Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Rambling End of the Year Post for 2011

The Amazing Aluminum Man keeps an eye on Baby New Year - just in case

Wrapping up a few loose ends and clearing the decks for 2012:

 - A week or so before Christmas: Wizards of the Coast's annual Christmas layoffs appear to have begun. So far, casualties appear to include Rich Baker and Steve Winter. Yeah that's great. A wonderful holiday tradition. I've been "downsized" a few times over the years ad it's not fun at any time of the year. Hopefulyy (given their time with the company) there were severance packages sufficient to see them through the holidays and find something new.

 - Going back to Thanksgiving: Hero Games has been around for 30 years with ups and downs. The economy's been pretty rough lately, as has the gaming market. With declining sales and fewer releases, Hero has reached the point where it's no longer possible to maintain a full time staff of three, so it's scaling back. Darren and Steve will be departing December 2nd, with our thanks for a decade of hard work that gave us 108 books, and best wishes for their future endeavors, which may include producing new books under a Hero System license. We'll keep you posted on that. Jason will remain to continue shipping books and handling day-to-day matters. Existing books will continue to be available for purchase, and the company will continue in business, just a bit more slowly. The online store remains open. Steve will continue to answer rules questions on the Hero boards as "the guy who wrote the rulebook." We're looking into doing a Kickstarter to print Book of the Empress, since it's complete and ready to go. For the near future Hero would appreciate your kind thoughts and your patience. Transition periods of this sort take time, and Jason has a lot of work cut out for him, so the support of our fans is much appreciated. Wow more good news. Forum discussion here.

I think Hero's biggest problem is that while it has a great system (one of the best if you like crunch) it doesn't have any compelling worlds to play in. 5th edition was sold primarily as a toolkit and the game universes were left as sort of an add-on. People get interested in systems but they get attached to worlds and Hero has little in the way of shared experiences the way everything from D&D to RuneQuest to Traveller to Pathfinder has. Even Champions has only a proto-universe that gets rewritten every time the edition changes. The first Champions game I played had Gargoyle and Marksman as heroes. Then we got Seeker and Obsidian. Now we have Ironclad and some other new faces. Sure some of the villains are still in the game, and some of the organizations, but they change pretty drastically between editions too, and that's their BEST universe! What's a compelliong reason to play Star Hero? It lets you do anything you want? Traveller covers a lot of that ground, and so does Savage Worlds, and if I'm looking for a universe they have everything from the Third Imperium to Hammer's Slammers to Slipstream! Same question for Fantasy Hero - if I haven't been a fan since the 80's or 90's, why should I even look at it? Between the 14 versions of D&D out there from OSR clones to Pathfinder to 4E I have a whole lot of D&D to choose from. Oh wait, it's "not D&D"? Well I have everything from RQ to  WFRP to Savage Worlds (again! - Evernight, Sundered Skies, etc.) for "not-D&D". Fantasy Hero's potential campaign worlds get 1 book (at most) and then get changed in every edition (80's-90's-00's) anyway! I know the thinking is that Hero players prefer to create their own worlds but does that mean you shouldn't try to create some compelling world to share with your players instead of yet another edition of "300 pages of pre-built spells" ? I suspect 6th edition Hero will sputter along for a while under most people's radar until some new blood/new money gets interested and takes a run at a 7th edition.

 - Dark Sun 4E: I realize I'm a year behind on this one but I finally got it, read it, and it's a pretty good version of Dark Sun. I think it's great for Heroic, interesting for Paragon, and then I'd like to know what Epic is supposed to be about. With no gods and almost no planar travel, then if you're playing the game of thrones at Paragon what do you do after that? Conquer the world? Alright I guess. Restore the world? Even at Epic that seems like more of a long-term mission than something you roll dice for - "Alright now we're in the Great Slat Flats - roll your Gardening check, DC 50 - OK, it's green again. See you next week!" I think it needs something more. Maybe you restore an old battleship and head off through Astral Space to Iskandar or something, but I don't think it's a great setting for Epic as it stands right now. Earlier levels though, I can see it being a fun change of pace from the usual approach.

 - The Sellswords Trilogy:
  • Servant of the Shard - This first one is OK, but it was written yeras before the next two and was notable at the time as the first Drizzt novel without Drizzt. It does wrap up the story of the Crystal Shard nicely though.
  • Promise of the Witch King - This second one is actually pretty good, and serves as a shining example of how an "evil" party of characters might go adventuring together to investigate/avert/steal from a larger threat. I really liked it.
  • Road of the Patriarch - The third one is terrible as it picks up right where #2 leaves off and then goes in a completely different direction, focusing back in on Artemis Entreri, particularly his bad childhood which I didn't find all that interesting. I also think that Calimshan had been covered pretty thouroughly in the earlier books and wow, the world's greatest assassin takes his revenge on a corrupt local priest - whee. A letdown after #2.

 - Obligatory End-of-Year-Prediction: Despite pronouncements to the contrary when 4E was released that we would never need it, and despite pronouncements that Essentials was and was not 4.5, I think that we will probably see D&D 5th Edition announced in 2012, probably at GenCon, for a 2013 release. The timing works with a 2013 release coming 5 years after the 2008 release of 4E. Beyond that I don't think they would have hired Monte Cook this year if they didn't have a job for him to do, and I suspect that job is 5E. 

Now that all that is out of the way, I have to say that for me 2011 started off on the lower end of things and has ramped up nicely in the family, professional, and recreational sense. I hope 2012 continues the trend, and if your personal trend hasn't been going the same way then I hope it turns around soon. I plan to continue the blog through thick and thin so there should be no major changes here.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from the Family Blacksteel! See you in 2012!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

WFRP Campaign Thoughts

The Warhammer universe is extremely rich, which, oddly enough, makes it difficult to decide what kind of campaign to run. For some games, they are built around a particular type of play: Mechwarrior is mainly aimed at playing giant robot drivers; Shadowrun is focused on largely criminal behavior by off-the-grid free agents;. Sure, you can try something else but the premise of the game and most supporting material drives it in a particular direction. Other games present a universe and a mechanical system for playing in that universe and leave the rest up to you: Traveller is pretty strong at this, and most universal type games are good at this. Even something like a Star Trek game can fall into this category: Fasa Trek started out centered around playing Star Fleet officers out exploring the galaxy. Over time it added support for the major alien races for similar kinds of campaigns, then it added rules for the intelligence services opening things up for espionage type games, then it added rules for playing a merchant type campaign as well. After digging through my WFRP material I would add it to the list of games that says "here's a universe - go!"

The mechanical part of the game does make certain assumptions:

- you're playing a human, elf, dwarf, or halfling. That covers some physical items but culturally there are a lot of options that are independent of physical race.

