Friday, February 8, 2019

Gaming in Glorantha, Part 3--Heroquest Glorantha

I think Heroquest Glorantha (not to be confused with the RPG-ish board game from the 80s called HeroQuest) is the purest example of a narratively-focused tabletop RPG out there that still plays more-or-less like a traditional tabletop RPG (so, excluding GM-less games like Microscope or Fiasco).  To be clear, that's not the same thing as the best narratively-focused ttrpg; though I think HQG is very good, what the "best" game is will always depend on circumstances and preferences of the people playing.  No, my claim is that HQG does the best job of focusing in on, and equally importantly making explicit, the basic assumptions and concepts of narratively-focused play.  HQG is very clear about what it is doing and why it is doing what it is doing, in a way that other games that have similar goals often obscure.

But what do I mean by "narratively-focused"?  The core mechanics of HQG were designed by Robin Laws, who I think has to be considered one of the top five or so living ttrpg designers.  In addition to HQG and its predecessors (HQG is the 3rd edition of Heroquest, which in turn was derived from the earlier HeroWars, all by Laws), Laws is best known for the core engine running the GUMSHOE series of games, as well as Feng Shui.  Both GUMSHOE and Feng Shui are all about genre emulation--mysteries and Hong Kong-style action movies, respectively.  HQG, though, goes deeper than that, and explicitly tries to emulate the structure of stories themselves.  Key game components function off of "story logic," as opposed to "world logic" or "game logic."

Mechanically, characters in HQG have a list of abilities, with an associated rating.  Unlike most other games, there is no set list of abilities, but instead are entirely open-ended and player defined.  For example, the sample HQG character "Vargast the Thunderer" has the ability "Lunars Killed my Wife."  Much like with the Backgrounds in 13th Age, any time an ability is relevant to the story, it can be used to accomplish some action.  So, when faced with a Lunar soldier, Vargast might use his "Lunars Killed my Wife" ability as the basis for attacking the soldier, as his rage and hatred of the Lunars powers his blows.  Abilities can be "break outs" of other abilities, acting like a specialization.  So, returning to Vargast, he can use the Air Rune to do Air Rune things (fly, fight, be boastful, etc.), but when he uses the "Lightning Spear" break-out of the Air Rune, he gets additional bonuses.

Abilities are rated from 1 to 20, with the additional concept of "masteries" (signified by the "Mastery Rune," which looks like a flat W).  If an ability goes over 20, it is converted to a "mastery" and 20 is subtracted from the ability.  So, an ability of 27 is expressed as 7W (i.e. "7 and one mastery"); an ability of 48 is expressed as 8W2 ("8 and two masteries).  It's a little bit of a code, but you pick it up rather quickly.  To use an ability, the GM assigns a difficulty (more on that in a bit) that is rated on the same scale as abilities.  next, masteries are compared and cancel out--if the player ability is 8W2 and the difficulty is 7W, then the player ability becomes 8W and the difficulty becomes 7.  Both the GM and the player roll a d20 and try to roll under the numerical component of the ability rating.  Rolling under the number is a success, rolling a 1 is a critical; rolling over the number is a failure, rolling a 20 is a fumble.  Now, the side with masteries remaining can "bump" their result up by one level per mastery (fumble to failure to success to critical); any remaining "bumps" bump down the opposing roll.  You can also spend Hero Points to bump rolls in an emergency.  The player and GM results are then read on a simple chart to determine the outcome--anything from Complete Victory to Complete Defeat.

For more dramatic situations, these rules can be expanded into extended contests.  Extended contests are a series of rolls where the outcome of a particular roll is converted into points, and the goal for the player is to inflict five points on an opponent before he or she suffers five points.  There are also rules for using one ability to augment another prior to a conflict, and some more noodly rules for using Rune abilities, having companions or followers, and a couple of other smaller things.  But, basically, that's the whole game.

If it were just that, then HQG would be "rules light" and free form-ish, but otherwise pretty conventional.  The secret sauce, though, is in the way the game instructs the GM to set difficulties.  Rather than setting difficulties based on some sense of how tough something would be in the "real world," HQG encourages GMs to set the difficulty in a way that makes sense from, and advances, the story and the story-goals the GM has.  There are base difficulties that are tied into an approximation of character power, but otherwise there are no fixed difficulties for any particular challenge or opponent.  If the encounter is the climax of the story, then it should be harder; if it is early on and the players are just getting into things, you can make it easier.

Now, GMs do this sort of thing all the time.  If a GM builds an adventure session around a progressively tougher series of encounters, culminating in a "boss fight," then he or she is already incorporating story-based thinking into the design of the session.  But that story-based thinking is camouflaged by, or at least channeled through, a set of "objective" mechanics.  To implement the story-based thinking of progressively more challenging encounters, in most games the GM will select monsters or other antagonists based on their pre-determined stats, "slotting" them into the adventure in a way that progressively ratchets up the difficulty.  So, you might start with some weak monsters like goblins (or, to be Gloranthan, broo), then follow with ogres, then trolls, culminating with a dragon fight at the end.  The GM needs to go in that order to maintain the difficulty curve--if you flipped the dragon and the goblins, you wouldn't have an steadily increasing difficulty progression.

In HQG, by contrast, opponents have no fixed stats, only the difficulties the GM assigns according to whatever narrative arc he or she is trying to establish.  In a way, it's just "cutting out the middle man"--you are functionally doing the same thing GMs do in other games, but without the constraints of messing with predetermined stats.  If for some reason you wanted the dragon to be the easiest antagonist and the broo the most difficult, in HQG you set difficulties a higher difficulty for the broo and a lower one for the dragon.

If you are the sort of person who thinks that tabletop RPGs are or should be about trying to simulate on some level the way the fictional world would "really work," then all of this probably sounds like dangerous nonsense.  Broo are "objectively" less powerful than dragons, and thus should always have lower stats, according to this view.  But HQG explicitly disclaims simulating Glorantha according to any sort of "objective" criteria.  By not having any fixed stats for anything, including antagonists, you would have a hard time running the game according to some sort of  simulationist logic.  Removing fixed stats for opponents is to some extent taking away the net that can catch the GM if he or she is tempted to go down a simulationist road.

Instead of fixed stats as a net, HQG gives you the "pass/fail cycle."  The basic idea is that the GM should track whether the PCs are succeeding and failing at whatever it is they are doing.  If they are on a hot streak of success, then the GM should jack up the difficulty level; if they have failed several times in a row, then the difficulty should be reduced.  The end goal is to create a balance of successes and failures to make a compelling story--you don't want your heroes breezing their way through challenges nor constantly falling on their faces.

Again, many GMs do this in an informal way all the time.  And HQG goes out of its way to present the pass/fail cycle as truly a net for GMs, something to fall back on if the GM isn't sure what difficulty to set (I seem to remember the pass/fail cycle being more prominent and without the qualifiers in the previous edition of Heroquest, but I don't have it in front of me to check).  But there are going to be people that are going to have big problems with this sort of thing.  If getting rid of the fixed difficulties tied to some "objective" criteria severely limits the simulationist dimension of HQG, extensive use of the pass/fail cycle arguably undercuts the "gamist" dimension.  If a run of success is going to cause the GM to crank up the difficulty until you fail, and a run of failure will reward you with an easy one, then people who like the idea that they are accomplishing things and overcoming challenges through their own moxie are going to feel a little cheated.

But, again, this is a narrative game, and it sells out along that dimension.  The fun of the game is in the story that the GM and the players collaboratively create.  HQG strips out elements that support other kinds of play.  This is why I think HQG is the most pure narrative game, because you basically have no choice as a GM to run it according to anything other than story-logic.  If you don't want that sort of play-style, then obviously this game is not for you.  It's very clear about what it is doing.

