Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Well, I got me a Halloween costume...$40 from Display & Costume but at least I've got something to wear to the party tonight. In the past, my wife and I have always made our own costumes, but she's been extremely busy and I'm still recovering from my Thing costume from Halloween was cool, but I spent way too many hours carving and gluing foam "rocks" and breathing entirely too much orange spray paint.

So this year? Well, according to the tag, I am dressed as a "warrior-king." With the dragon rampant on the front, I'm guessing it's supposed to be based on some king of Arthur Pendragon design (there are even little Celtic crosses), but who knows. My wife picked it out (I don't usually dress in anything vaguely Renaissance Fair or D&D-esque), and it's kind of cool, though exceptionally warm (wish I was outside trick-or-treating!).

Here's an image (though this ain't me...I've got a beard right now):

The funny thing is it puts me in the mood to get back to my B/X Companion. I have been incredible slack the last couple months, letting things slide all through September and October, when I should've had it finished up in August. Well, yesterday I just learned that an actual publishing company just finished their beta version of their own "Companion Expansion" to certain Basic and Expert set rules. Ugh.

Welp, no one to blame but myself. I've done far too much work on my own set to not finish it. Plus I promised TimeShadows a free copy of my version once it's completed. I intend to keep that promise, and I intend to get this damn thing published to my own satisfaction. That's it.

Later in the evening (after the revelation that I'd once again been beaten to the punch), I had a chance to Skype with my old buddy Joel. He's an old gaming buddy from college that I've mentioned before (if briefly). What I didn't mention before is that he is a bona fide artist and graphic designer (that's what he studied at university) and a fairly good painter. I've been wracking my brain as to how I'm going to do the art for my game (since the Doctor has been so reticent about getting back into drawing and my own skills are so meager). Talking to Joel, I believe I've got him on-board which solves a BIG problem I was anticipating. He also has layout experience as well.

Now it's time to get back into it; to put up or shut up, as it were. I still think there's quite a bit of good things I have to say in such a supplement (hell, at least I have plenty of good monsters, spells, and magic items, not to mention some cool class related stuff, dominion and mass combat rules). And who knows what the other guys' expansion is all about? Mine is about exploring high level play, specifically with regard to being a dominion ruler (all hail the warrior-king, baby!). That might still appeal to some folks out there. I know it does to me.
: )

Keep the faith, folks!

Halloween's A-Coming...

And I've got nothing to wear.

Also, I don't have any specific Halloween gaming tales to spin (this is a gaming blog after all). Heck, I just picked up a new board game and it doesn't even look like I'll get to play that unless I'm lucky.

Makes me a wee bit jealous (though that ain't unusual) of the stuff I'm reading around the blogs. I've just never been THAT into horror games (haven't even picked up Death Frost Doom yet!). Even though I own Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, but I'd much rather read an H.P. Lovecraft story than try to make one up. That's just me.

White Wolf games are NOT my idea of horror, by the way (once you humanize the monsters, they lose their scare factor, even the Antediluvians...and Mummy, sheesh! WW made these guys the Dalai Lama of the World of Darkness!). World of Darkness my ass. This is a series that, in my estimation, has lost more and more with every revision.

Tell you true, here's MY idea of a horror RPG (it's even orange for Halloween):

Deadlands is one of my favorite "new school" games I own. Western? Check. Cannibal zombies? Check. And really, that's all I give a shit about, though I love games that empower American Indians as well (we'll have to talk about Shadow Run sometime...).

Plus, any time you're feeding meat to a horse is downright creepy.

But the system. Ugh! Deadlands is yet another game that I purchased, sold, and re-purchased simply because I love the entire concept of the Weird West. But for all the coolness the game is practically un-playable.

Why? Well, it's got a steep learning curve for a system (trying to explain the concept to folks who don't own the game takes long enough...trying to explain the system as well...?). Not the kind of RPG you can just introduce one evening as a "change of pace."

Then there's the extensive chargen. Fortunately there are archetype character templates to choose from, but for anyone who likes making their own character from scratch, it can take awhile. And long chargen systems, as I believe I've posted before, contributes to an expectation of "no character death." No character death? In a zombie western?!

Of course killing anyone in the game is made hard enough due to the over-complex combat system. When you have to track wounds and "wind" (fatigue) and bleeding and actions in a round and hit location and combat maneuvers (auto-fire? Fanning?)...well, heck I guess Boot Hill has spoiled me for life because I expect gunfights to be fast and furious, not slow and tedious.

In the end, Deadlands is a game that remains firmly on my shelf (I won't make the mistake of selling it back again!) as well as my favorite supplements (The Quick and the Dead and the Book of the Dead). But I probably won't get around to playing the game until I've had a chance to work it over and tweak it simple. Maybe I'll make it a micro-supplement for my microgame Clockwork....

Happy Halloween, folks!

Friday, October 30, 2009

OK, So Why Heroes Unlimited?

‘Cause sometimes you want “gritty.”

Regardless of what Kevin Siembieda says (or anyone else, for that matter) Heroes Unlimited is a good…not a great…game.

Yes, its combat system can be painfully clunky. Yes, the skill system is simply painful, possibly the worst of any RPG still being published. Yes, despite its title the powers are surprisingly “limited;” much more so than other superhero RPGs (Marvel, Aberrant, GodLike, etc.). The game has obvious, glaring flaws.

Equally obvious is the amount of love and attention lavished on the game. Three editions and more than half a dozen supplements issued multiple times in support of the game, Rifts may be the flagship and Robotech the licensed money-maker, but Heroes Unlimited is definitely the third leg of Palladium’s product tripod…much more than Palladium Fantasy, Beyond the Supernatural, Advanced Recon, Mechanoids, or anything else.

So why, why do I own this game? Why, in fact, did I purchase the 2nd edition last year after selling HU a few years back (at the same time as I dumped Rifts)?

Well, the dumping was a fit of madness brought on by my culling all the “weak games” I never intended to play again. Since that time I have purchased several new Superhero games (Aberrant and its brethren, Capes, GodLike, With Great Power, etc.) as well as retaining Marvel and Advanced Marvel. However, what I have found over the last several years is that Heroes Unlimited does one thing better than any of the others…hell, it does something I’ve yet to see emulated in ANY other superhero game.

It does gritty, street level superheroes better than anyone else.

When I say gritty, I’m not just meaning “dark and dirty,” I mean “granulated.” If I want to pit Hawkeye versus Cyclops in a fist fight using Marvel, they’ve got pretty much identical stats (Typical strength, Good or Excellent fighting)…who wins is going to come down to whose holding more Karma and who gets better, luckier rolls. And there ain’t much difference between them and Kraven or the Beetle or…well, you name it.

Heroes Unlimited doesn’t do hugely powered individuals real well. All right it does better with the latest edition and the introduction of the Mega-Hero as well as some of the Unlimited Powers books…but you really have to work at it. In the past, my Palladium buddies (Michael, Mike, and Ben…man, they loved ALL that Palladium stuff in high school and middle school!) got so fed up with the Revised edition’s wimpy “major powers” that they created their own list of “mega-powers” to better emulate the comic book characters they loved…call it the Fantastic Four/Silver Surfer List.

Anyway, I’ve come around to the idea that not every superhero game needs to be Four-Colored or Silver Aged…in fact, I prefer games where heroes are at the mercy of bullets. The Green Arrow of the Longbow Hunters series (set in Seattle, no less!) is NOT easily modeled with Marvel (considering he skips the fancy doo-dad arrows). The Wild Cards (originally based on BRP’s Superworld) are also not well represented in other superhero games. Neither are Daredevil and his usual rogue’s gallery (Kingpin, Stiltman, Elektra, Typhoid Mary, etc.).

But for me, the comic series that really needs Heroes Unlimited to do it right is the Marvel Ultimates imprint. And I mean The Ultimates themselves, specifically (the “Ultimate” version of the Avengers). I read the Ultimates' comics and I can’t help but think “man, these writers must play or have played Heroes Unlimited!” Truly...I’ve taken the time to go through the Ultimates comics (at least the first two “seasons;” the best of the bunch in my opinion) and I can pretty much make each character fairly simply using only the 2nd Edition game rules and the first two Powers books.

Mr. Siembieda has made it abundantly clear that they will try to milk legal money out of anyone posting character conversions on-line, but just in case anyone wanted a starting point, consider these options:

Ultimate Hulk – Mega-Experiment

Ultimate Iron Man – Hardware: Analyst

Ultimate Giant Man – Imbued

Ultimate Thor – Mega-Immortal

Ultimate Wasp – Mutant

Ultimate Captain America – Super Soldier

Ultimate Black Widow – Super Soldier

Ultimate Hawkeye – Weapon Master (missile weapons)

For other “street level” characters of the Marvel Universe:

Luke Cage – Experiment

Iron Fist – Special Training: Ancient Master

Falcon – Invention

Moon Knight – Special Training: Hunter/Vigilante

Daredevil – Empowered

Elektra – Physical Training

War Machine – Robotics

Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier – Special Training: Secret Operative

None of these characters (with the obvious exception of Hulk and Thor) have world-shaking, cosmic power. All are fairly vulnerable to each other IN THE COMIC BOOK UNIVERSE and thus model very well using Heroes Unlimited. Which to me is very cool.

