Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Playing In Spirit, not Character

Anyone who’s played West End Games’ Star Wars RPG knows that one thing the game does absolutely right is emphasize the spirit of Star Wars…both the original RPG and the 2nd edition were very much about recreating the tropes of Star Wars and the feel of the movies within their game.

Now this was, of course, PRIOR to the “Expanded Universe” or the Prequel Trilogies (the Darkforce Rising comics and and Admiral Thrawn trilogy that opened up the expanded universe came AFTER the release of WEG Star Wars and drew plenty of info/inspiration from the game supplements). As such, the only thing WEG had to go on was the original trilogy (and some minor Lucas apocrypha) and for the most part the emphasis was on re-creating a Star Wars-like adventure environment. This included:

- Space Opera over hard sci-fi

- Starship “dog fights” and explosions (with sound!) in space

- Endless ammunition

- Everything bigger than life and twice as loud

- “Fudging” to prevent player character death (don’t kill the actors!)

- Catch-phrases and Star Wars-isms (“I have a bad feeling about this”)

It’s the last one on the list that I want to write about.

Personally, there are two different ways that I prefer to look at (and play) Star Wars, neither of which goes very well with the WEG version of the RPG:

1) Star Wars as Heavy Metal magazine (i.e. the “non-Jedi version”). Players are random mercenaries a la the Han Solo adventures, hanging out at bars, picking up cargo to smuggle, getting in trouble with whatever passes for an authority figure in the region (Hutts, Imperials, whatever), and basically being crass and blaster-happy.

2) Star Wars as Paladin the RPG (i.e. the “Jedi-centric version”). Everyone is a Jedi or Force-user or aspiring Force-user and must struggle to walk the straight-and-narrow path even as they learn and grow in power to prevent falling to the Dark Side.

Notice these two different themes, while both possible in a “Star Wars Universe,” are fairly mutually exclusive. But these are MY kind of Space Opera…there’s always that exploration of the seedy/shadow side of life. The Star Trek exploration/do-gooder thing just doesn’t appeal to me at all.

Of course, neither of my preferred styles jibes with playing “in the spirit” of Star Wars the Original Movie Trilogy.

To me, playing in the spirit of an established intellectual property takes a lot of balls, and I just haven’t known all that many ballsy gamers. Or maybe I did, but I didn’t personally give them the space to explore their “cheesy side.” Because in a way, playing In The Spirit requires a certain amount of hamming it up with a healthy dose of cheese…and that requires trust and commitment on the part of the players.

That’s asking for more than simple “investment in one’s character.”

It’s definitely led to trouble for my groups in the past…I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve played a lot of ElfQuest and Marvel Superheroes, both games that have (or did have at the time the RPGs were published) well established conventions/tropes of their respective intellectual properties. Unfortunately, attempting to run long-term campaigns with either of these games proved problematic. With EQ, the games with groups of players always degenerated into “going to war with the trolls (again).” And Marvel…well, I believe I previously mentioned how my buddy/GM Scott had to institute “negative karma? One would hardly say we were playing in the spirit of Marvel “heroes!”

Asking people to get on-board with the spirit of a specific IP is asking a lot…that’s my point. Let me give a specific example of how that backfired with Star Wars:

The original WEG Star Wars includes a beginning/sample adventure scenario… "Rebel Break-Out" I believe it’s called (I don’t have the book with me). It involves one-long running battle through a mine (shades of dungeon crawling/Mines of Moria) to pair of Y-Wing fighters to escape with a set of plans vital to the rebellion. Basically one medium-long linear adventure. Fine and dandy…it’s a sample so you don’t expect much.

But to get the players IN THE SPIRIT of Star Wars, it provides an actual script that it expects players to read at the beginning of the game. The adventure begins in media res if I remember correctly, and here your character is expected to speak AUTHORED DIALOGUE written by someone else…in order to show you HOW TO PLAY RIGHT.

Ugh! Double ugh! I’ve run Rebel Break-Out two or three times and my players have always HATED the script thing. They’ve railed, they’ve scoffed, they’ve ridiculed, they’ve done everything EXCEPT take the damn thing seriously. If anything it feels so awkward and fake (and contrived) that if they were in the mood to play a space opera/Star Wars game by the time they’re done with the script they’re no longer very interested.

After all, these were not actors auditioning for a role…they were players of a game. They had created their own characters with their own personalities (however two- or three-dimensional those personalities were made no difference). You just can’t script role-playing. It’s a different artistic genre from theater.

Now having written all THAT, let me do a bit of a 180 and say that while it’s been my experience that you cannot script role-playing AND furthermore it is incredibly difficult to get players to play “in the spirit” of a particular creative license that does NOT mean:

1) that playing in the spirit may still be appropriate to certain game systems, and

2) it may be possible to facilitate playing in the spirit by working it into the rules/design

I look at the Dying Earth RPG as an example. DE is based on the excellent stories of the same name by Jack Vance, and Mr. Vance is known for his own Vancisms of flowery, elaborately obscure language…characters in Vance’s Dying Earth stories speak like they’ve swallowed huge dictionaries and practice verbal fencing every day (as well as their regular swordsmanship). To facilitate creating the proper Vancian flavor, the actual reward/advancement system is tied to the use of this Vancian language…each player is handed a list of properly erudite phrases at the beginning of the session, and being able to work them into your dialogue in play earns you points with which you may improve your character. Simple and fun. It’s un-necessary to participate (there’s no script) and the player’s have the choice of how and when to use the phrases (if they want to use them at all), and they are rewarded for it…AND it helps everyone at the table get into the spirit of the game.

Now in discussing advancement systems for my B/X space opera game, one thing I might be willing to consider is something of this nature to encourage the Star Wars-isms and playing In The Spirit…not necessarily specific lines of dialogue (“I have a bad feeling” and “May the Force be with you” are the only oft repeated lines from the film), but something a little more open-ended.

Think of any drinking game for a beloved television: everyone takes a drink whenever regular character says or DOES something often repeated and well-established as their particular pattern of behavior. It may be possible to incorporate some system like this (the Drinking Game Advancement System! Need to trademark that!) into an RPG where players earn bonus “points” for their characters by adding interactions to the game that promote the flavor of the licensed IP.

Reward systems encourage behavior patterns, that’s a damn fact (and one of the reasons I don’t like the idea of just rewarding simple participation…assuming they want to play a space game in the first place or they wouldn’t show up at the table). If you want people to play a certain way, encourage a particular behavior rather than trying to discourage the “wrong” action.

