Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Acquiring RPGs in the “New Normal”...or D&D 5th, PDFs & Kickstarter

Among the many sometimes cryptic developments on this front last week, Wizards of the Coast announced the three 320-page core rulebooks for D&D 5th edition (sometimes called D&D Next) would carry a price tag of $49.95 each. The news started me thinking how we acquire new roleplaying games today. The “new normal” seems to consist of thick rules tomes with high production values and a correspondingly higher prices; but several technology driven options buck that “normal” standard.

Back in the “Golden Age of Roleplaying Games” of the early and mid 1980s (for me, anyway), I bought my games at Branchville Hobby Shop, got my industry news from print copies of Dragon Magazine, and could buy a new game, rulebook, or adventure every month or so thanks to a modest allowance. Those seeking to share their works or develop their own games did so among their small circles of gaming friends unless they somehow broke into the existing professional roleplaying game publishing structure as a freelancer or staffer. Those publishing and sales models remained well-entrenched until the emergence of the Internet Age, which suddenly opened up creative and distribution channels to the masses: fans with their homebrew games and campaigns, undiscovered professionals, even established companies seeking a wider reach.

Today gamers still have the purchasing venues of yore – the venerable Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS), though that, too, has been forced to evolve into a community hub within a storefront – but the means of bringing games to publication, all linked to the means consumers have of acquiring them, have coalesced into three principle methods: powerhouse publishers, online PDF sales, and crowd-funding. I realize this is a broad generalization. As this blog’s “comments note” always indicates, I propose this to encourage a civilized discussion of the matter. I’m sure I’m missing some publication methods, but these three seem to form the foundation for today’s game publishing and distribution.

Powerhouse Publishers

Several powerhouse publishers exist who can produce extremely high-quality product with massive popularity among fans and brand recognition enough to get them into nearly every brick-and-mortar FLGS and big-box bookstore. These factors enable them to charge what many might consider today’s “new normal” rates for core rulebooks, gorgeous, full-color, hardcover, thick tomes with price tags pushing $50 and $60, sometimes even more. Wizards of the Coast can charge $49.95 for each of the three D&D core rulebooks because the brand remains so prominent that the customer base – newcomers, in-store players, fans of prior editions, and nostalgic old-timers seeking to complete their collection – will pay those prices. It’s the same reason Fantasy Flight Games can price its Star Wars roleplaying game lines so high (and can actually charge for the “privilege” of playtesting them...), not to mention a steady stream of new ships for its X-Wing Miniatures Game hardcore fans and competitive tournament players snatch up. Even D&D’s principle competitor, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, costs $49.99 for a whopping 576-page full-color, hardcover core rulebook.

I’m not going to debate whether these products are worth the prices, whether these sums are or are not the inflation-adjusted equivalent of what gamers paid to buy into roleplaying games during the 1980s, whether the middle class still has the same relative buying power after years of stagnant income growth, or whether this pricing is going to kill the roleplaying game industry. It’s simply the “new normal” for games coming from traditional publishers.

I’m sure other prominent roleplaying game brands exist with similarly expensive buy-in levels for the core game, but they don’t possess the powerhouse qualities necessary to promote them front-and-center in FLGS or big-box bookstore venues. This isn’t to say other second- and third-tier publishers don’t exist or aren’t successful; they just aren’t having as much of an impact on the overall roleplaying game industry beyond a frequently large and vociferous nucleus of dedicated fans and some occasional newcomers. They don’t always have the influence and brand recognition to get their products on the shelves of major bookstore chains or in hobby stores that stock only the essential core roleplaying games or the most popular and fleeting “flavor of the month” with the local crowd.

