Monday, January 6, 2014

OSR comparison / review

[CORRECTION]: My initial math for Cyril's chances to hit were faulty for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. This has been corrected in the text.

I wanted to see exactly how some OSR games differed in rules and mechanics, and rather than try to write down how the mechanics differed from book to book I decided that I would make the same character in each system to see how they stacked up. These six systems lend themselves to this comparison rather easily because they all include the same basic six attributes during the first step of character creation, and the first step is described in each as rolling 3d6 and keeping them in the order they were rolled. The systems are:

Adventurer Conqueror King system (ACKS): Provides an epic fantasy game with an old school atmosphere. The big feature touted on the back cover is that characters can eventually move into the worlds of politics, finance, and leadership.
"Will you survive the perils of war and dark magic to claim a throne? Or will you meet your fate in a forgotten ruin beyond the ken of men?"

Adventures Dark and Deep (ADaD): Builds off of 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and imagines what the 2nd edition had been like under a different authorship.
"What if Gary Gygax had not left TSR in 1985, and had been allowed to continue developing the world's most famous fantasy role-playing game?"

Castles & Crusades (C&C): Uses a rules-lite and backwards-compatible approach to deliver a game written as a love letter to the nostalgia of discovering Dungeons & Dragons for the first time.
"A Game That Is Yours To Command"

Labyrinth Lord (LL): An emulation of basic D&D using a few modern touches in a slim book.
"Back to the Basics of Fantasy Roleplaying"

Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP): An often horrific re-write of old school D&D that has become infamous for both it's brutally unforgiving rules, and it's violently graphic artwork. File this one under: dark fantasy.
"Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Mystery and Imagination. Adventure and Death."

Swords & Wizardry (S&W): An emulation of D&D that emphasizes and fixates on the sword & sorcery epics of the quintessentially influential Appendix N.
"Light your torches, don your helmets, and ready your spells..."

Keep in mind, I am not including optional rules or alternate methods of playing outlined in these rulebooks, the comparison of systems is strictly by their "official" rules as written. Apart from this, keeping the same scores I rolled for all six characters and thus making the exact same character in each game is the only rule I'm following.

Some of these games arrange the ability scores in differing orders, but the ability scores are still the same. I learned AD&D with the 2nd edition rules, which arranges the scores from top to bottom as Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom then Charisma, so that's the order I'm rolling them. I get a 5, 11, 12, 10, 13, and 7
Not the best.

Exceptions: LotFP allows you to swap one score with another in order to get a high ability score to play the character you want. None of the other systems allows for this. LotFP also allows the player to reroll all of the scores if the total modifiers added together are below zero. My rolls qualify, but the other games wouldn't allow this so I'm going to keep the scores as they are.

With 13 Wisdom being my highest stat, I've got a cleric. If the game allows for race selection outside of class than I'll also make this guy human to keep it simple. I've decided to name this guy Cyril.

Here's where the first real differences come into focus. Each system has a very different method for determining clerical spells, there are a few similarities but mostly different. Right out of the gate C&C is emulating 3rd edition D&D a lot more than 1st edition. What I find very interesting about this character is that every single system uses a different means or level of potency for Turning Undead, a staple of clerical magic.

                    ACKS           ADaD              C&C               LL            LotFP            S&W
 # of spells      no            one 1st        three 0-level     one 1st       one 1st            no
at 1st level    spells     + WIS bonus         one 1st                                               spells

  Turning        1d20             1d20              1d20              2d6             2d6             2d10
  Undead      to 4 HD      to 5 "types"     WIS check        to 3 HD   requires spell    to 5 HD

I'm surprised how little variation there is amongst some of these systems. The Saving Throw categories are identical between LL, LotFP and ACKS, and the starting numbers for a 1st-level cleric jump around quite a bit, yet retain very similar quantities. Even ability score bonuses and what is doled out with the different modifiers is virtually identical between different rule sets. S&W seems to be the clearest and simplest system to get acquainted with, even the character sheet evokes a minimalist style.

The next major difference I find is with carrying capacity and encumbrance, each game makes a different system out of it and I am beginning to think this is where you can see how each designer thinks the game should operate. Before I get into the meat of how encumbrance works, first I must have some basic equipment.

Though each game seems to have unique rules for monetary exchange rates, starting money for a cleric always seems to be 3d6x10 coins, except for C&C (2d10x10) and LL (3d8x10). For my own personal taste, I never like my characters to be encumbered so depending on the system I would choose different armor.
However, we don't have time for rational thought!
This is a comparison of how each system stacks up with an identical character, so without rolling for money I'm simply going to give my cleric Leather Armor and a Shield. Some systems use a descending Armor Class system, while others use ascending numbers, I've marked these by showing what the AC would be for leather armor first and then with shield second. I find it interesting that only two of these systems are identical.

