Thursday, November 26, 2020

return of CRPG migration studies

One of the weird thing about playing dungeony dragony computer games from the 80's is the existence of a whole network of games by disparate designers and publishers that allowed you to import characters from other games. My original attempt to map out this phenomenon included 10 different games. But based on the comments to that post and further research, I've added a few more games:

A red arrow indicates a relationship with the whole trilogy, e.g. Ultima III characters can be ported into any Bard's Tale.

The major end states of these progressions are Deathlord (an Oriental Adventures-style adventure), Legend of Faerghail, Dragon Wars, and, inexplicably enough, the sci-fi adventure Centauri Alliance. Adventurers from up to ten different games could end up travelling to the stars! Not all at the same time, though. Not every version of every game (C64, Apple, PC, etc.) supported the same level of character importation. Also, you can't have more than 8 characters in your Centauri Alliance party.

I thought it might be amusing to look at how the different games on my chart above treat characters, in terms of party size, classes, races, and ability score categories. Here's what I found out about this strange interconnected array of games.

Most of these games feature parties of no more than 6 PCs. Ultima IV and Centauri Alliance allow 8, though the latter recommends you leave at least one slot in the party empty for an NPC to join. The Bard's Tale games have a seventh slot that can't be filled with PCs. Two of the games, Ultime III and Dragon Wars, have parties of only 4 characters.

Two of the games above, Cantauri Alliance and Dragon Wars, seem to use skill systems instead of class systems. All the others have between six (Might & Magic I) and an astonishing eighteen classes (Deathlord). All these games feature a Fighter class, but it might be named Warrior, Knight, Senshi, as well as a Wizard/Mage/Magician/Sorcerer/Mahotsukai. With the exception of Ultima IV, there's a Thief/Rogue/Robber/Yakuza available as well. Although most games have Cleric/Priest/Healer/Shisai class, the Bard's Tale uses the Conjuror, which always struck me more as a magic-user class with cleric-type spells. I was suprised to find equivalents to Ultima IV's working stiff classes, the Tinker and Shepherd: the Blacksmith of Legend of Faerghail and the Kosaku (peasant) of Deathlord.

Ultima IV and Dragon Wars have humans as the only race available to PCs. Centauri Alliance has five sci-fi alien races. But most of the games have elves, dwarfs, halfings/hobbits (bobbits in Ultima III), and gnomes. Half-orcs and half-elves are common, but not ubiquitous. (Legend of Faerghail smooshes the latter two races into the single dubious  category Mixed.) Deathlord has all of these but half-orcs, renaming all of them except the Gnomes for some reason, and adding Trolls and Ogres into the mix as well. The Phantasie series allows you to choose among an array of normal PC races or to assign a random monster race to the character you just rolled. You might get a gronk like an Ogre, Troll, or Minotaur. Or you might get a pixie or a kobold or something in between. And then there's the Fuzzies. If Ultima III hadn't come out before Gremlins was released to movie theatres, I would have assumed they were based on Gizmo the Mogwai, because they look like furry little pals:

Every game in this array has a Strength stat, though Might & Magic calls it Might. (Sadly, M&M does not have a corresponding Magic stat.) All of them has an Intelligence/IQ/Intellect score. Nearly all have a Dexterity or Agility stat, but Might & Magic splits that score into Speed and Accuracy. Wisdom/Piety/Spirit is less common, with Charisma and Constitution type scores even rarer. Meanwhile Luck is a stat in Bard's Tale, Might & Magic, and Wizardy. Dragon Wars and Deathlord both have a Power stat. And someone behind Deathlord must have been familiar with Runequest, as it has a Size stat as well. 

So what the point of all of this? Heck if I know. I just like contemplating how, if you played your cards right, a character you made in 1981 for Wizardry could end up spending 1985 and 1986 in the worlds of Bard's Tale I and II. Maybe along the way they team up with your four PCs from Ultima III. Will they all go on to Faerghail? Will some of them go fight the Dragon Wars? Just thinking about those possibilities gives me good time feelings.

But I do think there's a seed of an idea here that could be used in tabletop RPG gaming. Each rectangle on my chart above represents a constellation of places and events. You could build a lifepath system for experienced PCs using a flowchart made in a similar fashion. Each stop on the flowchart would then come with some sort of die chart that would tell you what happened to the PC.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Is marching order grognardy nonsense?

Wizard's Crown was a pretty decent computer RPG of the early eighties. The tactical combat system was robust for its day, using a top-down map with placement and movement mattering in fairly sophisticated ways.  If you played any of the popular "gold box" D&D computer games, you played an upgrade of the Wizard's Crown system with larger and more colorful sprites. 

I didn't get anywhere near finishing Wizard's Crown. As I recall, something about the skill system was too grindy for my taste and it took a long time into the game before any cool monsters showed up. The "vorpal bunny" of Monty Python fame is the one decent monster I can remember right now.

One feature I remember distinctly about the game is the marching system. On the strategic map, the party is represented by a single anthropomorphic icon, as was common in the day. But when moving on a smaller scale map, the whole party is displayed. Like the image below. The party is entering a tavern from the left side of the screen. The box around the one character indicates he has been selected by the player. Any keypress for movement will move that character. The rest of the party follows, but not in an entirely predictable way.