I cannot say I’ve recently purchased a roleplaying game core book from any of what I’d consider today’s powerhouse publishers. I have little interest in buying into the latest iteration of D&D – not at $50 for each of three books, and not with a library full of other games that might satisfy my needs in that genre – though I might just buy the starter set since I have an interest in such approaches to introducing new players into the adventure gaming hobby. I’m not a huge fan of “tome” games anyway since I’m maintaining a preference for short-and-sweet games given a lack of time and focus in my life right now. I can hardly recall the last roleplaying game I purchased with a price tag around $50; possibly Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space or the late Guardians of Order’s Tekumel: The Empire of the Petal Throne, both purchased based on the settings more than the rules and sadly used only for personal reference and not actual play.


The emergence of crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have provided independent creators and fledgling publishers with a new venue for bringing their roleplaying games to production. The process essentially allows publishers to promote and collect financial support for a game, raising funds to produce it, and shipping it to backers upon completion (usually with enough left over to form solid stock for later direct orders and dissemination through the traditional distribution chain). Savvy established publishers – particularly from the second- and third-tier of roleplaying game companies – have also taken advantage of crowd-funding’s benefits to gauge interest in new ideas and pre-fund game production in a process some might call pre-ordering.

Pricing for such roleplaying game projects varies depending on the production values, with higher buy-in levels for full-color, hardcover books (although most print game include PDF rewards, either on their own or along with printed books). The costs for such games remains commensurate with offerings through the mainstream adventure gaming hobby, with the typical high-quality core rules still coming in around $50.

This venue has brought to publication many innovative, original roleplaying games from both newcomers and established designers...concepts that might otherwise not reached publication through the traditional channels. It still carries risks – both from shortfalls of funding and from extreme excess of funding (and promises of what’s delivered) – but it’s offered an innovative way for people to “shop” for new roleplaying games. The crowd-funding process also emphasizes community involvement and interaction in a developing game; backers receive updates (some of them exclusive) and can interact with creators through a public comment forum. Savvy creators also aggressively use social media to raise interest in their projects and offer further opportunities for interaction.

The process for roleplaying games shares some of the drawbacks inherent in the crowd-funding system. Games that look great might not reach funding goals. Some deliver far past the estimated completion date thanks to creative backlogs, production delays, design time for extensive stretch goals, and other unforeseen circumstances. The promised quality and content doesn’t always meet backer expectations.

Although I’ve backed more board and card games through Kickstarter, I’ve supported a few high-priced roleplaying game projects: Monte Cook’s enormously popular and innovative Numenera; Jeff Dee’s Bethorm: Plane of Tekumel (to continue my sad devotion to that early and ground-breaking campaign setting); and Wicked North Games’ Westward, to which I contributed as an author. (I’ve discussed my involvement backing game-related Kickstarter projects before.)

Online PDF Sales

The emergence of the Internet Age quickly gave rise to online distribution of roleplaying game core rules, initially through websites for ordering print copies from established publishers and subsequently through purchasing PDF rulebooks through sites like OneBookShelf’s popular DriveThruRPG.com and RPGNow.com. Technology available through home computers and internet connections has lowered the entry threshold for creators, both fans seeking to share their ideas and independent professionals without the conventional infrastructure of editorial and art departments, printers, warehouses, and wholesale distributors powerhouse and other traditional publishers rely upon.

Prices for PDF core rulebooks typically come in far lower than the print equivalent, since buyers who want physical copies can simply print them and “bind” them in whatever method they please. Of course, print-on-demand options for PDF purchases sometimes bring the costs closer to the $50 “new normal” seen in other physically produced game. And some folks just reference PDF rulebooks on their digital devices, completely avoiding the analog component. The electronic fulfillment of PDF orders satisfies the growing (and one might argue the now chronic) need for instant gratification, putting new rules in the hands of gamers almost immediately. Laptops, smart-phones, tablet devices, and seemingly ubiquitous internet access all help perpetuate the continued creation and sale of this electronic roleplaying game rules content.

This kind of access and distribution combined with a new nostalgic movement – the so-called “old school renaissance retro-clones” that revels in recreating the gaming experience of yore based in the earliest editions of D&D and other games (and in some cases evolved with innovative mechanics like Dungeon World and Old School Hack) – to increase the already vast host of free or low-cost PDF roleplaying game rules available, particularly to those seeking some form of the D&D play experience. These core rules materials range from short missives to massive electronic tomes; while they don’t always have the high production values of the powerhouse publisher products, they essentially offer a classic roleplaying game experiences to the masses without the high financial investment.

