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Writers Write, Right?

That being the case, then I have not been a writer these past couple of months.

The last time I posted, I was taking an online course to start and finish an RPG product in 30 days. Well, those thirty days came and went, and I failed to meet my goal. The product I had started on was to be a series of loosely connected encounters using the Honor + Intrigue system by Basic Action Games. What I had neglected to realize was I have never written adventures for someone else to run and what I came up with was, basically, garbage. I have run adventures for years and run several that my players talk about even today, but jotting notes for something I have in mind and trying to set things out for another person to run are two different skill sets.

The instructor looked over what I had written at that point (the middle of October and half way through the course) and suggested since I was attempting two hurdles at once—first-time adventure writing and the 30-day course—that I take a break from the class and bone up on my adventure writing skills then return when I felt ready. My slot would be still be open. I thanked him and spent the next two weeks scouring the house for “canned adventure” modules as well as picking up a few on clearance at my local game store.

I’ve read adventure modules before—I would never attempt something I had no knowledge of going into—and generally preferred coming up with my own material. Most adventures I’d read in the past have a linear, railroading, quality to them, and I wanted to avoid that in my own writing. Unfortunately, what I came up with for the RPG course was both railroading and written “fluff” first, descriptive but very limiting in what the Game Master could do. I spent a couple of weeks writing an adventure and hated the work, both the writing and the process.1

By the middle of November, I decided to take a break. I seldom do much writing during the holidays anyway and felt a need to clear my head. I helped the kids out with projects at school. We played video games. The kids decorated the house for Christmas. I avoided writing. And typically in the past whenever I stopped writing for more than a couple of weeks, my subconscious would nag me back to the keyboard or at least put pen to paper.

This time, nothing.

OK, I’ll admit that on December 31, 2013, I sat down at the keyboard and planned to write an end-of-year blog post but five words into it I thought, “Forget it,” and shut down the computer. Then, two nights ago, I woke up with that animal part of my back brain telling me to start writing again.

Now I just need to figure out what project to begin (again).

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1I’m unsure if the distaste came from the actual writing or my current role-play funk. One reason for jumping into the RPG course was to shake myself from that state of mind, but it persists.

Barbarians of Lemuria Variants

The Barbarians of Lemuria system* by Simon Washbourne is easily converted to other genres. What follows are a few of the published variants.

Barbarians of Lemuria Legendary (the advanced rules) uses a Lemuria of Washbourne’s devising since he was unable to acquire the rights to Lin Carter’s version of Lemuria (used with the free version of BoL).

Barbarians of the Aftermath is a post-apocalyptic setting which provides additional Careers, rules for “build-your-own” apocalypse, vehicle rules, and so on.

Dogs of W*A*R is Washbourne’s rules for the Big Muscles, Big Guns books and movies of the 70s and 80s ala A-Team, Mack Bolan, and others.

Legends of Steel (BoL version) is another setting using these rules.

Dicey Tales (a PDF magazine) has rules for Pulp-styled settings.

Honor + Intrigue is a swashbuckling set of rules combining BoL with a bit of 7th Sea and a dash of the action breakdown of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. This system tends to stretch the basic BoL system enough that it’s almost a different game, but I am still interested in running a campaign using it.

Barbarians of Heavy Metal is a Kickstarter using the BoL (and Barbarians of the Aftermath) rules tweaked to represent the Rocktagon: the Eight Great Schools of Rock as the characters wander the desolate wastes seeking fame and fortune. I’m interested in seeing what the author has come up with for this game.

Those are the settings I have come across. If you’ve come across others, let me know.

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*Often referred to as the BoX system.

Fast and Loose Role-play*

For the past year (or so) I’ve been on the hunt for a game system that has a minimum of rules to remember and is easily run. I’ve looked at various titles and discarded each until I came across Barbarians of Lemuria** by Simon Washbourne, author of SUPERS! and other game systems. The link provided takes you to the basic (free) game.

I’m not going to review the game system here. If you’d like to read a review (or two), you can find some here and here at RPG.net and here at Knights of the Black Banner. What I will give you is a quick overview of the system.