- technology is at a renaissance level: armor, swords, early firearms, telescopes, and some beginning experiments with steam power

- magic is present, unpredictable, powerful, and dangerous

- there are gods in the universe that are benevolent to indifferent

- there is a thing called Chaos that underlies the world, it's bad, and it contains entities that care nothing for the current state of the world or the beings that live in it

There are not a lot of assumptions, though, about what characters will be doing. There is a combat system, but it's pretty d*mn dangerous and it is explicitly stated in the game that a lot of combat leads to maimed and dead characters, so much so that a Fate point mechanic was added to help mitigate the seriousness of those consequences. There are various skills and abilities that relate to personal interaction between characters and to business transactions too.

I could certainly see running a traditional D&D style campaign that involves dungeon and wilderness encounters on a personal quest for wealth and power - it would probably feel quite different than most D&D campaigns but it could be done.

Having recently looked through Pendragon and then through my Bretonnia supplement, I think you could run a very solid "Lords and Ladies" campaign similar to what a Pendragon game would encompass set in Bretonnia and involving a little more of the fantastic than a baseline Pendragon game. I'm thinking about writing this up in more detail a bit later but I do like the idea of combining these two things.

You could run a Traveller-style Merchant game running a ship up and down the major river of the Empire.

If you wanted to tie in the Warhammer miniatures game you could have a very fine Mercenary campaign that included some occasional mass battles.

Need political intrigue? The nobles of ther Empire are quite a bickering lot, as are the major religions, and then there are the hidden threats of Chaos cults and the Skaven to make things even more shadowy that stubborn noble houses.

Picking up the Tome of Corruption supplement then you could flip things upside down and go over to Chaos, running a campaign where each player runs an aspiring champion of chaos, perhaps using the recent Storm of Chaos invasion as the background.

There is another supplement that covers the Border Princes but is largely composed of a system for creating, mapping, and then managing a small realm  pacified, claimed, and run by the player characters.

Now you could try a lot of these in various editions of D&D but the difference here is that there is quite a bit of support, both mechanical and with background material and advice for each of them. That was not always true in various editions of D&D - or Runequest or Fantasy Hero or whatever other system you care to compare. The fact that all of these options feel like they could fit coherently within one edition of a game set in one particular fantasy world is a pretty strong positive in my opinion. I like the idea that I could run 3 different campaigns at the same time in this world and not feel like I'm repeating myself at any point.  

I also think that this could be run as an episodic campaign if the DM had a particular aspect in mind - say one fo the items above - but it could also run just fine as an open-ended-wander-the-world-and-see-what-happens kind of game. I do think I would run it as a more traditional serial campaign in most cases as that just feels more right to me in an age when traveling long distances is supposed to be part of the adventure. You're in Altdorf and need to talk to someone in Marienburg? Getting there might be a whole session in itself whether by land or by sea!

There are several published starting scenarios, more if you drop back and use some of the old 1st edition material. There are quite a few published adventures, both long and short, linked and independent, enough to sustain a decent campaign if that's the way you wanted to go. I do like the idea of using some of those for that shared experience  that lets you swap stories with other players about how YOU handled that trouble in Bogenhafen, but I would definitely want to mix in my own stuff as well. The border princes book is pratically a campaign in itself, as is the mammoth Thousand Thrones advanture and the Altdorf-Nuln-Middenheim trilogy. For a limited campaign I think any of those is a solid choice.

This is a little more general than I originally planned but I have some ideas on some specific campaigns that I will get into in a little more detail and some other ideas too.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Deadlands - A Campaign Discussion

Begin: It's 1876 and the PC"s are on a train headed through the Rockies to Denver. This is the starting adventure from the older GM's book and it makes for an easy justification of why a diverse group of characters might end up stuck together. Unless one of them decides to play an old ways Indian - still not sure about that but my players tend to like their guns so it's not likely to come up.


That gets the characters acquainted and has one adventure binding them together. I see this as being a more episodic approach with each session being somewhat independent of the others and whichever players can make it determines which characters show up. I see this as being a tour of the Weird West for a while - Texas, Denver, Salt Lake, the Great Maze & Lost Angels - hitting the high points.  Then there would be a sort of finale of the big trilogy of linked adventures that I would convert over from original flavor Deadlands to wrap things up for "Season 1".

Keeping the scenarios short enough to fit into one 4-6 hour session would be a specific major goal. I haven't tried to run an explicitly episodic game since a Shadowrun game several years ago. That one had mixed results as my ideas were hard to fit into a single session's worth of time and so we had a lot of "two part episodes". I think Savage Worlds as a system is a better bet for this approach as it plays faster than just about anything I have tried. The one-sheet adventure is also a popular format for it, featuring an adventure that fits onto one sheet of paper (front and back) with the assumption that it's one session's worth of fun. I also think that the Western genre is friendly to this approach as so much of it built up in half-hour or one-hour TV shows that quite a few of the basic plots one could steal are fairly short. The basic idea is that the characters enter the town (or the mining camp, or the ranch), discover a situation, get involved, and resolve it, most likely leaving behind friends, enemies, or corpses - all within one session. Next week, it's all new. After a while, past encounters might show up again in some way via NPC's or enemies or news from a town they know, but I wouldn't want to go overboard on that.

The advantage for the DM if you can pull it off is that a) you get to try out a lot of different ideas and b) if only players X,Y, and Z can make it one week but only players A,B, and Z can make it the next week then you don't have to deal with the sudden appearance and disappearance of PC's in the middle of a situation. It also means you don't really have to worry about the passage of time as you're not playing a linear, continuous campaign. If they're in Denver one week and in Fort Worth the next, then in Tombstone the next we don't have to worry about rations and horses or train tickets and stage schedules every session - we just start with "As you step off of the train, you hear gunfire coming from downtown Tombstone and see people running past you, presumably fleeing."

Original vs. Published? Probably some of both. There are quite a few online freebies for Deadlands Reloaded, plus I have quite a bit of material from the first go-round including the Devil's Tower trilogy. I would mainly want to spend some time in each of the high-profile areas to see which of them connect the best with my players and to give them maximum exposure to the lore of the game. For a hypothetical "Season Two" I would consider settling down in one area, maybe focusing on one town, with some old and some new characters, close to whatever region/threat/plotline they liked the best. The amount of published material used would mainly depend on whether it fit into these plans.

A Planned Campaign: This means it would be planned to have a start and a finish. Say we planned to start in January 2012 and run for one year of real time - this would be the "2012 Dealdands Campaign"-  figure 2 sessions per month for 24 sessions. Make a rough outline of what 24 things I would like to cover, work out some details on the first 3 or 4, then go! One of the benefits of doing it this way (episodic and planned with a definite end) is that it doesn't really matter if some of the PC's die or are replaced as the sessions aren't linked in a serial fashion. Some bad guy NPC or organization might show up a few times in different sessions both in the background and as direct opposition to set up the finale, but it wouldn't be a running chase from one to the next unless I saw a really good opportunity to work that in.  One alternate approach is that if you're tied to a school year, then plan your campaign based on that - start in the fall, mini-climax at the break, picks up again in the new year, then runs to May and the big finale. Season Two? See you next fall!

