Friday, October 19, 2018

Neoclassical Geek Revival (NGR): A Review

Today, I would like to review the game system Neoclassical Geek Revival (henceforth NGR) by Zzarchov Kowolski. Now, I don't consider myself a reviewer like Bryce at tenfootpole, and in fact I've only posted one RPG review prior to this one. But I feel compelled to review the game system here, for one primary reason. You see, NGR is the only game I'm playing in now. I'm a player in one of Zzarchov's weekly games, and we use his system.

Zzarchov is primarily known in RPG circles as the author of high-value, innovative adventures. His work for Lamentations of the Flame Princess includes Thulian Echoes, which features a twist in that the players play both a historical party of adventurers as well as a party trying to retrace their steps. Also Scenic Dunnsmouth, an investigative town adventure with a playing-card-based setup mechanism which makes it highly replayable. Dunnsmouth in particular is a perpetual fan favorite that I keep hearing mentioned in discussions of present-day innovation in the old-school gaming space.

Zzarchov also has his own independent adventures available for purchase, two of which I'm running at an upcoming local convention: A Thousand Dead Babies and The Gnomes of Levnec. His independent adventures feature not only interesting public domain artwork on the cover, but also two sets of stat blocks: one for generic OSR games assuming some version of original D&D, and one for NGR. Although I purchased these adventures intending to adapt them to LotFP, the NGR stat blocks referred to mechanics that sounded both intriguing and practical. For example, "counts as consecrated temple on holy ground." As a result of sheer curiosity, I bought the rulebook and read through it briefly before diving in to Zzarchov's weekly game. I've been playing regularly for a few months, so the review will be from this perspective - someone who's tried learning the game solo and then seen the system in practice.

We'll start with the negatives, because you're going to have to deal with them up front. This game can be difficult to wrap your head around, especially if you're the only one coming to it in your gaming group and/or you have a strong familiarity with various versions of D&D. According to Zzarchov, the whole NGR project started out of a series of house rules to TSR-era AD&D 1E/2E. However, there have been so many modifications that the basic structure of the game mechanics feels entirely different—as a matter of fact, the game was once known by the title "Piecemeal." If the game can be classified in any way as "OSR," then it is in flavor and sensibility alone, and not in terms of game mechanics. I will argue later that a lot of these modifications are actually for the better and consistent with my ideal gaming experience when it comes to fantasy-genre roleplaying. But it's a difficult adjustment, particularly if you're like me and don't learn most effectively just by reading the rulebook. If I could offer an analogy, the coming of D&D was the invention of the wheel or maybe a wheelbarrow, but NGR is a complete mountain bike. You get a much more sophisticated machine that has a lot more esoteric parts, but once you learn how to use it you can do amazing and fun things with it.

In short, a lot of the mechanics end up being simple once you know them, but require a lot of explanation to fully illustrate.

Secondly, even after you get through the novelty of the mechanics and everything begins to "click," I find that it is definitely on the "crunchy" side of the spectrum as opposed to "rules light." ("Crunchy" alluding to number-crunching.) This is not a game for those who have burned their 5th Edition D&D books in favor of forever playing games like The Black Hack and Into The Odd. As an example, often times I feels like NGR may be prone to "modifier creep." This is what I'm calling the phenomenon of having to keep track of an increasing number of different situational modifiers (e.g., I'm facing a blunt attack [+2 to my defense roll] and I'm blessed by my priest's god [+1] but my opponent has the high ground [-2] etc., etc.). I don't believe it approaches anything close to Pathfinder, however, which the worst offender in all the games I played; I needed a laptop with HeroLab installed in order to play it effectively and keep track of all the different status effects. 

Some caveats: (1) Certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game—or simply don't want to incorporate them—you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined. (2) I should mention that by calling the system "crunchy" I simply am referring to the amount of time spent resolving mechanics rather than what those mechanics relate to. That is, you shouldn't assume that you'll be wasting a lot of time on tedious combat if that's not what you want to focus on. Indeed, many of our NGR game sessions involve little or no combat because the game actively promotes this play style—more on this below.