                        ACKS       ADaD+      C&C+     LL      LotFP      S&W
Armor Class        2/3          8/7        12/13     8/7      14/15*      7/6**
Warhammer      d6/d8     d4+1/d4       d8        d6         d8        d4+1
Total Cost  
       35gp        14gp       21gp      23gp      55sp      21gp

* shields in LotFP give an extra +1 to AC vs missile attacks
+ these systems only allow shields to be employed against a certain number of attacks per round
** S&W gives both descending and ascending AC values, but ascending is an optional rule so I used the descending values

"This is all very good, but what do those Armor Class values really mean?"
A fair question, and could be adequately illustrated by explaining how Cyril might attack an exact replica of himself in each system. Cyril only wears Leather and carries a shield, but he's also a weakling, so each roll is going to come packaged with extra penalties.
In ACKS characters have Attack Throw numbers which vary based on class and level. A 1st-level Cleric has an Attack Throw of 10+ so with Cyril's -2 to hit and his AC of 3 he would need to roll a 15 or higher to hit his duplicate. That's a 30% chance of success.
C&C is one of the newer, simpler systems that uses ascending Armor Class, and it's basically right there. AC 13 with -2 Strength, Cyril needs a 15 to hit here too.
ADaD, LL, and S&W all use a descending Armor Class system and rather than keeping things simple the rules replicate the old combat matrix of 1st edition AD&D in varying levels of complexity. In ADaD you have to consult two different tables to learn what your base chance to hit is before you can start applying modifiers. Interestingly, Cyril only needs a 13 to hit his clone in Labyrinth Lord, but otherwise there's a lot of chart searching to find that Cyril still needs a 15 to hit his doppleganger.
Back to ascending Armor Class in LotFP, and that makes this simple because the number he needs to roll iS RIGHT THERE! But the (slight) brutality of LotFP is also revealed, Cyril needs a 16 or higher to hit his replicant in this system (25% chance of hitting is still less than 30%).

I should point out that both Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry have little tracks on their character sheets to help the player track what they need to roll in order to hit different values of Armor Class. Which is nice and thoughtful but I'm starting to be really confused as to why people like to make this more complex. Looking at these systems side by side it's hard for me to comprehend why gamers embrace these hurdles in the rules since it only serves to slow down the game for people who don't want to to do the math and it alienates new players who might be turned off by rules that don't make sense. (speaking from experience in both cases)

Back to equipment! Cyril's going to want a backpack, a bedroll, 10 torches, 10 days worth of rations, 50 feet of rope, one flask of oil, and a holy symbol, preferably made of silver. Pretty standard fare for a dungeon delver, not overly prepared but definitely not an amateur either. I'm ignoring the actual costs but limiting myself to purchasing the cheapest items when price differentials are available. With a 5 Strength I'm going to have an encumbered character in some of these systems, if not all of them. Let's explore these rules in each system individually, since a side by side comparison wouldn't reveal the intricacies of each difference. These examples will include both the money spent and the weight of the weapons and armor listed above.

ACKS: Weight and encumbrance is measured by stones which is roughly 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) but is left purposefully vague. Various items and objects relate to this stone measurement. A thousand coins weigh one stone; armor doesn't have weight, but every point of Armor Class that a suit gives your character counts as one stone; every six items carried counts as one stone, unless they are large or unusually heavy. A character can carry about 20 stone modified by their Strength.
Poor old Cyril can only carry 18 stone, but after spending 65 gold and 5 silver he's only carrying 7 stone (about 70 lbs).

ADaD: The total encumbrance of a character is equal to the character's weight adjusted by a special modifier under Strength, which makes figuring it out simple enough but weight is randomly determined and stats don't play any role in it. Finding the page, I roll and get 176. With Cyril's Strength penalty he can only carry 151. This system limits how much can be put into backpacks and sacks, so in order to carry everything Cyril will have to purchase an extra small pouch. It doesn't matter much because all of that gear weighs less than half that.
After spending 66 gold, 22 silver and 15 copper, Cyril is carrying 72.7 lbs of gear.

