Thursday, 6 July 2017

Comparing Three UK OSR Games

These are the only three I have on me. I know Paolo has his Adventure Fantasy Game and Paul Bladowski made the Chthulu Hack.

Interesting thing about these three is that they are all exactly the same page size and the same publishing format. A5, stapled softcovers. Perfect for mailing.




COMPARISONS AND COMMONALITIES



LAYOUT

All three use a two-column layout in the book but TBH is on its own in terms of page dress, layout, titling, fonts and spacing. It's much clearer to read and its much easier to find what you are looking for quickly. This aided by the fact that its extremely short.

Of the other two ItO is perhaps slightly easier to read, though they are pretty close together. Both are consistently dual-column, Troika has a funky numbering system.

Just checked and ItO has full contents titles on EVERY page describing what is on them so Chris wins second-best.


BALANCING CHAR GEN

In TBH character generation, rolling a very high stat means the next roll is on reduced dice, making it more likely, or almost certain, that those with exceptional qualities will have mediocre qualities as well. Though the reverse is not true.

ItO has its cross-comparison of stats to equipment, meaning those with crap stats at least have exciting stuff. This also provides a quasi-equivalent to a 'Class' and history for the character, and deals with the equipment question quickly.

Troika is the odd one out here, stats are random, there are 36 totally separate classes, all strange, there are no broad class groups, the classes also give you a particular history, role and unique equipment loadout, a little like ItO but much more specific.


HOW DO YOU LEVEL UP?


TBH - Could be based on per-session, per-adventure or per-level depending on campaign.

Troika - Based on resting and reflecting on what you have learnt, skills advance with use so there is no real 'levelling' system as in D&D.

ItO - There are only five or six levels, depending on how you count and reaching them is based on surviving an increasing number of expeditions, a neat element is that training your own apprentice and keeping them alive is an essential part of levelling up.

A commonality of these systems seems to be a very fluid approach to levelling in which, we assume, the players and DM would have some kind of negotiation or conversation about what reasonably includes 'an expedition' or 'a risky expedition'.

There is not much 'defensive writing' about levelling in any of these, not much defensive writing, that is stuff warning you not to do stuff, about anything really.

You could, if you wanted to, make a kind of soft social-justicy, vaguely anarchist, James C. Scottish argument here about very rules-light systems minimising authority structures and necessitating flat and collaborative social arrangements because there is simply not enough to argue about and because the necessary lacunae in rules description silently urge the players and DM to work together to resolve problems of mutual description without ever demanding that they work together in a flat social structure. Guidance through silence and opportunity rather than through warning and control.


BALANCING IN LEVELLING

An interesting element of all three is that levelling up means a series of rolls against basic stats which could lead to those stats going up by a point depending on luck and how low they are.

A consequence of this is that original characters, who often start out quite janky, at least in their basic stats, will ultimately end up becoming much more 'even'. Getting better doesn't necessarily mean getting a lot better at stuff you are already good at, but improving stuff you are *not* good at to become a more well-rounded character.

Its hard to get high level and stay 'janky'.

(A 'janky' character, as I see it, is one whose basic stats and most immediate abilities present sharp "swings" of ability; there are some things they are very good at and others they are going to be very bad at, so in imagined play the player is always trying to move the character into situations where their positive abilities will be useful and out of ones where they will be vulnerable. The Janky character puts you in a necessarily active relationship with the world.

I suppose jankyness also has something to with a character clearly not being optimised, being something of a bricolage, not immediately or obviously useful and not embodying a direct flow of energy from the heroic ideal.)

(Also, will anyone ever do a game where perishable skills and stats are a big deal? IRL when you fail to use a slot of skills you lose them.)


BASIC MECHANIC


ItO and TBH both use a d20 'roll under' mechanic for most things. Like a stripped-down, miniaturised version of D&D. TBH is most like D&D and has a lot of fiddly bits in a manner reminiscent of that game, ItO is a lot simpler and abstracted

Troika is a 2d6 system rolling either under a thing, like TBH and ItO, for unopposed rolls, or in combat, rolling 2d6 and adding stuff to roll over your opponent. Troika has a lot more weird shit you can do with your dice.