I like narrative-style play, so I have no problem with this.  My concern is a little more specific, and it relates to something I've noticed about narratively-focused games generally--they tend to have greater amounts of "genre drift" than the more mechanically-oriented games.  In a mechanically-oriented game (like, say, D&D, or Runequest), the game is defined by the mechanical pieces that are pre-made as part of the design of the game.  GMs are of course free, and often do, come up with their own classes, monsters, etc., but that is usually an appreciable amount of work and so most of the time you are going to be using the pre-made stuff.  And the designers are going to tend to pre-make stuff that fits into the themes and tropes of the setting, so the majority of the stuff that gets used in games is consistent with a particular feel.  If you run a game with characters using D&D classes fighting D&D monsters, you are going to end up with a game that feels like the particular high-ish medieval fantasy that is D&D.  In a narrative game, there isn't that barrier to making up a bunch of stuff, so there aren't those constraints that keep things within the genre boundaries.  One of the things I've noticed about Dungeon World streams is that most of them very quickly leave the confines of Tolkien-esque fantasy and spiral off into some sort of "weird fantasy" direction.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with weird fantasy that goes outside of genre boundaries--I love Friends at the Table's Hieron stuff, and it can definitely be described as "weird fantasy." But if the goal is to have a game that emulates a particular genre or captures the feel of a particular setting--and the explicit goal of HQG is to create a Glorantha game--drifting off into some other space should be considered at least a partial failure.  HQG requires that players and the GM be, for lack of a better term, "disciplined" about telling Glorantha stories, making Glorantha characters, and playing those characters in a way that is consistent with the feel of Glorantha.  And that requires the players and GM to bring to the table a bunch of pre-existing knowledge of Glorantha.  For example, the character creation process is really just "pick a clan, pick an occupation, pick three Runes, add some other relevant abilities, a few flaws, and then assign ratings."  That's great if the players and the GM know Glorantha and what sort of campaign they want to play, but if you are coming to this fresh there is not much in the way of hand-holds for newbies.

[On the other hand, you could just run Heroquest rules without Glorantha, in whatever setting your group wanted.  The 2nd edition of Heroquest was pitched as a generic game system, and I understand Chaosium will soon be releasing a d20-style System Reference Document for the underlying system.  But since Heroquest Glorantha is explicitly about Glorantha, I think evaluating it in terms of Glorantha alone is fair.]

By contrast, in the Runequest review I mentioned that the systems and the way they interlock do a great job of creating that Glorantha experience, even if the GM and players don't really have deep familiarity with the world.  If you follow along with the family generation system to create your character, that process will give you a bunch of Glorantha hooks and elements for your character, teaching you bits of the setting that you need to know as you go along.  The game helps you stay within the lines of the tone of Glorantha.  HQG requires the players and GM to do that work themselves.

To be fair, HQG does have a ton of Glorantha information--I would say at least 75% of the book is either pure setting information or a hybrid rules/setting material.  But where I wouldn't run Runequest without being confident that the players were going to dig in and learn the rules, I wouldn't run HQG without a similar confidence that the players were going to dig into the setting of Glorantha.  If you ran HQG for people with no prior knowledge of Glorantha, I think the game will tend to drift off into something that might very well be very fun, but not really recognizably Glorantha, or otherwise flop around like a fish out of water.

But, if you had a group that was all-in on doing the Glorantha thing and telling Gloranthan stories, and everyone was either was up on Gloranthan lore or willing to put in some reading time to get up to speed, then HQG is a great vehicle for telling those stories.  If you are looking for some pointers in that direction, I would be remiss not to mention the "Colymar Campaign" adventure path found in the HQG supplement Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes (reading S:KH, by the way, was when Glorantha first "clicked" for me) and the Eleven Lights Campaign in Eleven Lights  I haven't gotten my hands on Eleven Lights yet, but the Colymar Campaign is great and weird in all of the best ways, most notably the big heroquest that is a centerpiece of the story.  Or, really, you can repurpose any published Glorantha material--one of the sneaky good features of HQG is that you can run any published module from any system without doing any conversion work by just using the text and ignoring all of the stats.  The system is so simple that even the most crunch-phobic group will pick it up quickly, and it brings just as much drama to tense negotiations or interactions as it does to combat or chases (or, more accurately, the same drama, since they use the same system).

I feel like I am becoming predictable by saying this in every review, but not everyone is going to be into the narrative play model that you get from HQG.  In many ways, it's the opposite of the play experience that you get from Runequest, and it is very different from the vast majority of games out there, especially outside the indie world.  Picking up a tabletop RPG that gives you no stats for any antagonists is weird--the first time I encountered it, I flipped through the book to find the stats that I thought had to be there and couldn't find.  But I think it nails a very particular way of approaching tabletop RPGs, and more specifically a tabletop RPG about Glorantha.  Heroquest Glorantha is my favorite narratively-focused game, and it is something that I think anyone interested in that style of play should check out. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Gaming in Glorantha, Part 2--Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha

Before we get into Runequest:  Roleplaying in Glorantha itself, I want to go off topic and praise Chaosium's business and pricing practices.  Digital distribution policies for tabletop RPG products are all over the map. Some companies, like Paizo, price many of their rules PDFs at rock-bottom prices and/or give discounts if you buy the hardcopy.  On the flip side, there are producers--most notably Wizards of the Coast, but not just them--that charge a premium for digital products and/or impose various sorts of barriers to access those products.

Chaosium takes what I believe to be the best and most fair approach, and the one I would love to see become uniform throughout the industry.  Chaosium PDFs, when purchased alone, are more or less at the median price for similar products or a bit higher.  I have no problem with this--the creators need to be compensated for their work, no matter the form that is ultimately delivered, and so the print price minus the cost of making the physical book is a fair price for a PDF alone.  However, if you buy the hardcover, you get the PDF for free with the purchase.  That also is fair--compensation to the creators is baked into the print price, and so there is no real justification for charging an additional $20+ for a digital copy that costs almost nothing to generate.  And even better, if the product is out on PDF and not in hardcover yet (which, as of this writing, is the situation with the Gloranthan Bestiary and Gamemaster Screen Pack), Chaosium credits the money you spent buying the PDF toward the purchase price of the hardcover when it is available.  This is great--you can try something out at a lower price point, and then if you like it and want the hardcover, you don't get punished on the back end by paying full price for the print version.  Chaosium is not the only publisher to do things this way (Pelgrane Press does a similar thing, though they make you pre-order the print product and pay the print price up front to get the PDF), but it should be applauded where it is found.  Good on Chaosium for structuring its pricing in a way that is fair to both creators and consumers.

Anyway, Runequest.  Runequest 1st Edition came out in 1978.  To put that in perspective, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook was released this year, while the iconic 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide (the definitive expression of the Gygax oeuvre) wouldn't come for another year.  Alongside Traveller, Runequest is one of the most important non-D&D games in the "first generation" of tabletop RPGs.  But, by the time I got into the hobby in the late 80s, Runequest's popularity and relevance had already peaked and was not a particularly relevant part of the tabletop RPG scene (at least where I was).  In the 90s, it was out-of-print; in the 00s and early 10s, it bounced around a couple of different third-party publishers.  But in 2015, Greg Stafford and the folks making up the primary flagship for Glorantha material, Moon Design Publications, more or less took over a struggling Chaosium, re-integrating Glorantha with its original publishing house.  As part of that integration, they announced that they would begin working on a new edition of Runequest.  So, I come to Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha with zero prior Runequest experience, and only the vaguest knowledge of the system stemming from having played Call of Cthulhu, which was originally derived from Runequest's basic game engine.

As the name implies, this edition of Runequest is heavily Glorantha-focused (which, I understand, was not necessarily the case with previous editions).  More than anything else, this can be seen in the character creation system.  The default approach is something that is like a life-path system, but is actually more accurately a "family path" system.  The first character creation decision is to select the culture your character comes from--a very Gloranthan place to begin.  Then you select the grandparent that is most significant to your character's story and life, and generate some basic facts about grandma or grandpa, like occupation.  You then work through the events of your grandparent's life, referencing the key markers in the history of Glorantha.  You then do the same for a key parent, and then for your character.  In doing so, you end up with not just a set of numbers on the character sheet, but a family with a family history that is tightly integrated into the world of Glorantha.  You could skip this part and get a pool of numbers to distribute, but that would be depriving yourself of the richness of the system.  The one negative is that you are limited to the six cultures in the Dragon Pass region in the core book.  One assumes that additional cultures will be forthcoming in future Runequest products, but because each culture brings with it a detailed set of life-path charts tied to Glorantha events, GMs who want to jump-start the process and add cultures are looking at a significant project.

Runequest's stock-in-trade, and the the thing that made it originally innovative in 1978, is that it is a skill-based, percentile system, with no classes.  You have a list of skills that are rated from 0 to 100 (and in some cases higher), and you have to roll under the skill rating on a percentile die.  In other words, if your sneak rating is 70, you have a 70% chance to succeed on a normal sneak roll.  What's great about this system is that it is probably the most transparent way of communicating character capability--you have do some math to figure out the probability difference between a +3 and a +5 in a d20 game, while the difference between 50% and 70% is right there on the tin.  There are also critical success and fumble mechanics for very low (success--remember, you want to roll low) and very high rolls.  Again, the percentages make everything very transparent and intuitive.