Oddly enough this is a complete 180 from the approach I believed in the first 20 years or so of this whole thing. I was "raised" to think that the open-ended-multi-year-ongoing campaign was the "right" - heck the "only"- way to do it and any campaign that we started was expected to go on forever unless it was explicitly stated to be a one-shot up front. Now this didn't happen - every campaign petered out eventually due to player and DM fatigue or interest in trying out whatever shiny new game someone had just acquired. This can lead to some churn in both players and campaigns and it also means that some adventures end in the middle, with no end to the story - did we finish off the giants? Did we stop the drow? For some parties we will never know, because we stopped in the middle and never got to the end. Putting a definite timeframe on the campaign avoids that issue, assuming you can stick with it all the way through. Hmm, maybe I should shoot for a 12-episode mini-series...

What to include? Well I really like the Great Maze region - City of Lost Angels, Shan Fan and the Kung Fu thing, maze dragons, ironclads, ghost rock mines - that's an area I want to spend some time exploring. Heck, I'll run a thinly disguised version of Big Trouble in Little China set in Shan Fan - there's one! I also think that Salt Lake, Helstromme, automatons, steam wagons, and the worms are important enough to spend some time on too. In between I think some more traditional western locales like Tombstone and Deadwood are worthy of some time. I feel like I should work at least one brush with the Blue vs. Gray in there too. A few "normal" western problems like rustlers and bank robbers would help set off the weirdness too, so I would want to work those in as well. I think there's plenty of material there to fill 24 sessions and let them start to figure out what's *really* going on.

Of course all this only matters if I run it as the "main" game. If it's only one of my "games of the month" with the Apprentices then I only have 3 sessions to worry about anyway, and now I'm overstocked with ideas. Someday...

Tomorrow: A very similar post about a completely different game

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blogonomic Slowdown

Well with the kids deployed to various other houses and much holiday shopping in the evenings there hasn't been much actual gaming to report.With a need for a new "main" campaign, and the possibilitiy of doing a game a month with the Apprentices next year I've been digging through the shelves and burning through game books like a madman. Deadlands (SW), Traveller (Mongoose), Shadowrun (3E), GURPS (4E), Warhammer FRP (2E) and even Pendragon have all been seeing some daylight. I even finally broke down and picked up Dark Sun for 4E and it's on the stack now too. I'll probably put up some thoughts about each of these (the ones I haven't already anyway) as far as strengths, weaknesses, and what kind of campaign I might run. It's not super crunchy I know, but it's what I have right now. There's also a set of games that I've mostly ignored that are looming as extremely likely possibilities to show up in a big way too.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Game That's On My Mind This Week: Traveller

I've been re-reading the Mongoose Traveller main book this week and it's amazing just how well the system hangs together. Traveller was probably the first non-D&D RPG I got into , around 1981, and the Mongoose version is very similar to that original set of little black books yet it feels very modern in many ways too.

Looking back on the multitude of sessions I've played and run with this game I can say that almost all of them were set in the Third Imperium and almost all of them eventually involved some illegal activity. Sad but true...maybe the game needs an alignment system...

One other thing that strikes me is that most of the time players want to operate at the higher end of the tech level scale - anything less than TL15 is weak and needs to be upgraded as soon as possible. I blame the setting info that the Imperium is TL15 as setting the bar a little higher than I would like. This has gotten me thinking about a different type of campaign - what if you held on to most of the basic Traveller assumptions but dropped the history and assumed that TL10 was common, TL11-12 was cutting edge, and TL9 was where most people operated, especially interstellar operations. Lowest common denominator means it's easier to find parts and crews and probably cheaper too.

This would keep the most common jump capabilities in the 1-2 range, keeps things in the sweet spot for a lot of gear (giving your mercenaries somewhere to climb to that doesn't involve fusion guns), and provides a better explanation for why so many spacers run around with shotguns and cutlasses instead of lasers and plasma guns.

Politically I see it as a region of individual systems with a few extrasystem colonies discovering and competing with each other in an economic and military sense but without open warfare just yet. I see it as a post-collapse recovery but with whatever interstellar empire once existed being a vague legend.

What would characters do? The traditional merchants and mercenaries campaigns are an option but so would a "Shadowrun" type game where the PC's move in between the major players as independent free agents. If someone is a scientist or academic then the discovery of ancient tech (TL15 maybe) could lead to a surge of interest in archaeology (and the men with guns who guard that work). The lack of knowledge of what's in every single system would make it much easier for pirates to operate and a campaign could go hard in a "Pirates of the Stellar Caribbean" way. Combine that with the ancient tech plotline and you have a lot of material to work with and a lot of directions to go. Merchants could be part of the regular supply run to a dig site. Agents might be infiltrators from a corporate entity or rival government that wants to keep an eye on things. Drifters might be hired for basic labor tasks like digging. I think having a solid outline for your initial adventure or starting situation makes it easy to include almost any character type - then let events run their course and see what the players do.

I guess that my point is that it would be refreshing to run and play Traveller in an area where everything isn't "known" but not where galactic society is in a total dark age with unrepairable declining tech ala 40K and early Battletech. I thnk there's a fertile middle ground that I know I have yet to explore where the tech is higher than our world today but not dramatically so and where some of the big picture is visible and the rest begs to be explored - preferably by player characters.

Blast from the Past

Digging through the pile of papers and CD's under my desk I came across a soundtrack CD I burned for one of my 3E campaigns. It still worked and kind of got me back in that mindset for a little while.  Here's the track list:

The notation for most of those means "Autumn Thunder" the NFL Films soundtrack collection from a few years ago which is surpisingly handy for a lot of RPG type background music when you've burned out Conan & LOTR and should be useful even for some non-fantasy games.

This campaign was a combination of the Freeport adventures and the Savage Tide adventure path from Dungeon and I was pretty fired up about it. Each character got a track, each adventure got a track, and there were others beyond that. I have more detail in this post.

It went over pretty well, but I have yet to do it again. Accounting for character death and replacement was tricky - new track? Replace the original track? I just left it unchanged for the campaign and decided I would do a "Remastered" version if we ever finished. As it turned out we did not, so I never had to undertake it.

I compiled this one pretty much solo. Next time I might ask for more player input on their personal themes, but that can drag things out. It was pretty satisfying having this ready to go for the very first session, running it in the room while eats and drinks were prepped and dice were warmed up. I'm going to have to take a look at doing it again, just to see if I can improve it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Glimmer of Hope for 2012

I don't want last week's pondering to make it seem like I'm all down on the future of RPG's. Though there's not a ton out there right now that I want but don't already have, I did see some things coming next year that I am very interested in.