Although I publish roleplaying game projects in PDF myself (both free and paid), I don’t spend a lot of money buying similar material myself; I download free material that piques my interest, though I don’t print much of it and tend to lose track of it after an initial perusal. I prefer my roleplaying games in print format; I suspect those who share my old-fashioned sentiments get more of their roleplaying games from powerhouse publishers and crowd-funding than PDF venues.

Technology has certainly played a central part in all three ways consumers acquire their core roleplaying game rules. Powerhouse publishers rely on graphics and layout programs to give their products the slick design and illustrations that attract gamers. Crowd-funding wouldn’t’ be possible without the promotional buzz generated by social networking and online pledge collection. Electronic PDF content couldn’t be created or distributed without computers and the internet. All three venues continue bringing innovative, entertaining roleplaying game to the market. How do you acquire your roleplaying game core rules?

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Islands in the Sea of Dread

After last week’s missive about how modules B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and X1 The Isle of Dread served as models for a “sandbox” adventuring environment, I looked for an old folder with some of the earliest Dungeons & Dragons material I created way back in my high school days, during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying Games” (otherwise known as the early and mid-1980s).

I’d previously mentioned how X1’s two-page spread map of the Known World (later known as Mystara) served our gaming group well. Characters hired a ship and crew and spent after-school hours sailing the Sea of Dread, fighting off wandering sea creatures and exploring the disparate islands scattered between the Thanegioth Archipelago and the civilized kingdoms in the north. To this end I chose several small islands on that map and “detailed” them with denizens relevant to the players’ interests...at this stage of our gaming development that amounted to killing things and taking their stuff. Some featured a map – I loved drawing maps at the time, especially using all the wonderful symbols included in official TSR maps of the time – and a brief one- or two-page overview of what heroes might find there.

Goodness, these were terrible. Brief descriptions with no character elements, plot, motivation, or depth. Lots of future tense, something I’ve come to avoid in adventure text as a writer and editor. Many, many spelling errors (I was in junior high at the time). Slavish reliance on the encounter and monster styles of the time (percentages that creatures would inhabit certain locations, numbers of monsters presented as male, female, and children, notes on valuable loot). And, of course, few encounters made any sense or contributed to any greater story arc other than the heroes exploring, killing, and looting.

The islands certainly offered adventure for those seeking it. One held a coastal pirate stronghold with an interior inhabited by prehistoric beasts. Two adjacent islands hosted identical facilities – a port city, castle with village, small navy, one random monster lair – though one maintained a friendly disposition toward outsiders (and thus the characters) and the other remained hostile. Two islands served as sanctuaries for mythical creatures – one for pegasi and another for unicorns – at least until the heroes showed up to capture and tame the pegasi or hunt the unicorns for profit on the mainland. Perhaps the most detailed island hosted settlements of centaurs and cyclops divided by a high mountain chain; the centaurs spent their day in their village or playing in the hills while, ironically enough, the cyclops herded sheep and cultivated vineyards for wine, with occasional raids against the terribly unproductive centaurs. Much of this fare – indeed of most of my D&D creations at the time – was clearly inspiredby Ray Harryhausen films.

These islands, maps, and encounters served to pass several afternoons after school with the neighborhood kids with whom we frequently ran D&D adventures. Their escapades were little more than a continual quest to amass wealth for some future plans on the Known World: constructing fleets of battle galleys, conquering some small islands for their own dominion, or even just building an island fortress where they could gather retainers to pursue their new, grander goals.

The “Isle of the Centaurs,” as it was rather inaccurately called, perhaps provides the only interesting kernel of an adventuring setting worth revising. So, just for fun – and to try my hand at creating a non-linear “sandbox” environment, as I discussed last week – I went ahead and quickly drafted a small setting salvaged from that truly awful material I created more than 30 years ago....