Like many skill-based systems, though, there are a lot of skills--the character sheet has 95 different skills, and Listen, Scan, Search, and Track are all separate skills, for example.  Each skill has a paragraph of description, including a set of discrete situational modifiers for each skill.  Reading through the skills chapter, my first thought was "I hope the GM screen is good"--there is no way I will remember those kinds of things, and so I need to have them presented to me to reference during play.  There are also seven very old-school attributes (Strength, Constitution, Size [literally how big you are], Dexterity, Intelligence, Power [as in spiritual power], and Charisma), rated on an equally old school 3-18 scale.  I wonder why they didn't repeat the move they made in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and convert the attributes to a percentile scale like everything else in the game, removing the need to resolve attribute vs. attribute contests using the Resistance Chart that I vaguely remember from older editions of CoC. But, the Resistance Chart is not really all that complicated, and it is not a problem so much as a little bit of a surprising choice.

One of the best mechanics in the game is the augment system.  Basically, a roll using one skill or other character ability can be "augmented" by a successful roll using another skill or character ability.  So, if you are Tracking a foe through your clan's lands, you might roll Homeland Lore first, and if successful you get a temporary bonus to your Tracking skill.  But, correspondingly, if you fail the augment roll you get a penalty to the underlying skill, so discretion is necessary.  And you can only use a particular character ability once per session as a augment, so players don't get stuck in a boring rut of using their best skill or ability as an augment time after time.  This system, which is similar conceptually to the one in Heroquest (I'm not sure which comes from which), is good because it rewards player creativity and engagement, allowing the players to weave together connections between abilities without requiring the GM to monitor possible connections and bonuses.  And there is a risk/reward dynamic, where the player has to weigh the possibility of a big bonus against the risk of a crippling penalty.

Besides skills and attributes, the other three dimensions of a Runequest character are Runes, Passions, and Magic.  The Runes are a core concept in Glorantha, representing the basic building blocks of the world and are embodied by the various gods.  You have percentile ratings in a couple of the six elemental Runes (Darkness, Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Moon).  In addition, you have a "sliding scale" rating in the power Runes--if you have a rating of 80 in the Fertility Rune, then you have a 20 in its paired opposite, the Death Rune.  These Runes determine what cults you have access to and how good your big magic is going to be, but it also is a metric of personality traits.  For example, if your Fertility Rune is 80 and your Death Rune is 20, you are probably going to be more interested in seducing opponents rather than running them through with a spear.  In fact, high levels of the power Runes force rolls if you want to act in a manner contrary to your Rune affinity.

The other big personality mechanic are Passions.  Passions are things like love, hate, fear, or loyalty to some particular group or person, rated as a percentage.  Unlike in many systems that have you put things like this on the character sheet as "guides to role-playing" and leave it at that, the augment system gives these things mechanical weight, as you can use Passions to augment your skill rolls--if you are swinging your sword at a Lunar solider, you can use "Hate (Lunars)" as an augment.  The lack of mechanical support for role-playing elements is probably the biggest failing of D&D 5th Edition, and Runequest shows how significant a failing it is.

Finally, there is the magic system.  In Runequest, magic is divided into four basic categories.  Spirit magic consists of basic spells, accessible to all characters and cast using a pool of magic points.  Other than the spending of magic points, Spirit magic fills a similar conceptual and game-play space to cantrips from 5e.  Rune magic is tied to which cult your character belongs to (i.e. which god or goddess you worship), and in turn ties to your Rune affinities.  While Runequest has no classes in the D&D sense, the cult your character belongs to fills some of that space--if you are part of the Humakt cult (the god of death), you are going to be some variation of a "dark avenger," if you worship Chalana Arroy, then you will be healing-focused, etc.  Rune spells are generally more powerful, but draw from a more limited pool of "rune points."  Next, there is shamanism, which focuses on spirits and developing skills to deal with spirits, including spirit combat.  Finally, there is sorcery where you master a series of "verbs" that allow you to manipulate the Runes in more free-form ways.

The key thing with Runequest is that every character engages with the magic system.  All characters have Spirit magic, and you begin as a member of a Rune cult.  In a sense, every Runequest character is a "cleric" in D&D terms.  If you are looking for an "easy," low mechanically-engaged character type to play (the "generic fighter" of D&D), you basically aren't going to find it in Runequest.  To be fair, the number of options never scales up to the golf bag (or bags) of options to juggle that a mid-to-high level D&D wizard has, so there is a ceiling as well as a floor.

This speaks to a general comment that jumps out at me about the game--this is a game that seems to demand a high level of mechanical engagement and "heavy lifting" from the players.  It's not just that the game is "crunchy" (though it is), but that the crunch is very player-facing.  There is a culture of play that has emerged, spurred on by the trend toward more rules-light games, which tries to get people to the table by promising them that the don't have to do much work to learn the game or dive into deep mechanical systems.  That culture is going to run head-long into the structure of Runequest.  I wouldn't run Runequest with a new group unless I was pretty confident that they were going to take the time on the front end to learn the rules; otherwise, I think trying to play the game the first time would slow to a crawl.  To be clear, I think there is nothing whatsoever wrong with asking players to put in the work (not to go full Old Man here, but I think some of the modern design trends in tabletop RPGs have made players a little lazy), but you should know what the deal is on the front end, and keep in mind the attitudes and track record of your group.

That trend is also on full display with combat.  Runequest combat is very simulationist and very deadly.  During your character's combat round, you have 12 "strike ranks," during which you can take actions.  Different things you might do in a round take up a certain number of strike ranks, and so long as you have enough strike ranks you can do multiple things in a round.  For example, if firing an arrow takes 3 strike ranks, and notching an arrow takes 5, you can fire, notch, and fire in a single round (arrow #1 on rank 3, notch on rank 8, fire again on rank 11).  It's a clever mechanic and one that allows for a ton of flexibility during your turn.  The actual act of attacking is a skill roll (each weapon type has a separate skill, so there is a Broadsword skill, a Shortsword skill, etc.), which is opposed by either a Dodge or Parry by the target.  If the attack hits, you roll a d20 to determine hit location, and you have a certain number of hit points at each location.  Armor absorbs damage, which is good, because you don't have many HP and the consequences for going to zero in a location are bad--arm wounds cause you drop weapons or shields, leg wounds make you fall prone, chest and head wounds bleed and cause other penalties.  Parrying with a weapon causes damage to your weapon, raising the possibility of weapon breakage.

Combat in Runequest ends up reminding me of The Dark Eye that I reviewed before.  There is no slowly whittling down HP with no real effects until one side is dead.  Getting hit is bad, and has immediate effects; preparation, especially magical preparation, is essential, and the risks are always very high.  The hit location rules, while adding a complexity layer, definitely make combat feel visceral.  But it's not low-fantasy visceral, since magic is ubiquitous, at least for PCs, but something else.  And, compared to something like The Dark Eye, it feels fun and directed toward a particular narrative purpose as opposed to complexity for the sake of complexity.  It would likely be a slow grind the first couple times it is run as the players and GM get used to the interactions of the different systems.  But I think it has a weight and a tension to it that would make it engaging and appealing once the group (again, especially the players) became familiar with the systems and how they interacted.

But the best chapter in the book, for my money, is the last chapter, entitled "Between Adventures."  First, we have the character advancement rules.  If you succeed on a skill, passion, or Rune during an adventure, you mark a check; after the session, if you roll above your rating, then your rating goes up.  Did you know this system is also in Call of Cthulhu?  Of course you didn't--Call of Cthulhu characters don't survive long enough to "level up"!  Anyway, you can also dedicate time (and money) to training or spiritual enlightenment to advance traits.  It's a clean and logical system--you get better at things you work on during the session, you can focus on getting better on certain targeted skills or traits, and you get better faster at things you are not all that good at.

The really cool stuff is in the Sacred Time section.  See, Runequest characters are not, at least by default, "professional adventurers," but are instead assumed to have "day jobs" back with their community.  For this reason, the time between adventures in a campaign is one "season," and Glorantha has five seasons.  So, after five adventures, it's the end of the year Sacred Time.  During Sacred Time, there are a series of rolls to determine the omens for the next year, how the harvest went, how each individual character did economically with his or her day job, etc.  There are also rules for characters getting married and having children.  The Sacred Time rules ground characters to a place and to a community of people, and thus to the world.  It also makes choices by the players for their characters have meaningful impact on the world--if the group decides to spend a more-than-usual amount of time adventuring, it will negatively effect their day jobs, for example.  And of course GMs would be fools not to use events in the community and to the players as material for future adventures.

Runequest as a whole, but especially the Sacred Time rules and the related character generation system, dispels the simplistic dichotomy that "rules heavy games" and "character focused games" are necessarily on opposite sides of the tabletop RPG spectrum.  Previously, Burning Wheel has been the poster-child for a game bringing both a mechanically-focused and a character focused experience, but Runequest gets to a similar place from a different direction.  I have not played Burning Wheel, but from watching streams of Burning Wheel (notably Adam Koebel's stuff on "Roll20 Presents") it seems that the focus is very squarely on internal character motivations, goals, and plans; Runequest, by contrast, is going to focus more on situating the characters into a community context and play off those interactions.  But the point is that I can see the same kinds of deep role-playing experiences coming out of Runequest that Burning Wheel is famous for.  And, if you like Burning Wheel and are looking for something similar, you might want to check Runequest out.

