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A Wargaming Way Starter Kit

Posted in Correspondence

Summer scheduling has landed me an opportunity to run a game that’s been on my wishlist1 for a while now: a dungeon-crawling adventure game in the wargaming way. Since reading Muster I’ve finally had an understanding of the challenge-driven school of adventure gaming that moved from the academic (“sure, I can see how people would enjoy that”) to the personal (“I want to play that”). The idea of fantasy adventure gaming as a sport, complete with a score (XP) and the idea of personal and team development towards improving that score has been lodged in my brain.

I kept on thinking of it as RPG-as-golf, and that sounded far better than any other kind of golf.

Muster is the lost chapter to several fantasy adventure RPGs that might get labeled “OSR.” But having decided to run a game based on that last chapter I needed to figure out what book it fit into.

Which led me to this, which I think of as a wargaming way starter kit. There’s a few caveats to this:

  • I made this starter kit to get myself started, so I may be completely wrong.
  • The idea of a starter kit is probably slightly antithetical to the almost-socratic approach Eero uses in Muster

With that out of the way, I figured I needed a pitch to explain the format of the game without asking everyone to go read every text involved, a ruleset, and an adventure. The ruleset and adventure may be optional for folks who have proficiency with the wargaming way, but as a starter kit I wanted to lower the bar to entry.

The Pitch

A small team of adventurers faces a great challenge in a magical underworld. You’ll play members of this team of adventurers attempting to use every tool at your disposal to maximize the XP you can get from various dangerous locations, most of them underground. XP is awarded for one thing, and one thing only: valuable treasures recovered.

To earn XP you’ll need to learn the imagined world and develop strategies for facing unknown challenges. You’ll need to explore carefully and with a purpose. And you’ll need to decide when a task is too dangerous and retreat. After all, dead characters gain no XP.

The GM is the referee. They simulate the world consistently and arbitrate the outcomes of unexpected situations. They care that you have fun; they don’t care if you live or die. You’re here to challenge yourself and earn rewards, so fun is in the unknown, the uncertain, and the unpredictable—which will very likely include characters dying.

This is a game of skill and daring. Like a boxing match or a game of soccer, it the thrill is in the possibility of defeat or victory.

Your team’s first challenge will be an underground complex found through a hole in the roots of an ancient gnarled oak tree in an enchanted wood. Good luck.

This pitch tries to focus in on why play this type of game with a few nods towards the adventure and none towards the rules. That’s more or less intentional—until a game does as a good job as Eero’s done in Muster of describing this play style there’s going to be a lot of about-equally-well-suited rulesets. The adventure matters a bit more, at least as a thing for the players to begin positioning against even during the setup.

I also deliberately leaned away from the “small commando group” angle that Muster uses. That language definitely reads a little different from the depths of a nation enmeshed in the military industrial complex, but it’s also more character-centered than player-centered. The characters might view themselves as a commando group, sure. But the players are more like team members in a team sport: their stakes aren’t life or death, they’re success at a (rather arbitrary) challenge.

The Ruleset: Shadowdark

Not even on my initial list, a friend pointed out that Shadowdark might work. I backed the Kickstarter, so I took a look, and was immediately impressed with the lightweight rules that support the kind of challenge-based approach of the wargaming way with some of the ease-of-use improvements of modern D&D. The core bits:

  • When attempting something uncertain, roll a d20, add a stat, compare to a DC. Attacks work the same against an AC. Circumstances may grant advantage or disadvantage.
  • No skills. Classes with some kind of skill-like areas of expertise give advantage when a skill applies.
  • Ancestry (which unfortunately here is still just another name for the D&D idea of race) gives an ability.
  • Classes grant a few abilities and have a talent table of other bonuses. Abilities are granted at level 1; the talent table is rolled at each level granting another talent (in most cases stackable).
  • There’s a simple random character system, but character creation is already quick. The only choice likely to take much time is buying gear, and the random rule is probably better in almost every situation.
  • XP is awarded for valuable things gained (not just money), though not at a 1:1 ratio.

This is a pretty good chassis, though it does have a few elements that may not quite mesh with the wargaming way:

  • Spells are used with a roll, and on a success they stay available. Higher magic doesn’t seem antithetical, but it does change the solution space for a lot of problems and make planning ahead tougher in some cases (ex: if someone’s using control water to empty a lake with multiple castings how many days it will take is a probability curve instead of a specific amount).
  • Healing seems overly generous. A night’s sleep completely recovers all HP.
  • The XP-to-treasure ratio is not as predictable. When 1 gp = 1 XP the value is absolutely clear, when a bag of gold = 1 XP it’s not as easy to figure out if it’s worth the risk. Is that a normal bag? A big bag worth more?

I’ll probably be making a few changes to adapt.

