Tim's evaluation of ODS

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Tim's evaluation of ODS

Postby Tim_Jensen on Mon Mar 23, 2009 10:43 pm

Here's my honest-but-harsh take on Elthos ODS.

The Cover
On first glancing at the cover, one would get the impression that this is another of the 'old school' D&D tribute games that have been appearing over the past couple of years. The author credits Arneson and Gygax right on the cover, after all. Below the title is a hand-drawn map of a fanciful island.

Page Two
The table of contents shows where the most effort went into the rules. The sections on character generation and combat take up 12 of the book's 29 pages.

Introduction: The Elthos One Die System
Page three contains the introduction and this is where the book throws the reader for a loop. It begins touting the game's simplicity and broad applicability to any sort of 'RPG fantasy adventure'. It then gives a brief preview of the ODS core mechanic, touches on the game's setting and how to use the book. It then concludes with the following misleading paragraph :
“Ultimately Elthos is a Story Game. It is about the Players and Gamesmaster as a
group creating Great Story via the game-actions of their Characters within the
context of a fascinating Adventure, and the ODS Rules are designed to enable
story-focused gaming by being ultra-light weight.”

The bottom of page three has a blurb about the cover which reminds me of the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide's blurb about the efreet and the Fabled City of Brass.

The Core ODS Rules
An explanation of what players are supposed to do, and what characters are for, would have been appreciated here. While veteran roleplayers should be familiar with the concept of creating a player character, new roleplayers might become lost at this point. At least the text gives a list of things needed to start playing.

Character Creation
A table shows a selection of possible character races. At a glance, the races are completely unbalanced...one wonders why you should pick anything other than an 'elkron' unless the games master forbids it. (Again, this is an assumption on my part, as no explanation is given as to a games master's role, responsibility or authority in the game.) In a game where only common fantasy humanoid races are allowed, hobbits and humans outclass every other playable race due to their high maximum level.

Character creation proceeds with determination of requisites (stats) that can be rolled randomly or assigned by the player with 11 points. (Note how this invalidates the 'average' ratings for the various races.) Then the character's class is chosen, and some character advancement information is mixed in at this point. The character's starting money is randomly rolled and is reflected by a fantasy medieval social caste system.

Character advancement is accomplished by training at the class guild, for a monetary fee, when the character gains new levels. How the character knows he has gained a new level is not explained. :? Skill Learning Points are awarded based on how many classes the character has, and must be spent to acquire new skill ranks. This system favors thieves while penalizing clerics based on how many experience points they need to gain levels.

Weapons and armor, staple character equipment in D&D, are then selected. Armor is interesting in that wearing it may actually make the character more likely to be hit in combat, although it does absorb some of the damage from weapons and presumably other sources.

The rest of character generation mixes rules explanations with sections for determining the character's remaining traits.

Two brief paragraphs cover naming of characters and placing them in the world by the games master. Presumably this makes it easier for them to interact with the other player characters, although an explanation of why this is desirable or what the characters are supposed to do together would have been nice for those new to fantasy adventure roleplaying.

The combat and skill systems, despite their numerical complexity, are really very straight-forward contests of ablating the opponents' life points (hit points) and succeeding or failing at a given task. The Games master determines the difficulty of all tasks, however, making much of a character's effectiveness dependent on the games master's whims instead of the calculations involved. Both the combat and skill systems could be reduced to simple opposed rolls. The one glaring problem, or oversight, here is the lack of any mention of meta-game social contract issues. Ergo, if you are the games master's best friend, he's having a good day and you buy him a pizza, he is likely to give you lower difficulties than if you come over to his house and make fun of the music playing on his stereo, help yourself to his last beer and then insult his chosen political candidate. GM fiat trumps the character's requisites.

The movement,'positional armor class adjustment' and zones of control rules all favor mobile characters, making some character races like the dwarf nonviable. Diagrams of combats taking place on either hexes or a grid are shown, but there is no explanation of why these are used or when one should be used instead of the other. Either way, combatants want to be as fast and use as long-reaching weapons as possible. Ideally, your side will be 'kiting' (backing up) around hindering terrain while shooting opponents to death with your missile weapons before they can engage you. If one side is outmatched, they can easily run away by making a distract & run, a bash & run or the initiative trick. Many unresolved battles would likely result from these rules unless they too are canceled or ignored by GM fiat.

Characters advance with experience points just like in D&D, and there appears to be no limit on how many may be gained in a given length of time. ODS encourages characters to engage in numerous non-dangerous activities, killing helpless opponents (to further reduce risk) and avoid certain creatures that can drain experience points in combat.