Barbarians of Lemuria (henceforth BoL) is designed around the mechanic of roll 2d6, add the relevant Attribute, add Combat Ability (if fighting) or Career (if not fighting), plus any other modifiers the GM calls for, and try to meet or beat a target number of 9. It doesn’t really get much more complicated than that.

Characters have Attributes of Strength, Agility, Mind, and Appeal; and Combat Abilities of Brawl, Melee, Ranged, and Defense, each having a range of -1 to 5 (or a maximum of 3 for a beginning character). Unlike practically every game system to hit the market since the mid-80s, BoL doesn’t have lists of skills that characters have to pay points into and improve. Instead, they have Careers, and a character’s Rank in a Career determines how capable he is in it, ranging from 0 for someone who either hasn’t been pursuing the Career for very long (or merely has a natural ability in it) to Rank 5, meaning he is a master and hardly ever fails “skill checks” in that Career. A few sample Careers are Barbarian, Magician, Noble, Slave, Thief, and so on.

The game also doesn’t include long equipment lists with accompanying costs. In fact, Washbourne notes in the chapter on equipment that characters can have whatever gear would be necessary for adventuring, and there are no rules for encumbrance. However, he does also add:

If you want backpacks full of . . . adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it all around on then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

At this point I’ve only played and/or run one-shots with the system (and its variants), so I do not know how well the system would run for a long-term campaign.*** What I do know is the game plays pretty fast, and encounter building avoids most of the hassle I’ve run into with other systems.****

This is definitely a system I will spend more time playing.

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*I dropped from my weekly gaming group two months or so back. Doesn’t mean I’ve given up thinking about games—or writing about them—just playing them for the time being . . . although I did start running my kids through the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game, another system that I find interesting so far.

**Not to be confused with Lemurian barbarians, which I’d expect to be rather nasty tempered and not much fun to play with.

***Though I do have plans to run a Hyborian Age (Conan) campaign at some point.

****The basic rules don’t spend much time with NPCs, so the GM is forced to make things up on the fly, which really isn’t difficult with this system anyway but someone new to the whole roleplaying thing might have problems. Barbarians of Lemuria Legendary (the advanced rules, available here or here, not free) provides more assistance with “winging it.”

Old is New Again: First Playtest of D&DNext

Cue theme music.

Flash images of squat-bodied, muscle-bound figures dressed in semi-medieval armor, swinging hammers and axes; tall, slender, pointy-eared figures clad in swirling robes and cloaks wielding staves and daggers; child-like figures in dark clothing sneaking around behind the others, occasionally letting fly a stone from a sling; and in the midst of it all, a balding, dumpy human dressed in chainmail crying out, “For the love of Pelor, be healed!” Around these images are those of goblins and ogres and sundry monsters intent on destroying our heroes.

Voice-over: “The Caverns of Chaos. The edge of a vast frontier. These are the adventures of a group of heroes destined to—”

Oh, to hell with it.

The first (and maybe last, but hopefully not) playtest of D&DNext for my group went over about as well as the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation did for a large number of fans of the Original Series. They all looked at the rules and reacted with the same vituperation as if their favorite childhood show had been run through the old Hollywood slice-n-dice and regurgitated as something that, while supposedly in the same setting as the original, isn’t the same.

However, in this case, D&DNext looks all too much like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D).

Not that that’s a bad thing, but the general thinking in the group was “If we wanted to play AD&D, we’d play AD&D.” And in our case, we’re not interested in playing AD&D.

That aside, how does it play?

As this was a Wizards of the Coast generated playtest, we used pre-generated characters. Pick one and go. Things got off to a bad start when everyone was looking at character sheets and saying things like, “Where’s our powers?” “What happened to healing surges?” “How do we heal?” and so on.* Characters are divvied and we begin.