First, from Mongoose:

Last but by no means least, a new universe will be coming to Traveller. Under our agreement with Amarillo Design Bureau, we were to produce a Star Fleet Universe edition of A Call to Arms and, in return, ADB were to produce a Traveller edition of their Star Fleet Universe game, Prime Directive. This will appear in 2012, and we have requested it cover not just Federation away teams and independent free traders, but bridge crews for, well, all the key empires – here at Mongoose, we can’t wait to jump in with a Klingon bridge crew campaign!

Prime Directive is Original Series Trek split off before any of the movies or Next Generations took place. There's a ton of background for it developed over the last 30+ years with Star Fleet Battles and there have been RPG versions in the original system, d20, and GURPS but I think using Traveller could lead to the best system yet by far. There's a lot going on in the Star Fleet Universe and finally having a decent set of mechanics to play it should be a lot of fun.


August 2011—Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd., a publisher of cutting-edge roleplaying and adventure games, is thrilled to announce MARVEL HEROES, a family of tabletop RPG products under license from Marvel Entertainment, LLC. Beginning with the launch of the BASIC GAME in February 2012, MARVEL HEROES delivers action-packed Super Hero adventure in the Mighty Marvel Manner.

I think this was announced at GenCon but I had forgotten it, then I ran across it while catching up on Vigilance Press podcasts. I have not been a fan of MWP's products thus far - Smallville, Leverage, etc. as they were just not my cup of tea. Their existing system was somewhat similar to Savage Worlds, I know, but I'm guessing it will be tweaked and tweaked hard for Marvel. I don't know that it stands a chance against M&M3/DCA with a lot of people but I'm happy to see it being worked on and I'll give it a look when it comes out. The basic book is supposed to be based on the beginning of New Avengers (the breakout) and then the 3 big releases will cover Civil War, Annihilation, and Age of Apocalypse - sounds pretty solid to me.

So there we go: two solid, interesting products for 2012! Familiar universes, no doubt, but with a different spin that should be worth a look.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

ToEE 4E Session 3 - The Dragon!

We begin in an inner chamber of the ruined moathouse with our quartet of heroes - Torgar - Dwarf Druid (and his bear companion Po), Apollo - Elf Bladesinger, Isaac - Human Swordmage, and Torin - Dragonborn Paladin. After fighting off the dire rats in the middle of the night, they sleep a little later than usual and wake up ready once again. Looking at their sketch map they realize that there can't be too many unexplored areas left and they resolve to thoroughly search the entire place - for both stragglers and loot.

Heading into the southern end near where they fought the giant snakes, they begin smashing down doors and tossing the interior. The old wooden doors give them quite a bit of trouble but they manage to overcome this. As they ransack the place they find no opposition - fortunate, given the amount of noise they are making - and discover a sword hidden behind a stout piece of furniture. The Bladesinger pronounces it magical, a Luck Blade, and claims it for himself as no one else uses a sword as their primary weapon.

Moving to the north end of the place they discover a set of stairs leading down but after some debate decide to finish clearing out the upper level before descending. They work through some otherwise empty rooms and halls, finding a few trinkets. They then break into an old kitchen, disturbing a nest of stirges and finding a whole mess of trouble.

The stirges swarm the Paladin and the Bladesinger who are in more exposed positions in the room. The Swordmage tries to help, but the Druid and his bear are hindered by the narrow doorway and the efforts of the others to fight off the attacking bloodsuckers. They prove to be tough opponents and by the time two stirges are killed the Paladin is also down!  He soon regathers his strength and rejoins the fight but it's a near thing. Eventually the Druid and the bear manage to get into positions to help and the situation turns around at that point. As the last stirge turns to buzz away the Bladesinger splatters it with his magical blade. The battered and bloodied party rests briefly, uses some healing magic, discovers a magical suit of acid-resistant hide armor (folded up on a butcher block for some forgotten reason) and resolves to push on to the last unopened door in the place.

The Paladin and the bear force open the large doors and walk into a room that is partially open to the sky.It is also apparently home to a small black dragon, who is reared up next to a battered wooden chest and asking in draconic just what the heck is going on? The Paladin replies diplomatically that they are exploring the ruin and tries to figure out if the party is in shape to take on this horse-sized wyrm. The Druid offers to trade magical items with the dragon but the dragon interprets this as an offer of tribute, which he accepts - "leave the item on the floor and back out of the room and you may live".  There's nor way our heroes are going to agree to this and so now a fight breaks out.

The Paladin and the Swordmage charge the dragon while the Bladesinger stands his ground and launches his spells. As the two warriors run up the dragon lets fly with his acid breath, catching every member of the party but the druid, wounding everyone and killing Po. Dripping and smoking, the team responds and tears into the dragon with sword and spell. The Druid pauses to restore his friend to life but is now exposed and when the wounded dragon sprays his acid again he blasts the entire party, dropping the Paladin - and the bear! Enraged, the heroes send even more violence against the dragon with the Bladesinger stepping back to get out of blast range and the Druid, somewhat protected from the acid breath by his new acid-resistant hide armor, moves into a better position to fight the beast up close. Once again the beast spews forth liquid smoking death, severely wounding the Swordmage this time and killing the Paladin! The Druid strikes hard and the Bladesinger blasts away with magic missiles, staggering the dragon. It tears into the Druid with its formidable claws, but the newly-returned Po flies into a rage at the sight of this thing hurting his friend and rips the thing apart in response, ending the danger and the carnage in a furious assault.

Battered and with one member down for good, the heroes rest briefly, gather up their loot, and stagger back to Hommlet for the night, bringing word of the bandits' (and a dragon's) demise.

DM Notes: This was a nice little run that got our temple game moving again after a longer than expected break. I figured they could clear the upper level of the Moathouse in one more session and they did so thoroughly.

As they went to start smashing in doors they discovered that they are a pretty low strength party, making those Strength checks to break down doors a lot tougher than usual. The bear was recruited to be the primary battering ram as his Strength of 20 is the highest in the group by far. Once inside I use a combination of Perception rolls and common sense (if you look inside a drawer you can see what's in the drawer, no roll necessary) and had a little fun with them as they insisted there had to be something in one of the rooms because they rolled really high:

DM: "OK you think there must be something in this room"

Blaster: "Can I assist?"

DM: "Sure"

Red: "28 with the assist"

DM: "You don't find anything yet but it must be here somewhere"

Repeat until frustrated Apprentices finally catch on that they are chasing their tails here and move on.

They seriously debated going downstairs - "Because there's more stuff and more XP's down there" - and then decided to make sure the upper floor was empty first so they wouldn't get ambushed. I think that's sound reasoning in general, not just in D&D.

