Saturday 31 August 2013

By the Numbers: the Relative Popularity of DnD Retro Clones

One of the recurring topics in my work as a Software Developer is how to measure usage of your product.  The main problem is that the information that you are dealing with is incomplete.  This results in the secondary problem oh how to interpret the imperfect measures we do have.  A simple example of this is counting downloads, which don't necessarily correlate to the number of users, nor does it give you an indication of how much they use.

So I'd like to ask the same question about DnD Retro Clones.

Which retro-closes are being actively used by the most people to play games?

So how could we attempt to estimate this?

Game Sales/Downloads

This is a pretty easy metric to count.  The problem is that downloads, and even sales, don't necessarily mean that the product was used--often times users download a rule-set or adventure just to skim it for ideas.  Also, even if a user downloads a product and uses it, you don't know if they used it for a single session or for years.

There is also the problem of comparing download numbers for a free game vs. one that costs money. The user is will be less careful not to lose the free game and thus more likely to download it multiple times(I've probably downloaded Labyrinth Lord half a dozen times on different computers).

You might be able to overcome this to some degree with a survey.  Send users a survey periodically, asking them what products they are currently using.  The results could be used to translate the download numbers into a number of active users.  Of course, there may be some bias.  For instance, gamers who used a product might be more likely to respond to the survey than those who didn't.


You could come up with a number of different types of survey to determine the relative popularity of different games.  You could send emails.  You could survey people at gaming conventions.  The problem is distributing it evenly among the gaming population.  Are players of certain systems more likely to answer email surveys?  Are they more likely to attend conventions?  So there may still be a bias, which could easily be seen by comparing the results of different surveys.

Google + Community Membership

Well, all these methods require a good deal of effort.  An easier option is to compare membership in Google + communities.  There are two problems with this:

  • Membership doesn't mean you are actually playing with that system
  • There may be a bias, that active users on Google+ may be more likely to use a certain system
On the other hand, membership may still correlate to actual usage.  And since OSR is a very Online movement, I'm going to assume(perhaps incorrectly) that the system-Google+ bias is small.

So here are the numbers:

  1. Swords &Wizardry 826
  2. DCCRPG 776
  3. Lamentations of the Flame Princess 498
  4. Basic Fantasy 387
  5. Labyrinth Lord 382
  6. Adventurer Conquerer King 347
  7. Castles & Crusades 303
  8. OSRIC 110

Well, I knew Swords & Wizardry was popular, but I didn't realize just how popular.  I guess it's the most faithful system to ODnD, so I assume that's why it tops the list.

DCC RPG is next on the list.  I know it's quite popular, though the rulebook is more of a Hair-Metal-Love-Ballad to DnD than a rules codex.  I love the careers, ascending AC, and the simplified saving throws, as well as the art and general vibe of the book.  They also just keep putting out great adventures.  That said, the magic system and various other mechanics are overly complex for my tastes.

LotFP is up there.  I assume that's due to their heavy internet marketing and the amazing adventures they keep putting out(and perhaps their desperate attempts to show how contravertial and edgy they are).  As far as the rule-set itself, I have to confess my relative ignorance.  Is there anything particularly novel there?  Don't get me wrong, they seem to put most of their emphasis on the adventure content, rather than the rules, which suits my tastes just fine.

Labyrinth Lord is still my personal favourite, being free, simple, and a little more streamlined than S&W, in my opinion.  I was a bit sad to see it so low on the list, though still with a decent following.

Basic Fantasy, Adventurer Conquerer King, and Castles and Crusades have sort of been off my radar.  I remember hearing of them, but I've never downloaded them and don't really know much about them.

I have a soft-spot in my heart for OSRIC, so I was sad to see it at the end of this list.  AD&D was the version of the game I first used.  Plus I ran a very successful Play By Post game with the system a few years back.  That said, my tasted have shifted to simpler versions of the game, and I see I'm not alone.

WFRP Empire Campaign: Session 13

Well, with the start of a new academic year, our group got back together after a couple solo sessions.