Now, unfortunately, this is not necessarily helpful to me in light of my “preferred ways of playing Star Wars” (see above), because Star Wars-isms from the original movie trilogy tend to be a little more goody-good than my exploration of the game world…but even so, this train of thought may be helpful to folks that ARE trying to develop RPGs based on specific licenses. And who knows…maybe my game will be more goody-go when finished than I’m currently envisioning it.

; )

Black Dynamite & Space Cowboys

Just by the way, Michael Jai White is brilliant.

Just watched Black Dynamite, a film co-written and starring Mr. White, and I have to say I found it highly entertaining and clever. Watching it solo (my wife’s been out of town this week), I guffawed out loud several times, which is something I rarely do when watching a film. Very funny for anyone with even a passing interest/knowledge of the low-budget and exploitation films of the 1970s.

I admit I’m not all that familiar with Mr. White’s earlier work…I’m not a Seagal or VanDamme fan, and was never all that much into Spawn (I’m familiar with the comic and have caught parts of the film on TBS during weekend matinee runs). But this film was real showcase of the guy’s talent…funny, deadpan, crazy, and one bad-ass action hero…plus, as I said, I found the writing excellent. Some might find it strange that an action-hero/actor can write a decent screenplay…of course, Stallone won an Oscar for Rocky. Oh…as did Matt “Jason Bourne” Damon and Ben “Daredevil” Affleck.

[besides Mr. White, Black Dynamite had a fantastic cast in general…though I’m a bit surprised David Alan Grier wasn’t attached to the project as it seems right up his alley of expertise… and was well-directed with incredible make-up and costuming. Checking Ye Olde Wikipedia I see it beat out the much over-rated Hurt Locker for best picture at the Seattle International Film Festival, which doesn’t surprise me much…the is a town where the 70s have been refusing to die for 30 years]

Anyway, it makes me wish I was a movie producer so I could cast this guy in something. I’ll let my readers in on a deep, dark secret of mine: I’ve harbored secret daydreams of being a comic book writer since age 7 or so. It’s never gone anywhere (I’m just not talented enough in the ways that matter), and my two or four vain stabs at it have never gone past the first couple-five pages. But I get daydreams/ideas for comic books all the time that just pop up and stick around…sometimes for years. Many times these comic/character ideas have been transformed into characters (PCs and NPCs) for various role-playing games.

I write all this by way of introduction to a particular comic concept I’ve had stuck in my head for 2-4 years now (I lose track of time due to having been in the same job for nearly 10 years…). The “space cowboy” (the images have no other name or title attached) is a science-fiction character made for an episodic serial of random adventure and hijinx. In my head he is a cross between George Peppard in Battle Beyond the Stars (sans alcoholism), Jubal Early from Firefly (sans psychosis), and the comic book character Buck Godot (sans the weight issue). A kind of Jack Burton (Big Trouble in Little China) in space, but twice as smart.

In my head, he is always African-American (well, you can’t really have “Africans” or “Americans” in space…call him a black guy with West Coast accent). He has his own ship…no wookie co-pilot. He wears a Stetson, a vest, a red flannel shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Sometimes he has a moustache but not always. He’s actually a bit of a Sam Spade, Private Eye type (again, see Buck Godot) in western attire with a space craft. B.J. McKay in space, but the Bear died and yeah he helps out folks less fortunate, but mainly ‘cause it’s the right thing to do and sometimes there are folks in need. Otherwise, he’d probably just be drifting.

Yeah, I’m weird.

Anyway…that’s the comic book, but I think it could easily make a great movie or TV show (at least on the SciFi channel)…starring Michael Jai White. ‘Course he’d probably have to slim down a bit (space cowboys are a lean bunch, mostly, and Mr. White appears to be build like a linebacker). Also, I should probably let HIM write the script…I’m sure it’d be stellar.

Chill, turkeys!

Plotting Goals

Star Wars offers a picture of what could be a typical, if stunningly functional (in the psychology sense of the term, as in “not DYSfunctional”) adventure party. You have the various members with their respective sets of expertise, all operating in tandem with each other…heck, you even have a good example of how a “paladin-type” character (Obi-Wan, Luke) can get along with mercenary/thief types (Han, Lando)…mainly by the former not being too self-righteous and the latter having (deep down) hearts of gold.

But Star Wars IS a story, not an RPG. If the original movie was an RPG adventure, it would pretty much be one, long railroad all the way to the climactic Death Star battle. Luke says, “I’m not ready to leave the farm.” Bam! GM kills off all his relatives. Han says, “Let’s try to run the hell away from this giant space station.” Bam! Sorry, you’re being pulled in by a tractor beam. Etc., etc. All to set up the characters chance to be “heroes” in the GM’s story.

For a movie (or novel or TV show or comic book or whatever), that is totally appropriate to the story-telling medium. In an RPG it’s pretty damn annoying.

Personally, I was never a great GM at developing “plots” or “storylines.” I was great at running adventure modules, good at riffing off players actions, and a fair hand at character development. But elaborate plots and railroads? Not really. I did much better with “here’s the situation, now let’s watch how it un-folds IN PLAY.”

A lot of the early Vampire the Masquerade adventures (most of which I ran at least once) walked a thin line between “scenario” and “railroad,” often stomping all over the line. Any adventure that has a number of specific “set pieces” runs the risk of simply being a GM’s opportunity to act as director/author with the players doing nothing more than ad-libbing lines in a plot that’s a foregone conclusion. Some gamer groups may get off on this (though why not just form a real theater troupe?) but I consider role-playing to be a COLLABORATIVE effort.

Part of this may be ascribed to my own laziness (I don’t want to have to do all the work), and part of it to “the way I was raised” (my adventure-crafting sensibilities being formed by B/X D&D and the various Old School adventure modules of early TSR). Whatever, that’s just how I roll: fast and loose “plot-wise.”

Which, incidentally, might explain why it’s been such a challenge for me to run some of these new commercial RPGs of the last 15 years or so. Some practically beg for the GM to have an elaborate plot structure for characters to traverse. Without it, players are forced to rely on their own damn selves for generating motivation/impetus to explore the game setting…and players used to site based scenarios or railroady plots have difficulty doing just that.

But that’s all tangential…the reason I bring all this up is a long-winded intro to why I do NOT like the idea of awarding XP based on mission/goal. When I posed the question before about how to award XP for a non-treasure-based / not-just-combat-based adventure game, many MANY of the commentators suggested this type of reward. And, yeah, I was considering it myself for a bit.

