Thursday, July 7, 2011

What I’ve been reading...

Unfortunately I read much more than I game these days, in part because I’m a voracious collector that buys things with any cohesion, sense or ultimate purpose besides reading good RPG stuff.  However, of late I’ve tried to organize myself in order to get players (it’s because of that that I’m reading again the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and the Crimson ThroneAdventure Path, as well REIGN).

As I haven’t been reading nothing precisely new – even Starts Without Number has been around for some time –, I thought about talking a bit about each of these games instead of writing full auguries (the second reason is that I’ve been very busy lately and I’ll travel tomorrow to spend the weekend with my girlfriend and my parents).

Old Dragon

Ok, with this one I really want to do a full review. It’s, after all, the first brazilian retro-clone and I want to indulge in a little patriotism (besides, it such a cool game).

Old Dragon isn’t precisely a retro-clone as it doesn’t attempt to emulate any of the older editions of D&D. It certainly seeks to follow the Old School Renaissance, but more on the line of games like Basic Fantasy.
Old Dragon has the basic four classes (even with percentage skills for the thief), together with the classical races (although with modifiers in the D&D 3.0 range). However, it has distinctive characteristics. For example: all monsters have stats. In many aspects Old Dragon feels like a mix of Basic D&D and D&D 3rd Edition (but without feats or skills). The advanced classes of the game – as mentioned in Grognardia – are another of its more interesting aspects.

Old Dragon is sold in booklet format – a very nice softcover, B&W, with all the information you need to run your games in one small book. The authors, from the Redbox Editora, are supporting Old Dragon with a range of free supplements (and a pocket lite-version of the game) – all for free.

Advanced Fighting Fantasy

This is a true classic. Two years ago Advanced Fighting Fantasy was responsible for reigniting my group’s enthusiasm for fantasy roleplaying. At the time we used just Dungeonner and played through the wizard tower adventure– it was a blast and one of the funniest game sessions of my life.

Reading the new core book, it is fascinating to note the new rules of Arion Games and how they differ from the house rules that everyone – inevitably – creates to better suit AFF to their tastes.  The now official armor rules, for example, follow the same rule of the damage mechanic: roll 1d6 and consult a table for each type of armor. The result shows you how much damage is stopped. If I remember right, the original game didn’t have rules for armor, but mentioned that each character was already supposed to be wearing its most efficient protection (and that if, somehow, this character found himself stripped naked, the Director should simply apply +1 to all damage roll against him). Pretty simple, as you can see. At my table a player once wanted to play a heavy-armored warrior, so I naturally created a new ruling for armor. I imposed a penalty on all his physical actions, but every time he was hit I gave him a 2-in-6 chance of ignoring entirely the damage delivered by a hit. That’s in my humble opinion the “magic” of the AFF system: It appears to encourage rules’ tinkering.

Among the things in the new book that picked my interest (besides Talents) is the division between Sorcery and Wizard. The later are you classic spell-slinging caster with magic books and mana points, the former looks like a Howardian caster: he can use armor, his spells are weirder and require material components, and his spellcasting consumes Stamina. In the Priest section we also have one of my favorite rules – Salvation – that enables each divine caster to beg for his god’s intervention once (just once) to save his life. Excellent flavor.


This amazing game by Greg Stolze uses the ORE system. For those that don’t know it, ORE is a pool system that uses only d10s (and a maximum of 10d10 for those that fear pools) and attempts to determine all the consequences of a character’s action with just one roll (then the name: One Roll Engine).  Each time you roll, you look for sets (like a pair of “5” or four “3”, for example). In combat, a set tells you not only how fast you were, but also where you hit and how much damage you inflicted. It’s a great game system, although it requires some time getting used to.

Anyway, REIGN’s strengths are not (limited to) its system, but its aim: wars and kingdom-building. REIGN started as criticism to common fantasy RPGs that failed to support, with rules or objectives, scenarios where the PCs eventually come to lead armies or rule kingdoms (or temples, guilds etc).

