Thursday, April 20, 2017

Pyramid 3/102: DF Goes To War Designer's "Notes"

There's nothing particularly mechanically innovative in my article in this issue of Pyramid. It is, though, chock full of historical inaccuracies! But they were put there on purpose. Given my work on other projects, I thought it might be worth issuing a disclaimer. This was not written with my Very Serious Historian Indeed hat on. Consequently, as the introduction indicates, considerable liberties have been taken, specifically to make units fit into size classes of about a squad and a few hundred troops.

The faux-Bronze Age Mesopotamian chariot units, for example, are essentially made up. There are records of garrisons or other smallish units combining a body of infantry with a handful of chariots. That handful allowed me to rationalize a nine-person unit. The chariot kirsu is far from a standardized unit, and the one presented here is very much on the small side when it comes to real ones. While one might find historical examples of the Greco-Roman and Medieval units as listed, all of them were subject to local variation and change over time. The lance is a case in point. For a rather long time, it was a unit of three to six people; a ten-man lance is a rather late development And so on.

So, enjoy the troops, but don't mistake it for actual history.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: 5 Minute Dungeon

Our gaming here is heavily shaped by a couple of factors. One is that we quite like cooperative games. Another is that we pay way too much attention to Kickstarter. Some of the games we've backed, notably Burgle Bros., have been excellent additions to our gaming collection. So today, a new box showed up on our doorstep. How was it? Well...

5 Minute Dungeon from Wiggles 3D is a cooperative dungeon-themed card game. Two to five players have five minutes to work through a series of monsters and other challenges to finally face off with a boss monster. There's actually a series of bosses, so a full round of them can theoretically be accomplished in about a half hour.

Each player chooses one from among ten different adventurers: the sorceress, the barbarian, the valkyrie, the ninja, and so on (for those who care about such things, the gender mix is evenly split between male and female). Each adventurer has their own deck of cards (which, by the way, are flexible enough to shuffle easily right out of the box; other games we've played have had stiffness issues, so that's nice to have). Most of them are cards representing different kinds of resources used to defeat monsters: swords, shields, arrows, scrolls, and leaps. Each adventurer has its own mix of cards. The sorceress and wizard have more magical scroll cards, for example, while the huntress and ranger have more arrow cards. Each deck also has its own special cards unique to the adventurer, which may act as "wild card" resources, let people draw more cards, automatically defeat certain kinds of foes, and various other things. And each adventurer has an inherent special ability, usually allowing him to discard three cards in order to make something happen, such as automatically defeat a specific type of challenge, pause game play, or allow a larger number of cards to be drawn.

Facing the adventurers, there's a deck of "Door" cards, each representing a monster, a trap, or some such staple of dungeon-crawling adventure. The card lists a class and has icons indicating the number and type of resources necessary to defeat it. For example, the Adorable Slime is a Monster (as opposed to an Obstacle, Person, or Mini-Boss) listing a leap and an arrow to beat. The players must among them come up with a leap resource card and an arrow card to defeat it, or some other card or ability which automatically defeats monsters. When a door card is defeated, it and the cards used to beat it are put aside and another door card is drawn. When the entire deck of door cards is defeated, the players then have to take on the boss, which requires its own mass of resource to beat. There are five bosses in the regular game, or seven in the Kickstarter edition, of graduated levels of difficulty.

There are two dimensions of difficulty for a boss. One is the resources needed to beat it. The other, which is more significant in my mind, is the size of the door deck. Each boss specifies the number of door cards to use with it, ranging from 20 for the Baby Barbarian to 50 for the Dungeon Master (Final Form). That number is significant in a couple of ways. One is that the cards used to defeat monsters are removed from play (though not those used to power adventurers' special abilities; those can be recycled into the player's hand or deck in various ways), so a thicker door deck means fewer cards left to use to beat the boss. The other is that the game is timed. You've got five minutes to burn through the door deck and then beat the boss, and that five minutes goes by a lot faster than you think it will.

For that reason, game play is more than a little frantic, and that's a good thing. Like another game I'm fond of, Escape: The Curse of the Temple, there are no turns. It's just everybody playing as fast as they can to get through in the time allotted. But despite the shorter time limit (5 as opposed to 10 minutes), 5 Minute Dungeon is better at being fast-paced fun rather than full-on panic.

