Wednesday, February 27, 2008

RPG or MMO? U Decide!

In his blog, Ian mentioned that our session of Red Box Hack (detailed below) was very much like a face-to-face version of WoW. We created a WoW zone, we had characters which developed into WoW archetypes and we followed a WoW style quest path. A number of threads of Story Games have asked the question - 'Why has RBH taken off so quickly?'. I've been trying to unpack both these things for the last couple of days and the answers I have come up with are very, in my opinion, illuminating.

I have a couple of oft mentioned beliefs around this topic. The first is that WoW does D&D better than D&D does D&D. The second is that a lot of our roleplaying hang-ups are tied to the hobbies wargaming background.

The first one can be seen as a little glib but from a 'kills things, take their stuff, get harder so that you can kill harder things and take their stuff' point of view - that being the core mechanic of D&D - WoW simply presents a more accessible, better presented and more integrated and fundamentally more fulfilling play experience. Note that I have not mentioned roleplaying in that lot. Controversially, from my memories of Red Box D&D and my crumbling AD&D books I cannot remember a whole helluva lot of guidance on roleplaying. To mentions of story or plot, motivation or arcs - it was just 'find patron, kill monster, take stuff, level'

However when you try to inject roleplaying into WoW it all takes a horrible nosedive into madness. Name-Nazi's report players for having names that they believe are not in keeping with the rules. The very worst excesses of faux-Shakespeare come out as everyone gets a little Kenneth Branagh on their ass. And strangely, all of their personal quests have stopped being to confront the Lord of Molten Core and now rotate around Outland. Hmmm.... It just doesn't work in the same way.

Addressing my second point, what D&D also suffers from is a heavy reliance on some very pointless rules. Movement, Range, Encumberance, a Vancian magic system that would never have made 'Mage' a choice to be given at a Careers Day etc. The problem with all of these is that they tend to be quite abstract things. In WoW they are not - you move as fast as you move, you carry whatever you can until your bags are full, you are either in range or you are not and you either have the mana and components to cast a spell or you do not. The machine engine does the work for you - no book-keeping needed.

What 'out of the box' D&D and WoW do share is a very straight forward adventure structure based around questing. Get quest, go here, go there, go back again, go here, kill Big Monster, get treasure. Thats basically it. Where WoW wins again is that D&D has these annoying things called Wandering Monsters whereas WoW has mobs which you can run around (unless they are bloody hyenas or murlocs!). Wandering monster serve no purpose except as a resource depleter.

So whats this got to do with Red Box Hack?

I believe that Ian is spot on - the design of RBH is like an MMO transfered onto a tabletop. Its stripped down all of the shite from out of the box D&D and replaced it with transparent and easy to handle subsystem. Range is simply a matter of arenas and movement is similarly a simple matter of move or fight. Encumberance is now a case of 0,1,2 or 3 'slots' being taken up by weapons or armour. Spells and abilities are constantly available but limited in scope.

And it is at a table - and that makes all of the difference. It takes that simplicity of execution from the MMO stance and places it down onto the familiar gaming surface, thus allowing us to inject the personal into the play. This happily removes the pitfalls of RP servers that I outlined above. So MMO playability and personal social interaction in a face to face environment? Sounds appealing... I think so.

I firmly believe that RBH has tapped into the fun that we all remember from our youth playing D&D and WFRP and Rolemaster and a number of other old school dungeon bashing systems - a fun that we are increasingly familiar with from the MMO side of things. Its a testimony to the breadth of the hobby that a game which is so unashamedly rooted in old-school play is so popular in the face of the more serious, self-reflective, heavily narrative structured games that are being published by the same sources at the moment.

We all need a bit of fun once in a while! Whether RBH will be able to maintain this momentum into the future or whether the joke will run thin quickly is another matter altogether.



We played Red Box Hack - a distillation and then mutation of the basic core concepts and feelings of D&D, sort of, if you squint your eyes. It was a lot of fun and what looked to be just a filler session appears to be being extended to a few more by popular demand (trust me and my cliffhanger epilogue!). Anyway, for posterity, here is the AP that was posted on Story Games.

