Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Optics of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia Reprint Are...Weird...

I got my copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in this week, along with the Creature Catalog, and while it's exciting to have them, the sad truth is that the scan used to make the print copy of the Rules Cyclopedia just wasn't ideal. It's readable....I guess....but the scan quality is just a bit fuzzy, almost like you're trying to read something with heavy bleed-through or shadowing effects. On the PDF (which has the same effect) I didn't really mind it because I could expand the PDF to make it easier to read, but the print edition (being "locked in" to a certain size and all) sort of hammers home that this is an issue.

Not for everyone though! Some people on the rpgnow.com listing for the Rules Cyclopedia are saying they see no issues. I'd love to find out if this is an eyesight thing or if it's an actual print issue (I have heard Lighting Source, which does the POD for OneBookShelf, has more than one printer and results can vary).

But for now, the problem is: I'm finding the book hard to read, and when I compare it to the Creature Catalog, which is also a scanned image print, the Creature Catalog is easy to read, clean, and causes no headaches at all.

On the plus side, I suspect this means original copies on Ebay will stay a strong commodity! But for me, I think I'll be dumping my copy of the Rules Cyclopedia on Ebay ASAP.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Film Review: Black Panther


This hardly seems like a movie I need to hype or praise, as it's getting a great deal of such from just about every corner, everywhere. But given just how monumental and distinct this movie is, I feel like it's worth talking just a bit about how much of a milestone in film making Black Panther really is. (I'll try to avoid spoilers.)

It's not just that the movie's cast is 95% African and African American...

It's not just that the movie has a shockingly powerful cast of black women in positions of power and responsibility...

It's not just that this movie identifies with a sort of mythic representation of fantasy African culture in a manner highly consistent with how fantasy has done it for ages now with European myth and folklore (this movie does for Africa what the Thor films do for Scandinavia, I'll put it that way)...

It's that it does all of this, and more, and defies genre expectations in some fascinating ways while still managing to be a relatable, distinct comic book movie. I mean....this is possibly the best and most unique Marvel film to date, and it leverages the years of prior films to produce something that just wouldn't have been possible only a few years ago...hell, a few months ago!

Somehow, Black Panther manages to be a rite of passage movie, a spy movie, an action movie, a massive affirmation film and a comic book super hero movie all at the same time. And probably some other things I haven't yet identified. It compellingly sets up and then leverages the concept of a hidden super-science empire in the middle of Africa, makes it "make sense" (in the comic book use of the term, mind you) as to how it is there, why it is there and why it has chosen to remain a secret place (and how they do that).

I really do feel like this film is a benchmark for future films, and it shows that it is possible and indeed desirous to make a positive, exciting fantasy film with non-western thematics, an almost entirely non-white cast, a focus on how this is all good, interesting, exciting and frankly as amazing as you could imagine without relying on any of the underlying tropes, conceits and implied restrictions that Hollywood normally places on a film focused on black actors.

Okay, now for a few comments with spoilers!

First, I thought it was extremely interesting that the one character who is most "in line" with conventional Hollywood presentations of black characters, the usurper Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) is also the bad guy, the literal and symbolic nemesis of both the characters in the film and the metaspace of the movie itself. Killmonger's a destabilizing presence, a man who has survived in the rough ghetto culture of America but with knowedge of a faerie land told to him by his father...which he spends decades preparing to find, usurp, and essentially drive in to chaos and destruction on the principle of revenge against the world. T'Challa's nemesis is a man who has learned hatred and self loathing from the survivor society of slave culture in modern America.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) himself is the caretaker of a culture which watched it's neighbors fall victim to European slavery and quietly worked to hide themselves from discovery, knowing how much they stood to lose. And yet in the end, he sees Killmonger for what he is, realizes that there was a grain of truth....the need for rehabilitation, not destruction, hidden in his story. Fascinating stuff.