Isle of Vintares

A System-Neutral Setting for Medieval Fantasy Roleplaying Games

This remote island hosts a small settlement of wine-making centaurs, a roving band of herd-keeping cyclops, and several other solitary denizens who prefer the distant seclusion from civilization. Seafarers who navigate the treacherous shoals surrounding the island can land on sandy beaches along the northern shores; the southern reaches offer daunting cliff faces and almost-certain doom to ships.

A community of centaurs inhabits the northern portions of the island, tending the vineyards growing in the uplands in the central region and fermenting wine to consume during occasional, frenzied ceremonies honoring their equine god of prosperity. Five cyclopes range the rugged hills and mountainous valleys covering the island’s southern portion, collectively managing unruly herds of sheep and goats. Both factions occasionally clash, the cyclopes raiding the settlement for sport and wine and the centaurs guarding against attacks and the incursion of herds which devastate vineyards in their constant quest for food.

Heroes might arrive on the island from several routes pursuing a number of motives. They might discover it during the course of a voyage elsewhere, or could wash up on shore after a storm or monster destroys their vessel at sea. Rumors could motivate them to seek out and explore the island, perhaps to establish export of a rich wine supposedly made there or investigate rumors of a long-lost temple of chaos hidden somewhere on the island. The centaurs naturally remain suspicious of any outsiders, but might befriend them if heroes prove they can benefit the centaurs through trade or a strategic alliance against the cyclopes.

Chance Encounters

Characters have a 1 in 6 chance of happening upon a random encounter when traveling overland across the island.

1D8     Roll Chance Encounter
1–2      An errant herd of sheep and goats wanders aimlessly; a worried cyclops searching
            for them arrives shortly.
3–4      A colony of giant rats brought ashore by a shipwreck aggressively protects its newly
            established warren.
5–6     A skirmish between an intrusive cyclops and a small centaur patrol.
7         A carnivorous vine bush tempts with blood-red berries but lashes out to tear at
           anyone coming too close.
8         The heroes startle a skinny, wild-bearded man with crazy eyes gathering food;
           upon spotting strangers he cries out and scurries off into the impenetrable underbrush.


1. Centaur Village. The main centaur settlement consists of simple houses built of wood, stone, and thatch with nearby vegetable gardens. A few artisans provide basic goods for the village; the potter and woodcarver create household items, the cooper specializes in barrels and other wine-making apparatus, and a blacksmith forges simple metal implements and repairs old and salvaged materials, including weapons. About 75 adult centaurs live here with about 20 children. All work to ensure the settlement survives, toiling in the vineyards or the winery, tending gardens, patrolling against the cyclopes incursions, and tending to household life. The blacksmith, Kallack, serves as the unofficial chief, though he shares governing duties with Varta, who oversees the winery. Kallack keeps an open mind regarding outsiders who find their way to the island; they can bring new goods and ideas that can benefit the centaur settlement.

2. Vineyards. The uplands leading to the island’s mountainous region contain meandering streams and vineyards of wild grapes. Carefully tended by the centaurs for generations, they yield fine red grapes they crush and ferment into a heady wine. During the day small teams of centaurs roam the vineyards tending vines and, in season, gathering grapes.

3. Winery & Caves. A cluster of shelters, presses, workshops, and huts stands near the center of the vineyards, the hub of the centaur wine-making efforts. Here they gather grapes, crush them, filter the juice, and ferment them in barrels built in the village stored in a cool, dry cave covered by the main winery building. A well-used path winds from here to the village, worn by centaurs hauling carts with empty and full wine casks. An elder centaur named Varta supervises the workers in the vineyards and the winery, usually about 20 centaurs, but more during the harvest time. Varta remains vocal in his suspicion of outsiders visiting the island; in his eyes they can only bring misfortune and ruin.