I think this is based on the system in old Fighting Fantasy books? That should probably be on the cover, or at least on the adverts or something;

"A rules-light RPG that combines the best of the old Fighting Fantasy system with Hipster Planescape!"

Something that may be of slight interest to Americans is that when D&D was hitting the UK, d20's were relatively rare and Games Workshop didn't think enough people would own them to form a large market, but they thoughts everyone had d6's, so that's why the dominant die in UK gaming is the d6. (About 1000 individual d6's in the case of Warhammer.)


INITIATIVE

Homies be trippin when it comes to initiative system design, oh the webs we weave when we divide time into parcels and pieces.


TBH has an initiative system like one I first became aware of in one of Arnolds game; everyone rolls and there are only three states; people who passed go first, the monsters go next, and people who failed go last.


Clearly Daniel Sell is NOT a fan of traditional initiative systems because he's come up with this crazy whole thing where you put dice in a bag with different creatures and characters having different coloured dice and one die being the 'end of round' die.

This means its theoretically possible to have a full round of action that goes MONSTER-MONSTER-MONSTER-ENDROUND, or HERO-HERO-HERO-ENDROUND or STARTROUND-ENDROUND, or any combination or that.

So that means that combat and things that happen in combat are _really_ unpredictable. If you get into a fight you are stepping into a period of strange and uncontrollable time.


ItO's initiative system in full; "On your _turn_ a character can move and perform an action. When it is unclear which combat side should act first, the character at the head of the group must pass a DEX save to secure the first action."

Like a lot of Chris-rules this curls up quite a lot of complexity and assumed modes of action within a very small space.

"When its unclear which combat side should act first," so - based on every fucking thing you remember from playing D&D ever and on everything you know about the details of the imagined world, and then if that’s not obvious then its a save by one person.


HITTING AND GETTING HIT

TBH - To attack, roll below your own STR or DEX depending if Melee or Ranged. When attacked, roll below STR or DEX to avoid. PC damage is based on class, monster damage on HD.

TBH has a monster damage table but when you are rolling your own then I think you should have all your bonuses or whatever handy.

As usual, TBH feels like a miniaturised version of D&D rather than anything else. It does have this cool rule for large weapons - large weapons add +2 for every roll, so with it being a roll-under system they are harder to hit with but do more damage when they do hit.


Troika - EVERY melee attack is an opposed roll with the winner doing damage, and either party can win.

Take a second to let that one sink in and for it to combine with the initiative rules above.

So you could, in theory, kill everyone in the room in a single round of initiative, but you can only initiate your own attack when your initiative thingy is pulled out.

And yes this works a lost less well for shooting, in which cast its an opposed roll vs an evade skill, which they probably don't have. And there's no indication as to what to do when shooting an unaware opponent in the back.

Troika has its own damage table for super-swingy logarithmic, (or possibly exponential? I'm not really sure exactly what either of those two words mean) damage. Weapons can be slow and sensible tortoise weapons that do a reasonable chunk of damage each time but with a low ceiling, or they can be Flaky Captain Fuckoff weapons that supermurder people on a high roll. (Daniel you should put these on the back cover in the new edition.)

Troika seems to produce big, wild swingy fuckoff fights that (probably) end quickly because everyone is potentially hitting everyone each time. The combat logic is going to be really different with everyone attacking when attacked.


ItO - EVERY attack does damage to someone with the amount varying by weapon and creature and then altered again up or down a die size based on advantages, vulnerabilities and whether you are fighting a detachment.

This seems to take the ruthless combat-as-an-endstate idea implicit in LotFP where most fights are  either ruthlessly effective ambushes or crushing attritional grinds and just simplifies and expresses it directly. Well that gets things out of the way relatively quickly. ItO is terrible for modelling complex tactical combat situations, but it isn't really for that.


ARMOUR

I don't care enough about armour to go looking it up.

Ok I will briefly.

TBH  -You gain access to certain kinds through your class, each provides ablative hp during a fight, then wears out, then regenerates after? This is modelling tiredness I think. Its a slightly uncomfortable mechanic.

Troika - Only four levels of armour and each modifies an incoming damage roll.

