Referee’s Bookshelf: Woodland Warriors Complete

Simon Washbourne’s one-man small press operation Beyond Belief Games seems to have a knack for putting out fun little niche RPGs which adapt Dungeons & Dragons to interesting new purposes. Take, for instance, Woodland Warriors, an adaptation of Swords & Wizardry (so effectively “0th Edition” D&D with 3E-style saving throws and ascending AC) to cater to a gentler, cuddlier style of fantasy inspired by the likes of Redwall and Duncton Wood.

D’aww, badger!

The game comes with a default setting, the Alder Vale, centred on Stonewell Abbey, an institution founded by Abbess Ariella, a legendary adventurer of the past (she presumably hit domain level and retired). As you might expect from a Redwall-style game, the Abbey is inhabited by mildly anthropomorphised animals (incidentally, kudos to artist Darrel Miller for making the animal art look anthropomorphic without looking typically “furry”). Alignment is mostly arranged along species lines: you have the Kind, who like to co-operate, and whose communities are served and protected by the Abbey and from whose ranks the player characters are drawn from; you have the Wild, which includes reptiles and insects and most birds and a few of the other mammals – basically, anything which is either unintelligent in this world or which prefers to fend for itself in the wilderness. And then you have Vermin – rats, weasels, and other baddies who co-operate for the purpose of looting, pillaging, bullying and banditry!

So, right there you have a nice, clear assumed mode of play – player characters are Kind working for the Abbey to solve problems and protect their communities against the Vermin and the more aggressive members of the Wild, and when you hit a certain level you go do the domain management thing and set up your own community. (The default setting nicely signposts this, in fact, by having a second Abbey nearby founded by an adventurer from Stonewell Abbey.) The Kind/Wild/Vermin split is a nice example of the interesting stuff you can do with pre-Advanced D&D‘s three-alignment system if you come up with a rationale for it and follow through the consequences of that. But how’s the system?

Actually, not that bad! The main work Washbourne undertakes is in adapting OD&D/Swords & Wizardry so that it runs exclusively on six-sided dice. Saving throws can fairly easily be switched to D6-based target numbers, of course, but a little bit more finesse is demanded with the combat solution and Washbourne’s solution is actually quite elegant. Armour classes run in ascending order from 3 to 8, and each combat round you get to roll a number of D6 equal to your hit dice, with each die beating the AC of the opponent or opponents you are fighting causing a hit. Of course, this means you will need something extra to hit the higher ACs, so you can opt to roll less dice, and each die you forego adds 1 to the roll you get on all of the remaining dice. Naturally, fightery, tanky types get new hit dice at a faster rate when levelling compared to fragile wizardy types (a full hit die every other level, with a simple bonus at the in-between levels, which improves hit points but has no relevance to your combat rolls, is the fastest hit die progression), so right there you have an elegant way to spice up fighters, handle multiple attacks and combat against multiple opponents, and interesting choices in combat between making more attacks with an inferior chance to hit and making less attacks but hitting more reliably.

Nicely, Warriors (the fighter equivalent class) are also given odds of pulling off warrior stunts in combat – feats of physical prowess that don’t involve doing direct damage, like grappling an opponent or shoving them prone. Of course, arguably all PCs should have a chance to accomplish such stuff, but making the option explicit here and giving odds for warriors to accomplish this stuff does have the nice effect that in combat players of other classes are likely to hunker down and concentrate on playing to the strengths of their class, whilst warriors are more flexible in combat and can either go in for the kill or pull some other stunt, which I think is arguably how you want it to go if you want to have a class whose specific forte is being trained to get shit done in a combat situation. Another combat tweak is that when they hit 0 HP PCs do not die automatically – instead you have to make a Fortitude save to remain conscious, and if you go into negative hit points on the next round you have to  roll on a table to see the consequences, of which death is one option and unconsciousness is very likely. This helps make the game a little friendlier than by-the-book OD&D without detoothing it.

Whilst it does not have a full blown skill system, Woodland Warriors does give all PCs ratings in Notice, Lore and Persuade, which behave like saving throws in that you get a target number to roll based on your attributes, class and level. This gives a nice, elegant way of adjudicating spotting hidden stuff, knowing obscure facts and winning over strangers (though the referee is encouraged to either dispense with the roll or provide bonuses if they already think the NPC would be particularly receptive or hostile to the suggestion in question) which differentiates characters without locking anyone out of those capabilities and would make a neat addition to other editions and variants of TSR-era no-skills D&D.