Of course, that does nothing to make HU any more playable or any less a mess. But I have my own set of tweaks that can certainly improve…most notably cleaning up the Experience point/advancement scheme and importing my own version of Marvel Superheroes RPG’s “karma” rules. Oh, yeah…and updating the various types of super-strength powers to allow actual Marvel scale characters to be evoked.

[by the way, I’m going to take a wild guess that most people who play HU have come to the same conclusions as me as to why and how playability can be gleaned from this train-wreck of a system, and I’m also guessing that those who continue to play it have probably made similar tweaks themselves. For all those individuals that have never played Heroes Unlimited…’cause you were scared of the rumors perhaps…I’d just like to say that the game DOES have potential especially for someone looking for a REAL “old school” type superhero game with levels and randomness and crunchy combat. The thing just needs work is all]

Wow Jeff Grubb! Power to the People!

So apparently Jeff Grubb, maker of fine RPGs like the highly innovative and elegant Marvel Superheroes RPG, lives in my neck of the woods...Seattle, WA! At least from his blog, which I just found on-line, it appears he'll be voting in the same elections as me.

Fortunately we seem to be on the same page with respect to our politics (even working The Stranger lines). Hell, screw The Stranger...I'm going with Jeff Grubb's endorsements this November!

Who do you like for mayor, Jeff?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What Goes Around Comes Around - Karma & Marvel Superheroes

Since I mentioned Heroes Unlimited/Rifts the other day, and recently discussed "experience mechanics" in non-Old School RPGs, I figured this is as good a time as any to discuss that crazy mother-f’ing hybrid Marvel Superheroes.

[in fact, the original title of this post was going to be “That Crazy Mother-F***g Game” but I decided I’d save that for a future post about some other RPG]

I’ve played a lot of Marvel in the past, both the original RPG (released in 1984) and the “Advanced” version (released 1986); the latter being essentially the same game though with more bells & whistles. Part of this was certainly due to my age (from 11 to 13 were prime “comic book” collecting years), and part was due to the friends who owned it (including my old buddy Jason, whose Mom was NOT a fan of D&D once their family became Born Again Christians).

Anyway, we played quite a bit of MSH back in the day, though our longest running campaign was the Advanced version and involved ZERO characters from the Marvel universe. Not that we didn’t like the characters in the Marvel universe (my friend, Jocelyn was a big X-Man fan), but we certainly were more interested in creating our own superhero soap operas and a lot less concerned with whether or not Peter Parker was going to make his dinner appointment with Aunt May.

Plus, with the advent of the Ultimate Powers Book, character creation was “off the hook,” so to speak, and we had too many cool options to worry about Marvel canon.

However, going with our own “Marvel universe” led to certain issues between game expectations and system rules; namely, what to do about that damn Karma stuff. Coming at the game with a gamist (i.e. “raised on D&D”) mentality, Karma certainly got us into trouble.

Marvel, similar to Palladium, is a bit of a hybrid game, at least a step removed from Old School gaming. However, unlike Palladium’s Heroes Unlimited, its game design is both innovative and elegant. Ron Edwards has pointed out that in some ways it is one of the first RPGs to facilitate a Narrativist creative agenda (though he also points out that the game is explicit in its text about also allowing the game to be played “gamist style,” simply duking it out between Marvel characters to prove once and for all who’s the toughest of them all). The reason it facilitates Narrativism is its excellent Karma mechanic (the same one I just mentioned that gave us headaches as kids).

For those who haven’t played MSH, Karma is the game’s version of “experience points.” It is a point pool and points are awarded to players based on their actions in the game. In a very Old School way, Karma informs in game behavior as it is awarded in specific amounts for specific actions (for example, foiling a robbery is one amount; defeating a villain gives a specific amount). It’s not perfect, but good enough (and with enough examples, especially in published modules) that it’s workable. However, unlike D&D experience points or Gamma World status points, Karma can also be LOST. Not just SPENT (more on that in a minute) but LOST through less-than-heroic action.

This negative penalty is the first example I can think of where behavior mechanics are truly enforced with an in-game penalty of play (losing a level due to “poor alignment play” notwithstanding as that is arbitrary and subject to DM adjudication). FOR EXAMPLE (and this is the big one right off the bat): if a player character kills anyone, for ANY reason, then the character LOSES ALL KARMA. That’s it…karma goes down to 0. It’s the biggest penalty of the game (committing crimes or being a tool in general will cause your karma to take a hit, but killing is the only thing that zeroes it out).

Can you imagine being confronted by this as a player recently arrived from a cutthroat D&D campaign? Of course, this is before Dark Horse comics and “heroes” like Dead Pool…hell, even before the ascendancy of Wolverine as a solo cash cow for Marvel (before Weapon X, in other words). I doubt that young comic readers, used to the regular death and dismemberment in, say, the Authority universe or the Ultimate Marvel imprint would, frankly, understand the big deal about killing. I didn’t LIKE the rule, but at least I UNDERSTOOD it.

So what’s the big deal about losing one’s Karma? Well, aside from the pool of points used to develop one’s character (increase ability scores, purchase new powers/skills, etc.), Karma as a pool could be spent to influence dice rolls. Does the fate of the free world (or Marvel universe) hinge on the outcome of a single dice roll? Spend some Karma to ensure a critical success. Did the Juggernaut just crush some New Mutant’s flimsy skull with a lucky shot? Spend some Karma to un-do the hit.

The end result is two-fold:

1) It allows PCs to do all that crazy stuff that makes them survive and succeed even when (apparently) out-classed by a mega-powered opponent. Squirrel Girl defeating Dr. Doom? Sure…with enough Karma expenditure.

2) This is more subtle, but equally present: it allows PLAYERS (not just game masters) to address premise, allowing them to make a statement about a story’s theme BASED ON THEIR EXPENDITURE OF KARMA TO INFLUENCE DICE ROLLS. Do you want the game to have bystanders be killed through wanton destruction and flagrant power use? Don’t spend karma to avoid it. Do you want to succeed in some areas of the story (to show what MATTERS, what is INTEGRAL to the plot) then spend Karma there. This is REAL narrative power in the PLAYER’S hands…much different from any RPG before it.

Of course, as a 12 year old, I didn’t get this. Instead I focused on “why can’t I kill this villain? He’s a total asshole!” And kill the villain I would. Hey, once you went to 0 karma who cares if you continue to kill people?

Well, my GM for one. Scott (of whom I've written before) instituted a NEGATIVE Karma penalty…continuing to kill would dig me deeper in the hole. Now, unfortunately, there were no real repercussions for having a negative Karma (except that it took that much more to advance into positive numbers) and so I was content to be a Karmic “dead beat.” It didn’t help that development in MSH is glacially slow (this is by design; characters in the comic universe don’t often change power levels and so HUGE amounts of Karma were necessary for even minute changes), so I had little for which to “save up” points.

In retrospect, negative Karma IS both logical and thematically appropriate (at least if you have any understanding of the real world metaphysical belief of Karma). Being a much wiser individual these days, I would certainly institute real and quite possibly severe consequences for individuals carrying a negative Karmic debt…possibly including losing your character as an NPC vigilante/villain with a warrant for your arrest!

I would also like to note that when I GM’d Marvel (this was one game where we rotated GMs fairly frequently) none of my players ever had a “negative Karma” problem. Either they were all more mature than me (quite possibly), understood the basic premise of Marvel better (also a good possibility), or learned from my mistakes (less likely as I faced no consequences besides ridicule for my negative Karma).

Anyway, Marvel Superheroes was certainly a step removed from its Old School predecessors due to its Karma meta-game mechanic. Its action table is little different from rolling a 20-sided dice on a Hit Chart (a la D&D); the elegant/innovative part is that the same color bar system was used for all tasks, resistance rolls, etc., including ability to purchase things (no need to track money in a bank account, simply make a Resource roll!). Chargen was definitely of the Old School variety (random dice rolls determine almost every aspect of the character). Definite objectives/expectations of game play are present (in the karma rewards table).

But it is the USE of that reward system that is Marvel’s true innovation.

Role-Playing Is Its Own Reward

At least it was in the past.

As RPGs are descended (at least in part) from table-top war games, it only makes sense (to me anyway) that the earliest RPGs cater to a sensibility that facilitates a gamist creative agenda; that is, an agenda in which the players attempt to score points or achieve certain victory conditions (allowing players to compete for both “wins” and “quality of wins”). Generally, all older TSR games (and many games considered “Old School”) carry this sensibility as part of their game system:

1) There are specific ways to score “points” promoting actual concrete behaviors/objectives in play.
2) Further rewards (generally advancement and/or improved effectiveness/opportunity) are tied to these points.

