How Much Crunch Is Right For You?

I’ve been gaming a long time (more than three decades), and in that time I’ve played a great number of different games and all kinds of genres.

I’ve played some very cruchy (i.e. rules-heavy) games, like Rolemaster and Champions. I’ve played some games with little or (almost) no crunch, such as Wushu or HeroQuest. And I’ve played games that fall along the spectrum between heavy and light.

And what I’ve discovered over the years is that my preferences for rules runs the gamut from light to heavy. And it depends on a number of factors.

Setting

The setting in which the game takes place makes a huge difference in how crunchy I want the rules to be. Highly detailed settings with many moving parts lead me to prefer a crunchier set of rules. I expect the rules to model the setting appropriately, and there are some settings in which the rules need to have more heft to them in order to accurately represent how things are supposed to work within that world.

As an example, I feel that Star Wars is a setting that can be represented with fairly light rules. As a setting that is the basis for a great deal of high adventure and where the protagonists constantly take huge risks, and where the details of how the technology—or Force powers—work are still fairly nebulous (at least in the primary source material such as the movies and TV shows), there isn’t the need for a set of rules that rigidly defines such things.

How easy is it to shoot someone with a blaster? That depends on how important you are. How much damage does a blaster do, or a lightsaber? As much as it needs to do. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke hits Vader in the upper arm with his lightsaber and it apparently hurts, but not much more. Seconds later, Vader takes Luke’s hand off at the wrist with a single swipe. Did Vader’s armor block Luke’s lightsaber? If so, why was it so easy for Luke to cut off Vader’s hand in Return of the Jedi?

More important, though, is the question: does it actually matter? Calculating exactly how long a hyperspace jump takes, or how much fuel it uses, or how many shots are in a blaster pistol is not what Star Wars has ever been about. So I don’t need a comprehensive set of rules to define everything in detail.

Conversely, if I am using a hard SF setting, like a realistic colonization of Mars 50 years in the future, for example, then I want rules that will model that experience. Character skill matters, and how technology works matters, and those things shouldn’t be glossed over because the experience will be less satisfying for me and the people with whom I game.

Campaign Length

I have found that, if I’m planning to run a one-shot, I have no interest in grabbing a rules-heavy game. In those cases, I tend to look for speed of play to ensure that I can fit in everything that’s necessary for a satisfying play experience in the time allotted. In a longer, ongoing campaign, I can delve into those elements of a game that take more time. For example, if I’m running an entire campaign of Ars Magica, then the laboratory rules don’t get in the way because we can dedicate the time to explore how the player character mages spend their time researching new spells or developing their magical skills.

Character Advancement

This is related to setting, but is a slightly different element, more based on genre. Are the player characters expected to proceed through the zero-to-hero steps? If so, then I will tend to prefer a game with at some player-facing crunch, so that they feel the mechanical difference as they advance. On the other hand, in a game where the players characters are already competent and won’t really change much during the game/campaign, I feel less of a need to have the crunch. Superhero games are a good example of this, as most superhero comics do not show an advancement in skills as the stories go on. So I tend to lean toward lighter rules for this type of game.

Player Preference

Obviously, when I’m running a game, the preferences of my players are important to me. Different people have different approaches to gaming. For example, I know one player who feels that crunch-light games take him out the immersive experience. And I know another gamer that feels that crunchy games completely get in the way of an immersive experience. So when I choosing a game, the players I will have matter to the choice of systems I present to them.

My Role

I tend to run games far more often than playing. In fact, easily 95% or more of my playing time is spent as the DM or GM (or whatever it is called in any particular game). And I only have so much time prepare for a game, as I have a career, a family, other hobbies, and other responsibilities. Now, the amount of rules in a game doesn’t always reflect how much work it is to run. For example, some fairly crunchy games have a ton of GM resources like NPC stats, or published campaigns, or other elements that can reduce the time needed to prepare. For example, I find Pathfinder to be a fairly crunch-heavy system. But if one is running an Adventure Path, then a great deal of prep work is already done.

