Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Swords and Wizardry - old school RPGs Part 2

This post is a follow-up to yesterday's, which discussed old style role playing games. The 1970's saw the birth of modern role playing games (RPGs). Legal events have allowed small publishers to reprint slightly modified versions of those first editions. One example of this is Labyrinth Lord, which we reviewed yesterday. A second example is Swords and Wizardry. Both are called "retro-clones, " close copies of early Dungeons and Dragons. In the case of Swords and Wizardry the version being emulated is one of the first editions of Dungeons and Dragons printed. For basic descriptions of how role playing games work please check an earlier post.

Swords and Wizardry is another RPG set in a fictional, dark ages world. Wizards roam the land and can cast spells, there are goblins in the forests and dragons in the dungeons. In all corners of the world there are opportunities for brave men, women, elves and dwarves to go, have adventures, and return laden with gold and treasure.

Dungeons and Dragons has been published in several editions and forms. Swords and Wizardry aims to present some of the earliest rules published. Players can take the role of a fighter/warrior, a wizard, or a cleric. Your character may be a human, an elf, or a dwarf. Readers with some experience in RPGs may ask, "what about hobbits? What about playing a thief?" These elements were introduced in later editions of Dungeons and Dragons and thus are not found here. The rules do include lists of monsters you may encounter, spells for the wizard and cleric to cast, and lists of magical treasures and items which you may find.

Coming on the heels of my post on Labyrinth Lord a person might wonder whether there is any significant difference between the two games. Swords and Wizardry is certainly a simpler product. While it lacks specific rules in several areas the text repeatedly encourages players to alter or augment the existing rules. This is very much in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons, which in its early form absolutely begged to be modified and tinkered with. One might imagine that industrious players will come up with rules for hobbits, undersea adventures, magical flying boats, who knows? That emphasis on "take these rules and make them your own" is a nice touch.

I also found the rules of Swords and Wizardry easier to follow than those of Labyrinth Lord. Explanations flowed well and rules elements seemed to be presented in a more logical fashion. Neither set is crystal clear, but I felt that I could follow the former more easily.

The simplicity of Swords and Wizardry may verge on excessive for a modern player. Granted this is a clone of a vintage game and it's being played in that light but even nostalgia seekers may find it a tough one to fully engage in. For example, slightly stronger characters are about as effective as massively strong ones. Later versions of the game would award progressively higher benefits for progressively better strength, quickness, and toughness and I would find that hard to play without. Interestingly the publishers of Swords and Wizardry have addressed some of these thoughts with a free primer on old school role playing. I think it raises some valid points and is a worthwhile read for people used to playing modern role playing games.

As with Labyrinth Lord, one could ask who might enjoy these rules. I think they're a perfect introduction to RPGs for older children and teens with an interest in the games, assuming there is some adult who can offer tips and translation of odd terms. Swords and Wizardry is a free download so the price is certainly right. The rules will allow you to try out simple role playing and see if it suits you and your family. The writing style is slightly easier to follow than that of Labyrinth Lord, but players get fewer options in terms of the types of characters they can run. Perhaps in the end this is the best initial foray into RPGs, again assuming you have a more experienced player around to start things off. Without such a person I would look towards Zorcerer of Zo unless you have some very industrious and clever kids.

Swords and Wizardry is available free from Mythmere Games. They also offer some support material and an adventure pack.

Pros: cheap, simple, fun

Cons: may be too simple, little support material available

Beyond the Basics: just every role playing game ever published.

Havoc Boston- Miniature Gaming Event

On the weekend of March 27th a local gaming club will be hosting Havoc. This is a large scale convention dedicated to miniatures gaming. Visitors can sign up to play a host of games, all of which involve miniature figues, vehicles, creatures or other items. The games are usually battle or conflict related in some fashion. At present the scheduled games vary from ships battling at sea to the U.S. Civil War and car racing. There's a little bit of everything to be found.

Havoc is a nice opportunity to experience a certain type of table top gaming. The figures are often carefully painted and the game settings can be quite colorful and elaborate. For this reason miniature gaming is better suited for teens than for younger children. In addition the gaming is usually battle or conflict related and that may or may not suit every family. Take a look at the website and see if anything catches your eye.