But upon further re-consideration I don’t like it. I’m sorry. And NOT just because it’s “arbitrary” or left to GM fiat…because of course, you can write a game reward system to be a set amount if you like…for example “all missions provide 100xp times the average level of the party members” or “every mission provides 500xp per game session it takes to complete the mission” or “all missions provide a 1000xp bonus for accomplishment, with a 500xp bonus if the characters faced mortal combat and an additional 500xp bonus if any of their party members are killed.”

See how easy that is?

Here’s the REAL problem for me: once you set a mission objective or “adventure goal” you start limiting how players interact with the game environment. You start to create a “right way” to play. And that is the antithesis of collaborative role-playing.

For video games, XP bonuses for goals and “quest completion” are great. But video game RPGs are fairly linear by both design and necessity…the good ones are engaging because they have an excellent story/plot and a decent user interface, but they are ALL limited by the programming given to them by their creators. A video game player gets little say in how the plot develops or resolves (one of the reasons Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was so cool is that one received SOME choice in how the ending turned out) simply because the space available in a machine is finite.

The human imagination is not nearly so limited…sure there are the boundaries of language, knowledge, and experience, but sheer creativity provides endless possibility, especially if one refuses to accept those limitations. FOR EXAMPLE:

Player: I’m going to use my “speak with animals” spell to talk to the cave bear instead of fighting it.

GM #1 (a zoologist specialized in bear habits): even though you can communicate with the bear you trespassed into its territory during mating season AND he’s hungry AND bears don’t think like humans anyway…he’s still going to attempt to maul you but you can understand his roars of “food, enemy, food, enemy..”

GM #2 (just going with the random whimsy and magic): make a Reaction roll. Ok, you and the bear sit down and have a long conversation about what’s been going on in the forest lately…you offer him some rations, and he gets you some honey from a nearby tree…

Now, yes, the latter GM in the example is not being extremely realistic, but Dr. Doolittle isn’t anything I’d call “real” anyway.

[Ahhh…"realism" (whatever the hell that means). The bane of RPGs…it’s that “Holy Grail” that’s led to more heated discussions and RPG skill systems than pretty much anything else]

Shit. If folks really wanted “real” would Gamma World have such a sturdy little following? But again, I’m digressing.

Back to the point: when you start setting rewards you start closing down the open-endedness of the RPG possibility. FOR EXAMPLE: Nothing in the classic adventure module G1-3 precludes enterprising characters from making a deal with the giants themselves (provided they have something to offer) allying with them and starting a war campaign against the surface world rulers that originally hired them. Nothing stops the player characters from charming Obmi and making him into a henchman and boon companion. Nothing prevents a sleaze-minded PC from polymorphing into a giant and having a torrid affair with King Snurre’s queenly wife, perhaps enticing her into helping commit regicide.

Yeah, that’s some outside-of-the-box thinking that doesn’t prevent the characters from gaining XP and advancing in level and power (as well they should!) since they still end up with plenty of XP-garnering loot.

But when you start making goals…even BROAD goals (not necessarily “kill Snurre” though in a video game that would probably net you some sort of bonus) like “stop the giants’ raids”…it starts to shut down what the PCs can do and still get rewarded. Unless one wants to simply do XP-awards based on “providing enjoyment to the gaming group,” another arbitrary category frequently found in RPG reward systems that I cannot stand…who’s to say what is going to prove enjoyable and to whom?

So, bottom line…I’m against doing XP for mission goals. In an adventure RPG (and here I mean table-top, not video console) I want the players to be able to exercise a full latitude of action, not constrained by the reward system. Because even though there ARE contrarians like myself that will play against the grain (to our own detriment, dammit!), reward systems DO influence behavior and in-game action. Everyone likes rewards!

: )

Monday, March 29, 2010

"Adventure" Games and Ass-Kickers

This is going to be the subject for the week, so I'll keep this short right now.

In creating my B/X Space Opera game, I got to thinking about advancement and reward. Because, despite a build-off of B/X it certainly isn't going to have the same method of point acquisition as B/X (Luke wasn't delving for treasure in the swamps of Dagobah, after all). So, since I DO want "levels" (they increase the adventuring effectiveness of the characters), what is the mechanism for advancement in the game?

After all, reward mechanisms drive behavior more often than not. Now, of course, I could go the D20 route and reward ONLY defeating of opponents...and then the game becomes combat oriented. And NOT ONLY combat-oriented, but geared towards "ass-kicking" characters, as opposed to "adventuring" characters.

I know, I know I'm not elaborating as much as I should (I will! I promise!) 'cause my time is limited, but consider this:

- while most every character in Star Wars was "fight capable" not all of 'em were "ass-kickers" (see Leia, Lando, Padme, the Droids). Yes, they could handle blasters but that's wasn't there only "thang"
- despite not being "ass-kickers" they still took part in numerous adventures, accomplishing goals and having an impact

That's it can you measure successful adventures when you take treasure out of the equation? I mean, TREASURE is what allows B/X to be as cool as it don't HAVE to kill everything to have a successful "adventure" (finding novel ways to acquire the goods will net you more XP by far than any of the monsters, so use your noggin!).

I personally have a great dislike for GM fiat reward systems (see Palladium games for what I mean) and hate, hate, hate stupid "XP for role-playing" reward mechanics (what is "good role-playing," anyway? Talking with an accent? Wearing a funny hat to the table? Shit.).

This is my new stopping point...any input/insight is certainly welcome!

Shout Out to the Doc!

...who's finally started reading my blog...took you long enough.

As for the rest of y', I am always surprised at the interest and activity that gets generated when I'm NOT posting 2-3 times a day. What nice readers. I'll try to reciprocate. Just been distracted with "stuff" lately.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Musings on Intellectual Property

I've had a particular thought brewing in my brain the last week or so, just thought I'd share.

I don't think every cool piece of IP needs to be licensed as an RPG. Hell, I don't even think some should be.

Case in point: Battlestar Galactica.

My wife and I have been watching BSG the last couple weeks and thoroughly enjoying it. The show is compelling drama (even if it didn't compel us to give up our Friday nights when it originally aired). But just because it's a sci-fi story, a war story, a story that involves shooting, starships, and alien/robot antagonists does NOT mean it would make a decent RPG. Heck, it has heroic characters and it STILL wouldn't make for your average "adventure game." At least not in the traditional, non-indie RPG sense of the idea.