Conversely, I find rules-light games often leave a certain amount of work to the GM, especially if it is a generic/universal system and so doesn’t have a fully-fleshed out “genre pack” ready to use. As I’ve written previously, this is the biggest issue with the HeroQuest RPG.

As a player, rare though that is, I find that I tend to prefer a bit more crunch. With only a single character to manage, I like to have a few more widgets to play with, and I can focus on the rules that really pertain to me to a greater degree.

But having said all that, I often tend to fall pretty much right in the middle when it comes to the level of crunch. I certainly love games like HeroQuest, and Wushu, and Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies, but I tend to lean toward slightly crunchier games like AD&D (or D&D 5E), The One Ring, the D6 system as seen in the original Star Wars rpg and others, and similar games.

Conclusion

These factors all matter to me, and all influence how I choose the system I want to use for a particular game. I admit that I often use the system that comes with a particular setting if I really like the setting the system is “good enough” for my purposes. As I said, I only have so much time to dedicate to prep, and a complete game is a major help.

No one system is right for everyone—and often, no one system can satisfy all of an individual’s personal preferences—so people will fall on points all along the crunchy/light spectrum. And this is good, because there are lots of games out there, and most likely people will find the games that do what they want for them.

As long as people are playing and having fun, then everything is doing it correctly.

What about you? Where do you land on the spectrum? What are the factors that contribute to your preferences and/or choices? What games do you play that fit your preferences so well that you feel they were written just for you? Tell us about it in the comments.

Betrayal at Shadewood Keep Now Available

I’m happy to announce that Betrayal at Shadewood Keep, a licensed adventure for the Mythras roleplaying game using the Classic Fantasy supplement, is now available for sale on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.

Betrayal-At-Shadewood-Keep-Cover

Raiding parties have been emerging from the dark Shadewood Forest to attack local villages. The paladin responsible for protecting the area is unable to stem the tide of destruction. Can you protect the helpless villages while uncovering the mastermind behind the attacks? Or will you fall prey to Betrayal at Shadewood Keep?

This 65-page adventure is designed for Classic Fantasy characters of Rank 3 and can be dropped into practically any existing campaign. This primarily wilderness-based adventure will give your druids and rangers a chance to shine, while still providing plenty of adventure for all character classes.

Betrayal at Shadewood Keep includes detailed descriptions of Kewin Town and Shadewood Keep, and all maps needed for play. Full monster and NPC statistics are provided, as well as two new gods—one good, one evil—that you can use to supplement your existing campaign pantheon.

Print versions will be available shortly, and anyone buying the print version will receive the PDF of the adventure at no cost. I’ll make an announcement here when the print book is available.

RuneQuest and Mythras

I first played the RuneQuest RPG back in the mid-80’s when my best friend ran a campaign centered around Griffin Island, a setting that had been adapted from the earlier Griffin Mountain of Glorantha fame. We spent a long time exploring the island, fighting orcs and broos, getting arrested and thrown in prison at least once, and generally causing as much mayhem as we solved.

I was never a fan of the larger Glorantha setting, as it never grabbed me. I found the sourcebooks unable to make me care about that world at all, and so we were happy to play on Griffin Island as a standalone location in a generic fantasy world that we never ended up exploring because there was more than enough adventure material on the island itself.

Since then, there have been a few editions of RuneQuest. One of the more well-known versions was the Mongoose Publishing RuneQuest 2E (MRQII), written by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. That game was a great version of the RuneQuest rules, and Mongoose gave back to the fan base by making the rules OGL, thereby ensuring that some version of the rules would always be available to anyone who wanted to use them.

When the Mongoose licence ended, they renamed their version of the game Legend (the core rules are still available in PDF from DriveThruRPG for only $1). Lawrence and Pete formed their own company, The Design Mechanism, and picked the licence back up. They released their own version of RuneQuest—for various numbering reasons referred to as RuneQuest 6—that took the work they had done on MRQII and expanded it in ways that they felt made a better game. It was a bit more complicated than previous versions, but the combat system, for example, allowed a level of detail that gave players a great deal of control over how they fought and inflicted wounds on their enemies. RuneQuest 6 is still held to be a high-point in the development of the game.