ItO - You get maybe one point of damage reduction. Armour is either posh, which gives you the reduction without any other take-backs, or 'shield armour' which does the same job but you need a hand free to use it.

Ok I still don't care about armour. None of these rules are terrible but none of them are great enough to make me give a shit. ItO's Shield/Modern division is interesting but that’s about it.

Maybe its hard to model passive benefits in an interesting way in a rules-light system?


GETTING YOUR BITCH ASS HANDED TO YOU


TBH - Zero hp takes you out of action, if you don't get healed then if your side wins the fight you roll on the 'Out of Action' table which only fully kills you on a 6. If you survive the table you get an extra 4hp, which is kinda nice.

The idea of both gaining and losing things from getting fucked up in a fight is an interesting one, like in life you take physical and psychological damage, but you also get smarter, craftier and nastier.


Troika - Zero puts you down and you die on the next round unless healed, below zero puts you dead. Simples.


ItO - Losing all your hp means damage is applied to STR, at this point you need to start making STR saves while any future attacks whittle down the same STR value you are saving on. If you fail that save you are in a state of 'Critical Damage'.

If you have 'Critical Damage' you need an allies aid AND a short rest and can't do shit till then. If you don't get them you die after an hour. If your STR ever reaches zero you die.

As usual, Chris wins for elegance. Hp come back after a short rest but damage to STR takes time, its an able simulation of the difference between physical wounds and fighting capacity with a small number of elements in play.

Daniel wins for simplicity.

TBH surprisingly soft, the 'Out of Action' table only kills you on a 6.


CARRYING SHIT AROUND

TBH - actually goes further than the others despite being about half as long. We have a little backpack on the character sheet, breakdowns of the rules (you can carry equal to your STR) and an innovative mechanic of Usage Die for perishable materials.

Troika - "Ok you can carry twelve things." Simple again. If you go over twelve you get increasing negatives to your rolls. There is a neat mechanic where to grab something out of your pack you roll a die and try to get above the number of the line it is on, meaning people 'pack' their stuff by arranging it in order of usefulness.

ItO - "FUUUUCCCKK THIIIIISSS SHIIIIT. You have stuff. There, job done."



MAAAAGIC

TBH - Memorisation, a Spell Book AND Spell Slots that are actually kind of effectively Spell Points, man I did not like that in D&D 5e and I don't like it now. This is surprisingly complex for a rules-light book.

Again, this is like miniaturised, not necessarily abstracted, D&D. We even have a little two-page spread of Arcane AND Divine spells for you Magic-User equivalent and your Cleric-Equivalent.


Troika - Char Gen decides if you are a Magic User of any kind, they are all individually different. Casting means burning Stamina and making a test to avoid a fuckup.

The spell list applies to all classes and seems to have drawn a lot from Wonder and Wickedness, my favourite magic system.


ItO - Everything is bound up with 'Arcanum', so acquiring magic is exactly the same as acquiring treasure with the power of the 'magic' being attached to the danger of the treasure. Downsides and limitations are tied up with the specific object rules. Magic is tied to object so if you lose the object you lose the magic. WIL saves needed to dick around with the effects. Again, an elegant simplification.

(I still haven't gotten over that Bone Magnet in DCO, I mean come on guys I specifically wrote 'Cartlidge'.)



PARALLEL EVOLUTION


Both Troika and ItO end up dividing the character elements in a curiously similar ways, even though they are evolved from different directions.

ItO starts somewhere around D&D and reduces all the stats into;


  • hp/STR to handle physical capacity and consequence.
  • DEX to handle subtle abilities or those emerging from but separate to, the body.
  • WIL to handle ethereal, conceptual, quasi-magic stuff that may emerge from somewhere else, and may not directly physically interact with the body but can affect the character.



Troika has;

  • Stamina - to handle physical consequence.
  • Skill - to handle almost all abilities and actions.
  • Luck - to handle anything non-physical or anything undescribed.


And of course TBH has the canonical stats.

Its curious how all of these seem to reduce down to three schema or 'spheres' of modelling the way a character interacts with reality, the core body, where most consequence is felt, the dexterous, moving or employed body, and the ethereal, intangible, cognitive or mysterious element.



