"Oh cool... So you're STILL working on this?" -- A guy at GenCon

"If I see Drah-koo-lah, I will. kick. him. in. the eye!!!" -- My 4 (almost 5) year old daughter. She GETS it!

"Meatpie Forever!" -- A playtester at GenCon 2013

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Going Back to Where It All Began

A short while ago, I put together a high-level play test of Transylvanian Adventures using the module that started it all. You've probably guessed it already but it was the original adventure for the World's Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Rhymes with Hassle Gravencroft.

What I Learned

I learned many things about both old-school modules and the game supplement I'd been putting together. Maybe I'll share my old-school observations at some point in the future. But in the interest of brevity, I'd like to stick to what I'd learned about Transylvanian Adventures.

High-level adventuring in Transylvanian Adventures is nothing like high-level adventuring in DCC

Especially at this point in time. Spells and magic aren't the same. They're similar. But very different. Giles (from Buffy) is different from Gandalf who, himself, is different from the typical 10th level DCC Wizard.

Even though all three of those characters fill a similar sort of archetypal Transylvanian Adventures' class (the Polymath). A 10th level Polymath is going to be a lot more like Giles than Gandalf and a lot more like Gandalf than the Wizards you'd see in a high-level game of DCC. In a similar fashion, the DCC Fighter is going to be more deadly than a Transylvanian Adventures Reaver, Survivor or Hunter. But the Transylvanian Adventures characters are going to be hardier, more versatile and more resilient than a DCC Fighter.

In summary, Transylvanian Adventures characters are going to have a longer life expectancy than a DCC character. Transylvanian Adventures characters seem to escape by the skin of their teeth a good deal. And often find themselves in a position to use their wits (as opposed to their Attack bonus). They'll have a tougher time, say, killing a dragon. But they'll be more likely to survive first contact, make it to a library and come back better prepared.

Any sort of cross-pollination with DCC is highly unlikely

Following the above point, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine DCC character classes and Transylvanian Adventures characters existing in the same party. I could see Transylvanian Adventures being used to play a low-magic, sword-and-sorcery style game. But I couldn't see a Valiant, Reaver, Elf, Wizard and Thief going off in search of gold and glory. Not unless the Valiant and Reaver are okay with being outclassed from time-to-time. Especially if the other classes were given the same advantages that make the characters in Transylvanian Adventures so survivable.

In a way, this was liberating. So much of what I'd done was done in the spirit of keeping things on an even keel between DCC and Transylvanian Adventures. When I discovered that all that work was futile, it allowed me to consider Transylvanian Adventures' character classes on their own terms and in relation to themselves. This sort of focus enabled me to make changes that disregarding any sort of power struggle between Transylvanian Adventures and DCC.

The character classes were too complex

Probably the worst observation I made was that players didn't know how to use their characters. And it wasn't getting better. On the whole, a Transylvanian Adventures character would have between 7-9 class features. Worse yet, many of those class features were overly specific and didn't get used. So not only was it overly complex but a good chunk of what was intended to differentiate these classes wasn't seeing the table.

The character sheet was an impediment to fun

On top of all that, I noticed that the character was a mess. In the interest of offering as much information as I could on the character sheet, I came up with a contemporary design that featured boxes, lines and demarcations familiar to most role-players who've played the third or fourth edition of the World's Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game. What I observed was that this was too much. Players couldn't find the important information because it was buried beneath items flagging seldom used rules that the players likely did not need to know. I forgot that, in the good old days, if something was really important to me, I'd just write it on the character sheet. Contemporary character sheets are so filled with boxes, lines and formulae that it's often difficult to find a spot to write your party members' names.

What I Did

Some of these realizations were liberating. It meant I didn't need to worry about keeping Transylvanian Adventures' character classes on par with Dungeon Crawl Classics' character classes. In some ways, Transylvanian Adventures' characters are more resilient and certainly more versatile. But DCC characters are more powerful on the whole.

Not having to worry about how a Valiant stacks up to a Dwarf allowed me to make some changes to affect gameplay significantly. Hopefully making things simpler. Considering the games on a scale of complexity where 0 is Risus and 10 is Rolemaster or Aftermath, I'd list Dungeon Crawl Classics in the 7-8 range whereas a game like the old Red Box version of the World's Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game is probably in the 3-4 range. As of today, Transylvanian Adventures is solidly in the 5-6 range. It's an imperfect comparison. Highly subjective, of course. But hopefully it gives everyone an idea of where Transylvanian Adventures falls in terms of complexity.

When I observed players struggling with Class Features and experiencing a form of analysis paralysis with their character sheets, I went back to where it all started (for me) with that Red Box set. And here's what I came away with.

Classes need to be good at their one thing and their one thing needs to count

In Red Box, the characters all have their one thing. There isn't much shared among them. They all fill a role in the party based on what they can do. Starting with the Elf, the rest of the classes qualify as hybridizations of the function-based classes introduced in the original version of the game. I went back to the classes and boiled them down to one (at most two) things that they do differently from the rest. So classes that previously contained 7-9 class features, now feature only 2 or 3.

Customization needs a slacker path

Some people will pick up the concept of upgrades intrinsically. Levelling up a Transylvanian Adventures character was never a point of friction. But for newer players, having that option to keep a character to the basics (like the Fighter of yore) is valuable. This allowed me to break out common upgrades into their own thing. If a player doesn't want to explore the depths of what it means to be a Half-Breed, there is now an option to stick to very basic yet useful upgrades that will make that character better to play without adding complexity.

Skills are their own thing

Among those "common upgrades", I threw in skills. The Thief is the classic skill-monkey. There isn't really a Thief in Transylvanian Adventures. But now there can be. All characters are potential skill-monkeys. Skills represent the skill sets detailed in DCC with a few new ones added in to reflect the investigative aspects of Transylvanian Adventures. If a player wants to play a traditional Thief with a Transylvanian Adventures character, there is now a path available to them to do so.

Pugilists need love too

One thing I noted about the Fightery types -- like the Reaver and the Hunter. They didn't get much spotlight at higher levels. Some of their schticks were so specific that they didn't translate well. Stick a Reaver in a room with 20 goblins and that will be one happy player. But that kind of thing doesn't happen frequently enough in Transylvanian Adventures. To add a new dimension to combat, a small set of Combat Options will allow Fightery types (or characters aspiring to be fightery types) to have a few strategic choices during any combat. The refining of the character classes also helped to broaden the value of what features Fightery classes did have. Hopefully, the Reavers, Hunters and Survivors will come to appreciate this.

Magic weapons are rare bordering on non-existent

One of the biggest hindrances was the meta-knowledge that (a) some creatures in this module need a +1 or better weapon to cause damage and (b) no one in this 8th level party has a +1 or better weapon. As part of the "common upgrades", there's a bonus path that allows this issue to be ameliorated. Using the monsters presented in book two of the Transylvanian Adventures series will also help. Very, very few monsters in that book will require a magic weapon to hit.

The character sheet shouldn't hinder play with too much rules info

The new character sheet is way simplified. It features only the information that actual players said they valued on a character sheet. I went over the existing sheets with several players, as well as my own notes on the numbers and sections players referenced the most during play, to design a new character sheet that harkens back to the olden days.

This marks the fourth or fifth time I've rewritten the character classes. This was more of a serious revision than a complete rewrite though. It also marks my fourth attempt at a character sheet, although this is the first character sheet attempted with the idea of showing just what was necessary on the page.

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