Friday, November 30, 2018

Sword & Scoundrel: Now on DTRPG (and I couldn't be more thrilled)

This has been a long, long road traveled. Now it feels like it's starting to pay off. On Wednesday the 0.2.1 release of the S&S pdf was approved on drivethrurpg. That is a pretty major milestone for me, as it marks the first time something Ive designed is really out there. I've released pdfs on my own before, but it's different when the thing is actually swimming in the waters of actual games. As someone who struggles with recognizing the worth of their own work, it was a major feeling of accomplishment — even if I still have so much work to do.

Meanwhile, I've begun the (somewhat painful) process of trying to actually get the work seen. I've been blessed with a small but fairly devoted community throughout this journey. We've picked them up in ones and twos over the years by internet searches alone and they've sort of stuck with us ever since. Now I'm at the point in the development cycle where I need fresh eyes to look at the thing and that's a more difficult task. This is even worse when it comes to my personal dislike of marketing and pathological discomfort with self-promotion.

Still, I recognize that it has to be done. It's not enough to write and design if you can't get people to look at the thing. Ugh.

I've been going with the following pitch:
Sword & Scoundrel is a player-driven tabletop role-playing game of passion, violence, and general skullduggery. Set against a gritty renaissance backdrop, Sword & Scoundrel is a morality play presented as an HBO character drama, where players declare what is most important to their character and see it challenged through play. It's a blood opera of intrigue and swordplay, exploring how far you will go, what lines you will cross, and what — or who — you are willing to sacrifice for what you hold most dear.

The beta document is available at drivethrurpg, where it is and will remain free of charge.

It currently contains everything you need for core game-play: the core mechanics, character creation, combat, and the weapon/armor customization rules. The GM material is being worked on as we speak, but if you have any familiarity with The Burning Wheel, The Riddle of Steel, or Apocalypse World, you can run this without missing a beat.

As the beta progresses, we also have plans on a fully-developed sorcery system, social combat, faction support, and a few other goodies.

Which seems to summarize things well enough. We won't talk about how many times I rewrote that first paragraph.

Along with that, I've been appending all of the follow-up links so that people can actually give feedback. The website, our forums, our surprisingly active discord server. The latter has been growing at a slow but steady rate, of late. I must be doing something right...ish.

To others out there in the design/writing space: how do you deal with all of this? Self-promotion, outreach, whatever. Is it like pulling teeth for anyone else?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Sword & Scoundrel -- Finally, a Release

Only the gods know how many hours, words, and bottles of whiskey went into this project. What I can tell you is that a 77,000 words, 250 pages, and 379 days later, I have a solid draft available for playtesting. It will almost certainly have mistakes, typos, and broken bits inside.. but it's the single largest and most complete thing I've ever released and that's a personal milestone.

Check it out here:

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

As a game concept, ammunition sucks. There's an argument for tracking ammunition. It's realistic. It costs money. It takes up space. In the context of OD&D it makes sense to track ammunition because resource management is an explicit part of the game. The more gear you take, the more room it takes up in your pack, the slower you go. The slower you go, the more monsters and things you run into. The less room you have in your pack, the less loot you can take back. It's an intrinsic part of the risk/reward.

On the other hand, that is not something Scoundrel really cares about. Encumbrance in our game doesn't care about weight, money is mostly abstract, and even the buying of ammunition is sort of an odd proposition because it's mostly an r1 expense.

So is there any real need to track ammunition?

The only circumstance I can think of in which th game would actively care about ammunition is in the circumstance where running out of ammunition would be narratively interesting and even that doesn't necessarily require marking off each arrow loosed.

In the OSR world, some people have adopted an interesting piece of gaming praxis called a "usage die." You might have d8 worth of arrows. After every fight, roll the d8. If it comes up as a 1, it shrinks to a d6. Repeat until you either buy more arrows (increasing your die size) or you get down to a d4 and roll a 1 -- indicating that you are now out.

The main benefit of this setup is that you aren't erasing and rewriting a total every time you make a ranged attack. You're still doing some accounting, but it's something you do post-combat, rather than during.

