration. It boasts one of the better and more interesting sci-fi settings ("IP". as it is customary to call them these days) of the past decade, complete with a magnificent story, a wide-open galaxy, and multiple alien species, all with interested, detailed histories and cultures. This is a rebirth of sorts of the "space opera" genre, supplanted somewhat by hard sci-fi and nano-punk in the early years of the century. It stands at the same level as Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5 - a true beauty to behold. But here I will talk about one specific aspect of these games, which has little to do with the combat mechanics or even with the specifics of the universe. I will focus on the first game as it has the most "classic" structure in this regard.

What Mass Effect did very well is build a military sci-fi RPG campaign. Generally speaking, military sci-fi RPGs have to deal with three main challenges. The first is how to justify a diverse team of characters - as typical for a group of player characters - in a military setting. Typically militaries are highly uniform, heavily regulated environments, and all the odds and ends you see in the typical RPG campaign stick out like sore thumbs in a military setting. The second is that, in a quasi-realistic military situation, the command team of a starship, or any other group of ranking people calling the shots and having agency (freedom of action), rarely see direct ground combat action. Instead, they command their subordinates to do much of the actual fighting. But players love to have both agency for their characters and get into the thick of things with guns blazing. Third, even if the characters are a command team on an independently-operated starship, in military settings you usually have a clear chain of command and relatively strict orders to operate under.

How does Mass Effect solve all of this? It puts the player in command of a small team of elite operatives, who are further removed from the usual military chain of command by being galactic-government special operative (i.e. a Specter and his/her entourage). The player still serves the military on the long run and in the big picture, but he or she still ahs much freedom of action. The powers that be give him/her a large-scale mission, and the military gives him smaller tasks to accomplish, but since Shepard (the protagonist) is a Specter, he or she can act as desired on the smaller scale. Furthermore, with this semi-military semi-special-agency milieu, Shepard can recruit various assistants, some of whom are mercenaries, rebels, and renegades. Whatever gets the mission done. Finally, as Shepard and his/her entourage are special-forces soldiers in addition to Shepard being the captain of the ship, they do get to carry out commando missions. The rest of the command crew and ship officers do not participate in such missions. This would be an interesting framework for a tabletop sci-fi RPG; detached-duty special forces and/or ranking government agents, rather than being directly subjected to chains of command and rigid micromanagement by superiors.

The overall plot structure is also of interest for the tabletop military sci-fi RPG player and referee. One may call it a quasi-sandbox. Following a short exposition, Shepard becomes a Specter and gets his/her command of the Normandy, and then the galaxy opens up. He/she gets three leads to check in search of the villain he/she is after, but can explore the wide-open galaxy. Around the galaxy, there is a good number of side missions, sometimes hinted at by NPCs and sometimes found by exploration. The typical side mission - sometimes small "dungeons" and sometimes in more open locations is one to three "scenes" (or encounters) long, typically closer to one than to three; on the tabletop, one could probably finish one of these side missions in a single session of play, and the bigger central-plot missions in around three sessions of play each. The player may approach the three leads and the side missions at his or her order of preference, and usually has some choice regarding their outcome, sometimes significant choice which will affect the plots of later games in the series as you can import saved games from game to game. Once you explore the three leads you enter the main chase after the villain, which is essentially two big plot missions and the final battle.

Finally, the way characters are built and used is also of interest. The big villain of Mass Effect is built very well - given a strong exposition - you actually see the big villain in the very first tutorial mission and given ample reasons to go after him with extreme prejudice and the game revolves after getting to the point where you can actually lay your hands on him and stop his infernal plan. There is a big surprise in store for the player in regard to the villain, but generally speaking, you get a strong villain from the first minutes of the game. The NPCs are also interesting - except for one or two more relatively generic human characters who - if they survive - become more interesting in later games in the series. Each alien character is interesting, has a strong personality and a detailed history - and each has his or her own side-quest. All appear in later games and develop into central characters of the series.

All in all, interesting from the point of view of an RPG gamer interested in military sci-fi games.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Greetings from the new reptile proprietor!

Nom Nom Nom*
So, you have been wondering, what happened to the fabled Space Cockroach? Well - I ate him! Nothing fills a lizard's belly better than a fat, juicy bug from outer space! Now instead of his hideout, I, Agamemnon the Lizard King - AKA Omer Golan-Joel - hold my reptile throne, and choice basking spot, here. And from my throne room, I will offer you a wealth of new gaming material unheard of in the past of this blog. Because I have excellent news for you all - great things are happening! Things are changing for the better, not just for me, but for my humble contribution to the gaming world. I am getting published, on several channels. Far beyond my old Outer Veil and USE ME work for Spica Publishing and Alternative Armies, respectively.

Stellagama stellio, Rehovot, Israel
First things first - I have finished the full Barbarian Conqueror King manuscript last week and sent it, in all its 70,000-word beauty, to Autarch LLC. This will probably take some significant time to reach a release, as it needs rebalancing, editing, playtesting, proofreading and art, but now I am free to pursue other projects, while doing any further necessary work on BCK as needed - and hopefully within a year or so, it will be ready in its full glory!

Second, I am still translating Stars Without Number into Hebrew. As this is a pro-bono job, it is always lower-priority than anything putting bread on my table, but I'll try to finish this by March so we - the Israeli Society of Role-Players - will be able to publish it by Autumn 2016.

Third - and most importantly - I am now forming my own publishing "company" - Stellagama Games! You can see our logo to the left, drawn by the magnificent Luigi Castellani. My partner in this endeavor is none else than Richard Hazlewood - my co-author of good, old outer Veil. We will use the ease afforded by modern digital distribution to publish various role-playing games online. What will we publish? Initially, smaller supplements and adventures for White Star, Mongoose Traveller - and possibly also Stars Without Number and Swords & Wizardry: White Box. later on, something big is planned. Really big. More on that in the following months...

* I know, I know, this isn't a Stellagama but its Australian relative, the Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps). I simply couldn't find a picture of a Stellagama eating a cockroach...