Saturday, October 31, 2009
Friday, October 30, 2009
‘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]
Thursday, October 29, 2009
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.
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
Sunday, October 25, 2009
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
Friday, October 23, 2009
...the players take on the roles of tramp merchants and mercenaries, wandering the galaxy in search of profit and adventure.
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.
Homeworld: Fenris (poor, ice-capped)
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 be...you 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 galaxies...you 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
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
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.
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?
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.