I liked how Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) was here essentially as a token white guy, in almost every sense imaginable and very much in a manner consistent with how in most historical Hollywood traditions you usually have the reverse: a sea of white guys, and a token black sidekick or secondary hero. Despite how clearly this was being done, it only added to the story, and Ross as a character proves to be a valuable ally.

Meanwhile, we have T'Challa's technologically gifted sister Shuri (Leticia Wright) who's technological savvy is clearly equivalent to or greater than Tony Stark's, the loyal general Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), Black Panther's flighty love interest with a greater desire to help the helpless than to be his queen. This movie had not one but three fascinating and deeply powerful and well developed female characters, and not even Nakia is specifically there to be the one who swoons to T'Challa.

I predict that in twenty years this movie will be seen in film classes as a seminal milestone how how fantasy and film are not restricted to European origins and expectations. As I watched this movie, I was moved very much by the notion that maybe, just maybe, we can see a future full of interesting science fiction and near future films with a positive message aimed at demonstrating just how great African and African American culture is, and can be destined to be. We don't, it turns out, have to restrict our films to a constant regression on the past: follow Wakanda into a very, very positive future (at least, until Avengers: Infinity War!)

I want to see a Blade Runner type cyberpunk future set in Africa. I'd like to see a far-future starfaring empire grown whole cloth from African origins. How about a hardcore sword & sorcery film that is entirely African in thematics and mythology?

There are so many possibilities I feel like Black Panther has demonstrated are entirely possible, and very desirable, and something which this film demonstrates has been sorely lacking from the superhero genre up to now (in film, anyway; let's not forget that as a character Black Panther has been around since 1966!) I really hope this movie leads the way for a brilliant future in films which fight for a more worldly, broader perspective, with a sense of conviction that stands with the best of them.

I'm sure it goes without saying, but I loved this (as did the family). A+! Just when I wonder if Marvel's hit their apex, they knock it out of the park again.

Steve Jackson Games Stakeholder Report looks back on 2017

Steve Jackson Games (via Phil Reed) puts this report out every year, and it's well worth reading. It's also the time when GURPS fans recoil from the screen like a vampire in an Olive Garden, but there just isn't much we can do about that....

So aside from the vaguely interesting news that the Munchkin brand isn't continuing to generate the money they expect, the stuff that is interesting to RPGers is on how Dungeon Fantasy fared, and what that means for GURPS in the future. Also, if they talk more about what it means for SJG to have The Fantasy Trip back.

Well, the sad news is that GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is essentially a failure, and the description of how things went down (including over cost and cutting printed editions by 30%) suggest to me that the hope for more sets of similar nature just isn't going to happen. Literally the best thing to happen to GURPS, it turns out, is their addition of PDFs to OneBookshelf sites and the addition of POD to Amazon's service. This is good news in the sense that the availability of those products is more or less assured, and it doesn't impact SJG's ability to keep things in print and in stock. It's bad news because it means that in many ways we might as well think of GURPS as at the evergreen stage of its product life....this, along with occasional new PDF support, is probably all we're going to see, I suspect.

On the plus side, it looks like they definitely plan to revive The Fantasy Trip and will announce something at Origins this year, and probably a Kickstarter. It probably doesn't need to be said that in terms of product excitement, it also doesn't help poor Dungeon Fantasy that The Fantasy Trip is now back, something that old grognards will recall Steve Jackson was very unhappy he did not manage to gain the rights to back when Metagaming folded. Indeed, it's not a far cry to argue that GURPS owes its existence to the fact that he failed to secure ownership of TFT!