The Stirge fight was much tougher than I expected. These are, again, out of the Monster Vault and are pretty nasty mechanically but they are also fun to run. They have a fairly normal attack but once they hit they attach and do ongoing 5 damage at that point, untyped. So if two of them latch on, that's 10 points per round coming out of your adventurer and that's a lot. Their AC and Reflex Defense also go up when they attach so it makes them that much harder to hit. Now it's only a move action to try and break loose (it's considered a grab when they plug in) but it's a tricky thing in a tight space and these aren't minions, so they don't drop in one hit. It's considered to be a level two encounter but my level one party had a tough time with it and took nine rounds to end it.

I think the dragon surprised them, especially since Apprentice Red had just made a comment after finding the stairs that "We have a dungeon, now we just need a dragon".  I want to give them some credit here too - they did try to talk to it first! It didn't go the way they hoped but they did try. My idea here was that this was a very young dragon wounded and on its own. It holed up here in the moathouse to recover and gathered up some treasure in an old chest that it might be able to carry off when it decided to move on. This was not a part of the original ToEE but I added it because a) I wanted another "big" monster and the giant lizard in the original made me think "dragon" and b) I think dragons should show up more than they do in a lot of published adventures, old and new. One of the best moments in my 3E RttToEE campaign was when my extremely confident players walked into the Moathouse courtyard. Some of them  had played or run the original ToEE and were thinking it would still be a "starter area". When the blue dragon appeared the look on their faces was priceless, as was their reaction in trying to deal with a sudden major threat in an area where they had been expecting quiet. When you have cool iconic monsters in the game you should USE THEM! So I did. I killed the bear twice and the paladin once, thanks to two good recharge rolls and the bloodied breath ability. Firing off the breath that many times and hitting that many characters may be a personal record, especially considering it only lasted three rounds! Stat-wise I used a tweaked "Fledgling White Dragon" from the Monster Vault which is a Level 1 Solo.

Mechanically, the main thing that I learned here is that I need to watch levels more closely now. Having only a 4 character party combined with using the powered-up monster stats from the MV means that my guys are taking more of a beating than the older low-level runs did. Monster damage is significantly higher now, and having no striker types means that fights last longer. The Sentinel Druid is a decent healer but two defenders and an easily hit bear mean there is a lot of damage to heal. In my main campaign they were taking on encounters 3 and 4 levels higher just to give some teeth to the monsters. I'm thinking I need to adjust things back to truly reflect a 4-man party or I need to keep the levels down, possibly both. They ended with enough XP to level up to 2nd and Apprentice Blaster was pondering whether to bring back his Paladin or make a new character. They both retreated to the character builder right after and were checking their options for next time.

Beyond the mechanics I learned that the Apprentices instincts are right on and they are having the same kinds of conversations we used to have back when we were playing B/X D&D and AD&D. I choose to see that as confirmation that I'm doing something right. It also tells me that despite all the changes in things over the last 30 years that some things are just fun - army men, BB guns, firecrackers, and looting and mayhem with D&D.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Looking Forward to 2012

Today I'm thinking about next year, and unlike yesterday's more general post this one is more personal. What do I want to change or accomplish next year on the gaming front?  Well what did I do this year?

In 2011 I worked on creating a more balanced gaming diet, introducing the Apprentices to more board and card games like Munchkin, Memoir 44, and Command and Colors Ancients. It is, however, the year I let Warhammer 40,000 mostly die. Part of it is competition for time, part of it is that it's really built around 2 sides and with 3 interested parties that's tricky to pull off, and part of it is expense. Maintaining multiple armies for multiple people is a strain, even with my economic upturn. When a single unit for the game is as much as a core rulebook for an RPG I can get a lot more hours of fun out of the RPG book in the short term.

RPG-wise we expanded their horizons to include Supers via M&M, ICONS, and Marvel. We went into space with Star Wars d6 and Star Wars Saga. We are trying on some boots and saddles with our foray into Deadlands. So it was a good year. Blaster and Red are my main two gamers and they have been armed with PHB's for every edition of D&D along with books for a few other games too. I don't think the OSR is big amongst the high school and junior high crowd just now but if some local 16 year old decides he wants to break out a Greyhawk Wars campaign then my two are ready for it!

What about next year?

Well my main 4E campaign came to an end so I will probably move to fill that gap. I'm tempted to go back, pick up, and finish my Neccessary Evil campaign just for a change of pace. I'm also tempted to run a Mutants and Masterminds game both for a change of pace and just because I think it would be fun. Somehow though, I suspect I will be back running 4th Edition before the year runs out and I'm fine with that - D&D has always been our "trunk" game, with other games branching out from it. Nowadays I seem to only have the bandwidth to run one regular (sorta weekly) full-length grown up game, and Lady Blacksteel and my other regulars seem to prefer that schedule too. In the past the desire for more variety has spurred me to try alternating sessions between two games and it works some of the time, but it can cause a loss of focus and some "what did we do last time?" moments each session. Have to ponder that one.

With the Apprentices we have ongoing campaigns of D&D 4E, ICONS, and some irregular games of Basic D&D, Star Wars, Marvel, and now Deadlands. That will probably continue. The other RPG's I'm sort of interested in introducing are Champions, Gamma World, Traveller, Shadowrun, and Star Trek. I realize "only" may be a mischaracterization there but they are still so new to this thing that I want to expose them to a wide variety of games and then play more of what they like. I once half-jokingly proposed to my gaming group that was suffering from a serious case of short gaming attention spans that we just go ahead and plan to play a new game each month: assuming we could meet 3 times in a month, session 1 would be character generation and the kickoff, session two would be the meat of an adventure, then session three would be the finale and a discussion about the game. The next month we would do it all again with a new game. It was funny then, but I'm seriously considering it now for 2012 to help me better manage the Apprentice games. If we can keep the main 4E Temple of Elemental Evil going at least once a month too, then I think this would be a really good "World Tour of RPG's"  because I could work in a few more besides - GURPS and Warhammer FRP and some others. Hmmm.

Besides RPG's I want to continue the boardgames and I will probably work in Settlers of Catan and some more light wargames like Combat Commander. I also want to work in some other miniatures games (I have a lot mini's, many of them gathering dust) like Federation Commander, Battletech, B5 Call to Arms, Song of Blades and Heroes, and Giant Monster Rampage. I had some homebrewed car combat rules and giant monster rules of my own a few years back so I might even dust those off if the time opens up. I'm not sure how 40K fits into this anymore as while I love the universe and have nearly 25 years of stuff for it I don't like the cost and the overhead of painting and storage and keeping up with the rules so much anymore. It's probably going to be a "when I really really feel like it" and not according to any kind of plan.

On their own the boys have made some attempts to start their own D&D games with friends but it has not been easy. All of them have complicated schedules and homework and there is still a huge "nerdy" stigma attached to it even in this age of Warcraft and Skyrim. They also have been playing some Heroquest (the old MB boardgame) and Risk and Stratego so that's been fun to watch too.

