28 October, 2017

Weapons, Damage & Armour

I thought about covering all my design choices in the order that the book would be laid out, but then I realized that I needed to cover some things, even if out of book order, before other things would make full sense.  So let's start with your essential combat gear.

In the original D&D (and in Holmes), all weapons did 1D6 and that's that.  There's an attractive reductionism there, in that Short & Sweet are the first two goals of my game.  I feel that D&D's general tendency towards a hundred swords and polearms with damages of 1D4+1 and 1D6+1 and 2D4 and 1D8 and the like is really just mostly cruft, offering very little in the way of meaningful options while bloating things terribly.  You could differentiate these with weapon speeds and weapon vs. armour type tables, but then that's adding more cruft to make the other cruft distinctive, and overall I feel the end result would be worse instead of better.  I can see how some would like it, but it's not for me.  At the same time, "1D6 for all and you'll like it" is a bit too Henry Ford, methinks.  Let's try and find a middle ground, erring towards the Basic approach.

"As long as it's black..."

So What Do I Want?

I'd like some distinction between broad classes of weapons, without requiring the GM to be involved or charts to be accessed.  The big distinction for me is wielding a giant asskicking weapon versus single weapon and shield.  Any set of weapon (and combat) rules has to be able to support both of these styles, because both happen all the time in fiction and they're reasonable fighting styles that players and GMs alike will expect to be able to do.  Both also need to not just be accessible, but desirable: that is, a system that allows you to do something but makes one choice so much obviously better than the other is really offering a false choice.

So, let's try standard and large weapons.  Standard weapons have an automatic advantage in that you can use a shield with them.  Large weapons need to be able to dish out enough extra damage to make giving up an AC bonus worthwhile.

If standard is 1D6, then large being 1D10 (what a two-handed sword does in Moldvay and 1st ed AD&D) seems a reasonable spread.  I think I want to add a third category though: small weapons, because the idea of throwing knives or darts dealing as much as a sword strike seems off.  Three tends to be a magical number when it comes to categorization; that many somethings are rapidly grasped.  I know Mentzer Basic went with four categories (D4, D6, D8, and D10), but while it doesn't hurt, I don't think all four die types are needed.  1D4 for small weapons, then.  So, to start, what about:

Small: 1D4 (+ shield)
Medium: 1D6 (+ shield)
Large: 1D10

Breaking it down by size categories like this also makes it easy to ensure weapon sizes interact with wielder sizes.  For example, I think I'd rule that a weapon one size larger than the wielder must be a two-handed weapon.

Okay, now to tweak.  We can look at more than just damage here: there's other ways to play around with weapons.  I think I'd like to raise medium weapons a touch, to better separate them out from the little guys.  1D6+1 would accomplish that, and give us a 4-7-10 spread: three points of maximum damage potential separating each weapon category.

I do like the idea of modelling that "big weapons hurt but are slow" feel.  Moldvay/Mentzer's "automatically goes last" is much too far for my liking, as is Holmes' "can only attack once every other round".  A -1 to initiative when wielding one in melee seems like a simple addition that would also get us an expected result, and I'd adopt that if I was using personal initiative results.  However, as I'm going with group initiative, I want to keep individual modifiers as few as possible, and so such a fiddly bit isn't going to work.

Small: 1D4 (+ shield)
Medium: 1D6+1 (+ shield)
Large: 1D10


This is another one of those cases where I feel a lot of later editions added more than was needed.  You wind up with this bizarro listing of various armour types, many of which never existed at the same time.  I like the Moldvay and Mentzer methods of just giving three types (there's that magic number again), which some of the clones also follow.  So how about this?

Armour consists of a wide variety of materials and construction methods, depending on how advanced its builders are and what resources they have access to. Many adventurers wear a mishmash of armour pieces, such as a strong breastplate alongside light or even non-existent protection elsewhere. Rather than trying to codify all the possible material, piece, and technology combinations, armour has been abstracted.

I'm using ascending AC because I can't imagine a single reason for voluntarily going the other way that isn't rooted in a desire for back-compatibility, emulation, or nostalgia; I'm willing to do any conversion work with material I own, as it's reasonably straightforward, so that's not an issue.  That gives us AC bonuses of +3 (light armour), +5 (medium), and +8 (heavy).

A shield would presumably add +1 here, as it traditionally does.  However, a common complaint (one I share) is how little value a shield has in D&D.  Shields are life savers.  We could introduce three different shield types, which I've also seen in some games (typically buckler, standard, and tower), but that just doesn't appeal to me.  Let's just bump a one-size-fits-all shield to +2 AC.  Additionally, as crouching behind shields to avoid breath weapons is such a classic trope, I'd like to reflect that somehow:I'm adding a +2 save bonus vs. non-gaseous breath weapons for any shield wielder.

But, making a shield better makes small and medium weapon choices indirectly better, because we're assuming that wielders of those weapons are also using a shield (a safe assumption, I think), while large wielders cannot.  I'm starting to feel the large weapons are falling behind.  Thinking about it more, I think I'd prefer a bit more guaranteed damage for the big guns anyways.  1D8+3 gets us the same max damage, but avoids 1 pt flesh wounds.  That's better than any standard D&D weapon, but only by a touch.

So, with all the above taken into account, here's what our final basic combat equipment list looks like:

Small Weapons: 1D4 (w/ +2 AC shield)
Medium Weapons: 1D6+1 (w/ +2 AC shield)
Large Weapons: 1D8+3
(1-2-4 minimum, 4-7-11 maximum)

Light Armour: +3 AC
Medium Armour: +5 AC
Heavy Armour: +8 AC
Shield: +2 AC

I like these damage values in particular for one last reason: as I plan to use D6 HD for all non-PC creatures, that means that on average a medium weapon does enough damage to kill 1HD creatures, while a large weapon deals enough damage to kill 2HD creatures.

I'm also thinking of differentiating these weapons based on further choices the warrior can make, or that can be made in combat in general, so this perhaps isn't really the final say.  But I think it's a decent start, allowing someone to pick weapons they think are cool and not worry if they're mechanically sub-optimal, while keeping things generally simple.  I feel it's a sweet spot of simplicity versus complexity; I'm curious if others agree.