Anyway, it's interesting and appreciated that SJG provides this report. Often, we gamers may have some expectations and opinions about how the hobby works, but the reality is far different from the business end of how things look. I found it especially interesting when Phil talked about the problem with the market right now...it's flooded with releases and this is creating a different dynamic on the market about how products get released and how they get supported/reprinted. I know I see a lot of board game/card game releases and those seem to dominate game store shelves, but since I only really focus on RPGs it often feels like slim pickins' to me....and even then, let's be real here....in some ways the volume of content for RPGs is higher than ever before, it's just coming to us in a format and at a cost that is far different from how things used to be even just ten years ago.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Thri-Kreen in Starfinder

Thri-Kreen in Starfinder

A long time ago I adapted the thri-kreen to Pathfinder, recently I've been considering races that would make great foes in Starfinder: neh-thaalgu, mind flayers, neogi and others are all great choices, but thri-kreen struck me as a great "indigenous" race that could keep popping up on primitive, backwater worlds in the Vast.

The conversion is part "by the book" using Starfinder's suggested adaptations, with a bit of modification to make the thri-kreen a greater potential low level threat. 

Thri Kreen (CR 2)
XP 600
CN medium humanoid (thri-kreen)
Defenses:
HP 25 EAC 14, KAC 15
Fort +0 REF +5 Will +4
Defensive Abilities: none; Immunities sleep
Offense:
Speed 30; leap (special)
Multiattack 4 claws +4 melee (1D4+2 S each) and bite +2 melee (1D4 plus poison)
Multiattack 4 gythka strikes +4 melee (1D6+2 S each)
Melee gythka +8 melee (1D6+2 S)
Ranged chatkcha +8 ranged (1D6+4)
Offensive Ability Poison (Fortitude DC 11; paralysis 1D8 rounds)  
Space: 5 ft Reach 5 ft
Statistics:
Abilities: Str +2, Dex +4, Con 0, Int 0, Wis +1, Cha 0
Skills: Acrobatics +12, Athletics +7, Stealth +7, Perception +7
Other Abilities: Darkvision 60 ft., immunity to sleep, leap

Poison (Ex): A thri-kreen delivers its poison (Fortitude save DC 11) with a successful
bite attack. The initial and secondary damage is the same (paralysis for 1D8 rounds). A thri-kreen produces enough poison for one bite per day.
Immunity to Sleep (Ex): Since thri-kreen do not sleep, they are immune to magic sleep effects. A thri-kreen spellcaster still requires 8 hours of rest before preparing spells.
Leap (Ex): A thri-kreen is a natural jumper. It calculates the DC for jumping with a ten foot or more head start at ½ the default value and also may jump up to its movement value vertically wit no running start. An unencumbered thri-kreen does not need to make a jump check on athletics.
Camoflage: The exoskeleton of a thri-kreen blends in well with desert terrain, granting it a +4 racial bonus on Hide checks in sandy or arid settings.

Thri-kreen are found on backwater desert worlds in The Vast. The typical thri-kreen is a 1.5 to 2 meters tall four limbed insectoid being, and they demonstrate ferocious territoriality. Some who have studied the thri-kreen suspect that their prevalence on multiple worlds suggest they may have once been capable of space flight. On some worlds thri-kreen demonstrate a keen potential for mysticism. Vesk slavers like to capture thri-kreen as for use as thrall warriors and gladiators.

Thri-kreen live about 30 years and do not sleep, requiring on meditation time for spell recovery.

THRI-KREEN WEAPONRY
Thri-kreen warriors have invented two exotic weapons that are unique to their race—the gythka and the chatkcha. As no thri-kreen have yet developed advanced technology, these weapons only have primitive analog versions:

Gythka: This Large exotic melee double weapon is a polearm with a blade at each end. A thri-kreen who has the Multiweapon Fighting feat can wield two gythkas at once as double weapons because of its four arms. Each end of a gythka deals 1d6 points of slashing damage. Each end is a slashing weapon that deals double damage on a critical hit. (level 1; price 500; Bulk 1; analog)

Chatkcha: This Medium-size exotic ranged weapon is a crystalline throwing wedge. Its sheer weight makes it unwieldy in the hands of those not proficient with it. A chatkcha deals 1d6 points of piercing damage and has a range increment of 20 feet. It deals double damage on a critical hit. (level 1; price 40 apiece; Bulk L; analog)





Friday, February 16, 2018

White Star Galaxy Edition - Here at Last


About two weeks ago (or less) I finally got my Lulu-issued copy of White Star Galaxy Edition in the mail. It's a thick monster of a book for a game with such humble origins, clocking in at a 9X5 format over 332 pages. The new format is cleaner and easier to read for old grognard eyes; I don't know about you, but my copies of the original rulebook, while nice looking, had a faded "grayscale" quality to the printing which made it a bit hard to read at times. This new version does not have that problem, at all.