A list of games should help to illustrate this more concretely.

“Old School” D&D (OD&D, AD&D 1st edition, B/X and its derivative BECMI): Points are tracked through “experience points.” Experience points are gained through killing monsters and recovering treasure. Points advance characters in level. Higher level allows characters to improve in effectiveness. Improved effectiveness allows characters to encounter stronger monsters and recover greater treasures. Better play results in more adventuring “points” results in more effective adventuring.

Gamma World (1st & 2nd edition): Points are tracked by “Status points” (literally one’s status in their community). Status points are received for defeating foes in combat (encountered during exploration), recovering artifacts and giving them to their community, accomplishing “missions” (generally assigned by a community), and accomplishing special tasks. Status points allow characters to increase in Rank (the mark of one’s rank within a community) which equates to greater recognition and benefits being received from one’s community.

Boot Hill (1st & 2nd edition): Points are tracked through survival of gun fights. Surviving gun fights increases a character’s speed with weapons, bravery (which increases both speed and accuracy), and gun fighter experience (increasing accuracy). Increases in speed and accuracy allow for greater skill at gun fights. Points gained through gun fighting measures gun fighting and allows for more gun fighting. Simple.

Top Secret (1st edition): Points are measured through experience points and accumulation of money (payment). Experience and money are gained through accomplishing mission objectives, with bonuses being paid out by accomplishing objectives based on one’s chosen specialty (character class). Accumulation of experience increases character’s level AND increases one’s ability scores allowing greater effectiveness on missions allowing ease of accomplishing mission objectives allowing more difficult missions and/or greater accumulation of experience points. Accumulation of money allows purchase of equipment that increases effectiveness of accomplishing mission objectives allowing for more payment. Again: points (cash and experience) measure how well a player is “winning” and provide a reward (increased effectiveness) that increases a player’s ability to earn points.

Please note that in all of these Old School games, objectives (point scoring and awards) are truly objective, being up front and set by the game system. Experience points in Old School D&D are set at 1 XP to 1 GP of treasure with XP for defeated monsters being based on opponents’ Hit Dice and (sometimes) hit points. Status points in Gamma World are determined by hit points of opponents or Status points listed for various artifacts with a minimal point range given for “missions.” In Boot Hill, 1 gunfight = 1 gunfight. Top Secret has an extensive table for calculation points/cash awarded for various objectives.

In no case are arbitrary points awarded for the referee’s determination of “good role-playing,” “heroic action,” or “furthering the plot.” Please note also that there are no points awarded for “simply showing up;” all Old School games promote ACTIVE participation (one must perform the designated behavior in order to accumulate any points at all…sitting on your ass garners you NOTHING).

Contrast this with games post-1986 or so that awards points for “good role-playing” or simply showing up for a game session; contrast this with Palladium’s GM fiat in assigning “experience points.” Many of these games attempt to facilitate the same gamist objectives that Old School RPGs do…i.e. they say “create a story/plot with obstacles for players to overcome.” But the behavior informed is based not on the actual rules of the game but rather on the social contract created by each individual play group. In other words, can the players guess what is going to garner them points based on the GM’s interpretation (fiat) of the sketchy rules?

Well, at least they get rewarded for sitting down at the table, right? (Shadow Run, Vampire, etc.)

To me this is pretty lame. It feels like some of these games (especially those that award points for “role-playing”) were designed to reward gaming groups (or players/GMs) who enjoyed “play acting” and felt “those people should get something for their efforts.” It’s not surprising to me that a lot of folks that grew up on Old School games rail against this. For some folks, they simply refuse to play any new game that’s not based (at least mostly) on their set notions. For others, notably several Indie game designers, it leads them to write/design their own games that leave this shite out of it.

So what’s with this rant? Well, I just wanted to throw down my own opinion on the subject. I should probably mention that one of my Bachelor degrees is in the performing arts (I studied to be an actor), so personally I don’t have the loathing for “playing in character” and “using funny voices” that some people do, and in the past when I have played these “non-Old School” games I have been fairly judicious with the awarding of “points.” However, that doesn’t mean they’ve equated to good game experiences, and ALL of my past gaming groups that played one of these games disintegrated after a short handful of sessions.

The main reason was the simple lack of an ACTIVE reward mechanic. Players showed up to the table and had no idea what the hell they were supposed to do. “Well, I get points for showing up, role-playing, and ‘learning something;’ great…” This is the standard way of experience gain in Vampire the Masquerade. WTF in other words. It basically forces players into a reactive stance waiting for the “plot” (or railroad) to happen.

I hate that shit. I hate it as a player, and I’ve hated it as a GM. Even though I loved the premise or “setting” or “genre” of a particular game, the actual play experience has always suffered when there were no defined objectives for the players.

I know there are some people who play role-playing games with non-gamist creative agendas. I myself, am not always interested in simply kicking ass – I actually enjoy stories where the good guys don’t always win, though sometimes they manage a literal “moral victory.” I am especially pleased to see all the recent games, most created by Indie designers, that facilitate this “narrativist” creative agenda.

But I know damn few people that simply want to “piddle about and be;” that is, folks that want to simply escape from the humdrum reality of life and pretend to be living in a different fantasy world. I mean, there ARE folks like that but you don’t have to play RPGs to do it…you can be an actor, or writer, or hell just daydream. I realize it’s just my opinion, but I consider role-playing to be an ACTIVE art form…players should be working towards SOMEthing, though it’s their prerogative whether it’s a gamist or narrative goal. Role-playing just for the sake of “how well can I evoke this character?” Wow…as a goal of play?! You’ve got to be kidding me.

In the “old days” role-playing was its own reward…you had fun portraying your character, but damn it that wasn’t the point of game play.

I suppose that’s part of the reason I don’t LARP.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Old School, New School, or "Alternative School for Special Students"

Yeah, it's time to talk about Palladium games. I mean, I just picked up Rifts (again) and if I'm going to talk about it (or Heroes Unlimited, my other Palladium game of choice) let's get a base of understanding here...a foundation, if you will. A soap box from which to shout.

Palladium games may not be the Gold Standard of incoherent game design (I'd have to give that award to 2nd edition AD&D or White Wolf's various World of Darkness games), but it's pretty close. Now, Palladium has been around since 1981, but my own experience didn't start till 1985 or so with the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the 1987 Revised Heroes Unlimited. Seeing as how the rules for HU are pretty much the same that continue to this day (with the addition of robotic hand-to-hand combat which was introduced with the Robotech RPG circa 1986), I'm going to speak about Palladium's multi-verse games the way I know them...i.e. from 1986 till today. Most people who play Palladium will tell you the system really hasn't changed much at all (the last major system change I saw was modern firearms between the original TMNT and revised edition, i.e. getting rid of W.P. proficiency tables and increasing the chance to hit with a gun to 8). Everything else has been minor tweaks here and there.

I explain this as way of introduction because as I've said before I can see a line in the sands of time (circa Clive Burton's untimely death), where published games when into a crap free-fall. Palladium's games (which have used the same system developed between at least 1985-1987) straddles this line between Old School and what I consider New School.

Oooo...but that's an ugly statement. It might not even be accurate (regarding my own feelings) so don't start throwing fruit just yet. Again, this post is about Palladium and what exactly it is.

And what it is, to me, is a hybrid game...a game that actually does straddle the line (and not very elegantly) in some ways trying to morph into something new while being firmly stuck in the past. O so this day!

Of course, I say this not having read the latest "ultimate edition" of Rifts, but I DO own the 2nd edition of Heroes Unlimited (printed 2006) so I'm guessing there aren't many surprises in the latest system book.

The multiverse system does several things VERY Old School, and its roots in Old School (i.e. TSR style) gaming is readily apparent. Ability scores are determined randomly and in some cases class selection is based on those random scores...meaning choosing your TYPE of character is at least as random as AD&D. In Heroes Unlimited, "power type" (HU's version of "class") can be determined randomly as well.

And the classes in all their games are pretty specific with regard to capabilities...there is very little "customization" possible. The only thing that will differ between, say, two Vigilante Hunters will be their (random) ability scores, their choice of equipment, and possibly skill choice (though the last is debatable; I know I tend to choose the exact same skills for all my Palladium characters!).

There is no unified game system in Palladium; systems for combat are completely different from the system for skill use for example, and magic (and psionics) are different from all of the preceding. Random chance is heavily involved throughout...there is no use of karma or metagame "points" to effect the narration of "what happens" in game. Everything is system dependent.

Personality mechanics are as bare as anything in D&D: pick an alignment; that's about it. There's nothing in the rules that enforce behavior, though many "evil" classes are only available as NPC villains. The implication is that players are "forced" to be "heroic."