The magic system is a variant add-on of the regular combat system, using up an extra resource (mystic points) and attacking a different defense trait. Magic attacks are categorized into classic Vancian-based spells much like D&D and it's other imitators.

Pages 15 and 16 summarize combat and present the various tables used in the game. While the formatting is poor, this is forgivable in an early draft. The Requisite Bonus Chart is presented without any explanation, and appears to break the 1-6 range of the dice roll. If those bonuses are universal, then characters should only be using their requisite that is rated at 6. While this should encourage teamwork (if that is one of the goals of the character arrangement) it also effectively turns everyone into a one-trick pony as far as combat or most non-combat skill rolls are concerned.

One page is dedicated to optional rules for combat, and one page is dedicated to a list of generic fantasy-inspired magic powers.

The Games Master's mini-guide mentions some interesting play variations with regards to 'story ownership' and the role of the dice on the game's story, but no usable rules are presented for these and the concepts are not elaborated on.

Some more advice is given on this page for extending the ODS into new areas. The advice is sound, but too brief and vague to really be useful, especially to an inexperienced GM.

The Gamesmaster’s Encounters Creation Mini-Guide appears to be a fairly useful encounter planning tool. More tools like this would be useful in summarizing a campaign's local setting and society, even if those aren't as important to the ODS as combat encounters.

The next two pages are printable hex and grid sheets. They don't appear to be necessary to play ODS.

The Combat Tracker is a manual spread sheet for keeping track of combat. I guess if you need this to run combats, the system isn't nearly as simplistic as it claims to be in the introduction.

The character sheet and sample characters appear functional, if very amateur in appearance. If ODS is trying to look like a home-made product, it succeeds here.

The example combat demonstrates how many steps are involved in a one-on-one battle. Larger, multi-sided combats would presumably scale up from there.

One page is dedicated to the abbreviations used for ODS jargon.

The final page is a surprisingly comprehensive index.


My conclusions:

Whatever Elthos ODS claims to be, it is not a story game. There are no rules covering the creation or progression of stories within its pages. Furthermore, in my own experience with both traditional roleplaying games and less-traditional story games, the 'lightness' of the rules has little or nothing to do with how well a given system supports the creation of stories in play.

Elthos ODS is a game suffering from extreme design incoherency. It tries to be a universal fantasy adventure game; a fantasy jack-of-all-trades. Unfortunately no part of the system really succeeds at achieving its goals. Elthos ODS is complicated, unadaptable outside a very narrow style of roleplaying game, and depends on the skills of experienced roleplayers to play well. That, perhaps is its biggest weakness, as far superior, free games of this type exist (Swords & Wizardy, Labyrinth Lord, Osric and D&D Rules Cyclopedia to name a few) and have active communities of fans supporting them.

My sincere recommendation to Mark is that he finish tinkering with ODS, publish it in some non-profit form as soon as possible and move on to his next design.
Last edited by Tim_Jensen on Tue Mar 24, 2009 7:11 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Tim's evaluation of ODS

Postby vbwyrde on Mon Mar 23, 2009 11:42 pm

Well, that's quite the review Tim.

Some of your points are definitely worth consideration, and so for those points I am quite grateful. As for your concluding advice you may consider it duly noted.

-Mark
* Aspire to Inspire *

Literary Role Playing Game Society of Westchester: http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/LRPGSW

Elthos RPG Website: http://www.elthos.com

Elthos RPG Blog: http://ElthosRPG.blogspot.com
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Re: Tim's evaluation of ODS

Postby vbwyrde on Sun May 17, 2009 7:57 pm

Concerning the points made in Tim's evaluation:

Character creation proceeds with determination of requisites (stats) that can be rolled randomly or assigned by the player with 11 points. (Note how this invalidates the 'average' ratings for the various races.)