Yes, I'm aware that there is already a Battlestar Galactica RPG. I can only imagine that it has write-ups of all the star characters complete with lists of "skills" like "shoot gun" and "pilot viper;" as if that's what the television show is all about. I suppose one could consider the characters of the TV drama to be "on an adventure" but what is interesting about it, what makes it worth watching is NOT whether or not Chief Tyrol makes his "repair fighter" roll or whether or how many "hit points" (or the equivalent) Baltar loses when getting knocked around. Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick!

Now compare that with Star Wars which, despite an over-arching plot, is still just an episodic adventure series. There's no real "depth of character" to Chewbacca or Han Solo (one of the reasons cited by Harrison Ford for never wanting to reprise the role), or any of the characters, and the"development" that occurs is as superficial as any traditional RPG. What is Anakin Skywalker but a cardboard cut-out perhaps with an "anger meter" or a "selfish +2" stat? Not much more, really. The characters are present so that the "fun adventure story" can be told.

In Battlestar Galactica, the war story is present so the characters' stories can be told.

How they develop, how they evolve (or devolve) under pressure, how they love and hate, their relationships with each other, with duty, with the mission. How they mature. How they deal with the (mental) curve balls and challenges thrown at them.

That's not the foundation for an "adventure" RPG. Maybe the basis for a psyche-exploring, Story Now-type indie-game, but I doubt that's what you get in the glossy hardcover I see on the shelf of the game shop.

Now, of course, it is possible to "drift" any RPG into character exploration and personality development...certainly I've seen it happen with long-term Dungeons & Dragons play, despite a rule system aimed at facilitating treasure seeking. But what D&D (at least Old School editions) had over the current commercial RPGs was a simplicity of game rules/design that made system so quick and easy that drifting was a fine little side jaunt. Who wants to spend hours constructing a feat/talent/skill/class/spell-studded stat monster just to have none of those stats and abilities matter? No one, that's who. If I have cleave and great cleave, written on my sheet, you better bet I want a chance to use 'em. Don't tell me the game is about facing my personal demons or dealing with political fall-out.

As I work on my B/X space opera, I find myself wondering how much "story" I should add to the game. The truly innovative part of OD&D (and by extension, B/X) was it's openness to most any type of "pseudo-fantasy-medieval" game you wanted to run. It could be adapted to a Greyhawk or a Forgotten Realms or a Dragon Lance with no sweat (even though they were all, in a way, "licensing" certain game conventions -- for example, the way the Vancian spell magic worked in the "game universe"). I find myself wanting to actually include antagonistic agencies (the equivalent of "The Sith" or the "Evil Empire")...but would such organized opposition hamstring the game? Do I want to be creating my own Intellectual Property at all? Even to such a small degree as "this is how people use "The Force?"

I don't know, I'm just wondering. I haven't checked out X-Plorers, which for all I know may be a truly generic B/X space game. My original idea was NOT generic, but rather "B/X Star Wars." But if I don't own the licensing rights I have to do away with the IP. And if I don't have Lucas's IP do I really want to bother writing this game?

Ugh. Well, time to get back to work.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Mind of the Mentat

My wife's at yoga this morning (I went last night and I'm still aching) so I took my morning constitutional down to the coffee shop and local game store to unwind a little in the sunshine, as well as getting my daily doses of caffeine and gaming. good.

Anyway, I observed the standard gaming group gathered around a table at Gary's (6 to 8 individuals of varying ages...I didn't bother counting) playing some RPG or other. I'm not actually sure what game they were playing...possibly Pathfinder, possibly 4th edition, possibly something completely different. I didn't see any books on the table, just lots of notes, screens, stat cards. The GM had a fairly solid screen nicely illustrated on one side and covered in

[sorry...interrupted by beagles scratching at the front door. They didn't want to come in, they wanted me to go OUT with them. In a little bit, beagles...]

...covered in the arcane gaming minutia I recall so well from my own days as an AD&D dungeon master, though with some weird editions (food and lodging prices need to be on a screen?). In addition to the screen, the dude had a humongous stack of pages, bound on rings from which he was conducting the action on the battle map (it appears he'd printed or copied the game book so as to not ruin the binding of the original through constant S&H).

No one had a lap top today (though I've seen those down at game tables); the gentlefolk appeared a little older than the tweeting generation. They DID have numerous cheat sheets/score cards/laminated stat documents from which they would consult as they rolled dice and fought what I believe was a single minotaur. There were miniatures on the table.

I was probably only in the store ten minutes or so. I came in sometime in the middle of the encounter, and left shortly after it was finished (the GM announced, "sushi's on the dinner's dead!).

To me, it seemed like an awful lot of work for a paltry amount of fun.

But thinking back to my own DM days...especially running games as a "Storyteller" for the various World of Darkness games, isn't that kind of par for the course? Certainly, I never used a computer in my games (though for WoD I got to the point where I'd just use the "Random" feature on my calculator, rather than rolling handfuls of ten-sided dice). As the GM/DM for several different RPGs, all with different rule sets, I had to keep a surprising amount of info in my brain...not to mention the adventure scenario info (if there was one). It was absolutely necessary if one wanted a smooth running game. Which of course I did, being a bit of a perfectionist/show-off in this regard.

Being a competent gamer at the table meant being a human computer.

Now, of course, people can and do take their laptops to the game table, though I don't think I could personally stand to see it at my table...if I caught anyone playing solitaire I'd probably go completely ballistic. I much prefer players' eyes on the face-to-face environment I like to make eye contact with players, I like to pitch my voice and cadence in ways that communicate certain emotions, I tend to be very expressive with my body language (from sitting absolutely still to gesticulating wildly)...all in aid of involving the players in the game.

Yet having the computer (or the print-outs or the note-cards or whatever) is totally valid with many of today's games...just because they are so damn huge and complex! Well, not too complex rules-wise (if they were overly complex rules-wise people really wouldn't play them)...but the sheer amount of minutia of information is crazy, crazy.

Even if the game may model things competently, using excellent systems, there's no guarantee of elegance or intuitiveness or (to use a computer term) "user-friendliness" in the rules. Forget all my things I've said before about hating skill systems for a moment. Even if I liked skill systems, once one starts adding circumstantial modifiers to a game system, you've only got three choices as a GM:

A) wing it ("fly by the seat of your pants")
B) slow down game play to a crawl ("to get it right")
C) develop the mind of the Mentat

Option B is of course the lousiest choice, as it almost always kills long-term game play (most players get tired of GMs page-flipping every time a new rule comes up). Yet, perhaps this is one of the things that has contributed to the death of long-term group play (I'm not suggesting it is THE reason, as I know there are plenty of other distractions in our busy 21st century lives).