So we sat down to play our first ever session of Red Box Hack. We've just finished a 18-month game of Pendragon and we are searching for our new game. RBH was going to be a stand-in one shot. It might be a lot more...We whipped through the oh-so complicated rules in about five minutes and then ploughed into character creation. This lasted a little longer than I expected - mainly due to the fact that three of the four players rolled two sets of stats, each as bad as the other. Oh how the other player laughed!In the end we had the following

Pharos the Magus
Al: +4
Da: +2
El: +0
Sn: +3
Sz: +1
St: +3

Talent: Blast

Gear: Dagger (Light), Dragonhide Robes (Heavy)
Special Gear: Imp Familiar
Motivation: Make money for more spell research

Garoc the Warrior
Al: +0
Da: +0
El: +0
Sn: +1
Sz: +3
St: +2

Talent: Armour of Scars
Gear: Big Sword (Heavy), Plate Armour (Very Heavy)
Special Gear: Battle Standards with the heads of his fallen foes
Motivation: Seeks fame and fortune but mostly fame

Screwtail the Fox
Al: -1
Da: -1
El: +2
Sn: +2
Sz: +0
St: +1

Talent: Three Tails
Gear: Bow (Ranged), Fix Sized Samurai Armour (Light)
Special Gear: Quiver of Arrows he can stab people with
Motivation: He has a vixen and 24 cubs to feed...

Balan the Bear
Al: -1
Da: -0
El: +2
Sn: -1
Sz: +2
St: +0

Talent: Heart Song
Gear: Mace (Very Heavy), Loincloth and Battle Harness (Light)
Special Gear: A dope pipe with spreads intoxicating fumes
Motivation: To spread the love and bring the party

And with that I drew a small village in the middle of a piece of paper and offered the players the opening sentence of the game.

"And thats why you have to retrieve the Cursed Emerald!' said the scarred bear in the smokey tavern.

We each took turns to add a geographical feature to the map until we had done three rotations around the table. Then moving from left to right on the map we created the details and linkages between the various areas. So 'Madga the Witch' became 'Magda the One-Eyed Witch who was once the Queen of the Amazon Warriors who guarded the wall between the Kingdom and the Wasteland. However the One Eyed God, who lives in the mountains to the North fell in love with her and cut out her eye to make her in his image. Her scarred ugliness was shunned by the Amazons and she was cast from their martial refuge into exile. She lives alone but secretly she is loved from afar by the insane old hermit, Archimedes the Druid who lives deeper into the Wasteland' etc etc.The basic gist of the area was a sort of 'Cursed Earth' wasteland, decimated by a magical accident many years ago. The Kingdom has walled itself off and the survivors of the city of Nephos, the epicentre of the accident now find themselves isolated in a small town they created. We called it F'ked. We thought it was appropriate.

(you can download the map HERE)

The party questioned the Bear and they discovered that the Emerald was the Dragonheart Emerald and it was blessed to protect the Bear village at the foot of the Dragons Peak Mountains from being attacked by the deadly spirits that roam the wasteland. Without it the village would surely fall. Additionally the Emerald was cursed and if it was removed from the village it would act as a beacon for the deadly spirits, drawing death and disaster to those around it. The Emerald was taken by spindly spiked black humanoid creatures. The players decided that they sounded like the sort of constructs that Archimedes the Druid (who is a friend of Balans) would make, so they set off along the Road of Broken Glass to the Forest of the Lonely Druid. However, that was in the morning - the Bear decided to kick up a massive party, upset the locals and ended up in the stocks (failed Eloquence challenge) overnight. He was a sad, wet bear...

Some way along the protective road, it had been broken. The Fox, being a talentless but desperately inquisitive sort was flying overhead and was acting as a scout. He failed his conflict to notice the ghoulish dead waiting for them to cross the road and they were beset by a pack of 12 spirits desperate to feed on them. After a few spluttering starts the despatched them with little trouble and Balan used his Heart Song for the first time (Every time he does that, the player gives the wounded player a big happy grin, double thumbs up and a Fonz-like 'heeeeeey' to signify his happy aura of healing. So funny...)