This is something to consider. If a person wants to play an elf, and they pick the 11 point option for distribution then they’re not going to make elf. On the other hand, and this is the point of the multiple options for generating Character Requisites, they could try to roll for it and if they make then great. So in other words if you want to play an elf then you need to take your chances and roll some dice, and risk rolling low. An alternative option, of course, would be for the Gamesmaster to allow for the player to pick elf, and then get the number of points for average elf requisites to spend to shape the elf the way they want. This kind of rule however may tend to lead towards an inclination to min-max, which is ok for some players but not that great for the game as a whole in my opinion, which is why I didn't mention the option in the rules. One of the main points that I do mention, however, is that the system is designed to give the Gamesmaster as much flexibility on using the rules, or amending them, according to their own lights. That point is made on page one of the rules where it says "You’re the Gamesmaster; you decide what suits you best." That is a guiding principal of this system. Of course, that is a guiding principal that some Gamesmasters and Players may not necessarily feel comfortable with. That's ok. The Elthos RPG is meant for players and Gamesmasters who are comfortable with adjudicating the rules as they see fit, providing them with a relatively light (or medium, depending on your point of view) weight system which is meant to serve, much like the Original D&D rules, as a launching point to work from.

In a game where only common fantasy humanoid races are allowed, hobbits and humans outclass every other playable race due to their high maximum level.

The rules state in the section on Levels that the race limits on levels do not necessarily need to pertain to player characters, but should pertain to NPCs typically. This is stated as follows "Player Character Levels are not necessarily limited by Race." Again, it is a point the ODS feels is best left up to the adjudication of the Gamesmaster. Need a Super-Kobold at 6th Level because your friendly neighborhood Sorcerer cooked one up in the basement? Go for it. The Elthos ODS rules are not meant to bind you, but to free you. Use them as you see fit.

This system favors thieves while penalizing clerics based on how many experience points they need to gain levels.

I suppose that is a matter of personal opinion and if you are looking strictly at the levels then one might draw that conclusion. However, Clerics obtain power that thieves have no access to, and as a consequence have the capacity to become more powerful characters at higher levels than theives. One thing that I might due to address this perception, and give a practical and immediate balancing effect would be to assign a hit point bonus to higher experience base character classes. So a Thief at Experience Base 10 would get no Hit Point bonus, but a Fighter at 20 Experience Base might get +1 Hits, and SpellChanter at 30 Experience Base might get +2, hits and a Clerice at 40 might get +3 Hit Point bonus. This could be per level or a one time boost at first level. I will need to evaluate the systemic implications and decide if this is worth doing. It is certainly worth consideration. The elthos prime system, I should add, compensated for this exact thing by allotting higher sided dice for hits to higher experience base classes which was the balancing factor in that system. In the ODS this was dispensed with, however, for the sake of simplifying the system. It may however, be necessary for the sake fo game balance. I will review, analyze and decide.

Two brief paragraphs cover naming of characters and placing them in the world by the games master. Presumably this makes it easier for them to interact with the other player characters, although an explanation of why this is desirable or what the characters are supposed to do together would have been nice for those new to fantasy adventure roleplaying.

This is probably worth considering as Elthos ODS may well serve as a bridge game (one that leads new players on to more complex rpgs) for new RPG Players and Gamesmasters. The point is made in the beginning of the review as well that new role players would need some introduction as to how to role play generally, but it may be worth making some mention of it in the rules book. Conversely, I do mention this on the website itself, but it is possible that people who have the Core Rules Book may not have access to the website, though that would be uncommon I should think.

The Games master determines the difficulty of all tasks, however, making much of a character's effectiveness dependent on the games master's whims instead of the calculations involved.

This shows the reviewers point of view on the issue of Gamesmasters via GM’s Fiat… a popular gripe among Indie style RPGers who feel that no amount of GM Fiat is allowable. However, for those of us who are comfortable with the concept of the GM as adjudicator it is not a problem at all. So this is something that would have to be left up to the individual Gamesmaster and Players discretion. The Elthos ODS is not going to be suitable for everyone.

The one glaring problem, or oversight, here is the lack of any mention of meta-game social contract issues. Ergo, if you are the games master's best friend, he's having a good day and you buy him a pizza, he is likely to give you lower difficulties than if you come over to his house and make fun of the music playing on his stereo, help yourself to his last beer and then insult his chosen political candidate. GM fiat trumps the character's requisites.

Social contract issues are discussed in the Guide page. Perhaps they can be expanded upon, but again, players who have an axe to grind about the question of GM Fiat and Story Ownership (both discussed on the Guide page) would probably not be comfortable with the Elthos RPG since it does indeed rely heavily on GM adjudication of the rules. As one who has both played and Gamesmastered for over 30 years I don't have any issue with GM Fiat, so long as the GM has a reasonable sense of how to conduct adjudication in the context of an RPG. One might read the KnockSpell magazine issue #1 for an interesting and helpful discussion of this subject. The article can be found here: http://www.lulu.com/browse/preview.php?fCID=6025029

The movement,'positional armor class adjustment' and zones of control rules all favor mobile characters, making some character races like the dwarf nonviable.