23 October, 2017

Setting Design Goals

Now that the basics of layout have been chosen, I want to move into game design.  I know I'm making an OSR game, but while that establishes some very real principles I'll need to adhere to, it still leaves a lot to be defined.

And defining your principles at the start of your game is absolutely essential.  I think there's little room to argue that most of the most successful OSR games have very clear design goals.  Take the core retroclones--Swords & Wizardry, BFRPG, Dark Dungeons, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, For Gold & Glory, Blueholme--which set out to emulate a particular D&D ruleset (and then follow-ons from those, like Iron Falcon or B/X Essentials).  With those niches largely filled, other OSR games have mostly focused on emulation of some broader theme, whether genre/specific authors (Mazes & Minotaurs, Crypts & Things, ASSH, Beyond the Wall) or gameplay (Low Fantasy Gaming, for low-magic games; ACKS, with its emphasis on the D&D "endgame"; DCC, with its emphasis on taking shittons of crystal meth and playing D&D).  The remainder have been what I call kitchen-sink rulesets, which amount to "throw in everything cool I can think of from all the D&D games": examples include Blood & Treasure and Fantastic Heroes & Witchery.

Interestingly, the big exception I can think to all this is LotFP, which despite its mandate of "weird fantasy roleplaying" doesn't have a ruleset actively supporting that ("actively" being the key: it passively supports that  just fine, i.e. it can be used for such, and doesn't fight you when doing so).  In other words, it says it wants to do something, but other than giving you art along those lines, doesn't actually do anything about it (at least in the core book).  Offering nothing especially unique as a ruleset, though with some choice bits here and there, Lamentations succeeds not because of its mechanics but because of the vision and considerable talent of its creator.

So What do I Want in an OSR Game?

There's a lot of little things I want to play with, but the precise penalty you assign to two-weapon use or what have you is not really important at the start.  Vaguely, I know I'm going sort-of kitchen-sink, but I need to nail down the heart of the project.  Of course, it helps that I'm making this for myself and no one else, so I don't have to convince anyone, but that doesn't mean I don't have reasons for X and Y, so let's go into them, because talking about this stuff (hopefully with you the reader) is the whole point of this blog.

1) Short.  One of the major elements of the OSR movement that attracted me has been the succinctness of the core rules: B/X is 124 pages, for example, and crams a lot in for that amount.  At the same time, OSR publishers have tended to give us some pretty hefty books: witness C&T Remastered (247 pages), Blood & Treasure (267), ACKS (269), OSRIC (402), FH&W (428), DCC (484), ASSH 2nd ed (618!).  Some of that is more generous layout spacing, and some is more art, but really what's in those pages isn't the point.  It's that I want the trim succinctness of B/X and perhaps even more.  In some ways I can cheat, in that I can just say "creatures are mostly someone else's problem" or the like and then I don't have to waste a ton of pages on it.  But I'm still going to be keeping a close eye on page count and the options which bloat it.  I have some ideas on how to make some very large trims, and a vague goal of two 48-page books (a Player's and a GM's Handbook).

2) Sweet.  Related to the above is mechanical ease of use.  I own 500 tons of Hero Games stuff.  I love Hero and will cherish the memories I have of play with that system forever.  But man, nowadays I just want to dive in and go.  Old D&D only achieves simplicity by virtue of not having a lot of rules; the rules that it does have are often clunky.  I've heard it expressed that this kludginess is a feature rather than a bug, in that it provides a sort of charm that a more aseptic ruleset using unified mechanics and a reduced variety of dice does not.  While I can't argue with such subjective feelings, my own subjective feeling is that such people are wrong and that this is a recipe for bad design.  I'm always reminded of someone's statement that if D&D had used ascending AC in the first place, no one would have ever felt the need to invent THAC0; that THAC0 can be learned utterly misses the point.  I think "would someone ever willingly invent this, let alone implement this, if faced with the likely alternate candidates" is a good rule of thumb for all aspects of design.  Mechanical simplicity also helps keep the page count down, feeding into #1.

I also look at this as the opportunity to trim bits I don't care about.  There's perfectly decent arguments to be made for having lots of different weaposn or armours, or for a host of fiddly racial rules.  At the same time, I find all that tiresome.  And since I do want to expand complexity elsewhere at times, saving in other areas helps keep the overall ruleset from becoming bogged down.

3) Broad Compatibility: aka "Recognizing my Limitations".  I want to be able to use this ruleset with minimal adaptation with one of the OSR's greatest strengths--the host of incredible adventure modules out there for it.  Adapting here and there is no problem, but it's no good if it takes me hours; best case scenario it could be something I could do on the fly during actual gameplay.  Linking up to #2, my desire to dive in and go means I want to be able to draw on the work of others as much as possible.

Along those lines, I want to be able to use existing bestiaries.  I have no interest in writing up the SRD monsters yet again: I don't feel I could offer anything new there (or rather, I'm not inspired to try, which largely amounts to the same thing).  If I'm going to be using bestiaries belonging to other games, then that's going to determine in some places how far I can stray in terms of mechanics.

4) OSR Feel: I've talked about this a bit earlier, essentially arguing that mechanics alone can't guarantee you an OSR game.  At the same time, they can certainly ensure that you fail at making one.  I'll have to watch out for this, especially in light of my next goal.

5) Support for Low Player Counts: Old-school D&D assumed lots of players, anywhere from 6-10 at least (OD&D groups could run into a dozen or more in the early days).  It then further assumed that those lots of players often had a NPC army backing it up.  It spoke of walls of spearmen blocking the dungeon halls, and then stabbing enemies with multiple ranks.