It makes me wonder first if such an idea could be adapted to Sword & Scoundrel (there are ways, I'm sure) and then second if that would actually be desirable in a game where we have taken a substantially more simulationist approach with so many other aspects of weapons and combat.
Floating ideas. Feel free to toss in feedback.

Almost a Year to the Day

That's how long I've gone between posts. It's an impressive feat, really. Then again, that's how I've always dealt with this poor blog. I will go through active bursts of content and then get out of the habit for an age.

I won't bore you with the details of the last year. Personal stuff, health stuff. Some ups. Some down. Life goes on. Very little of it would be of interest to anyone who wasn't part of it, and none of it is relevant to this blog's stated purpose. Instead, I'll update you on the one thing that is:

What began as an attempt to make a streamlined "quick play" style rules set for NaGaDeMon last year turned into an overhaul of the system itself. Seventy-three thousand words later, Sword & Scoundrel is preparing for its most complete release to date. Higgins is off doing bigger and better things, but I've wrangled a couple volunteer editors to pour over prose on my behalf. With luck, they will have that back to me in relatively short order and  I can get the layout done.

This is the first version of the game that is "complete." All of the absolute core material is there. The core mechanic, character creation, combat, social stuff, gear and equipment. You can make characters and play the game. It's shocking that it's taken me years to have all of that together in a single document, but it's unbelievably relieving to have the bulk of it behind me.

The only parts of the game now missing from the original vision are the GM section and magic. Both of these are fairly massive things in their own right, but neither are absolute requirements for using the core material. The GM section is my next project, but anyone with significant GM experience can likely run the game as-is. This is doubly true if you've been a Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, or Apocalypse World GM in the past.

The magic system isn't strictly necessary at all (the very first version of the game in ye ancient Song of Steel days didn't intend to have one). It's useful for a lot of fantasy stuff, but you can play without it. Much of the Sword & Sorcery genre sort of works on the premise that sorcery is for the antagonists, not the heroes. I'll get to work on that after the core system and GM stuff is all settled. My ambitions for it are as such that it isn't something I would want to rush.

In the meantime, I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

NaGaDeMon Update 1 - Scope

I came across this post from immersion studios which is perfectly topical for what I have in mind. Boiling a system down to a quick start guide is an interesting and slightly daunting process. Figuring out what to include and what to trim is tricky under the best of circumstances. This is even more tricky for a game like Sword & Scoundrel, where play can be focused in different arenas.

The two immediate attractors are drives and the combat system, so any introductory to the game will need to leave those two factors largely intact. The former will be simple enough. The latter will need some slight modification, I suspect.

A big concern I have at the moment is in the word count. The existing scoundrel material is over 50k words so far and we're have maybe half the total content I'd like to generate for the core book. Boiling the core of that down into a smaller package will be a tricky task all by itself. 

At this stage, I'm optimistic. We'll see how long that optimism holds out.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November Update and NaGaDeMon

Another month passes. I've been under the weather lately and nowhere near as productive as I'd like to be as a result. However, a new month is a new opportunity and November is a particularly exciting month. For those that aren't familiar, November is National Game Development Month — NaGaDeMon (how can you not love an abbreviation like that?) — which makes it the perfect time to start that project you've been kicking around in the back of an old notebook.

I had a mighty temptation to indulge in my ongoing affair with OSR, but I will stay true. Instead, I'm going to use this as an opportunity to tackle Sword & Scoundrel from a different angle. From the beginning, I'd talked with Higgins about making a kind of "Basic Edition" Scoundrel. It would be the same game built on the same rules, but with minor abridgements and all the optional clutter removed. The purpose of such a project would be to serve as a kind of entry-level version for people who were curious about the system but could be intimidated by the massive tome the full game will inevitably become. Alternatively, it should be able to stand-alone for people who like the angles the game plays but want something a little more lightweight and flexible.

The finished project should be more or less compatible with the full game so that players who learn on the basic edition won't have to re-learn much (if anything) if you transition to the full game.

I'll keep you posted on development.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

OSR Project #2: The Danger of Skills

There's an argument floating around that will claim that skills expand what your character is capable of by letting you invest in a bunch of different things, rather than being confined to an archetype like a class. I'm here going to have to argue that the opposite is true.