You can see this play out in the video below (from which I grabbed the image above), which I've queued up to the bar scene. One slightly confusing factor to know ahead of time: two door guards come into view only as the first party member enters the tavern.

I very much like how marching plays out. Generally, the party follows the leader in something resembling the marching order desired, but sometimes people wander a bit out of position. For example, a combat can start at an inopportune time when your wizard, normally well-covered by fighters, is a square or two out of position and thus vulnerable to enemy crossbow fire.

Which brings me to the question in the title of this post. With its wargaming background, where pieces move across the board in orderly ways like chess pieces, D&D tends to assume that marching order is a fixed thing. Heck, that is one of the main uses for minis mentioned in early rules sets: using the PCs' figures to set the marching order. But are D&D parties more like marching Prussians or undisciplined skirmishers? 

This depends on the level of discipline that you believe your party can achieve. Unless there's some reason to believe they are  well-drilled professional dungeoneers, I think it is more likely that the party generally resembles the marching order at any given point rather than exactly replicates it. Maybe at the moment an encounter occurs the halfling is examing a small mushroom and is out of position. Maybe the cleric stopped to scratch his butt and is a couple of steps away from where he should be. This makes sense to me given my usual assumption that the typical assemblage of murderhobo types lack a certain level of operational sophistication.

The trick, of course, is how to implement this insight into a tabletop game. Given how much time is spent in my games trudging through smelly tunnels, any new mechanic would have to not be a drag to do four or five times in a session. Would something like this work?

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Wisdom from the Past: Tony Bath


So I recently read Tony Bath's 1973 book Setting Up a Wargames Campaign. This guy isn't discussed a ton in old school gaming scenes (though I'm sure if I looked I'd find that Grognardia and/or Playing at the World have already written about him and I just missed it), but he is one of the granddads of miniatures wargaming. His Hyborian age campaign was one of the first, if not the first, attempt to build an imaginary milieu specifically for longform gaming. Today I wanted to share my three favorite bits from Tony's excellent book. The first is a statement fairly early on about the mental attitude with which one should approach the hobby:
It is however true of campaigning, as of so many other things, that the amount of enjoyment to be obtained from it is pro rata to the amount of effort that is put into it This will vary from person to person and group to group according to how much time and interest people have to spare, but the main ingredient necessary is enthusiasm for the project and a sense of responsibility toward the other players.
I really like that last bit. He goes back to that theme once or twice in the book when he describes how rules disputes and weird edge cases were solved in his wargaming circles by simply having adult conversations until a consensus was reached. What a crazy concept! He also mentions in passing his primary means of discouraging cheating: stop playing with cheaters. Keep in mind that Bath operated during a time when the wargaming scene was so small he very probably knew every active wargamer in England. The price of excluding a player was quite high in terms of shrinking the player pool, but Tony was quite willing to pay that price if the player in question was socially obnoxious.

The other two things I wanted to share are game mechanicy. The first is his card-based system for fleshing out character traits for rulers, generals, etc., in his Hyborian campaign.
So, for each person's character you deal out seven cards. The first card dealt will decide upon his or her's most outstanding characteristic: a Heart will indicate Good Nature, a Diamond Love of Wealth, a Spade Ambition, and a Club Lave of War in a man, Patriotism in a woman. The value of the card will determine the depth of this passion, a high card being very strong, a low card relatively weak. The rest of the cards are used individually, and each hasa value of its own, as given below: 
  • Ace: Spade or Club, a disloyal intriguer. Diamond, loyal intriguer. Heart, exceptional good nature. 
  • King: Spade or Club, Energy: Heart or Diamond, Courage · 
  • Queen: Great lover 
  • Knave: Spade/Club, Unreliability, oath-breaker, liar. Heart/Diamond, Merciless, revenge-prone. 
  • Ten: Loyalty, absolute in Diamonds, grading down through Hearts, Clubs, Spades.
  • Nine: Physical beauty, except for Spade, which is Ugliness.
  • Eight: Spade/Club, Cruelty Heart/Diamond, Generosity.
  • Seven: Spade/Club, Personality Heart/Diamond, Jealous of Family Honour
  • Six: Spade/Club, Lazyness Heart/Diamond, Charm
  • Five: Spade/Club, Wisdom Heart/Diamond, Cunning
  • Four: Spade/Club, Stupidity Heart/Diamond, Cowardice
  • Three: Spade Club, Bad Temper Heart/Diamond, Good Temper
  • Two: Spade/Club, Arrogance, Pride. Heart/Diamond, Merciful.

