Wednesday, October 18, 2017

OSR Project #2: The Danger of Skills

There's an argument floating around that will claim that skills expand what your character is capable of by letting you invest in a bunch of different things, rather than being confined to an archetype like a class. I'm here going to have to argue that the opposite is true.

Skills by definition impose limitations on what your character is capable of.

When OD&D was released, there were only three classes - Fighting Man, Cleric, and Magic User. All of these characters were assumed to be dungeon-delving adventurers and have all the skills and abilities appropriate of such. Later, Greyhawk was released as the first D&D supplement and it added Thief as a class. Suddenly, the dynamic of the game changed.

The thief is essentially a class based around having skills. Climb walls, hide in shadows, move silently, pick locks, disarm/detect traps, etc. The Thief as originally written is Dungeoneer: The Class. This creates a lot of weirdness compared to how the game was played before. If you listen to Arneson talk about his early D&D experiences, everyone acted like a thief before the thief showed up. Everyone was sneaking around, picking locks, hiding and setting up ambushes, disarming traps, etc. The creation of the thief changed the way the distribution of abilities was perceived. Because the thief has a mechanical means of doing these things on their sheet, suddenly those things became the domain of the thief. Worse, because the thief had a mechanical ruleset for doing these tasks, it gave the implication that because no one else had access to these mechanics the thief was the only one who could do it. (There is a very interesting argument to be made that the nature and wording of the thief's abilities was supposed to imply a slightly supernatural character to them, thus everyone could sneak but a thief could literally disappear in a shadow. I actually prefer that interpretation, but it is outside of what I want to discuss here.)

When there is no mechanic for a thing, it's in the common domain. Anyone can attempt it by navigating the fiction. When you introduce a mechanic for a thing, you codify it and ultimately limit it in some way. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's an inherent side-effect of having a mechanic for it.

Now to make this less esoteric, consider for a moment Aragorn as a Ranger. In OD&D or AD&D, I can stand on the wall at Helm's Deep and make an impassioned speech because there is no Oration or Speechcraft skill. I can get up there, do my thing and feel pretty damned heroic about it because of course I can do it. I'm a big deal adventurer. The GM might nod and approve. The GM might even let me roll something to see if it has a mechanical impact on the fight. Who knows.. But it's entirely within my wheelhouse. Because there is no mechanic for it, it's up for grabs.

Now pretend we're playing 3.5e instead. Now there's a Diplomacy skill (or whatever it's called in 3.5) that exists for trying to influence NPCs. The existence of this skill means that in order for my character to be good at the thing governed by the skill, I need to invest mechanical resources into making them do so (in this case, skill points). What was something that I might have done and could have done because I thought it was cool and might have made a memorable scene becomes an area of the game I can no longer meaningfully interact with unless I spec out my character specifically to do so. I have to buy back the thing I could have done before, had the skill not existed.

Worse, because there is now a mechanic attached, if I do give an impassioned speech at the walls of Helm's Deep, the GM might make me roll for it anyway and because I don't have the skill I've introduced a risk. I might botch the roll and the GM penalizes the troops for my good intention. The GM might decide that I get up there and somehow drop my speghetti because a lot of games are written with the assumption that a bad roll means the character fucked up.

Where before this was a fun and optional thing that at worst would have been neat to play and at best might have given me some kind of fun bonus from a GM trying to encourage such things, I now have to weigh the risks of even attempting a thing that the game says I'm mechanically bad at because I don't have skill points invested in it. At best, I look unheroic and dumb, at worst, I might accidentally penalize my troops for having tried.

In the 3.5 ranger's case this is even more punitive because I've spent all of my skill points buying the abilities that previous editions gave me just for being part of my class.. And we'll not even talk about how different classes in 3.5 don't have access to certain skills and thus you have to invest even more character resources if you want to do something like be a fighter who also knows how to talk to people.

