Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Chaotic Caves for the Basic Fantasy RPG

When I picked up Basic Fantasy, I also picked up "The Chaotic Caves", a beginning adventure for the same system. I had a longer version of this review written, but I scrapped it as I think I can make my point with fewer words. Let's compare this adventure to "The Keep in the Borderlands", home of the Caves of Chaos:

  • One-page-square-gridded wilderness map in both? Check.
  • Kobold lair in both? Check.
  • Goblin lair in both? Check.
  • Hobgoblin lair in both? Check.
  • Bugbear lair in both? Check.
  • Gnoll lair in both? Check.
  • Undead lair in both? Check.
  • Two Orc lairs in both? Check.
Now there are a couple of variations - the bandits and lizard men are moved into the cave area in "JN1" instead of being wilderness encounters as they are in "B2", and the ogre lives in a separate mini-dungeon instead of in the caves, but let's be clear here: this adventure is a straight rip-off of B2.

It's not an "homage" with a few nods to the old module. It's not a conversion of it to a new system. It takes almost every element of the most-published, most-owned, most-read, and most-played adventure in RPG history, rearranges some of them slightly, and then is published as a new adventure for a new system. It's a terrible way to do things and to me it looks really bad.

Here's why: If someone wants to play B2 they can just get a copy of B2! How about putting together something new for your new interpretation of Basic D&D? There is nothing even slightly new, innovative, or interesting here. Just as one example of the kind of thing I mean here take a look at The Haunted Keep here at Dragonsfoot. It takes the starter adventure from the Moldvay Basic book and expands it into a full 3-level dungeon. There is a nice combination of respect for the original material, connecting to something familiar, and new material.

When 3E came out one thing that was really popular for a time was the conversion document. These took an known adventure, typically a well-liked AD&D adventure like the Saltmarsh series, and put all of the stats for the creatures, magic items, and some relevant skill checks into a document with a numbered key that could be used alongside the original module. Something like that would have been welcome here too.

The closest analogy here that  I can think of is this: Have you read The Lord of the Rings at some point? After that have you read the Iron Tower trilogy by Denis L McKiernan? Did you walk away from it thinking you'd just read a lesser version of LOTR? That's the same feeling I had here. I think there is plenty of room to do something connected to KotB and the Caves of Chaos, but it's not this.

The copyright date on this one is 2009-2011 so this didn't come from some dark age - eBay and PDF's have been around for a while, as have used bookstroes and Noble Knight Games and other places.

My final point: As a level 1-3 adventure, a lot of people coming back to D&D type games in general and new to your game in particular might pick this up as their first expedition. Is this what you want them to play? Is this the best you can do? Shouldn't this be something that makes a strong positive impression rather than an edited version of an older starter adventure. I can see how people might like Basic Fantasy as a game, I don't see how the people creating it can be happy with something like this as one of their main starting adventures.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Basic Fantasy RPG

I haven't really looked over a new OSR game in a while and then I came across this one while wandering around Amazon.  My "recommendations" have a whole lot of dungeon-y dragon-y type stuff so I didn't have to wander far. The price is certainly right (it's under $4 as I write this) and with Prime the shipping is free so what the heck. I've read it now and have mixed feelings about it so I thought I would share.

First up it's a pretty complete version of Basic/Expert-style D&D. It's not level capped, it has a fair selection of monsters and magic items and rules for cross country travel, followers, strongholds, etc. There are some odd choices regarding mechanics: race and class are separate but race has very little mechanical impact on a character - it mainly serves to limit class choice. The number of spells per level is ... small, but after looking back at my Cyclopedia's lists it's comparable so it's really only lacking compared to AD&D's lengthy lists. If someone is looking for an inexpensive one-volume B/X style game then Basic Fantasy certainly works.

The thing that bothers me though is that this is not really a new game - like a lot of OSR games. The vast majority of it is B/X D&D with a different editing job and some changes in mechanics for no clear reason. AC is ascending instead of descending, but it uses the old type of saving throws. Race and class are separate but  but there are some new restrictions on ability scores and hit points that shift them back to being very close to the old "race as class" approach. Thieves have the same old percentile skills fixed by level but the percentages are off by a few points from the table in the Cyclopedia, and not consistently! Some are higher, some are lower, some by 10% and some by 1%! Why? It boils down to what looks like someone's house rules or personal preferences, not some kind of effort to publish a truly new game with reverence for an old style, and at that point I have to ask why? Why take someone else's house rules for old D&D instead of making and using your own?

My questions aside, it does seem to have resonated with at least a few people. There is a fair amount of support on the website, much of it provided by players and DM's. All of the rules are free there so the only reason to pay for the book is to get a printed copy. The whole system is run as open-source and mainly non-profit, which is commendable enough. The people driving it don't seem to be terribly hung up on touting their own greatness which is refreshing as well.