Beyond this we do some Xbox time together and play City of Heroes regularly too so we don't lack for options with our fun time - the trick is juggling kid schedules and work schedules and doing all of those normal family things while still making time for these. I've found that if we don't schedule it ahead of time, like any other gaming session, that it tends to get eaten up by other things and bumped by last minute changes of plan. I did a lot of that this year so I intend to change it for next year so no one ends their weekend disappointed.

I'm sure some new things will emerge that will change all of these plans at some point, but for now these are my goals. Whenever I do set up a new main game you can rest assured it will be chronicled here, warts and all. If I do go with the "Game of the Month"  plan - and that idea is really growing on me as I write this - then I will certainly document that here as well.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pondering the Hobby - 2011

I try to stay plugged in to what's new in the hobby. That mostly comes from online sources of course but occasionally something new sneaks up on me in the local game store. One thing I've noticed this year is that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of  NEW out there. This year's Gen Con is the first one in a long time that seemed to have almost nothing new being announced. I mean both new games outright and supplements for existing games apart from adventures. - things that players and DM's get excited about and generate some chatter and some interest. Some of this is probably my fault.

With all of the edition turnover and balkanization - the end of the d20 boom for example -  a lot of companies have gone off and done their own thing. For me Green Ronin, Sword and Sorcery, Kenzer, Malhovic, and Goodman Games were big players in the days of 3rd Edition D&D. Green Ronin is still on my list for M&M but they went off and did Dragon Age which holds little interest for me and have a few other things that are mostly outside of my interests as well, and they do nothing for 4E now. S&S is just flat out gone. Kenzer has Aces & Eights and Hackmaster which interest me a bit but not enough to keep up with them constantly and they make nothing for the games I play now. Malhovic pretty much went on hiatus with the launch of 4E. Goodman tried and gave up on continuing their 3E business model with 4E and has their own fantasy RPG coming out now. So these companies that were getting a lot of my money over the last 11 years stopped getting most of it over the last two.

Insert Fistful of Dollars reference here

This is not entirely their fault - a lot of it is tied to badly handled licensing arrangements by WOTC. Rather than the glory days of 3E where a whole bunch of the industry was devoted to supporting one game system - yes it was chaos but it was a glorious chaos - 4E has sort of gone off into it's own fortress and shut the gates, keeping everyone out. Sure, you can come in, but you're going to have to pay rent to stay and they can kick you out at any time. Most of these companies didn't choose to leave - they were told to! Pathfinder has tried to capture the 3E glory and has succeeded to a degree, but not on a scale like what we were seeing before. If you like more-retro-than-that there is all manner of old school goodness available at costs ranging from free to not free. There is Hackmaster. There is Goodman's thing with the d5's. There is Dragon Age. There is GURPS, Hero, and Savage Worlds. There is Warhammer FRP. There's probably some version of the Palladium FRPG in print right now too. Diversity is good, having options is good, but I can't personally contribute to all of them - and those are just typical fantasy RPG's! So I think a lot of us "choose sides" and try to focus on one or a few games. For a few shining years we really didn't have too - we could get the output of a lot of good people and it was all intended to work together. That's no longer the case.

Glorious Chaos - Kor agrees. And wants his new game.

Sure I could just pick them all up - at different points in my life I've pretty much done that. Not anymore - I'm trying to actually run these things, so the priority goes to new stuff for games I am running, or might run in the near future, or have run and liked enough to maybe run again. In a way, keeping up with a game system is like starting a relationship. I have to buy the main rules, check out supplements and adventures, stay in touch with the forums and the website to see whats going on. I don't really have time to sustain that kind of effort for more than a few systems, so if I'm not running it then these days I probably won't even bother taking a look at it other than a review somewhere. It's not so much the expense of buying one rulebook - it's the overhead of keeping up with the game. That's time I could spend working up material for my campaign, running my campaign, or trying to see what people are doing in the forums for a game I already have, like, and run! In the pre-internet days we had less to keep up with, and the "news updates" only came about once a month in the form of a magazine or a new book showing up at the store. Now a popular game with an active fanbase can generate a ton of material and be found in a dozen forums and blogs and fan sites. It's not a bad thing in and of itself but it does mean that there is just more "there" out there for any game nowadays*.

I used to buy main rulebooks for some games just because they looked interesting, I liked the subject, and if someone decided to run a game of it I would know enough to join in and play.** As it turns out, there are a lot more players than DM's and so what got played was largely determined by what myself and the other DM in the group felt like running. On those rare occasions someone else stepped up to run a game, it was usually a game we had already played because that's what they knew! The outcome is a lot of shelves of books that got read (or more often skimmed) and then set aside, never to see real action***

So yeah, some new games that are undoubtedly cool go uninspected by me. Some join the rotation. It feels like there just isn't a whole lot of new out there this year. Last year saw Dragon Age, M&M 3/DCA, Gamma World, a bunch of D&D Essentials stuff, Deathwatch, ICONS, the Dr. Who RPG (maybe that was technically 2009 but it was the end of 2009 so it's pretty close). This year we have that new Middle Earth thing and ... what? Looking at RPGnet for reviews of games published in 2011 and there's not much RPG there. It's a little bit of a conundrum - I don't really have a ton of free bandwidth to go diving into a new game but it bothers me when I see that hardly anything has come out this year. In many previous years I felt like there was more coming out than I could keep up with - now I feel like there's not much coming out that's worth keeping up with and I'm not all that picky about these things.

Now it's not like I'm going to run out of games to play - I think most of us are well-supplied in that area and could probably make one up on the fly if pressed. It just seems like this is a low point for new game releases or development. I hope so.  The last few years haven't exactly been prolific either - if you take away 4E and Pathfinder I didn't see a whole lot of new books on shelves in 2008 - 2009 - 2010 either. In 2007 we had Star Wars Saga edition, Hollow Earth Expedition, Savage World's Explorer Edition, Aces & Eights, Battlestar Galactica, Dread (not my thing but hey), Reign, and Scion. That's a pretty varied group. After that it narrows considerably with Traveller and the 40K universe games being a notable bright spot.

So what's my point? Well, at this time every year I can usually think of at least one game that came out that I don't have that I wish I had picked up. I don't feel that way this year. Now there are some supplements that I'd like to catch up on, but no new games. Since my personal economic downturn ended earlier this year you might think there would be some pent-up demand for some things I missed while things were tight - there really aren't any. I've managed to pick up the few games I really wanted and managed to mostly keep up with the 4E product train when it was humming. For the things I am running though, I don't really feel an urge to grab a bunch of stuff - I have plenty of material and there's nothing else out there that I see as a must have. I still like to play, and I still like to see new stuff, and lord knows I have plenty of room to comment on things, so I don't think it's a tremendous attitude change on my part, I think that there is less stuff out there.