Arriving late at night they gain entry to Archimedes towering oak tree home, but only after he has shown his disdain for the Fox. The part question the druid about the assailants but he knows nothing about them - but he could if he knew what they were made of. Meanwhile Screwtail secreted himself into the druids room and pissed in his bed in revenge for the insult - only to notice a flying black obsidian barge, trailing ropes holding dozens of spikey creatures drifting towards them over the forest, helmed by a giant version of the spikey things (Obsidian golems for now on!)Raising the alarm, the heroes rushed to meet their foe. Archimedes used his plant magic to deal with the mooks (window dressing only) whilst the players dealt with the giant golem, which was despatched with little effort by an ably assisted Magus!

Obsidian Golem
HP 10 AC 12
Al: +2
Da: +2
El: -1
Sn: -1
Sz: +5
St: +2
Thick Skin, Impressive Heavy Reach Weapon (large stone shards from fists)

The druid soon identified the rock and challenged the Magus to also identify it - which he did as a rock natural to The Mountain of Black Rock in the Dragon Peaks. He also said that it was emanating evil and destroying the natural (Yes, Blackrock Mountain - the game was scattered with WoW references but in a very good way.)The party then headed south towards the mountains, stopping first at the Monastary of the Sun, a polished stone outpost (the monks polishing it with their bare hands - hardcore!) of warrior monks who watch over the ruins of Nephos. The monks leader - the Most Enlightened Eye, Do - met with the players to answer their questions. Now he is a right piece of work as he believes in accuracy in everything. So when they presented them with 'the Evil rock' he questions whether the rock is, in fact, evil or whether it is an innocent bystander caught up in the evil acts caused by the magic that animated it. Queue five minutes of infuriating conversation with the players who were tearing their hair out. Eventually he twigged that the players were going into the Ruins and he said they could not pass. Even though they pledged that they were 'just passing through' the motivation of the Magus was visible to his Enlightened Eye and he knew he would pilfer the ruins. To prove their point they entered Trial by Combat - Garoc vs Do! Sword vs Naginata! Loincloth wearing monk vs loincloth clad warrior!As the battle raged, Screwtail attempted an Assist by screaming 'Oh My God, you can see his bollocks through that!' which failed, not bothering the monk but making Garoc look instead! He still won however and shamed, the monks let them pass into the Ruins of Nephos.

The tiered city of Nephos was destroyed by the magical disaster and lay in ruins. The players mentioned that they had heard there were vampires in the ruins, which made the mages determined efforts to find the Library of Mnemnos all the more silly! But find it they did, underground. As they descended they found a large room filled with broken shelves and destroyed books, laid out like a large campsite, with a fire pit in the middle of the room. Around the firepit they found pots of cold stew - human head stew!!! They then heard the inhabitants of the camp site returning - miners from the Tribe of the Severed Tongue (worshippers of the One-Eyed God who cut out their own tongue so that they will only hear the words of their god!). The heroes ran ... straight into something even worse.A barge laden with black obsidian rock from the mountain was floating into a newly opened magical rift, powered by a Severed Tongue Sorceror, and hundreds of miners had come to see it off! The heroes decided that this had to be stopped so the Magus opened up on the Sorceror whilst the Bear and the Warrior tried to grab ropes and swing onto the ship. Both failed and crashed down next to the Magus. They protected him from the mooks whilst he battled it out with the dark magician - who lost and fell into the portal. The magic flared and went haywire and the Magus tried to use it to stablise the portal but failed horribly and everything and everyone was sucked through to the other side of the portal!Which lay on the other side of the map, in the lair of the One Eyed God!! The mooks were all killed by the magical trauma of the journey but the players survived to face the wrath of one of the Sons of the One Eyed God, a furious and immense hairy cyclops monster - around whos neck the emerald lay!Balan then engaged the fuming monster in the most charming bout of doublespeak and distracting placating language, explaining that they were there to broker a deal rather than fight and that fighting just wasn't really on the cards at all, here have some beers etc. This gave the party the chance to let his Heart Song ability heal their minor wounds. It would have been churlish not to have allowed it as it was inspirational!

