Saturday, January 9, 2016

What I Got From Fate: The Good Part

This being the Internet, there are a lot of people around who argue about stuff. the community of RPG players is no different, and I would imagine it's probably more intense than most in terms of emotional investment because games are little nuggets of pure joy in an otherwise crap world of strife. So, the fights that we have as a community tend to be very passionate.

Right now, I don't think there's a game system as a whole that's more divisive than Fate. (Note that I'm not calling it FATE, because it's not an acronym or initialism of anything, as GURPS is.) Opinions on it tend to gravitate toward the extremes--either it's the fantastically innovative pinnacle of the RPG form, or it's the worst example yet of a mechanical mockery of what RPGs are. I don't know, insert your own hyperbole here.

Personally, having run a game Fate, I will say I don't really like it.

Let me start off with some caveats: I know that a lot of people play Fate and they really like it. I tend to be an open-minded guy, so I am open to the possibility that maybe I was just doing a horrible job GMing the game. I have also heard that some prefer to play Fate Accelerated Edition to Fate Core, which was the version I was running. Again, I'm going to point out that I'm forming my judgments with relatively little experience. I've also not played any Fate games that are heavily intertwined with settings, such as The Dresden Files or Atomic Robo. So it may be possible for me to like Fate, but I'm not going to run a game any time soon.

I ended up starting a campaign that was a story of a group of carnival freak show performers in a steampunk setting; think Victorian-era continental Europe. We played about four or five sessions before I realized that Fate was killing the game. I took the characters and re-built them in GURPS, which was the system we used for the remainder of the campaign.

Let's start with the good part about Fate. When I played Pathfinder and other such games, we tended to build our individual characters and then throw them together with little consideration for each other apart from their function. You know the lines. Who is the healer, who is the "tank," etc. This type of mentality is the first step in a game where you are running a glorified stat block as opposed to an actual character.

Fate forces you to come to the table for an introductory session that plans how the campaign is going to go: GM and characters alike. I knew that I wanted the characters to be members of a freak show, but those were my only conditions. My agenda was otherwise blank, and so we arrived at the steampunk fantasy idea after going around the table and talking about what we all thought would be fun. By our establishment of the Aspects (capitalized to emphasize I'm talking about the Fate mechanic) of the world, I also got a big cue as to what flavor the game was going to have. I realize that any old RPG can have this collaboration session, but Fate incorporating it into the rule book really emphasizes how player consensus is crucial to a campaign's success.

What's even more awesome about Fate is the character creation. The first task you are given is to come up with your High Concept, your essence, your defining phrase. In Fate, you are not just a Rogue, you are a Daring Swashbuckler of Venice, an Infamous Cutpurse, or a Disgraced Turncoat. Because the mechanics depend on descriptive but flexible Aspects, you get a lot more character definition. The same is true of your Trouble, a secondary Aspect that defines your downside. Flawed characters are interesting characters, and even if a character is seemingly perfect, everyone struggles with something.

In order for the game to even function, Fate demands that the characters be fleshed out. This fleshing out ensures that you're not just consulting your array of numbers and modifiers that you just so happen call a character.

As if that weren't enough to generate characters that were more interesting than 90% of D&D characters out there, Fate then calls for the Phase Trio (a name I dislike because it sounds way too ambiguous and theoretical). Essentially, each player comes up with three bits of backstory--at the table alongside everyone else. The first bit starts to establish each individual character's history, but the second and third are stories where the other characters are involved. As a result, the beginning of the actual campaign sees a group of characters that are all interconnected in some fashion. They don't have to form your standard D&D Trope Party, but you likewise don't have a collection of individual lone wolves, either.

(Then there's a whole bunch of skill crap and stuff, which is the remainder of character creation, but I've already addressed the best part.)

I think that the preliminary session of this campaign was one of the greatest, because we already had a good sense of who the characters were going to be as the game progressed. The only downside I can see to this approach is that sometimes I like to ease into a character concept and let it develop over a span of play sessions. Of course, the danger is that the character will forever remain a faceless amalgamation of statistics, which has happened far too often throughout RPG history.

What I got from Fate is the realization that in some form or another, I should approach game creation and character creation from a standpoint of open-endedness and collaboration. There is no reason to come to the table with a game prepared only to discover that no one's interested in playing, and there's no reason that the players have to be a bunch of randos who meet in a tavern.

Next time, I'll discuss what happened when our Fate game got going, and why I had to switch systems. Until then, does anyone read this? Comment if you do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The New Kid at the Old School - Part 2

This is the second half of my first post on my perspective on the "Old School Renaissance," or OSR. Part 1 can be read here.

Arguably the most famous Magic: the Gathering card is the Black Lotus. It's essentially an easy way to get a huge advantage over your opponent if you play it very early in the game, when both players are scrambling to build their resource pool. It was also one of the first cards ever to get banned because it was so ridiculously overpowered. It is usually cited as the most expensive collector card in the game.