Ultimately, however, Chaosium found itself in dire straits and the original owners came back and rescued the company from its previous management team. Unfortunately, they also decided to pull the licences back in-house and, despite Pete and Lawrence keeping the game alive for many years when Chaosium did nothing to support it, The Design Mechanism could no longer publish RuneQuest 6.

Enter Mythras.

Mythras is The Design Mechanism’s version of RuneQuest 6 without needing to rely on the RuneQuest licence. They have further developed the system to implement some tweaks and ideas they had since RQ6 was published, and it’s an amazing game engine that still provides an experience that is in marked contrast to other big fantasy game, D&D.

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Mythras.

Since then, TDM also published the Classic Fantasy book, which takes the core ideas of D&D and moves them over into the d100 system framework. Classes are recreated in Mythras terms, monsters are converted, and many of the famous D&D magic spells have their counterparts in Classic Fantasy.

All of which leads me to my next RPG-related project.

Back in the early 2000’s, I published an adventure for D&D 3.5 called Betrayal at Shadewood Keep. When the d20 licence expired, I pulled that adventure from sale, intending to remove the d20 references and then put it back up. But I moved on to writing novels and never got around to it.

Lately, however, I’ve been using this blog to support great games that I enjoy. I looked at Betrayal at Shadewood Keep and realized that it would make a great adventure for Mythras and Classic Fantasy. So I reached out to The Design Mechanism and soon signed a licence agreement to allow me to re-publish a converted adventure for the Mythra/Classic Fantasy system.

I’ve been holding off on announcing this, as there was some important work to do on the adventure first. For example, in D&D 3.5, encounters are supposed to be set up to provide a particular level-based challenge at any given time. This results in a lot of “filler” encounters—combats that serve no other purpose than to provide some needed experience points so that the characters are the right level for later encounters.

Of course, those filler encounters are not necessary in Mythras, as there are no levels or restricted progression paths. So what I’ve done is take a look at the basic premise of the adventure, extract out the key elements and NPCs (and monsters), and redevelop it as an adventure that provides more open options and challenges that can be overcome in many different ways.

At this point, I’ve completed all the writing on the new version of Betrayal at Shadewood Keep, and the adventure is with the TDM folks for review. I’ve got a few maps that I need to complete, and then I’ll be publishing it through my Vanishing Goblin publisher on the OneBookShelf sites (DriveThruRPG and RPGNow). I expect this part to take a few weeks still, but over the next little while I’ll post the new cover design and a sneak peek or two.

In the meantime, here is the blurb for the adventure:

Raiding parties have been emerging from the dark Shadewood Forest to attack local villages. The paladin responsible for protecting the area is unable to stem the tide of destruction. Can you protect the helpless villages while uncovering the mastermind behind the attacks? Or will you fall prey to Betrayal at Shadewood Keep?

That’s it for this week. Check back next week for some sneak peeks at the adventure, as well as information on some of my other projects.

Free Story – Inheritance

This month’s story has a great deal of personal meaning to me.

March 12th will be six years since my father passed away. At the time, he was experiencing severe dementia and was forced to live in a facility where he could be properly cared for.

I wrote this story quite some time ago but I’ve held off publishing it until now. While the story itself is fiction, of course, there is a great deal of reality in the thoughts and emotions which reflect how I felt when we were going through this with him in 2010 and 2011. I needed a bit of that distance that fiction brings or would never have been able to write it.

I have kept this story on my hard drive for years, and reading it again recently was far more difficult than I thought it would be. But I’m at the point where I feel ready to share it, and so here it is.

The story is called Inheritance, and this one is, most definitely, entirely from the heart.

Introduction to Sword & Sorcery

 

I’ve been reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to my son and my wife over the last couple of weeks. My wife is familiar with them, but they are complete new to my son, and he’s enjoying them immensely.

However, I’ve found that there are opportunities for me to read to my son when my wife is not available (she runs a board game group, for example), and so I needed something else to read to him during those times. Last week, I decided to introduce him to some sword & sorcery classics, in the form of short stories by some of the greatest s&s writers who ever lived.

