UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: March 2013

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Reflections From Arduin

Sometime in the mid-1970s a guy named David Hargrave started to mess around with ideas which broke the accepted rules of the fantasy RPG genre. These ideas gave birth to Arduin.

I'd not heard of Arduin. That was, I'd not heard tell until Fr. Dave mentioned it on his blog, almost in passing, in an article.

Fr. Dave recommended the "Dragon Tree Spell Book" by Ben and Mary Ezzell. I tracked it down and took a look... and found options for alternative ways to use D&D-type magic. But I also noticed other publications on their site... like Arduin.

Eventually I managed to track down Arduin Eternal.

Arduin Eternal

I have no idea why I bought this book. It was a cold purchase, out of the blue, unplanned.

At around 820 pages it's a massive tome. If ever there was a book in need of a .PDF version, this is it... and the electronic version would be best provided with the chapters separated as well as the whole book as one.

It's daunting; unwieldy as a book because it's too heavy to hold for any length of time. Arduin Eternal (AE) is also poorly written and riddled with missing words, typos and linguistic mistakes. It's raw. The art is poor.

But AE is actually fairly awesome to use.


For all of my attempts to reconnect with the roots of my gaming, AE has got me the furthest in the shortest amount of time.

Arduin is an interesting world. Many things within the setting (which is only vaguely sketched) are intriguing... and remind me of how many ideas worlds like Warhammer pinched from other sources. 

The best thing, though, is being reminded of two things:
  1. Fantasy should be fantastic.
  2. Choices make the game.
You could, I suppose, play a time-travelling techno with a laser pistol alongside a macho barbarian cleric hefting a mace. The thing about Arduin is that, although it is fantasy, it pushes the boundaries of how you define that genre. And it does so in a retro kind of way.

Fantastic Fantasy

While I could review the book, and perhaps I might some other time, the thing that I want to reflect upon is how much of fantasy is now completely predictable.

In a rational world we have opted to rationalise our fantasy. We know what we want and how it should look:  magick should be like science; faith is just another form of magick, understandable through predictable systems; cool powers and amazing abilities excite us in their familiarity... bore us with the same old same old.

That's not to say that unpredictable and random is the name of the game. Oh no.

Yet, somehow, Hargrave and his successors who wrote Arduin Eternal have retained the fantastic feel by allowing a mix and blend of possibilities. It's up to the players to take or leave the bits as they like.

Some folk like their Vancian predictability. They'd dislike Arduin, perhaps. Yet, for me, the game is one I'd like to play because it mashes up so many things that I'd forgotten.

Just one example: Clerics.

When was the last time you actually saw a Cleric-type character wrestle with a moral question? If you game with the actor-type gamer then you are luckier than most. Arduin, however, has a simple system for what happens if you transgress against your deity's moral teachings. Real, tangible consequences arise from the choices you make... good or bad. 

It's something I've not seen in a long while.


Reading Arduin Eternal is to be reminded that a simple game engine can support a complex web of choices: 20+ races, 30 professions; options within races and professions that make your Mage different from mine. And that's just for starters.

There's a reason for 820 page books: they didn't skimp on the options.

Arguably this is too much. You might suggest that it's overwhelming. Choice can lead to paralysis.

Maybe. Yet... isn't roleplaying about choices? 

The big drag with computerised adventure gaming is that it is always limited by the imagination of the designer. Some tabletop RPG systems overcome this by taking out all the rules and leaving the players to fill in the gaps from their own imaginations. Arduin, however, provides options up the wazoo. But they are meaningful choices. Options, variants, choices. 

Arduin makes you manage multiple resources while you play... none of which are arduous. All the choices fall back down to the core d100 roll high mechanic, however, which keeps it simple. 

Do choices make something complex or varied? 

On one level choices make for complexity - will I ever understand all of the permutations that can arise from AE? Probably not. Is that a bad thing?

On the other hand, variety is spice. 

Illusion of choice is not the same as meaningful choice. When we played D&D4e the main thing I hated was how each "power" ultimately felt like most other powers. The Fighter and the Mage felt too similar. Choice was an illusion in 4e.

Arduin makes you think. It makes you choose. Each character becomes highly varied, unique even. I realise that this is what I want.

Will I Play Arduin?

I'd like to say, "Yes!" 
Probably we'll end up not doing so, however.