If you want an even more banal example.. There is no AD&D, B/x, or OD&D character who can't ride a horse. And yet, in 3.0/3.5/pf, Ride is a skill. You can technically ride without it, but if you want to do anything with the horse or avoid any perils of said horse, you now need to drop points in ride.

Making something a skill inherently walls the thing off from the open domain of play. If there's no cooking skill and you want to cook something, you are generally assumed to be able to do it because it's beneath what the game cares to simulate. The moment you create a cooking skill, you are mechanically a shitty cook until you invest resources in being able to do something you otherwise would have been able to do for free.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

OSR Project #1: Deconstructing Ability Scores

I've gotten my freelance work done for the day, I've gotten some Scoundrel work done for the day. Now I'm allowed to write about OSR stuff. That's how this works, right?

I've been kicking around the D&D six-scores setup for a while now. While they are a fairly well-rounded way to measure a character, they've always struck me as a bit odd for an OSR game. Ironic, I know.

In OSR (for the duration of this post, being shorthand for "TSR-era D&D editions and the games that directly mimic them"), the overwhelming majority of things in the game have no ability scores whatsoever.  Looking through the monster manuals very few, if any, entries bother listing ability scores. Most will give a broad category for intelligence so that the GM knows how to play them. Every so often a rare monsters of impressive strength will have a strength score listed in their description just in case it comes up. Even monsters comparable to PCs (Elves, Dwarves, Humans) have no ability scores RAW, even when those NPCs are given character levels.

What this means is that ability scores are mechanically a player-facing mechanism. RAW, they are unique to player characters. NPCs only have them if the GM decides to detail one out for whatever reason. Immediately this makes any real concerns about ability scores as a kind of simulation moot. Instead, they seem to exist only as a source of player character bonuses. This becomes even more apparent when you look into OD&D, where attributes played a very small roll overall compared to modern games. Dexterity would get you a bonus on missile fire, Constitution increased your HP, and Charisma played heavily into retainers/followers/hirelings... but the main function of Strength, Intelligence, or Wisdom's seemed to be as prime requisites. Later editions add further bonuses and modifiers to different ability scores, but they ultimately remain PC-specific bonuses.

If ability scores are less "defining the simulationist parameters of your character in the world" (because again, NPCs don't have them, RAW) and more "bonuses PCs are eligible for" then it changes how we have to interact with them. The question becomes: in what ways do we want characters to be defined that interact with the mechanics of the game?

 Let's examine the traditional six and what they do strictly from the mechanical bonuses they (usually) provide.
Strength: to-hit bonus in melee, damage bonus in melee, ability to bend or break things.
Dexterity: to-hit bonus for ranged weapons, bonus to AC,  bonus to initiative
Constitution: bonus HP, sometimes resurrection chance.
Intelligence: ability to speak, languages, sometimes bonus spells.
Wisdom: magic-based saving throws, sometimes bonus spells.
Charisma: reaction adjustment, maximum retainers, morale of retainers

I already knew that I didn't want modifiers for to-hit or AC, so a whole lot of what Strength and Dexterity do immediately goes out the window. Intelligence and Wisdom also ring kind of hollow, for me but for different reasons.

Intelligence has always struck me as at-odds with the premise of OSR, at least in regards to the play style in which I am interested. It's incredibly difficult to play a character who is smarter than you are, as so much of intelligence is in the ability to make decisions and collate information. You as a player are only as intelligent as you are. You can get around this to some degree if the game has significant skill-like mechanics your Intelligence score can influence, but an OSR game typically doesn't and "roll to see if your character figures it out" goes against the player-skill principles that I want to pursue.

The opposite arrangement tends to be no better. When you give an intelligent player a dumb character, they wind up being a comic relief most of the time (which may or may not be good, depending on the tone you want in the game) but they also tend to wind up being far more clever than their intelligence should suggest because in most scenarios players want to succeed. For an OSR game that is supposed to be challenge or objective-based, trying to get players to make decisions that they know are going to be more likely to fail is putting the player at cross-purposes with the game's reward mechanism.