4. Temple Glade. A dell ringed by tall trees forms a natural amphitheater centered on a small yet ancient temple. A charred patch of dirt in front of the worn temple steps shows where the centaurs burn a great bonfire during their occasional, wine-fueled celebrations to Ekinus, their horse god of nomadic prosperity. Such ceremonies occur twice a year, once upon completion of the grape harvest and again in the spring when the new wine is ready. The centaurs do not permit outsiders on the island to witness the raucous music, dancing, singing, and drinking central to these festivities. The temple itself bears no writing or imagery linking it to the worship or Ekinus or any other deity; no oracle lives here and no priest presides over ceremonies, yet something from distant times might still lurk beneath the worn flagstones and old foundations.

5. Cyclops Pastures. The southern mountainous region, with many grassy valleys and cool streams, remains the domain of five cyclopes and their roaming, ravenous herds of sheep and goats, which provide their primary sustenance. The cyclopes generally avoid each other given their contentious nature, but sometimes join forces to raid the centaur winery or round up errant herds. The area contains many caves the beasts use for shelter; each contains a pile of old fleeces used for bedding, a fire pits near the entrance, and secret niche, pit, or shelf where the creatures stash any treasure (usually a sack or two of gold pieces, jewelry, and other odd valuables collected from shipwreck victims and worth from 100-800 gold coins).

6. Castaway Hideout. The lone survivor of a shipwreck has made his home in a series of cliff-side caves that offer access to both the churning surf and – through several secret entrances – the island’s hilly region. The crazy castaway spends most of his days foraging for food, pilfering grapes, snatching wayward goats, and babbling quietly to his long-departed crew members. Though he’s generally harmless, he’s paranoid of people infiltrating his caves, protected by some elaborate booby traps. On the rare days when the seas are extremely calm he ventures out to the remains of his old ship to salvage wood or other items using a crudely built raft.

7. Eagle Aerie. A giant eagle keeps an aerie near the top of the highest mountain peak. The enormous bird takes little interest in the island’s inhabitants – other than occasionally making off with a large sheep for its dinner – but aggressively defends the area against any intrusive flying creatures seeking temporary sanctuary or permanent home. The cyclopes resent it for hunting their sheep but cannot climb to the aerie or effectively attack the soaring eagle.

Adventure Hooks

Trade Guild Mission: A prominent trading guild hires the characters and provides them with a ship and crew to sail the seas in search of a legendary island with the most succulent wine-making grapes in the world. Supplied with trading goods, the heroes must find the island and establish a trade agreement for vine cuttings, grapes, or wine to satisfy the trading guild’s growing appetite for new wealth.

Missing Mage: Following rumors of a crazy castaway on a distant island, the characters seek to claim a reward posted by a regal family seeking the return of a long-lost relative, a famous mage who once set sail across the seas but never returned. Is the madman stranded on the Isle of Vintares the missing mage or simply an insane common sailor?

Temple of Xillagyges: A secretive enclave of priests provide the heroes with a map to the lost island temple to their god and a small fortune to outfit a ship. They promise greater wealth and a share in a profitable religion if they find the ruins and retrieve significant relics. The characters might find a hidden entrance to the underground sanctuary in the centaur’s temple glade, hidden at the back of a cyclops cave, or carved from the sheer coastal cliffs. Ravenous undead and mindless vermin inhabit the abandoned temple to Xillagyges – an ancient god of slaughter – guarding a treasury of powerful artifacts that could enable the covert cultists to revive the violent deity’s religion.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

B2 & X1: The Original Sandbox Adventures

The roleplaying game community has long waged a contentious debate over linear “railroad” and more free-form “sandbox” style adventures. For those looking for inspiration or guidance writing a setting-driven scenario – or who aspire to veer their adventure-writing styles toward such fare – the classic Basic Dungeons & Dragons modules B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and X1 The Isle of Dread serve as ideal examples from the earliest days of the adventure gaming hobby.