Well, everything pretty much revolves around the character’s attributes. Need to climb a cliff? Make a Strength check.  Need to pick a pocket? Make a Dexterity check opposed by the target’s Wisdom check. There are no skills per se. A character’s Background and/or Theme might provide a bonus to a small handful of skill checks (Persuasion, Stealth, Survival, and such). But those who disliked Third (and Fourth) Edition D&D with its list of skills will be pleased at their removal. Making a check against the attribute works and is fairly straightforward: describe what you want to do and the Game Master (GM) determines what attribute is used and if you even have to roll the dice. In other words, if your Strength 18 fighter wants to climb a trellis, he can do so without your picking up the dice since that’s such an insignificant task. The Strength 8 wizard though might need to make a check with a Difficulty of 11 (or so) because that’s not something he’d be doing every day. **

And checks are made with the now-standard roll a d20 and add/subtract any modifiers and compare the result to a Difficulty Class (DC) assigned by the GM. Granted, this mechanic has been around only since 3rd edition, but a couple of comments were made along the lines of “Why didn’t they go ahead and bring back THAC0?”***

Gone are Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defenses, which will likely make even more “old school” grognards happy. The only “attribute” other than those listed above is Armor Class, which is based on Dexterity modifier (or half that if wearing medium weight armor such as ?) and a bonus provided by armor. This is the target number to equal or exceed with an attack roll.

The classes provided are a dwarf fighter, Halfling rogue, elf wizard, human cleric of Pelinor, and dwarven priest of Moradin. The former cleric is the traditional healer, having access to healing potions and more healing spells, while the latter is garbed in heavy armor and fills more of a holy defender-type role in the party. He has one healing spell but also has the ability to interpose his shield if a nearby ally is attacked thus warding off the blow. In fact, each of the classes has one or two little gimmicks which make [what does it make?]: the Pelinor priest has the healer package which allows him to create potions, antitoxins and such during short rests; the dwarf priest has the shielding ability (which we forgot to use in our test), the fighter has an ability which allows him to deal damage equal to his strength modifier on a miss, and so on. So the classes themselves are interesting the way they are presented.

As for starting hit points, while characters aren’t as fragile as they were in AD&D neither are they as hardy as they were in 4th edition. Each begins with a hit points equal to the average of a given hit die (d4 for wizard, d10 for fighter, back to the 3rd edition and earlier days) and their constitution score, so these scores fell in the 16-20 hp range. And each character has hit dice equal to their level (so one at first level) which are used for healing purposes.

Get hit in combat? Forget healing surges as those are gone as well. Healing comes from potion, cure light wounds spell (which is determined by a die roll), or healer’s kit which allows that hit die to be—you guessed it—rolled to regain lost wounds. Roll a 1? Too bad for you. This is one mechanic we thought could have stayed out as more than half of the group wound up rolling 1s to heal characters during a short rest between fights.

And Vancian magic has returned. Gone are the days of 4e at-will, encounter, and daily spells. True, the at-wills are kept, so the wizard can cast magic missile all day long and the priest has access to detect magic without spending a spell slot (plus a few other minor spells), but anything else is a daily and starting characters have a whopping two spells in their utility belt. Spend them wisely or be forced to wait for twenty-four hours to regian those spells. As it stood, the dwarven cleric wound up spending both uses of his one healing spell after the first battle and was stuck for the remainder of the day without. Isn’t the one combat workday just wonderful?

One neat thing added is the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. If your rogue takes the time to hide from the bad guys, she can then sneak up on them and attack from advantage which means roll two d20 and take the higher result. If a bunch of kobolds overwhelm a party of adventurers, the kobolds have advantage and each one of the them rolls 2d20 to attack, taking the better result. On the flip side, if your fighter is covering his eyes while trying to fight the medusa, he is effectively blind and at disadvantage. Roll 2d20 and take the lower result as his attack. This mechanic was intriguing. Nothing new, however, as the Avenger in 4e D&D rolls 2d20 and takes the better result, but it’s an interesting use beyond that particular class.****

Other things include no longer needing a feat in order to move, attack, then move again. Movement can be broken during your character’s turn. On that note, a character has a move action and can perform one other action during the turn: attack, use a skill such as hide, cast a spell, dodge, move again, and so on. No more attacking out of turn. If you decide to ready an attack and follow through, you have used your action for the turn. The current rules do not make use of opportunity attacks or multi-attacks (though there is indication that higher level characters will be able to perform more actions during a turn).