Havoc is scheduled for March 27th through 29th in Shrewsbury, MA.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Labyrinth Lord- kickin' it old school part 1

The late 1960's and early 1970's saw the birth of the modern role playing game. The products available at the time were poorly edited, hard to find, and often difficult or impossible to understand. Nevertheless, they were breathtakingly thrilling to read. The books described fantastic creatures, wizards, ruined cities, amazing spells, long lost treasure drenched in magic.... Everything that you might have read about in Conan stories or the adventures of Fafrd and the Grey Mauser. And you could experience all of it through playing the game! They seemed like passports to worlds of "strangeness, beauty, and charm." The memories of those first games are still vivid for me, and for a fairly large population of other people who enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons, Melee, and Tunnels and Trolls.

Recent legal developments have allowed small publishers to reprint the early Dungeons and Dragons rules with some small modifications. These are known as "retro-clones." Some retro-clones may be developed for business purposes but it's likely that the majority are created in an effort to capture the excitement and energy of early Dungeons and Dragons. Some of these reprints are available in stores but some are free online. One of the free versions is Labyrinth Lord.

In our discussion of Labyrinth Lord we'll assume that the reader has some sense of how RPGs work. For more details regarding RPGs see previous postings on RPG basics.

Labyrinth Lord is set in a fictional dark ages world. Players act out the roles of wizards, elves, warriors, and the like. As in basic Dungeons and Dragons some players will be able to cast spells- wizards, elves, and clerics. Some players may have special abilities- thieves can pick pockets, dwarves and spot traps. Fighter characters have no special abilities but are more versatile and can survive traps and battles better than other characters. Ideally a party of players will have a mix of all types, with each player shining in some setting.

As products go Labyrinth Lord is hard to assess. The rules seem about as confusing as the original set was. There are terms which are poorly explained or not explained at all. Charts appear in unlikely places so some flipping around is required. In addition the game world is not described in any detail. You're given no information as to why the players have come together, whether there is a king, a city, the name of the land, etc. It's left unclear how wizards acquire their spells and while there is a "cleric" player type it is never explained what the local deities are that the player might be a cleric of.

At this point many fans of original Dungeons and Dragons would say "awesome job!" since all this accurately replicates the original set of Dungeons and Dragons rules. In that context you could say that Labyrinth Lord is actually a huge success. The writers of retro-clones have a tough decision to make. Capturing the spirit of original Dungeons and Dragons requires capturing some of it's faults as well as it's strengths. If you polish the old rules do you make an inferior product- a game system which is not as evolved as present role playing games and lacking the charm of the original? You might also go further and say that some of the faults are actually hidden gems. The lack of any defined world structure allows players to create their own worlds and kingdoms. You could argue that real creativity occurs when you have wide vistas to paint and populate. For more details regarding the foibles and strengths of original Dungeons and Dragons visit this interesting essay at the Museum of Role Playing Games.

While the theory behind the retro-clone and the structure of Dungeons and Dragons is pretty interesting to me personally, how does the typical parent approach Labyrinth Lord? And, for that matter, why should the typical parent even consider the game? I think the game has two target audiences that could get quite a lot from it. One is older players who want to relive their youth. The other is a parent who played some Dungeons and Dragons in their youth and wants to introduce it to their children. The present edition of Dungeons and Dragons sells for sixty to one hundred dollars! What's more, it's become fairly complex over the years, so complex that my RPG club would probably never even try it. In comparison the rules to Labyrinth Lord are free to download. They include lists of monsters, spells, and treasure- everything you need to run a game. And they're simple and perfect for beginners. In that sense they're a great value.

Imagine you have some children with an interest in RPGs. This is an ideal way to show them how the games work and see how things go. A parent with some experience in Dungeons and Dragons can run Labyrinth Lord easily and navigate the editing and rules ambiguities that would confuse a novice. You could also offer the game to older children and see how they manage it, remaining available to help out if the players get stumped.

I would recommend Labyrinth Lord to any parent who wants to introduce their child to a fun hobby, assuming the parent has some experience in the genre already. Parents with no RPG experience might wish to try Zorcerer of Zo or Faerie's Tale instead. But if you played a bit of Dungeons and Dragons in the past then Labyrinth Lord could be a great way to get the kids playing.

Labyrinth Lord is available as a free download from Goblinoid Games. The web site offers additional support materials and adventures for the game.

Pros: Respectful approach to a great game, simple rules, classic fun

Cons: may be difficult for absolute beginners to grasp, but at this price...

Beyond the Basics: There's a vast universe of role playing games out there, welcome to a hobby that lasts a lifetime

People with an interest in old role playing games can visit the Museum of Role Playing Games! Well worth the trip.

Monsterpocalypse- Giant Monster Smash!