I bring up the Black Lotus because it's an example of Wizards of the Coast (the company that has produced Magic: the Gathering since its humble beginnings in 1993) enforcing a sense of fairness and balance into its games. I doubt anyone reading would debate that such a player-vs-player game shouldn't be fair to a large degree.

In 1973, a mere twenty years before Magic: the Gathering changed the face of gaming, Gary Gygax founded the company Tactical Studies Rules (later simply TSR). The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published soon afterwards in 1974. But on April 10, 1997, TSR was sold to Wizards of the Coast, which had become a major success overnight by developing M:tG's collectible card game model only four years prior.

Whereas TSR settings like Dragonlance and Dark Sun might have contributed to the rise of the "railroad" in published adventures, The change in company ownership seemingly led to the rise of the modern versions of the rules. TSR did publish an insane amount of supplemental material for the 2nd edition of AD&D, but it wasn't until the 3rd Edition rule set, the first published by WotC, that the game felt, well, different.

Ironically, 3rd Edition was the first not to have two different versions of the rules, "Basic" and "Advanced." There was just the one rule set, and so it was simply called "Dungeons and Dragons," despite ramping up the complexity of the rules. It's not that the additional rules were any more complicated, but rather they were much more inescapable. In my opinion, these new rules were incorporated to introduce the concepts of fairness and balance to the game. The 3rd Edition rules expected that encounters with monsters would be something that would pose just enough difficulty to challenge the PC's, but would more often than not result in their survival. After all, just like a streamlined M:tG deck, there's an inherent investment put into your custom character that would go to waste upon his or her death.

A lot of existing RPG players didn't like this new approach, and many simply stuck with playing whatever edition they were most comfortable with. As time progressed, many new RPG players could only learn with the new, well-balanced system, and some experienced frustration at the sheer amount of structure and rules rigidity that was in place.

Anyway, I'm starting to seriously deviate from my original intent with this post. An interesting by-product of the 3rd Edition rules was WotC issuing the Open Gaming License, acknowledging that a game's mechanics could not be copyrighted, only the game's product identity. Essentially, anyone could call for the procedure of calling for dice rolls and applying modifiers just like D&D in a game they wanted to publish independently, but the flavor that makes it D&D Proper could not be copied.

At the beginning of the OGL era, everything from the original days of D&D onward was not only copyrighted, but also long out of print. For this reason, many so-called "Retro clones"--carbon copies of previous D&D games that changed just enough in detail to avoid infringing on copyright--became popular. For example, if you wanted to play the Moldvay/Cook Basic Set, the Original D&D White Box, or the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, you could use Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, or Dark Dungeons, respectively.

Very recently, earlier editions of the game were reissued and made available for download by Wizards of the Coast. It's for this reason that I'm now able to have my own new hardcover version of the 1991 D&D Rules Cyclopedia (see below.)

My one-off printing of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia

One would think that this would spell the end of the OSR era. After all, why seek out cheap imitations of D&D when at long last it's possible to get copies of the exact D&D edition you wanted to play in the first place? Well, the easiest answer is that many clone games have free downloads, but that's also not the primary reason that OSR games exist. The answer comes in the OGL itself: Because you can't explicitly copy D&D, you have to have some originality.

Sometimes these are relatively simple improvements, which could be as minor as improving presentation (I've heard that Delving Deeper is an improvement compared to the relatively poorly-presented Original D&D White Box). In other cases, the changes that are inherent in an OSR game are significant enough to alter the entire feel of the game. For example, compare the Basic/Expert version of D&D to one of the games that is closely based on it, Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The latter is dedicated exclusively for weird fiction. Although a lot of that comes from the published LotFP adventures, the mechanics themselves lend to a grittier game. (For example, encumbrance is greatly simplified and adds an extra dimension to resource management.)

As of now, the biggest players in the RPG market are still Pathfinder (which started thanks to the OGL) and the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, which is still owned by Wizards of the Coast (which itself is owned by Hasbro these days.) This new D&D Edition has earned a lot of praise primarily for giving a nod to earlier editions of D&D, namely in that the sheer bulk of the rules machinery has been stripped away, especially compared to 4th Edition, the most rules-heavy machine of them all.

While 5th Edition continues to try its best in merging modern and classic play, it is now easier than ever for players (like me) who started gaming after the 3rd Edition paradigm shift to discover the charm of the earlier games of the roleplaying game hobby. Once that discovery is made, there's a wide world of new material that is available, with many new innovations coming every day.

It really does feel like a Renaissance in some ways.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The New Kid at the Old School - Part 1

As I sit and look at my bookshelf of RPG books, I'd say it's fairly well-balanced. There's a lot of GURPS hardbacks, as well as Legend of the Five Rings books and the Mongoose Publishing edition of the Traveller Core Rulebook. Then there's a divider in the bookshelf—it's an IKEA bookshelf that also houses my vinyl records.