I’m guilty of writing what many might label “railroading” adventures, though I consider them more based on linear plots with episodic encounters that still allow for variable approaches from characters and some alternate outcomes (a point I’m sure loyal readers would love to argue); many games for which I’ve written use cinematic settings which focus more on plots rather than sandbox-style settings. As a writer I come from a more narrative, story-oriented background, a style I fall back on when visualizing and creating scenarios. In my occasional urge to broaden my horizons and try new things I found myself looking at the B2 and X1 D&D modules, satisfying early gaming experiences as filtered through the foggy lens of nostalgic memory – to see what elements made a good sandbox adventure.

One might more accurately describe this scenario dichotomy as those based on plotted encounters (necessarily linear in the style of a story) and others focusing on vast settings offering more freedom of action, with players and their heroes determining any “plot” based on their interaction with locations and non-player characters. Where the “railroading” adventure relies on plotted outline with encounters based on places and characters, the “sandbox” scenario creates a vast, interactive environment based on the premise that heroes might wander anywhere to encounter anything and anyone fitting the environment’s general theme. This requires a bit more development than fleshing out a story-based outline containing mostly the relevant locations and adversaries necessary to move action from one plot-point to the next. It’s not to say such adventures contain no plot at all; they present thematic environments for heroes to explore, working through encounters and exposing small plots along the way in more generally thematic rather than story-driven play.

B2 The Keep on the Borderlands offers a rich adventuring locale with three distinct elements: the keep, which provides a base of operations for characters and a “civilized” place for intrigues; the Caves of Chaos, a warren of demi-human lairs and a temple of evil for heroes to explore and clear out; and a few secondary locations for further adventures (the hermit, bandit camp, lizardman mound, spiders, and even something for gamemasters to populate themselves, the Caves of the Unknown). The environment offered players lots of options within the premise of seeking adventure on the wild borderlands: dungeon crawls through creature lairs, occasional forays into the wilderness (possibly to foil plots to destroy the keep), and interaction/conspiracy with the keep’s residents. I have vague recollections of character plots to break into the loan bank or private apartments to steal valuable items from the keep’s denizens, few of which ended successfully.

X1 The Isle of Dread flips the paradigm in in the Basic/Expert D&D format from dungeon crawl with surrounding wilderness to an entire wilderness environment with a few dungeon crawls. Combining elements from King Kong and The Lost World with typical D&D fare, it offers an entire tropical island to explore in what some might come to call the “hex crawl” style: the party of adventurers exploring one hex after another, clearing out wandering monsters, finding clues to fuel their interest, and resolving set location encounters. Along the way they find several mapped areas, including the climactic dungeon crawl at the center of the island. As in B2, X1 provides a native village as a convenient base of operations, though nothing as stable and secure as the good old keep on the borderlands. My gaming group of neighborhood kids didn’t spend too much time exploring the Isle of Dread; but we did put the two-page spread map of the Known World (later known as Mystara) to good use. Characters hired a ship and crew and spent after-school afternoons sailing the Sea of Dread, fighting off wandering sea creatures and exploring the disparate islands scattered between the Thanegioth Archipelago and the civilized kingdoms in the north.

Both modules provide complete adventuring environments: a region to explore, specific locations (both broad encounters and detailed dungeons), and a base for resupply and recuperation (and perhaps some additional intrigue). Gamemasters have plenty of territory in which to create their own encounters. The modules make some assumptions about the heroes’ reasons to adventure in these areas – usually general exploration, conquest, and plunder – though some might consider these basic premises for involving characters in local quests “railroading.”
Still, once one gets past the premise for heroes entering a location, the encounters and dungeon crawls (and even wandering monsters) provide a structured environment for free exploration with a greater illusion of free will.

B2 and X1 provide solid guidelines for creating open “sandbox” adventuring environments:

1) Start with an interesting region filled with potential scenario-hook locations and a general reason to explore it.

2) Establish a base from which the heroes can venture, someplace that provides a safe haven for resupply and recuperation, a home for interesting allies and covert adversaries, and a strategic asset to defend from enemies.

3) Populate the area with general encounters that don’t require a map (or can use a generic one); they should include one or two paragraphs of notes and necessary stats or references, but aren’t full-fledged dungeon crawls.