That last is where the Palladium system begins to skew off the Old School rails. Regardless of the character generation, regardless of the individual systems, regardless of the strictly defined classes...Palladium definitely brings "New School" sensibilities to the game design. I do not mean this to be complimentary.

This is mainly observable in the experience/level system. Palladium stands firmly with other Old School brethren with the need to rise in experience "level" through the acquisition of "points." However, unlike other Old School games, the method of gaining these points are fairly arbitrary, awarded by the GM based on "heroic behavior," and thus subjecting the players to the whims of how well they meet a GM's story requirements.

Sure there are admonishments of fairness, and general guidelines...but it's still up to the individual GM to decide if an opponent was a "great" or "minor" menace or what constitutes "deductive reasoning." And for many categories of experience point gain, there is a point spread so even within a particular definition points may vary.

That's shitty from my perspective...both as a player and as a GM. It implies a particular social contract that may or may not exist and assumes that play groups will operate in more or less the same fashion as K. Siembieda and company. That's a pretty bold assumption.

Though I guess I'm pretty bold for thinking anyone gives a rip what I think.
; )

I know there are people that like Palladium, that have played it for years, and that have simply worked its quirkiness into their game play. My friends in high school all swore by Palladium and played the hell out of it, especially Heroes Unlimited and Robotech. I liked Rifts, but I could never get a campaign off the ground...just a bunch of one-off fight nights. And while I could blame that on my imaturity as a GM in my teen years, I can also say that I was mislead by a game that worked at cross purposes between its system set-up and its implied objective ("heroic role-playing").

More on this later.

Damn You Rifts!

So I was out for a walk today and stopped by the local game shop (as I often do) and picked up a used copy of 1st edition Rifts for $10, a game that I sold (along with a dozen plus sourcebooks) years ago, swearing I would probably never play the damn thing again.

Blame the 'borgs.

Rifts is a game I purchased back when it was first published. At the time I had already played Heroes Unlimited and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and had at least read a couple of the Robotech books (my friends had a long running Robotech campaign, but I never joined them, unable to reconcile the game with my first mecha love, BattleTech). It was, of course, the wonderful cover art that attracted me to the game...utterly twisted like some sci-fi nightmare or dark opiate dream of a swords & sorcery type.

Well, anyway, the game is Palladium, which means it is more or less scattered and crazy...and yet, and yet...unlike other Palladium games, Rifts had so much more story to it than a simple combat system, some character classes, and kewl powers. I mean it was nuts and all, but it opened a whole realm of possibility.

I ended up playing Rifts more than any other Palladium game before or since, though still not nearly as much as other TSR games I played in my youth. Frankly, as a teenager (I played Rifts in high school and maybe some early college), I had not learned the art of reduction of focus...basically, I was still following the old schol (AD&D) idea that "if it's an official supplement, it must get included somehow into the game." As I owned literally a dozen sourcebooks of material (of which less than 25% was used)...well, I was a bit overwhelmed.

Plus Palladium has probably THE WORST skill system ever published, hands least of the ones I've seen. For a game of slam-bang over-the-top action, it makes the character creation process a royal pain in the ass...especially considering how often characters get gaffled.

Well, anyway...this post is not supposed to be a rant about Rifts or Palladium; it is an explanation of why I would go ahead and pay good money for a game that I had previously owned and discarded. To which I reply: the 'borgs. In addition to Rifts, I picked up this little baby to go with it:

Having never previously owned this source book (it was published AFTER I ended my relationship with the game) I was, I must admit, pleasantly surprised to see it. I had gone into Ye Olde Game Shoppe half-expecting to pick up Rifts (I had seen a used copy last week and after this morning's musings, well...) but I was absolutely not going to get it unless I could actually use it to play a game that:

a) I couldn't play elsewhere, and
b) Had the proper source material to back it up.

The source material I was expecting to find was the Rifts Sourcebook 1 (apparently now published in a "revised and expanded" format). But really I only wanted it for the 'Borg material. The Bionics Sourcebook has 99% of what I needed (the sole exception being the 'borg railgun stats from the sourcebook, but hey I can make something up pretty easily).

Ah, cyborgs...what fun.

The great thing about full conversion 'borgs in Rifts (unlike, say, Bionics characters in Heroes Unlimited) is that they are already fairly wanking around having to pick various systems and squeeze money out of your budget to buy an Ion weapon or some such. Nope: here's your stats, here's your MDC (hit points), pick a couple extra systems (don't worry about the cost) and GO! In fact, the hardest part of chargen for a 'borg character in Rifts is the damn skill selection (as with any Rifts' character). Hell, if I bothered to take the time to write up a template or two, I could probably cut the whole chargen time down to simply rolling ability scores!

Of course, does Rifts do something that I can't do with other games? And I mean, besides causing a splitting headache (which certainly other games do as well).

Actually, I think it does...I saw one more source book that I've never previously owned but decided that I must have: Sourcebook 17: Warlords of Russia. It may have been the presence of this book alone that got me to open my wallet for Rifts, even though I couldn't quite bring myself to pick it up as well (it was only available new, and there were five copies sitting on the shelf so I'm pretty sure I'll have a chance to get it with the next paycheck). Flipping through its pages I found an entire microcosm of the Rifts world just waiting to be played (I have learned that reduction of focus thing, after all). THIS is a game world I want to play in.

- A post-apocalyptic landscape in the remains of what was once the Soviet Union.
- Warring cyborgs fighting in the cause of a dozen warlords across the snow-swept steppes.
- Stories of pathos and missing humanity, as well as blood, battle, and strife.

Hell, yeah! I'm going to run a campaign with ONLY cyber-Cossacks. Who needs magic or "dimensional beings?" I don't! I certainly don't need cyber-knights, psychics, or "dragon hatchlings." This has the potential for one hella' cool wargame.

Damn you Rifts!

Cybernetics in Gamma World

I've mentioned before that I'd been working on my own version of Gamma World for the last couple years (this little project started before I'd ever heard of any such thing as a "retro-clone;" 'cause that's pretty much what the hell it is). The working title of the project is GW7 (though now that Mutant Future is on the market, perhaps I should change that to GW8?). Anyway, for many many reasons it has been put on a back-burner, quite possibly indefinitely (unless I can scrape together the gumption to bang out this B/X Companion I've been working on for months!).

GW7 is a throw-back to the 1st and 2nd editions of the Gamma World least that was its original intention. Mainly I was using the 2nd edition rule set but striving for 1st edition coherence (in my opinion, the 1st edition of the game has the strongest theme, and resonance of rules with theme, of all the editions...a subject for another day, perhaps). However, over time it definitely started morphing ("mutating?") into its "own thing." Just one more reason why I've had difficulty putting it together in a book form.

Not that I don't have some chapters for it!

Since GW7 will probably never see the light of day, and since I'm in a cyborg kind o mood today (I've got 'borg on the brain), I figured I'd throw all my Gamma Fan readers a bone and throw down my chapter on cybernetics. For all intents and purposes, these rules should be useable with the 2nd edition of Gamma World (hence the image posted here instead of the much cooler, IMO, 3rd edition cover):

[originally, I was just going to cut and paste from the document, but I figured it would work better as a pdf. The link will take you to mediafire where you can download the's a bit more than 3 pages]

For those of you running Old School GW campaigns right now, please feel free to throw up a link on your own blogs if you like it.

Oh, and one more note...the chapter makes reference to Dramatic Editing or DE points. This is an addition to the GW7 rules that are NOT part of Gamma World 2nd edition. You should still be able to use the New Builders without worrying about DE points. Enjoy!

Cyborg Love

Though I tried to think of a catchier title for this post, I figured I might as well simply call a spade a spade...I love cyborgs. I have no idea why but it goes back a looong time.

I can remember (vaguely) some movie in the 80s that had something called a bio-borg or bio-roid as its main character...he looked like a wheeled centaur monstrosity with a laser for one arm. I don't remember the name of the film (maybe Heavy Metal or something equally catchy), but I do remember being extremely disappointed with the film even at my young age (oftentimes one has to grow up to realize a film like, say The Golden Child, is a piece of crap. Not so with this one). However, I had REALLY wanted to see it...just for the 'borg.

Re-watching the Jedi films (as I've been doing for fun and inspiration for my micro-game) has got me thinking about 'borgs, I'm sure. Hell, last night I was even contemplating going out and re-buying Rifts, but that way lies madness (more on this in a minute). Back to Star Wars for a sec, one thing I loved about the 2nd edition RPG was the pirate character with the bionic arm (I believe she might have even had some special rules to go with it). Yet another thing I greatly miss in the 1st edition RPG (and of course, cyborgs like Vader and Grievous do feature prominently in the Star Wars universe).

Personally I tend to fall on the Kevin Siembieda side of 'borg feelings...I believe most folks would not blissfully embrace melding machine parts with their meat frame (a la Shadowrun), even though I am often the first one to jump at the channce to play a 'borged out character.

