Combat for fun and profit

I've talked about how I realized that some old school games were not about killing everything you came across, and how I had never really been a combat heavy GM. So, then why have I run, and plan to run again, Dungeon Fantasy?

First off, I'd like to say there is nothing the prevents me from running a "combat is best avoided" sort of game with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or the Dungeon Fantasy RPG. But DF (either) does not assume that sort of play. If anything it takes more from video game play, Rouge and Diablo were clearly influences, than the sort of games I use to run. And it clearly states that it is about "killing monsters and taking their stuff", not "avoiding monsters to get to their stuff" or "negotiating with monsters..." and so on.

That said, there are skills and traits that are designed to let characters play that sort of way. The Bard can very much be a "dungeon negotiator". The thief is probably going to be better at sneaking than fighting. Wizards, Martial Artists, and others have several abilities that with some clever use can allow a group to bypass combats.

And DF at it's core is still a game of resource management. And any game that does that, is going to have to have an implied element of choice in combat. What I mean is that if a group is low on Healing Potions, Arrows, FP/ER, etc., then there has to be a choice between risking another fight, or trying to avoid it.

Still, this is one area that I really wish was covered in more detail in G:DF and DFRPG. But it isn't and the game does have a combat focus. A "balanced" combat focus... I really shouldn't like it, but after picking up GURPS DF books 1 and 2 and reading them, I was intrigued.

I don't know exactly what it was, the marriage of my favorite RPG system and the nostalgia for my first, just seeing how well it "emulated" hack and slash, or just because it looked fun. Whatever it was, it drew me in. Even after deciding that I probably wouldn't run a DF game, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I kept coming back. In conversations, online discussions, and other places.

Okay, these guys aren't balanced
Eventually I decided to try out, and ran a "sand box" sort of game using 0one's Caverns of Chaos map, with some of the information from the Caves of Chaos that was distributed with the D&D Next playtest. I found or created a few monster conversions, filled in some treasure, and got ready to play.

But things were hard. I posted several times about my struggles with DF. 250 point characters were on the high end of what I was use to outside of a "supers" game, and figuring out how to balance PCs, enemies, and make it all exciting didn't come naturally to me. After the Caves, the group moved on to the "Castle Von Dark" which was a combination of another published map, and some of my own dungeons. That campaign added more NPC interactions and was a bit more my style.

After a time, I put away DF and moved on to other things. But when I was looking back at my campaigns, I realized that DF was one of the longest running I had ever had. It was "hard" for me as a GM, but over time I was getting better. I was figuring out how to merge my style and the style and assumptions of DF. At times this led to some bad sessions, but I think the good far out weighed the bad.

So, I keep going back to DF. I keep tweaking my approach to it. There are still things I struggle with. Starting combat time before it needs to be, or keeping it going when the action has slowed and it really should be dropped are things I know I need to work on (and will probably write about soon). Dealing with the struggles of Virtual Tables Tops, which can aid some things, but make others more difficult. Adding loot that is rewarding and useful. Creating interesting characters and plots, but letting the players drive the story. Running quicker combats. And yes, even creating "balanced" encounters... and the occasional unbalanced ones. But even with all that, I've had some of the longest campaigns, interesting PCs, and good times running DF.


Thoughts on "Old School" vs "Modern" RPG Design (Part 2)

...continuing on from last post.

Going back to my first D&D session, after creating my Elf (because elves could have swords and spells), the party spotted some smoke in the distance. I had an elven cloak, so I scouted ahead and saw some bandits burning down a cottage, and a woman tied to chair. The rest of the session was me and the other players discussing what to do. My character had Ventriloquism and my cloak, so I wanted to sneak up, throw my voice and try to convince the bandits I was a ghost in order to scare them off.
This ended up taking so long that I had to leave and didn't get to finish out the adventure. Later I learned that the GM had planned that encounter to just be a simple fight. We were "suppose" to go kill the bandits. At the time I laughed about how silly all my advanced planning was, but now I realize something about that game.
Again, I did grow up on video games. And most of the times in a video game, you are "suppose" to kill the enemies. But then, there aren't really any other options. But to me table top RPGs weren't "a way to play video games without electricity". They were something MORE. A video game only let you do what it was coded to allow. But an RPG let you do (or at least try) anything. In this way RPGs were always more "real" to me. And I tried to have my PCs act in a way that I thought I would act if I were in this sort of fantastic world. So, I tried to avoid a fight instead of risking injury or death. To do otherwise would have been too... video game-y.
This is how I feel about so many modern games and the modern editions of D&D (to be fair, I'd say this had been the trend since AD&D 2nd edition with XP being mainly from killing monsters). Games that balance every encounter so the PCs don't need to think, but can just kill mindlessly. Games where everything scales to PCs capabilities. RPGs that are little more than video games.
I use to think that the OSR, was just a bunch of old grognards that were nostalgic for the first set of rules they used. And while that might be part of it, I think there is also some that just reject how the modern game is suppose to be played. (I haven't the foggiest why you need old rules to have an old play style, though.)
Anyway, I want to bring this all back to GURPS, because that is the game I love to run. For a LONG time my GMing philosophy for GURPS was, "I don't balance encounters". That is, I would make a Dragon as powerful as... a Dragon! I'd make the King's Elite Guard, well "elite". But then I also didn't really run games that were expecting the players to kill everyone and everything they came across. I use to warn new players how deadly GURPS is, how any fight could be deadly, and that "a fair fight is one you can loose". I wanted players to play smart and only fight if they couldn't find another way. When a fight broke out, I really didn't know who was going to walk away alive.