4) Create a few fully developed dungeon crawls. These might prove pivotal to a greater “meta-plot” of the region or might simply fit the area’s general theme.

As I’ve discussed before, the designers of the Pathfinder Beginner Box offered a briefly outlined environment focused on Sandpoint – the heroes’ base town – and its surroundings where the set’s initial adventures took place (both the programmed player and gamemaster scenarios); descriptions of a few other locations and a handful of plot hooks offered some inspiration for further adventures. In my own game-design endeavors, I’ve outlined (regrettably in text only, no map...yet) a region for my own future fantasy roleplaying game adventures; it includes a base and several broadly described locations, with the two as-yet unreleased dungeon crawls set there.

I’m sure many products since adventure gaming’s earliest efforts have followed their examples and offered exemplary adventuring environments. Most fall under the category of source material rather than adventure module. Setting resources like the Thieves’ World boxed set, the Cyberpunk 2020 Night City sourcebook, and the D6 Star Wars supplement Galaxy Guide 7: Mos Eisley come to mind, though they serve more to create rich adventuring environments rather than general and more detailed scenarios (though they’re rife with plot hooks). Perhaps such fare remains more appropriate to core or introductory products where designers seek to offer a sample adventuring environment representative of the kind of action the game strives to create. For those seeking more open-ended, “sandbox” play instead of plot-driven “railroading” scenarios, such formats can provide themed environments further defined by the characters’ explorations and the gamemaster’s creativity.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I Love Killing Doctor Lucky

I recently received a Kickstarter campaign copy of Cheapass GamesGet Lucky, the card game based on its popular Kill Doctor Lucky board game. The original game won the Origins Award for Best Abstract Board Game the year after its first release, and still remains available as a free PDF print-and-play download at the generous Cheapass Games website (though you can always leave a donation “tip” to show your appreciation). Seeing the card game version reminded me how much I’ve enjoyed killing Doctor Lucky over the years and made me happy to see many familiar game mechanic themes distilled into a compact yet strategically deep play experience.

I can’t recall where I picked up my old “Director’s Cut” copy of Kill Doctor Lucky. It was, like many Cheapass Games of the time, packaged in a cardboard mailer box with a few separated cardstock map sheets and a host of hand-trimmed cards; players had to supply their own pawns and one for Doctor Lucky, a hallmark of the company that created games playable with pawns, dice, and other bits cannibalized from other games in players’ homes.

The original mechanics revolve around each player wandering through Doctor Lucky’s mansion, following the hapless fellow as he makes his way from one numbered room to the next. Players could, depending on available cards, move themselves or Doctor Lucky several rooms and hallways or to a specific room, search for items to aid their murder attempt (draw a card), or attempt to murder him. These attempts required no witnesses with a line-of-sight view into the room where the dastardly deed might take place, an extremely difficult feat particularly in games with many players; while the active player could use a weapon to increase their chances of success, others could play “failure” cards to stop this particular attempt with the hopes of killing Doctor Lucky themselves on a subsequent turn. While gameplay was extremely engaging – with players jockeying their pawns and Doctor Lucky around the board and nobody really certain who had the best chance to win until the very end – it became very frustrating setting up the perfect no-witness meeting with the old fellow only to have everyone else pitch in to ensure failure. With a host of players the game also seemed to drag on until someone made a murder attempt after everyone else had spent their cards canceling earlier tries. (An optional “spite” rule – made a regular rule in the deluxe edition – helped escalate the action by giving players a token for each failed attempt, which they could use as a +1 bonus on subsequent attempt or play as 1-value failure pieces to cancel someone else’s attempt.) Overall, though, the game has some wonderfully intuitive and intriguing mechanics, particularly the one where any player in a room into which Doctor Lucky moves immediately takes their turn, skipping other players in the normal sequence.

