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Sunday, November 6, 2016

What's on my mind lately...

So, I’ve been thinking about games a lot lately, probably because I haven’t been playing a lot lately. My wife Mona’s cancer has recurred, in her lungs this time, and she’s started chemo and not been up to doing much gaming. We may be looking at one game per month roughly until she’s done with this course of treatment, she goes once every three weeks and it seems to take two to recover enough to do anything. I have, along with my daughter Ember, been busy picking up Mona’s slack, making meals and cleaning and such, more work than I’d expected I guess, and taking care of Mona where and when she needs it, so I don’t really have too much extra time to miss the games themselves, with the extra work involved in prepping the house for a bunch of people to come over, but I have the time to miss gaming.

Months ago my group grew from just myself, Mike and Mona to include Mike’s son Mason, my daughter Ember- who just turned nineteen, and Mike’s adult daughter Marie and her BFF Rebecca, although the latter two have only shown up when Mike was GMing Savage Worlds. Oh, and our occasional guest star Darryl, my oldest friend.

Mike has been running Savage Worlds in a couple of settings- Weird War 2 and a stand alone adventure CRT, but mainly Thrilling Tales. Our latest Thrilling Tales adventure started before we realized Mona was sick again, when we found out we tried to rush to the end before her chemo started, but that didn’t work out. I halted my B/X-AD&D campaign I started with the “Isle of Dread” when I thought we were going to have two more D&D newbies and started running “Keep on the Borderlands”, which turned out to be unnecessary because Marie and Rebecca didn’t show for it, but I figured it would be nice for Mason to have the same shared experience there that I had when I was roughly his age. That turned out to be a blood bath, with multiple near TPKs. Mona missed about half of each session because she was working, and the game ran better after she returned from work. I guess having her there was the party’s good luck charm. Bad luck, poor intra-party communication, planning, preparation and tactical coordination were killing them while she was gone. I think Mason was on his fifth character before we went on hiatus to play the Thrilling Tales game after two sessions. I haven’t seen slaughter like that since that Oriental Adventures game I ran when Ashli was a senior in high school and we had two or three weeks in a row of TPKs.

I did play a board game with Darryl and Mona a month or so back, Supremacy. It didn’t go well. We butted heads over which expansions to use. We had agreed before hand to play with none the first time, but we wasted so much time that we only had time for one game before he had to leave, so he wanted to add a bunch. I did not, as I hadn’t ever played with most of the expansions the last time I played, which was in the 1980s. My thought was that I’d have to essentially relearn the game, and so would he, and we’d have to teach Mona and Ember to play (although Em bowed out before we started), so it made sense to me to take it slow and easy. Also, Darryl and I have a history with this game that has led to acrimony in the past. I once really screwed him over in an alliance against his dad and he took it out on me by making sure that he screwed me over, as hard as he could, in every game we played for the next couple of years. Ultimately the problem was more or less solved only, I think, by us playing Axis & Allies more or less exclusively for several years. The alliances there are concrete, there is no changing sides, we usually ended up on opposite sides, but eventually learned to work together again. The game of Supremacy we played a month or so ago really brought the worst in both of us out again, and we ended up destroying the world on the third or fourth turn. Not the best way to play a game we started as a memorial tribute to his dad.

I’d say it was the stress of me having to deal with my wife’s cancer and all that entails, combined with the fact that we were pressed for time by the time we got around to playing, and the fact that we actually bickered over which exact version of the game to play before we started, but I think it may just be that the two of us can’t play that particular game together anymore, which is too bad because I have fond memories of playing it as a teenager. It bums me out because Darryl doesn’t play D&D anymore either. He’s been drawn into a more character driven, story focused, role playing intensive kind of gaming, since he started playing with another group in Syracuse maybe fifteen years ago. He associates D&D with D20 era D&D on the one hand, with it’s multitude of skill checks, it’s broken challenge rating system and it’s deep focus on miniatures and tactics on the one hand and the lack of any real, deep role playing we played it with when were were kids on the other; and his mind set goes back to the “chess-master” when he tries to play. He hates Vancian magic, and magic was his thing back in the day, he hates rules too. He’s become a champion of rules-lite games, Mike is big on rules-lite too, but neither of them seems to grok the idea that pre-D20 D&D is pretty rules-lite, especially the pre-1985 variants. The 1981 Moldvay Basic book is 64 pages, Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer’s edition (the edition I have, and the edition Mike runs) is 188 pages. You might say “But that’s not a fair comparison, it’s not the complete rules”, OK, the Cook/Marsh Expert rules are another 64 pages, an arguably complete game, still much shorter than the 188 pages of Savage Worlds, but, when I suggested that I may run a Savage Worlds fantasy game instead of D&D (mostly so Marie and Rebecca would show for it too), it was immediately suggested that I should use the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion another 160 pages. Now I (mostly) run 1st edition AD&D, so the page count is higher, but I think that my point that Savage Worlds isn’t really rules-lite is made. There are versions of D&D out there that come in at as little as 2 pages- I am looking at you Swords & Wizardry light- so you can trim a lot of fat there.