After a grueling three hours’ playtime (and only hitting three encounters which seems to be typical for my group) we threw in the towel, rather, I did. The others were complaining about the lack of mechanics for setting up flanking and various other “kewl” things that could be done in 3rd and 4th editions and having to fall back on, “I roll; I hit,”***** and various other things about the system as is . . . despite the fact that the very first thing I told them was, “This is not a complete system. This just gives the skeletal basics of the combat and task resolution mechanics for the game.” And that was all I tested. Some folks on the Wizards of the Coast forums have said they’d run complete campaigns, using just the rules in the playtest. A short campaign, perhaps as the characters provided have information up to third level only. Anything beyond that and you’re making things up.******

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*My group has been playing 4th edition D&D for quite awhile and we’ve come to like it. However, when we first began years ago, we hated it as much as this current iteration. I recall the GM of that game piling his gear together and walking out on us.

**Not that this approach is all that new. Most games have for years been giving advice on not rolling the dice unless necessary yet this seems to be the first time some people have come across it, and it might be the first time in print for a Dungeons and Dragons project though on that account, I could be wrong.

***To Hit Armor Class 0, which is this rather arcane mathematical formula used in AD&D and 2nd edition which many mathophiles seem to adore. At one time I could tell you the formula and could likely find it with a quick Internet search, but I really don’t want to.

****We had a discussion after the test about the efficacy of the 2d20 mechanic vs. a flat +2/-2 bonus to the die roll as each time we’d rolled, the spread wound up being only a few points (say, rolling a 12 and a 15 on the dice) which is about the same. Bartoneus  over at Critical-hits has an interesting article on the statistics of just that comparison.

*****In all the years I’ve played, seldom have I run across a group that does the “theatre of the mind” business, leaving everything to the description by the GM and players combined. We’ve always been more miniature-on-a-battlemat oriented. However,  Greywulf’s Lair details a few playtests he’s had using the theatre of the mind approach as well as the battlemat approach  both if which are fun reads and show that for some groups, this version of the rules works.

******Or filling-in-the-gaps as Vanir at Critical-Hits pointed out in a recent column.

Of Cards and Paper Dice: Still Working the Conversion of Gunslingers and Gamblers for Star Wars

I’ve been working, however slowly, on the mechanical side of the Star Wars spin for Gunslingers and Gamblers, the mechanics in this case being the dice.

I’d somewhat figured out what I wanted to do with the numbers and types of die involved and set about looking for suitable mock-ups. I found paper dice templates from Dicecollector.com  which didn’t look too difficult to put together.

Right.

I downloaded the templates, dropped them into Word so that I could print a pair of dice per page, then cut them out. So far so good. Putting them together didn’t work out, no matter what I tried. Folds didn’t fold right. Glue wouldn’t stick, and I couldn’t find the roll of double-stick tape I have hiding around here. No, I didn’t print to card stock but figured with the trouble I was having so far, that wouldn’t help things much.

So on to another plan for dice. Unfortunately most of my solid d10s and d12s are dark, so marking on them won’t work. The local game store has blanks which I’ll pick up this week. Maybe by this time next week I’ll have marked and tested the dice rolling and be able to figure that into the conversion process.

While researching this project (looking up the rules for sabacc) I came across a couple of places that had printable decks: keyofsolomon (the link pulls up a PDF, not a site) and GhostofMan’s page , clicking the Visual Aids link and scrolling to the bottom of the page for the latter. The keyofsolomon deck is fairly sparse though the more printer friendly of the two while I believe the latter has much better visual appeal.

I printed the deck from GhostofMan’s page on label paper at a local print shop and cut them out, planning to apply to cheap poker cards I’d picked up at the local dollar store. Silly me. I should have printed a test copy to compare to the cards I had. Once printed, the sabacc cards wind up being just ever-so-slightly larger than standard poker cards. Since then I’ve been looking around for a deck of jumbo-sized cards with no luck. Good thing I’m not actually playing cards. I’d have gone broke by now.

I’d considered mounting them to cardstock or poster board, but the former is too flimsy while the latter doesn’t shuffle well. This I know from experience. I’ve picked up a couple sets of alphabet and number flash cards, but those are quite a bit larger than the sabacc card faces. I’ll either use those or just trim the prints so they’ll fit the cards I do have. We’ll see what works.

