Monday, October 1, 2012

Ambition and Avarice: RPGs I Like

So we hit the first real room- the first one with a door closed anyway. We make our Sneak dungeon throws and fail them miserably because we’re first level and it is me the Knight and my pal the Orc Savage up at the front of the marching order. When we listen at the door we can hear the sound of something being knocked over and baddies getting ready for us. We throw the door open and see three Orcs with crossbows standing behind a table they’ve tipped over as a barrier. The Savage opts to try to shut the door and rolls a 1 for initiative. The Orcs shoot him. The GM rolls.

Three natural 20’s pop up on my screen in Tabletop Forge.

And I’m having a blast.

I’ll leave off the other stories from that evening, the Manticore, the Cultist Conversion attempt, and the weird collusion of the cursed sword and gravity trap that resulted in blood pudding. But I’m going to come out and admit that I didn’t quite get the allure of Old-School gaming until that evening. A good part of it was the excellent company, but as much came from the simplicity of the rules we were using, the beta version of Greg Christopher’s new free rpg, Ambition and Avarice.


“You may be used to playing the “good guy” who makes the world a better place for the innocent. That is not one of those games. Your character is a rough and dangerous adventurer. They are looking for fame and fortune, not heroic exploits in the service of noble causes. There is a lot of treasure out there in the world and you aim to make it yours. Anyone who obstructs that dream had better stand aside or face your wrath.”
I’ve reviewed a number of Christopher’s other free rpgs- Cascade Failure, Errant, and Novarium. Many of his previous games have had a strong central premise and backstory. Both CF and Novarium offer settings I could easily see running in. On the other hand, A&A gives a more open-ended approach, but with a real sense of tone. You’ll eking out a living, trying to get by as adventures. You’re dropping down into the dungeons, ruins, or whatnot and hoping to balance wealth gathering against the hospitalar bills when you get back. It’s one degree away from being a Fiasco set-up. Unlike his earlier fantasy rpg, Errant, A&A isn’t worried about all experiences in the setting. This is built for dungeon crawling- and built simply for it. Those are the aspects of the game it want to know about. Yes, you could go back to town or whatever, but who cares about that. You’re in the catacombs so you want to know what skills you can bring to bear on that, how you feed yourself, and how much loot you can actually carry.

The actual version I’m looking at is the free Public Betatest 1.0 available now over on RPGNow. The download includes the 60-page rulebook, two versions of the character sheet- one fillable, and a batch of ten pre-gens. The booklet itself is a simplified version of the eventual rules> Christopher hopes people will read through and provide feedback. He’s already provided a couple of updates- one of the nice features of putting things out via RPG Now/DriveThru rpg. The two-column layout’s clean and excellent, and the spot illustrations throughout work well. For this version the author chose to use half-pages, making for a smaller presentation.

Set-Up and Overview: This first section sets up the basic purposes of the game: every adventurer for themselves dungeon crawling and the ability to use existing materials easily. It then lays out the basic mechanics for the system. Saving Throws, Attribute, Tests, and x in 6 chance tests. One innovation here is the idea of “Dungeon Throws” essentially dungeon skill test covering climb, locks, lore, notice, sneak and traps. I like having that built-in as a clear default for all PCs.

Character Creation: The next big section, pages 6-27, covers making a character. There’s a simple checklist at the start showing the few basic steps necessary. The game uses rolled 3d6 classic attributes (Str, Dex, etc) with each score offering a bonus which can modify rolls. Different stats have different effect so having a decent score can be helpful even if it isn’t your character’s forte. Players next choose one of the ten races from civilized (Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Human) and uncivilized (Dark Elf, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Lizardfolk, and Orc). Each has a distinct set of small benefits and a particular hit die. I like having choices without going too crazy. Poor interactions between the races are left up to the Judge, so you don’t have to play that out. I also like that there’s no alignment system- instead I picture all of the PC’s as Neutral Desperate.

Next players pick from one of the ten classes, mundane (Knave, Knight, Ranger, Robber, and Savage) or magical (Conjurer, Cultist, Priest, Shaman, or Sorcerer).Each class has an expertise- something only they can do. The Knight has Honor, which allows them to ransom captured opponents. The Shaman can go into a trace. Each also has something they’re good at identifying- like the Conjurer knows symbols and the Ranger reads tracks. Each class has their own profession, weapon proficiencies, and dungeon throws. I got a huge kick out of these- when I went to make a standard fight, I had to make a tough choice. I like having some flavor built into the professions. The Cultist especially, a worshipper of a little god who wants to get bigger, is especially inspired.

Money and Equipment: As befitting a game where you’re trying to accumulate stuff, there’s a chunky section on possessions. The simple and clear weapons & armor charts put the pinch on the players right away. Good equipment costs money and can weigh a lot. It has been so long since I had to worry about this, I’d forgotten that tension. We’ve been handling those things abstractly for so long that trying to pick my adventuring gear was a huge challenge. These were the only things I would have on me for the dungeon. If I had too much weight, I wouldn’t be able to pick up loot. But what if I needed that pot (iron)?

Adventures: The book covers pretty much all of the rules you need in pages 40-49. Everything’s handled simply and with efficiency. There’s little chrome or flourish, the right approach for a game like this. It covers encounters, NPC morale, attacks, damage, hazards, survival, retainers, and experience. The rules are solid and clear.

Magic: The book finishes up with magic spells. As this is a betatest, it only includes the first level spells. These work as you expect from other games. Casters can be spontaneous or memorizers, with the latter having some additional hurdles to face. Casters must declare what spell they’re readying before initiative is rolled- a detail I like. They also have to make gestures and speak to cast, but can take damage to bypass those requirements. The rules present 33 spells, with each casting type having access to ten of those. The spell descriptions are minimal as they should be. I like the mix of spells chosen- some reflecting classic D&D and a few new twists.

I can’t really render a final judgment on this- Ambition and Avarice is a beta document, but one I really enjoy as it is presented right now. I would like to see- perhaps- more material in later versions considering that struggle between the players and the “greed” aspect of the game. That could be quite fun- especially if we had some interesting secondary rewards for having been an effective looter. But I’m also torn about that. I think you have two directions you can take this game. One plays up those ideas and perhaps adds some sub-systems. At that point it could become a little more split competitive co-op game. I certainly don’t what a dungeon-based Paranoia game. The other approach is to make this a simple and fast universal adaptor for dungeon modules. That’s also appealing and one of the design goals of the game from the start.

This is what I want out of a game like this: simple, fast, familiar, and adaptable. There are a number of really interesting games like this out there- some OSR (Dungeon Crawl Classics) and others more new school (Dungeon World). They’re interesting and offer cool play options. However, A&A actually hits my buttons. I want a game that looks enough like D&D or d20 that I can hand people a character sheet and we just start going. No rules explanation necessary, just get to rolling. I also don’t want a thick rules set. I don’t care about the frills. That may not work for every group, but I have an older gamer squad who’ve moved to simpler games over the years. If we do a dungeon one shot, they want the feel without the crunch. A&A also makes it exceptionally easy to pick up an older module and just start going with that. That’s also something I really want out of this kind of game. I should be able to yank my copy of C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan off the shelf and run from there. That’s a design goal of A&A and at least at this early stage, it does a good job of it.

I look forward to seeing the revised versions of Ambition and Avarice. If it keeps on track and focuses on that singular purpose, it could be a great game and an excellent system our group could easily fall back to.

Ambition and Avarice can be found for free on RPGNow at this link. 

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