I'm in my 40s.  I have a wife.  Most of my friends are in the same boat: time is precious.  Even then, finding gamers who are available is one thing: filtering based on gamers with actual social skills is another.  All this means my typical gameplay group is 4-5 folks, and while I intend to support the use of retainers/hirelings, I do not want to make them mandatory to survive.  Quite frankly, I think the reputation old-school D&D has for lethality is somewhat overstated, due to people playing in modules originally designed for 6, 8, or 10 players or more, plus NPC support mobs.  Since I'm making this game for me first and foremost, I need to be able to expect my typical play group of 4-5 to be able to take on what many other OSR games, derived from these old rules, usually assume more will be tackling.

Of course, then the Danger Danger sign goes off.  More capable characters means stronger characters, which leads to heroic gameplay, which leads to fear, anger, snowflakism, muh storyline, the Dark Side, etc, and before you know it you've blown up Alderaan.  I don't actually believe that there's anything wrong with heroic play--I've always found the dichotomy between much of the original inspirational material of D&D and how the game actually played in practice rather odd (as I point out in my earlier article linked above, so too did most other people, which is I think why the gameplay style so markedly shifted in the mid-80s).  I'm even okay with plot-based play, as long as everyone is on board.  BUT, ultimately I'm not going for either in this case: I believe there's a wide gulf between "more capable" and "Dragonlance/WotC D&D", and I intend to plant my design flag there.  If at first level a character has 10 hit points instead of 5 and can hit a goblin 70% of the time instead of 55%, it's still going to be very easy to toss mortal challenges at him; no real extra effort is going to be required.  And again, he's going to be assumed to have fewer friendlies at his side than in a lot of games, so that bit of extra is only going to put him back to square one.

What matters most along these lines, I think, is keeping the resource management and other elements of old D&D intact, so no "resting and getting half your HP back"-type mechanics.  I want the tension of watching torches go out, worrying about kobolds stealing your mule full of treasure because you can't care it all on your person, and whatnot.

6) Character Flexibility: As I said above, there's a disconnect between the original inspirational material of D&D and how the game actually played in practice.  Consider the endless arguments over what class Gandalf was, or Conan was.  The Grey Mouser and Kane require some multiclass kludges to work, and the former responsible for the oddity that is thieves using magic scrolls.  This sixth and final goal is in some ways an offshoot of #2: I like the class system to frame the key character roles, but want to make the structure as simple as possible within that.  No millions of classes, and yet at the same time more flexibility in making the sort of character that classic sword & sorcery literature often gives us.  I want to be able to mix and match class elements to some degree, so that I can create a battlemage or a ranger or a thieving mage or a paladin without any great difficulty and with less wordcount.  However, I also want to avoid the character creation and optimization hell that is 3rd edition.  Essentially I'm lookign for a cleaner, more freeing character creation system, rather than one with just more options.

I think that's clear enough to get started.

20 October, 2017

Layout Part III: The Full Monty

I sat down with a giant pile of OSR pdfs, mixed in the lessons I learned working on Battletech books, considered the general feel I wanted, and went to work.  For the most part, what's left is

Fantastic Fonts (and Where to Find Them)

My previous posts lead to picking out a variety of visual elements that do and do not work, or ones that I simply liked more than others (I try not to confuse the two).  But this doesn't settle one of the most important layout choices: the font.  Ultimately I went with the B/X classic font, Souvenir Lt BT.  However, you may not want to just ape TSR design choices, a perfectly respectable decision, and at first neither did I.  As such, below is what I did during the earlier stages of putting the book together, when I was considering other options.  Even though I've since abandoned this, it's a good general procedure to help you choose between multiple candidates.

Say we want to work with a classic looking seriffed text.  The easiest way to choose something that looks good is to choose a typical block of text and run it through all the possible candidates.  We'll need to make sure that there's both letters and numbers in there, as some fonts do well with one, but not the other.

Here's my guinea pig text block:

When in the wilderness, characters use different movement rates. Small creatures move 90 yards a minute, Medium creatures move 120 yards a minute, and Large creatures move 160 yards a minute.  

      Further, characters in the wilderness can move their outdoor movement rate divided by 5 in miles per day: a character that moves at 120 can thus move 24 miles per day. If not all characters have the same movement, to stay together the party must move only as fast as the slowest character. Also note that this assumes unfinished but dry, generally good trails. Other conditions will alter the distance travelled in a day, as detailed below.

I'm not actually using that text in my book, but it works great here as a sample.

Click to enlarge

All the fonts here are 9.5 except Times New Roman and Baskerville, which were bumped up to 10 to better match the rest.  Each one also has 1.1 spacing, because I know I'll be using that in my book: it's a great way to let your text breathe, especially when you can't avoid having large blocks of text and so can't use some of the other usual tricks to break up the visual monotony.

Even with the size increase, Baskerville winds up looking a bit cramped.  While it's the font I always use when writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche (for obvious reasons), I think I can pass on it here.

Cambria looks a bit too stark.  Times New Roman I don't like because of the way its "r" encroaches on other letters.  When this happens with an "n" (as in "wilderness") the result often appears to be an "m".  Bruce is a bit thin, and Book Antiqua a bit stretched lengthwise for my liking.  I like Constantia the best, overall: each character can breathe just right, the resulting words look firm, yet it takes bolding well (some fonts are so strong than when you bold them there's not enough of a immediately noticeable difference, which is important when you're going to be applying bolding to create headers with that font).  I think Constantia would be the easiest to read.  However, what the hell is it doing to those poor numbers?  Why would anyone want their numerals compressed to itty bitty sizes?  Fortunately, as someone pointed out in the (now-Google-purged) comments, Constantia has an alternate set of numbers that looks more normal, which can be accessed in Word via Font --> Advanced --> Number Forms.  But of course, the above is just how I felt about it all: in the end you'll want to go with what most appeals to you.
If you're looking for a list of the fonts that TSR used, check out this extremely thorough site.

Exciting Font Stuff

Now it's time to put together a sample page with the full range of fonts and headers and other visual elements and see how it all comes together.  Click the following to get a ten-page pdf sample of how the book currently looks (there's a blank page to start so that you can see what it looks like as an actual book, by switching to two-page view).