The Beginning of an Intrigue

After a bit more discussion of training and careers and equipment, the party left Altdorf and continued South, via riverboat.  The idea was to follow-up a lead in Nuln, really for lack of any other options. Along the way, we caught word of some significant current events:

  • The Emperor(in Altdorf) has commissioned a signalling network between Altdorf and Nuln for better communication
  • The elected Emperor has gone against the Democratic grain and declared his son(in Castle Reikgard) as his heir
  • The Emperor has outlawed the persecution of mutants, as well as the term "Mutant"

The party was stopped by a couple dwarven engineers, just past Castle Reikgard.  Their signalling tower has been plagued by disappearances among the workers.  The party staked-out the location and found a hidden dwelling in the ancient base of the tower, full of undead.  They found:
  • The place was apparently home most recently to a necromancer
  • The necromancer was after large quantities of warpstone
  • His lead on such was a prophecy about the moon, Morsleib, ejecting meteorites of pure warpstone
  • The closest of three location of such a meteorite is apparently in the Barren Hills
  • The zombies were wearing crystals that are used as magic keys.  One is still missing--who knows what they open once all are found...

Old School Magic Items

Sigyn got to try out the shield and sword she won from the Chaos Warrior.  After some experimentation, she found that the shield is unusually sturdy(+1) and the sword seems to contain a cold enchantment(failed toughness test does an extra 1d3 cold damage).

One of the players stated that this is a hallmark of Old-School gaming, not telling the player the bonuses from the magic weapon until their character has gained an intuitive understanding of such.  It seems to me that this makes magic weapons seem more special, as opposed to just giving a generic set of stats upon winning the weapon.

In any case, I was surprised, since WFRP states that magic items tend to be a double-edged sword, and I won the things off of a Warrior of Chaos, yet there didn't seem to be any deleterious effects.  Then the GM told me after the session "Now we need to roll to see if the sword takes control of your mind".  Oh boy...

A Nice WFRP 1e Character Sheet

One of our players put together a WFRP character sheet as a Google Doc.  It looks nice, especially on a tablet.  It's on this Blog's Resources Page, so feel free and copy and use...

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Setup for a Horror 1-Shot

This is the setup for a DnD-based Horror 1-shot that I'll hopefully be running soon.  This is my first time running a Horror game, a 1-shot, or a published adventure, for that matter, so we'll see how it goes.

If all goes well, maybe our group can re-use any surviving characters at a later date for a future adventure.

The Premise

Ah, Shweinenfest!
When was the last time we were all together?  And in our home town of Plock, with all our friends and loved ones, and all the ale we could drink?

You are all childhood friends, who left town years ago to seek your fortunes in the wide world.  Now, you are all back, visiting friends and family, for the month-long Schweinenfest, held every 8 years.

Best time for adventure planning?
Well, you were all out drinking together, dodging the throngs of visitors, enjoying your 7th or 8th pint of Bacon-flavoured Ale, when the conversation turned to less festive matters.  While all of you have been moderately successful since leaving your hometown, none of you really met with the fame and fortune you had been hoping for.

After much lamenting over broken dreams and failed aspirations, a idea emerges.  A plan whose persistence will not fade with the morning's hangover.  Of course the local Yokels mustn't hear of it--you grew-up here, you know how superstitious people can get out here in the provinces.  You chaps, on the other hand, are much too worldly to allow such folk tales to deter you.  If you can just quietly gather some of the more open-minded youths then your little expedition can slip-out unnoticed during the revelry and re-appear before the end of the festival with riches in tow...

End Condition

The adventure ends when one of the following has occurred:

  • The expedition is declared a success and they now have the means to pursue their dreams
  • The party abandons the expedition(or the 10 days left to the festival run out), resigning themselves to the path of mediocrity to which they seem destined
  • The party is unable to continue, their minds and bodies shattered by the horrors they encountered

Character Creation

1. Roll up four 0-level PCs using the standard settings here and name them.
2. Write down 2 days worth of food/water under equipment
3. Pick one of them to advance to 1st level
This one if your "worldly traveller".(The rest are local youths who have spent their entire lives in Plock and it's environs)
    1. Choose an appropriate class
    2. Buy additional equipment, up to 5d20GP worth. Up to 4 items.  Equipment from Labyrinth Lord.
    3. For Clerics/Magic Users, pick 4 spells that you know(if you want, take them from )
    4. Improve your stats
    • Everyone
      • Attack Roll +1
    • Fighter
      • Ref +1, Fort +1
      • HP + 1d8
    • Thief
      • Ref +1, Fort +1
      • HP + 1d6
      • Thief abilities as per Labyrinth Lord
    • Cleric
      • Fort +1, Will +1
      • HP + 1d6
      • Turn undead as in Labyrinth Lord
      • Can cast 1+PER bonus spells
    • Mage
      • Ref +1, Will +1
      • HP + 1d4
      • Can cast 1+INT bonus spells
    • Halfling
      • All Saves +1
      • HP + 1d6
    • Elf
      • All Saves +1
      • HP + 1d6
    • Dwarf
      • All Saves +1
      • HP + 1d8


