Sunday, November 16, 2008

Demos & Distro

So nobody showed up to my Castles & Crusades demo yesterday. My wife was afraid I'd be heartbroken but it's hard to be down on the heels of two successful demos. Besides, I knew I was swimming upstream by scheduling my game for 10am Saturday. I'm sure half the gamers in town aren't even up by then, as they were gaming late the night before. So instead I spent about an hour shooting the breeze with one of the owners, mostly comparing editions of D&D. For a few minutes before I headed out we discussed the possibility of me running a regular game at the store.

I call the idea I pitched "low impact D&D". I was inspired by Ben Robbins' West Marches campaign, this post by James Raggi, and one of my own old posts. The basic idea is to run a pick-up game that is also a campaign. On my side of the screen is a big crazy megadungeon set in my persistent sandbox campaign world of Cinder . On the other side are all comers. Folks would be welcome to drop in and out as they please. Play would be episodic, with adventures generally ending the same night as they began. That way not showing for two months would mean little more than your PC was back at the inn running up a bar tab the whole time.

The longer I mess with the various versions of D&D the less I care about which particular ruleset I'm running. However, I believe it's considered polite to tell potential players what system is being used for your campaign. While the owners of Armored Gopher are willing to host campaigns using out-of-print rules, I feel like the smart thing to do would be to run a game that they could actually sell. It creates the potential of a direct benefit to the store, and it gives players who like the game an easy opportunity to buy their own copy.

So out of the myriad of D&D editions, retro-clones, and other similar games on the market, I'm looking to pick from the subset of retro stupid games that are available through normal distribution channels. Since [pick one->Runequest/Dragonlance/Vampire/3.x/4e] ruined the hobby most of these kinds of games are either long out of print, electrotechnotronic PDF releases, print-on-demand by Lulu, or sold by the author from a box in his hall closet. In fact I know of only three retro stupid games 'in distro', as I once heard a game industry dude put it. Let's look at the candidates.

HackMaster is totally, ridiculously awesome. But it's way more game than I would want for this project. I'd certainly try running HackMaster for a small group of hardcore dice-jockeys, but key components for this project are newbie-friendly rules and quick chargen. HM loses on both points. And the print run of the current edition is going dry. I'm not sure how much of the game is actually still available through distributors. I'm hoping to get some HackMaster action going when the 5th edition rolls out. I've been wanting a HackMaster Basic for years and with 5e the nice folks at Kenzer are finally going to grant my wish.

I would describe Castles & Crusades as 'workmanlike'. It's a reasonable compromise for group that contain fans of both 3.x and 1st or 2nd edition Advanced. The SIEGE Engine resolution mechanic is a quick and useful system for resolving stuff not covered by other rules. I wish I was as enthusiastic about this game as Doc Rotwang!, but I'm not. The various class abilities are more fiddly than I want for rules light play, but not heavy enough for serious mechanical wonkery. And most of the time I don't want a clean universal resolution mechanic. I much prefer the dynamic tension of a system with moving parts that don't quite fit together. C&C is a good system and I'd certainly play it, but I just don't feel that oomph that I get from other retro stupid systems. It works in my brain but doesn't speak to my heart. (Though I must note that as long as James Mishler keeps using C&C, it will always have a place of respect on my game shelf. It's like how I'm not usually moved by country music, but Johnny Cash is friggin' awesome. James Mishler is the Johnny Cash of rpgs.)

So that leaves Labyrinth Lord. I'm led to understand that it was only via herculean effort by Dan Proctor and his fans that LL got into the book distribution network. Well, my deepest appreciation and congratulations go out to them. As a retro-clone compiling the '81 Basic/Expert rules of D&D into one volume, the folks at Goblinoid Games have gotten one of the best versions of D&D ever made back into print. And thanks to getting into distribution, you can even get a copy at Amazon.

As regular Gameblog readers know, I started with '81 Basic and consider Tom Moldvay, its editor, one of the great unsung heroes of the hobby. So no arm-twisting is required to get me to run this Labyrinth Lord. That being said, I find it a little disconcerting that so many other great retro-stupid games cannot be easily purchased at the local game store.


  1. Love the concept of the ongoing drop-in campaign. It would be great if you can build a foundation and a bit of a reputation with enough players that you would always have a game and that there would always be room for one or two newbies and players who only were able to make it irregularily.

    And I think Labrynth Lord is the best choice. It's also free for pdf download so the players could go home and check it out at depth.

    How are you going to handle PC death?

  2. How are you going to handle PC death?

    With viking funerals, solemn vows of revenge, and starting over from O xp.

  3. Sounds like a cool idea. Try not to over do the dungeon crawling though throw in a good mix of city, village, and wilderness adventures.

