Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Matters of System

I've got a few games running right now, using published settings, but the real thing I'm looking forward to doing this year is campaign development - picking an idea and getting back into the world of homebrew campaigns, either starting something new, or picking up an older idea again.  However, I like a bunch of different rules sets and frequently switch between campaigns.  How many of you guys have run the same rules for multiple years, versus switching rules when you start the next campaign?

Rules sets can be adjusted to favor the style of play you prefer, but I still get inspired by the differences inherent in the rules; mechanics help underline the focus of the game and what's important.  Just like picking the right tool for a job around the house, the right set of rules makes the referee's job easier, too.  Here are the rule sets I'm considering when pondering the upcoming campaign.

ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King System)

ACKS is a retro clone built on the OGL as a spiritual successor to BECMI (the basic, expert, companion, master, and immortal rules published for Basic D&D in the 80's and early 90's).  BECMI envisioned a rich campaign world beyond the dungeon, and included rules for dominions, wars, and rulership, as well as expanding basic D&D to include advanced facets of play like planar travel and artifacts.  ACKS assumes that exploring dungeons and lairs will always be a part of play, but provides procedures for creating lair-filled hex crawls, populating a campaign world, and very detailed guidelines for players on crafting items and creating spells, build domains, establish guilds, and raise armies.  ACKS expands the game from just controlling a character in a dungeon, to include a character shaping the course of the world.

Of course, the referee needs to have a specific campaign vision in mind to put in the overhead to build a campaign setting that will eventually support intrigue and conquest; it has to be something the players want to do as well.  ACKS is almost a throw-back to the Chainmail days and the earliest campaigns, as it anticipated characters will recover tons of wealth from their dungeoneering, and invest piles of gold into building castles and armies.

LOTFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

Anyone paying attention to the OSR is familiar with Jim LOTFP's penchant for pushing the envelope with his Heavy Metal magazine style of art and promotion.  Because why not, right?  The inmates rule the OSR asylum, and it's fantastic.  But beneath LOFTP's occasional boob and dismembered corpse is a streamlined and trim interpretation of the old BX rules chassis for Moldvay's 1980's D&D and redbox.  LOTFP has laser-focused niche protection for the main character classes (fighter, cleric, magic user, and specialist), a form of 'bounded accuracy' since no one beyond the fighter improves at fighting ability.  It also has my favorite d6-based skill system for D&D.  (Jeff Rients recently covered a comparison of Moldvay and LOTFP in articles called LOTFP vs BX; sadly they're not labeled for easy linking).  The implied setting of LOTFP is the early modern period in a milieu based on historical Europe, featuring elements of weird fiction and horror.

A 'feature' of LOTFP is that it doesn't include a bestiary; monsters are expected to be unique and terrifying, for the most part.  Jim has threatened to release an updated Ref Book for the past few years that includes more guidelines on weird monsters and running campaigns.

5E (Good Old Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition style)

Wizards of the Coast made an effort to reached out to old school players during their playtest of 5e, and delivered a version of the game that featured smaller stat blocks, 'theater of the mind' old school combat, and a play experience built on combat, exploration, and dungeoneering.  5E continues to sell very well, and appears to be growing the table top hobby in new ways with live streaming of games and celebrity games.  5E is also the game new players encounter in hobby and book stores; the brand appears strong and going well.

As an old school player, there are some issues that leave me cold.  Characters are really powerful, even from level 1, and the game implies a high fantasy, high powered world where magic is ubiquitous - at least among player characters.  5E really only emulates one type of setting well - a high powered D&D setting!  It's built on 40 years of self-referential lore and development, and has pretty much become it's own genre of fantasy.  No wonder the Forgotten Realms is the default.

However, players seem to love the system.  Going from 'zero to hero' in the old school style is an acquired taste for players, especially kids, and 5E's high powered laser clerics and zappy wizards are more in line with modern video games.  Not every player likes having disposable first level characters that can be killed by a house cat and some good dice rolls.  5E character development includes the creation of personality facets like ideals, bonds, and flaws; old school characters get developed through play, and not conceived all at the beginning.  I've noticed that younger players enjoy imagining that stuff right out of the gate, and it's improved their ability to roleplay their characters at the table.  I need to get some Curse of Strahd game reports going - 5E has a lot going for it from the player's perspective.

Unfortunately, I really don't like the Forgotten Realms - a little too bog standard fantasy.  A personal challenge is whether I could I structure a satisfying campaign setting using 5E when I'm done running Curse of Strahd.  Maybe an older idea like Taenarum, my megadungeon featuring the Greek Underworld, would work as a high magic, high powered setting?  Either way, the setting needs to be purpose built for zap zap pew pew style D&D.

Regardless of which system I land on, I'm sure it will involve a healthy amount of hex crawling and wandering the wilds; both LOTFP or 5E would need to borrow from other systems to accomplish that, as neither mechanically supports it today (either through lack of bestiary or lack of procedures).  I'm still loving the Skyrim experience of free-range discovery of ruins, caves, and enemy holds, and want to see that expressed in a table top game!  The campaign will feature a large-ish megadungeon as well.  I'll reflect in the near future and decide if I should revive an older idea (Taenarum, the Black City, or Harrow Home) or start something fresh and new.

Is this common - do you switch rules per campaign, go for a best fit for mechanics, or use the same core for each game and just make it work?