Son of the One Eyed God
HP 10 AC 12
Al: -1
Da: +2
El: +0
Sn: -1
Sz: +5
St: +5
Very heavy Obsidian Club, Thick Skin,Bloodlust,Vicious,Second Weapon (Ranged, Thrown Rocks)

This was a much closer fight, with Balan the Bear being injured, Pharos being knocked unconscious and it all coming down to whether Screwtail could hit the giant for 1 point of damage before he unleashed his stack of Awesome Tokens on the players. The Bloodlust+Viscious combo is particularly brutal! However, they did defeat him and retrieved the Emerald, saving the village.

Everyone had reached level 2 and for a one-shot the players took great efforts in deciding what role they should take in the team and what talents would aid that.

Screwtail is 'primary assist' and added +1 Alertness and took 'Strategist'
Garoc would be 'Tank' and added +1 siz (upgrading his weapon) and took 'Long Shadow'
Balan would be 'off-Tank' and took 'A Mighty Grasp', upgrading his mace
Pharos continued to be a boom-mage but added one to Stubbornness and took 'Illusions'

As a epilogue I showed the scarred bear enter a large cavern with the emerald. He transformed into a Lizardman and bowed before his Dragonkin lord, who was pleased that the emerald was now his and civilisation was doomed!!!


Saturday, February 16, 2008

March is Duty & Honour Month

Sometimes you have to shit or get off the pot.

I think D&H has reached that point. I have a slew of playtest reports that have to be polished into a product. I had an epiphany last night about a structure within the game that doesn't exist but must for it to work as anything other than an intuitive rpg-as-has-always-happened. I'm fucked off with work to a degree unknown to man. CottageCon II will be finished by then and SunRaven, my rogue, has reached level 70 in WoW. At the end of March I have to run D&H at CONpulsion in Edinburgh with a number of my Collective Endeavour peers - its the games Prom Night - it gets a fumble but not a full-on shag. For all these reasons and more I have to get the damned thing finished, or as near as dammit, by March 20th.

So March is Duty & Honour Month. Nose, meet grindstone.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

The End of an Era

When I originally wrote this the title of this entry it had a question mark at the end. I think that represented a vague hope of some future in this enterprise. Reality would inform me that the question mark was delivering a falsehood. This weekend has been a very sad one for me as I see it as the all-but-certain end of an era.

Keen readers of this blog will know that I have been part of the Raw Deal CCG scene for many years and even after I stopped being actively involved in the management of the game I was still part of the community and I was still the owner of the community website. In the autumn Comic Images announced that the game would ending and after some weeks we decided that we would have one final event - One Last Match. That event happened this weekend in Newcastle. It was a great event. About thirty people arrived and played in a sealed deck tournament. I did rather well for a change. We ate some food, drank some beer, dished out some silly awards and then drank some more. And the next day some of them left and some of them played another CCG that might be a worthy successor to Raw Deal. I went down to that game and I said goodbye to everyone, but when I left I realised this really was goodbye.

When I think about a number of these people, today will probably be the last time I ever see them. A slack handful of us may bump into each other at conventions for other things, or look each other up if we are in town on business. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook we might never really lose touch but this is the last time we will see each other as a group. These are people I have known for years now and I have met up with them on a regular basis during that time. I've seen young lads grow into accomplished men. I've seen people pair up as couples, others get engaged and married. We've had children, we've travelled around the world and we've done great things together. But most of all we have grown up.

There's no room in my life anymore for collectible card games. I no longer have the time, the money or the independence to be able to pursue them on any sort of level. I've definitely had my fill of being a leader of a community and organising things on a massive scale. I don't want to carve a niche for myself by working as a volunteer for another company - hey, I'm making one of my own! My lifestyle has changed and I have different priorities now.

But it still doesn't make it any easier to know that barring a scant handful of lucky coincidences, thats it for all those people. God that sucks hard. No, not an easy weekend at all.