AWARDS

The award for trade dress, layout and knowing what to call your fucking game goes to The Black Hack. Who on earth would not want to play something called that?

(Into the Odd really needs a new name. The best I could come up with were "Into Ruination" and "Wrecked Reality Factory". Or maybe "Wrecked Reality Bastion"? "Bastion of Wrecked Realities"?

That’s probably it, make the subtitle of the next edition either "Into Ruination" or "Bastion of Ruined Realities" and put 'powered by into the odd' as a diddly little small title like they do with 'powered by the apocalypse' games.

"Ruined Reality Bastion"?)




The award for invention and originality in world creation goes to Daniel Sell who aces that one as shown through Char Gen, Objects, Monster Lists and Magic. The award for best magic and best monsters also go to Daniel. Hipster Plainscape for the win. (It's somewhat unfair as TBH doesn't have a world.)



The Award for Knowing How to Write Rules goes to Chris McDowall, though its a much closer contest. Daniel re-awakening the FF ruleset and all the weird stuff he does with it is a bold challenge, but its still a bit more patchy than ItO. You can see why the French like ItO.




APOCRYPHA AND RANDOM OBSERVATIONS


THE BLACK HACK

  • It’s extremely, ultra-short compared to the other two and its primary difference is that there is no suggested world to go along with the game, the only things that come even close are the monster list and basic items to purchase which, like the rest, are utterly bare-bones.
  • Monster HD bonus showing up as relative negative to PCs roll is curious and odd.
  • Warrior - 1 attack per level? (how does this link with the fighting system?)



TROIKA

  • Spells are good and fun. Some very innovative ones - Read Entrails - the depth of an answer being decided by the power and complexity of the creature is V cool. Gives you a good reason to find and kill very weird creatures
  • Tongue Twister is better than 'Silence'.
  • The skill system is arguably a mess but it could be argued that it is an inventive, adaptive, improvisational mess.
  • If the purpose of the game is to imagine an imaginative game a long way from D&D then Troika might be the winner
  • (At least he put the 'to hit' chart in again at the back)





INTO THE ODD


  • (One thing TBH and Troika could both do with is a really good, really readable introductory adventure in the same format as the game that someone new can pick up and use. ItO is the ONLY one to include, not just an example of play, but a goddamn ADVENTURE. Consider the small size of the rules, including adventures with the game should be a primary draw for these rulesets.
  • ItO's char gen and equipment page is a masterpiece of brevity. The starter package tables cross-hatching of equipment to stats is genius.


10 comments:

  1. Based on the art alone, I'll probably have to give Troika! a try. I've had good experiences with TBH before due to its relative simplicity and getting new people into tabletop games.

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    1. Also, just finished reading Seeing Like a State (picked it up after reading your post on it) and found it thoroughly enjoyable.

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  2. I have a secret love for Into the Odd. I mean I like it and want to play it, but it's not D&D so I am overcome with the inability to do so while sober.

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  3. I have grown find of troia. Next time Ill gave money to spend Ill probabile put them in it. I love that erratic initiavite -im gonna use it in my game whatever game system im using.
    Gene Wolfe's references are great too, and the whole "not dnd/not warhammer" thing give this work a very recognisable vibe

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  4. Hah, I was literally starting to do research on picking an OSR game today and was looking at these three. Good timing. I don't particularly love retroclones and am extremely happy to see the OSR scene moving beyond the 1980s.

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  5. Nice presentation of these 3 systems. Into the Odd seems the most attractive and least headachy rulewise it seems, though it helps that it's the only one i've read. But reading this i do get curious to try the other two. Also, Boooone Magneeeet! That bit in the podcast totally cracked me up :)

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  6. How do I get my game in front of you for a review?

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    1. I'm sorry I don't review on request, I buy whatever I'm interested in and then sometimes talk about it.

      If you want to you can tell me about your game here.

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  7. Fascinating to see all these different ways to deal with a fundamental rule of rpgs "this target number means i voluntarily have to role play this way"
    Neet to see all the iterations since the 70s
    Another fine blog, here

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  8. I think "Into the Odd" is a great name! I've always presumed that the "Odd" was a reference to Zeroth edition D&D (0D&D get it?) and thought that was very clever and catchy.

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