The mechanical weight of Intelligence is unimpressive as well. Bonus languages are okay, but aren't particularly interesting and I'm not at all interested in modeling your ability to speak properly. I've heard quite Lenny impressions already, thank you. Meanwhile, Wisdom basically only exists as a saving throw adjustment which is also kind of lame.

Given that I want a game that is more explicitly about player skill, I'm thinking that the best move here is to merge Intelligence and Wisdom. Wisdom will remain as an ability score and take on the linguistic functions, as well as any kind of knowing or noticing-stuff roles it might have otherwise had. Most of the functions of Intelligence are better left as player discretion. It's up to you how smart your character is and you ultimately display that intelligence through the choices you as a player make for your character.

The other major impulse I have is to merge Strength and Constitution. There's an argument to be made that lifting capability and endurance are not intrinsically related (the power lifter vs the distance runner) but in a game where we've already decided that most things don't have ability scores at all, this level of simulation isn't strictly necessary. Further, if we strip Strength of its combat bonuses (as I planned to do for dexterity as well), then the ability is left somewhat anemic on its own.

Suddenly, we're down to four ability scores:
Brawn: Physical fitness, strength, endurance, vitality. Plays a roll in carrying stuff, improves HP, bends bars, unsticks doors.
Dexterity: Agility and fine motor control. Increases initiative, is probably useful for mobility stuff.
Wisdom: Knowledge, willpower, judgement. Bonus languages. Interacts with magic in fun ways (saves, spells, etc).
Charisma: Leadership and bearing. Reaction adjustment, maximum retainers, morale of retainers
For what I want to do, I think that's perfect. As an aside, if someone was interested in a 3e style "three saves" setup, it winds up corresponding perfectly. As an added bonus, fewer ability scores make it much harder to have a dump-stat. Dexterity is mechanically the weakest of these options, but I've got some ideas on how it can come into play more as well. 

Until part 2.

Friday, October 13, 2017

What I Want in an OSR Game

OSR appeals to me in specific ways for specific reasons. Because I'm already doing character-focused story-game stuff with other games I'm playing (or writing!), I don't need OSR to be my end-all-be-all general purpose tool. Here the attraction is in what makes OSR different.

Objective, Challenged-Based Gaming

Most of the games I love actively embrace failure. Burning Wheel, Apocalypse, and yes, Sword & Scoundrel — all of these games are designed in such a way that failure is not only expected, it's inherently part of what drives the story forward. You are not playing these games to accomplish things so much as to see what happens.

OSR is pretty well the opposite of this. In the majority of games in this family, you have two sources of XP: defeating enemies and recovering treasure. Both of these are objective-based reward mechanisms. If you want to advance, you have to succeed. You have to overcome challenges in order to get the rewards both in and out of character.

Sometimes, I'm in the mood for a tragic, twisting narrative. Other times, I want to be challenged. I want my players to be challenged and to be rewarded for beating those challenges.

Encounter-Based High Adventure

As a corollary to the above, most of the games I'm into are intensely character-focused and built around exploring who that character is and what they are about. It's a lot of fun but it can also be emotionally exhausting. I'm not always up for it as a player or a GM. Sometimes you want to be playing Game of Thrones where it's all character-focused drama built around their individual goals and passions. Other times, you want to play Conan or Indiana Jones, where the protagonist is less a focus and more an excuse for us to go on cool adventures and see weird shit. OSR is definitely in the latter camp.

This shift in focus also gives you an entirely different kind of creative outlet. Prepping for a character-focused game is all about finding ways to reincorporate aspects of those characters into the game. In an OSR game, the GM's creative efforts are almost the opposite -- outwardly focusing on creating interesting scenarios, locations, creatures and other encounters. You have a ton of freedom to do random interesting things.