To me, the decision matrix for whether you want to dive into Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is pretty simple.  Are you OK with the level of mechanical complexity that Runequest brings with it?  Are your players going to take the time to learn the rules--really learn the rules?  Can you look at that character sheet and not panic?  If the honest answer is "no," then you are going to be banging your head against the wall with Runequest (might I suggest, however, the next game I'm going to review in this series?)  But if you and your group knows what they are getting into and is OK with that, then Runequest is an extremely compelling product.  It's logical and sensible as a game system, producing interesting and dynamic results.  And, while it is crunchy and has many interlocking systems, the presentation is clear.  You can learn it if you put in the work--it's not intentionally opaque.

But, more than anything else, Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha delivers on the "Roleplaying in Glorantha" part of the pitch.  It is one of the best examples of using mechanics in a tabletop RPG to create and reinforce setting and tone.  That difficult-to-pinpoint "Glorantha" thing is present in spades in this new edition of the game.  If a group plays the game in the way it is set forth in the book, you are almost guaranteed to have a Gloranthan-ass-Glorantha experience.  And if the GM is just getting into Glorantha, the density of systems is an advantage in recreating that experience--just let the game carry you along into the high-magic, mythology-focused, Bronze Age fantasy game you never knew you wanted to play.

If any of this seems interesting or exciting to you, you should jump on Runequest right away.   I'm really itching to try it out--I've made a couple of characters that I can't wait to run.  It's a beautiful product and the beginning of a very promising re-birth or reinvigoration of a tabletop RPG classic.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Gaming in Glorantha, Part 1--The World of Glorantha

[Note:  All art in this post was done by Jan Pospisil a/k/a "Merlkir" and can be found in the Guide to Glorantha]

My first encounter with Glorantha came in the form of a product called Under the Red Moon:  Imperial Lunar Handbook Volume 2This was in 2012 or so, and I was fully getting back into the tabletop RPG hobby after an extended absence beginning in the mid-90s.  I remembered reading a couple of old Dragon Magazine reviews of Runequest products back in the day, but otherwise I had no exposure to Glorantha.  So, when I saw the PDF for a very reasonable price, I bought it.  Let's see what this Glorantha thing is about, I thought.

The Lunars
Reading it was an experience that I will not forget.  First off, I couldn't really make heads or tails of it.  I like to think that I have good reading comprehension, and I have lots of experience reading about fictional worlds.  But I was way over my head reading this product, in a way that I simply don't experience very often.  The book had a flood of terms and concepts, presented not in normal game terms but much more "in character."  But not "in character" in the way that games like Shadowrun have in character material--it was more like reading something coming from a long-lost religious text.  It felt like I would have to do extensive background research and maybe learn other languages in order to understand what was going on.  And that was very frustrating, but also intriguing, a challenge.

Now, to be fair, Imperial Lunar Handbook Volume 2 is kinda impenetrable, even going back to it having read a ton more Glorantha stuff.  No one should start their journey in Glorantha there, and I don't think I would get any push-back from the folks at Chaosium, the game publisher where the setting originated and now have brought all things Glorantha under one roof.  But my experience of reading Imperial Lunar Handbook Volume 2 does reflect, in a hyper-distilled form, the baseline experience I have when I engage with Glorantha material.  There is something different about Glorantha, something mysterious and just a little bit inaccessible about the setting.  Reading Glorantha stuff still feels like reading a religious text, even if you have more sense of what is going on and who the players are.  In the interim I have amassed a pretty significant collection of Glorantha stuff, all of which is of extremely high quality.  It's been work, but I am an official Glorantha fan now.

This post was originally going to be a review of the new version of Runequest.  But it became clear to me that to do a review of Runequest, you need first to talk about Glorantha, and also you need to talk about the two other officially licensed tabletop RPG products that are set in Glorantha--Heroquest Glorantha and 13th Age in Glorantha.  So, this post is going to be about Glorantha, and the rest of the series will talk about the games.

So, what is Glorantha?  The best way to describe it is to compare it to Tolkien's Middle Earth.  Tolkien was living and writing in an England in decline as a result (in large measure) of its participation in the two World Wars, a linguist, steeped in medieval-era mythology and folklore, and a devout Roman Catholic.  Each of those facts can be seen in the structure and themes in his work.  Glorantha, by contrast, is primarily the vision of Greg Stafford, an American, an active member of the Bay Area counter-culture of the 1960s and living and writing in the aftermath of that era, who dove deeply into pre-Christian, Bronze Age mythology and anthropology and who was himself engaged in pagan and shamanic religious practices (indeed, he passed away last year while in a sweat lodge which, while obviously tragic, was also somewhat fitting).  As a result, Glorantha is both like Middle Earth (in the sense that it reflects Big Ideas) and utterly unlike it (as those Big Ideas are very different).

On a more concrete level, the core conceit of Glorantha is that the mythical understanding of the world and how it functions is literally true.  The sun is a literal embodiment of the sun god, who rises out of the ocean in the east at a specific point and sets in the west at another specific point.  The red moon in the sky is a mass of earth that was literally ripped out of the ground and formed into a sphere during the final apotheosis of Sedenya, the Red Goddess and patroness of the Lunar Empire.  Physics, chemistry, biology--none of that exists in Glorantha, as the world works according to mythical laws and logic, not scientific ones.

Moreover, the world of the gods and the world of "normal" people exist side-by-side.  While a worshiper honors the gods, the worshiper also participates in, and embodies, the stories of the gods.  This participation, referred to as "heroquesting," causes a "bleed" between the two worlds, so worshipers can take on the powers of the gods, but the actions of the worshipers can affect the gods.  The gods, with one notable and important exception, are limited by the Great Compromise known as Time to not directly walk Glorantha, but their powers and presence are everywhere and form the engine that drives everything.

Characters in Glorantha are defined primarily by culture, which in turns defines the gods and the foundational myths and stories that inform your character's life.  While the full Glorantha experience includes dozens of different cultures, the primary focus of most Gloranthan material are the Heortlings, and more specifically the Kingdom of Sartar.  The Heortlings generally venerate the Storm gods, lead by Orlanth, and live in clans, which in turn are organized into tribes.  While the authors of Glorantha, especially the recent material, go out of their way to disclaim any one-to-one connection any Glorantha culture and any historical culture, I have always gotten a strong Celtic/Germanic vibe from the Heortlings.

The surrender of the Sartarites to the Lunar Empire
In the time period focused on in the game materials, the Orlanthi and especially the clans and tribes in Sartar, are menaced by the expansionist Lunar Empire.  While this conflict has the normal dimension of battles and territorial movement, it also has a mystical dimension, as the ascension of the Red Moon into the sky is a challenge to Orlanth's formerly unchallenged rule over the Middle Air.  What I love about this conflict is the way it subverts and challenges many of the pre-existing assumptions that a modern person brings to a setting like this.  See, most of the stories are told from the point of view of the Sartarites.  But if you look at the Lunar religion, it is one of tolerance, pluralism, and multi-culturalism--it's core theological motto is "We Are All Us."  The Sartarites, by contrast, are traditionalists and exceptionalists in every way, clinging to a very singular understanding of what is good and right.  Cheering on, or especially embodying through play, what are essentially conservative religious fanatics against the broad-minded forces of progress is going to be a strange experience for some folks.  But, on the other hand, the Lunars really are deeply colonial and often brutal in their imposition of "broad-mindedness" (they routinely deploy the Crimson Bat, a giant flying demon that must consume 25 people per week, as a terror weapon), so it's not at all hard to see where the Sartarites are coming from.  As someone who is into religion and thinking about religion in a big way, this kind of stuff is like catnip for me.

The nomads of Prax
The other thing that sets Glorantha apart is how deeply weird much of it is. One of my favorite little bits of Gloranthan weirdness are the morokanth of Prax.  Prax is a big grassland, and each Praxian tribe is a bunch of humans whose entire culture revolves around a particular four-legged animal (think the way that the Native Americans of the plains related to the bison).  All except the morokanth, who are four-legged creatures who rely on "herd men," basically humans with animal-level intelligence, for food and tools.  See, the gods of Prax had a lottery for each tribe to decide who would form the herd and who would be the herders, and in each tribe except one the humans won.  The morokanth think the humans cheated, but in any event they got to have the intelligence and their herds of humans do not.  That's deeply weird, and I love it.