Is it an economic downturn thing? I'm not sure. Is it the fracturing of D&D into 4E/PF/OSR? Maybe. Is it the growing "New Model" approach of publishing primarily PDF's that some companies use, leaving the physical books to print on demand services? I could see that. With bookstores and game stores taking a beating I wonder if physical books will become a luxury version of an RPG, an optional upgrade kind of like the special leather cover limited editions we saw a few years ago, while most will "get by" with pdf versions of the rules. I was thinking that this trend along with the end of the d20 license as "the" system that we would see an explosion of creative new games published like a small press game of years ago, mostly living online and growing in scattered small pockets where a DM manages to talk some players into trying something new. I'm not seeing that to the degree I thought we would, but I do see it happening. I do like my books, but if things go that way I think that I can live with it.

I'm still a little surprised though - where's the new Star Wars game (it is on TV right now)? Where's the new Trek game (there was a movie in 2009, and presumably will be another)? Aren't we due for a new edition of Shadowrun about now (4th came out in 2004 - The previous record was 6 years!) ? How about some kind of competitor for Vampire -  we're 4 movies into Twilight and 4 seasons into True Blood and we only have the original game as any kind of big player here? I know we're neck deep in fantasy RPG's and about hip deep in superhero RPG's (look at the movies and TV shows over the last 11 years to see why) and that's fine but there are other things that are popular right now that might spur some interest in an RPG. C'mon people! I'm not the guy to do this - I've been playing too long to see vampires as anything other than experience points waiting to be collected - but surely there's someone out there, maybe even a female game designer, that could pull a nice mechamically light supernatural romance game together. Or else let Cinematic Unisystem take it - they managed to turn Smallville into something resembling an RPG. Heck, over the last 10 years we've also had the Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and some other shows about criminal lives - why isn't there a non-supernatural dark side of life game out there somewhere? I wouldn't expect to see it from WOTC, but I would expect to see it on RPGNow. 

Twilght: The Hunter

I've probably rambled on enough now, but this has all been on my mind as I start to look back at 2011. It's been a definite upswing for me personally, but "this thing of ours" doesn't seem to be doing terribly well on the whole. I hope it's temporary or at most a transition to a new method of doing business. In 2021 I expect I will be playing some of the games I enjoy now but I am not sure I will be acquiring/updating or supporting them.  I suppose I'm just trying to stay on the lookout for The Coming Thing.****

*Except for Rifts - nobody is allowed to talk about Rifts on the internet. Thank you Palladium Games.

**This was the source of my Law of Gaming Depreciation: The value of a main rulebook to any game declines over time. Not financially - mechanically. This is because traditionally a Big Book is 100% of the game for a few months and then a supplement comes out. Probably one about guns (modern/sci-fi mainly) that adds a bunch of equipment and possibly new combat rules. Then the main rulebook is 90% of the rules. Then there's one about Elves that adds some new stuff to character generation and the main rulebook is 80% of the rules. So a year or so into the life of a new edition you're Big Rulebook is still mostly useful. By about the end of year two though, bringing only that book to the table will get you sneered at by regular players as they are forced to share their stack of splatbooks to help you get your character up to par. If you need examples I suggest Rifts, Shadowrun, and every edition of D&D since 2nd. GURPS was pretty good about avoiding this, Hero too, and Savage Worlds is too. I'm sure there are conclusions to be drawn there but I'll leave that to another day.

***unless they were pulled out to argue with someone on the internet. Even I get bored sometimes.

 **** and for both of you who get that reference *hat tip* and we should play something sometime

Friday, December 2, 2011

Some Math for Icons and Savage Worlds

ICONS has some pretty simple math. Abilities are rated from 1-10 and players roll 1d6 - 1d6 then add the result to the relevant ability to beat the target number which is typically an opponent's ability score. Since the roll tends to give a result of zero you can pretty reliably predict whether or not the characters will be able to succeed at a given task. There are things that can modify the target (darkness, etc.)  There are also ways to gain bonuses to rolls. There is some motivation to do these things as exceeding the target by 3 is a special success and by 5 is a major success and can yield some additional benefits beyond "you did it".

Character creation uses a table that limits character stats to a 1-8 range weighted towards 4, 5, or 6. A straight 3d4-2 roll would accomplish a similar effect while leaving the slight possibility of a 9 or 10 stat out there if someone wanted to go that route. As it is the "global" average lines up very well with the "global" target number. If you want to make things harder, give your villains higher stats and lower stats will make things easier. The good thing here is that assuming the human average is a 3 means that heroes averaging a 5 will clean up against them easily, as they should. Bumping "quality" thugs up to a 4 and "Elites" up to a 5 for their main stats should provide a noticeable bump in difficulty without being overwhelming - that comes in with the 8's, 9's, and 10's.

As with most things ICONS, the simplicity of the mechanics conceals the elegance of the design - the math works really well. ICONS tends to not be a very crunch heavy game anyway so this approach fits perfectly.

Savage Worlds has a little more crunch to it. The base target number is always 4, with 8 being a "raise" and each subsequent jump of 4 equals another raise. There are modifers to different tasks that can change this but let's use 4 as a baseline.

1d4 = 25% chance of success (which will then explode and give a chance of a raise at 6% - that's a 4 plus another 4)

1d6 = 50% chance of success (exploding for a raise happens 14.9% of the time - that's a 6 plus a 2+ on the next roll)

1d8 = 62.5% chance of success and the possibility of a raise on the initial die roll (12.5%)

1d10 = 70% chance of success (Raise is now at 30%)

1d12 = 75% chance of success (Raise is now at 41.7%)

Ratings can go above a d12. The next step is d12 +1, then d12 +2, etc.

1d12+1 = 83% chance of success (Raise = 50%)

1d12+2 = 91.6% chance of success (Raise = 58%)

1d12+3= 100% chance of success (Raise = 66.7%)

Further increases are really just upping your chance of a raise, which hits 100% at +7

There is also the Wild Die, which is an extra d6 that all PC's and important NPC's get to roll alongside their normal die type. The higher of the two applies. This is a "PC's are Special" type rule that ups the chance of success somewhat (especially noticeable if you're rolling d4's and d6's otherwise) but since it applies to all player characters equally then I think we can ignore it for now.

So...are there sweet spots in the Savage Worlds system?  Well there is that weird kink in the curve for raises on a d6 where it's slightly better than the chance of a raise on a d8. For normal successes though, a d6 is twice as good as a d4 and the rate of change drops at each incremental increase after that.Clearly the jump from a d4 to a d6 is the most bang for the buck, especially considering that base attributes start as d4's and have to be raised beyond that. Based on this I suspect that it's better to raise all five attributes to d6's than it is to have 2 d8's, a d6, and 2 d4's but only if you have an intentionally broad character! If you intend to specialize in certain skills tied to one attribute then I think the d10 level is pretty effective as it pushes your base success chance up over 2/3 and it doubles your chances of a raise over the d8 level. Plus you would have 2 points left to raise other stats to a d6 - no sense in sucking at everything else if you can avoid it.  Adding +1's to a d12 roll seems very inefficient but at higher experience levels that may be your only option.