Heck, I've purchased RPG supplements in the past simply for the promise inside (Cyberpunk's Chrome Berets) or a prominent cover 'borg (like Man & Machine, which also prompted me to pick up the 3rd edition of Shadowrun, long after I'd sworn off and sold my 1st edition gear).

You know, now that I think about it, I WAS a huge fan of the Six Million Dollar Man back in the day (I wonder what his cost would be, adjusted for inflation?). While I did not have any of the "action figures," I certainly wanted that total 'borg villain that came with the toy line. Maybe there is a secret longing in me of un-requited toy purchase that drives me to thinking 'borgs are cool?

I don't know. Just know I like 'em lots, at least in RPGs. Not that they can save an RPG I don't like...for example, Cyberpunk has plenty of 'ware for your chrome hero, but I don't like the game enough to play it. I like Shadowrun's version of cybernetics a lot, but the games premise is so cheesy (people morphing into Tolkien characters) that I'm a bit embarrassed to even bring it up with rational people...and it has a steep learning curve for non-gamers.

And then, of course, there's Rifts...I should probably make that the subject of its own post (my love/hate relationship with Palladium). I will say that the one time I got to PLAY (as opposed to GM) a Palladium game, it was Heroes Unlimited and I played a bionic character. And everyone in the group berated me for it. And then the adventure was some sort of Time Travel thing that automatically devolved our my case my character turned into a quadriplegic baby that detached from all his cybernetics...and then when we returned to our own time, my character was left high and dry. What a gyp!

Anyway, much as I love 'borg characters, most RPGs make the acquisition of cybernetics even more complicated than buying skills. So many to choose from, so many costs to add up. Talk about slowing down the chargen process! And for the most part it's fairly unnecessary...cybernetics are going to mimic other powers/weapons, or boost existing stats, or (possibly) act as plot devices. All that math (with humanity/essence points, as well as counting the cost of the cyberware) just tends to bog things down.

Mongoose Traveller's take on human augmentation is about my speed these days. Just so long as they've GOT it.
: )

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Nice, Spacey Day...

Not much going on today, and me and the wife just vegged out with the beagles. The Seahawks had a bye this week (yay! no loss and hopefully they'll have a chance to heal up a bit before next week!), so we skipped the normal football watching.

Instead we watched about four episodes of Firefly and Star Wars Episode II.

The wife is NOT much of a scifi fan at all, so this was quite an unusual day. I've been trying to get her to watch the Firefly for awhile now, and I just got her to watch the first episode a couple weeks ago. But today I she finally started warming up to it. It's hard not to when you give it a chance...the characters are just so damn loveable.

"I love the captain," she says, "he's a badass but he's still got a good heart. How does that work?" No idea, sweetie...guess he's just a man with a code of honor.

Star Wars is, of course, another matter.

"I hate this movie," she says. Five minutes later: "I don't remember that part." Ten minutes later: "I don't remember THAT either...why don't I remember any of this?" What do you remember? "That I hate this movie. How come that chick has a different outfit in every scene and everyone else wears the same thing through the whole film?"

Well, it's not that great a film and certainly not the best Star Wars film but I was in the mood for some lightsaber fighting...and watching an old geezer open up a can of whup ass on some young Turks always does my heart good.

Firefly and Traveller is something I've already talked about, but I want to say a couple things about Star Wars in general.

There are a couple problems with playing Star Wars as an RPG, besides the obvious one (that players are simply "secondary stories" to the "real heroes" of the saga). One is the game degenerating into painful pastiche (it IS pastiche by definition, regardless, but can be doomed to simple fact, the adventure formula in the rulebook pretty much sets up that particular pitfall). A second problem is matter of play balance between Force sensitive and non-sensitive characters.

I say "play balance" not game balance, because what is "game balance" anyway? Everyone gets the same number of dice to spread around their abilities...that's not an issue. But who wants to play a brash pilot or an an armchair historian, when one can play a Jedi? Hell, who'd want to play anything when you could play a Jedi?

Any why would anyone want to play a standard Force sensitive character when one could play someone that starts with a lightsaber?

Now I know that some players will prefer to play smugglers or bounty hunters, maybe even wookies. But there's no denying that these individuals are secondary to the overall saga of the Star Wars universe. Star Wars is first and foremost about the struggle between the Jedi and their various enemies...from the Sith to their own inner demons...and its these struggles that occupy center stage in the drama.

Which makes SW kind of a schitzophrenic RPG to game. If you've got three players and one of 'em is a Jedi, the Jedi is generally going to take on the prominent role in the group. If TWO of those players are Jedi, the third one will tend to end up in a "support" role.

In a film, the screenwriter and director can craft a story to make a disparate group (a smuggler, a princess, a young jedi-in-training) get equal billing and have an impact on the story through coincidence, conceits, and contrivance. If a GM does this in a RPG we call this "railroading." And anyway, I DON'T simply want to re-create a pastiche of the original films. I want to use the universe to tell new stories.

The simplest way to make it work (it seems to me), is to simply make the game ALL JEDI ALL THE TIME. That is, everyone plays a Jedi...whether left over from the Old Republic, newly trained in Luke's "new Jedi academy," or set in the adventuresome times before the events of the Clone Wars. Unfortunately, D6 Star Wars isn't geared to run this kind of game...well, not without doctoring. It has too many of some types of rules, too few of ain't streamlined enough.

Which of course is why I've been working on my own version of a Jedi-type game for the last year or so. I should probably get back to it. Maybe I'll post a one-page micro-game version.
; )

Flap Your Ears Everybody

Which is the beagle way of saying, “Rise and shine!”

Every morning the beagles get me up around 6am or slightly before. They do this by whimpering and pawing at the bed until I get up, whereupon they shake themselves vigorously making a “whap-whap-whap” noise (that’s the ears) and then head downstairs to await their breakfast. If it’s too early I don’t feel bad about ignoring them (and on the weekends they’ll sometimes sleep in themselves)…and truthfully it wouldn’t be so bad except for the goddamn Day Light Savings Time, which I hate with a passion.

DST…a real pain in the ass for my biological clock. But who wants to move to Arizona (though with the way the Cardinals are playing, well, if you can’t beat ‘em…)?

Anyhoo, I am not an economist or a historian, so I certainly won’t waste a bunch of time debating such things (I’ll just complain about ‘em). But you know what? It sure seems like there’s a lot of BOTH floating around the RPG corner of the blog-o-verse.

I don’t know why. I mean, it doesn’t add anything to my D&D campaigns to know the extensive trade route history of various intelligent species of fantasy land. But for some folks, I suppose this kind o nuts-n-bolts specificity is a lot of fun to develop. Hell, I won’t fault others for their preferred form of time wasting (I know I have plenty myself). But it sure ain’t for me.

If trade routes were meant to be an important part o the game, you’d think the designers would have included systems for it…like Traveller did, for instance.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

2nd Look at 2nd Edition

No...not 2nd Edition AD&D.

Finished up reading my new $10 copy of the Star Wars RPG (1st edition). I know I wrote that I was pretty excited to get my hands on it. I know I said I was very glad that it was the 1st edition, the one published prior to the horde of Star Wars novels that inundated readers in the 90's prior to the release of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. I know I said the only differences I recall between the 1st and 2nd edition were a slew of new Force powers based on said novels.

Ok, so I was talking out of my ass. It's a blog...sue me.

Having finished up my reading I now see gaping holes in the rules that I remember being filled by the 2nd edition...and NOT simply rules regarding Force powes. Where are the scaling rules between walkers, speeders, starships, and capitol ships? Where are the alternative to death rules (aka "lightsaber maiming")? For that matter where is the stuff on prosthetic limb replacement?

Regarding the Force, the 2nd edition introduced Character points as a combo XP/karma point for doing cool stuff and saving your bacon, even if you weren't Force sensitive. Force points were capped in 2nd edition for non-Force sensitives. And there were a LOT more rules regarding the Dark Side, how it interacted with Force use, as well as rules for redeeming characters that had fallen to the Dark Side (my favorite type o story to tell).

All of this is missing from the 1st edition book, and I'm sure there's more (I didn't peruse deeply the starship rules because I've already decided 1st edition ain't enough). Ugh. I need to get in touch with that guy who was going to sell me his stack of old Star Wars stuff...and buy it!

Maybe I need to retro-clone WEG's Star Wars. But what would I call it? I'd have to re-name "the Force," of course...maybe I'd call it the Source.
; )

Friday, October 23, 2009

...In a Galaxy, Far, Far Away...

I said that this day had originally been set aside to do a bunch of Traveller posts and I'm serious. I've been on hiatus from B/X D&D for a couple weeks now and have allowed my B/X Companion project to slide (O the Shame!). This comes in part from having a life, family, and day job, and in part because I can be a bit unfocused with my attention, allowing it to wander all over the to Traveller.