C&C: They try to simplify things by giving every character an Encumbrance Rating (ER) and equipment has both weight and Encumbrance Values (EV). I'm not sure why weight is listed unless the authors wanted the reader to have a frame of reference for using ER and EV. If the total EV of all of your equipment exceeds your ER then your speed starts to slow while you begin to suffer penalties to Dexterity-based rolls. There are several categories of encumbrance based on how much you've exceeded your ER by. Every character gets an ER of 10 modified by Strength, but since Cyril is a little scrawny twit he only has an ER of 8, and just with weapon and armor Cyril is already carrying 9 EV worth of gear.
C&C also has one interesting feature related to ability scores and this comes into play now because it can modify my ER. When you're making your character you choose three of your abilities to be primary attributes, and your class will require one or two abilities to be designated as primary abilities (Wisdom for Clerics, duh!) and if you choose Strength or Constitution as primary attributes then you can add +2 to your ER. Without knowing this ahead of time I selected Constitution as one of Cyril's three primary attributes so his ER is back up to base 10.
After purchasing the rest of the gear he wants, Cyril has spent 28 gold, 1 silver and 10 copper and he's under Heavy Encumbrance with an ER of 33. The real killer here are the torches which are listed as 1 ER each, but the rules don't specify why that is or even how long the average torch should last before a new one is needed.

LL: Encumbrance is an optional rule for LL, so Cyril has no worries. But LL still manages to have the simplest system. A character can carry up to 40 lbs of gear before they are slowed down, and the maximum that any character can carry is 160 lbs. No Strength modifiers, no Encumbrance Values, and no fiddling with numbers - other than calculating the weight your character is carrying.
Using this optional rule, however, Cyril would be carrying 57 lbs of equipment and thus be slowed by one-fourth of his movement rate. Total cost? 51 gold and 5 silver.

LotFP: Another system that uses Encumbrance points rather than weight, though it asks you to use common sense when it comes to the total weight of gear carried. Every six items carried counts as 1 point of Encumbrance, with larger items and heavier armors counting a point themselves. Carrying more than 1 point of Encumbrance will slow a character down, to a maximum of 5 points.
If I'm reading this correctly Cyril is carrying 4 points worth of gear, his shield counts as 1 and his multitude of torches and rations add 3 more points, thus he is severely encumbered. Again, no rules for how long torches last or what they actually weigh. Also, Cyril spent 60 silver and 47 copper.

S&W: Another attempt at simplicity, all characters can carry 75 pounds before they are encumbered and their Strength score will have a Carrying Capacity modifier. S&W instructs the player that a normal level of general equipment will weigh about 10 pounds. They actually use the word "normal" with quotation marks. The only items with weights listed are weapons and armors.
After all of that, Cyril isn't encumbered at all. He spent 58 gold and 4 silver, and is carrying 55 lbs of gear.

                          ACKS          ADaD         C&C          LL         LotFP       S&W
Gold Spent             65              66             28            51            -            58
Silver Spent            5               22              1             5            60            4
Copper Spent          -               15             10             -            47            -
Carry Limit         18 stone     151 lbs       10 ER        40 lbs         1 E         70 lbs 
Weight Carried     7 stone     72.7 lbs       33 ER       57 lbs         4 E         55 lbs
Encumbered?         no              no          heavy       1/4th      severely      no

I think that's the meat and potatoes of the different rule systems. I'm not getting into spell lists or higher-level characters because I wanted to compare what a beginning character would look like; freshly made, rolled up randomly, and applied equally across every system. There are more OSR systems out there than these six, and I might add comparisons to those as an addendum to this post at a later date. For now, this was a lot of work and I spent as much time double-checking rules and flipping through pages as I id just writing up the character(s).

In conclusion

Each of these systems of rules has a distinct theme, whether you might call them flawed because you don't like the theme is a matter of taste. Some of them have a different frame or a different paint job, but they are all variations of the same bicycle. I feel that showing a single character in side-by-side comparison can reveal and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each system.
Below you can click on the thumbnails of each character sheet and see Cyril the Cleric as I wrote him up.

Adventurer Conqueror King System: With a 5-page long character sheet I was expecting a game that was absolutely comprehensive and exacting in detail, but it seems to be lacking in some essential organization. (Please note I only scanned in the first 2 pages of Cyril's sheet because the rest of the pages were blank.) Nothing is more frustrating than looking up some info about your character class or equipment and getting mired in pages and pages of unnecessary data. Not the worst offender of this, but the character sheet itself shows a lack of organization and a disconnect from the rules as they are doled out to the reader which left me flipping back and forth through the back in order to fill it out. I like the artistic style of this game, and despite my misgivings I'm curious about exploring some of the more complex rules, but the use of stones for encumbrance is jarring and not very intuitive to me. Weird interior layout too. A lot about this can be forgiven because the index is amazing, and if you have the pdf the page numbers are linked for quick referencing, which is double awesome!