Let's look at it in the context of combat. The target in melee is Parry, which is 2 + half of Fighting. Damage is compared to Toughness, which is 2+ half of Vigor. Meeting or beating these is a success, beating by 4 is a raise, and each additional increment of 4 is another raise.

Average human stats are d6's so assuming getting in a fight have a d6 in Fighting then most people's average Parry & Toughness = 5. Effectively what this does is shift everyone down one notch on the chart, roughly. Due to the way exploding dice work, certain target numbers do not change the odds. If you're rolling a d4, the odds of rolling a 5 are the same as rolling a 4 (d4 + d4). For d6's a 7 is as likely as a 6, for d8's a 9 is as common as an 8, etc. It does impact the Wild Die so there is an effect overall even for the d4 roller, but the base odds on your "main" die don't change.

You could go d12 in Strength, d6 in Vigor, then d4's in Smarts, Spirit, and Agility.  Given the presence of the d6 Wild Die you actually still have pretty decent capabilities with your other stats and be pretty nasty in hand to hand combat.

So the baseline for Savage Worlds - the d6 - will succeed about half of the time on a normal test. That's a pretty solid base but could be unsatisfying in play because it also means that the average character fails at the average task half the time too. The Wild Die bumps the success chance up to 75% in this case which makes for a much more satisfying game for the players without breaking the universe for everyone else. As skill (die types) increases this has less and less impact, so it nicely expands the "middle ground" for the system and then takes a lower profile as things ramp up. I think it's a very well-done mechanic.

There are of course various edges that can affect certain kinds of rolls and hindrances that will let one buy stats up another point or two but those are not universally available. Also, even with a little more crunch than ICONS, I'm not sure that SW is worth much agonizing over the math. Higher dice = better chance of success in every case (even if raises have that one kink) so most of the time the higher die type should win, though SW's other cinematic mechanics (Wild Die, Bennies) can be used to overcome this.

Anyway there's my math homework for the week. I do like the d20 systems out there but they are kind of plain probability-wise as everything is so simple: +/-1 = +/-5% chance of success, regardless. Efficient but boring math-wise!  Thank goodness for the multitude of choices out there that still try out other approaches and let us flex our brains in slightly different ways from time to time! Each individual approach may not be better than a particular standard but having options is always preferable to a boring uniformity.

Some other time (some other website if you care about it right now): GURPS, Hero, and those dice pool games.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Varying the Approach

One thing that's been pretty consistent over the years in my gaming circles is the way we run things. It's pretty much people sitting around a table, screened DM at one end, battlemat & markers & dice & character sheets around the edges. The number of people and the size of the table varies, but this has been the Way It Is Done for me and the people I have played with since the early 80's. I've run every edition of D&D this way as well as Hero, Gurps, Traveller, and all the others. I'm of the opinion that the reason for this is because it works!

That looks about right

However, I try to stay open minded about how I do things like this. During one of my 3rd edition campaigns I was a little tired of toting the 8 X 4 table in and out of my living room so I decided to play without a giant table. It felt weird to not have a big table and a battlemat with everyone around it but having the players scattered around the living room made for a more casual atmosphere. I did this several times, mainly when I knew it would not be a combat-intensive session, and it seemed like the players did get into the non-mechanical aspects of the game more than was typical. I probably would not do it if the evening was going to feature an assault on a dragon's lair but if it's the lord mayor's summer masquerade ball I might do it just to change things up.

I also typically have everything I am running printed out and on the table or behind my screen - mostly because that's how I've always done it. In my main 4E game some of my players started bringing their characters on tablets and smartphones and it kind of surprised me. I suppose it's a logical continuation of the character building tool - build it on the computer, export it to some device you carry aaround all the time anyway. At first I was opposed to it but I realized there really wasn't much reason to rule it out as long as I can see it on demand. So I let it go and we had zero problems with it.  Heck, with a dice rolling program you can be game-ready without carrying anything extra! Even the rules are available online, so if you want to go totally electronic it is an option now, at least for D&D 3E & 4E (and probably others as well). The no-dice thing is still a little weird though. We all have a ton of dice - stash a backup dice bag in the glovebox!

I like this better than the spreadsheet approach but I think they outsmarted themselves on the d4's

Technology side note: Remember when printing out character sheets was a challenge? We used to go up to the library and pay a nickel or a dime per copy to get our blank sheets and we tended to be a little stingy with them because there was some effort involved in replacing them. That was the age when purchasing pre-printed sheets was a big deal - some of them even came in colors other than white! I remember writing programs in BASIC to print D&D sheets on my old dot-matrix printer but they were never as good as the pre-printed ones. Also, games that came with a pad of character sheets were just awesomely cool as well - James Bond 007 and one of the Lords of Creation adventure modules came with these.  I think one of the forgotten bonuses of the age of the internet and the cheap inkjet printer was freeing us from the tyranny of the copy machine! Even after that some games still put out packaged sheets. One of the supplements for Underground came with a pack of character sheets (and kill stickers!). Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing 2E had a supplement pack that included a pad of sheets too. Kinda retro but I still bought them.

Yep, that was it

The last few years I have picked up quite a few smaller games and supllements as PDF's. I used to always print them out if I intended to actually use them in play, otherwise they were just for reference.  When I decided to run ICONS I realized everything I had was electronic and I was low on printer ink. Not wanting to waste time and ink printing a 100+ page rulebook AND a 30 or so page adventure I decided to run completely electronic, something I had never done. To be really radical, I didn't get out the mini's, or the battlemat, or the table either. This was 3 Apprentices and myself sitting around the living room with no books. They had their dice, pencils, and character sheets and I had a laptop and my notebook and a pen. It went amazingly well! The change in approach from my usual table setup really emphasized that this was something different and they went with it - no complaining about the lack of maps or anything else. Now ICONS does cater to this approach by not being the kind of game that demands a grid - it's not that detailed of a tactical exercise - and it doesn't even have the DM roll dice. It was the perfect opportunity to change things up and I was very satisfied with the result.

I do not own this, and I am comfortable saying that.

I know those of you playing online are likely unimpressed with these revelations but these are big changes for me. Now I would not do the mapless thing with a Hero system game, 3E or 4E D&D, or probably even Savage Worlds as those games benefit from a richer tactical experience. I might give it a try with our Basic D&D game though as an experiment. The all-electronic thing I would probably be willing to try with about any game, and some of those more detailed RPG's might benefit from it even more! I'm not that interested in game-running programs but for keeping multiple books in an easier package I am a little bit interested. The only problem is that I have a LOT of books for these things, so it's likely to only happen for newer games. - and games not behind a paywall that charges per month.