As you may know, this edition of the game combines the original rules with the Companion, and adds some extra content in as well. It's notable features include:

--a lifepath/background generator (it creates your "serial")
--25 classes (of which only 5 are core, and the rest are optional!) plus a skill system
--metric ass-tons (yes, ass-tons) of equipment, weapons, armor, vehicles, starships, mecha, mystical traditions, aliens and monsters to build your crazy White Star universe with
--cybernetic and "etchings"
--world generation, two sample star sectors, and lots of fluffy stuff

So yeah, a lot.

After finishing our test drive on SWN, my group spent a bit of time agreeing that we might prefer to spend more time with White Star. Indeed, we left off our last White Star campaign (season one) with a cliffhanger and the promise of a season two to come! Perhaps it is at last time to visit the sequel to the Dark Stars Netherspace Campaign.....




Thursday, February 15, 2018

Mythras: After the Vampire Wars is Out


I did not know this was a thing that was happening; in fact last I'd heard, I assumed After the Vampire Wars was going to get some future anticipated re-release under the eventual revision of BRP. Instead, much sooner than I'd have imagined, there's a fully revised and updated edition out for Mythras!

I haven't run this at all, but will comment that it is a nice way to expand the Mythras repertoire of supplements, and will provide some much needed modern content to the system.* I've got my physical copy on order and will talk more about this when it arrives.





*That doesn't require familiarizing yourself with an obscure 1970's era comic about a parallel dimension-hopping spy.

Stars Without Number Actual Play Session (Drawing comparisons and contrast to Traveller, White Star and Savage Worlds)


For the Wednesday night game we had some absent players (it being Valentine's Day and all, and some players have actual lives, or romances, or whatever!) and so it was that the hardcore, the jaded, the misanthropic, and also my family decided to enjoy the holiday with a one-shot.

The purpose of this one-shot was to exercise a chance to try out Stars Without Number. Before going in to this game you can see my general feelings on it in in prior articles, but I'll sum it up like this:

--Wonderfully quick character generation

--numeric old school simplicity

--A very Traveller-esque skill mechanic

--brilliant "tag" structure for world/adventure generation

--seems to have enough equipment/vehicles/ships/augments to support robust campaigning

After playing, I now feel this way about SWN:

--We all agreed, char gen is quick and efficient

--the numeric old school simplicity was at time "too simple." This will sound weird, but I found myself not enjoying the core conceit of SWN as much as I do it's close cousin, White Star, nor the game to which it pays direct homage, Traveller

--The Traveller-esque skill mechanic felt more shallow and less fulfilling than Traveller's own skill mechanic. Indeed, it made me wonder why it even bothered, given how slender the SWN system is, when Traveller's core conceit is exactly the same yet manages to provide a more robust and interesting experience....the only "lite skill" system I really enjoy/tolerate is Savage Worlds, I guess

--the tag structure is still a great mechanic for inspiration, but SWN does not support the interesting "technical" elements of design that Traveller does. Traveller in turn lacks the "stuff to do" element that SWN's tag system offers. SWN is a clear "win" on this.

--SWN has enough interesting equipment, vehicles and ships. It's not a problem. 