Greg Stolze isn’t necessarily interested in dominion rules (“realm administration” if you like), but on dramatic mechanics to determine the power of groups and organization and how they’re affected by each other and the PCs’ actions. In this regard, REIGN fares admirably, providing an abstract and yet simple system (that can be easily borrowed by other games).

REIGN also has a weird but intriguing world setting, with a Bronze Age vibe – the continents of Heluso and Milonda. This was the hardest part of the book for me to swallow, but I’m astonished at how this surreal world has grown in my mind with the passing of the years. I read similar commentaries from other gamers about settings like Glorantha or even Tekumel and while Heluso/Milonda isn’t as rich (or as complex) as those, it’s certainly is as unsettling and mysterious.

Starts Without Number

This RPG is probably one of most original and complete works born during the Old School Renaissance. You can read full reviews of it here and here. In a nutshell, Starts Without Number (or SWN) is a classic science fiction game whose system is a mix of D&D and a simple skill system. You have three classes – expert, psychic and warrior. SWN has a basic (and perfectly generic) world setting.

Probably the strongest appeal of SWN to me is that it is tailor made for sandbox campaigns – and very well made I should say (it’s hard not compare it with Traveler in this regard). SWN has an amazing level of quality (for free), with rules that are concise and balanced (check the psionic system).

Now, SWN really steals the spotlight with its faction’s rules: a complete, easy to use and embracing system that enables you to stat all kinds of big organizations, from religions and trade guilds to barbarian space fleets and ancient empires. This is something that I dearly miss from D&D since first reading about high-level campaigns and AUTHOR delivery it apparently effortless and – I repeat – for free! (I don’t even need to tell you that these rules can be easily adapted to D&D).

Forgotten Realms 1st

I never read the famous Grey Box, although my fourth RPG book was the Forgotten Realms 2nd Edition box. At the time I was just getting into RPGs (and AD&D) and all I wanted was Tolkien mash-ups. Forgotten Realms give me something close to that and I became used to all its complex organizations and gallery of NPCs (that I still love, specially the books released at the end of AD&D 2nd Edition).

So, after reading this post at Grognardia, I hunted down a copy of the Grey Box and started reading it. What a surprise! In this first incarnation, the Realms were not only a perfect sandbox setting, but the description of all its lands and countries – small paragraphs that went direct to a region’s distinctive traits – turned to be a lot more interesting to me today than pages and more pages of background.

Actually, I dare say that the Grey Box managed quite a stunt – blending Tolkien (High Fantasy) and Sword & Sorcery. Basically, you can see the North (with the Dalelands and perhaps Cormyr) as” Tolkien-ish”, while the farther you go South or East, the closer things get to Howard and Ashton Smith’s tales. There is also a pleasant absence of NPCs, with some like Elminster been treated more as a sage than an all-powerful demigods (some NPC descriptions are particularly remarkable, like the King Azoun IV, pictured here as “an effete but regal middle-aged man of sophisticated tastes and keen wits”).

…and planning.

And now some good bad news: I have finally formed groups here in Belo Horizonte! My Curse of the Crimson Throne group (for Pathfinder) is already on the way, with three players; I’m also playtesting a generic rule system called Triad with another group (now as a player); and I hope to get a REIGN group running within two or three months. All that without abandoning my old group at Vila Velha (some 300 miles from here), where my Chronicles of the Seventh Moon campaign (for my heavy house-ruled Pathfinder, here's a sample) is entering on its 4th year. I’m trying to schedule the Seventh Moon campaign once at every three months (our next session is this Saturday!).

By “bad” news I mean that, with these groups running, I’ll probably have less time to update this blog, but I hope to keep one post every three days. Let’s see if I can pull this out.

Still about the blog, I’m working on a Worldbuilding article inspired by the Malazan Book of the Fallen where I propose a new vision about wizard, cleric and psionic power sources.  I’ll also keep translating my Seventh Moon reports, as the last articles are recently getting more clicks.