The presence of "crunch" and the depth of the rules leads me to the first positive of the review, which is also stated early in the book: "The Known Rule." This is two explicit statements in one: (a) if a rule isn't known, just make a ruling rather than look it up. (b) if you must look up a rule during play, you get -1 awesomeness if you're a player, or all players get +1 awesomeness if it's the GM looking up the rule. (Yes, awesomeness is a game mechanic, which I'll cover below.) In the same spirit of this, certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game, you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined.

Furthermore, a lot of the modifier creep can be mitigated ahead of time with a well-organized character sheet. I can bundle common modifiers together and simply make note of the totals a lot easier than I ever could in Pathfinder.

Speaking of dealing damage, that works entirely differently in NGR than in D&D. In NGR, physical damage is only one type of accrued "point," along with stress, disease, poison, fear, suspicion (think of giving yourself away while sneaking), and even influence (trying to win an argument). Yes, NGR has mechanics for social conflict, and they work seamlessly with the rest of the system. Anyway, your barrier to taking all of these potential "damage" points is known as your Luck points. It's helpful to think of them as HP, although again, it covers all bases and not just physical damage. Whether you avoid a sword stab or just manage to avoid detection while having a torch lit, it's all Luck.

This leads to another great plus about NGR as a system. In general, by spreading the focus across both combat and various other non-combat aspects, NGR tends toward hi-jinx and shenanigans. For example, if you enter into a social conflict (i.e., argument) and burn your Luck points, you will not be so lucky if a fight breaks out later, or if you get thrown in jail and have to sneak your way out. Furthermore, that "awesomeness" I mentioned? You cash those points in at the end of sessions in the hopes of getting fate points. Fate points will let you re-roll bad dice or get some luck back in a pinch. Correspondingly, you gain awesomeness a number of different ways. One method is to purposefully make poor decisions—for example, getting drunk instead of taking your assigned watch at night. Another suggested method is to have "80's hair." You can really get more awesomeness and fate points by being elected the MVP of that night's session by the other players.

Furthermore, the XP system is a key (somewhat hidden) aspect to incentivizing certain play styles. There are distinct differences in the characteristics of a D&D game that gives experience points (i.e., character progression) for treasure when compared to a later edition that rewards monster-slaying. Every facet of NGR awards XP in a slightly different way, and I feel it's done in a way that de-emphasizes combat while still promoting risk-taking. A great example is the fact that you get increasing XP values for each new room in a dungeon you explore. As you deplete your resources, that next room could be worth 450 XP now, or zero XP once you come back to the dungeon a second time. That's because that room will then be your first new room, whereas it's the tenth new room this time around. That sort of press-your-luck enticement is embedded in NGR (and Zzarchov's GM style, for the record.) It puts a heavy risk-versus-reward ball in the players' court at all times, and it's when they are faced with real, meaningful choices that players get invested in the game.

Multiclassing is also easy in NGR. Imagine a pie chart broken into three pieces, and this is your character class. You can have all three "pie pieces" in warrior, or you could choose two parts warrior, one part wizard, and so forth. I'll spare you the details (which could get crunchy and count toward that first negative of esoteric confusion), but obviously the former example would be a more effective warrior than the latter, but the latter could at least cast a few spells if needed.

Lastly, the review would not be complete without a mention of Zzarchov's writing style. He's a witty guy—he enjoys more than his fair share of puns—and he's held back none of his sense of humor when writing the NGR rules. This is one of the few books that I've found legitimately enjoyable to read as it does not read like a dry technical manual. It's still easy to consult as a rulebook (even though there's no index and the PDF isn't bookmarked) but you could also easily read it from cover to cover.