Skills by definition impose limitations on what your character is capable of.

When OD&D was released, there were only three classes - Fighting Man, Cleric, and Magic User. All of these characters were assumed to be dungeon-delving adventurers and have all the skills and abilities appropriate of such. Later, Greyhawk was released as the first D&D supplement and it added Thief as a class. Suddenly, the dynamic of the game changed.

The thief is essentially a class based around having skills. Climb walls, hide in shadows, move silently, pick locks, disarm/detect traps, etc. The Thief as originally written is Dungeoneer: The Class. This creates a lot of weirdness compared to how the game was played before. If you listen to Arneson talk about his early D&D experiences, everyone acted like a thief before the thief showed up. Everyone was sneaking around, picking locks, hiding and setting up ambushes, disarming traps, etc. The creation of the thief changed the way the distribution of abilities was perceived. Because the thief has a mechanical means of doing these things on their sheet, suddenly those things became the domain of the thief. Worse, because the thief had a mechanical ruleset for doing these tasks, it gave the implication that because no one else had access to these mechanics the thief was the only one who could do it. (There is a very interesting argument to be made that the nature and wording of the thief's abilities was supposed to imply a slightly supernatural character to them, thus everyone could sneak but a thief could literally disappear in a shadow. I actually prefer that interpretation, but it is outside of what I want to discuss here.)

When there is no mechanic for a thing, it's in the common domain. Anyone can attempt it by navigating the fiction. When you introduce a mechanic for a thing, you codify it and ultimately limit it in some way. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's an inherent side-effect of having a mechanic for it.

Now to make this less esoteric, consider for a moment Aragorn as a Ranger. In OD&D or AD&D, I can stand on the wall at Helm's Deep and make an impassioned speech because there is no Oration or Speechcraft skill. I can get up there, do my thing and feel pretty damned heroic about it because of course I can do it. I'm a big deal adventurer. The GM might nod and approve. The GM might even let me roll something to see if it has a mechanical impact on the fight. Who knows.. But it's entirely within my wheelhouse. Because there is no mechanic for it, it's up for grabs.

Now pretend we're playing 3.5e instead. Now there's a Diplomacy skill (or whatever it's called in 3.5) that exists for trying to influence NPCs. The existence of this skill means that in order for my character to be good at the thing governed by the skill, I need to invest mechanical resources into making them do so (in this case, skill points). What was something that I might have done and could have done because I thought it was cool and might have made a memorable scene becomes an area of the game I can no longer meaningfully interact with unless I spec out my character specifically to do so. I have to buy back the thing I could have done before, had the skill not existed.

Worse, because there is now a mechanic attached, if I do give an impassioned speech at the walls of Helm's Deep, the GM might make me roll for it anyway and because I don't have the skill I've introduced a risk. I might botch the roll and the GM penalizes the troops for my good intention. The GM might decide that I get up there and somehow drop my speghetti because a lot of games are written with the assumption that a bad roll means the character fucked up.

Where before this was a fun and optional thing that at worst would have been neat to play and at best might have given me some kind of fun bonus from a GM trying to encourage such things, I now have to weigh the risks of even attempting a thing that the game says I'm mechanically bad at because I don't have skill points invested in it. At best, I look unheroic and dumb, at worst, I might accidentally penalize my troops for having tried.

In the 3.5 ranger's case this is even more punitive because I've spent all of my skill points buying the abilities that previous editions gave me just for being part of my class.. And we'll not even talk about how different classes in 3.5 don't have access to certain skills and thus you have to invest even more character resources if you want to do something like be a fighter who also knows how to talk to people.

If you want an even more banal example.. There is no AD&D, B/x, or OD&D character who can't ride a horse. And yet, in 3.0/3.5/pf, Ride is a skill. You can technically ride without it, but if you want to do anything with the horse or avoid any perils of said horse, you now need to drop points in ride.

Making something a skill inherently walls the thing off from the open domain of play. If there's no cooking skill and you want to cook something, you are generally assumed to be able to do it because it's beneath what the game cares to simulate. The moment you create a cooking skill, you are mechanically a shitty cook until you invest resources in being able to do something you otherwise would have been able to do for free.