Random Stuff and the Impartial Adjudicator

The more story and character-oriented the game is, the more deliberate you want to be with events. OSR tends to be all about the random. Aside from giving you all kinds of neat weird play artifacts (mutation tables, weather tables, random encounters..), the more randomized the elements become the more objective you can be as a GM. When I'm playing B/x, my job isn't to actively challenge the players or find ways to highlight their character. My job is to prepare a situation for them to explore and then impartially interpret the results of the dice as they do so, adjudicating any fictional elements as impartially as I can. Whether they succeed or fail, the amount of XP they earn, all of that is between them and the dice gods. I am simply the messenger.

Player Skill and Fictional Engagement

One of the major draws to OSR for many people is the way these games allow direct engagement with the fiction. In many cases, you can bypass challenges through role-playing alone, whether this is negotiating your way through a social encounter or narrating your way through disarming a trap or solving a puzzle. In a way, resorting to dice can almost be seen as a fail-state, as it means you have to instead fall back on your mechanical abilities -- and in the process, you're putting yourself at risk.

This approach is supported fairly well by OSR play.The lack of skills in most of these games means that players have to look elsewhere for solutions to their problems. Risk management is the primary player-skill to master in the game, so any time you can overcome a challenge through fictional positioning you're better off than you would have been letting the dice decide your fate. This works well in conjunction with the earlier point about challenge-based gaming. I love the kind of creative problem-solving that the gaps in OSR rules foster.

Adventure as Expedition

In nearly any other game I play, equipment and supplies are basically hand-waived. Tracking time, speed, and distance are all just irrelevant trivialities that interfere with the story you're trying to tell. In OSR, they can be a crucial part of the logistics of exploration. Early D&D editions were big on treating dungeon-delving as an expedition. Players would have to carefully balance their supplies to ensure they had enough goods to make a journey, but the more stuff you brought the slower you move, the less you could bring back and the more easily you can be overrun. You could bring hirelings with you to help you fight or haul, but the more people you bring the more supplies you need and the more attention you'll attract. And of course, time is also against you, because the more stuff you bring the slower you go the more time it takes the more supplies you go through, the more likely something will eat you.

In any other game time, speed, and inventory are unnecessary simulation and best ignored. In OSR, they can be an important expression of player-skill through risk management. I also personally love the Lewis & Clark or Oregon Trail vibe that you get once the players have started an adventuring company, set out into the wilds, their packs laden with junk and a dozen hirelings at their side. It's a unique experience and one that's nigh-impossible to manage in most systems.

I could keep going on. The rules-light nature of most of these games, the flexibility in hacking, etc., but the purpose of this post was specifically to talk about what I wanted in an OSR game that wasn't what I was already getting in my other games. In turn, as I kick around design ideas, these highlight the areas I really want to lean into and focus on.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

OSR & TROS

In terms of role-playing preferences, I've always been in kind of a weird position. There's always been a weird undercurrent of animosity between the different camps of the role-playing community. Within the indie/nar/forge/story-game crowd there are certain elements that have a tendency to look down on D&D in any form as an unsophisticated and unsatisfying experience. This sentiment is often extended to the OSR movement, which can be seen as a nostalgia-fueled leap backwards in gaming. In turn, the certain elements of the OSR crowd have a tendency to look at the story-games people as elitist hipsters trying to pass off their game experiences off as high art.

This isn't universally true of all parties on each side — how often is anything universally true of a group of broad group of people? — but I've gotten in debates with people on both sides about the legitimacy of the other as a valid game choice. This brings me back to the first sentence: I've always been in a weird position between the two communities, with one foot on each side. I enjoy both kinds of games quite a bit, as they offer very different experiences that appeal to me for different reasons. The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've realized they have in common.

Intentional, Focused Design

The hallmark of both movements was a dissatisfaction with some element of the hobby that was so widespread as to spark the creation of new games meant to answer a specific question. For the forge/nar/story-games movement, it was largely a dissatisfaction with games on the market in terms of creating the kind of stories that people wanted to tell. For OSR, it was largely a reaction to the introduction of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons that made a whole lot of people realize that the current official version of the game was no longer giving them the kind of experience they wanted to have. In both cases, this dissatisfaction lead to intense critique, analysis, and eventually the cultivation of a body of design philosophy.