In the end, I want to like the game but I keep coming back to this: I'm not sure what the point of this one really is. If I like the original, why wouldn't I play the original? This one is basically someone else's house rules, it's not strictly compatible with old adventures due to the mechanical changes, and it leaves out a lot of the later expansions and mechanical refinements. Sure it's simpler than 3E or Pathfinder or 4E but it's not simpler than other old school rules including the originals! It's not terribly challenging to go get a copy of the old D&D Basic or Expert rules if that's what you like. I see 3-4 sets on Ebay right now for $10 or less. The PDF is available on for $5! Heck, if you want the uber-original the Cyclopedia PDF is only $9.99! I know the PDF's weren't always available, but eBay's been around for a long time now.

How is this better than B/X D&D? To me, it's not. Heck, If I want tweaked old school D&D then Labyrinth Lord is closer to Moldvay Basic than this if I want "authentic", and its Advanced Edition Companion is a much more comprehensive effort to add in some of the player character options from AD&D. For this particular niche, I don't see myself using it a whole lot.

When would I play this? Maybe if someone was running Basic Fantasy specifically and I was really looking for an old school game, I'd give it a try. I don't really dislike it, I just like those other options better.

Bonus Note: Basic Fantasy is home to the greatest character sheet ever designed:

So ... it's not my cup of tea, but it clearly works for some people and if this particular flavor of D&D got you back into a game then that's cool. I'm going to look at some of the other material out there for it too and I'll post those thoughts here as well.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review: Star Trek Online: The Needs of the Many

This is a different kind of book: It's a Star Trek novel (there are plenty of those) but it's tied to the MMORPG. That's an unusual case. It's also unusual in other ways.

For one, the book is set in 2409. Original Trek took place in the 2200's, and Next Gen Trek was set in the 2300's, so this book (as is the game) is set in the future of the original timeline and recaps much of the "future history" after the last Trek movie set in that timeline - Nemesis. It includes nods to other Star Trek novels as well, from the Vanguard series (TOS era) to the Titan series (TNG era) which is a nice touch.

The other unusual aspect is that it's not a novel, or at least it's not a single coherent narrative like most other Trek novels, nor is it a collection of short stories. It's written as a series of historical interviews looking back at the past 30 years or so and covering specific incidents in Trek history over that time. From Data's return to the breakdown of Federation-Klingon relations to conflict with Species 8472 and many others, there is a lot of interesting material here.

The format though is a problem. It reads more like a series of blog posts than a narrative or set of short stories. It doesn't even read like a history book - I have plenty of real-world history books and none of them choose this particular device and for good reason. Each one is an interview with character X on development or event Y. Some of the characters are well known, like Worf or Geordi LaForge, while others are not. The presentation comes across more like the notes that a historian would use to write a historical account of something rather than what they would actually publish.

As far as sitting down and reading it front to back, well, it was tough and this is mainly due to this choice of structure. The writer doesn't spend much time with any one character or one event, so this is much more of a survey/overview and there's not much depth there. While there are several parts I thought were fine, there were several segments I thought would make an interesting novel by themselves, or at least a good short story.

The silver lining here is that if you were looking to run a Trek RPG set in this time period, this format gives quite a few interesting ideas with just enough context and ties to the existing Trek universe to let a GM run with them and turn them into something interesting. Having all of the trappings of the TNG era Trek with further progression of the timeline to take those big characters off of the main stage  and one interpretation of the future history of Trek to use as a backdrop - that has a lot of potential for a good campaign.

So, to wrap up:

  • As a novel, especially compared to other Trek novels, this is terrible
  • As a tie-in to the computer game, it's interesting and does let you know how things got  to where they are in the setting if you're new to it
  • As a source book on the Trek Prime universe circa 2400 it's actually pretty good

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Superhero Kickstarter - Valiance Online

Valiance Online is a City of Heroes successor project, an effort born in the wake of the shutdown of the City of Heroes MMORPG.

The Kickstarter page is here. I think it covers things pretty well. If you're interested in superheroes in general, and computer/online  games where you can play one in particular, this is worth considering.

This is the second of the three known successor projects to go to Kickstarter after last year's City of Titans successful run.  Now normally I'm not big on pimping things online but I'm happy to spread the word on this one as I had a blast playing CoH and the team here seems really interested in creating a similar experience. Plus they appear to have made enough progress to get some gameplay video in their pitch.

Full Disclosure: I've backed it. I don't know or have any relation to the people working on the team but I am interested in this kind of thing so I am putting some money into it.

Motivational Monday