I'm not really sure where I was going with all this. Just pondering and putting down my thoughts on the subject. If anything it makes me think that I've been GMing "old school" even though I didn't really think of it that way. And while I don't want to beat up on other people's fun, I needed to voice my dislike of games and ways of playing that feel artificial and "gamey" or especially when they are trying to emulate video games, which I still love, but see as a more limited version of the table top experience.

Thoughts on "Old School" vs "Modern" RPG Design (Part 1)

I apologize ahead of time, as this might ramble a bit ... or even turn into a rant....

I was watching a video recently that was listing several of the "iconic" D&D monsters like the Beholder and Gelatinous Cube. What was interesting about this video was the narrator mentioning running away from or avoiding these monsters. This got me thinking about some if the philosophy of "old school" gaming, modern game design, what folks want out of RPGs and many other things.

First, I'd like to say that I in no way claim to be an "old school" gamer. I didn't start table top gaming till the 90's. I think my first exposure to D&D would have been the Saturday morning cartoon, and the AD&D first edition DM guide that one of my older siblings had (but only played once that I recall). I use to thumb through that book looking at all the pictures and imagining games of adventure, but never really got a chance to play till years later.
Instead, I grew up on video games. From the Atari 2600, to the NES, to the SNES. And the first "role playing game" I played were JRPG video games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior. There was also a heap of action adventure games like The Legend of Zelda and Faxanadu. My first game of D&D was the "Rules Cyclopedia" basic game, so maybe that's still old school?
Anyway, bringing this back to modern day, I find it interesting that the last few editions of D&D, and many other games have had a strong focus on "balance". Every combat encounter is suppose to be "challenging but winnable". Now I for a long time I assumed that GMs that created "deathtrap dungeons" or were out to "win by killing the PCs" were just bad GMs or "doing it wrong."* Maybe this is part of the reason that modern games focus on balance?
But what if some of those "killer GMs" weren't really trying to kill the PCs at all? Looking at "old school" adventure modules, it seems like there wasn't really this idea that the PCs should be "clearing the dungeon". Some seem to imply that combat is something to be avoided. And sure the monsters are little more than a collection of combat stats, but those stats paint a dire picture. Maybe GMs were just trying to get players to think about what their characters can do other than be mindless killing machines.
The problem is that modern designs seems to focus on letting the PCs be exactly that. If every fight is suppose to be winnable, then there is no need to think if you should avoid the fight, how to trick the monster, or what other options exist. Only a bad GM would put a monster that the party can't defeat in the adventure, right?
Maybe this design change came about, not because of bad GMing, but bad playing? There was always "that one player" that did rush in and attack everything. They didn't want to think about tactics, deal with negotiation, and they never backed down or ran away. And maybe there were lots of players that way, and GMs that didn't want TPKs over and over. Those GMs might have "tweaked the numbers", and made that beholder weaker, that dragon slower, and overall let the players win. Because "winning" is what it's all about, right?
Or maybe this change was influenced by video game design? More on that later.
* I don't want to get into this too much, but I now believe that there is no bad-wrong-fun as long as everyone is on the same page and has the same expectations of the game.


Traveller Interstellar Wars - Episode 2

(man, I really need to get these out faster...)