Adventures Dark and Deep: The first thing I thought while constructing Cyril was that the rules were comprehensive and boldly written. As I dug deeper into the rulebook I found myself flipping back and forth between pages a lot. A LOT! I think this system takes too much inspiration from 1st edition AD&D because I remember feeling the exact same way when I had to flip between three different pages for the stats of one item. It is comprehensive, but it's perhaps too complex. Deliberately? I'm not sure, but it definitely feels as disorganized as anything else Gygax ever wrote. In that sense, it could be a stunning success for what the author intended! I will say that I was blown away by the character sheet, and I think it's missing a few things but it's still a great piece of work. Not since I first started playing have I seen something crafted with such delicate care and exhaustive detail. I wouldn't call this Gygax'es 2nd edition of AD&D, but I would say that it's a very good collation of 1st edition's disparities into a cohesive whole. I like a lot of what is presented here even if it's not presented in the best way. The weapons table should be on one page, together, and there's also no index, which I consider a cardinal sin!

Castles & Crusades: The rulebook is well organized but some rules seem to be lacking. There's a little too much emphasis on DIY aesthetics in some areas of the system when one considers how many supplements the same company has produced. In that regard, they're following TSR's footprints very well! Encumbrance, which is a major issue in this game, isn't expressed anywhere on the character sheet. A major oversight! Otherwise, if C&C got together with ADaD and had a baby, that game would likely be the gold standard of OSR games.

Labyrinth Lord: It doesn't feel like a rulebook but more like some old school gamers got together and attempted to reconstruct their old rulebooks from memory. The rules jump around a fair amount and some things seem thrown together while the rules are also missing a few things that might seem crucial to the average player familiar with D&D. The game is simple, which is not a bad thing, this game would be ideal for teaching a new person role-playing or perhaps gaming with children or young teens. Which makes sense because Labyrinth Lord does also have an advanced supplemental rulebook to expand upon the concepts introduced in the core game. The character sheet is equally charming in both it's simplicity and brevity. Everything you need to play a game is right here!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Organized and simple, yet complex enough that the unfamiliar will be perplexed by some of the inspired but unintuitive turns in the rules. Out of all of the games I looked at here, this one is by far the most brutal and unforgiving, but also the most interesting and enticing. It's probably not the easiest system to use right away, but it definitely leaves a lot to the imagination and has open spaces for expanding and complicating the skeleton of rules presented. If I were going to GM tomorrow, I would run this system.

Swords & Wizardry: THIS GAME HAS NO INDEX! Two of the games above don't have indexes either, but they do have comprehensive or intricate tables of contents and that makes up for the lack of index. This game has neither and my copy is supposedly the "fourth edition," this is an unforgivable sin in my mind. (It does have an index of it's tables, but no page numbers, so why is it there? Ugh!) I absolutely hate when a game doesn't have a way to find relevant information quickly (I'm looking at you White Wolf!) and so I got frustrated quickly with this game while writing up Cyril. However, I would put this in the same wheelhouse as Labyrinth Lord as a starter set of rules for newer players. It simplifies a lot of concepts that the other games make a lot of unnecessary noise about. The character sheet is pretty decent too, though it's missing a few concepts introduced by the ability scores and I don't think the equipment section is big enough, but it's the only character sheet here that comes on one page and I consider that a boon.

Final statement

I'm not going to call one of these games the best or the worst, I think that is entirely a distinction of taste. I think of 4th edition D&D as a board game and yet one of my gaming buddies exalts it as the system where some of his best role-playing moments have happened. I could probably say the same thing about Deadlands and I know people who hate the dice mechanics of that game.

I wanted to see how these systems stood up to one another on the fly and without much prep. I've never played any of these six titles nor have I ever read through them cover-to-cover. I did this for my own enlightenment, to really explore each rulebook on it's own and have a decent measuring stick in the form of a single character. I just happen to be sharing what I've found with you dear reader.

Out of these six systems, I am most intrigued by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I think that's the one I like the most. Swords & Wizardry might be the best of the bunch for introducing new players to D&D, but it's lack of an index and a decent table of contents makes me think Labyrinth Lord is better suited to a learning player. The average gamer is likely going to be attracted to Castles & Crusades or Adventurer Conqueror King, depending on their play style but also because the art is higher quality and just makes those games look more professional. I am most disappointed by Adventures Dark and Deep, which I could only recommend to the most hardcore of grognards, who likely already own it, and this surprises me because starting this comparison I expected to feel almost the exact opposite about both ADaD and LotFP.