At some point in the past few years I bought the deluxe version of Kill Doctor Lucky produced by Paizo Publishing. While it’s nice to have cardstock pawns with stands for each potential murderer, Doctor Lucky, and his dog, as well as professionally produced cards, the wonderfully rendered, full-color, top-down map-board of Doctor Lucky’s mansion is so graphically detailed it’s sometimes difficult to determine which doorways lead where. Still, it’s good to have a quality, professionally produced game version of a beloved basic-publishing classic.

Cheapass Games also produced a “prequel” game in the Doctor Lucky series – with Paizo later releasing a slick deluxe version – that cleverly reverses many of the Kill Doctor Lucky rules and adds a keen escalation mechanic to keep the game from running too long. Save Doctor Lucky includes four smaller, elongated game boards depicting the decks of an ocean liner much like the RMS Titanic (complete with iceberg...). Players must save Doctor Lucky from the sinking ship so they can savor their intricate plots to murder him later. The game still uses similar movement mechanics as the original game, though “move” cards frequently offer the option of moving player pawns or Doctor Lucky a certain number of rooms or sending one or the other off to a particular location (rather than the separate “move” or “location” cards of the earlier game). In a suitable twist the draw deck is divided into four, each placed next to one of the ship's deck boards; players draw cards from the lowest deck, so when that deck of cards disappears, the ocean liner’s actual deck board also goes, sending any player pawns and Doctor Lucky up to the next viable deck. When all four decks are exhausted the ship sinks, the game ends, and everyone loses.

Cheapass Games recently ran a Kickstarter campaign to release Get Lucky, another game in the Doctor Lucky line. This card version artfully distills the essence of the original game, leaving the board behind and condensing murder weapons, locations, failures, and spite mechanics onto a 72-card deck. Instead of moving from one numbered location to another, the Doctor Lucky pawn (included) moves between numbered character cards. Players choose several characters who can try murdering the old fellow when he’s on their card (and players can trade out character cards as a turn action). Players can attach “upgrades” – motive, weapon, and opportunity cards – to their character cards for a +1 bonus in murder attempts; pairing one of those cards with the matching character card (indicated by similar numbers on the cards) gains a +2 bonus. Foiling murder attempts uses several new mechanics in the spirit of earlier games. Instead of playing separate “failure” cards, players can use motive, opportunity, and weapon cards that have one or two “luck” icons (four-leafed clovers) in the margin, the number of clovers indicating the value of the “failure” card. Anyone playing an upgrade card with a number matching that of the character attempting the murder automatically foils the attempt. Twelve “spite” cards also offer one-point failure options; in a nice escalating twist on past mechanics, spite cards detract their value from a character’s future murder attempts. All these options in the “failure” mechanic force players to make a choice: do they burn through their cards to stop a murder attempt now, or do they save choice cards to use later? And when the deck is gone, the discard pile isn’t shuffled and re-used, giving the game a shorter play time and an increasingly desperate tone as players scramble to get Doctor Lucky.

Cheapass Games and James Ernest – the creative genius behind many of its offerings – have a rich history of offering both affordable games where players provide their own pieces and entirely free print-and-play games. The company website offers links to read about and buy current titles, but provides a host of excellent games for free PDF download for those willing to produce their own print-and-play copies (for those seeking guidance in preparing such materials, James Earnest has even produced several instructional videos about cutting game cards and making tiles). Several games stand out from the host of free offerings, particularly the popular Button Men (with intriguing dice mechanics), Light Speed, Unexploded Cow, Take-Back-Toe – winner of Daniel Solis’ Thousand Year Game Design Challenge – and, of course, the free PDF download for the original, Origins Award-winning Kill Doctor Lucky. If you like the free materials, leave a “tip” in the form of a donation through the website.

The company continues developing and funding new games (primarily through Kickstarter) that incorporate intriguing game mechanics and engaging (if not outright humorous) themes. Cheapass Games might not have the same marketplace visibility and prominence in the collective consciousness of gamers as more massive adventure gaming companies, but it certainly deserves greater recognition for its excellent titles and generosity with free games.

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