Some complain that D&D combat is too slow, I haven’t seen Savage Worlds run any faster really, although there does seem to be less bean counting for most NPCs, they are either good to go, shaken or gone, so there is that. The inevitability of using miniatures, rather than the choice, is reminiscent of 3e era D&D to me though, and I have to count that as a minus for the system. I only use minis for D&D combat maybe half of the time, usually when the group has gotten bigger and it’s harder to describe or conceptualize the space and the participants or when kids are playing*.

Skill based systems bug me. This isn’t news to anyone reading this probably, but I really hate making a skill check instead of telling me, the DM, what your character is doing. It makes sense that the kids have a hard time with this, in a video game, if you have the proper skills, things get highlighted or extra options appear in dialogue, or whatever; it bothers me when people my own age or older can’t deal with these things though. I know the argument for the other side- Marlon the Mighty knows how to do tons of stuff that I as a player have no clue about- casting magic spells, picking locks, heraldry, herbs, diplomacy, chatting up wenches, etc., so it only makes sense that I should get a die roll on these, right? Maybe, but it makes the players lazy to be able to JUST make a die roll. Maybe you are bad at thinking on your feet, embarrassed at having to improv on the spot etc., but you should have something in mind when you try to bluff your way past the guard. Not having this idea is the opposite of role playing, it doesn’t help with the immersive story experience that was a stated aim in RPGs.

I keep saying to people, Darryl, Mike, Ember, even Mona (who has heard it all before a thousand times), that the system (or engine) that you are using doesn’t matter. All RPGs are pretty much the same, and universal, you can tell a great interactive story with D&D as your engine if you try. You can have a bogged down, slow moving roll for everything fest with it too. DM skill matter way more than the system you are using. I have tried many RPGs, not as many as a lot of people, but more than most I’d say, and I keep coming back to the one I spent the bulk of my youth playing- D&D, usually with the “A” out front; it’s home to me. I find it simple to modify to whatever my campaign needs are at the moment. I can add and subtract from the rules, and I have a solid idea of what effect each change will have. I know what to modify, and what to leave be. I think in D&D when I design stuff, I have to convert it to other systems when I play them and that’s kind of an annoying waste of my time. AD&D is just OD&D with a bunch of accretions, bits of house rules added on, ideas from people other than Gary and Dave and the TSR band. Everybody started somewhere in the D&D timeline, I started with Holmes Basic just prior to the release of Moldvay Basic- I was actually confused and annoyed that a “new” edition was released so soon after I bought mine- I have never met an RPG player that had not played D&D. A lot of people didn’t play a lot of D&D, having quickly moved to different or more exotic systems, RuneQuest and DragonQuest were apparently popular alternatives at one point, GURPS was big later. Maybe Vampire the Masquerade drew in a different crowd to RPGs that never played D&D, but I never met a White Wolf/World of Darkness fan that had never played D&D. 5th edition D&D seems pretty popular, but it’s not really my cup of tea; I’d probably play, but I don’t want to DM. It has too many leftover rules from the 3e D&D era for me. Also, I hate Dragonborn as a PC race, but I was never a fan of Gnomes either, so your personal mileage may vary.

*This generation raised on video games seems to start at a real deficit when it comes to describing encounters versus showing them on a map/battle board. I should also note that “kids” seems to refer to everyone under thirty. Get off my lawn!  

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