Bath also notes than an upside down Ace indicates some sort of physical abnormality or defect, such as a hunchback. I immediately thought of Peter Dinklage's character on Game of Thrones and Emperor Claudius' stutter in I, Claudius. Anyway, here's how Tony puts these card draws all together:

So, you deal out your seven cards and proceed to evaluate the character. In most cases. this will be straightforward enough, but on some occasions conflicting cards will show up. lf, for instance, you tum up a Nine of Hearts and a Nine of Spades, then physical beauty obvlously cancels out physical ugliness and you discard both cards. An example of a character reading might be a deal of Knave, King, Ten and Nine of Hearts, Nine of Spades, Nine and Two of clubs. This would give you, assuming a male, a very good natured fellow, brave, handsome, very loyal, but a touch arrogant. Of your three nines, two are beauty and one ugliness, so the three finish up as one beauty card.

The final thing I wanted to share was Tony's ingenious method for hidden movement on the campaign map when only two people can play in a campaign:

Where only two people are engaged in a campaign they will have to make do without the services of an umpire, and problems therefore increase. Obviously they cannot both just move pins or counters around a single map; even though the opposing player may not be sure exactly what the pins or counters represent, it will still give him far more information than he is entitled to. Some method of concealment must therefore be devised, and one of the best is the matchbox method. For this, you need a matchbox for every reference point - either hexagon or hexagon face - on your map. It may take you a while to collect this number of matchboxes, but if you appeal to friends, neighbours etc. to collect for you things will go quicker. You then glue these matchboxes together in a square or oblong as shown on the diagram, and number both sides of each box with the map reference it represents. 

Your two players then sit at a table with the matchbox collection placed between them. Each has his own map in front of him, but far enough away to be illegible to his opponent. Each has made his opening dispositions on his own map and provided himself wlth a numbered counter to represent every separate force he is using. Moving alternately, the players now place their counters in the matchboxes and, as the troops move, move them from box to box. In the course of this, if they traverse several hexagons, the player is of course entitled to look in the requisite matchboxes representing the spaces he has moved through. It will probably be best for the player not moving to tum his back while the other does so, otherwise by looking at the reverse of the matchboxes he could possibly gain some unfair indication of where his opponent is moving. [Following this Tony briefly discusses not playing with cheaters.] 

Up till the time that a player finds one of his opponent's counters in a matchbox that he is entering or passing through, no disclosure is of course made of strengths, dispositions etc. When two counters reach the same box, however, some information has to be given... A commander who discovered that he was faced by greatly superior numbers was able ta refuse battle and withdraw; unless, of course, his opponent had managed to cut off his retreat by some method, either by placing a second force across it or by interposing some obstacle. This led to quite a bit of jockeying for position, and encouraged both sides to push out small forces in advance · to feel out the enemy and try to gain a picture of his overall dispositions.

This matchbox map approach is an absolute delight. In addition to the hidden movement element, it would also allow a campaign map full of counters to be easily stored on a shelf in between play sessions.

I love it when I read old gaming texts and find great ideas ready for revival. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

First Casualties in the Disputed Zone

So last weekend my daughter and I spent a few hours painting some crude spaceship miniatures I made out cereal and cracker boxes. It was a fun little craft time with my number one pal.

Today we playtested the first full draft of Disputed Zone, a set of spaceship rules I've been working on. If you're familiar with Full Thrust, Starmada, Star Fleet Battles and Star Frontiers Knight Hawks, there's not much new to these rules. But the specific pastiche is what I like in spaceship games, which is large number of figures zooming around until they explode spectacularly.

But today we only playtested a one-on-one duel. The Brandibuck, a Twilight class light cruiser from the Quazonian Harmony (the purple vessel) encountered the Daggergaze, a Durgozian destroyer of the Swift Vengeance class (a brown vessel barely visible thanks to the rusty-red carpet square). Neither vessel was able to bring its primary weapon to bear, but a lucky shot from the Daggergaze's secondary lasers penetrated the Brandibuck's shields and blew it to smithereens. We only got through one full turn and probably would have done another, but the oven timer went off. The pizza was done. Elizabeth swore that the Brandibuck would be avenged some day.

She took the photos, by the way.


Wednesday, November 04, 2020

the mightiest of torches

Here's an old illo from Dennis Loubet, one of the greats of game illustration in my opinion. You may recognize his style from the Ultima series of games. He also did work for Metagaming and was the illustrator for Steve Jackson's Cardboard Heroes, the first paper minis I ever encountered.

Anyhoo, I wanted to share this particular pic because it shows some members of this dungeon party carrying two-handed torches. You can find historical depictions of these bigass, long-burning torches in late medieval and early modern art, but I think this is the first instance I've found of them making their way into a D&D-type illo. Here's one of my favorite historical depictions:

How might these bad boys be statted up for our games? To be worth devoting both hands (and thus making it one party member's whole deal for the expedition - another good reason to have some NPC lackeys in the crew) the gain in burn time should be substantial, possibly also with a small gain in the amount of light it throws. Maybe 5 times the burn time, with +10' to the radius illuminated? For that, it should cost more than 5 times the price of a standard torch, maybe ten times. The thing to watch out for when pricing for your campaign would be to find a sweet spot between the low cost of a regular torch and the longer burn and better control of a lantern and oil.

PS: Also, note that several people in Loubet's illo are carrying torches. A dungeon crew with just one light source is begging the DM to find a way to extinguish it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

new LotFP video spot