The mind of the Mentat (please reference Herbert's DUNE for more info), is probably something that develops over time as a GM walks the balancing act between Options A and B. No one just springs up as a full-fledged rules guru from one (or two or three) reads of the rule book. And because it takes so long to develop the mentat mind for even a single game, this could be one of the reasons some GMs are so damn stubborn about only playing one particular game or other..."I only run D&D," or "I only play HERO system," or "I adapt everything to GURPS."

They know it backwards and forwards. Even when they don't know a particular rule, they know immediately where to reference it in the book without the need of the index or table of contents. For some game systems, this was (to me) the worst aspect of a new edition...if rules got moved around to different chapters.

The Mentat mind...and I suppose coffee (or Coke) is out juice of Sapho. It certainly isn't booze (I've lost more than a couple "Mentat calculations" to wine consumption I'm afraid).

Anyway, here's the thing, or rather the things: while players certainly appreciate the "mentat GM" (the "wing it" GM generally only works long-term amongst established and fairly lax game know, "buddies?"), it takes time and effort to become a Mentat in ANY game system (another reason why GMs become so "brand loyal" to genre-crossing systems: Tri-Stat, D20, even Palladium). Time and effort that not everyone is willing to spend. Which leads to games sitting on shop shelves gathering dust until they get picked up by someone who just lets it sit and gather dust on their own book shelf.

That doesn't grow the industry.

The OTHER thing is this: do we want to encourage ourselves to become human computers...players or GMs? Because the more extensive game systems practically require this. Just saw a copy of 6th edition Champions on the shelf today and it was every bit the weighty tome that 4th edition was. If everything is covered by the rules, how much room does that leave for imagination? 'Cause imagination...and freedom of action in an imaginary world...are the things offered by RPGs that are NOT offered by static video games (even video games with on-going supplemental World of Warcraft).

As I embark on my new 64 page space opera game, this is something I'm keeping in mind. I want the rules easy enough to manage that they don't require the Mentat mind to play them. I want them to be a game ANYone can pick up and play, easily, and with plenty of room for growth and imaginative input.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Seven Years

The fucking war has been going on for seven years.

The American war. The stupid war. The fear-mongering war. The war that I wish had never been.

When the Two Towers came down in 2001 I was at work, at the same job I have today. I and my co-workers were all sent home as it was a government building and no one knew what else might happen. I didn't own a car at the time (I would buy one two months later), so I bussed home. The wife and I watched the news all day on TV. I'm sure we got something to eat. I smoked a few cigarettes (I would quit a couple months later...the car was, in part, a reward for my wife and I giving up the habit). I called my father that night, the only phone call I remember making.

I told him I hoped to hell we didn't end up going to war over this stupid shit. Yes, someone was guilty of a horrific crime, but you don't go blow up sovereign nations for the actions of a handful of assholes.

Two years later, the fucking war started...and it's been going on ever since.

To me, the last seven years have been only a portion of my life...I'm 36 years old, and my formative years were long behind me when 9/11 happened. My growth and upbringing were mostly behind me, the shaping of my core beliefs and values already done. Yeah, there's constant "polishing" that goes on every day, and I learn new things and incorporate new things (consciously and subconsciously) into my psyche. But for the most part I'm the same guy today that I was seven years ago. A little fatter. A little "thinner on top." My lungs are certainly clearer. And I'm doing some actual writing, actually trying to contribute something to the role-playing hobby that has given me so much enjoyment over the years. Hell, I've gotten much more in contact with my gaming roots the last few years, not just playing, but discussing, reading, teaching, and sharing with others...being a part of a gaming community, even if it is mostly an on-line community.

But I am still (mostly) the same guy. Having opted out of the military many years ago (I nearly joined ROTC prior to college, and decided against it), the war hasn't affected my life except in the peripheral way it does other non-military Americans...the economy has been fucked and there's more fear and anxiety floating around the culture. That's peripheral to me...the death toll over-seas is like the scores of a sporting event or something. After all, no one moved into my town and blew up my water filtration plant or anything.

What blows me away, though, is that for many of my fellow gamers...the young ones, the ones in college, the ones under 25...the last seven years have been during their formative years. Kids that couldn't drink or legally drive in 2002 are married or have kids. Kids that hadn't even graduated middle school are now in college and perhaps part of a gaming group...certainly some for the first time ever.

How does the last seven years color their game play? I have no doubt that it's affected their personalities...has it affected the way they play and use role-playing games?

Do they cling to Pathfinder because D20, first released in 2000, is a rock of sanity and stability and an opportunity to enjoy a little (well supported) escapist fantasy?

What about the kids that have gone on to join the military itself? The guys (and gals) I knew that enlisted pre-2000 were certainly no strangers to RPGs...some played more games after joining up than they ever did before. How has the war affected the games played by U.S. soldiers? I know of at least one promising game designer that sold his company and joined the military back in 2004. I wonder whatever happened to him...

Ah, well...I've got other things to work on today. My mind is going to morbid places and it's a beautiful, sunny day outside. Time to get out of the coffee shop and walk the beagles!

Now THAT Was Tough

Put together my Top Twenty list for the first round of judging in the One Page Dungeon Contest. Wow...reading through 'em wasn't nearly as challenging as making the cuts/picks.

All the judges are in agreement that the slew of entries we received are all of excellent quality...just picking twenty was tough...hell, my first pass through the list I had nearly half (over 30) in my "must have" category. Cutting THAT down to 20...ugh, I worry I might have dropped a couple really good ones. Ah, well.

Just want all entrants to know they should be really proud of the work they did. Many of these dungeons/adventures are well worth playing, not just reading. I know I'D love to run a couple of 'em.

I purposefully haven't looked at the other judges picks yet, as I didn't want to be influenced in my picks or my categories (we had to list suggested award categories). Categories wasn't nearly as challenging and actually helped with the narrowing of the entries...though I did, at the last second, decide to discard the "Best Evil Halfling Adventure" category. What is it with evil halflings? I was truly surprised to see how many times the little guys popped up as antagonists, even entries onto wandering monster tables! What the hell? No one trusts these runty little guys?

Anyway...that's something I can cross off my to do list...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

So I was at the Used Book Store the Other Day...

...and picked up a copy of Champions 4th Edition for $9.95. What a deal!