But! Throughout the course of play as well as over the last few days designing material to run, I realized that SWN is most definitely a "one world" system by default. Arguably Traveller is the same way, as is White Star, but both of those games give you a "starting point" which makes few real assumptions about the universe....well, maybe White Star's Galaxy edition is different (it assumes not just star knights but talking squirrel star knights, for example) but Traveller's only real conceit is that you use Jump Drive, and that gets you from point A to point B a certain way, and that the setting is humanocentric. Traveller in the past has expanded on this to let you customize how and why technology works to handle other universes of play, but it's only real conceit is a universe of humans, mostly. 

SWN has a lot of Traveller's conceits, but it also bakes in some default assumption about FTL drives, the "scream" as a defining point of the setting, and other features that are fairly baked in to the setting's presentation, tags, core assumptions, and much of its infrastructure. This is not a problem if you want a ready to go setting, not at all. But it does pose issues when you don't want to use that setting, and during play we thought about this issue on several occasions.

In the end, the problem wasn't that SWN wasn't fun, or even that it wasn't a setting I wanted to use (I could easily see accepting its default assumptions for any extended campaign easily). It was the fact that it felt like it was a homebrew homage to Traveller, and one which only left me feeling like Traveller has been here, done this, and done it maybe with a bit more depth and support than SWN does. Traveller does not have a Tag System for enhancing world generation, though, and SWN definitely beats the other games hands down.

But for designing my own setting, with no fuss? I'm afraid that Savage Worlds remains firmly on that throne. 

Anyway, other comments on SWN in actual play:

Combat was pretty smooth, but the veteran players in the group found at level 1 that charging in with a melee weapon against armed combatants was a preferred strategy. This felt...off....to me. 

Melee weapons do shock damage against targets under a certain Armor Class on a miss. I did not like this rule at all, it felt like something out of D&D 4E, especially since it was pretty much a guarantee to make melee weapons much deadlier than expected, at least at low level, and was defying my understanding of what was happening that, in essence, under a certain AC you could never avoid damage in melee. Yes, games like 13th Age do this....but the very core of those games support different basic expectations. SWN is very OSR, and if I were playing White Box and suddenly started dealing auto-damage on a miss I would feel like maybe the shark had just been jumped, y'know?

I did not like how melee weapons are given a very short, non-descriptive list of "primitive/advanced" and light, medium and heavy with damage but vague suggestions as to what that meant. I wanted more depth here, and the game provides that depth in so many other areas that it seemed weird to simply avoid putting any effort into detailed futuristic (and primitive) melee weapons.

The skills felt like their name tags were trying to be too hard to be short and simple despite so many of them feeling like call-backs to Traveller skills. I feel that the game, for what it is, does itself a disservice by having so few skills even as it has just enough specific skills. Lacking multiple "shipboard" skills for example meant that the only person with a "useful on the spaceship" skill was the guy with pilot. Why no gunnery, engineering, sensors or other interesting SF skills? Claiming the "Work" and "Know" skills could cover such elements if desired is both an inadequate fix (for a system which rewards very few skill points to start) and maybe a bit lazy (as any halfway decent skill system, I now realize, deserves more than 1-2 pages to detail).

Now, on the major plus side, like most OSR systems gameplay is fast and I was miraculously able to plow through the entire one-shot in the alloted time, including lots of role-play, encounters, and some combat. This would not likely have happened in Starfinder without some serious effort to speed things along, I admit. However, the pacing would have been the same for Traveller, Savage Worlds and White Star, easily. 

Okay, so my final take: Stars Without Number is perfectly serviceable, and I think it would be fun to play again, but I don't think it's going to scratch all of the itches for me that Traveller, Savage Worlds SF and White Star manage. I can use White Star for gonzo Space Opera Crazy. I can use Traveller for my "starship owner procedurals." I can use Savage Worlds SF for literally any sci fi world I want, just so long as its a universe that likes fast, furious fun. SWN's strength may well be in hardcore scifi sandbox play in the default setting. Unfortunately, I don't have interest in the setting and I don't have time in my schedule to explore the sandbox elements of the game, at least not without losing patience with the rules, that constantly reminded me that I like the way Traveller does it all just a little bit better. 