I intend to walk through the process of designing the whole game here in this blog, but I felt I'd best have a bunch of it ready to go so that I actually have something to talk about. 
From OSRIC and, to a lesser degree, ACKS I took the idea of colour splashes. Even printed out in greyscale, this will look fine: the layout isn't reliant on colour, only enhanced if you have it. OSRIC's chapter headers (i.e. Heading 1) use Optima. I don't have access to that, but I do have Optima BQ, which is pretty close and quite sharp. My chapter header (on pages 17 and 26) is green, all-caps 25-point bold, and I've expanded the character spacing by 0.5 points to give it just a bit more room to breathe (this can be done in MS Word under Font --> Advanced).  Lastly, it has single line spacing and a Text Outline.

For the Heading 2 ("ENCOUNTERS") I'm also using Optima BQ.  This is also green, all-caps and bold, but is 15 pt and only expanded by 0.3 points.  It uses 1.1 line spacing, like my regular body text.

There are two other headings.  Heading 3 ("ENCOUNTER TIME") is all-caps bold, 10.5 pt Souvenir Lt BT, expanded by 0.1 points.  In addition to the usual 1.1 line spacing, I added an extra 1 point of padding at the bottom of this one.

Heading 4 is the last one ("Effects of Surprise").  It's simply the body text, but bold.

Body text is Souvenir Lt BT. It's 9.5 points, expanded (i.e. stretched) by 0.1 points, and with 1.1 line spacing, which means that each line will breathe a bit more.  I've decided to skip the typical line breaks to separate paragraphs that most OSR games use (no doubt inspired by B/X and the 1st ed AD&D books), and switch to indents like Mentzer used.  However, I found the standard indent units a bit small (0.5 cm is common): I wanted no doubt that a new para had begun, and so upped it to 0.6 cm.  But I never indent the first line underneath a header, because that's hideously ugly and a waste of space aside.
The text is justified, meaning that each line ends in the same place and Word inserts the appropriate padding as needing evenly across an entire line to make it all work out.  MS Word 2010 and earlier have better justification settings than later versions, based on ancient WordPerfect 6.0 (thanks to another now-purged comment for showing me this), so I use a later version of Word but a document originally created in 2010 with the old-style justification preserved as a compatibility setting.  With justification and columns you need to be a bit more careful in your writing, as it becomes easy to have a large word not fit on a line and so be bumped to the next line, leaving a large amount of space for Word to have to fill in, which in turn    makes    your    sentence    look    like    this.  The only way to fix that is to edit your text specifically to avoid it, by changing your word choice and placement so that each line is relatively full.

Other Stuff

Each page is offset towards the edge.   That is, there's more blank space on the inside margin than the outside.  That's so when you print it, you don't lose info due to the binding, by having text disappear into the spine where the fold is.  The standard approach is that each margin is the same, but I wanted the space and didn't mind things being uneven in this way.

Column spacing in between is 0.9 cm.  It might be tempting to shrink that down and thus gain more room for text, but you don't want to overdo it: again, you need space for the text to breathe.  Tiny column margins are one of the biggest causes of having a page feel cramped.

Headers are the standard 1.27 cm, footers are 0.8 cm.  I don't know offhand how many hogsheads that is in imperial, sorry.  I've kept the headers large because after I put words and such up there I don't want a cramped effect to occur.

You can see what I'm using for headers in most of the book by looking up top in the first sample page: just chapter references to help when page flipping.  It's the standard body text, but italicized.  With some fonts, italics tends to cramp things a bit, so you may want to add more expansion to the characters if you're doing that, but with Souvenir Lt it works fine with my standard 0.1.

In the header on the second page there's a cool little spear thingy graphic; it just looks nice and thematic.  Generally, the header is valuable real estate, but on the first page of each chapter I've gone with this instead (because just as I complained about ACKS putting its own book title up top, you don't need to waste the readers' ink and time typing out what they already know: in this case the chapter title is already right in front of them in screaming huge letters).

Page numbers are aimed to the corners of each page for easy flipping.  I've taken OSRIC's lesson of making them big (11 pt) and bold.  You want to make that leap out at readers flipping through the pages looking for something.

Text Boxes: I learned very quickly that I did not like thin-border text boxes.  I've worked on other homebrew projects before this one and found the same MS Word setting that Swords & Wizardry probably uses, and I've employed that here.  The boxes have been coloured green to match the major headings.  I plan to use boxes to set off things I consider absolutely essential, that apply to multiple elements on the page, and maybe in a few other cases where I want to remove information from the main body yet keep it readily accessible to the reader.  In the case of the box on page 3, it's essential; in the box on page 1 it applies both to force marching and terrain, while also being relevant to encumbrance later on, so I didn't want to risk readers missing it by placing it in just any one of those places, but I didn't want to feel the need to repeat it three times either.

I don't actually use them that often (twice in the 56 pages for the Player's Manual): a little goes a long way.

Tables: Again inspired by OSRIC, I've gone with green shading (I really like green).  However, I've alternated between white space and colour, whereas OSRIC goes all-colour all-the-time, and just varies the shading.  I think that reduces the usefulness of shading your table rows, which is intended to help guide the eyes across them.

Bullet Points: I like to use a little design that Word provides, rather than the standard dots--it just makes it look a touch less generic.  I also break up each point with a very small line break (from 3 to 4 points, depending on how much space I have on that page).  You could just stack it all directly on top of each other and it would generally read fine, but (again) I really like things to be able to breathe.

Drop Caps: That's what the giant capital "I" is called at the start of page 3.  Word makes doing this very easy (Insert --> Drop Cap), and it's a classic look.  I do it at the start of every chapter.

Art: While I used a lot of placeholder images early on (like in the old layout sample up top), all my art now is licensed stuff.  The bulk of my art comes from Dean Spencer and the late Martin McKenna.


So here we are.  Of course, after critiquing other peoples' hard work for two posts, I'm prepared for a bit of the like in return: no hard feelings.  Some of this is subjective, but I think the principles of making text readable are not so much, even if the result will be aesthetically displeasing to some.

Also, I've come across a very nice overview of layout with regards to RPG design, which can only help more.

