There’s a tradition at the overnight LARP camp where I work, one that has been carefully nurtured by my friend Zach, of playing RPGs when you’re not busy LARPing. Zach has run a wide variety of games at camp, but in the past few years he’s used Old School Renaissance games almost exclusively. I think I’ve finally discovered why.
Running a game for four to eight (or more) eager campers is not easy. To be honest, it’s kind of a mess.
I don’t say this because the kids who want to play are troublesome. In my admittedly limited experience, they’re usually pretty good about getting into the game, getting into whatever character they might have, and participating. They’re not (usually) classic problem-players.
But time is a problem. Particularly, complex character creation is a problem.
Due to camp schedules, you have a very limited amount of time to play. You’re sneaking bits of game in after the normal course of the day, when you’re probably tired and trying to run the kids down enough that they’ll go to bed. This means that every moment you spend engaging with systems, learning how things work, telling the rules to players or telling them how many special abilities they have is another moment that you could have been playing the game and weren’t.
If there’s only two players in a game, character creation for most systems can feel great. It’s fun, it’s a chance to get to know who you’re going to portray, it’s something that will allow you to make the game more your own. But for every additional player, the time required to mediate people’s introduction to the system and their characters’ abilities increases. It might not increase geometrically, but it’s certainly not a simple linear progression either (unless you somehow rule your environment and your players with an iron fist). People get distracted, people want clarifications, they want to choose from a variety of options… and then your first gaming session is over and you haven’t even started playing.
When you’re limited to maybe three sessions over the course of one camp, having your first session eaten entirely by character creation is rough.
It’s important to note that not all OSR systems are equally quick and simple. For example, there are a few games by Kevin Crawford (creator of the fun and free Stars Without Number) that require players to pick skills through a series of skill suite choices, something that basically guarantees that you’ll need to walk players through the process. And then you have to help them pick psionic powers if they’re playing the “spell casting” class. While the system itself is fairly stripped down, and doesn’t involve nearly as much in the way of special rules or extra features as something like D&D 5e (or GURPS), it is still totally possible to lose your first session to character creation.
But some Old School Renaissance systems can help you avoid this entirely. If you pick something like Exemplars & Eidolons and make a few changes to the character creation process to streamline things even further, you can run players through character creation in a few minutes. If you streamline everything, the slowest section will probably be letting them write the background facts which build their character’s backstory and occasionally give them circumstantial bonuses.
The key, as best as I can tell from my experience of playing OSR games with Zach, is to recognize how much you can narrow and simplify your players’ choices while still making things fun for them. It may seem silly, but making your players roll down the line for their attributes makes a huge difference. The central idea is to defeat decision paralysis by restricting players’ options; if they really want to swap two attribute scores because they know the character they are playing and the swap makes more sense, maybe you can make an exception for them. But make sure that they are moving forward instead of choosing between a plethora of options. Similarly, when it comes time for them to pick special abilities (if that is a thing in your system, as it is in E&E), make them pick from a list of cool names without showing them the text of the ability. Or have them roll on a table and choose randomly. And always encourage them to think more about the general feel of the character that they want to be, based on the bizarre assortment of things they end up with, rather than how to massage the system into giving them the “best” or “optimized” version of their character.
Now, E&E is also by Kevin Crawford, and was apparently created as an excuse to share OSR sourcebook typesetting and formatting guidelines. But a lot of the central system design elements have been picked up and expanded in his game Godbound, and I’m really excited to see how the more basic form of the system works in play.
In fact, I’m going to run E&E tomorrow to see how well I can put my character creation streamlining into practice, and to get some experience with running the system before I try running a game for campers. With a little luck I’ll be able to run character creation from start to finish in under half an hour. I think I’ll time myself.
Now that I have that discussion of speeding up character creation out of the way, maybe I should mention what Exemplars & Eidolons is all about?
I can’t tell you details about how it feels to play E&E, since I haven’t tried it yet. But the way the system is structured looks like it captures a heroic sword & sorcery feel. Even at first level, your characters are clearly badasses. You’re not invulnerable, you’re actually still very squishy; but you can lay into a crowd of people and expect to vanquish them with ease. While a lucky blow from a large foe might drop you, you start the game capable of doing tremendous things. Partly, this tone is set by the rules for skill checks. The rules suggest that skill checks should only be made for clearly heroic actions. No one expects your rogue to have to roll in order to pilfer some schmuck’s pockets. On the other hand, sneaking past the many ranks of the Emerald Guard into the treasure vault of the Thousand Year Empress might be suitably heroic.
As the storyteller I could certainly choose to use the system as it stands for a more grim and low-powered game, but then I’d run into the design of the combat system. Most enemies are rated in Hit Dice, but their HD are used as equivalent to hit points (that classic abstracted representation of health) rather than as a basis for how many dice to roll to determine their hit points. Furthermore, all heroes get to roll an additional damage die (called a Fray Die) every turn that they are in combat to represent their capacity for casual mayhem and destruction. This allows them to put out far more damage than most comparable enemies. Not only that, but any excess damage a character deals, after downing one enemy, can be spread to any other suitable target whose armor is the same or worse than the first target. The end result is that heroes can crush large numbers of enemies, especially enemies who are not as high level as them. And while enemies are dangerous, their fragility makes them less likely to stick around and keep fights going.
As best as I can tell, this means that the system encourages combat that feels and looks like the fights in early Conan stories. Bloody, dangerous, and messy, but with an unquestionable focus on the astounding capabilities of the central characters. Taken together with the various special abilities that player characters might have which allow them to perform even more incredible feats, I expect that this game will feel like heroic fantasy crossed with swords and sorcery and maybe a dash or three of wu xia. Some folks online have compared it to extremely rules-light Exalted. Fun stuff. I’ll let you know how it goes.