Character creation took me a couple of hours. All those choices make for slow. 820 pages is a lot to read... although I am enjoying the effort.

The truth is that Arduin is a game I can steal from. As I develop my own game system, Beta, I feel that Arduin offers me a way to develop a lot of good ideas that appeal to me. My work will be derived from this (and other) games. But then I'm writing for me... for my players... for our needs.

AE was totally worth buying . Worth every minute of reading and play so far. Arduin Eternal is a mine of great ideas and systems just waiting to be used... or stolen.

Game on!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Castles & Crusades: An Unexpected Journey

"Who will rid me of this foul monster? Who will rid me of this pernicious bandit, Gerulf?"

Thus began an evening of roleplaying fun played off-the-cuff with some really rather surprising results.

Recently we've been struggling to get the Friday Night Roleplay group together for a game. At first it was the erratic shift patterns of the various professionals who meet at our table - all of whom work uncanny hours. Last time it was my own pressures at work that led me to cancel. We've been working towards running an SF game too... but, although the players have kept up their end and created characters, it has been my own failure to prep that led to the situation last night.

We had no game. We had a full house.
What's a GM to do?

Game on!

Step One: Let everyone know that, altthough the expected game can't progress, you are ready to receive everyone who wants to come and roll some dice.

Step Two: Choose an easy-to-pick-up game system and get ready to improvise.

Step Three: Grab a random dungeon map, open a link to behindthename.com, think up a game premise (see the opening quotation), and ask everyone to bring some dice.

Step Four: Give everyone a characterisation sheet and a character sheet; run the quickest creation sequence you can.

Step Five: Run the opening scene and get the players moving.

Setting It Up

Mortenburg. The walled village was once a proud bastion at the edge of the Great Empire, but that was 700 years ago. Now it has become the home of poor cattle farmers who nestle at the foot of the Northreach Mountains, far from the comforts of what little civilisation survives under the less-than-tender care of the Barons. Meister Eckhart, the Watcher of the Keep, faces hard times. A cruel bandit chieftain has arisen in the mountains and demands tribute from the villagers lest they face his wrath.

"Who will rid me of this foul monster? Who will rid me of this pernicious bandit, Gerulf?", cried the Meister across the gathered crowd of villagers and travellers pressed within the village square. 

"I will go," boomed the voice of a tall man bearing the symbol of the Everlasting Light around his neck. 

"And I."

"Ai! And I!"

One by one five strangers stepped from the crowd. Ushered into the barracks with the Meister at their head, five took up the challenge. Within the hour they strode through the gates and out, up north, into the mountains...

Going Old School

That was the set-up. Funnily enough, and quite unintentionally, the session ran really smoothly. It also ran "Old School". 

I chose to try out Castles & Crusades, the rules-lite D&D-derived fantasy system from Troll Lord Games. I've been eyeing the game for a trial for months, having collected all of the core books, and was excited about the opportunity to combine it with my improvisational skills.

The best thing about C&C is that it took about 2 minutes to explain the rules: 

"You've got six attributes; one of them will be a Primary from your class. Primary attributes test against a base difficulty of 12 on a d20, while Secondary attributes test against a base of 18. Oh, and humans choose two other Primary stats while Demi-humans choose only one. Tests are d20 + Level + Attribute Bonus, roll high. Combat attacks are d20 + Bonus to Hit + either Strength or Dexterity versus AC."

The second best thing about C&C is that the rules get out of the way of the game: I found myself describing actions far more than I would have using D&D3.x or 4e. The outcome was summed up by one of the players who, commenting at the close of the session, said that it was refreshing to both imagine the details of the action rather than the dice outcome... and that it was good to be making meaningful choices again.

Old School relies on collaboration and imaginative application of a framework. It's "rulings not rules", to quote the master of the OSR, Matthew Finch. Don't roll against a "search skill"... ask them how they are going about that search and narrate what they find. Make 'em roll if there is a meaningful challenge involved, not because there's a stat they can roll against.

As I narrated the tale, spinning the details out of the collective suggestions that players unwittingly drop through their own interactions, I found myself really relaxing and enjoying the scene.

Fast and Loose

On the road the heroes came across a herd of cattle, partially blocking their way. I'd rolled off a random encounter table I'd pinched from some random module I'd printed off to read weeks ago... and it was "domestic herd". 