Damn it, it's just such a good game, so worthy of attention. And yet, I just keep reading it and thumbing through it and dreaming it and not actually bothering to cobble together a campaign. Even non-gamers have heard of Dungeons and Dragons and are banging on my door to play it (see my posts about the nephews!). Only old gamers like me have heard of Traveller and know the wonders that await between its simple black covers.

However, system DOES matter and Traveller can't do everything sci-fi related (though it can do a helluva' lot). Some game systems are literally tailor-made to play to a particular genre or theme, sometimes excellently so (Dying Earth) and sometimes not-so-much (Serenity RPG).

So today I picked up another of my proverbial "blasts from the past" while I was at Ye Olde Game Shoppe (it's actually called Gary's Games in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle), and it is this more than anything that is threatening to derail my blossoming Traveller fetish. Check it out:

I have posted before that in the past I have owned both the 1st and 2nd editions of the West End Games' Star Wars RPG, and have regretted selling them. The MAIN reason for my regret comes from the fact that they are now out-of-print and the WotC version are absolute dog-shit. I know, I know...I am a grumpy old gamer that doesn't like D20. Bull. Even before I came to my senses and kicked D20 to the curb I had already figured out that D20 and Star Wars do NOT mix. Well, not in a pleasing, RPG-type way. Maybe they mix in a vomit-and-fecal-waste-matter-type way.

In my earlier post I wrote that I preferred the 2nd edition rules to the original edition when I owned them both. This is true, and in fact when I say SW on the shelf in the used section I did a quick look to see if the 2nd edition was lurking around somewhere as well (it wasn't). However, after picking it up I was trying to remember what exactly I liked BETTER about the 2nd edition (besides the cool purple cover...woo-hoo!), since from all I can tell the rules are pretty much the same. After many minutes of memory dredging there's only one thing I could think of: force powers.

If memory serves (*hope*hope*) the 2nd edition of the game was designed not to improve on the 1st edition (the rules stayed pretty much the same) but to take advantage of the CONTINUING SAGA of Star Wars. For those young 'uns who may have the wrong idea, this has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the Episodes 1-3 films which had not yet been filmed, written, or probably even imagined at the time.

Back in the day of West End Games there were only two sources for Star Wars fiction: the original three movies and written imaginings of other authors. The Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Darkforce Rising, and The Last Command) were big news when they hit the book shelves in 1992. Finally, folks who loved Star Wars could follow their favorite characters through new licensed adventures in the Star Wars universe! And once THOSE got published (and showed themselves to be a tremendous cash cow) Lucas really let it off the leash and authors began publishing dozens of books furthering the adventures of the original characters, their children, and their children's children. Much of it (what I read anyway) was fairly mediocre fare, but it was frigging mana in the desert to the SW-starved masses.

The 2nd edition game gave you the option of setting the adventure in the Rebellion era or the New Republic era (following the new novels basically). It provided few new rules that I recall, except for new Force abilities...specifically DARK Force abilities...that had been exhibited in the books and comics published during the 90's. I, of course, was always a fan of the Fallen Jedi-type character (see my earlier post on Geezers), so this was meat and drink to moi.

But NOW...well, first off Lucas basically blew up anything resembling cohesion to the novels' canon when he created his prequel trilogy (specifically, what the "Clone Wars" were all about). And let me tell you, I'm not sorry he did, for although the prequel films weren't as awesome as I'd hoped, they were still a damn sight better than the pastiche of the Thrawn books.

Secondly (and more importantly from the RPG perspective) he didn't do anything different from what was in the first set of films.

There were no great, new Force powers. Lightsabers worked the same. Stormtroopers are stormtroopers, whether they're cloned humans or normal humans. Jedi are still just one master and one apprentice (Dark or Light). People that get killed don't come back and possess the folks (and learning to communicate from beyond the grave at all is a trick few possess and only ever observed in Jedi characters, not Sith). People carry around extra lightsabers like it ain't no thang.

And I like it. I like the simplicity. It can still be Star Wars.

And having said all that, I have to say I am very excited at the 1st edition game I picked up for $10. Because it was based solely on the first film trilogy...which means it is un-tainted by the books and comics that came later. Which means I can change it and taint it as much as I want to play in an Old Republic setting! And that is something Traveller is NOT as good at...for a game involving smugglers, pirates, and gamblers (in other words, a Han Solo novel), Traveller is the one to use. If you want Jedi consulars working aggressive negotiations with lightsaber in hand...well, I'll stick with WEG's Star Wars RPG.

1st edition baby! Man I am getting OLD!
; )

Traveller 40,000 - Rogue Traveller

I couldn't figure out which title to use for this post, so I used both.

[yes, today's original intention was to be a marathon of Traveller I said back here, I've had Traveller on the brain lately, but I haven't had a chance to get to my blog till today. However, other events have conspired to put me off my game, so you'll probably only get one or two more...sorry!]

One of the original appeals of the Warhammer 40,000 game (at least for me) was the whole gothic-craziness of it all. I love this kind of dark, dystopian setting...hell, I was the first guy on the block to pick up the original Vampire: the Masquerade!...and the dark, semi-mystic setting of a crumbling space empire is a powerful stimulant for my imagination.

Of course, Warhammer 40,000 isn't an RPG.

My buddy, Scott, is the one who first picked up the WH40K Rogue Trader book back when it was first published. We loved it, but were extremely disappointed to find out it a wargame and not an RPG, since back in the day we only played the latter. Fast forward a few years (an exit Scott) and I found myself purchasing a used copy of Rogue Trader myself. The reason for this? Well, I was playing Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing (the RPG) and had recently picked up the Realms of Chaos book for the creation of Chaos knights and such and needed the stats for a plethora of "modern" weapons that were given as Gifts to the followers of the Blood God Khorne. I was referred to Rogue Trader by the book.

Interesting how the world turns, huh? It was in picking up my own copy of Rogue Trader (10+ years after I'd first perused it with Scott) that I thought I might give this whole "wargaming thing" a try and purchased the 2nd edition of WH40K. Another decade later and I have a game room in my house currently over-flowing with hundreds of space marine miniatures!

ANYway: the setting is the thing I love more than anything. I've said in the past that I am a fan of sci-fi military fiction (I'm reading David Drake this week actually) and the dark and dreary war-torn setting of the 40th millennia is great.

But can it be translated to Traveller?

That's kind of the mega-credit question of the day. I'm wondering if maybe the answer is no (though why post about a non-possibility...that's a might silly waste o blog space, no?). I spent part of my afternoon paging through GW's newest RPG: Rogue Trader. Like all of their books of late, it is a beautifully crafted tome, intricately illustrated (hell, one might as well call it "illuminated") and chock-full o stuff from the WH40K universe. However, there is no way in the world I'd purchase it...far too many rules and crunch for my taste. I simply don't make time for games like this anymore (plus, I kind of reject these slick commercial monstrosities on general principle...sorry but that's the way I'm rolling these days).

Besides, isn't Traveller the original "rogue trader?" Here's what the Mongoose game says on page 2 (paragraph 3):

...the players take on the roles of tramp merchants and mercenaries, wandering the galaxy in search of profit and adventure.

[now, of course, if I had my druthers, good game design would stick that front and center in the first paragraph...but I digress]

So what the hell is a Rogue Trader anyway? From the original description in WH40K:

The potential of new worlds, alien civilisations [sic] and unimaginable resources has stimulated the growth of free-ranging imperial agents known as Rogue Traders. Licensed and equipped by the priesthood, the Rogue Trader is free to explore the far regions of the galaxy, the areas where the Astronomican does not reach, and those areas within its range as yet unvisited.

The Rogue Trader appears based on the historic figure of Hernan Cortes...a dude basically given a writ of expedition and a license to conquest. Which is fine if you craft your Traveller game to the dark, gothic nuances of the 40K universe (Traveller can certainly be played dark and exploitive). Unfortunately there is a bigger obstacle to the setting:

" imperial agents known as rogue traders. Licensed and equipped by the priesthood..."

Despite the title of "Rogue" Trader, RTs are actually beholden to the imperial powers-that-be. In other words, they're yet one more cog in the wheel of the Emperor's army.

The basic Traveller game operates under the assumption that your characters are truly free and un-fettered (probably one of the things that really gets ME fired up...). You are assumed to have left your prior career(s) and are now free on your own recognizance. There is no Imperial Inquisition watching over your shoulder, no members of the Legiones Astartes sworn-to-the-Emperor living in the hold of your ship. It's YOUR ship (though you probably have a mortgage), and you don't need no stinking LICENSE to seek out strange new worlds and conquer primitive civilizations, if that's what floats your boat.

It would be fairly simple to convert battle dress to power armor, add lasguns and bolters, and come up with a couple 40K type careers paths for Traveller. Personally, I'd consider Space Marines as an alien race with Notable strength, dexterity, and endurance as well as automatically possessing the equivalent of subdermal armor. But you know what? Space Marines don't "muster out." And when they go rogue (as did Horus and the traitor legions), they get hunted down.