DIY and the Indie Explosion

In both cases, fierce forum debates quickly became blog posts and ultimately an explosion of games designed to embody various elements of the design philosophy. The primary focus on both ends was on a specific way in which the game was meant to be played in order to deliver a very particular kind of experience. Both scenes have flourishing online communities where people are constantly churning out games and hacks and other content. Both scenes are to this day dominated by independent publishers, many of whom have turned their passions into a legitimate business. 

As I chewed on this subject, I realized that if I went a bit deeper I could actually draw far more parallels in my own journey through this. My gateway drug into the narrative scene was a now largely forgotten game called The Riddle of Steel. It was a formative game for me, in that it not only introduced me to a whole new way of playing, but ultimately changed how I played everything after that. The parallels between TROS and the OSR are striking, even beyond their amusingly similar abbreviation.

Red-Handed Pulp

The Riddle of Steel is a reference to the classic Conan the Barbarian movie, from 1982. Both TROS and the OSR ultimately take their origin from early pulp Sword & Sorcery as filtered through popular culture. Amusingly, both also then sort of obscure the human-centric and exotic pulp quality to do a Tolkienesq medieval fantasy with elves and dwarves.

Modular Mechanics

Like the overwhelming majority of OSR games, TROS had no single unifying mechanic. Instead, it had a handful of different self-contained systems the game leaned on for different situations. Much like with OSR games, this both told you rather explicitly the arenas in which the game wanted to focus but it also gave you a ton of room to add, remove, and tinker with the guts of the things. Almost as soon as the game was out, people began to customize and hack it to suit their campaigns much in the same way as even today people hack their OSR system of choice to customize it for whatever they are doing.

Gameable Gaps

Many OSR enthusiasts will argue that the lack of rules for certain situations is a feature, rather than a bug. TROS benefits from a similar gap in its rules set. While it features a rudimentary skill system, it was obvious that combat and sorcery were what the game was really interested in. Everything else was a simple test and you moved on. It gave the GM quite a bit of leeway and in practice I found playing TROS to have a lot in common with my memories of playing AD&D: you basically ignored the book most of the time until someone got in a fight or cast a spell, with the thief-type character usually being the one to do nearly all of the task-resolution kind of rolls.

Player Choices, Player Skill

Much like the OSR, TROS was not a game you could by any means just "roll play" your way through. TROS has one of the highest player-skill curves of any game I've played. You, the player, have to become very good at both engaging with the system to get XP (Spiritual Attributes, in this case) but the combat and magic mechanics require a huge amount of system mastery to play. What's awesome about this, though, is that the system mastery here means "picking strategies and making interesting choices in play" rather than something like 3.pf where system mastery means "knowing how to build your character in order to get the most amount of bonuses."

This, more than anything, is probably why I was so attracted to TROS back when.  The idea that you would win because of your choices rather than having the highest numbers or the biggest sword or whatever was enthralling. It gave me a taste for something that I've been chasing ever since.

Player-Driven Play

This may not be true for all of the OSR, but it is generally true for the parts of it I enjoy. I love sandboxes, huge, sprawling dungeons, and anything that lets the players have a significant say in the strategies and engagements they will attempt. Even if you've all agreed to the premise "we're going dungeon-delving" the gold-for-xp nature of so much OSR tends to mean that players are in charge of their own advancement. The OSR assumptions of balance mean that the players have to pick and choose their battles and are making decisions that ultimately puts their success and failure in their own hands. Contrast this with later D&D (or other games) where you are often a participant in a pre-written story and are rewarded for hitting milestones within that story.

TROS did this in a way that no other game I'd encountered had, with the PC's Spiritual Attributes making them masters of their own destiny in a massively compelling way.  The two camps take massively different approaches, but both games ultimately empower the players to make decisions that matter and let them drive the game onward in a compelling way. 