I'll wrap up with my one final negative that we might encounter moving forward: name recognition. Unless you're familiar with Zzarchov or backed the recent Kickstarter, you probably don't even know about NGR. It's even less likely that your gaming group will know about it, so it may be difficult to drum up support for using it as a game system. But if you do, I know from experience that it has the potential to be a fantastically fun game.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Best D&D Book Ever Written

I like [redacted] (edit, 2/15 - This statement has been retracted.) Specifically, I like what I imagine his regular D&D game is like in actual play. No, not the fact that he plays with porn stars. It's that his games have a flavor that is very contrary to the assumed vanilla tropes of D&D that we all know and love to yawn at. Imagine everything you can think of in relation to The Forgotten Realms, and then throw it out. The remainder is Z's game (at least in my mind.) From what I've seen from the "I Hit it With My Axe" videos, various blog posts, and his published material, I've noticed a strong affinity for highly imaginative/fantastic concepts: Regular implementation of fairy tale logic and bizarre legal systems. Sentient roses. Vampires in Wonderland. Snakes whose skin you can read like books. If your only exposure to Dungeons & Dragons has come in the Wizards of the Coast era, the game Z runs can really challenge your views on what even counts as D&D.

What do you know about Dungeons & Dragons? About where it came from and, specifically, what inspired it? Not the rules, but the fictional content of the game? If you follow the "OSR" movement or are simply an AD&D player since the first edition of the game, you might have a pretty good idea... The original Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) featured a slew of appendices from the verbose Gary Gygax, but one in particular—Appendix N—has consistently received the most attention.

Basically, said appendix is a list of fiction literature that inspired the game's content originally. (To quote Gygax, "From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay, you will be able to pluck kernels from which will grow the fruits of exciting campaigns") It's a useful list to reference when you're trying to convince someone that D&D is not purely some hardcore Tolkien-deification, as is common perception. There are a ton of authors presented there, and some of the biggest fictional characters from that list include Conan (created by Robert E. Howard), Elric (by Michael Moorcock), and Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser (by Fritz Leiber). A whole bunch of "sword and sorcery" novels populate the list, as well as some science fiction authors such as Leigh Brackett and Andre Norton.

I would argue that none of them capture the spirit of what D&D can and should be better than The Dying Earth by Jack Vance.

This is the copy I have
Now, you may be somewhat familiar with Vance if you've even played D&D at all. The paradigm of memorizing a set number of spells which will be forgotten upon their casting? That is a concept taken directly from this book. Furthermore, one can easily see the parallels between naming conventions: "Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell" (Vance) versus "Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound" (Gygax), for example. The ties are so strong that this"fire and forget" spell system is known as "Vancian" in discussions on various magic systems for RPGs.

Perhaps you are even aware of one of the greatest villains of D&D lore, Vecna. A legendary lich, his disembodied eye and hand are legendary artifacts of the D&D world. In case you haven't worked it out yet, his name was simply a rearranged form of "Vance."

The point is, this author had some serious influence on the foundation of D&D. And yet, I see so little of this book manifest in modern-day D&D games. Unlike the mighty Conan, the tormented Elric, or the plucky Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, I dare say Vance's work has been cast aside out of the consciousness of most modern gamers.

Originally published in 1950, The Dying Earth is a series of loosely connected short stories depicting a fantasy world that is in fact Earth in its final years. The sun is read and bloated; magic is prevalent, as is ancient technology. There are six short stories, each named after its primary character. Perhaps the most directly related to D&D is "Mazirian the Magician," which firmly establishes the Vancian magic convention as the title character prepares a short list of spells, all that his brain can contain.

But if all you get that is game-worthy from The Dying Earth is the mechanics of magic, then you are not easily inspired. Take, for example, Chun the Unavoidable, a being who lives in ruins and snatches the eyes of anyone who steals from him, and then wears the eyes on a cloak. Or Ampridatvir, the city full of two sects of people who can't see each other because they're wearing two different colors of clothing. The universe which houses all these stories employs a fanciful sense of logic, which flies in the face of the ho-hum vanilla settings that you're used to in mainstream D&D.