Playing Traveller in the world of Warhammer 40,000 is very possible. Playing Rogue Trader in the world of Traveller is a different game entirely.

A Wolf From The Stars

One of the beauty's of Traveller is its short succinct stat blocks for characters. I LOVE this. Truly. I know I've railed against big "stat blocks" here and elsewhere in the past, so it should come as no surprise, but its difficult to articulate enough how damn ELEGANT it is in practice with this particular game.

I'm not sure I've posted any particular characters of mine on this blog before, but here's one I'd like to share:


Homeworld: Fenris (poor, ice-capped)

UPN: C9D875

Age: 46

Profile: 2 terms with Imperial Marines (ground assault), until severely injured. Mustered out and re-joined barbarian tribe on home world rising to rank of Chieftain after waging 20 year war of unification. Current whereabouts: unknown, but off-world.

Skills: Animal 1, Athletics 0, Battle Dress 0, Carouse 0, Gun Combat (slug thrower) 2, Heavy Weapons 1, Jack of All Trades 2, Leadership 1, Melee (blade) 3, Melee (unarmed) 1, Stealth 1, Tactics 1, Vaac Suit 0

Known Holdings: Combat Armor, PGMP (TL 14), Ally, Ship Share (Corsair), 9000cr

That's actually a lot fancier than it needs to could delete the "homeworld" and "profile" sections and you'd still have a complete character ready to rock n' roll. I like to include that kind of thing for color.

"Wulf" is one of the first characters (maybe the only completed one) that I created when I got the Mongoose edition of the rules (I've only ever been exposed to Mongoose and Classic Traveller). He is largely inspired by the doomtrooper Sean Gallagher from the Mutant Chronicles RPG (shown here from his illustration on the board game Siege of the Citadel). In my head, though, I picture him with more beard.

Oh, yeah...and I think Fenris is the home world for the Space Wolves.

[heh...I should start a blog for my Death Guard...shoot!]

I was blogging the other day about the virtues of random character generation (well, not really except by way of contrast with the current vogue in RPG chargen systems), and Traveller is certainly random. In the Classic version one had to balance the number of terms of service/advancement versus the very real chance of character death mid-creation process. Beautiful, really...though potentially frustrating, of course. The Mongoose version does it one better by keeping in an "Iron Man" option (for the hardcore, Classic players) or simply allowing your character to suffer a career ending injury should he fail a "survival roll." I have to admit, I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of the updated version.

But again, the real beauty is in the end product. This example character was created across a full seven terms...28 years of "leveling" complete with Events, Mishaps, Skill selections and "Mustering Out" benefits. And it all boils down to one stat line, a handful of skills, and some starting equipment and cash. I had fun with the character creation process, I never got bogged down choosing "feats" or skills (skills are determined randomly by career path or from a slim selection of options depending on your homeworld) and there is nothing un-wieldy about the character sheet itself...totally practical.

I have Wulf saved in a Word doc on my zip drive and every time I look at that handful of writing I truly marvel. I could drop the extraneous, reduce the font, and easily fit eight to ten complete characters on one sheet of paper. What is not cool about that?

And it FITS with the game as written. Your character is one soul amongst billions on millions of worlds scattered across are a small part of a greater whole, what needs you an elaborate character sheet and write-up?

Wonderful, says I. A fun and fairly elaborate chargen system, that does not hesitate or stutter-step like other games and that distills down to the bare essentials. I couldn't ask for more out of a science fiction RPG.

And man...I'd love to take Wulf out for a spin some day in someone's Traveller 'verse!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Seiji Yamaguchi

Who the hell is he? A Japanese actor that died in 1985 from lung cancer (quit smoking folks! I did, and I’ve been breathing better ever since!).

Yamaguchi is probably best known to Western audiences for his role as Kyuzo in Akira Kruosawa’s Seven Samurai. Kyuzo is the total badass swordsman who gets gunned down at the end o the film despite single-handedly dispatching half the bandits. He is, of course, also my favorite character in the film (I’m a big fan of classy bad-asses, and he is very classy).

Interesting note about the actor: in all his films Miyaguchi always plays a character with a physical deformity or imperfection. In the Seven Samurai his character has only a small scar over one eye, but generally his character were always crippled, hobbled, or disfigured in some way. From what my film professor told me, this was by the actor’s choice…whether or not it helped him with his sense of character or if he was trying to make some kind of social statement about the infirm…who knows?

Anyway, it’s something I appreciate. In role-playing, I always enjoy playing characters with some sort of (physical) imperfection as well. I’ve played one-handed mages in Ars Magica and scarred bards in AD&D and (most recently) a grossly obese thief in B/X D&D. I’m not sure what my reason for doing this except that A) I know I get tired of everyone making heroic images of perfection with their characters and try to “switch it up,” and B) it helps keep me grounded (sometimes).

Generally, I have not given my characters speech impediments as I prefer to use my own, unaccented voice when playing a character. That’s just me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Some People Call Me The Space Cowboy...

So what have I been doing lately, some might ask (since I certainly haven’t been posting much at all). This and that, is my admittedly cryptic answer. Anything fun (role-playing wise)?

Well…one of the “thats” I’ve been doing has been fiddling around with Traveller (Mongoose edition). I love this game. I know it’s playable (I’ve played it before). I know nothing about the whole "Imperium of Man" thing having only played/read the Classic books prior to picking up the Mongoose core book, so to me the game seems endlessly customizable…at least when it comes to creating the kind of RPG experience that interests ME.

Case in point: saw District Nine last week in the theater. LOVED it. Found it both disturbing and a vivid social commentary as well as highly intense…I was on the edge of my seat through much of it. Even with the aliens and hardware, this is not the type of thing that could be made into your average table-top RPG (though certainly a game like Shock would probably work well). At least for me, I am not interested in creating this kind of story IN PLAY with a role-playing game.

Case in point #2: Saw Sleep Dealers (recently rented…an excellent, cyber-punk type film out of Mexico). Also disturbing, depressing, socially relevant and yet sci-fi cool. This film could be perfectly replicated by Shock (gotta’ go pick that up one of these days), but again it’s not necessarily the game I want to play when I’m in the mood for Sci-Fi.

But Traveller, which would NOT work for either of these two pieces of fiction (see? System DOES matter!) is great for a whole slew of totally game-able ideas, generally of the ship-board variety and certainly for any type of story involving galactic or intergalactic empires: Dune, Warhammer 40K, Star Wars, Asimov’s Foundation, The Stainless Steel Rat, etc.

Me, though, I prefer something a little smaller scale: like a Firefly class trading vessel.

I am a late-come fan to the whole Firefly/Serenity hoopla, and not ashamed to admit it. I missed most of the series when it was on TV, skipped the film when it was in theaters, and only ended up watching the whole thing (rented) back-to-back about a year ago. I am now a HUGE fan (though not as much as the folks at the coffee shop down the street…hoo-boy! Ker-razy!).

Actually, I DID watch the 1st episode ever (actually Episode 2) on TV when it was first broadcast, but at the time I was pretty unimpressed with it. Now that I own the whole series (on BlueRay!) and have listened to the commentary I realize the series was broadcast out of chronological order, which helps to explain why the thing made so little sense to me at the time (and why I subsequently skipped later episodes).

Anyway, except for its intergalactic scale, Traveller is the perfect system for a pastiche of Firefly (or Cowboy Beebop, for that matter). Switching up the tech levels, and changing Jump drive to inter-planet travel rather than interstellar makes the Trav totally feasible to model the Firefly universe.

Now I realize that there is already a little game called Serenity on the market based on the show and the film, but to date I have refused to purchase it. My perusals of its pages (more than once) continues to leave me unimpressed and uninterested in it, save as a reference book. I mean, the list of Chinese is pretty helpful but does the game system reward players for using it? Not that I see anywhere in the text (contrast this with the Dying Earth role-playing game where character advancement is directly tied to the use of flowery Vancian prose in game play…talking about adding flavor!).

Traveller’s chargen system also makes it fairly easy to model all of the characters from the TV show, River Tam being a notable exception. Well, Inarra requires a little fudging, too…unless you want design a new profession for “Companions” (the Events and Mishaps table would be interesting!), you kind of have to choose between Entertainer and Noble. Rather than forcing things, it’d probably be easier to simply design one’s own stuff.

Of course, while one CAN create the Firefly crew/cast with Traveller, THAT’s not role-playing either!

Frustrating is what it is…’cause what I REALLY want is simply more Firefly episodes. Ah, well…as Jayne would say, “If wishes were horses we’d all be eating steak!”