The classes on offer are all cutesy woodland takes on the standard D&D stuff; notably, full blown rogues are an NPC class for Vermin, though the PC Scout class covers a lot of the territory you’d want a thief class to cover with the difference that Scouts don’t do lockpicking, disguise, or sleight of hand/pickpocketing and are slightly better at handling traps, whilst Scouts move faster than Rogues and have a tracking ability (so a Rogue could probably steal a Scout’s purse, but might have trouble getting away after the fact). Races are, naturally, swapped out for various species of snuggly animal, with the PC choices being Badgers and Moles (who both make good Warriors), Hedgehogs (reasonable Warriors and Friars), Mice (who make the best Scouts) and Squirrels (who can turn their hand to more or less anything). Levels run from 1 to 6, which is enough to make the higher grades of PC and NPC interestingly powerful without getting overwhelming.

Woodland Warriors is presented as an RPG for children and adults alike, and I think it broadly succeeds. Certainly, the rules are presented clearly enough that any child capable of handling them and motivated to try to run a game from the book, and the choice of subject matter is apt – I remember the Redwall stuff being a big deal amongst older primary school and younger secondary school kids when I was growing up, which is about the age when an interest in RPGs often develops. In addition, even though I never read the Redwall stuff myself, Woodland Warriors presents this balance of perilous adventure and inoffensive coziness which is really endearing and I could definitely see myself running or playing this. (If you are a Redwall fan, this game is more or less perfect for you unless you absolutely hate class/level systems.)

Who wants to be a human Monk when you can be an Otter Wayfarer?

The core book is rounded off with a sample adventure and a very brief rundown of the Alder Vale setting with some adventure seeds. For those who want a somewhat meatier setting, Greyrock Isle is a short and sweet supplement providing a few new rules (Hare and Otter PCs and two new classes Talespinners, who are kind of like Bards, and Wayfarers, who are kind of like Monks), but whose main attraction is its detailing of the titular island, an offshore settlement of Kind recently overrun by a band of Vermin led by the villainous wolverine Vorstang, who has overthrown the legitimate ruler (the otter Lord Redmantle) and set himself up as self-proclaimed Lord of Greyrock. Suggestions are provided on how to get the PCs involved, whether they start out as residents of Greyrock or visit the island in the course of an ongoing campaign. The primary assumption is that the PCs are going to work towards ousting Vorstang in some fashion, with a local band of outlaws led by the hedgehog Warburton (Lord Redmantle’s constable before the invasion) being an obvious group of allies (or local PCs), but other than this it’s explicitly presented as a sandbox, with the major locations on the island and the effect the occupation has had on them detailed and adventure seeds and suggestions scattered about. It’s another bare-bones setting, but it’s a nice example of how to present a sandbox setting in a format decidedly different from the “hex crawl” format beloved of the OSR, and also an example of how a sandbox doesn’t have to be static and doesn’t even have to lack an obvious campaign premise – it just can’t dictate where the action goes once the PCs show up.

The Out West supplement is a somewhat meatier prospect, since it deals with a sharply divergent genre – namely, it adapts Woodland Warriors to cater to a Western setting where magic, whilst fading from the world, is still very much an active force. Player characters are assumed to be Drifters who wander from town to town righting wrongs before settling down should they survive to 6th level. Distinctly American varieties of PC Kind – Raccoons and Prairie Dogs – are offered, as are rules for guns (and how armour class is reduced against them), and the classes get a comprehensive rewrite to better fit the Wild West (so your cleric equivalent is now a wandering Preacher). The Kind/Wild/Vermin split is maintained for some good old fashioned white hat/black hat action, and in perhaps my favourite setting tweak the Vermin are now referred to as Varmints. There’s also a nice sample setting plus some sparse but evocative background details suggesting how the Abbeys have evolved and come to the New World since the medieval era of the default setting.

Draw, Varmint!

Westerns are a tricky genre to handle because whilst many details of a medieval setting aren’t really reflected in the modern world – there isn’t exactly much Saxon-vs-Norman strife in England these days, for instance – the American West is close enough to our time that many injustices of the time seem much more immediate, especially considering how Westerns were prominently used in the first half of the twentieth century to teach and reinforce traditional values modern players may be uncomfortable with. Here I raised an eye at prairie dogs being presented as Native American analogues, because animals weren’t really mapped to real world ethnicities or social classes in the default setting (the Kind/Vermin split not really matching any specific medieval cultural divide since, of course, bandits and loyal subjects sprang from the same stock back in the day). Elsewhere in the book though it is made clear that the New World was home to a diverse range of Kind and Wild and Varmints, so the game doesn’t seem to be deliberately out to homogenise Native American cultures, though since only Prairie Dogs are consistently portrayed as mapping to those cultures whilst Raccoons aren’t it’s still a little problematic.