Start: Tuesday (late) 2070.06.19, Duriim System

The Crew:

  • Captain Thomas Logan
  • Pilot Josh Naxon
  • Chief Engineer Kit Malloy
  • Navigator Dennis Ross
  • Comm/Sensor Officer "Skip" Karbuga
  • Chief Steward/Cargomaster Khalekshii Sadaka
  • Chief Medical Officer Dr. Svetlana Batsoev

Other Characters:

  • Falk - Terran expat that lives on Duriim and helps Free Trades get around the restriction on trade (for a cut of course).
  • Mizikhi Larsharlum - First born child of the local iishakku. She has rejected the life of Vilani nobility and now runs a small smuggling operation.
  • Ammim Larsharlum - Third born child of the local iishakku (and by law the heir to that title). He does not adhere to the kimashargur philosophy and is looking to strengthen ties to to non-kimashargur nobles.

Vilani words:

  • kimashargur - Virtue of the Foremost. Vilani culture that rejects the ban on technological advancement and exploration.
  • iishakku - Governors


The party met with Mizikhi Larsharlum, where she asked them several questions almost like an interview. She explained that her brother, Ammim, was being groomed by by her father to take over as one of the three ruling iishakku on Duriim. In order to flex his political weight, he has been clamping down on trade with Terrans. This both endears him to the hard-line Imperial Vilani, but also gives him some power over the other iishakku.

Mizikhi explains that Falk has been able to get around most of these controls but is limited in the amounts of trade he can deal with at any one time. She also states that she could get the crew's cargo "bumped up" the line if they help her out. She's looking for some leverage over her brother. This could also lead to long term gains for the crew, if she can get her brother to loosen the trade restrictions.

Then she asks the crew to look into a missing ship that her brother had kept off the books. It arrived in the system a couple of days ago, sending the standard arrival and location message and confirmation of approach vectors. But then a few hours later the ship send a second, garbled signal. A search was ordered, but then called off. And to seems that Ammim had all record of the ship wiped.

She wants the party to find what happens to this ship and try to bring it, the crew, and the cargo to her. Or which ever of those still remain.

The crew begin to search out what information they can about this ship. The public records seem to be mostly purged, other than confirming that a ship sent a signal on arriving in the system. They also learn that the ship was not listed on any arrival lists, and that it was set to land at a private landing location.

After the initial search they decide to hit up Falk, to see if he can give them some direction. He does a lot better than that, as he keeps tabs on all incoming ship transmissions and has a copy of the missing second message. It is encoded, but the crew think they can break it. They take a copy of the message to the ship and are able to decrypt it. It's an SOS signal with a location.

They move the ship's cargo into the spaceport's warehouse, and leave Sadaka on the planet to continue to work on making trade contacts. Then they take off towards the location in the SOS signal. Once there, they find no sign of the ship, but after some scan, realize that the ship may have been heading to a nearby moon (based on where it can arrived, and the second location).

As the Ziggy Stardust approached the moon, they saw a ship launching from some sort of facility hidden on the moon. The Captain hailed the ship, and learned that this was "The Shop", a space "chop shop" where pirates and smugglers get ship upgrades, and presumably where they might drop off a captured ship. The pirate captain mistook the Terrans for some new smugglers in the area, and gave them the pass phrase needed to get entry (and not get shot out of space).

The crew then hailed, gave the phrase, and were on their way to "The Shop".

To be continued...


Mini-Review of Pyramid 3/104

I don't normally do reviews, but I really enjoyed the latest issue of Pyramid and thought I'd share my feelings on it.

First off, I never read a full issue of Pyramid, at lest not at the same time. I cherry pick the articles that most appeal to me, and maybe skim through the rest. Later, I might revisit that issue and read other articles, but this issue kept me reading. It was even more focused than the typical issue (being one of the Dungeon Fantasy RPG issues).

Now for the articles:

From the Editor - As always, a good set up for the rest of the issue.

Trapped in the Living Tomb - A solo-adventure! Yes! I love solo adventures, and think they are a great tool for introducing folks to a game. This one is pretty solid and a lot of fun. I'd love to see more of these in the pages of Pyramid (or anywhere really).

The one thing that I think could have made it better, is if there was a bit more variety in the skill checks. A full character sheet is provided (yay), but it would have been nice if more of the listed skills could have come into play. 

[To be fair, I didn't read every entry after playing through, so I don't know if I just "missed" them, but they were not on the "critical" path as far as I could tell.]

It's a Quest! - I wasn't so sure about this system going in. I already try to tie loose plot threads together when my games start to feel like random disconnected events. But my results are somewhat mixed.