I'm not done with the Sine Nomine system, though. I am still keen to try out Other Dust, and see if maybe it might not scratch that particular post-apocalyptic itch. The only two games to come close in the last couple of years are a two-part Wasteland GURPS game I ran (which would be better if GURPS had more Wasteland support than a couple anemic supplements), and Precis Intermedia's Earth A.D. 2 which was an interesting (if convoluted) but fairly detailed post-apoc experience that I enjoyed but was still frustrated with after running it. I could see Other Dust being a good choice for the genre....we shall have to see.

So, final verdict:

SWN is not a good replacement for Traveller; it is not simpler, mechanically; just different, in a "homebrew" sort of way. If you like Traveller, this feels like a cruder homage. If you think Traveller is too complex, SWN is as complex as Traveller, just in a different way. If you think Traveller is too simple...then you will also think such of SWN. What I'm trying to say is, it's not a good replacement for Traveller if you don't have any problems with Traveller in the first place, and if you do, SWN doesn't "fix" anything, really. As a contrast with Traveller I give it a B to Traveller's more well conceived mechanical cohesion.

SWN is superior with its tag system, and everyone should check that part out. This part is A+.

SWN lacks the toolkit elements of Savage World SF Companion, or even the free-for-all madness of White Star, so you have to revise and back out a lot of baked-in core assumptions in the game if you want to design your own universe. Indeed, I sort of felt like the core conceits of SWN were more pervasive in its underlying assumptions than normal (by contrast, Traveller's only two core conceits are human dominance and jump drives, and that's it). Oddly, the bonus content of SWN is interesting but expands in weird ways, with transhumanism ideas followed by sorcery and magic options. For this it's a C, but gets a B+ for touching on transhumanism and AI in ways an OSR game usually wouldn't.

If you don't play games all that much, but love tinkering with them and writing up rules stuff (as I often do on this blog) SWN has a lot to offer, though, as most OSR systems do...Good A here.

SWN does provide a solid core package if you are not familiar with Traveller but like the concept of a rules-lite hexbox themed scifi game, and need a system that provides you that core underlying setting to riff from. If you fit this category this game is a good solid A, with the Tag System still A+.


Afterthought: the SWN playtest vs. the Starfinder Playtest

These two games really are different beasts. That said, it was interesting because after finishing Starfinder I was frustrated with elements of the experience, and my efforts to impose my will on the game's implied setting (which is strongly implied, moreso than SWN's setting is), but I still enjoyed it...the experience was very solid. With SWN I found the rules to be rather comfortable (within limits; e.g. my telekinetic in the party was rank 1 but she wanted to throw a guard around...and by the book that was a no-no for some reason but I thought that was stupid so invoked handwavium and made it happen...repeatedly). But from a purely mechanical perspective I really did feel like playing Starfinder was like experiencing a carefully designed machine that was riddled with a ton of testing and input, with subtle but wide-ranging designs that would impact the play experience over time. SWN felt like (what I think it is) the brainchild of one person who is very good at OSR design and made his homebrew baby lovechild of OD&D and Classic Traveller something others could enjoy...but it's not a team design, and it's not built with inherent synergies in mind. SWN is a naked tree waiting for ornaments. Starfinder is the Times Square Xmas Tree, ready to blind you with carefully decorated radiance. 





Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

It's been a busy couple of weeks so I am unexpectedly behind on my routine blog posts, but fear not...things will eventually normalize.

So for the last month or so I've been up to this:



Guild Wars 2 has sucked me back in.....after lamenting the sorry overall state of the MMORPG scene in leading up to my Birthday I received the deluxe Path of Fire expansion. This prompted me to make a real effort to dive back in to Guild Wars 2 and...you know what? I really enjoyed it! Apparently its exactly what I needed right now for computer gaming, and the story structure of GW2 suddenly feels much, much more "user friendly" than all the other MMOs I have grown tired of. I especially enjoy not getting constant, endless quests from angry ghosts and snooty elves (TESO, you vex me!!!) and instead get to enjoy a quest structure that lets me wander and explore while also enjoying a personalized, semi-branching epic tale in which the NPCs are actively assisting rather than just making excuses to get you to do all the dirty work. Amazing!