Kind of.

As I've mentioned before:

1) I am a sucker for superhero RPGs, and
2) I have never owned, read, or played Champions (or any of the associated Hero systems).

Why, I don't know. I've ever only known one person to play Champions and she was SO annoying about it (basically, her gaming group adapted Champs to EVERY game they played...including Amber! Doesn't that kind of defeat the whole dice-less purpose thing?).

Of course, I am fully aware that Ron Edwards (my personal game design hero) cut his teeth on Champions, but even THAT was not enough to go out and buy a new copy of the game (I recall looking at the most recent edition of Hero a year or so ago and being bored by what I saw).

However, this copy with it's dirt-cheap price and somehow-familiar-cover (I think I must have drooled over it sometime in the past, perhaps in a magazine ad, I just don't remember) got me to finally fork over some ca$h. After all, if one is going to be a "sucker for superhero RPGs" than one should have at least a copy of Champions, right?

Well, that's what I was thinking anyway. That and I figured it would be of historical value from a design perspective to see how a game REALLY infamous for it's "crunch" stacks up against other RPGs. could kill someone with this book.

I don't mean figuratively...this weighty tome would make a hefty bludgeon, let me tell you. I have a copy of a high school geometry text book (don't ask) and Champions totally dwarfs it. And that's a text book that is supposed to be studied over the course of a year! How the hell long are you supposed to spend familiarizing yourself with Champs before you can sit down and play a game.

A long ass time, it would appear.

Well, anyway, there is some good stuff in the book, but not nearly enough to keep me from getting bored to tears. Any game with 8 or more basic attributes and a large set of derivative ones is...well, it's too much for me to give a gosh darn about. I'm afraid that the only use I see for Champions in the foreseeable future is as a ten dollar doorstop. That is, unless I need to ward off a burglar or something.

; )

Internet Problems

I've had some difficulties logging onto the computer at home the last three days or so, but that appears to be fixed now. 'Course I'm on my way to work this morning (just up feeding the beagles at the crack of dark), so I don't have much time to post right now.

I'm still finishing up my reading of the One Page Dungeon Contest entries, but I'm nearly done, and should have my picks to the other judges by the end of the week. Meanwhile, getting back on-line allowed me to check my blog email and I found a number of good drawings waiting to be stuffed into my book (yay!). Still waiting for someone to send me a good illustration of a two-headed troll, though.
; )

By the way, Happy St. Patrick's to everyone...I'm sure that many Irish Catholics (like myself) spent no more time drinking than the other 364 days of the year, but I hope everyone was safe. For me, it's also the celebration of my original "first date" with my wife (we met March 15th, and I asked her out the next day), and we had a nice evening...she wanted to watch Battlestar Galactica DVDs and eat corn beef and cabbage which is all good with me!
: )

All right, off to work...

Monday, March 15, 2010

You Guys Must Hate Me By Now...

...and if you don't you probably will soon.

B/X Star Wars is a go.

Oh, of course it probably won't be actual Star Wars, since there's no way I, a lone and very amateur game designer, can possibly put together the scratch for such a license. My game will be a 64 page space opera with very recognizable cinematic tropes (laser swords and blasters, evil empires and starships, etc..).

The groundwork has been laid. My obsessive-compulsiveness, knowing no reasonable bounds, has had me doing nothing but non-stop research since...well, pretty much for the last couple weeks. Watching and re-watching the films wasn't enough...I've picked up copies of the novels based on the movies (some used, some not), reading and re-reading...I've combed through my WEG source material and original game rules to separate what works from what doesn't, and have actually borrowed a bit from D20 Saga edition.

The thing practically writes itself.

Anyway, this one isn't nearly as ambitious as my B/X Companion...I'll be throwing it together simply, quite possibly without much art even, and making it a free download here or putting it up on Lulu (just to see how the latter works).

May the Source be with you.
; )

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fiddly Old School Games

One thing I HAVE heard about FGU games is that their particular fiddlyness out-fiddles all other Old School games of the fiddly variety. Aftermath in particular has this reputation, but I will say here and now that I am NOT a-feared of the fiddly.

And it’s a good thing as Villains & Vigilantes is EXTREMELY fiddly.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game as specifically, mechanically crunchy and yet so friggin’ Old School Open-Ended as V&V. Truly a “what the hell” effort to read the rules.

First off: who says you need 64 pages to write an RPG? Did I say 64 was some kind of magic number? The Star Frontiers advanced rules contains only 60 pages, though it does have 4 additional insert pages of tables and such.

Villains & Vigilantes? It has 48 pages.

'Wow, that’s not a whole lot,' one might say. And 'damn straight' would be my reply. The game gives you just about the most basic chassis for superhero role-playing I’ve ever seen…while at the same time, it strives for a type of hyper-crunchy realism that is so different from the abstract color ranks of Marvel as to be the opposite end of the spectrum. It reminds me of DC Heroes except less elegant (which is REALLY saying something!). I have never seen a game that makes use of so many fractional numbers, pure and simple. Rounding? Yeah, there’s rounding…AFTER you worry about the tenths of a point from all the various stats [one-tenth your Strength CUBED + one-tenth your Endurance divided by one-half the character’s weight (in pounds) equals the character’s carrying capacity which in turn determines hand-to-hand combat damage and throwing ability…*whew!*].

And yet, UNLIKE the extremely specific and limited scope of powers in other Superhero games, V&V is about as Old School off-the-cuff and House Rule A-Rama as you can get. It’s f’ing schizophrenic is what it is. Powers are rolled randomly, then you read the power description and make shit up! Here are some examples:

Special Weapon: The character possesses some sort of unique weapon and may work with the GM to create its specific abilities. There are no limitations on what the weapon might do except those set by the GM. Range, attack type, damage, and/or other effects, number of uses per recharge, etc. must all be delineated. The weapon needn't necessarily look like a weapon, nor is it limited to entirely offensive capabilities.

Bionics: These are mechanical replacement or supplemental body parts. A character with this power may choose one to six (roll 1d6) parts to add or replace, and works with the GM to assign abilities to each of these...
[I love the ADD or replace clause!]