The players started to ask questions - "Where's the nearest farm?" (miles south of here); "Is there a herder visible?" (no); "Are they branded?" (yes, with a mark from a farm south of Mortenburg). They decided these cattle had been rustled and were a good clue for the bandits being nearby. 

As they dithered slightly about what to do with a lost herd, I decided to put them under pressure: "Three arrows whistle out of the crags around you; Gutwurt's been hit!"

The combat ensued. When they finally spotted them, I described the archers as "short and wearing black hooded cloaks". They mentioned it must be some of the bandit Goblins. That worked for me... Gerhart staved his Great Ax through the head of one, causing the other two to panic. Four rounds later it was over.

But the most interesting part of the encounter was the addition of a single robed figure on the opposite side of the mountain path. The figure was, for two rounds, inert and clearly watching. Jon, the assassin, spotted him first and decided to stalk him. I saw an opportunity. 

First the figure summoned some kind of witchery, prescribing two arcs in front of him and forming a pale blue line in the air that seemed to fade into a shimmering field of energy. Then he pointed at the charging Gutwurt and, shouting a command, sprang forth a bright blue dart which unerringly struck the poor fighter and smote him to unconsciousness. 

Having established the threat it was time to allow the assassin his glory. The player had clearly signalled that he wanted to stalk and kill this mage with his special ability. Gutwurt's player risked stealing this dramatic moment when he charged the figure... so he had to be the victim of the spell. When the moment came it was all the sweeter: Jon the Assassin aimed and released his arrow, piercing the back of the unsuspecting mage, and killed him in one single strike. The table cheered. The grins were infectious. 

"Are we having fun yet?"

Everyone nodded... except Gutwurt's player. But they found him a vial of green liquid which, once they risked using it, proved to have healing properties. A night in a cave to rest and all were ready for the adventure proper.

Random Map

Rising from the old roadway ahead you can see the blasted ruins of an ancient, burned-out watchtower. High on the face of the cliff to your right, reachable by a narrow winding pathway, is the mouth of a larger cave. Standing on the ledge in front of the cage is a single hooded figure carrying a spear...

One of the best tips from Brian Jamison's book "Gamemastering" is the one about stealing maps. From my massive collection of .PDF files I remembered that I own a copy of the Little Book of Dungeons, Volume I. It's simply a collection of A4 dungeon maps of various styles... so I printed off two pages that I liked the look of. One starts with a cave entrance...

The evening was running towards an end so I allowed the players to address the question of how they could enter the cave. They searched the tower, in hope of a secret underway into the cave complex they imagined beyond; they also suggested that, not having excavation gear (like a spade), they wouldn't be able to dig under the rubble and accumulated silt to find it. In the end, utilising the assassin's sneaking and the ranger's rock climbing abilities they hatched a plan to ambush the sentries in the cave. 

This was another moment for two heroes to shine, so we went with it. A graphic, short and brutal struggle against two Goblins was played out... ending with the ranger, Karl, knocking the surviving bandit to the ground, pinning his weapon arm under a boot while slitting it's throat with a dagger.

From there we entered the dungeon where, from a steady and stealthy entry, early scouting indicated a banquet hall feeding some 15 or so Goblin warriors. The evening ended with the decision to try the "narrow passage" and see if they can bypass the rather odd door blocking access to what might be a backway.

Summing Up

As GM this was one of the most entertaining evenings of play I've had in, literally, years. It was made possible by several factors:

  1. Forced improvisation. Clearly, I now realise, I GM better when I don't have much to work with. Instead of ruffling through notes looking for the next description or detail, I spent my evening listening to and engaging with the players. I used their ideas as much as my own. We all had fun.
  2. Low-level Rules. C&C is easy to run. Yes, I did some page flipping to check three things (spell descriptions, damage and healing rules, and double-checking the assassin's abilities), but it was actually unobtrusive and only necessary because I was running things for the very first time. Fewer rules leads to more description and better quality roleplay.
  3. Stolen Details. I stole a dungeon map. I nicked some Goblin stats from a module. I ransacked the player's suggestions. Putting it together, we created our own tale of adventure. It felt good too.
  4. Willing Players. The guys wanted to play. They wanted a good night. They went with the flow. They didn't moan about yet another character creation phase, or a change of system, or me letting them down with the planned game. They ran with it. They excelled. They made me laugh out loud with their enthusiastic play. 
  5. Good Advice. The accumulated wisdom of several good GMs paid off for me. There's Jamison's guidance first. Added to that was a remembered comment from Matthew Finch about placing a time limit on the adventure and his quote, "rulings not rules". There's the advice given in Castles & Crusades about running the game. And the thoughts and advice from commentators here and on other blogs, especially Blood of Prokopius. Thanks are due to every one of these people.
In the end, we took a risk... and it paid off. 