In 1993 the then-struggling game company Wizards of the Coast released Magic the Gathering (MTG). This was a card game in which you purchased cards in packs similar to baseball cards, collected a deck of these cards, and then played a simple game against an opponent. The innovation of the game was that some cards were more rare then others. In order to be a successful player you might have to buy many packs. Many, many, many, packs.

The rest was history. To get a sense of the dimensions of the game, Wizards of the Coast gives out three million dollars in tournament prizes each season to MTG players. The history of collectible card games is far more complex than can be summarized here but suffice it to say that this genre has huge potential as a hit maker. In the process it has also spawned quite a few business disasters and bombs. And this leads us to Monsterpocalypse.

Monsterpocalypse is a collectible miniatures game. Players buy and collect toy versions of giant monsters and the have battles with them on simulated cityscapes. You buy a starter box at first but then you can purchase additional "boosters" which will have randomly selected monsters, buildings, tanks and what-not in them. You don't know for sure what you'll get in a booster box but be assured it will have Almost everything you need, and then you'll scurry off the buy another booster.

Let's talk briefly about the gameplay itself. There are certain people, ahem, who find the idea of giant monsters battling in cities to be absolutely intoxicating. Monsterpocalypse certainly delivers for those folks in several ways. Players start the game by laying out plastic buildings on a mat with city streets marked on it. Each player then pulls out their collection of miniature giant monsters. Each one is about four inches high and represents a dinosaur, space alien, robot or the like. In addition each player has a supply of smaller vehicles and helper creatures- tanks, small dinosaurs, alien saucers.

As the game commences the players take turns moving their monsters or helpers around the board. Points are scored by destroying buildings and crushing your opponents creatures and monster. It is the way you go about crushing and destroying that illustrates some of this game's strengths and weaknesses. On a positive note the game provides you with an insane variety of monster powers and actions. Certain monsters can fly, breath fire, fling enemy tanks at other enemies, cause explosions, fling lightning, or turn invisible. Would you like to throw another monster through the air? How about stomping your foot so hard that all nearby enemies fall to the ground? Or knock a building down onto opponents on the other side? There are rules for all these things and more. What's more is that the rules are pretty simple in execution even as they deliver hugely in color and dynamism.

In addition the game mechanisms force players to think carefully about how they'll move their forces. A clever system budgets out your actions so you have to always choose what creature is most important to move at any given moment and plan ahead with regard to your objectives. Speaking of objectives, some locations on the map may deliver extra points, or allow you to cause extra damage to your opponent. While it is possible to play Monsterpocalyse as a pure scrum it actually is a fairly tactical game.

There are a few caveats to the game. The first is that while the rules are simple there are a whole lot of them. Further, you really need to know them to start playing. In our trials we found that this was not a game you could learn well just by trying to play. This is not a critical flaw per se but it does rule this game out for that crowd that hates to read rules. And it does not make this a great choice for a game to buy and be playing ten minutes later, a la Formula D or Ticket to Ride.

A second caveat is that this game really needs interested players. A parent might buy Formula D and play it with their child and even if race car games were not the parent's cup of tea they could still get through in a credible fashion. In the case of Monsterpocalypse you really need to have at least two interested people- siblings, friends, neighbors. One solution to this is found through a game store. Pandemonium Books, for example, has organized play on certain nights.

Finally, the nature of collectible games has some potential risks. The publishers of the game have actually done a very good job of providing you with a good versatile starter set and boosters which are not exorbitantly expensive. Nevertheless you run the risk of introducing your child to the game and then being treated to endless requests and demands for boosters and extras. In addition, keep in mind that games like this only exist as long as they receive good support from their publishers. Unlike Apples to Apples, Monsterpocalypse has a finite lifespan. While Magic the Gathering is still going strong you never know if a collectible game is going to turn into a pile of worthless junk at any moment.

All this being said I was very happily surprised with Monsterpocalypse. It is a superb game design and packaged in a fairly affordable form, considering it's a collectible game. The rules are lengthy and detailed but the basic mechanisms are elegant and effective. If I was considering purchasing it for a child I would see if they had an interest first, and perhaps run by Pandemonium or Danger Planet to see it in action. Call ahead and I'm sure someone will be able to tell you when people meet up to play.

Pros: Gorgeous design, decent value, fun gameplay

Cons: Hard to say how long it will be supported

Beyond the Basics: lots of tactical value, good replay, and of course there are more booster boxes available to get that last piece you need...