Okay, now we can actually start designing and writing rules.
(Updated 2021-07)

18 October, 2017

Layout Part II: Send In The (Other) Clones

Last time I examined three retroclones--Adventurer Conqueror King System, Crypts & Things, and Swords & Wizardy--to see how they handled some of the issues surrounding actually getting the information within them to the reader.  Today I want to continue that by looking at a few other OSR games.

Blood & Treasure

Blood & Treasure tends towards a photo negative of ACKS--functional, but not very interesting--but whereas ACKS gets this effect primarily by drowning you in grey, B&T gets it by flooding you in white.  This first picture is a good example.


The chapter header idea is visually interesting, on a single-page basis.  However, the fact that it's always left-aligned, but can occur on either an odd or an even page, means that sometimes it will be on the inside of the page (towards the spine), making it harder to notice that you've hit the chapter you may be looking for when flipping through it as a print book.  If the author was determined to always have it left-aligned, strategically placed full-page art would ensure that new chapters always occurred on even-numbered pages (so the chapter header would be on the outside left).  Even then, it would be better on the right, because always-left can be more easily missed when flipping, due to our vision orienting to the right side when flipping through a book from front to back.  There's also the centred page number, which also contributes to poorer page flipping.

A big part of making B&T visually monotonous is its heavy reliance on uniform spacing.  All sections have the same padding, and there's no indents.  The section headers, unlike Swords & Wizardry, are only bolded versions of the standard B&T Cambria 9.5 point font (though using extra half-points in your fonts is a good choice: sometimes one point is too much either way, and many people miss that you can adjust things in this granular a fashion).  The larger headers are just 11 point, but still the same case: all-caps would have helped a lot.  Overall, it doesn't do a good job in helping the eye immediately break out sections.

At the same time, just look at this.  I love this so much.  Yes, you could cram all that movement info into a table and be done with it.  But this is so much more visually interesting, and by collecting each creature's relevant info under it while siphoning off all the rest, it's easier to read.  Of course, this comes at the expense of space, and it wouldn't work for all tables, but I'd say the trade-off is worth it here.

Dark Dungeons

Dark Dungeons is a bit unique amongst retroclones in that it aims to replicate the late Aaron Allston's Rules Cyclopedia, rather than the usual B/X or OD&D fare.  I think it's essential to any worthwhile review of a game that the reviewer understands what the author was going for.  At the same time, it's perfectly fair to question whether or not what the author sought was worth pursuing in the first place.

The original Rules Cyclopedia, being a compilation of Frank Mentzer's BECM rules series, was a whopping 304 pages (and still didn't manage to get everything in).  Any clone is therefore going to be faced with the serious problem of how to manage all this material.  Dark Dungeons comes in at 342 pages.  How does the author tackle this information dump?

Regrettably, I would not say very well.  DD has gone with a slightly larger font, line breaks after each para (instead of the Cyclopedia's indents), and more padding around its section headers, but none of this really solves the basic cramped feel that the Cyclopedia had.  The main issue is keeping the Cyclopedia's three-column layout, and in particular DD's decision to drastically cut down on the space between columns compared to the Cyclopedia, which really counteracts a lot of what DD improved elsewhere.  That's not to say the result is unreadable: I have no trouble getting at whatever the author is trying to convey at any given point.  But perusing this for any serious length of time would be tiring, and it's certainly not a pleasure to look at.

Above is a random Rules Cyclopedia page, for comparison.  Notice the wider column spacing, and the way the chapter titles are offset up top inside header boxes.  It's still way too busy for my liking, but despite some of the extra space DD devotes to its text, I have to say I think I'd still prefer to read the Cyclopedia, simply due to that wider between-column spacing.  My god that footer design does a good job of hiding the page numbers, though: for a while I thought the book didn't even have them.

In DD, the chapter titles are at once clear (reasonably sized, placed right up top) yet squished, as they have very little padding below them.

The book is broken into major "parts".  These are colour coded, so that the headers, example text, and even art shading is consistent for each part.  Normally I'm in favour of organization tricks such as this, as anything that subtly guides the reader is generally a good thing.  But the parts of the book (as opposed to its chapters) are so big that the visual cue winds up being rather meaningless.  Part 2 runs from page 17 to page 108, and contains all of character creation plus magic.  What does a reader knowing that they're in "Part 2" really gain?  All it really winds up doing is obscuring the images used in each part with the chosen Part hue (green, in the example image above).

Ultimately, the feeling I get from Dark Dungeons is that they've tried to tackle what really is an editing job with layout tricks.  The Cyclopedia is very conversational, and DD matches that.  But when you've got hundreds of pages, I think the best approach would be getting pretty ruthless with the "storytime with Uncle Allston" prose--fetching the red pens and getting down to business.  I have no doubt I could shave 50 pages from this, and use the extra space to perhaps switch to a two-column approach; overall, I think this is a case where slavish adherence hurt the project.

I can't stop laughing every time I come across Black Leaf and Elfstar in the DD examples, though.


OSRIC is a 1st edition AD&D clone.  Like Dark Dungeons, this obviously informed its layout and general aesthetic approach, but I think OSRIC does a much better job of squaring the circle of fidelity to the original source material while at the same time making improvements to that source.

OSRIC uses the same column spacing as the 1st ed DM's Guide, and a sans-serif font as well (although it's Optima in the new book vs. the original's Futura).  Also used is the line-break-instead-of-indent paragraph style.  The overall effect is very clean, and I really admire it.  I particularly like the use of colour, similar to ACKS.  However, here it's used as table, page number, and chapter header shading, instead of ACKS' keywording.  I like how large the corner-placed page numbers are: you can't miss those when page flipping.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Honestly, Lamentations makes me laugh.  Not because it does a bad job, but because its layout in some ways matches the tone of the book's art (as seen below I only have the artless free version, but shots of its art are easy to come by).

The fact that you have no doubt what sections are being covered above even though you're viewing just a thumbnail is basically what I mean.  It's just HEY, DO YOU LIKE SWIMMING?  WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SWIMMING.  24-point font for some books is reserved strictly for chapter headers.  LotFP laughs at your puny girlyman chapter headers: here it's for mere subsections.  It's huge and screaming and in your face.  I would be lying if I said it didn't work at the essential job of layout: conveying information effectively (and the book is well organized too).  It's just a bit too Tarrasque-school-of-layout for me to ever want to use it myself.