Path of Fire is the second major expansion (following Heart of Thorns), and it is the first expansion in the history of the franchise to introduce mounts. The mounts are varied (five core varieties with a bazillion skins) and a lot of fun to handle....the mounts also have some combat tricks to them as well, and you can use them in any region of the game world. The only issue is you need to hit level 80 and start the Path of Fire campaign to unlock them on your character, but they make that easy....if you don't have an avatar at level 80 already the different iterations of the PoF expansion all include a token to start a character at level 80.

So far the story is amazing, and very in depth with lots of interesting characters. I never actually started the Heart of Thorns campaign, but it seems that this one directly follows it, so I stopped working on this campaign so I can get through Heart of Thorns first. But seriously....the story development, structure and focus is much better than all other MMORPGs out there. As a side note, if you were not a fan of the "framed" conversations of the vanilla GW2 campaigns they seem to have dispensed with that format and all stories are "in game"....at least, so far.

Anyway......despite my pessimism about the MMORPG scene at the start of the year, it looks like Guild Wars 2, at least, has managed to fill this void for me. Just in time, too! I have begun to at last get tired (a bit) of Tom Clancy's The Division end game, which is fantastic but also can only go so far with the main storyline ended.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Ten Fun Facts about the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia



Ten Fun Facts about the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia

When I suggest that looking through the D&D Rules Cyclopedia is a bit like staring in to a weird carnival funhouse mirror, I’m not kidding. If you spent most of your formative years learning AD&D 1st and 2nd edition, the BECMI edition of D&D is strangely familiar and utterly weird all at once. Here’s ten interesting observations about those rules for those interested:

1.       Despite having “race as class,” the Rules Cyclopedia compiles all of the optional rules letting you play elves, dwarves and halflings indefinitely, ganing experience which in turns lets them benefit from optional rules that allow them to advance in combat ability using letter-identified “demihuman attack ranks.” So a Dwarf with enough XP for DH rank K, for example (2.2 million XP!), can hit as hard as a 22nd-24th level human fighter.

2.       If you didn’t like the demihuman attack ranks and special rules associated with gaining XP after hitting level cap, the Rules Cyclopedia actually provides guidance on simply letting demihumans continue to advance in level as an optional rule.

3.       Weapon Mastery rules were one of the many strange add-ons included in the BECMI edition of the game and codified in the Rules Encyclopedia. In only about seven pages this edition of D&D makes a system of weapon specialization that is both more nuanced and more complicated than the system that AD&D 2nd edition codified in an entire separate rulebook (the Complete Fighter’s Handbook)! Weapons advancement under this optional system goes through five ranks of profiency, improves damage dice with the weapons, defense bonuses and provides for unique special effects, with a distinct advancement chart for every weapon in the game. This is one section of the “Basic” game that is actually more complex on its face than the AD&D proficiency rules.

4.       The D&D Rules Cyclopedia also provided a more elaborate skill system (which was also identified as such…no proficiencies here) with as many (possibly more) core skills identified in the rules as you see in the AD&D 2nd edition of the game. Indeed, rules allowed for demihumans at level cap to continue gaining skills as they hit benchmarks in XP advancement, something not provided for in AD&D.

5.       Attack roll advancement in D&D Rules Cyclopedia is erratic…fighters, for example, tend to advance in attack rank every fourth level or so. Despite this, the THAC0 rule applies just fine and remains the default mechanic for easily tracking your character’s attack ability. Likewise, it is not correct to assume that fighters (and demihumans) don’t get multiple attacks at later levels…..they do. But unlike AD&D which was balanced over 20 levels of advancement, the same advancement on number of attacks is spread out over 36 levels in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (with one additional attack gained every 12th level).