Anyone know where I can get actual jumbo-sized poker cards, and not just standard-sized cards with jumbo printing? Cheap? I don’t want to spend eight dollars for a deck of cards I’ll be putting stickers on.

Old West in Outer Space: Converting Gunslingers and Gamblers for Star Wars (part 3)

Last time, I gave a quick overview of the game of sabacc in the Star Wars universe and started looking at how to put the concepts from that game onto dice for a Gunslingers and Gamblers conversion.

 Before I jump into that, let me go over how the poker dice are used in G&G. Non-player characters (referred to as townsfolk in G&G) roll 5 poker dice and must take whatever comes up. If the result is a simple “high card” which means they go with whatever die rolled the highest with no matches, that’s what they get and most likely will lose whatever contested roll they are in.

 Player characters and named NPCs will have a rank in a Trait (a skill such as Ride, Shooting, Fighting, and so on). That rank tells the player how many dice may be re-rolled after the initial roll. So if, you roll a pair of queens and three other differing dice while Fighting in the local saloon, and you have a Fighting of 2, you get to re-roll 2 of those three other dice and see if they improve your current hand of one pair. Traits may have up to rank 5/5, which means a character can, after making an initial roll, roll all 5 dice, then pick and choose which of those dice he wants to re-roll. Certain pieces of equipment will give a raise, meaning whatever hand is rolled gets increased by one level (e.g. a rolled pair will be increased to three-of-a-kind when using some pistols). A few rifles grant two raises.

 Got it? If not, just ask questions in the comments section, and I’ll answer as best I can.

 Now, that being said, here is my current line of thinking on dice for this conversion.

 The numbered cards in sabacc are 1 – 11. Adding the four ranked cards brings the total number to 15, plus the eight face cards works out to a total of 23, oddly enough the number needed to win a hand in sabacc yet doesn’t fall onto any size die currently on the market. Yeah, someone could create a wonky-sized die to fit, but I want to use a die type that is available now. There is a 24-sided die, but hard to come by.

 So the next best thing is to separate the cards into different dice, and since we need at least two “cards” for a minimum hand in sabacc, let’s try a d10 (dropping the 1) for the numbered cards, and a d12 for the ranked and face cards.

 Now the problem I run into with this is for standard poker dice, each die has the same values. If this conversion were to use a d10 and d12, I’m already skewing the results for the dice. And if those faces have differing values, the results move farther apart. I’m not certain if having different size/type dice will really matter. I’m no statistician and the guy in my gaming group who lived and breathed numbers passed away last year, so that’s no help.

 Anyway, the object would be to get closest to 23 without going over, as in sabacc, with the Idiot’s Array being the best hand possible. In order to do the latter, we’d need at least three dice—two with numbers (for the 2 and 3) and one with the face card (the Idiot, value 0)—with the numbered and face cards, so two dice for the numbered cards (10-sided dice) and two dice with the ranked and face cards represented (12-sided dice). I’d probably toss in another ten-sided die just to bring things to five dice.

 Another problem I foresee deals with the number of dice involved and calculating them. In standard G&G, you roll five dice looking for the best hand. With sabacc dice (for lack of another term right now), you’d roll five dice and still look for the hand closest to 23 or -23 without going over (remembering that a 0, 2, 3 automatically wins). That’s a bunch of adding and subtracting, taking into account the use of negative numbers. My brain just takes a sudden lurching halt at that, kind of like I did a few weeks ago while play-testing ICONS, a superhero roleplaying game. Figuring positive numbers gives me no problems, yet once I hit 0 and drop below that, I have to start counting on my fingers.*

 This makes that quick and easy game seem further away than originally intended.

 But let’s see where this leads.

 So we have a total of five dice being rolled: three 10-sided dice representing the numbered cards of 2 – 11 and two 12-sided dice representing the ranked and face cards with various positive and negative values. Roll the dice and determine the value of the hand rolled with the closest to 23 (or -23) being the winner. Right?