  • Magic as-written. While this may be a power increase overall this isn’t a game of balance, the players will naturally find the point of challenge by pushing greater challenges if more magic proves to be more powerful. Plus more chances for magic users to do things and more uncertainty is probably a win.
  • Healing is only via full days of rest, effectively impossible in a dungeon. A full day’s rest recovers HP equal to one roll of the character’s HD.
  • XP is awarded 1-to-1 for gold coin (or equivalent) retrieved. Monsters defeated are worth 6 * (HD * 1.5) XP. Each level requires reaching 1000 * (2^(level-1)) XP.

Alternative Rulesets Considered

Muster comes with a list of suggested rulesets, but too many of them focus on replicating the implementation of early D&D instead of supporting the play style of early D&D. For example, Old School Essentials’s free basic rules still has an 11 part character creation process with several decision points that might take a decent amount of time (not a great option when character death is expected and sessions may only be 2-3 hours). On top of that it keeps THAC0 (presumably for aesthetics and compatibility) while also providing conversions of everything to ascending AC.

Looking further afield, Cairn was a frequent suggestion, but it’s subtly different from the wargaming way. The wargaming way proposes a scoring method in the form of XP, while Cairn treats advancement as a matter of simulation within the fiction of the game. There’s an interesting angle here where now players must define their own victory conditions, but it loses the element of “personal best” athletic competition. Bonus points for being written in Markdown, tho.

Errant has been on my radar for a while, and my interest in playing only increased after reading the interview with the author in the latest issue of Wyrd Science only increased that feeling. Its willingness to approach common themes with new approaches is refreshing, but its different enough to add overhead to whats intended to be a short session length, and possibly a low number of sessions. Worth coming back to, but the wrong place to put mental load for this game.

The Black Hack bears many of the strengths of Shadowdark, but it doesn’t surpass any of them. In the sessions I played of it years ago I also found it surprisingly hard to reference at the table for such a light game.

Into The Odd is delightfully lightweight and, well, odd. The default assumptions around most character abilities being in the form of items seems like a large shift though, and one that seems harder to square with the wargaming way.

There’s at least a dozen others I could have considered, but out of this list Shadowdark feels like a clear winner.

The Adventure: The Hole In The Oak

As a starting point for a wargaming way adventure The Hole In The Oak seems perfectly tuned. It’s large but not huge. It has multiple factions and a bit of history, but not too much of either. It opens with immediate challenges stated in plain terms that invite basic problem solving.

Tonally there’s fairy tale darkness and plenty of chances for death, but not a particularly large amount of darkness and despair. It fits the tone I’m aiming for, where death must be a thing and blood will be spilled, but where things won’t necessarily be much worse than that.

The biggest selling point, though, is in the information presentation. Each room, region, and interaction is easy to understand. Instead of leaning towards complex if-then trees of what might happen it aims to make everything easy enough to understand to fit in the GM’s head so they can play each action forward through its likely repercussions.

Alternative Adventures Considered

Lorn Song of the Bachelor is the best adventure I’ve read in years and I’d still love to get it on the table (possibly as a future part of this campaign), but as a starting point it required more buy-in to the social situation than I’d like for this setup. I’m going to start at the door of the dungeon (as Moldvay suggests and I totally leveraged into Dungeon World), but the dungeon in Lorn Song really needs the situation around it to work.

The Sun King’s Palace is designed to have far more social possibility than most dungeons. It might be my white whale dungeon, but not one I think I can run now. The pitch is also high concept enough that I worried it would distract from the core gameplay concern I’m aiming for.

Deep Carbon Observatory has a well-deserved reputation for dungeon design. The presence of other active forces makes for an interesting dynamic. But the initial arrival scenes are too grim, especially towards children, for what I want to run. Maybe some other time, but I don’t have the heart to present dying children right off the bat right now.

With my starter kit in place we’re going to give the wargaming way a try this Monday or the next. We’ll see how it goes. I may have a completely different starter kit recommendation soon enough.

  • Eero’s “mythos investigation” concept unstuck Catch the Devil in my head. I’ve got several notes on solid in-place updates, plus a revised version of the long-removed character change system in process for being added to the new layout I’ve been working on.
  • Re-reading Morrison’s JLA—absolutely one of my favorite comics —and Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern has been a stand out. I’ve liked him as a character a lot more than I remember. Part of that is probably the investment the series has in his story—the comment that he’ll not just live up to the Lantern legacy but surpass it, the wink from the One Million future Superman—but it’s probably also that the idea of “person with ring that makes anything they think of using their mental energy” fits with an artist way better than it does a space cop. Space Cop Green Lantern leans into every regressive trope in superhero comics, and the Kyle Rayner era was the time they just cut that bit off and gave us a pretty fantastic character (the fridging aside).
  • In addition to kicking off this game we’re fitting in a session of our Ruins of the Lost Realm campaign of The One Ring 2E. Which gave me reason to catch up on the last two sessions: I Ain’t Eating No Ghost and A Bridge Into Troubled Waters.

  1. It’s actually been on my wishlist two ways, since this game is also a chance to play with some friends I haven’t seen in too long. Everything’s coming up Sage. 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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