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Why aren't computer RPGs (especially MMOs) as much FUN to play as old-time D&D?

Lewis Pulsipher

[This was originally completed in October 2009, but for various reasons has not seen the light of publication. Generally it still applies, but occasionally I’ll interject some comments in brackets from the perspective of 2016. Originally published in my blog, http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2016/04/why-arent-computer-rpgs-especially-mmos.html]

Oh, but they ARE as much fun, you say? Yet I don't see much evidence of that. For so many people it seems like a lot of work especially in MMOs - "the grind" - aimed at rising in level. People don't enjoy the journey, they only enjoy the destination ("I'm 80th level!"). That's why there's a big market for sale of items and gold and even entire accounts for such games, the market addressed by "pharming". (More details later.)

How did this happen? We can observe that, in hard core video games in general, this "ennui" seems to be a problem (ennui: "a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom"). The journey isn't much fun. People brag that "I beat the game," often throwing in an impressively-short duration of play, or that "I made maximum level", but they don't appear to have enjoyed it. How many of the hard core say "did you enjoy playing?", instead they say "how long did it take you to beat the game?" They want the result, not the experience. It's as though a ten year old who wants to be wealthy when he's 60 would be happy to jump from 10 to wealthy 60 without experiencing the years in between.

The Laundry RPG Review

by Andrew Daborn

Set in an unsuspecting present day Earth, under the cloud of a coming Lovecraftian apocalypse, the Laundry is a game based on the Laundry Files novels and short stories of Charles Stross. With ghosts, ghouls, zombies and people-who-saw-too-much as co-workers the players must work as agents of Her Majesty’s Government to protect the realm, and ultimately the whole of humanity, from things that crawl at the edges of our imagination and the deluded cultists that worship them.

The Book Itself

The production quality is excellent whether like me you spend your beer tokens on pdfs or invest in the hefty but well made hardback with tables and pictures dotting the pages. The layout is that of a bulky dossier. Tabs along the borders indicate chapters and tips for running the game are on post-it notes. The forward by Charles Stross is a transcript of a phone call between Angleton & Bob at the start of the book and regular annotations throughout tie these two characters from the novels into the game. The book is peppered by orientation documents from HR or Health & Safety notices for 'newly transferred personnel', photos of things going wrong taped into the book and articles from the Archives on a variety of monsters. All these add to the pleasure of reading this book but are also excellent as handouts to players. They add flavour to games and can aid in introducing new aspects of the world without resorting to a 10 minute exposition monologue from the GM.

So, what about the Contents and Index? I hear you ask. As you would want but not necessarily expect, they are neatly laid out and accurate. Chapters and the main topics within them are identified and page numbered. Only once or twice have I had that feeling that the information I need is in the book somewhere but not the index.

The Undead in Eclipse Phase

by Lev Lafayette

Death and Damage in Most RPGs

Death of a character in most RPGs is a very significant event. The countless numbers of first level Dungeons and Dragons characters, savaged by an orc, goblin, or even particularly a particularly nasty house-cat in some cases, is a testimony for a game which was not only heavily combat-orientated, but also one which started such characters with but a handful of hit points An interesting exception in first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was the Ranger - with maximum constitution and maximum die rolls, they could start with 24 hit points! But of course, this is an exception.

This dramatic moment did not change in games that had less of a combat orientation. In investigative-horror games like Call of Cthulhu character demise is often dramatic and sudden. Poor Scouts in Traveller were famous for facing their demise even before the start of play. As character gained in ability, it was usually of a primary motivation to provide some sort of protection for the character for sudden mortality; whether it is Divine Intervention in RuneQuest, Raise Dead or Resurrection in Dungeons and Dragons and so forth.

In some cases there was a level of dissonance in the mortal experience was due to game design issues and particularly the confusion in creative agendas, a conflict between game, simulation, and narrative approaches. Character deaths could be objected to as being "not realistic" (the savage house-cat example). A game with an extensive character generation process and a sudden mortality (e.g., Cyberpunk, Rolemaster) could seriously offend the player's sense of narrative, even if it was expressed in such terms. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, interestingly, because character generation could be so quick, did not usually suffer issue as badly - first level characters typically had very little character background.