I started with a Conan story, of course. Now, there are a many Conan stories that contain problematic language in the form of racist diatribes and misogynistic ideas. On the one hand, I think that these stories should be read in the context in which they are written—Robert E. Howard wasn’t alive during the civil rights movement, and his beliefs were shaped by when and where he lived. On the other hand, some passages in his stories are just vile, and I’m not sure I want to say those things out loud to my 12-year-old son.

So I started with the most innocuous story I could think of off the top of my head, The Tower of the Elephant. This story takes place early in Conan’s career, and really drips with flavor in the descriptions of the setting and the tower that Conan decides to plunder.

My son enjoyed the story, but afterwards he commented that there “wasn’t that much to it.” When I asked what he meant, he said that after the cool battle with the spider, Conan really doesn’t face any other difficulties. My son was actually looking forward to an epic fight with the sorcerer, but there isn’t one, and he felt the ending was really anticlimactic.

This was his first exposure to any Conan story, and I found his comment interesting. He’s right, of course, the “excitement” ends after Conan kills the spider. After that, there is tension, and mystery, but it really amounts to the alien telling Conan to “take this, go here, and win.” And then Conan does exactly that, and wins without any further challenges.

It’s still a great story in my view, especially because of Howard’s prose. But one of the reasons I love reading to my son is that I get to see some of these novels and short stories through the eyes of someone who has never been exposed to any of it before.

I followed it up with the story Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber. I have the complete run of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories in paperback and they are some of my favorites. Like Howard, Leiber’s prose is wonderful, but its appeal comes from a different place. Leiber is a master of friendly banter and elaborate verbal explanations from the titular characters, and it’s a pleasure to read it out loud—it flows just as wonderfully off the tongue as it does off the page.

My son found Ill Met in Lankhmar to be more compelling than the Conan story. He really took a liking to the Grey Mouser right away, and he cared about how they fared in a way that didn’t happen with the Conan story.

So I talked to my son about the two stories and what he liked about each one, and didn’t like.

He felt The Tower of the Elephant was neat, and the alien creature was very cool. But he felt that there wasn’t really much to the character of Conan himself. He said that you could take any other strong warrior character and slip him in there, and the story would be essentially unchanged. It wasn’t Conan himself that made the story, but the things he encountered.

On the other hand, Ill Met in Lankhmar couldn’t be about anyone but Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Their unique personalities are what drive the story, and they are more than just the vehicle by which you experience the city of Lankhmar. In Lieber’s story, my son wasn’t entirely sure at any point that they were going to escape unscathed (and you can argue, after the deaths of Ivrian and Vlana, that they don’t escape unscathed at all).

Between the two stories, my son really wanted to know what happens to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser next. He’d be okay with more Conan stories, but doesn’t care if I choose something else instead.

At this point, my son is not quite ready to appreciate the prose of Robert E. Howard on its own merit, and perhaps there are better stories with which I could have introduced the character. But I find it’s an interesting reaction between the two.

It reinforces the idea that character is a vital element of any good story. Even the most action-packed tale can feel as if it’s missing something if there isn’t good characterization.

This week, as part of this introduction to sword & sorcery literature, I’m going to read a couple of the original Thieves’ World stories to my son. I believe he’ll enjoy these as well, but sometimes he surprises me. I managed to find the complete collection of original Thieves’ World paperback books at a used bookstore last year, and I haven’t read any of these to my son yet. So I’m really looking forward to this.

And then there is always the Elric stories. I think I might wait a bit before diving into those, however. I have a feeling they won’t be enjoyed quite as much as the pair from Lankhmar.

What was your introduction to sword & sorcery literature? What elements about these stories, especially the many short stories that make up a great deal of the genre, appeal to you the most? Tell us about it in the comments.

The First Few Levels

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m running a first-edition AD&D game for my son a few other kids in the 10-12 age range.

My primary goal is to give them a great experience so that they enjoy the game and look fondly at the RPG hobby in the future. I’m not trying to indoctrinate them into one true way of gaming, and I intend to go with the flow and adjust things as necessary to suit the interests they develop as they play.