At the same time, it specifically says that the Kind of Old and New Worlds were allies and friends from the start, which I guess means we are going with an idealised Old West where the cute fuzzy animals are respecting each other and co-operating in a way which shames the actual human track record on these counts. On the one hand, this makes sense since the default setting is an idealised medieval idyll, but on the other hand whilst I don’t know many people who get deeply upset about the Harrowing of the North or are directly disadvantaged by it there are plenty of people today who (with all the justification in the world) regard the colonisation of the American West as genocide and there are people who are enduring hard circumstances which were directly caused by that process. That doesn’t mean I want to ban Westerns as such, but it does mean that I personally have qualms about Westerns which sugarcoat or outright ignore these issues. That goes double when those Westerns are pitched as being suitable for children, because your early exposure to and exploration of a historical period (even through the lens of fiction) will often strongly influence your subsequent ideas about it. I am reasonably sure that most adult readers who do not have some ideological commitment to the myth of the Old West can recognise that this is a much cleaner take on the period than real history suggests. For kids, the supplement could really do with a caveat to note that it deals with a contentious bit of history in a sanitised fashion, and encouraging reading around the subject if they want to learn more about it. With this in mind, though, the supplement does at least do a successful job of presenting an OD&D-ish implementation of the Western genre, and the idea of playing a Raccoon gunslinger taking on a mean gang of ratty desperadoes does have a certain appeal.

This is a hardcore rat.

By far the meatiest supplement is At Sea, presenting a pirate-themed alternate setting, decent ship-to-ship combat rules, notes on positions on pirate ships and how you obtain and keep hold of them, and – perhaps most significantly – rules for playing Vermin. After all, banditry on the high seas isn’t very Kind, so the default assumption is that you are playing crew members on a mean, Vermin-infested pirate ship. (It is a shame that doggies have not been featured much in Woodland Warriors to this point – possibly due to their domesticated status – because this supplement cries out for crews of mangy hounds suffering from Vitamin C deficiency…)

Naturally, as well as a range of Vermin types (Foxes, Rats, Shrews, Snakes, Stoats and Weasels), there’s the usual reskinning of classes to suit the setting better. There’s a neat necromancer class that could be useful for creating adversaries in the Woodland Warriors default setting, but the real prize here is the Sawbones class – capable of rescuing fellow PCs from death through the brutal, rusty, anaesthetic-free medium of shipboard surgery. With the slightly more fatal death rules, PCs can expect to sooner or later lose a limb or two to the sawbones’ attention, particularly since you don’t need to be down at 0 HP to be at risk – if you are wounded and fail your recovery-over-time rolls three times in a row, the wound goes gangrenous, and it’s amputation or death! How can you not love that?

The Woodland Warriors Complete book (available via Lulu) gathers together the core book and all the supplements in a single handy A5 volume. There was talk of an In Space supplement coming out at some point, but this seems to have gone on the back burner. As it stands, Woodland Warriors is one of the most endearing RPGs I’ve ever seen on its own merits, as well as being a neat model for handling talking animal characters for those who want to add a dose of whimsy to their Dungeons & Dragons game worlds – certainly, I personally haven’t actually ruled against subcultures of intelligent talking animals existing in my own D&D setting…


On Goals Both Personal and Common

There’s a neat article gone up at Hack and Slash about character progression in Dungeons & Dragons, both analysing the old school-new school split (and in particular the impact of removing XP-for-gold), as well as batting down some of the more common (and less useful) points people tend to raise in such discussions. I had a mild quibble at the point towards the end concerning setting personal character goals and pursuing those in games where character advancement is based solely on sessions attended (a point raised in response to the common “I just level everyone up after 3 sessions or so” thing), which grew into this.