Blueholme Prentice Rules, 1st Printing

In my last post I looked at Crypts & Things and threw out an offhand comment about how fancy fonts can give character to chapter headers and other, similarly larger headings where all the greebles on the font don't impede your ability to view it because it's at so large a size.  At the same time, I cautioned against using such fonts for smaller headers.  Blueholme's original printing made that mistake.

This is at 100% magnification.  Even then, it's headers are rather hard to read; looking at this at 75% magnification or so on a monitor is a nightmare.  However, the author obviously realized the same thing, because viewing the October 2017 fourth printing shows that it's since been fixed.

EDIT: I've been informed that this is actually due to a rendering error with my PDF / reader and that that printing didn't actually appear that way.  Thanks Michael Thomas.

Summing Up

Okay, now that the scattershot overview of some aspects of some OSR games is done with, let's see what I can beg, borrow, and steal to put together my own.

  • First, I like ACKS's and OSRIC's occasional splash of colour.  At the same time, I don't want to overdo it, like colour coding my art (DD) or making all the tables entirely various shades of that colour (OSRIC).
  • Second, I'm going to stick to a two-column layout, and make sure I don't try to gain space by cheaping out on the space in between the columns.
  • Third, I'll want to make sure that my section headers are obvious, immediately guiding the eye like Swords & Wizardy's do.
  • Fourth, I'm going to want to make sure my text boxes have better borders than just the default skinny line, so they don't look amateurish.
  • Fifth, let's use nice big outside-edge page numbers.

Those are good general guidelines, I think. Next I'll put it all together for Simulacrum, my own game.

16 October, 2017

The Natural Starting Point

Okay, let's make a game.

We'll start at the beginning, of course.  No, that's not the Introduction: that would be leaping ahead of ourselves.  We need to start with layout.

Most people don't really care about layout.  Quite frankly, it usually shows.  However, there's no point in having a bitchin' ruleset if no one can read it or, more commonly, if no one wants to read it because it looks like an HVAC instruction manual.  Even if you have something readable, have you set up your book so that readers, at a glance, get a feel for the progression of information, without the font and colour choices making it exhausting?

To Nostalgia or Not to Nostalgia

The first step is to decide how hardcore retro I'm interested in being.  If I want one of those books that looks like it just rolled off the presses at Lake Geneva circa 1978, then that predetermines a lot of my approach.

If I do, I can be at least very grateful that all the detective work has already been done for me.  One need only open any of the modern WotC PDF reprints of old books and examine the font choices using Acrobat or what have you.  Better yet, I could go and visit this amazing site, which painstakingly breaks down every font used in every TSR D&D product.

But in the end, I'm not going to go with a 100% clone approach.  I'm not planning on doing it with the rules, and I see no reason to do it with layout, either.  The look of those old books is iconic, that can't be denied, but if we're not interested in the gimmick of slavish adherence then, quite frankly, we can do better.  I should hope so after 30 years of reflection and software advancement.

Some things are basic.  Don't use a terrible font, like Papyrus, or Comic Sans, or even worse, Comic Papyrus (yes it exists).  And try not to make your book look like some kind of jumbled roadkill.  But a lot of that is easier said than done.

Anyone who does layout like this should burn in hell.

Once I started work on this project, I bought or downloaded every retroclone I could.  I was interested in how the field as a whole tackled all the various rules issues and possible approaches, to be sure.  However, I was just as interested in how they chose to organize that information.  I'm going to examine a few of the major clones here and go through how they choose to do things.  I want to be clear that I have no interest in making light of the designers or all the work that's been put into these products.  This is dispassionate analysis.

Adventurer Conqueror King System

ACKS is a very clean layout.  It generally takes its own path, the only clear nod to old school layout being the habit of solid block paras with no paragraph indents (as seen in the 1st edition Player's Handbook and DM's Guide).

The base font is Minion Pro, a subtly serifed font.  It works is about all I have to say about it.  Spacing on the page is sufficient: in particular, there's adequate column spacing, so that even the above page full of info is still maneagable.  Page numbers in the corners rather than the middle is a good choice: if you're actually intending to use this as a book, flipping through it means you'll see numbers at the corners, but have to work more to see them if they're in the middle of each page.  In other words, corner page numbers allow for faster perusal at the tabletop.  The keywording in blue is nice too.  I think a subtle use of colour is great; the only thing is not to rely on the colour alone (which ACKS does not).  If you use it as a bonus feature, while understanding that whoever prints the book out may just choose to go greyscale and lose it, then you've added something for some readers and cost the rest nothing.  Lastly, the tabs on the page edge are another really nice quick-perusal aid.

What don't I like?  I'm not a fan of putting the book's name on every page.  If people don't know by page 200 what they're reading, something has gone terribly wrong.  It's a waste.

The use of offset flavour text once in a while is nice (not pictured), but the font chosen for it makes it hard to read.
While I think the spacing is sufficient, I'd say it's only that: the pages overall often feel a bit stuffed.  There are a lot of pages in the book like the first sample I've provided, and it gets wearisome after a while (admittedly, the shots aren't at 100% sizing, and the book looks better when you zoom in to natural size).  The tables being just various shades of grey adds to this effect.  This is all only to the point of general aesthetics: the book itself is perfectly readable, but I like pretty if possible as well (to be fair, ACKS is 270 pages, so that there's a lot to cram in, which has to be considered).  The overall feel I get from ACKS is drab but very serviceable.

Crypts & Things Remastered

C&T received a graphical upgrade after it was out for a few years, and this really helped its look.

I like the use of distinctive fonts for chapter titles, and the one used here (Moria Citadel) is particularly good.  I'm much less a fan for use below the level of chapter header, as C&T does with its Header 2s.  What you gain in characterfulness by using these sorts of fonts, you can sacrifice in readability.  Still, it's not a serious issue here, unlike some overly grotty fonts.