6.       I had always assumed that encounter balance was primarily a mechanic starting with D&D 3rd edition (mechanical provisions for such not being in AD&D as far as I recall). Yet the Rules Cyclopedia includes optional encounter balance rules, which kind of shocked me. They are slightly more elaborate than you might imagine, and deploy fractions….but they seem to work.

7.       Those who remember what passed for unarmed combat rules in AD&D may be shocked to learn that the D&D Rules Cyclopedia has a more elaborate and effective approach to unarmed combat and wrestling outlined in only a few pages, and no dumb chart in site!

8.       There are six ways to accrue experience in the game: story goals, party goals, monster experience, acquiring treasure, exceptional actions and then the optional skill use. The game discussed expected advancement, suggesting characters level up after five adventures….which means, going by standards of the 80’s and 90’s, a player needed to stick with a character for potentially 175 sessions (!) before hitting level 36. When I think back to my games in the 80’s, and how I think it took my sister 110 sessions to get from level 1 to 15/11 on her thief/mage elf in our AD&D games, that doesn’t sound too off. They do suggest that if the pace is too slow you could dial it up to a level every 2 sessions. This sounds like a lot of other games I knew which had dudes with level 40 paladins carrying two copies of Thor’s Hammer around since they killed him…twice.

9.       By the way, paladins, avengers and knights are totally a thing in the RulesCylcopedia. You just need to get to fighter level 9, first. The magic-user equivalent is the magist, magi and wizard. Clerics at 9th level are simpler, oddly…but this iteration of the game does let them cross class in to druids, and also there’s a whole other optional class named the Mystic which is essentially something between a spiritual adventurer and an AD&D monk. Either way, the trigger for what sort of special class you are comes from hitting “name level” which is level 9…at which time you decide if you’re going to rule your particular brand of fiefdom, or remain a wandering adventurer.

10.  The Rules Cyclopedia touches on how the planes work in D&D, and while it is essentially close to the AD&D Great Wheel, it is also oddly different. There are chiefly elemental (inner) planes, the ethereal plane, the astral plane and then the amorphous outer planes, which are where the Immortals….a tangible end game goal for all PCs!...dwell. The exact nature of the outer planes is left for the DM to define on an as needed basis.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

D&D Rules Cyclopedia and Creature Calalog both POD Now

Long after it's original release, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia has it's chance to shine once again as a fully POD edition at rpgnow:


This is the definitive "final" word on the classic BECMI edition of basic Dungeons & Dragons, the quasi side-edition which ran coterminously with AD&D from roughly 1981 to 1993ish. After that there was an attempt to adapt Mystara to an AD&D 2nd edition setting. In 1991 or thereabouts the D&D Cyclopedia was something the "hardcore" D&D fan picked up as a curious novelty...a sort of one-volme collection of all that had come out of five boxed sets in the prior decade, a weird sort of mirror universe edition of AD&D that spoke of worlds in which elves were a distinct thing unto themselves, demons had never been exercised from the Monster Manual because they weren't there in the first place, and multiclassing was anathema.

In 1993 the Creature Catalog, also now POD at rpgnow, arrived. It was a revision and reprint of classic D&D's version of the Monster Manual, after a fashion:


With these and other classic D&D books in POD now, this game is arguably more alive and available that AD&D is at this point. For me, it is much more interesting now to pick these games up and realize that their unique level of simplicity has stripped away any sense I once had that these were the crude hill cousins to AD&D 1st and 2nd edition, and that indeed the prospect of using them feels more viable now than it ever did 25 odd years ago.

I have a soft spot for these books, as this is where one of my favorite monsters, the neh-thalggu brain collectors, got their first appearance.

(Yes, ordering these PODs right now! To set next to my original copies of Basic and Expert with the Otus covers....still my defacto preferred edition).