My quibble is that accomplishing your character goals isn’t necessarily connected to the level of your PC. Yes, being level 11 instead of level 5 might come in handy when you want to seize the throne of Aquilonia, but your level 5 dude might be able to pull it off if they’ve gathered sufficient allies, or uncovered suffiicent weaknesses of the current incumbent, and have a plan which leverages them effectively. You are correct that there’s no behaviour you can engage in to increase your rate of advancement to achieve your goals faster, but that is not the same thing as there being no behaviour you can engage in which would allow you to achieve your goals faster – it’s just that you’ll need to work out that behaviour by looking at the in-game situation and saying “what do I need to do to take this guy down, and what resources do I need to accomplish that?” rather than saying “OK, what level do I need to be to take this guy down?” (I concede, however, that this requires referees to actually provide sufficient in-game meat for you to make that assessment.)

I’ve also seen “level up when we feel like it” play based not on attendance but on advancement towards goals – usually the common goal of advancing the “main plot”, but I can see running a game where the GM could give out levels if they believe a PC has made concrete progress towards accomplishing one of their declared life’s ambitions (or has accomplished a more short-term major goal) – indeed, I could even see a game where the referee and player sit down before hand and identify a set number of landmarks towards achieving the goal in question which they both agree constitute a sufficient challenge to merit a raise in level.

But I personally wouldn’t do that if I were running a traditional D&D game, which is what I’m currently doing.

What I think the people who focus a lot on “but you should have personal goals anyway” are really missing is the benefits to be had from having common goals beyond “show up and play”. If there’s a course of action which clearly and objectively benefits every single party member, then that provides an in-game stimulus towards co-operative play, whether that’s co-operation in grabbing gold or killing things, and whilst there is a long and honourable tradition of player-on-player backstabbing in RPGs, most games assume that the players will tend to co-operate. Although most players will sit down at the table with that in mind, presenting an in-system incentive towards co-operation helps to focus their mind on that, whereas concentrating on personal goals pushes each player towards thinking “what’s best for me?” rather than “what’s best for the party?”.

If you just give out levels for attendance and encourage players to select their own personal goals for their characters, then I can foresee three possible outcomes, two of which may be undesirable (and would probably be considered undesirable by most groups) and the third of which is functional but not interesting:

  • Some of the PCs have goals which are directly incompatible in a way which doesn’t leave much room for compromise: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to overthrow her. This is fine if you don’t mind a game focused on player-versus-player conflict, and that’s cool but it’s not really what I use D&D for.
  • Some PCs’ goals are entirely disconnected from each other: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to visit the moon. Viable, but gets awkward when you want to explain why Gabriel is accompanying Lyra to the moon or why Lyra is hanging out at Bess’s court when she really wants to go to the moon. Why hasn’t Lyra joined a party who want to go to the Moon with her? Why is Gabriel off on interplanetary adventures when Queen Bess has bigger problems closer to home?
  • By lucky chance or careful planning, the players actually manage to come up with mutually compatible and interrelated goals for all the PCs; Gabriel wants to protect Queen Bess from the Archdemon Throatstabber, Lyra wants to go to the moon to learn how to defeat Throatstabber from the kindly toad people who live there. Great, your personal goals now tie into a common party goal – explain why experience is tied to session attendance instead of progress towards the party’s common goal again?

Another point which is missed if you go with “level up every X sessions” is the point that, especially in TSR-era editions of D&D, the experience progression is set such that you don’t actually necessarily spend the same amount of time at each and every level. Experience requirements for levelling up tend to double with each level in these editions of the game, but treasure doesn’t necessarily increase exponentially.

In my 2E campaign I do give XP for session attendance, but at the same time the majority of XP given in my game is for stuff accomplished in-game (monster defeat plus gold plus class-specific stuff). The attendance XP is enough to accelerate character development (helpful since ours is a fortnightly campaign) and encourage attendance but not so much that it dominates progression – for instance, by my reckoning if I were only giving XP for attendance at the present rate then the PCs would only be level 2 and still be quite vulnerable after over a year of play, whereas currently they’re level 3 and 4 and beginning to come out of the squishy lower level portion of the game.

Referee’s Bookshelf: Gygax On Mastery

Gary Gygax’s Role-Playing Mastery and Master of the Game are odd birds. Emerging in the late 1980s, following his controversial departure from TSR, they represent suggestions about how to most fruitfully engage with RPGs, but root this advice in Gygax’s very specific vision of how he would have liked to see the RPG scene develop, rather than in the realities of how it was at the time.