Likewise, the standard fantasy races are weird in cool ways.  Dwarves are biological robots built for a single task in the greater project of rebuilding the World Machine, and don't age so long as they stay faithful to their task.  The elves are walking plants, and come in various types depending on which type of tree or other plant they are associated with.  Trolls are matriarchal, eat everything, and while brutal are not evil (and, in fact, have been a staunch foe of Chaos).  There are humans with blue and red skin, color-coded to reflect their caste functions and who also don't age so long as they stay within caste laws and taboos.  There are no orcs and other fantasy antagonist staples, but there are broo (goat-like creatures of Chaos that can breed with anything) and walktopi (i.e. walking octopi).  Dragons are miles long, god-level entities whose sleeping bodies form mountain ranges and other topographical features.
The Trolls

This mix creates a fantasy experience that is different from anything I have seen before, and certainly different from your standard ttrpg fantasy experience.  Reading Glorantha stuff is dislocating, like you are entering a funhouse with distorting mirrors.  If you are someone who has drunk deeply of Tolkien-inspired fantasy, some of the fantastical elements may not feel very fantastic anymore.  Since Glorantha is so different, it doesn't run into this problem.  And if you are in any way are burned out with standard fantasy, then this is a way to recharge those batteries.

But, I mean, is Glorantha good?  As a literary creation, absolutely--it's incredibly good.  It is the deepest and richest fantasy setting to come out of tabletop RPGs, and holds its own with any other literary creation you can come up with.  The spotlighted Sartar/Lunar conflict is great, many of the other parts of the setting chronicled in the mammoth two volume Guide to Glorantha cry out for further development.  As I mentioned at the beginning, there is a tone to Glorantha, a way in which it communicates its mystery in a way that is hard to pin down.  Even a casual reading of a Gloranthan source makes it clear that there is something different going on here, something brilliant.  It has occurred to me recently that all of the world-building I've done myself since being exposed to Glorantha has been influenced by the world and its themes--the centrality of culture, the complicated villains with self-consistent motivations.

But is it good as a setting for a tabletop RPG?  That's a little more complicated.  The thing with Glorantha is that it seems to me if you are going to use it, you have to go all in.  The depth and the complexity and the cultures and the myths are the things that makes the setting worthwhile, and so everyone has to be committed to exploring these things.  If GM or the players are not going to focus on that stuff, and they just want to have a low-key, beer-and-pretzels style fantasy game, then there are far more accessible options out there.  I want desperately to run a Glorantha game, but I would only do so if I had full player buy-in, and they were stoked about digging deep into the Red Cow clan, its relationships to the other clans of the Cinsina tribe, and its role in the climatic events of the Hero Wars, or whatever hyper-specific Gloranthan angle we have settled on.  If they just wanted to fight some monsters and get some treasure, or they weren't interested in the sort of deep cultural play, then I think the complexity and nuance of Glorantha would be a hindrance to the experience at the table.  Because, while the stuff that is there in Glorantha is great, there is a lot of it, and it takes work to take it on board.  It's just not suited for a beer-and-pretzels-style game.

The other thing to say up front is that Glorantha has more-or-less a metaplot.  Runequest and 13th Age in Glorantha are set to default to 1625 ST, right at the beginning of the Hero Wars that end the Third Age; much of the published Heroquest material is set around 1615 ST.  The events of the Hero Wars, at least in broad strokes, are described in the Guide to Glorantha and a deeply strange and wonderful book called The King of Sartar.  You could, of course, ignore all of this material, and many of the published sources emphasize the principle of "Your Glorantha Will Vary."  But, again, you are going to want to incorporate that stuff--I mean, Prince Argrath rules (a life goal of mine is to find a way to work the phrase "This is how we deal with assassins who have no respect for life" into a conversation).  Still, running a game set in Glorantha brings into the the sorts of continuity questions that you get in games based on licensed properties.  Some GMs really, really hate this kind of thing, and if it bothers you, be warned going in.

Still, if any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, you owe it to yourself to take a dive into Glorantha.  The new Glorantha Sourcebook is one probably the most accessible introduction to the setting, though basically limited to the Dragon Pass region; beyond that is the Fully Monty of the Guide to GloranthaI would also recommend a series of free documents called "Heroquest Voices," which consist of a series of stories written as questions children ask their parents about Glorantha, told from the point of view of various Gloranthan cultures.  It's a really good way of showcasing how culture is so central to Glorantha, and gives you a sense of the different points of view.  There is also an online comic series, The Prince of Sartar, which is a good introduction to the big-name characters and the bigger metaplot and lore.

But, let's suppose you and your group are all in, and you want to play.  If so, which one of the three games should you go with?  That also depends.  First up for consideration is the newest version of the oldest Glorantha vehicle--Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Review: The Dark Eye

In the United States, the dominant tabletop role-playing game has basically always been some version of Dungeons and Dragons.  In Germany, however, the dominant game is and has been one of the five editions of Das Schwarze Auge, or in English The Dark Eye ("TDE").  The story is that a German game publisher was looking to license a German-language edition of D&D in the early 80s, but decided to make German language D&D clone instead and use the royalty fees to market the game.  This proved to be a wise decision, as TDE took off, spinning off an enormous number of tabletop RPG supplements and a number of computer game releases.  While the first edition of the game looked a whole lot like D&D, the game since diverged from its original inspiration, both in terms of rules content and in terms of tone.

The current custodian of The Dark Eye is Ulisses Spiele, the folks behind the new edition of Torg: Eternity.  As part of their English-language push, the 5th Edition of TDE and its associated product line has been released in English, beginning with the Core Rules in late 2016.  There is a lot to like about TDE and its product line, and there are some things that are going to make certain players and groups run away screaming.

Let's begin with the positives.  First off, for a product line that is basically a series of translations from German, the writing is excellent; you would not have any reason to believe that the text was originally written in a different language.  That may sound like damning with faint praise, but translations are extremely hard to pull off well, and the seamlessness of the translation is a significant achievement.  To me, it shows that Ulisses Spiele is serious about being a presence in the English-speaking tabletop RPG market, rather than just trying to grab a few extra bucks on top of their German base.

Second, the books are visually spectacular.  The cover of the Core Rules is one of my favorite pieces of fantasy art (I would love a print of it to hang up in my place), and it continues throughout the product line.  What I like about the art style of TDE is the way that it walks the line between realism and surrealism, giving everything a fantastical but grounded sheen.  I like the art in TDE more than the art in 5e, and much more than Pathfinder.  The internal lay-out is clean and very readable.  The books are extremely well made and high quality, up there with anything made by the major tabletop producers.  I should also point out that the primary books are available in affordable softcovers in digest size, and that's awesome. My only presentation complaint is that my PDFs are slow to load and crash often, for reasons I haven't been able to identify.  But, otherwise, everything is top quality.

But the real selling point of TDE is the setting--the continent of Aventuria.  Aventuria is very much an alternative Earth, with very clear real world parallels.  And they don't hide from that--in the Aventurian Almanac, there is a paragraph in the description of each country or region listing the real-world inspirations.  As I mentioned in the Midgard review, I know that some people don't like this kind of parallelism, but I do, and it is very well done here.  As you might expect, medieval Germany is a major inspiration--one of the two primary powers is "the Middenrealm," which feels very Holy Roman Empire-esque, both in name and in tone.  But pretty much all of Europe gets a showing, along with a couple of different Middle East inspired areas and some southern jungles that seem to be Africa/SE Asia-flavored.


There are a couple of reasons why Aventuria is compelling.  First, it has a very distinct feel from your standard D&D campaign setting.  For one thing, it feels much more "low magic," while still coming across as fantastical.  This is done, quite simply, by putting hard caps on the power of spellcasters.  Each spell or prayer must be learned individually, spells often have long casting times, and your mana points are a fairly limited pool that recharge fairly slowly.  As a result, starting spellcasters feel more or less like low level D&D spellcasters, but the power curve is far more shallow than in D&D, and TDE casters simply don't have access to the kinds of world-breaking abilities that are fairly common in middle and high level D&D play (at least, not in the Core Rules).

Another distinctive of the magic is that it is tied pretty closely to classical, folklore-based depictions of magic and spellcasters.  There are fantasy-style wizards in the form of "guild mages," but there are also druids and witches, and they feel more like druids and witches of fairy tales than druids and witches of tabletop games and computer games.  In service of this feel, the names of some of the spells (especially guild-oriented spells) are in pseudo-Latin a la Harry Potter, so you have "Ingifaxius" as opposed to something like "Firebolt."  In sticking close to folklore touchstones, it provides a low magic setting has some dark shadows, but avoids the (in my opinion) tired and performative "grimdark" of many low fantasy settings (*cough* Warhammer *cough*).