Tables in the remaster are improved by the use of gradients to make them easier to consult (in the original they were just all-white boxes).  However, the default thin lines used in their construction keeps them from looking as good as they could be.  Thicker or double lines make things look a lot more professional.

Unlike with the shot above, this shows a full page, white space and all.  C&T overdoes the white space at times, leaving things feeling a bit empty.  The text could run more to the outside of the page (the left, here).  This is particularly noticeable when you examine the column widths, which are really tight, and the needlessly squished table.  There's no reason why that table couldn't have been brought to the full width of the page, giving the large amount of info contained within it room to breathe.  The overall effect here is cramped and overly spacious at the same time.

This shows off some of the best of C&T.  The space between the columns in the middle is still a bit too tight, but each section is clearly differentiated from one another.  The headers could use some padding up top to set them off more from the paras preceding them, however.  I do like the integration of flavour text and rules text: this is tricky as all hell, but the "Everyone can backstab" lines are superb.  There's no confusion between flavour and mechanics, and you manage to get the rules reinforcing the theme.  It's great, even if I don't think I'd be inclined to write that way.

Swords & Wizardry

This is a shot from the S&W Complete Rulebook (I don't have the other S&W releases).  For me, it's pretty much S&W in a nutshell.  Again, this is a 75% zoom shot, so it's not really as cramped as it looks here, but yes, the text really is in general quite cramped.  9-point Times New Roman, no padding or kerning, and very very small para indents make for a claustrophobic feel any time a significant text block appears.  This is made worse by the book's tendency to avoid new paras: many entries are solid single-para blocks where you really could add a new para or two to break it up somewhat.  And our old nemesis, centre-page page numbers, reappears (and without much padding between it and the text above it, so it's harder to pick out).

At the same time, when the book does want to offset something, it does so superbly.  Its text boxes look sharp thanks to their double borders, and it uses an eminently noticeable header style with sufficient padding that immediately tells the eye that something new is happening.  The art here is crammed a bit too close to the text, and I don't like the mix of sans serif Century Gothic for the spell stats while sticking to seriffed Times New Roman for everything else (it clashes rather than complements), but overall, the spell section in particular is very easy to peruse and looks very sharp.

Onwards & Upwards

I'll look at a few other other books next time, and then we'll draw some conclusions and start picking layout elements for Simulacrum.

08 October, 2017

Defining OSR, Defining Your Game

So, what's OSR fantasy gaming?  This is pretty well-covered territory, but I'm interested in its relevance to design in particular.  The first place I think people fall down on this is not realizing that there's two separate elements to it:

1) The Mechanical
2) The Thematic

You see, I needed an image in front of the next one down, or people might think I was blogging about 3rd edition.


Broadly, OSR games tend to be rules-light.  The GM is expected to make up rules more often, or adjudicate situations quickly with a simple die roll and some improvisation.  The lightness especially shows when it comes to player customization and character generation.  This is in part a reaction to later editions of D&D (and other games) which added more and more gameplay complexity, but it's also a recognition that people had a great deal of fun with B/X and BE(CMI), and that's valid even if 3rd edition and the like had never existed.  OSR doesn't do Whiggish game design: not all change is progress.  I'll be generally aiming for these ideas in Simulacrum, my clone, as well.  At the same time, pretending that people haven't had a good idea in 40 years is silly: there's definite mechanical booty lying around in other editions and games to be plundered.

Less of this, then.

There's really a lot of specific mechanical stuff that's worth talking about--the approach to feats, skill systems, class structure, front-loaded vs gameplay crunch, and so on--but those are things that should each be considered in turn when they come up when we reach that design stage of the game.


Most of us know the thematic elements of OSR play, so I'll only briefly summarize them.  OSR games tend to emphasize clear lines of agency.  The GM will wind up determining a lot more than in more modern games, not just how the game plays out in general (a GM's traditional role) but the very rules themselves, because much less is mechanically codified.  However, in terms of plot, the GM is expected to be much more of a facilitator than a storyteller: player agency here takes prime of place.  For example, the GM may have an adventure laid out, but if the players decide that some element of it doesn't match what they're interested in or what they think their character's would do, then the players are liable to take off and go do something else, and the GM is expected to be okay with this.

One of the major departures of later games from OSR play is the reversal of the above roles.  Mechanics become a lot more player-facing--the environment and campaign setting are more codified, characters more mechanically in-depth, and the players more aware of it all--while the GM takes a much greater part in determining player agency (or lack thereof), thanks to the increasing primacy of the story (and then the metaplot, or grand story); players increasingly became cogs in a story machine--trains on the track, with no chance of leaving the rails.

OSR games also tend to be less heroic.  Players are graverobbers, mercenaries.  They may eventually rise to great heights of personal power, complete with their own private armies and fortresses.  However, and despite the ample dose of heroism contained in Appendix N and other inspirations to D&D such as Conan, that's not at all guaranteed.  It's not even a given that you'll live that long.  Instead, you might get killed on first day out by a garlic bread golem.  Or a squirrel.  Or dysentery.  There's no guarantee that you'll be up to a particular challenge.  There's emphasis on stealth, on cleverness, on resource management, and much, much less on plot armour keeping you from paying for your boneheaded charge into the orc horde.

I can take 'em


I'm sure you noticed a lot more text there for the thematic section, even in a summational state.  In part that's because I want to talk about a lot of the mechanics stuff later, but still, it's not a coincidence.  I think a lot of what makes OSR play old-school is in the thematic elements, i.e. the play style, not the mechanics.  This can be inserted into a game, but what's interesting about old D&D is that it wasn't usually called out so much as just assumed.  This makes sense when you consider it was the first RPG, and that any differing methods of play had to literally be invented, but it does result in some interesting design lessons.

The biggest one for me it that, despite how it started out, it turns out you can run one hell of a storygaming railroad using old-school D&D.  Hell, it should be obvious that not only can you, people did.  People tend to define the close of the golden age of OSR D&D with the advent of Ravenloft, Dragonlance and the story-based module, not any great rules change; the release of 2nd edition AD&D (which in terms of its mechanical support for plot-based play was not any different than 1st ed) was just the headstone on the grave.

