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.