There also seems to be a deep focus on making the world feel "lived in."  D&D campaign settings tend to function primarily as platforms for adventures first and actually coherent worlds second--Greyhawk, the grandfather of D&D campaign settings, explicitly developed this way.  Aventuria feels more like a world-building project that also works for a setting for adventures.  The Aventuria Almanac has an extensive chapter on trade and trade fairs, as well as a chapter on all the plants and animals that live in Aventuria.  Along those lines, Aventuria has a continuous, updating metaplot that has been developing since the original edition of the game.  Want to know the latest events in Aventuria than might affect your campaign?  There is a biannual newspaper that you can get online; just read about the latest events.

Now, there is a school of thought, especially those influenced by Dungeon World and other indie games, that this sort of deep lore is actually an impediment, and that all this background stuff should emerge through play.  But as much as I understand the rationale of these arguments, I'm a sucker for deep lore and world-building, and this has it in spades.  If you haven't picked this up, I really, really like Aventuria and its sense of place and depth.

So, what's the problem?  TDE is a crunchy, complicated game.  This complexity is purposeful--there is a rationale for each element and a clear benefit to game play stemming from the element.  But the sum total of all of these elements is a lot, and more than I suspect that many people are not going to be willing to take on.

The complexity comes in three primary places--the resolution mechanics, character creation, and combat.  The basic resolution system is an attribute check that works much like attribute checks worked in pre-3rd Edition D&D--you roll a d20 and try to get equal to or under the relevant attribute (of which there are eight--basically D&D Dexterity is split into Dexterity and Agility, and D&D Wisdom is split into Courage and Intuition).  Because you want to roll under, the normal d20 systems are reversed--a "1" is a potential critical hit and a "20" is a potential critical failure (which you have to confirm a la 3e D&D).  That will be an adjustment for folks used to the d20 system, but it's not crazy.

But things ramp up when it comes to skills.  Each skill consists of three linked attributes, which in some cases can be the same attribute multiple times.  So, for example, Riding is Charisma/Agility/Strength.  If you think about it, this makes sense--you have to be able to relate to the horse (Charisma), have the balance to stay on the horse (Agility), and the strength to control the horse (Strength).  Likewise, Seduction is Courage/Charisma/Charisma--you need the Courage to shoot your shot, but otherwise it is all about your personality and attractiveness.  To make a skill check, you must roll an ability check for each of the linked attributes and pass all of them.  You also have a pool of skill points for each skill that you can use to bump down the rolls to get you to the target number on a one-for-one basis.  If you pass the check, any left over skill points are read on a levels of success table, which has individualized outcomes for many of the skills.  Oh, and there are 59 different skills., not counting all of the individual spells which are each separate skills.  To give you a sense of the granularity involved, "Treat Wounds," "Treat Disease," and "Treat Poison" are three different skills.  And, for the record, each spell is a skill, so the magic system works on the same three-roll basis.

Again, there are benefits to this level of detail.  One of the more interesting elements is how you can narrate failure in a more specific way.  If you fail a Seduction test because you rolled very poorly on your Courage attribute, you chickened-out; if you blow one of the Charisma rolls, the object of your affections was just not that impressed with your game.  The linkages between attributes and skills is completely logical and sensible, and makes attributes very important and meaningful.  But it is slower than a single d20 roll (even if you roll all three checks at the same time, which you should), and, while it's not calculus, having potentially three different target numbers for each check and doing the mental math of how many points you need to spend to drop the rolls down to hit those target numbers requires a bit of doing.  Will it get easier the more you do it?  Of course.  Is it still pretty complicated?  Yes.

Then we come to character creation.  It's full-on point-buy--each level of an attribute or skill, along with a set of advantages and disadvantages, has a cost, and you spend your pool of points to buy what you want.  This is nothing new--GURPS carried the torch for point-buy for a long time, and other games have had similar systems.  And there is a very clear and cogent argument in favor of point-buy--you can make the exact character you want, and characters tend to be relatively balanced (and it's easy to fix balance problems by adjusting the cost of particular character options).  But point-buy systems, almost invariably, make character creation a time-intensive, laborious process.  Point-buy systems also will exacerbate any option paralysis that a potential player might have, because you are released into a sea of options.  To be fair, there are a series of race and profession packages that make the creation process a little more modular, but no matter how you cut it there is a lot of heavy lifting involved.

As I was making a character, one thing I struggled with was translating the mechanical pieces on the paper into the vision of what the character could do in the world and in the game.  Obviously, having six in a skill is better than four, but how much better?  And what sorts of challenges could my character be expected to accomplish with six in a skill as opposed to four?  There is a mathematical answer to this, but the skill mechanics are such that it is hard to figure out without a differential equation.  Thinking about this points to one of the virtues of 5e that I hadn't thought about--the transparency of the math behind the game.  In a d20 game, a +1 increases your chances of success by 5%; if you have a +5 in some ability, you will succeed at DC 15 tasks 55% of the time.  You don't need a complex equation to figure out how the numbers on your character sheet relate to outcomes in the game, whereas with the TDE the mechanics are much more opaque in the way they translate into results.

Finally, you have combat.  Here, unlike with skills, your combat skills (divided by weapon type) require only a single d20 roll, which is opposed by a defense roll (either a dodge or a parry).  Not to beat this theme to death, the parry mechanics are pretty logical, in that it becomes harder to parry second and subsequent attacks.  Combat in general is pretty lethal--you have a relatively small number of Life Points (i.e. HP), and as your Life Points go down, you take increasing levels of the Pain condition that reduce your combat effectiveness.  So, combat is much less cinematic than what you get in D&D, in keeping with the lower-powered tone, and combat is slightly but meaningfully slower as a result of the opposed rolls.

So, TDE is at least one standard deviation more complex than 5e D&D in basically every dimension, which is going to be its primary competitor in the US in the fantasy space.  Is it more complex than 1st Edition Pathfinder (or, from what we have seen so far, 2nd Edition Pathfinder)?  Probably, but the complexity is distributed differently.  Pathfinder's complexity is found primarily in the options that are available, making character creation and optimization require a high level of system knowledge.  TDE, by contrast, is more complex in its core mechanics, but lacks the sprawling character creation and combat options that bog down Pathfinder play.

To be clear, this complexity is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is true that the zeitgeist in tabletop RPGs is toward simpler game systems, but that's not some sort of inviolable rule.  TDE is not really any more complicated than the median TTRPG in the middle 90s, and is actually complicated in a similar way to many of those games.  In a way, I think part of my hesitation about diving into TDE has to do with expectations set by more modern games.  If you are used to fitting monster and other opponent stats on a index card (which, while tough in 5e, is routine for something like 13th Age), being confronted with a page long stat block for a relatively basic opponent feels overwhelming, even if that used to be normal and unremarkable.  TDE feels "old school," in the sense that it feels like it has a different set of design influences and touchstones than what you see with many of the recent US games.

If you are looking for a true D&D alternative (as opposed to a variation on the theme) while being recognizably European fantasy, are interested in (or at least OK with) a lower magic and more deadly combat system, and are looking for a compelling, highly detailed setting, then The Dark Eye provides a very attractive package--provided you are willing to dig into a more complex and more deliberate game engine.  That last part, I suspect, is going to be a major hurdle for many people.  If you are someone who routinely plays GURPS or Shadowrun, then nothing in TDE is going to phase you.  But if you are accustomed to 5e or modern indie/indie-influenced games, then you will be taking a major leap in complexity by getting in to TDE.  But the rest of the package is compelling enough that someone on the fence about the rules complexity--like me--might be willing to give it a shot.

So, my bottom line is that if you have any interest in what TDE provides, you should check it out, because it is an excellent execution of the things its is trying to do and trying to be.  But you should know what that thing is.  No game is for everyone, and this one in particular is going to be something that many people are not going to be ready for.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Through Hardship to the Stars, Part 1: Review of Starfinder and Esper Genesis

Per aspera ad astra, "Through hardship to the stars" (Motto of Starfleet from Star Trek, as well as, e.g., the State of Kansas)

I have never heard a credible explanation for why sci-fi RPGs have never been as popular as fantasy RPGs.  Until Lord of the Rings broke through in the broader culture, the general consensus was that fantasy was commercial death, while sci-fi was both acceptable to the mainstream and able to be taken seriously as a genre.  But in the tabletop space, it was the opposite--D&D and its fantasy imitators/competitors dominated, while sci-fi games were often marginalized.  Yes, there was Traveller, there were licensed games (especially a couple of well-regarded Star Wars games, none of which, to be honest, I have played), and there are some other excellent games from a design perspective.  But nothing remotely approaching D&D, and nothing corresponding to the overall popularity of the genre.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that I think sci-fi is a broader genre conceptually than fantasy.  To take an example, compare the three most recent bits of sci-fi that are in my DVR queue--Guardians of the Galaxy 2, old Babylon 5 episodes, and Season 3 of The Expanse (I suppose you could object that Guardians of the Galaxy is really from the superhero genre because it is part of the all-consuming Marvel Cinematic Universe, but taken on its own terms I think it is definitely sci-fi).  These three properties have human-like creatures traveling through space and ships fighting each other and extra-terrestrial life (albeit of radically different sorts), and that's about it for similarities.  It's hard to imagine making a sci-fi game which would encompass the feel of all three of these properties, without creating something so open-ended that it is less a game a more a toolkit to design your own game.  This might be why, with the exception of Traveller, the most successful sci-fi games have generally been licensed properties--when you pick up a game that says "Star Wars" on the front, you know exactly what you are getting, and in fact that's the point.