The prose is a workout, to be sure, with quite poetic and fanciful language. It's not a style that suits those who don't like to take a hot, soaking bath in the nuance of the English language. Furthermore, the rest of the Dying Earth series focuses on Cugel, a largely unlikable antihero whose character made me put down the second book (Eyes of the Overworld) after just a few chapters. But I would highly recommend reading through the first book as an inspirational collection of shorter picaresques.

If you're interested in Jack Vance, Patrick Stuart did a thorough review of the Lyonesse trilogy (spoiler warning) here. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my shelf so I have no excuse. I can recommend the novella The Dragon Masters, although it's science fiction rather than fantasy.

Once you have read The Dying Earth, I would strongly recommend The Pastel City by M. John Harrison, the introduction to the Viriconium saga.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Re : OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

This blog is in response to [redacted]:

OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me:

2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:
Just make shit up. You'll be surprised at how good it can be. Focus on the game, not the mechanics.

3. Best OSR module/supplement:
Two possible answers:
(a) Zzarchov Kowolski's Gnomes of Levnec - a fantastically fun investigative adventure with folk horror, ancient evil, and of course gnomes.
(b) Jennell Jacquays' Caverns of Thracia, but just keep the maps and throw your own shit in there. Best game I ever ran featured a troll dressed as Macho Man Randy Savage.

4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):
Neoclassical Geek Revival is basically nothing but a collection of Zzarchov Kowolski's house rules. I also liked Adam Muskiewicz's technique of incorporating Jason Lutes' Perilous Wilds into D&D wilderness encounters

5. How I found out about the OSR:
It must have been after hearing about Swords & Wizardry Day, back when I heard about it on a podcast. Shortly afterwards, I found Dungeon Crawl Classics at my local convention and bought a copy of the book.

6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:
Logan Knight's generators at Last Gasp Grimoire and of course Dyson's maps

7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:
For the next few months, still Google+. I hope that I have made enough impressions there so that people may actually interact with me on this blog. I think it would be a good idea for all of us to comment on each other's stuff more.

8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:
Most of my gaming now occurs on Discord. As I said above I imagine without Google+ we may regress to online blogs such as this one. What would really be cool is if we all started playing more games together instead of talking about games. Sort of like a FLAILSNAILS revival.

9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:
The OSR is only what you make it, and never what you think it is.

10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:
Call of Cthulhu, if that qualifies. It is in its seventh edition, although it remains largely unchanged from its original form in 1981. If we assume Call of Cthulhu qualifies as OSR instead, then I will probably say Legend of the Five Rings. I have not had a chance to play the new 5th Edition from Fantasy Flight Games, but I've had some enjoyable games using 4th Edition. However, I think that my enjoyment of the game was largely dependent on the feudal Japan aesthetic, as opposed to the mechanics. I could probably run an OSR game in the Rokugan setting with less of a headache than if I were to try to run a game in a canonical L5R system.

11. Why I like OSR stuff:
There are no rules lawyers. If we run into an edge case, I can simply make a ruling without having to look up the said rule. Even if someone else at the table knows the rule, I can overrule it using logic if I need to.

12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:
1) Chance Phillips.
2) Into The Odd

13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:
I've already shown Z's blog, so how about Jeff's Gameblog

14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:
My dice-pool skill mechanics for Lamentations of the Flame Princess

15. I'm currently running/playing:
I am taking a break from running games as I try to prepare for U-Con in November. I'm playing in an iron age Neoclassical Geek Revival game as run by the system creator, Zzarchov Kowolski.

16. I don't care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:
Whether you hit or not really isn't of much importance. Also, we need to hurry up and get through combat. Best practice dictates that if you have entered combat, you've probably lost anyway so keep that in mind.

17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice:

This is my own artwork which I figured I would use rather than try and steal someone else's stuff.