Magical Spells: The power to work magic, and to create new and unique magical forces. THe character starts with one beginning spell of his own design (the GM should work with the character to create a useful and reasonable power). From then on he may create new spells according to the Inventing procedure (see section 6.3). The effects, power costs, etc. of the each new spell must be outlined by the character, and the GM may modify its parameters or refuse to allow it if the character is asking too much. Each spell should be nearly as powerful as a regular super power.
[two interesting things: that the GM works with the CHARACTER rather than the player, and that these invented spells are "nearly as powerful as a regular super power" when the invention process normally creates effects "one-third to one-quarter as powerful"]

Mutant Power: The character possesses some sort of new, unique ability. The GM and character must work together to create this new ability, setting its range, duration, PR, action/movement cost, etc. This can be anything (within the limits set by the individual GM), so use your imagination
. [that's just plain ballsy to have on a random roll table]

Friggin' nutty. It puts a lot of power (and responsibility) in the Game Master’s hands, that’s for sure. In true OS fashion there’s nothing that balances powers against each other EXCEPT what balance is given by the GM, as extolled in the rules themselves:

From section 7.3 GAME BALANCE

...Whether you play the rules 'as-is' or not, it is important to maintain play balance. Take care that the game does not become either too hostile or too friendly to the players. The GM is responsible for the enjoyment of the players. Anything which makes the game less enjoyable should be avoided. A game where players breeze through events with no chance of failure can be as boring as one where they face odds against which they never triumph. Game Balance is the science of keeping things somewhere between these two extremes, for each individual as well as for the group in general. Player enjoyment is far more important that any individual rule in this book...

[!!! That's a LOT to put on the poor GM!]

Let’s talk about game balance for a moment. It’s a funny thing of course, but of especial importance to superhero RPGs. Why? Because you’re seeking to emulate a comic book genre...and comics, despite being visual in nature, are a literary art form. They tell stories through their pages. And sometimes, those stories necessitate some unrealistic match-ups.

Could Batman really go toe-to-toe with Superman? Should they be fighting the same power level of villains? Could Squirrel Girl REALLY defeat Doctor Doom?

In a comic book? Sure. It’s just a matter of the artist drawing the happy chance circumstances that lead to the under-dog heroically triumphing.

Some superhero RPGs model this in their game system. Marvel does (with enough good Karma points and a little ingenuity Hawkeye can take down most villains that should totally clean his clock…likewise Daredevil or any other “street level" superhero). Narrative games like Capes and With Great Power do as well.

Other games, like Heroes Unlimited do NOT (and woe betide the Stage Magician that is facing down a mega-powerful Immortal like Thor). Aberrant (and probably Champions) balances characters against each other in terms of overall points (somewhat), but nothing prevents some players from optimizing characters and others from making…well, rather worthless Joe Shmoes. Superhero stories told with these RPGs are more likely to look like the Marvel Ultimates imprint than a Silver Age story (complete with heroes getting shot down in a hail of bullets or villains having their arms pulled off).

Villains & Vigilantes has the “realistic crunch” of these latter games but talks the superhero talk of the abstract comic book games. It is also very much in the Silver (possibly Bronze) Age as far as comics are concerned. Heroes can come from a variety of backgrounds…magical, alien, technological, highly trained, or a combo…and are expected to capture opponents without killing them and have them hauled off to jail.

Yes, prison. In a game world that assumes super-powered characters are running the streets, it likewise assumes that prisons have been designed to contain super-powered criminals. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to hold a super-crook indefinitely; the very nature of being super means their escape is fairly inevitable, as is explained in the Super Prisons section (nearly pages...more than 10%!...of the book is devoted to crime, punishment, trials, and jail).

V&V characters have levels and gain experience points, but XP is only gained for defeating opponents and putting ‘em in the pokey. Killing a villain nets you exactly ZERO experience. Kinda’ makes you wonder why anyone would want to play a character with claws, huh?

Character creation deserves its own, separate post (along with an EXAMPLE!), so we’ll move onto the other rules. The game is definitely of the “descended from wargames” Old School variety, complete with movement and ranges in inches, lines of sight, and the assumption folks will be using miniatures or “chits” to a scale out their battles. That’s a sign of the times as far as I’m concerned. Combat (all important in a Supers RPG) is a matter of choosing an attack versus an opponent’s chosen defense and rolling under a certain number as determined on an attack matrix. For example, a villain decides to blast me with her flame power, and I use magnetism to defend (how magnetism actually acts as a defense the rules don’t really say…maybe this is narrative driven, like “I drag a metal trashcan from the street corner and intercept the incoming fireball with it!”). My opponent needs to roll a 13 or less on a D20 (with some modifiers based on ability scores, character level, range, and training power ups). Most of these bonuses or penalties are static and the only "search & handling" is cross-referencing the offense-defense matrix and looking at your character sheet…but it’s not what I’d call “intuitive” by any stretch of the imagination.

Against non-defending opponents, there is a straight number for each attack (interestingly, all animals and inanimate objects are considered 4th level for defense purposes…for some reason, this seems perfectly reasonable to me). Some attacks also provide the defender with a “saving throw” (which completely blows…I have to make an attack to use my Mind Control power and then the guy might STILL resist? That sucks!). Otherwise, attacks generally do damage.

Characters have two separate resource pools for absorbing damage: Hit Points (duh) and Power Points. Hit points is the actual amount of damage you can take before dying, while Power is kind of fatigue/stamina/energy. It can be used to reduce damage (rolling with punches) or expended to use most powers on either offense or defense (the fire/magnetism roll). Interestingly, the more power you have, the harder you are to hit in combat if you take evasive action (you get a bonus of one-tenth your remaining Power…I guess it’s also your “hustle” ability). If both Hit Points and Power are 0 you’re dead…which can be kind of problematic due to the character creation rules (see next post).

After combat we have the section on Reaction (personality mechanics being exceptionally important…at least judging by the fact that it is the only other “system” in the game besides combat). Then we get rules for creating campaigns, including making “pedestrians” (any non-super character) and organizations. And the crime and punishment section.

The appendix has some rules regarding leaping tall buildings and throwing cars, a handy table of stats for animals (from the domestic house cat to the brontosaurus, it's all there on a half-page table, baby!), and an "equipment section" (a couple paragraphs telling you that superheroes don't need extra gear/equipment, and that your GM will have to make stuff up if you want to use it). Page 48 isn't actually much more than a big picture (unlike the cover leaf, which is blank).


For 48 (or less) pages, Villains & Vigilantes is a complete game. Well, complete as long as your GM is good at making stuff up! Actually, it IS a lot closer to my ideal Supers game...I don't think an RPG needs hundreds of pages to be fantastic and "complete" even if one wants a good selection of super powers from which to choose (or roll!). The book could probably stand to have a bit more decent lay-out...but who cares? For being published in 1982, the book is still solid enough to use, and short enough that I can find most any rules I need fairly quickly after only a couple read-throughs.