I have only two criticisms of the game worth noting. The first is that an important rule isn't clearly stated. The first time we played, we shortly found ourselves facing a monster against which we had no cards we could play. We were stuck. It turns out that you can play resource cards which will have no effect. That gets the cards out of your hand, allowing you to draw new cards to replace them. The rules don't say that you can do that; the closest they come is saying that you can't do that against bosses. The clear implication (confirmed over on BGG) is that you can play ineffective cards to get your cards moving, but you have to be in a somewhat lawyerly state of mind to pick up on that. However, with that out of the way, it was smooth sailing.

The other is somewhere between a criticism and an ironic observation. The game requires a lot of focus. You have to see if new door cards are subject to your adventurer's ability, manage the contents of your hand, make sure you're drawn up to as many cards as you should have, and keep an eye on the clock. And while you're doing this, you have absolutely zero time to appreciate the cards. And that's a real pity, because they do a lot to add to the atmosphere of the game. The art is nicely cartoony and the contents very funny (don't quote me on this, but I just bet that the designer had access to the internet at some point); this is a dungeon crawl less like Planescape: Torment and more like Munchkin. They set a tone, but you just don't have a moment to spare to notice them when they're whizzing past. You'll probably need to do what we did, which is to look over them before or after the game, not during.

So, then, this is a game well worth having if you're looking for something short and exciting rather than long and contemplative. It does work with two player, but gets better with more. It's easily learned and is probably a good bet for a casual game with usually non-gaming friends, who don't have to worry about complex rule or elaborate strategies. Several stars out of perhaps one or two more stars than that, a number of tentacles up. It appear to be exclusive to Kickstarter at the moment, but keep an eye out for resellers and grab it before the price goes up.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Yeah, So Why GURPS?

I saw this on Doug's blog, and that prompted me to review why I like GURPS, my go-to RPG system since I first ran into it in...hmmm...must have been 1986. I use it for basically everything I'm willing to run (except Paranoia, of course). Why? Well...

Mechanically Simplicity

For all the hoopla about how GURPS is an insanely complicated game, it pretty much all boils down to a single rule: roll a target number, usually based on one of a character’s capabilities modified for the circumstances, or below on 3d6. That’s it. I’m not stats geek enough to care specifically about roll low vs. roll high or 3d6 vs. 1d20 vs. 1d100; the point is that it’s a single, standardized die roll. Such complexity as GURPS has in play is about figuring out which capability to roll against and how to modify it for the situation, but those are a necessary consequence of one of GURPS’s other virtues.


The point-based system provides a single currency and relatively open set of choices for developing a character, as opposed to class-and-level systems or lifepaths, which, while they’re not without their own charm, tend to be more rigid and complicated in practice.

Attributes (and Talents) and Skills

In GURPS, you have attributes, which indicate broad areas of and ability: how agile you are, how much general mental capacity you have, and so on. Then there are talents, which are somewhat more focused indications of being good at things: how good you are at the arts, how smooth a social operator you are. Then there are skills, indicating your ability in limited, specifically trainable areas: how well you drive a car, how good you are at chess. There’s a strong relationship between these. Attributes and talents form the basis for skills, moving pleasingly from the general to the specific. In other games I was playing at the time I discovered GURPS, this was a welcome change. It made attributes matter in play in a big way, as opposed to other games I was playing at the time, where attributes might provide modest bonuses at the extreme end of things, but rarely came up.

ST= Damage

It’s a small thing, but again a big change from other games I was playing at the time. I was playing a lot of games where muscle-powered weapon damage was inherent in the weapon: Sword X does, say, 1d8 damage, with maybe a modifier for strength. That meant a giant using a dagger did next to no damage, probably far less than if he used his bare hands. GURPS turns this around, damage is based on the strength of the user, with some modifications for the type of weapon. It’s a small thing, limited to a fraction of situations in the game, but I found it revelatory.

As Big As You Want It To Be, But No Bigger

Here’s the thing I really like about the GURPS line, as opposed to the above points which are about the GURPS rules: it tries to cover everything. If I want rules for armies fighting armies, I’ve got them. If I want rules for building a starship or defining a solar system, I’ve got those, too. Building castles? The finer points of wrestling and use of firearms? All there, along with premade campaign frameworks saving me the trouble of helping players build characters for certain genres, elaborate rules for social interactions, a variety of systems of supernatural abilities and even for building systems of my own, and so on. If I feel I need it, it's right there at my fingertips.