On the other side of that divide is Swords and Wizardry Complete, the AD&D 1E PHB, the AD&D 2E trio (PHB/DMG/MM), then the 5th Edition trio of the same three books. Then sits the massive tome that is the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, a few published modules, then the smaller-format stuff: A Red and Pleasant Land, Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Rules and Magic, Fiasco and the Fiasco Companion, Savage Worlds Explorers Edition, Fate Core System, Reign Enchiridon, and Dogs in the Vineyard.

I have to move some of the smaller books because I just received my custom-printed copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, which I had made once I purchased the PDF document online from Wizards of the Coast. Soon to be added to the collection are a boatload more things published from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. (They'd be there already except that they're coming from Finland.)

Many of the games I've mentioned, and those which I'm most excited about—particularly Swords and Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia—fall into a category known as "OSR." This stands for "Old-School Renaissance." Or maybe "Old-School Revolution," or "Old-School Revival." There's never been 100% consensus on what the "R" stands for, and perhaps that's appropriate.

The first RPGs I got to play used Dungeons and Dragons 3.0, followed by a very brief foray into 4th Edition, and eventually Pathfinder. I remember how Pathfinder seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time from the nearly-a-computer-simulation feel of 4th Edition. However, looking back on it now, I was still stuck in a system that consisted of massive amount of rules and numbers. Our Pathfinder group was fairly large—6 players—and every time we had a combat occur, I had to pull out my laptop to help keep my special abilities straight and tally up my modifiers correctly. I was playing a paladin, so I had a lot of bonuses bestowed upon me.

Also, despite the heavy focus on combat, it never felt as though we were ever in danger of having our characters die, either. Maybe the system is geared towards PC preservation, or maybe it was just unconscionable that we'd have to throw away a character we spent a few hours building. I can trace all the problems I had with the game being tedious to the fact that so much effort goes into building a character and optimizing statistics.

In short, the rules of the game were a more powerful entity than the game itself.

Many postmodern game systems* address the issues of Pathfinder and 3+ Edition D&D in different ways. Fate Core and the Fate Accelerated Edition are both very popular these days. In them, the narrative—including all its details—is built actively by everyone in real time at the table. You can spend the game mechanic's currency to declare a detail about a scene, or actively try to create advantages that you can use for the benefit of your character. Apocalypse World and its derivatives, in particular the popular spin-off Dungeon World, are built to systematically create a highly fluid but intriguing narrative. (In DW at least, the GM is forbidden from pre-planning a story, and has a finite list of actions s/he can take, although these can be broad, such as "reveal an unwelcome truth.") These postmodern games can vary wildly in their approach, but they all affect the narrative in different ways.

*—I've also called them "story games," which I've learned is a term that carries negative associations with a specific website with some bad apples, or "hippie games," which sounds rather pejorative. In contrast, "postmodern games" makes me sound like I might know what I'm talking about, so I'm going to stick with it.

The OSR philosophy of game design, speaking very broadly, is to revisit the era of gaming before there were rules governing virtually all of the possibilities that arise in gameplay. Earlier games had an array of ability scores, but not necessarily skills. Feats didn't exist. With a lack of rules governing every specific possibility, a lot more flexibility and freedom was in the hands of the game's GM. If you come across something there were no rules for, you made the ruling yourself. In these cases, the rules of the game are inherently pared down so that they do not overshadow the game itself.

My first time actually encountering "OSR" was the recent UCon 2015 convention, where I played, amongst other things, Swords and Wizardry. The game felt "old school" to be sure, because there wasn't a lot to the mechanics. Other than a few references to an unfamiliar character sheet to figure out attack bonuses and armor classes, I ended up playing my character, rather than my character sheet.

Furthermore, UCon featured an entire OSR track, meaning that every table in the room featured a game that would be considered "OSR." It was clear from watching the tables that everyone was totally immersed in the game before them. Contrast that with a few organized play tables (such as Adventurer's League or Pathfinder Society, for example) I saw later in the convention, when everyone seemed to be playing very distractedly, looking in their books or e-readers for rules or other details.

A common perception of the OSR community is that it consists of people who either regressed to earlier gaming editions after not liking new things, or simply never moved on from them out of nostalgia. I would argue that this is not true. Both the OSR movement and the postmodern RPG movement are reactions to the mechanics-supremacy and numbers-dominance of systems like D&D 4th Edition and Pathfinder. The postmodern RPGs tend to attack the problem from a standpoint of asking some of the most basic questions about what is needed to make an RPG. The OSR tends to correct the problem by shifting focus away from mechanics, taking out what is unnecessary and leaving the GM with a more adaptable rules framework than a complex and intricate rules machine.

Am I arguing, then, that the OSR method is a better approach? NO! In the end, my argument is that both the OSR and postmodern games are two sides of the same coin, which came about as a reaction to the rules-heavy trend that RPGs were taking. There are many gamers who can find RPGs in both genres that are fun solutions to the pitfalls of modern mainstream gaming.

Here's Matt Finch's Quick Primer on OSR Gaming (Free PDF), if you're looking for a more thorough introduction to some key OSR concepts.

I'm planning on a follow-up blog post in a few days where I discuss some of the different examples of OSR games, because there is actually a lot of variety.