Chrononauts- time travel gaming

Chrononauts is a game that will either click with a given player or not. Most people can instantly understand the rationale behind a racing game like Formula D or Candyland. They can quickly appreciate the themes behind Monopoly a Clue, which simulate an occupation or real life event. Games like Scrabble basically simulate school, in this case a spelling test. So what do you do with Chrononauts? In this game you play a time traveller who is changing past events in order to shape the present. That's a theme which is going to fly with some people and leave others cold. For the gamers who think time travel, alternative history and paradoxes are exciting, however, Chrononauts is The time travel game.

Chrononauts is a card based game. Players set up a timeline of important events. Each event is represented by a card. One card may say "JFK Assassinated." One card may say "Apollo 11 lands on the Moon." The cards are placed in order from events occurring long ago up to the present day. Some cards are linked to other, previous cards. For example, Apollo 11 only lands on the moon if Kennedy is assassinated.

The linking of historical events provides the mechanism for game play. Each player is given a set of events that they need to set into motion in order to win. One player, for example, may have to save the Titanic and make sure the moon landing fails. The game then proceeds in turns. In a player's turn they may attempt to change some historical event. In the above example you may flip the "JFK Assassinated" card over. On it's back is a different event- "JFK Injured in Motorcade Shooting." On the bottom of the card are listed all the other events that now change because JFK survived, one of them being the Apollo landing in 1969.

Players quickly discover that one small change can cause a ripple of secondary events across history. The game becomes a scramble to change history in the way that suits you while preventing your opponents from doing the same. Players can use special cards and abilities to achieve their goals. They can also try to collect historical artifacts like dinosaurs. Collect enough artifacts and you win the game as well.

One gets the impression that Chrononauts could be a dry game. Our trials showed that it actually flows quickly and is pretty engaging even for non-historians. Fans of science fiction and time travel stories love the game of course but I was surprised to see how fun it was for casual gamers. Part of this may be because the rules are quite simple and each game card is packed with information as to how to use the card and when. Some of the appeal may also be the speed of play. Finally, I think some of the appeal is that each turn you are changing human history. In one sense this is an insanely geeky theme, but it's also an exciting and powerful one.

Chrononauts is certainly for older players and it will certainly sit best with people with find time travel at least remotely interesting. I think for the right players it's a great game and an insanely great value for the price. You can find it at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: Great game design, simple rules, intellectually a blast

Cons: Theme may appeal more to some than others

Beyond the Basics: Expansions are available and the game has good replay value

Incan Gold- fun family adventure

Imagine that you are a teen and have moved to a small town from the city. You love to dance but in this small town dancing is against the law. You might find that to fit in you have to play a game of "chicken." Fortunately things have changed from the 80's. In 2009 it's no longer cool to play chicken with full size tractors. If Footloose was filmed today then Kevin Bacon would be playing chicken with a copy of Incan Gold.

In Incan Gold the players have to explore a ruined temple, pick up treasures and jewels, and get out unscathed. Specifically players take turns drawing cards from a deck and revealing them to the group. The cards may represent treasure found in the temple. They may represent some mysterious artifact found nearby the temple. Or finally the cards may represent a menace like a snake or trap. After the card is flipped the players decide secretly whether to "leave" the temple. If everyone leaves they split the accumulated treasure. If only one person leaves then that player gets all the mysterious artifacts. If some of the players leave they split up the treasure amongst themselves. If any players remain in the temple the play continues.

Play continues until two cards with identical menaces are drawn, for example two "snake" cards. At that point anyone still in the temple has to leave and they lose All the treasure. As you can see, the basic dynamic of the game is related to "chicken," the longer you stay in the temple the more treasure you could get, but at progressively greater risk. In addition if you have fewer players remaining in the temple then they will split up any treasure they find into fewer portions.

The fun of Incan Gold comes from the interactions between the players. Everyone is looking around the table to try and guess who is staying and who is running. If you trick others into running and you stay you may rack up the treasure, or you may be sent home with nothing because the next card was a second spider card. I find the game ideal for families because even younger children can get the basic idea. There's plenty of laughs as people take chances and either score big of get sent home with nothing. In addition almost everyone is likely to get some treasure so while there is an official "winner" you could argue that any explorer with a pile of gems has won in a way.

Incan Gold is simple and easy to learn. I wouldn't think of it as the game of the century but it's a good value and likely to be enjoyed by a wide range of ages.

Pros: simple rules, appealing concept, appeals to a good range of ages.

Cons: may be hard to find

Beyond the Basics: this is a "filler" game, it's simple and fun but fairly basic.

Incan Gold could be tricky to find, I might start with Hit and Run Games in Lexington or Danger Planet in Waltham. I suspect they could order it if it's not in stock.