0-level characters who gain 10XP and make it back to town can be upgraded to 1st level.  The party doesn't start with any significant funds, but if they return to town mid-expedition, then they should be able to buy/sell any standard equipment, especially with all the visitors from the festival around.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Let's Play Iron Kingdoms

Laugh at my chimney and I'll tear you a new one!
A. was kind enough to run a game of Iron Kingdoms for our group.  With a name like that I assumed it would be an RPG with wargaming aspects.  But actually it's just a Steampunk Role Playing Game with a design philosophy similar to D&D 4e.

The first thing that struck me about the rules for Iron Kingdoms, while looking for the character creation section, was the size: a solid 350 pages, with 100 pages of setting info at the beginning.  Why I need 100 pages of setting  info was a bit beyond me, but there you go.

Similiarites to 4e

Anyway, as I said the similarities to D&D 4e are significant:
  • Heirarchical and Derived stats
  • Multi-layered character generation(race, archetype, 2 careers)
  • Many Feats/Abilities
  • Abilities that require combat to take place with minis(i.e. focus on positioning)
  • Combat focus- most of the abilities are combat related
At the same time, I found Iron Kingdoms to be more playable than 4e and I think they improved on a number of problem-areas:
  • Fewer dissociative mechanics--if I want to shoot someone I can just shoot them, I don't have to use a Feat
  • Simpler character gen--didn't require a computer program to execute, though it was still pretty complex


So there are a lot of guns in the game, and they do a lot of damage.  Good for you Iron Kingdoms.  BUT there's all sorts of armour to protect you from firearms, because that's why they invented plate mail, to defeat firearms...

First Adventure

Interestingly enough, the introductory adventure seems to have been inspired from WFRP 1e's introductory adventure, "The Oldenhaller Contract".  The party is tasked with retrieving a dangerous artifact, but once they arrive they see someone has stolen it ahead of them.

My character, Groghammer, was a Skilled Goblin Cutthroat/Field Mechanik, who didn't speak a common language with any other party members.  But they keep him around because he's good at fixing things.  And killing things...

Anyway, we completed the adventure.  Tracked down the Warpstone, or whatever, killed the thieves, got betrayed by the watchmen.  All in a day's work.  It was less engaging than "Oldenhaller", with few actual decisions to be made, besides how to attack.  Plus no Nurgle trying to eat us.

Kill, Cyborgs! Kill!

So I started working on a little adventure titled "Kill, Cyborgs! Kill!" to be played over 1 or 2 sessions.  It's a Mystery/Horror setup in a Cyberpunk setting, based around some of my previous posts on Mystery Design and Running Horror Games.  Sort of a personal experiment, of sorts, to see how those ideas work for me in-practice.

Anyway, I'll playtest it once I have a working draft and then add it to my list of Downloadable Gaming Resources, which seems to be getting more and more biased towards Cyberpunk 2020.

In the meantime, I'm having a lot of fun writing this...

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Running a Mystery: Chandleresque Clues

Another topic Raymond Chandler touches on in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder" is Clues.  He points out that Hardboiled stories, such as his own and those of Dashiel Hammet, are inherently different from the Classic Detective Story, such as Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories or the Locked Room Whodunnit.

Chandler defines the Classic formula as presenting the reader with a logic puzzle and then solving it ingeniously:

Two-thirds or three-quarters of all the detective stories published still adhere to the formula the giants of this era created, perfected, polished and sold to the world as problems in logic and deduction. 

On the other hand, he defines the Hardboiled story as eschewing such external considerations and just giving an "honest" story of crime and the detective who follows up leads and solves it.

A Tale of Two Mystery Games

So just like there are two types of mystery story, I would propose that there are two ways to run a mystery game.

1. The Classic-Style Mystery Game

The mystery is treated as a logic puzzle with the clues presented up-front and the players must figure out the riddle.