This, of course, impacts the selection of adventures that I intend to run for them. I want to demonstrate the range of various activities that a character can get up to in the game. This is a game of Dungeons & Dragons, so some elements are a certainty, such as exploring a dungeon, fighting monsters, gathering treasure, finding magic items, encountering traps, exploring the wilderness, fighting a “big bad” at the end of an adventure, interacting non-violently with non-player characters (regular people, other adventurers, and opponents), spending time in towns or other civilized areas, learning a bit about the history of things that have gone before, and a few other basic staples of typical D&D campaigns.

But there are two things that hold no interest for me, which I think are just stupid, and which will play no part in this game.

  • Edition-warring: There are hundreds of adventures that have been published for the game throughout its lifespan. Obviously, as the game has changed with editions, the specifics of the published adventures have changed in response. But a good adventure can be made to work with AD&D, no matter what edition it was originally written for. There are great adventures from Classic D&D, 1E, 2E, 3E, 4E and 5E, and nothing is off the table. In fact, I’m starting the campaign with a 4E adventure, because it works really well for a group of new players, regardless of edition.
  • “Earning” greatness: I’m not interested in running a game where a single wrong move can end up with multiple dead characters. And random death is boring as hell and has killed more D&D campaigns than anything other cause. The kids are playing characters who are the stars of their story. And while a heroic death is possible, randomly killing characters will easily kill the interest in this game. And the characters, even at first level, are capable of succeeding with reasonable odds.

The First Adventure

I wanted to mix a bit of tradition with something more modern. So I started the game in a tavern…which was immediately attacked by goblins and hobgoblins in a surprise raid on the town. I’m kicking things off with a Dungeon Magazine adventure for D&D 4th Edition called Rescue at Rivenroar (Dungeon #156). This is a great little adventure that involves a bunch of villagers being kidnapped off-screen during the opening fights, and the players are hired to follow the surviving goblin raiders back to their lair to rescue the villagers and recover a bunch of historical artifacts that were stolen by the goblins.

One of the great things about D&D 4th edition was that characters started as heroes right from the first level and took on fights that would have been too tough in previous editions of the game. So, of course, I need to modify the actual encounters to make them reasonable for a first-level AD&D adventure.

But other than playing with monster numbers and changing out a few creatures, the adventure stands pretty well on its own.

The kids have played through the opening fight in the bar (with some creative use of abilities already), and then encountered the ogre that was chained to a wagon and throwing incendiary bombs at the buildings. They pretty handily beat both of those encounters with only minor damage to a couple of characters, which filled them with a healthy dose of confidence and made them want to come back for more.

Rescue at Rivenroar is the first adventure in the Scales of War adventure path, and I have no intention of running the whole path. I’m not actually a fan of the “adventure path” idea, as it requires the players to have no plans of their own for their characters, and the payoff takes a very long time to come.

Besides, I’m running AD&D – the speed at which characters level slows down the more powerful they become, rather than the consistent levelling system in 3rd and 4th editions. Which means adventure paths get too difficult too quickly for these characters.

I mentioned before that I’m planning to use The Temple of Elemental Evil adventure in this campaign, which is a fairly large, single adventure. I plan to make a bunch of minor changes to the TOEE adventure so that it doesn’t become a dungeon crawl that bogs down partway through. Those changes include plans for the various factions within the temple, providing opportunities for the characters to approach the temple in various ways (full-on assault, sneaky infiltration, cutting deals with factions against other factions, etc.) and allow opportunities for these different approaches to work.

So the goblins that raided Loudwater and which will be the first opponents of the characters in this game have a link to the temple. It won’t be so blatant that the kids will immediately find out about the temple, but it will give them a couple of clues that they can choose to follow when they are back in Loudwater.

As I’m running this game for completely inexperienced players who are also children, I want them to have a level or two under their belts before they discover the location of the moathouse in TOEE and head in that direction. This means providing them with a bunch of other adventure options they can choose to explore before they learn about the moathouse itself.

In this case, there are some great adventures that I can insert into the campaign:

Module N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God – I intend to use the town of Secomber, just down the road from Loudwater, to replace the town of Orlane in the module. The characters will hear the rumours about the town and can decide for themselves if they want to investigate.