Interesting observation and a point worth looking into. I'm not sure that an actual analysis of the game mechanics will result in the same conclusion, but I intend to conduct one and will post my findings when I conclude the analysis.

Diagrams of combats taking place on either hexes or a grid are shown, but there is no explanation of why these are used or when one should be used instead of the other.

This is explained under the rules section on Tactical Bonuses as follows: "HEX Map shows an outdoor area ". On the printable maps section this is the title of the Hex Map page: "Printable Outdoor/Wilderness “HEX” Map" and this is the title of the Grid Maps page: "Printable Indoor/Dungeon “Square” Map".

Either way, combatants want to be as fast and use as long-reaching weapons as possible. Ideally, your side will be 'kiting' (backing up) around hindering terrain while shooting opponents to death with your missile weapons before they can engage you. If one side is outmatched, they can easily run away by making a distract & run, a bash & run or the initiative trick. Many unresolved battles would likely result from these rules unless they too are canceled or ignored by GM fiat.

This should be analysed for accuracy and importance. I don’t see this as a flaw necessarily, nor do I think an actual analysis of combat tactics will draw the same conclusion. I will look into it and post my findings after that analysis.

ODS encourages characters to engage in numerous non-dangerous activities, killing helpless opponents (to further reduce risk) and avoid certain creatures that can drain experience points in combat.

I’m not so sure how Tim came to the conclusion that the encourages killing helpless opponents to reduce risk, but there is a subdual rule that would probably tend to mitigate that effect.

The Requisite Bonus Chart is presented without any explanation, and appears to break the 1-6 range of the dice roll.

I believe it is explained in the character generation section. I don’t think it breaks the 1-6 range of the dice roll, but I’m not sure what he means by this.

If those bonuses are universal, then characters should only be using their requisite that is rated at 6. While this should encourage teamwork (if that is one of the goals of the character arrangement) it also effectively turns everyone into a one-trick pony as far as combat or most non-combat skill rolls are concerned.

I don’t understand what he means by this, either, to be honest, but I figure it's probably worth investigating in case there is a good point being made.

One page is dedicated to optional rules for combat, and one page is dedicated to a list of generic fantasy-inspired magic powers.

I intend to review the generic fantasy powers again and make them Elthosian. The powers listed were just Drafts / place holders, but that was not made clear to the reviewer. Elthosian magic is intended to be more subtle than the standard RPG magical tropes.

The Games Master's mini-guide mentions some interesting play variations with regards to 'story ownership' and the role of the dice on the game's story, but no usable rules are presented for these and the concepts are not elaborated on.

These are not Rules but a Guideline to alert GMs to the possibilities. This is stated on the Guide page as follows: "The Rules for the Elthos ODS are designed to be a starting point for Gamesmasters, and may be modified according to the needs of the individual Worlds created, or as enhancements to the existing rules. When creating new rules I try to keep a balance between richness and simplicity. My guiding principal is (again): When in doubt, keep it simple."

Some more advice is given on this page for extending the ODS into new areas. The advice is sound, but too brief and vague to really be useful, especially to an inexperienced GM.

Ok, maybe this needs to be expanded upon, but must be balanced against the wish to keep the rules book as small as is reasonably possible. I'll consider adding more to that section.

The Gamesmaster’s Encounters Creation Mini-Guide appears to be a fairly useful encounter planning tool. More tools like this would be useful in summarizing a campaign's local setting and society, even if those aren't as important to the ODS as combat encounters.

I will consider this for additional material in the book, but I don’t wish to confuse this with the world weavers guide, which as stated in the introduction is going to be a separate book. That is explained in the introduction as follows: "This booklet is designed for one purpose only: To provide you with the Core Rules. Therefore it is very small. However, in case you’re wondering, there is plenty of Setting to the Elthos World, but that information will be provided separately in The Elthos World Weaver’s Guide. That said, it should also be understood that the ODS Rules do not require the Setting. You can create your own Worlds, or apply the ODS to existing Settings as you see fit."

Those are all of the points from the review that I thought were worth investigating or commenting on. If you see any points that should be elaborated on or ones that I missed please post a comment on it.

-Mark
* Aspire to Inspire *

Literary Role Playing Game Society of Westchester: http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/LRPGSW

Elthos RPG Website: http://www.elthos.com

Elthos RPG Blog: http://ElthosRPG.blogspot.com
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