On the other hand, it's all optional. I don't have to use any of it. And for the most part, I don't. I usually run fantasy, so anything which touches on technology after the Renaissance is rarely useful for me. The second most common thing I run is cliffhanging pulp adventure, so modern and SF-related works still aren't that useful to me. And I don't feel a need to add to the combat rules in the Basic Set or move away from spell-based magic, so there are other large sets of rules I never touch. I have never once used GURPS Powers in anger. And my game doesn't suffer for it. But if I want to move in that direction (say, move back into space opera), it's there and ready for me.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Storage Solution

We have...several games. Enough that we have trouble keeping them all in one place. We've had some stacked in a corner here, under a bench there, on a bookshelf somewhere else. Recently, certain persons to whom I am married suggested that it'd be great to have some kind of rolling cart we could put our games on, which we could wheel out when we wanted to pull out a game and then put away when we were done. She thought it was something which we could build, and after looking at prices for library carts (we're looking at $300 for something with the kind of storage we need), build one it was.

The lumber was reasonably cheap, less than $70 for manufactured pine panels, plus a few bucks for some nice wheels (two with built-in brakes to keep it stable when needed). An hour of router work gave me some reasonably functional dado joints, and construction went pretty quickly. The only really time-consuming bit, as ever, was finishing, which is always "lightly sand, put on a quick coat of (whatever), come back tomorrow, repeat." But it does, as hoped for, hold several games.

Final dimensions are about four feet tall by two feet long by 16 inches wide with three shelves. It's wide enough that it can have different rows of games visible on either side. I also managed to fit in a couple of little drawers I bought from a craft store. They fit perfectly in their space, but I was just absurdly lucky there. Smaller games (Fluxx, Zombie Dice, Gloom, etc.) and loose accessories (spare dice, 3d printed trays for Quarriors games that won't fit in the boxes) go there.

The detail I'm most fond of, though, is how the screws holding the shelves in are hidden. I found a design for dice on Thingiverse, sliced some faces off, printed them, inked the pips, and superglued them on. Now that's a gaming cart.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Blast From the Distant Past: Ready Ref Sheets

After quite some time of intending to but completely forgetting about it, I finally got over to DriveThruRPG to buy the PDF of Judges Guild's 1978 landmark work, Ready Ref Sheets. This work from the dawn of RPGs, a mere four years after the publication of the original D&D and two years after the white box I learned the game from, has been called the first GM aid. And it is, if not the first, then at least one of the earliest works aimed at GMs but wasn't an adventure or location description (those being heavily overlapping categories at the time). I remembered it fondly from years and years and years ago as a fascinating source of gaming-related riches. On the other hand, I haven't really looked at a D&D volume in the past decade, haven't played in two, and haven't played this particular archaic version since before leaving high school, and for my own gaming needs, there would seem to be very little going for it beyond nostalgia.

So how does it hold up?
Yeah, that's the table of contents

From one point of view, badly. Very badly. The PDF is taken from a scan of the original booklet. The physical book was somewhat worn, the original text was weirdly typeset, and the scan isn't the highest quality. In terms of appearance and formatting, I produce higher quality first drafts for my publisher just by using a template and a word processor.

Then there's the content. The organization...well, isn't. It meanders from one topic to another. And then you get to the actual words. It's clear when this was written and who wrote it. The first page of content contains a random encounter table divided into social circles. There are different columns for dealing with, for example, the nobility, merchants, the military, and so on. Each lists professions or positions: magistrate, apprentice, sergeant, etc. Fine so far. But one of the columns out of six has entries which are, literally, "woman."

This goes back a long way in gaming

There's a rather peculiar woman sub-table to roll on at that point (on a 6, you encounter a woman who may be any number of things ranging from barmaid to goddess; what?), and without going into further details, suffice it to say that a fuller treatment of "Women" (pp. 5-6) doesn't really improve matters.

What does hold up, though, is a feeling of hidden depths. The book consists almost entirely of tables and charts: poisons and their effects, reasons for someone to attack the PCs, building costs and times, long lists of monster stats. It's detail upon detail upon detail, but it's devoid of any context. I happen to find that irresistible. It is, in its own way, like an ancient encyclopedia. It's a huge, disorganized jumble of facts and ideas which you know derive from a much larger whole, but they're not being held together in any kind of organizational framework. All of these tables imply a vast universe, but don't damage the illusion by explaining it.

And that, ultimately, has become what I want out of my gaming world. The implication of detailed histories and complex relationship carries with it a charm not matched by clear exposition. It gives me a world where there's always something new. There's potentially a different adventure around every corner, with a never-ending abundance of wonders to unearth, gaps to fill, and novel experiences to have.

So would I use it in a game I used these days? Maybe. Significant parts of it are useless to me. I'd probably take the basic ideas and radically expand them. But even if it's not the book I'd use now, it's the grandparent of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 8: Treasure Tables and parts of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Treasures 1: Glittering Prizes, and in many ways it's still the book that made me the gamer I am today.