Pastiche is generally not role-playing in my book (sorry), but Traveller certainly can be. It has the capability of producing a Dune-like universe (or a Firefly-like ‘verse) that allows role-playing without the original characters. Ha! Dune really deserves its own post…you’d have to get rid of all interstellar spacecraft!

Anyway, Firefly is pretty doable in Traveller (hell, even a the basic Free Trader spacecraft is of a comparable size to the Firefly ship based on its Wikipedia entry. The Serenity RPG multiples its tonnage by 12X the listed value!). AND Traveller's chargen system has plenty of randomness in it, while still allowing for some player choice (and its pretty fun to boot!). For whatever reason, I’ve been starting to get back into the Science Fiction genre (all these movies lately, and of course re-watching the Firefly series), picking up used paperback novels like David Drake (Hammer's Slammers), Asimov, Anne McCaffery. Maybe I had too much R.E. Howard overload the last couple weeks…who knows?

The Problem with "Heroes"

Everyone wants to be the star of their own show. I think that’s what it boils down to.

Even me. ESPECIALLY me. But I don’t get to do that ‘cause I’m the Dungeon Master…which is great by the way, because then I get to be the master author/playwright/director and exercise my control-fetish over the game.

But the players? These days they seem to be a bunch of prima donnas…albeit without the chops, generally speaking.

Okay, folks are asking what the F are you talking about (if you’re asking “where the F is this coming from; just keep in mind it’s been a long time brewing).

IN GENERAL (I’m speaking in generalities right now) RPGs are about fantasy…whether the fantasy of slaying dragons or being a super-spy or flying a space ship it’s all fantasy NOT reality. And players who love RPGs love that fantasy and want to live in that fantasy…at least for a short while around the gaming table. And in peoples’ fantasies? Well, of course we are the heroic star of the show!

Few people WANT to play the bit part character actor. As a guy whose did a lot of acting in my early years (that’s one of my university degrees actually), I’ve had a chance to play both stars and bit parts. And as any actor can tell you, playing a bit part is a blast! It takes just as much commitment to the character but you have more leeway and less pressure and (depending on the role) just as much stage time (sometimes great QUALITY stage time) even with fewer lines. But no one tries out for the bit parts. You audition for the star role and get called back for the role the director things you’re best suited.

In a role-playing GAME (acting is role-playing too!) players have much more control over the part they play, assuming they get to create their own character. Which is kind of F’d in and of itself if you hope to create some semblance of a coherent tale from your “adventure” (I’ll explain why in a second). Much more control, I said, but not TOTAL control. Depending on the game being played.

FOR EXAMPLE: in AD&D one is constrained by the classes available (under the rules) and the results of one’s random die rolls for ability scores. In a way, this is much like a real life audition for stage. If I don’t have the pipes, there’s no way I’m going to get cast as the Phantom of the Opera, no matter how dashing a figure I cut in a cape and mask. In the same way, if a player can’t roll a helluva’ bunch of good rolls, there’s no way he’s going to get to play a paladin. That’s too bad…but you can still (in AD&D) play a fighter as long as your Strength is at least a 9…and you can role-play the hell out of him, making him a young paladin-in-training or a very ethical fighter, etc. Hell, if you really missed the spells and such make him a cleric; holy avenger swords are few and far between anyway.

But MAYBE you’re part of a group where Player Joe always plays a cleric and Player Sal always plays a dwarf fighter. If it’s the accepted practice of your group (your “troupe”) then allow the players to rearrange those random rolls so that they can play the character they want. Guess what, though: you’ve been type-cast!

HOWEVER most RPGs written since the 90s have moved far and away from this type of “role-playing game” (as in, a game of role-playing) by allowing extreme character customization at the hands of the player. To what end? Well, ostensibly it was to either A) provide “variety,” or B) allow players to re-create favorite characters of fiction. In practice, it simply allows players to create the maximum badass possible.

No, I am not talking about min-max hardcore gamists who are use break points, feats, and merits/flaws to push game rules towards their shatterpoint (and sometimes beyond). I am talking about the ability to customize an “ultra-kewl character” no matter what stands for “kewl” in YOUR brain, in order to star in your own personal fantasy.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

This is what really makes me throw up my hands and say, “why the F bother?”

And why should I bother to play a game where everyone is simply dancing around with their own fantasy masturbation exercise? If I want to daydream, I can do that without any books or games at all. If I want to tell a story about a heroic persona, I can write a damn short story for my own amusement…hell, I can write a whole string of stories about my favorite character and publish a blog about it.

But of course, many folks aren’t interested in this kind of “work.” They’d rather put together their tall, dark badass (or quirky-yet-powerful badass) and strut him or her about at someone’s game table. And boy howdy, whadya’ know…everyone else is doing the same damn thing, so I guess it’s ok, right?

Three to five prima donnas is what you get, hoping to massacre a bunch of random opponents. “Tactical exercise?” Sure. “Requires more imagination and social interaction than World of Warcraft?” Absolutely. But are you role-playing? Not in my opinion.

Sure you are “playing a role,” the badass fighter or beefy barbarian for example. But only as a means to a single metagame goal: fulfilling your own fantasy. Not in aid of manufacturing a story (except perhaps in your own head) and probably not in exploring the story/world created by the GM/game setting (that only matters as to how it relates to “your guy”).

I used to own an Xbox (before it burned out) and I would play games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on it. This allowed you to create a badass Jedi character and customize him (or her) with looks, feats, skills, and force powers…all the while kicking ass and exploring the story line that the game designers had programmed (and that you paid to purchase).

That’s not an RPG. That is living one’s solo fantasy.

To play that way at a table with others is, frankly, madness. Or masochism (if you’re the DM). No one’s paying to play (except the folks that bought their own books). Yet all are expecting the limelight. It’s supposed to be interactive. It’s supposed to be exploratory. It ain’t supposed to be Twister (figuring out which character fits best where, i.e. “tactical”)…at least not as the major impetus to play. At least not if it’s being billed as a Role-Playing Game.

Where is this rant coming from? I don’t know…I’ve felt pretty ranty lately. Last night I was perusing my old copy of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, thinking of giving it another try. God I desperately wanted to like that game (werewolves being one of my all-time favorite monsters of film, lit, or comics). It starts out with a cool premise (you’re a werewolf!) and then quickly degenerates into the dumbest RPG ever invented. You are a big, hairy, ass-kicker in a tribe with other big, hairy ass-kickers. Your powers make you a great fighter. Being in fights makes you more powerful. Blah blah blah.

Yes, I suppose you could create a weakling Werewolf character. Who would then get upstaged by the others of the group (because the game is all about fighting “the Wyrm,” dontcha’ know?). Or you could play one-on-one (one player, one Storyteller)…but again, that is living one’s solo fantasy, not role-playing.

This afternoon I ran across some notes from back in my 3rd edition days. I had done the math necessary to creating highest hit point character possible under the 3.0 rules. It ended up being a gnomish barbarian/fighter. This is the stupidest thing ever. There’s no way I could have ever justified playing a character like that. I think he had over 800 hit points at 20th level (when raging).

All the characters I created under the D20 rules were dumb. I mean, some were cool, many were fantastic and most (besides my gnomish barbarian) were NOT min-maxed. But they’re all dumb. Because all they did was allow me to play out private fantasies…whether my Halfling ninja, my Dwarvish duelist, or my half-elf ranger/bard/assassin. Sure…I could give them justifying back-stories (for my own amusement), I could play them (until they got upstaged by someone else with an even cheaper-ass character and no back-story). But hell, it’s more fun to make them than to play with ‘em.

THAT is not role-playing either. Just thinking about it made me depressed earlier today…in fact it was the last straw that touched off this little piece o crap prose.

Older games (and by older I pretty much mean pre-1991, though certainly some older games diverge into the realm of “make your badass”…Champions, for example) are far more likely to facilitate role-playing and exploration than wish fulfillment simply by dint of their more randomized character creation models.

Look, metaphysically speaking I DO believe that we all choose the time, place, and body of our incarnation here on this Earth…that’s something I take on faith, though. From my human perspective it just seems random chance that I was born the guy I am and not a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks (good thing, too, as then I’d probably be sitting out the season with some painful injury like the rest of ‘em). Random character creation mimics this human perspective of our birth and life…not everyone is born a badass, that’s just the way it is. When we play RPGs, we sit down to play a GAME, we are not sitting down to write a novel or screenplay of our favorite monster-killing wizard. Forcing players to invest hours of time into crafting a super-cool avatar is antithetical to what role-playing IS, at least in my opinion.

Anyway, that’s my perspective. I’ve ranted here and other places about why I don’t like elaborate chargen systems. This is something new. From now on, unless I’m creating a game that facilitates a narratavist agenda (where shared narration/”screen time” is part of the game design objective), any system I write is going to be heavy on the random chance factor. Certainly this won’t appeal to everyone…too f’ing bad. There are ways to balance RPGs without giving players the option of crafting their characters from the ground up.

Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: Marvel Superheroes.