To go further, I'd argue that not only are OSR rulesets not antagonistic to story-based play, early editions of D&D--the very heart of the OSR--support story-based gaming so well that this overwrote both the original intent of the rules and the gameplay style of its creators.  D&D left behind old-school play while under old-school rules, long before 3rd and 4th ed ever appeared.

It's not their fault that things suck.

This above isn't an attempt to lay the ideological underpinnings for Simulacrum to be a Dragonlance-based plot-heavy game or encourage people to buy up railway stocks.  Rather, it's a note of warning that, while mechanics do shape play style, which in turn shapes your game experience, no ruleset will be sufficiently OSR through mechanics alone.

Theme Meets Mechanics

So what do I do then, if I want the game to play as an example of OSR design?

I think the best we can do, were we so inclined, is to not just attempt to write rules but explain them, and not just in some GM's Advice section.  That is, write a rule that leads to the goal we have in mind, and then explicitly call out that goal for the reader.  Here's rules for how much time everything takes; now here's an explanation as to why time management matters in-game and, out of game, why it's worth doing.  It's providing a director's commentary right in with the game.

That would help, no doubt.  At the same time, part of me thinks that railroaders are gonna railroad, and wonders if I'm making a game or a teaching tool.  Those aren't necessarily two different things (one only has to look at Mentzer's brilliant and best-selling Basic set to understand that).  But maybe GMs and their players are going to make choices on those topics themselves and there's nothing to be gained by trying to convince them otherwise if it's not essential to my own goals.  Or to put it another way, does it matter if people want to run the Dragonlance modules using my game?  Is that truly the fault of the game?

It's an interesting debate, and one I haven't settled internally yet.  Some of my drafts have these play notes, and some have been already deleted.  We'll see what we can manage this last part in an elegant fashion, because this could also conflict with my "lean and mean" principle (content vs. bloat is another thing I'll blog about eventually).

07 October, 2017

The Moment You've Been Waiting For

I had a radical idea which would change the face of game publishing forever.

Just kidding: actually, I just wanted to write Yet Another Bloody Retroclone (YABR).

What's the point?  Well, in the larger sense, none, which is to say that I have no illusions that what I'm doing is markedly original or really "needed" by the already well-serviced Old-School Renaissance fanbase.  However, this isn't a blog designed to shill a new game.  Rather, my real interest here is in the process of design itself.

The thing that makes the OSR community stand out compared to most others is the degree to which its participants love to tinker with the rules.  Even if the vast majority of what is being done is focused on re-iterating the core B/X design, there's still a lot of playing around with mechanics and rules philosophy when the community is taken as a whole.

And that's what really draws me to it. I've been designing or altering games for as long as I've played them. In some cases, I felt that the originals weren't doing the job right. In other cases, I wanted to add to an already excellent base. I wrote an add-on for the Battleforce mass combat rules for Battletech on a 286's BASIC editor (which did not at all like being treated as a word processor) when it was clear that there would never be a proper expansion. When one supplement for Palladium's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG listed a pile of superpowers that could be adapted from their superhero RPG, but told you to go get that book for the full details (impossible for a poor kid in a small town in the pre-internet days), I wrote a new powers chapter instead. It was undoubtedly horrifically broken, but that's beside the point. I wrote a pen and paper Master of Orion adaptation and ran a dozen players through it for a year.  Today I volunteer and freelance on occasion for Catalyst Game Labs on Battletech.

Oh man, this book.

My proudest moment is the Battlemech Manual, an attempt to take the enormously cumbersome and clunky base rules of the game and boil them down to a lean, mean, re-organized, rewritten version that someone could pick up and actually expect to have a game with.  It takes the heart of the game, adds the advanced rules that people tend to use, drops what people don't, re-organizes everything so that people can actually find stuff, and rewrites it from scratch so that things are a) clearer, and b) shorter.

My baby.

I enjoyed making the Manual especially because (over and above the chance to put my stamp on a game I've been playing for twenty years) I'm essentially an editor: I love taking work that I admire and either put a new spin on it to suit my own purposes or try to fix what I see are failures in the original design.  I like writing fiction, but I especially love writing Sherlock Holmes stories: the challenge of trying to do justice to someone else's iconic work, to capture that long-ago Victorian feel, all the while avoiding the pitfalls that so often come about when playing in someone else's sandbox. Again, iterating on someone's brilliant previous work.  What I'm essentially saying is that I'm a hack.

Returning to the D&D, I've noticed that there's a great deal of talk about bits of old-school D&D design scattered here and there around the net, my favourite being Delta's D&D Hotspot. However, I've never seen a systematic step-by-step retroclone walkthrough, where the author starts from the beginning, attempts to understand what the original authors were trying to accomplish, decides if that works for them, and then explains how and why they're going to do something different. So that's what I intend to do here: a real in-depth discussion of game design, specifically as it relates to creating an OSR clone of Basic D&D.  We'll look at general layout, arrangement of material, and other often overlooked items in addition to the usual consideration of mechanics.  I'll also try to ensure that I carefully consider rules philosophy and how that ties into mechanics: what makes an OSR game, and how can I ensure that I don't just choose the best rule, but the mechanic that most suits the mood or flavour I'm aiming for.

That brings us to the OSR, particularly the need to define it.  If not as bad as Potter Stewart's legendary definition of pornography, there's a lot of discord over defining just what makes a game OSR, and what "proper" OSR play looks like

Do we really need to do this?  I think so.  I'm going to try and define my game as OSR after all, and if I can't say what that is then it doesn't speak well of my efforts.  Beyond that, something I learned when working on the Battlemech Manual is that if you don't define what you're going for in your project from the start, you can be in for all sorts of problems.  Scope creep.  Rules at odds with one another.  Missed opportunities.  A disjointed feel to the book as a whole.  So in my next post I'll make a quick overview of OSR and, more importantly, what it means to my attempt to write my OSR Simulacrum.