Role-Playing Mastery suffers when it comes to working out exactly was talking about by a certain uncharacteristic sloppiness and imprecision. Most notably, Gygax likes to contrast the terms “role-playing” and “role assumption”, but isn’t consistent about how he applies them. Early on, he defines “role assumption” as playing a role you could conceivably take on in real life, in contrast to “role-playing” that has no such constraint. Later, however, he defines a “role assumption game” as one in which you are assigned a predetermined role (as with many gamebooks) rather than coming up with your own character.

Continue reading “Referee’s Bookshelf: Gygax On Mastery”

More Search Engine Wackiness

In a refreshing change from people searching for information on fisting and getting to my Deathwatch posts, apparently at least one person has reached the site after making an search for “fuck hot fuck”.

I don’t know what the difference between a hot fuck and a fuck hot fuck is, but apparently it’s got something to do with my February ENWorld chart post? Go figure.

ENWorld’s Hot Roleplaying Games – March 2014

I’ve been keeping track here of ENWorld’s chart of the “hottest RPGs” – hotness, in this case, being based on what’s being actively discussed on as wide a pool of internet fora and blogs as they can find RSS feeds for. Remember: this isn’t tracking sales, and it isn’t even tracking popularity (because conceivably a game could get onto the chart if there were a sufficiently virulent negative reaction to it).

I’ve been going month-by-month compiling this stuff to see how things change, and last month there seemed to be a big shakeup to the way the chart is compiled, so let’s see whether the change has stuck. Note that I’m presenting here the scores assigned to each game, not the percentages (which vary depending on which chart on the page you’re looking at due to the way you have a chart of non-D&D RPGs, a chart of D&D-based games, and a combined chart (new this month).

1	Pathfinder RPG				258
2	D&D Next (5E)				206
3	D&D 3rd Edition/3.5			160
4	D&D 4th Edition				 92
5	FATE					 79
6	Old School Revival (OSR)		 40
7	World of Darkness			 39
8	13th Age				 38
9	Savage Worlds				 35
10	OD&D					 33
11	Numenera				 22
11	Shadowrun				 22
13	Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures	 21
14	AD&D 2nd Edition			 19
15	Warhammer 40K				 15
15	Dungeon World				 15
17	Dungeon Crawl Classics			 14
17	GURPS					 14
19	Call of Cthulhu				 13
20	AD&D 1st Edition			 12
20	Castles & Crusades			 12
22	Earthdawn				  9
22	Exalted					  9
22	The One Ring				  9
25	Traveller				  8
25	Star Trek				  8
25	Gumshoe					  8
28	Mutant Chronicles			  7
28	Star Wars (SAGA/d20)			  7
30	Dragon Age				  6
30	Chainmail				  6
30	ICONS					  6
30	Dread					  6
30	CORTEX System				  6
35	Star Wars: Edge of the Empire		  5
35	Deadlands				  5
35	RIFTS					  5
38	Doctor Who: Adventures in Time & Space	  4
38	HERO System / Champions			  4
40	Warhammer FRP				  3
40	Apocalypse World			  3
40	Marvel Heroic Roleplaying		  3
40	Eclipse Phase				  3
40	Ars Magica				  3
40	The Strange				  3
46	Stars Without Number			  2
46	Colonial Gothic				  2
46	Firefly					  2
46	d20 Modern				  2
46	All Flesh Must Be Eaten			  2
46	Hobomancer				  2
52	True20					  1
52	Fading Suns				  1
52	Aberrant				  1
52	Feng Shui				  1
52	Smallville				  1
52	Rotted Capes				  1
52	Hackmaster				  1
52	d20 Future				  1
52	Runequest				  1
52	BESM					  1
52	Other Superhero RPGs			  1
52	Gamma World				  1
64	Alternity				  0
64	Marvel SAGA				  0
64	DC Heroes				  0
64	A Song of Ice & Fire			  0
64	Iron Kingdoms				  0
64	Brave New World				  0
64	Godlike / Wild Talents / NEMESIS	  0
64	Star Wars (d6)				  0
64	Paranoia				  0
--	Dnd/Pathfinder				DNC
--	Stage					DNC
*DNC = Did Not Chart

Note that according to the chart page a 0 score doesn’t mean nobody’s mentioned a particular game –  a statistically significant sample has shown up but no more than that. For sanity’s sake I’m only tracking zero-scores which previously scored. Games which did not chart presumably either failed to even yield a statistically significant sample or have had their categories retired from the chart (as appears to be the case with the redundant Dnd/Pathfinder category).

Continue reading “ENWorld’s Hot Roleplaying Games – March 2014”