The Sunless Citadel – This was a 3E adventure for first-level characters. In the adventure, the characters have a chance to ally themselves with kobolds against a more powerful goblin force. Again, they will have a chance to discover some force behind the goblins, foreshadowing the rise of the temple.

Menace of the Icy Spire – This is a 4E adventure from Dungeon issue #159. This short adventure gives the chance for the characters to encounter an elemental-themed location well before they discover anything about the temple itself. I will use this as a great opportunity to drop in some history about the area and the temple.

The Fountain of Health – This is an AD&D adventure from Dungeon Magazine issue #39. It’s a pretty standard dungeon-crawl in which the characters are searching for a well that provides a healing potion. I intend to replace that with rumours of some kind of magic item that was lost here a long time ago, prompting the players to try to acquire the item.

While running these adventures, I intend to start foreshadowing the rise of the temple by having minor earthquakes, freak rainstorms, sudden heatwaves or perhaps a fire, and a tornado or two hit the region. The players won’t have the information to link them to the temple right away, but once they discover the temple, they’ll see the effect its presence has already had on the area and will understand the threat it presents.

I figure these adventures will easily get all the characters to second level. Once they hit level two, I will drop the location of the moathouse to them via rumours or NPC interactions. It’ll be up to them to explore the moathouse (I figure they might hit all four of the above adventures first before they head in that direction).

Other than a couple of minor adjustments, I intend to run the moathouse as it is in the adventure.

Actual Play

Unfortunately, as mentioned, we’ve only managed two sessions so far as there have been some life-related things that have gotten in the way. But I expect that we’ll be able to pick up a more regular schedule in January.

I’m considering writing the game up as an actual play, which I would post here on my blog. But I’m going to wait until we have a few more sessions under our belt first, just in case this game doesn’t end up having legs. I hate reading an actual play thread that just ends up fizzling out shortly after it begins.

Who else has run the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure? Did you add a couple of early adventures for the characters to get them some experience before they tackled the moathouse or did you send them out there right away? Did your players actually complete the entire TOEE adventure? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

Writing Update – October

The Soldier and the Slave

The launch of The Soldier and the Slave last week went off as planned, and all the people who pre-ordered the book received it on Sunday.

On Monday, Black Gate published a review of The Soldier and the Slave by Donald Crankshaw. Donald also reviewed The Severed Oath back in April 2015, if you haven’t already seen that one.

Print sale:

Unfortunately, an error caused the print version to be listed at full price. This has now been corrected. Originally, I was planning on running the sale October 9-23, but since it didn’t start on time, I will now run it until October 30th. So if you want to get a print copy of the book, this is your chance to order one at the discounted price.

The print sale will run until October 30, 2016.

The Traitor and the Thief

I don’t have much to say this month about The Traitor and the Thief. Writing continues and is going well, and I’m still on track for my December 31st deadline.

A common refrain is that the middle book in a trilogy tends to be the slowest, as elements are used to set up the major conflicts that will be resolved in the third book. I’m trying to avoid this by making each of the books in the trilogy contain a “complete” story in and of itself. So, while each book contributes to the overall Undying Empire: Rebellion story, each could also stand alone.

This should help avoid the middle-drag syndrome.

The Revenant and the Reaper

I don’t really have anything to say here this month.

Short Stories

Hallowe’en takes place at the end of this month, and so I’ll be publishing a scary story to go along with the general spooky feelings. This one isn’t for the kids—it’s pretty creepy. I wrote it for anyone who’s ever been creeped out by a mirror, and I call it Reflection. Look for it next Sunday.

Someone asked me if I plan to name all my short stories with one-word titles. I started doing this without thinking about it, but I noticed what I was doing a little while ago, and I think it works well (so far). As long as I keep feeling that the one-word titles work, I’ll keep using them.

Tales of the Undying Empire

The omnibus edition is nearly complete. I’ll be getting the proofs some time this week, which gives me a bit of time to make any tweaks before my planned launch on November 1st.

The cover is now complete, so I’m happy to reveal it here:

tales-of-the-undying-empire-cover

I think this is going to be a great-looking book, and I look forward to holding it in my hands.