  4. Sounds good, Jeff. I'm for C&C right now, but it sounds like LL hits all the key points. $16-18 isn't too bad for players to pick up a copy, either, if they so choose.

    Any house rules or the like, or anything you'll change from LL as written?

  5. On the retro-stupid, there's still Palladium Fantasy, which is fiddly, have lots of little bits with some friction, but is still pretty accessible. I really liked 1e, but 2e wouldn't be horrible for what you're suggesting.

  6. Any house rules or the like, or anything you'll change from LL as written?

    Yeah, I've got a few ideas in mind for house rules. I need to get cracking on a house rules document.

  7. Anonymous9:09 PM

    LL definitely the way to go. A Westmarches campaign is a fine thing to aim for and I really like your idea of fitting the entire adventure into one session. Kind of makes the game far more immediate.

  8. Not that I have any problems with LL. A fine choice, the best of the three you've mentioned for your purposes.

    But another great game to consider, that's definitely "retro stupid" and in "distro" is Tunnels & Trolls.

  9. You know why there aren't any retro stupid games in the distribution chain? Because right now, there aren't many RPGs *period* in distribution.

    And I really believe that the lack of retro-stupid games is part of that problem. We need more games that grab you by the dice bag and make you want to play, right now.

  10. Anonymous8:44 AM

    I love the AD&D "system with moving parts that don't quite fit together." But I'm not buying that such a system creates "dynamic tension." For players not familiar with those parts, what usually happens is them asking, "Uh, do I want to roll high or low here?" Again, AD&D is my system of choice, but I'm just sayin' . . .

  11. Regarding drop-in games, I've hit upon the same successful formula: adventures keyed to last as long as one play session with a handful of recurring elements to tie the whole thing together. It's very much more in keeping with the episodic nature of the early swords & sorcery pulp material.
    Regarding systems, I've gone through all of the retro-clones and original stuff, and didn't find a perfect fit for the Robert E. Howardesque low magic game I've wanted to run until I just gave on them and started playing GURPS. Newbies catch on well if you supply them with premade characters and explain the basic mechanic of "Roll 3d6 and if it's under the number on your character sheet it's a success."

  12. A shame nobody but me seems love Castles & Crusades in my area (CT). It really is close to THE version of D&D I have always wanted. A couple more classes and some options for miniatures, mass combat, and dominions and it would be.

    Maybe if they ever get that durn Castle Keeper's Guide made?

    I really don't see the appeal in Labyrinth Lord or its cousin Basic Fantasy. Ive already got RC, BECM, and Moldvay/Cook after all.

    I can (and do!) house rule them with some stuff from Advanced and D20 already.

  13. I agree with the above posters that LL is definitely the best choice for your purposes - simple, quick to make PCs and easy to run, free download & print version in distribution. Its use of Moldvay as a sort of template means that it reads much more accessibly than C&C - I like C&C and it has a nice 1e vibe, but like 1e it's not that easy for new players to get into. Plus it lacks some things like encounter tables and dungeon design advice in the core books (which are 2 books, together twice the size of LL).

    The only issue I have with LL is that starting PCs can't afford good armour (unlike in Moldvay), yet as in Moldvay they have few hp and die at 0 hp, so it's even more lethal than Moldvay Basic. A minimalist solution is max hp at 1st level.

  14. I think the best and most obvious solution to the god awful and generally unfair HP situation in low level D&D (as most people would want to play. The "deep in the poo" old school pulp and low fantasy fans may disagree obviously!) would be to ignore HP rolls at level 1 and use either max L1 HP + CON bonus for your class at level 1, or your CON score directly (no bonus HPs though!) if its higher.

    I have said it before and I will say it again. The biggest reason D&D isn't more popular is because of how damn lethal it is to level 4 or so.

    I'm sure millions of kids and young adults went in with visions of Aragorn or Conan or Red Sonja or He Man (other well known S&S characters go here!) only to bravely charge into battle against the evil foes they were there to defeat. Then the DM rolled a couple high rolls and they were dead in the first combat.

    Most probably said "Ok this SUCKS" then went away, leaving the RPG genre forever.

    When you have something that's honestly pretty weird and dorky to begin with, making it so even interested parties won't have much fun isn't a solid game design decision.

    TSR sold a metric boatload of Basic sets in the 80s. Hell, probably more Basic sets were sold in that decade than there are active RPG players TOTAL today. (Tabletop and LARP. MMORPGs, chat based MUD style, and electronic games are in a different category.)

    Hell, I love these things and I quit playing an RPG because of endless deaths. I was constantly dying and there were no benefits or rewards for trying to play it heroically so I eventually quit and refuse to EVER play the game again. (Of course the DM was an inexperienced novice whose answer to any sort of criticism is to yell and be a colossal douchebag as opposed to listening to anyone's opinion and that didn't help either...)