The problem with this approach is the problem with Gygaxian Traps, they are ingenious, funny, perplexing, but you don't have much chance of solving the riddle unless you're able to probe the DM's mind telepathically.

An example of this type of mystery game is the recent Schroedinger's Cat game of "Creatures!"  The players must figure out the nature of the monster and how to defeat it before it kills everyone.  It's very smart, but relies on some considerable Player Skill at cracking mind-teasers.  In the playtest, for example, the players were completely flummoxed by the riddle, ending  in a presumed TPK.

2. The Hardboiled Mystery Game

The mystery is treated more realistically.  There are still clues, but they lead to people who can shed light on the case.  Solving the case is less about solving a logic riddle and more about tracking down leads and following up on them.

Once the clue is found, it's a much more human exercise, figuring out if people are lying, withholding information, and getting them to admit what they know.  Cyberpunk 2020 is built for this, with a wide array of investigative skills like Interrogate, Intimidate, Human Perception, Interview, Seduction, Social, Persuasion & Fast Talk, Awareness/Notice, Library Search.  Also Streetwise for finding underworld contacts and science-skills for extracting clues.

An example of this type of mystery game is Masks of Nyarlathotep.  The clues are more "leads" to
follow up on than "riddles" to crack.  So skilled players may need to do less "footwork" following up leads, but it's less of an all-or-nothing game of "Guess what I'm thinking".

Clue where PCs can follow-up on the names/locations mentioned

Monday 12 August 2013

WFRP Empire Campaign: Sessions 11,12

Well, due to summer vacations, Sessions 11, and 12 saw my two PCs Seigwart and Sigyn, wandering around Altdorf on their own.

Sigyn has been trying to make a name for herself as a singer, and Seigwart has agreed to represent her as her manager, for possibly dubious reasons.  They caught wind of a VIP who is supposed to arrive in Altdorf shortly, who has the connections and may have the will to help Sigyn get a gig in one of the more posh local venues.  BUT when his arrival is unexpectedly delayed, they agree to go out looking for his coach.

They actually managed to find his coach along the road, under attack by beastmen.  After saving the day and escorting the grateful gentleman back to town, they are forcefully conscripted by the authorities to join the force being sent-out to hunt down the remaining beastmen.

Seigwart, having recently changed careers to Seaman, occupied himself with learning how the military manages their riverboats, while Sigyn flirted with a gunner, trying unsuccessfully to persuade him to let her fire his Bombard.

They eventually disembarked with a platoon of militiamen, fought a pitched battle with a force of Chaos Beastmen, and defeated and captured their Chaos Warrior leader.  The fight with the Chaos Warrior was pretty brutal, with his first hit rolling a critical and bringing Sigyn down to 0 wounds.  She struck back however with an even more brutal critical hit, stunning the brute and allowing them to capture him.  As a prize, she took his sword and shield, which may or may not have been a good idea.

In Hero Quest, which we played obsessively as kids. Chaos Warriors were the baddest dudes around, so it was fun to take one on "for real".

Cyberpunk Boxing

So in my alternate Martial Arts System for Cyberpunk 2020, I made punches do "non-lethal damage".  If that's to wimpy for you, you can always get Cyberlimbs like this guy...

Saturday 10 August 2013

Fight Club: Playtest #4

Fight Club playtest #4 was a fairly quick match, before a gaming session, between my friend's Canadian Brawler and my own competitive Judoka.  My character quickly threw and then choked-out his opponent. But the most-used skill was Grappling Counter, and this has also been the case in other matches, so I realized that I should make a change.

While Dodge Blow only helps against two techniques, Grappling Counter helps against 6.  So, I decided to split it into two skills:

  • Grappling Counter against the 4 positional techniques
  • Submission Counter against Choke and Joint Lock
This also makes a certain amount of sense, since a Greco-Roman wrestler would likely have good Grappling Counter, but less of a Submission Counter.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Horror Gaming: Atmosphere over Accuracy

I was listening to Paizocon 2013's "Horror in RPGs Panel discussion" when they made a point that surprised me.  The speakers were giving DMing advice for how to run a Horror game and a lot of the tips were about how to create the right atmosphere(as well as some amusing anecdotes about DM's who take this too far). For example:

  • Telling players to make a perception check and then telling them "never mind you don't notice anything unusual"(a sort of Meta-Game version of "Signs of Activity")
  • Take a player out of the room for a chat.  Then drop clues to make the other players suspect that his character has been replaced by a doppelganger
  • Have the party find clones of themselves, so that they begin to ask "am I really me"
  • Having Rats, taxidermy- whisper in a PCs ear "Run away while you still can"
  • Creepy Music to fill "DM preparing something" breaks, so people don't start joking and kill the atmosphere
  • Have players create a characters descriptively, don't even tell them what game/system they're playing
  • A PC starts growing webs between his fingers/developing mutations
  • Creep out players: An NPC says "the buttons on your shirt look like my doll's eyes"

Some of these ideas I really liked, others less so.  Anyway, among all these tips for creating mood was this one:
Don't use miniatures!

Now that one took me for a loop.  I'm not the biggest user of miniatures, but I do occasionally put them to use to set-up a particularly large or complex battle.  Why are miniatures so supposedly antithetical to a Horror game?

The answer that the panelists gave is what they call the "Found Footage Element".  You want the players to see, in their mind's eye, what the character sees.  As soon as they are using miniatures instead of their own imaginations, then the storyteller's magic is dispelled, together with any potential for fear.

To put it another way, when setting-up a horror encounter, you want your players' first response to be "Oh my gosh, what is that?  Get me outa here!" not "OK, so here's a choke-point to set up ranks.  There's a side-passage for you to try and flank it...".  So you want your description to do the work, not a detailed map of your surroundings and everyone's position.  And your description will be vague, tactile, emotional.  It likely won't be clear to the players/characters what type of creature they are up against, just the vague glint of fangs in the dark, or a smell, or a deep panting sound. This sort of gets into the idea of Furtive Monsters, where the way the DM presents the monsters goes a long way to creating an atmosphere of horror.

Anyway, that's the idea.  So when I'm trying to set-up a complex encounter which will challenge the players to come-up with original tactics to overcome their adversaries, then I'll bust out the miniatures.  But when I'm exposing them to the brooding horror that dwells beneath the Earth, then I'll leave the props in their box.

Saturday 3 August 2013

New Gaming Resources Page

Some of you may have noticd the new Gaming Resources page on my blog.  This is a place for me to link some of the gaming material I've put together as separate documents.  Feel free to download and re-use.

It's currently pretty Cyberpunk 2020-centric, but hopefully I'll add some WFRP stuff from the Border Prince I've been running, and maybe a more polished version of the Naval Combat Rules for DnD that I put together.

Thursday 1 August 2013

How to Weasel People into Gaming With You or "Sometimes Three's a Crowd"

Wow!  My wife actually playtested Fight Club with me!  All I had to do was convince her it isn't an RPG, just a stand-alone game(which is technically true, though it is also a set of alternate martial arts rules for Cyberpunk 2020).  OK, I'm not sure she believed me entirely, especially when I pulled out the characters sheets and polyhedral dice, but she was a good sport and at the end of the test she told me, sounding quite surprised "That was fun!"

Playtest Results

This was my third playtest of Fight Club.  Since it was my wife's first time with Cyberpunk 2020 combat, I gave her an advantage: I gave my character a Reflex of 5, while hers was 10.  And I got my butt kicked as a result.

Orignial BTM chart
I had added a mechanic for Cool to Fight Club: if your character is knocked down then a Cool test can bring them back into the action. I did this because of a real-life factor in Martial Arts.  Royce Gracie one remarked that he likes to classify a fighter based on 3 factors:

  1. Physical Attributes
  2. Fighting Skill
  3. Spirit
This third one is a real factor.  You can sense when your opponent(or you) have given-up on winning and they just shut-down or go into autopilot.

Anyway, the first two factors are covered by your Ref, Body, and Skills, but I wanted to give a representation to Spirit too, so I decided that would be your Cool score.  But it still ends up being a dump stat since REF and BODY have so much more effect.  So regrettably, I changed the rules so that COOL is not a factor and the cool tests are now standard Stun Tests vs. Body.

To make BODY more important, I'm also changing the Add to Damage and BTM to make them more of a factor(skill can add up to 5 damage to a strike, so Body should too).

Original Add to Damage chart
BodyBody Type ModifierAdd to Damage

Anyway, maybe I'm make a PDF with the summary of these alternate martial arts rules for CP2020.