Whatever the reasons, fantasy rules the roost in tabeltop RPGs.  And so, if you are looking to put out a sci-fi game, it makes sense to find some way to draft on the popularity of fantasy games, and one way to do that is to use the same or similar rules engine as a popular fantasy game.  Since most of your potential audience has played the fantasy game, making it as easy as possible to transition to your sci-fi game is a smart play.

This is the exact concept behind both Starfinder and Esper GenesisStarfinder is Paizo Publishing's reworking of Pathfinder 1st edition for sci-fi, while Esper Genesis by newcomer Alligator Alley Entertainment uses the rules engine of D&D 5th edition.  Starfinder has been out for a little over a year, while Esper Genesis is basically brand new. 

Despite similar premises, I detect a different feel between the two games.  Starfinder strikes me as full-on science fantasy, in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy.  Starfinder is a game of zooming spaceships and humanoid aliens and limited interest in real-world physics and space magic of a couple of different sorts.  While Esper Genesis has many of those same elements, it comes across as more explicitly "sci-fi" and less fantasy.  The authors of Esper Genesis name-check a number of space opera properties as inspiration, but the one that really jumps out at me in reading Esper Genesis is the video game franchise Mass Effect.  No one will mistake Mass Effect for the hard sci-fi of something like The Expanse, but it still fits well within the normal sci-fi space. 

Part of the reason that Starfinder feels more like fantasy is that the game is set in the same default fictional universe as Pathfinder, an unknown number of years in the future of Golarion.  Unknown, because 300 years ago an unexplained event took away the planet Golarion into some other dimension, replaced it with a giant space station, and erased everyone's memory.  Contrived to some degree as this might be, this move effectively breaks any sort of continuity with Pathfinder, so you don't need to know anything about Pathfinder to play or appreciate Starfinder.  It is still the same world, however, and so there are still Easter Eggs for Pathfinder fans (many of the deities are the same, the station is named after the featured big city of Golarion, and I think the names of the planets are the same).

In linking Starfinder back to Golarion, the designers do a good job of walking the line between having enough links to satisfy Pathfinder fans, without getting swallowed up by canon..  The focus of the setting material is a single solar system with about a dozen planets or other locales, which has been further fleshed out in its own sourcebook.  But interstellar travel is available, and the core book only gives a handful of minimalist descriptions of extra-solar worlds.  What's smart about this is it allows the GM to mix and match homebrew content with canon material--just put your homebrew stuff in one or more solar systems, and have your game go back and forth between those systems and the Pact Worlds (or not, as you choose).  Surely Paizo will eventually detail more solar systems as part of canon--they have demonstrated that they will eventually provide a player/GM as much content as they are willing to buy.  But since each solar system is a self-contained unit, none of that needs to muck up the GM's own ideas.  This is an advantage sci-fi has over fantasy (which is limited to a defined map), and Starfinder leverages that advantage smartly.

Esper Genesis does a similar thing with its setting.  In the universe of the game, certain star systems contain moon-sized hyper-tech artifacts known as Crucibles, and a star ship can travel to any system with a Crucible instantaneously.  However, starships can also travel to other systems "the slow way."  The setting material in the back of the Core Manual lays out 20 or so key systems with active Crucibles in very rough form, forming the core of the setting a la the Pact Worlds.  Based on the statements in the Core Manual, published material will be focused on those key worlds, while leaving the rest of the universe open to GM development.  And, if a GM wants to integrate one of his or her creations into the core setting, he or she can just plop a Crucible in that system.  Once again, this allows the GM to control the interaction between the "official" material and homebrew material, without worrying about continuity problems.

On the rules side, both games leverage the rules chassis of their parent properties, and indeed that is a big part of the value proposition of the game.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, Esper Genesis hews closer to 5e than Starfinder does to Pathfinder, notwithstanding that Esper Genesis is a third-party product and Starfinder is first-party.  Esper Genesis makes essentially no changes to the 5e engine--you will find the familiar six attributes, hit points, armor class, advantage/disadvantage, the action economy, etc.  Some of the classes use "power points," but that's just the optional spell point rules lifted from the 5e DMG as is.  Moreover, the eight classes presented in the Core Rulebook are mostly 5e classes that have been slightly tweaked.  So, the Sentinel is basically a Paladin, with the same progression and most of the same abilities, reworked to be a cyber-knight whose cybernetics allow them to talk to God/the universe/the great unknown and which gives them purpose.  The class design here is very clever--I particularly liked the way the Warlock is transformed into the Cybermancer, and the Cleric becomes the Engineer (turn undead becomes an EMP pulse that disables drones and other mechanical constructs!).  It's more than a simple re-skin, but it's similar enough 5e player will be able to bring forward to Esper Genesis all of their existing knowledge of how to play a particular class.  Perhaps the only criticism I can offer is that I was disappointed not to see a transformation of the 5e Bard, though perhaps that reflects the fact that the 5e Bard is a bit OP.  Still, some sort of dedicated "face" class would have been nice, and well within genre.

With regard to the classes as a whole, one of the choices I liked was to declare that all of the character classes are basically magical.  See, those mysterious Crucibles produce a material called Sorium, which produces limitless energy and powers everyone's technology.  Contact with Sorium and the Crucibles also causes some people to become "espers," at a moment of awakening called an "esper genesis."  This gives them Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, which manifest in a diversity of forms (i.e. eight different classes).  I know some people are really into the idea that "my character gets by through grit and a good weapon, and doesn't need some fancy magic," but for me the "everyone is magic" frees up design space for the less overtly magical classes to still do cool things, and enhances verisimilitude by providing an explanation for some of the D&D-isms like increasing HP (it's one of the reasons I really liked Earthdawn back in the day). 

To the extent Esper Genesis is bringing new things to the table, its almost exclusively by addition.  There are some simple, and fun, zero-g rules (if you are moving in a particular direction and want to stop, you have to make an Acrobatics check; otherwise, you keep moving in a straight line until you hit something), and a pretty robust set of vehicle rules, including rules for starships and starship combat.  These rules are, in keeping with 5e's ethos, pretty simple and abstract, though we are promised more detailed vehicle rules in the forthcoming Master Technicians Guide.  I suppose now is an appropriate time to mention that, as of this writing, the core product line for Esper Genesis is not fully available.  The Core Manual is basically the PHB with some setting material, with a "monster manual" a/k/a the Threat's Database, and the DMG-esque Master Technicians Guide promised by the end of the year.  So, it's not quite a complete game at this point.  To that end, there is a free PDF available with a selection of opponents, some rules for Forged equipment (i.e. magic items re-skinned), and a useful set of planet generation charts.  That free PDF seems pretty close to essential until the release of the core books, and I wish the Core Manual was more explicit in pointing you in that direction (I stumbled upon it more or less by accident).  This unfinished quality makes the game a little hard to fully evaluate--while some obvious things seem to be missing (there's no equipment entry for a spacesuit, as a small example), it could be that those things will be filled in within a few months.

Starfinder, by contrast, "opens up the hood" more on the basic Pathfinder engine, including making changes to some core concepts.  Perhaps most interesting is what they did with hit points.  They are still there, you get them in more or less the same way (a fixed number per level based on your class), and if you go to zero, you are dying.  Only now you also have a pool of stamina points, roughly equal to your hit points (and your Constitution bonus goes to stamina points, not hit points).  All damage comes off the stamina points first, and stamina points heal much more quickly.  Plus there is a third pool, your resolve points, which can be used to, among other things, fully recover your stamina points after a ten minute rest.  In addition, if you go to zero HP, you start to bleed resolve points until you are stabilized or out of points and dead.  You can also spend a bunch of resolve points to auto-stabilize, and then if you have resolve left, on your next turn you can spend one point to heal up to 1 HP.  By splitting your "take damage" pool into three parts and putting them on different refresh timers (resolve points fully recover after an 8 hour sleep), it allows characters to reflect a wide variety of different states without resorting to permanent injury mechanics or other cumbersome solutions.  Because magical and other sorts of true healing seems to be rarer in Starfinder than in fantasy games, losing hit points is punitive without being oppressive, because you can easy get back your stamina point cushion to protect the deeper, more permanent wounds.  It's a lot more to keep track of, to be sure, but it does model certain kinds of outcomes in a way that most D&D-based system struggle to reflect.