 In standard G&G, characters have traits, allowing for re-rolls, which works fine in that game as quickly as a hand can be realized once everyone becomes familiar with poker terminology. In this case, re-rolling a die or more forces more math on the fly, which some people have absolutely no problem with and might possibly enjoy but others won’t. So instead, let’s have traits determine how many dice may be kept to determine final hand with everyone keeping two dice to start.

 This means, roll five dice, keeping the two closest to 23 (or -23 though that number may be harder to attain than a positive). A trait of Shooting 1 allows one extra die to be kept, with a maximum of 3 in a trait keeping all 5 dice.

 I think this might work, but I’ll need to make a mock-up set of dice to try it out.

 Do you have any ideas on how to get this to work? I’d love hearing from you, especially if you’re enamored with numbers and statistics as I want to find a balance between ease-of-play (still not so easy but workable right now) and [something about the numbers making sense].

 Next time we’ll look at the trait system, equipment, and maybe a review of a dice test (if I get the mock-ups done).

*And ICONS uses only5 to -5for its range. This sabacc variant would have a range of 63 to -28 using all five dice, if I’ve calculated things correctly.

Old West in Outer Space: Converting Gunslingers and Gamblers for Star Wars (part 2)

Last week, I gave a quick overview of Gunslingers and Gamblers and indicated my current interest in converting that system for use with a Star Wars campaign. Since G&G uses six-sided poker dice, I could just use standard six-sided dice with star or light saber emblems in place of pips and get on with playing the game. But my gaming group knows me as the tinker, the guy who finds fascination in manipulating a game system or figuring out ways to pigeonhole elements of one gaming system into another.

This is no different. I’m a glutton for self-punishment that way, I guess.

Now, in the books and comic books covering tales in the Star Wars universe, there are hints at various gambling games, but the one given the most detail (from the era of the Empire and the rise of the Rebellion as covered in the original three movies and the period in which I’d run a campaign) is sabacc.

According to pagat.com (an online repository of card games, both real and invented) sabacc

is a difficult game to adapt to real-world play because it uses an electronic deck of cards that can switch values at random. What’s more, the deck is composed of 76 cards, in the following configuration:

Four Suits (Sabers, Flasks, Coins, Staves)

Values 1 – 11

Ranked Cards

Commander (value 12)

Mistress (value 13)

Master (value 14)

Ace (value 15)

Two copies of eight Face Cards

The Star (value -17)

The Evil One (value -15)

Moderation (value -14)

Demise (value -13)

Balance (value -11)

Endurance (value -8)

Queen of Air and Darkness (value -2)

Idiot (value 0)

The object of sabacc is to have the highest card total which is less than or equal to 23 (similar to our own game of Twenty-One). Each player is dealt two cards to start (or five depending on the rules being used at the gambling table) and must always have at least two cards in hand at all times. The game is played with two “pots” into which bets are made—a hand pot, which is given to whoever wins a hand, and a sabacc pot, which is won in only one of two ways: having a hand totaling exactly 23 or -23 (pure sabacc with the positive number trumping the negative) or having a hand consisting of the Idiot’s card (0 value), a 2 value card, and a 3 value card, which is called the idiot’s array (a literal 23) and is also the highest hand possible in the game, beating even a pure sabacc, while a losing hand either exceeds a 23 or falls below -23 or totals 0 exactly.

With me so far?

Good if you are. If not, don’t worry. The main things we need be concerned about are as follows:

  • sabacc is played with a minimum of 2 cards in hand (though can receive 5 cards initially);
  • a winning hand is 23, -23, or an array of cards having values of 0, 2, and 3;
  • beyond that winnings go to the closest to 23 (positive or negative with positive numbers beating negative if tied) at the end of a turn hand;
  • the 4 ranked cards (Commander, Mistress, Master, and Ace);
  • the 8 face cards;
  • the fluctuating value of cards during the game.

Now, how does this all work as the face of dice for a Gunslingers and Gamblers conversion?

Beats the heck out of me.

I have a glimmer of an idea, but need to put more thought into it.

Do you have any ideas? If so, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

Next up, I wrestle with the dice and figure out how to put Star Wars races and equipment into G&G terms.

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