There have been numerous means to get around these issues. Games like RuneQuest and GURPS, for example, had starting characters with static but somewhat realistic starting health levels - they could take a couple of blows and still remain standing. A popular house rule allowed Dungeons and Dragons characters to start with maximun hit points at first level, which was integrated officially in latter editions of the game (with fourth edition rules providing hit points effectively as a 'per encounter' basis). GURPS, unlike it's friends in the Basic Role Playing family, also included rather extensive opportunities for unconsciousness.

RuneQuest 3 Resources

A Runequest list has been hosted on the rpgreview.net domain since 2008. This list is the direct successor to prior Runequest lists that date back from the 1980s including the following: Andrew Bell's RuneQuest dailies, 1987-1994, Henk Langeveld's RuneQuest dailies 1993, the RuneQuest 4 Adventures in Glorantha playtesting 1993, Loren Miller's RuneQuest rules list 1994-1996, the Rob Miracle Imagic list RuneQuest rules list of 1998-2001, and the Crashbox RuneQuest rules list of 2001-2008.

Pyrrhic Victories and Other Rules in HeroQuest

by Lev Lafayette

Despite being in publication since 2003 (and prior to that, as Hero Wars, in 2000), HeroQuest is still somewhat unknown among many RPG games - some of whom confuse it with the HeroQuest board game. To put simply, HeroQuest is one of the most well-defined roleplaying system with an explicitly 'narrativist' creative agenda, with a consistent resolution system across all types of actions and conflicts. Character have abilities with ratings which are compared against other with contested d20 rolls; the results determine the degree of success or failure for the action.

The following are a set of short elaborations to the core rules which allow for Pyrric Victories, Hero Points for NPCs, Hero Points for General Narrativism, Hero Point Advances, Keywords and Broad Abilities, Limited Augments, and Equipment Bonuses.

Pyrric Victories

"Another victory like this and I shall be ruined"
- attributed to Pyrrhus via Plutarch, Battle of Heraclea, 280 BCE

The HeroQuest rules, as written, essentially allow for a victory or loss to one side or the other, in simple contests. Every action is an opposed test between two related abilities, with a default ability of 6 where there is none available and a default resistance of 14 where there is no active opposing force. Abilities may be augmented by relted, but not primary, abilities in the test by dividing the ability score by 5 (by 10 in first edition HeroQuest).

The two values are then compared against other and d20 die roll determines the relative success or failure. If a modified abilities is above 20, then it receives a 'mastery' which can be used to bump a result up (a failure to a success) or down (a success to a failure). A roll fo a natural 20 is a fumble, and a roll of 1 is a critical. The degree of defeat is determined by the difference of the die rolls with penalty applied to resultant actions:

Complete - results differ by 3 levels (e.g., Critical vs Fumble). Dying, no actions possible.
Major - 2 levels (e.g. Success vs Fumble, or Critical vs Failure). Injured, -20 to appropriate actions.
Minor - 1 level (e.g. Success vs Failure). Impaired, -6 to appropriate actions.
Marginal Victory or tie (When results are equal, the lower die roll wins). Hurt, -3 to appropriate actions.

The Green Isles for D&D 5th Edition

by Karl Brown

The Green Isles: Players’ Summary

The moment her spell clicked the latch open Vel the pixie played a shrill note on her flute. On that signal the furred form of Borm the bear burst into the room and slammed into the ogre. Just behind him Tam the child slipped in to help the prince from the cage ...

This is a setting for the D&D 5e game but one quite unlike typical settings like WOTC’s The Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. Don’t worry though, this setting draws on British fairy tales which in turn have influenced a lot of fantasy novels, TV, and film. This world will seem very familiar.

Dungeons & Dragons Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

by Lev Lafayette

Introduction and Product

Following on from third edition's "Libris Mortis", "Open Grave : Secrets of the Undead" is the equivalent for 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, with Bruce Cordell notably sharing author credits in both supplements. The product is 224 pages, hardbacked and well-bound and full-colour glass pages throughout. The cover art is not exactly exciting, an undead visage, but is quite muted in tone and lacking in colour. The internal art shows a great deal of both creativity and acumen, and is somewhat contextual (yes for monster and NPC statistics which is necessary, no for most of the rest of the book). Mention must also be made of the rather attractive maps and floor plans, although they are perhaps a little too neat.