They also changed the weapon damage math.  Weapon damage in Pathfinder, along with all editions of D&D except 4th (and 13th Age, if you want to count that as a "edition" of D&D), doesn't meaningfully scale with level.  At 1st level, a long sword does 1d8 points of damage; at 20th level, a long sword does 1d8 points of damage.  Even if you have the best magical long sword available, a long sword +5, only does 1d8+5 damage.  Meanwhile, hit points increase 20-fold from 1st to 20th, far outstripping weapon damage.  Starfinder has levels of gear, so you begin with a weak laser pistol and over time get a better laser pistol that has more damage dice.  It's not obvious to me how that is explained in-game, other than "this costs more" and "this is the awesome stuff for more awesome heroes; that is the scrub stuff for scrubs."  But I have a high tolerance for that sort of handwaving, so I am not particularly bothered by that.  And this change should make high-level combat less of a grind, though I haven't played at those levels to know for sure.

Gear and gear acquisition is clearly a big part on the Starfinder experience.  In fact, I got the sense that it might end up playing like an RPG version of a looter-shooter video game such as Destiny or Borderlands--there are mechanics for taking your existing gear and improving it, splicing in various sorts of upgrades, the default assumption is that you will trade in your lesser gear for better gear you find or buy, etc.  Actually, Destiny (along with Guardians of the Galaxy) is a good comp for the feel of the setting, in its fusion of science and fantasy elements.  Obviously, this gear focus is not some radical new development--every version of D&D is gear focused to one degree or another--but not every sci-fi games goes down this road.  But, as D&D and Pathfinder and all of its cousins prove, a high adventure loot-based game can be very compelling.

Part of the gear game involves space ships.  The default assumption here is that the party has a space ship, and it levels up as the characters level up, without having to spend money.  That's a departure from the approach taken from something like Traveller, where a big portion of game play is (or, at least, can be) running your ship like a small business.  Esper Genesis of course has space ships, but perhaps in keeping with the flatter 5e math, there does not seem to be a focus on "leveling-up" your space ship (though, of course, that might be forthcoming in the Master Technicians Handbook).  One thing I can say about the space combat in Starfinder is that it is pretty tactical, and pretty slow, especially if you have multiple smaller ships.  One space combat in a Starfinder Society game involving our ship fighting off a half-dozen fighters took almost two hours, though to be fair both the GM and the players were pretty green.  Slow starship combat is not exactly some radical new problem in tabletop RPGs, but it is a problem and worth throwing out there.  Also, it should be noted that I have not used Esper Genesis's starship combat rules "in the field," so I can't really speak to the speed or complexity of those systems (though, just from reading them, they seem simpler).

Notwithstanding the starship combat rules, the consensus among devoted Paizo stans is that Starfinder overall moves the Pathfinder rules in the direction of simplification.  As I mentioned in my Pathfinder 2nd Edition playtest post, I am not deeply immersed in Pathfinder enough to be able to have an informed judgment on that.  But one shouldn't get the wrong idea--it's still a tactical, crunchy game by any measure.  Combat is still on the 5ft square grid.  There are in the neighborhood of two dozen status conditions.  Character creation is very option-focused, just like Pathfinder (and now with three different major choices--race, class, and theme--as opposed to just race and class).  My experience playing some demos and a couple of sessions of Starfinder Society is that all of this fits together smoothly and the table experience is quite good, but reading the 528 page core rulebook while contemplating GMing Starfinder is intimidating.  That's not to say it's not doable--it's not brain surgery, I've run more complex games before, and it gets easier the more you do it--but it is still a big task to take on, especially for those with limited Pathfinder background.

As an aside, this might be an issue for me with the way Paizo writes its rulebooks.  I pulled the Pathfinder core rulebook off the shelf last night and opened it to the combat chapter, and I thought that I was going to bleed out of my eyes.  And, yet, my experience playing Pathfinder (limited though it is) is that it really isn't that bad.  Conversely, I've had almost opposite experience with 5th Edition D&D--it reads like it is incredibly simple and straight-forward, but I found running it that there were edge cases and weird nuances that didn't come to the forefront until playing.  To be clear, I'm not saying that Pathfinder or Starfinder are poorly written, because they are not (or 5e for that matter).  I think that for whatever reason it doesn't interface with my brain as easily or cleanly as other presentations.

As with Esper Genesis, the most notable omission from the Starfinder corebook is the almost complete lack of any monsters, aliens, or other antagonists (there is a CR20 uber-goblin that almost seems to have been thrown in as a joke).  If you want to run Starfinder, you likely need the Alien Archive, which has all the critters.  In Paizo's defense, there were no monsters in the Pathfinder core rulebook, either; you needed the Bestiary for any kind of antagonists.  Also, alien/monster stats are available in the SRD which can be assessed online for free, so it's not completely gated behind an additional buy [in the interest of equal time, Esper Genesis also has a robust free version of the rules for download, though it includes only some of the classes and races a la the 5e SRD].  Still, I would have liked to see even a few opponents, if only to allow GMs to get a sense of what opposition they should be throwing at players.  In the case of Pathfinder, because it was so grounded in previous D&D experiences, someone brand new to Pathfinder might be able to fake it without the Bestiary.  I for one have little idea of where to go antagonist-wise absent the looking at the Alien Archive material, not just in terms of stats but in terms of ideas.  Starfinder might have fantasy elements, but it is different enough that you can't just draw from your pool of normal antagonists.  Even a few ideas pointing you in a direction would have been nice.

To be fair, Esper Genesis is maybe worse in this regard.  The Core Manual name-checks things like "the Shadow Technocracy" and the "Lorendi Imperium" and gives you either no information (in the case of the Shadow Technocracy) or only the most skeletal information (for the Lorendi) about them.  Again, you get a little more help stats-wise with the free PDF, but my biggest complaint with the Core Manual is that it could have really benefited from another ten to fifteen more pages of setting material.  I'm hoping the Threats Database is not just stats, but also lore and fluff material (for what it's worth, the Alien Archive is excellent in that regard).  That kind of material really transforms a monster book from something totally utilitarian into a truly excellent product (and is why the 13th Age Bestiary is maybe my favorite product I own), but Esper Genesis is particularly crying out for this kind of support. 

One last note about the physical presentation--both are beautiful books.  For Starfinder , this is not a surprise, as it is basically in line with Paizo's usual high standards.  But Esper Genesis is every bit as nice, and for my taste a little nicer, as Starfinder--the Esper Genesis art is a little more photo-realistic and a little less cartoonish, which is purely a personal preference of mine.  Alligator Alley Entertainment is a relatively new company, but you would never know that from looking at Esper Genesis, and that makes the visual design an even more impressive achievement.  Esper Genesis can stack up toe-to-toe with products from Wizards, Paizo, MCG, and some of the top producers from a visual perspective, and it give me a ton of confidence and encouragement for what they might do in the future.

Six months ago, I would have told you that sci-fi conversions of fantasy games are a bad idea.  But Starfinder and Esper Genesis are truly excellent products and product lines, and I'm a convert to them and their virtues.  I have very little interest in Pathfinder or Pathfinder Society, but I play Starfinder Society quasi-regularly now.  And Esper Genesis has really dug its claws into me.  In particular, the setting of Esper Genesis really hits the sweet spot for me--a big part of the reason I am frustrated at the lack of a description of the Shadow Technocracy in the Core Manual is that the Shadow Technocracy seems incredibly cool and I want to know more about its clearly Evil Plans.  I could see myself running Esper Genesis, maybe even as part of their new organized play program.  While the presentation of the setting is not particularly detailed, what is there is very attractive and flavorful.  If the idea was to Keep 'Em Wanting More, then it worked, because I want more.

If you want an accessible way to play sci-fi, one that will not require you or your players to start from scratch with brand new rules concepts, both Starfinder and Esper Genesis are compelling options.  Which one is for you depends in large measure on the underlying products they are based on.  If you don't like the way 5e plays, then you will not like Esper Genesis; if you think Pathfinder is too complicated, then you will likely find Starfinder to have the same problems.  The learning curve for Starfinder is steeper than Esper Genesis, but Starfinder is a more complete game right now.  But within their respective lanes, both games do an excellent job of leveraging the familiar fantasy base while presenting a full-featured sci-fi experience.