This systematized way of turning episodic type play into something a bit more "meta plot" is interesting, and I think I'm going to give it a try.

Heroic Background Generator - Ha ha, this is great! At first it seemed a bit goofy to me. Tables to generate a backstory? But after looking at it, I see a lot of cool use.

I've been wanting to come up with something like a "life path" system to use in GURPS for awhile, but I didn't want to rob players of the choices that GURPS offers with its point buy character creation. Even DF has plenty of choices on the templates.

But this system isn't a character creation life path system. It just generates a loose background that the players can use to inform the choices they make in character creation! I can also see lots of uses for generating interesting NPCs.

The State of the Dungeon - Nice recap of where things are, and what's to come.

Preparing for the Hero's Journey - This could be called: Just Good Advice. It is.


The Problem with GURPS (a response)

Every once-in-a-while I search GURPS on YouTube and see if there are any interesting videos. About a week back, I found such a video with the title, "The Problem with GUPRS".

At first I was going to pass on this video, figuring it to be another GURPS hater that just wants to beat up on a system he doesn't like. But I decided to give it a look and see what exactly this guy thought was wrong with GURPS.

It is a pretty good video so, give it a watch.

In short, he likes GURPS, but will choose setting specific rules over using it. GURPS is the "backup plan" in his mind. That's fine, but the tone is very much one of universal acceptance, and I wholeheartedly disagree.

My "problem" with GURPS is quite the opposite. I don't want to use any other rules, even when there is a (non-GURPS) set of rules for a setting I want to run. I've tried, but by the time I get into the "meat" of the rules my mind just starts to think, "I could do this better with GURPS." (There is a whole other topic on that bit that I could go into.)

In fact when I first got into GURPS, I immediately started writing conversions for some of the games that I had picked up and loved the setting of, but was very turned off by the rules. (I wonder if I still have the notes for converting Cybergeneration to GURPS 3rd edition somewhere...)

I'll hack, alter, house-rule, and modify GURPS all sorts of ways depending on the type of game I want to run, but the core stays the same. It is still "roll 3d6 under attribute/skill".

So, every gamer is different and that's fine. But for me, GURPS is my "Plan A" almost every time... even if someone else published a set of rules for the setting I want to play.


Traveller Interstellar Wars - Episode 1

Here is a quick recap of the first session of my Interstellar Wars game.

The Ziggy Stardust set out from Nusku on Friday, May 4th. Making minimal time stops to refuel and avoid any Imperial patrols, continued across the the Dingir sector. Then on Tuesday, June 19th they arrived in the Duriim system.

Landing at the main spaceport, the crew got their first taste of a dense atmosphere planet. Suiting up, they headed out and got the ship registered. Then sought out the local bar to see if they could make some contacts and see what was going on.

At the bar the crew tried a few Vilani drinks and met up with a few other Terran's who were on another free trader and were waiting to hear back from their captain. During this time the crew also got a call from steward Sadaka letting the player know that the duties on any goods sold were very high and that they wouldn't be making any profit this way. The crew asked the other Terrans if they had to pay the high dues, and were told that if they wanted to trade on Duriim, they needed to speak to Falk.

The party got directions and went to find Falk, in a little shop near the spaceport. Falk was a Terran expat who helps Terrans sell goods by listing those goods as his property. The only issue is that he's only allowed so many sales listed at a time. If they players wanted their goods sold, they would have to wait... or find a way to help Falk get more listings.

He told them that the two people that might help him get this are Ammim Larsharlum, son (3rd born) of the iishakku and heir to the title, and Mizikhi Larsharlum his older sister. It was implied that Ammim was the "proper" route, but that it might not be easy to win him over. Mizikhi, on the other hand, would be more approachable but getting her help might be less than legal.

So, after a short discussion, a dissension was made and Falk set up a meeting with Mizikhi.

Soon, the party found themselves entering a building that looked like a cross between a warehouse and a dance club. Some of the toughest looking Vilani they had ever seen were hanging out playing some card and dice games. In the center or the room was a raised platform and there stood a tall (especially for a Vilani) woman with a naval-like uniform and a patch over her eye. With a big, wolf-like smile she said, "Terrans!"

Yeah... kinda like that.


We ended there for the night. Things were a bit slower than I wanted for the kick-off game, but I didn't want things to get too chaotic. Everyone is pretty new to the setting and I wanted to ease things in a bit. I probably too that too far and things never got exciting. We'll see if the second session picks things up a bit... or a whole lot.