There is excellent use of white space throughout the book, with clearly marked page numbers and chapter identifiers. The book come with a single page table of contents and a two-page index, albeit limited to new monsters. The writing style is mostly formal with the occasional foray into the conversational, with a fairly good level of density, and particularly well structured (something which this particular edition of the game does well at). In terms of content there are but four listed chapters - Undead Lore (19 pages), DMs Guide to the Undead (27 pages), Undead Lairs (74 pages), and a massive New Monsters section (94 pages). The latter is a bit of a design flaw a even the table of contents indicates, it can be easily split into new undead and NPCs and Templates, with the latter taking a respectable 22 pages. As will be evident, some of the text ordering is a little awry.

The Scythe of Thanatos

by Lev Lafayette and Stean Vitasovic

The Scythe of Thanatas is an major artifact item for D20/Pathfinder and similar systems. It was originally used in Stean Vitasovic's D&D3e fantasy dark ages Balkans campaign c2001-2002, and whilst the statistics provided are for that particular context it requires little elaboration for other game settings or systems. In the original campaign it was discovered in a in same chaotic caves near a keep on the borderlands of the Vrhbosna province by a sorcerer of medium ranked ability. The Scythe's frustration at the sorcerer's attempts to use the weapon without proficiency in narrow underground passageways generated some hilarity. The Scythe itself, as an artifact, became a feature of the entire campaign as its ever increasing urges for greater bloodshed became dominant.

In Pathfinder the Scythe is a two-handed melee weapon. Note however that this is specifically the 'war scythe' which historically was primarily by peasants during uprisings (e.g., , Hussites, battle of Sedgemoor, Ko?ciuszko Uprising etc) which required a modification of the blade and shaft. The painting by Mort de Bara by Jean-Joseph Weerts (1883), illustrated the use of this weapon (and stands in contrast to the drawing in the Players Handbook, p100).

These weapons has the following statistics common to D&D3.x/D20/Pathfinder

Scythe: 18 gp, 1d6, 2d4, ×4, 10 lb., Piercing or slashing

The Scythe of Thanatas however is encountered as the traditional peasant's tool, that is, with the chine (blade) at right angles to the snaith (haft). As a combat weapon, it is automatically at -2 due to this design, in addition to any lack of exotic weapon proficiency. To convert it to a war scythe requires a simple Craft: Weaponsmithing check with a DC of 10.

Note that the depiction of Thanatos as the "the Grim Reaper" carrying a scythe was not the norm in ancient Hellenic societies who depicted Thanatos with either a sword or an upside-down (extinguished) torch. It seems that the version most familiar in the Anglophone world actually comes from Polish origins (which, at quite a stretch, also suits the Balkans). The Hellenic Thanatos was considered more neutral in overall disposition and appeared in a male form. Note therefore that despite the Hellenic association, this is actually a Slavic artifact and could even more justifiably be called "The Scythe of Marzanna" or similar.

Survival from Great Falls

by Adi Gondo Hartono

Efficient and effective character builds in Dungeons & Dragons have been a major feature since third edition, if not before then. This following example for 5th edition : How to survive a great fall (1000 meters & over) as level 2 Half Orc barbarian and still walk to tell the tale:

This is just a thought experiment, but I think I have figured out a way for my current PC, which I am basing this idea on to not die from falling off a cliff.

Interview with John Snead

Hi John, welcome to RPG Review. Let us start with a common question, how did become involved in roleplaying games? What were the first games you played and what did you think of them?

I started back in the early 80s with AD&D, I loved it at the time, but can't ever see myself playing any form of D&D again.

What games are you currently playing?

Sadly none at the moment. Until December, I was in a short playtest campaign run by Ben Lehman called Thousand Kingdoms. A few months before that, a three year free-from campaign run by our primary GM ended. She'll be starting a new one in a few months, which will likely last between 2 & 5 years. Other than that until last year I was also in a 2 year long Amber Diceless RPG campaign. Unlike most RPG designers, I vastly prefer playing to running games.

You have an extraordinary list of RPG credits associated with your name; White Wolf and Atlas Games' Ars Magica, Chaosium's Nephilim, Last Unicorn's Star Trek, supplements for White Wolf's Trinity, Exalted, Mage: The Ascension and The Awakening, and others, Green Ronin's Blue Rose, Posthuman Studios' Eclipse Phase... It's an extraordinary range. How do you find developing across such a wide variety of genres, styles, and game systems?

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