In hindsight, it's not surprising to me at all why Sword & Scoundrel inherited as much TROS DNA as it did or why we retained what we did after all of these revisions. By the same token, it's not surprising that I'm gravitating towards OSR even as I work on the former. In a lot of ways, they are the answer to the same kinds of desires taken in two different directions.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Coming home to the OSR

A couple different things have happened in the last while to turn my attention back to the OSR world. First off, I've started playing in B/x game with the fine folks from OSR General. It started as a 4chan group and it's slowly migrated to discord as well. It's always weird to join a campaign in the middle of play, but I'm enjoying it so far. After spending so much time dealing with heavy character-driven narrative bullshit, it's incredibly refreshing to do some old-fashioned Gygaxian fantasy. Negotiating with kobolds and watching your compatriots get hopelessly murdered by obvious traps.

A more pressing concern is that at least for now, the design work for scoundrel is done. With the exception of the occasional tweak or adjustment, it has been done for a while now. Instead, I'm stuck with the writing.

The endless, endless writing.

I don't actually mind the writing, mind you. Sometimes it's more difficult than others — as you might expect, writing for a living and then trying to then also moonlight for Grand Heresy — but I don't mind doing it. The problem is that this does nothing for the part of my brain that enjoys game design, which is what started all this mess in the first place. Naturally, my thoughts begin to drift elsewhere.

I've already started having these conversations with a couple people. I figure I might as well refine and catalog them here and just maybe, by the time Scoundrel is off my plate, I'll have the beginnings of another game right on its tail.

Sorenson's 3 Questions - Sword & Scoundrel

In ye ancient days of yore, Jared Sorensen (designer of many things) put forward three questions that now collectively bear his name. Between writing on the subject, I've been attempting to decide how I wanted to answer.

What is your game about?

Sword & Scoundrel has the tag: A game about Passion, Violence, and General Skullduggery. Above all, the game is a passion play. It's medieval morality theater presented as an HBO or AMC-style character drama. Players decide what's most important to their character, what they care about, what they want, the lines they will not cross. Through play, we challenge them to see how far they are willing to go and what they are willing to sacrifice. The game is about moral conflict, with forces set in motion against the player's goals and beliefs. Finally, it's a blood-opera with the player's passions leading to quick and brutal violence. We wanted the fantasy equivalent of a western or a john woo film, with swordplay being quick, flashy, and lethal.

How does your game do this?

Mechanically speaking, characters are not just their attributes and skills. Their goals and beliefs are represented by player-nominated phrases called Drives which have a mechanical weight to them. Similarly, characters have Traits which can represent everything from the character's history and background to their physical or personality quirks and their relationships with other characters, including the players in their group. These all have mechanical significance in play, often giving them additional dice for their pool when relevant.

On the other side of the coin, the game is written in such a way that it is explicitly about conflict. If there is nothing in conflict and nothing at stake, there is no roll made. Further, while the game goes out of its way to play up its blood-opera persona with a detailed combat system, the rules support conflict in a broad range of arenas. The current beta supports anything when rolled as a simple conflict, but as we get the opportunity we intend to add a fully formed social combat system, faction rules, magic, and other forms of more abstract conflicts.

How does your game encourage/reward this?

The primary reward mechanism is through the accumulation of Drive Points. When players engage in conflicts with their drives, they are rewarded for it through additional dice that drive is worth. These dice come up as bonus dice in any conflict that is directly about the drive in question. Further, when players engage in certain behaviors that highlight their drives and traits, they can gain additional points that can be added to the drive of their choosing. The quickest way to earn these points is often to allow your drives or traits to get you in trouble, rewarding the player directly for making choices that are in line with who their character is even if those choices are not the optimal way to get what the player might want. Finally, these drive points can be spent to increase any of the character's abilities or traits or learn new of the same.

In short, players advance solely by making the kinds of characters suitable for good character dramas (ambitious, resolute, yet flawed) and then role-playing them in the fashion that these characters tend to behave (struggling between who they are and what they want). When they do this, the game not only gives them more dice to throw around in the conflicts they will face but also gives them the means to improve their character's scores as they play.