I actually want to finish this adventure. And I can see me plotting to develop it too.

Game on!


Sunday, 3 March 2013

Why Skyrim Isn't Roleplay

Yesterday, during a period of downtime and tiredness, I found myself booting up the Xbox and playing a little further in Skyrim.

This game is all good fun and, at times, quite inspires me through some small detail or other: the design of a deserted tower evokes a sense of something that could be transposed into a proper roleplaying game.

And then it struck me... just that exact point: this game isn't an RPG.

Not that Skyrim claims to be, mind.

The official Skyrim website offers us to:
"Play any type of character you can imagine, and do whatever you want; the legendary freedom of choice, storytelling, and adventure of The Elder Scrolls comes to life like never before."
But you'll find it hard to see the designers of the game describe it as an RPG. But it is based on one.
"Skyrim reimagines and revolutionizes the open-world fantasy epic, bringing to life a complete virtual world open for you to explore any way you choose."
"Choose from hundreds of weapons, spells, and abilities. The new character system allows you to play any way you want and define yourself through your actions."
 But it'll never truly be a roleplaying game. Here's why.

Roleplaying Isn't Limited

Here's where the words of Brian Jamieson come in very handy:
"Unfortunately, computer games patterned loosely after pen and paper RPGs have come to be known as roleplaying games too. This is a tremendous insult to face to face gaming. It’s like comparing watching a movie about hang gliding to actually hang gliding. Both deal with the same subject but offer vastly different experiences. The movie is a carefully crafted experience with no authentic interaction; no matter what the viewers do, they can’t change the story. No matter what kind of computer roleplaying game the user plays, the end result has been decided by the game designers long before the user started playing. Some computer RPGs offer more choices and more illusion of freedom, but ultimately, none of them allow total freedom of imagination. Nor can they. That’s what face to face roleplaying is about – freedom."
Both Skyrim's designers and Jamieson are using the word "freedom" in very different ways. Computer games like this one actually offer tremendous liberty within the virtual environment but, ultimately, it's a lie to call it freedom. 

Liberty is about choices made within the confines of rules and systems; freedom transcends systems. Liberty is a fantastic thing, don't get me wrong, and for the lonely gamer it can feel pretty good. But it's not freedom.

I was really getting into slipping behind some poor, unsuspecting Foresworn guard and slitting their throat. It was a kick to run around infiltrating their stronghold and (literally) decapitate the leader. And every moment of Skyrim can feel engaging and cinematic... right up until the moment you run into the edge of the world. 

With a true roleplaying game, should the players agree, their is no edge of the world... unless we choose to place one there. In an RPG we make the rules, we agree the systems, and nobody has to face the possibility of running out of missions unless we choose to end the game ourselves.

No Pre-destined Outcomes

Yet the true purpose of my musings are summed up in this: roleplaying games, when they are done well, don't have pre-destined outcomes.

If you look at the RPG market it's sometimes easy to forget, given the sheer volume of pre-designed adventures available, that good roleplaying doesn't have a pre-determined plot. Of course, loads of people will disagree with this statement... but, unless you are playing with zero imagination and totally by the rulebook of your chosen game, you're forever making at least minor adjustments to the original design.

This is the freedom of roleplaying. Whether small or large, the changes you make are possible with a pen-and-paper RPG because the real game is in our heads, not on the screen. No designer programmed the outcome: we decide it together... along with the judicious use of dice.

And, at least for me, that's the true joy of roleplaying games: you can't predict the outcome. 

If you could we might as well just go and read the module. Why bother to play the game if the outcome is already written? 

And that's why I get bored with Skyrim after a couple of hours: I realise that, no matter what I do, eventually I will run out of choices.

Game on!