And I have got to say, I love the name. "Vigilante" may carry a bit of negative connotation in our present-day society (and vigilantism probably should) but isn't the root of vigilante "one who is vigilant?" And isn't that what superheroes should be...vigilant against the terrible crimes of the super-villain? And the game IS called "VILLAINS & Vigilantes," implying that the villains came first, forcing the heroes to don the cape and cowl and fight the good fight.

I don't's a weird little system, really. But I wouldn't mind giving it a go.

: )


I take a few days off from the blog and the artwork comes FLOODING in.

Ravenconspiracy has emailed me a slew of pieces, most of which can be viewed on his new blog Drawings and Dragons. I'm so glad that my desperate pleas for artwork have inspired someone to start expressing themselves on-line. In words or pictures (or song if that suits your fancy), I stand for the possibility of full self-expression from all individuals, and I encourage everyone to find an outlet. RC obviously has a talent for the pencils (and a willingness to share his talents)...those looking for an artist for their project might want to check out his work.

My "regulars" (as I think of the guys that have already contributed multiple pieces) also came through with some more great stuff. Still looking for a real cover leaf though...and a cover artist. I've had a couple suggestions I plan on following-up with this weekend...we'll see how THAT goes.

Once again a huge THANK YOU to everyone who's interest (and contributions) have encouraged me to stick with this project. Talk about a push! Just a couple more walls to break down and this thing will be rolling out. You folks are awesome!

Adding to the Collection

[FYI: sorry for the delay in posting; I won’t bother going into excuses for the several day lay-off as nothing was going on worth mentioning…I’m back for now]

Over the years I’ve played, owned, borrowed, and browsed many MANY role-playing games. To say I’m an avid gamer would be a bit of an understatement. “Connoisseur” isn’t too much of a stretch, especially over the last 20+ years when I’ve delved into various RPGs, analyzed, compared, and played them for my own pleasure.

But that of course is NOW. Prior to being a “connoisseur,” a better term might have been “game whore” as I went through a several year period of purchasing/collecting all sorts of RPGs with little regard for the actual game systems and nothing that could be called a discerning eye.

Which is fine and dandy. The point of games is to have fun playing ‘em, and though I may treat the hobby with a highbrow (or pretentious!) attitude these days, I feel I’ve cut my teeth on enough trash to be able to weigh in with my opinion. Some may not agree but, hey…it’s my blog.

Now having said all THAT, prior to becoming an eclectic collector I was an absolutely DEVOUT follower of TSR…I may have PLAYED other games but I certainly didn’t spend my hard-earned cash on ‘em. I know, I know…this sounds a little odd. Let me give you some examples.

B/X D&D was my first RPG. Pure and simple. It evolved into AD&D, a game I played for many years with a select circle of friends…up until age 14 or 15. However, even before I stopped playing AD&D (a hiatus that would last…well, I still haven’t gone back to 1st edition AD&D really), I played a number of games with this same circle of friends, but generally games they were bringing to the table:

- Jocelyn had ElfQuest, James Bond, Twilight2000…perhaps a couple others I’m forgetting

- Scott had BattleTech/MechWarrior, Shadow Run, as well as GURPS and Beyond the Supernatural (these latter two having VERY short runs in our camp)

- Rob had Classic Traveller and James Bond

- Jason introduced us to Marvel Superheroes (which we all bought into big time, picking up the Advanced Set and playing the hell out of); he also had some Christian version of D&D called Dragon Light or some such

Now in addition to D&D, I had copies of Gamma World, Top Secret, and of course Boot Hill. These were as much for cross-genre exploration (via the DMG) as anything else. I also owned Marvel (Basic and Advanced) and Star Frontiers which we had fun playing…but you’ll notice that all of these games are all published by the TSR stable.

By the time I finally started investing in other games in the late 80s/early 90s (Chaosium, Palladium, White Wolf), I had missed out on a whole slew of RPGs that had been published, advertised (in Dragon and elsewhere), and gone down the tubes…all before I’d taken my “TSR blinders” off. Oh, some were still around in 2nd editions (West End Star Wars for example) or under new flags of ownership (I picked up DragonQuest in its SSI incarnation). But others had dried up completely.

One such group was FGU: Fantasy Games Unlimited.

Aftermath, Bushido, Villains & Vigilantes…the ads for FGU games had always stood out for me from the pages of Dragon magazine as a kid. But with little disposable income and even less of a PLAN for getting my hands on new games (I was more interested in playing the games I already owned), I failed to get a single FGU system when they were in their heyday. Now, of course, I’ve heard ample good things about these games from the folks that cut their teeth on THEM as kids, but I dislike buying things off eBay and you just don’t see ‘em stocking the game shelves in the Used section.

Well, until a couple days ago. That’s when I was able to pick up the box set of Villains & Vigilantes for $5.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I am an absolute sucker for superhero games…the quest to find the perfect Supers RPG is a Quixotic one, and probably one that will ultimately prove impossible. And yet I keep trying (no, I have heretofore refused to purchase Mutants & Masterminds…sucker, yes, but there are some lines I try desperately not to cross). And V&V is a game I’ve been wanting for YEARS.

I’m sure it’s due to a couple different things, this hopeless yearning of mine. Reason one, of course, is “The Quest;” not ever owning V&V how could I know if my Grail search might end could I just get my hands on a copy? But the foremost reason is those damn little ads in the old Dragon magazine…little character blurbs, complete with cool little stat lines that made me say, “wow, why the hell aren’t I playing THIS cool game.” I should point out for the record that not one of my friends was interested in playing a supers RPG until the advent of Marvel…I was the only one that ever seemed interested in combining the fiddly stats of AD&D with comic book characters.

Well, fine…I’ve got it now and…hmmmmmmmm…

Full review of V&V follows.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Oh...And About Gary

Speaking of "leveling up..."

There were a lot of posts yesterday remembering the passing of Gary Gygax on March 4, 2008. I'm not exactly sure why this was (a Canadian tradition perhaps of mourning every year? I know in Mexico they do the cross-raising on the one-year anniversary).

As the premier founder of our RPG tradition/industry (Dungeons & Dragons may have been co-created, but Mr. Gygax undoubtably led the promotion of said game into rec rooms of our youth), I don't mind celebrating the guy as a note-worthy figure. But around these parts, we tend to celebrate the day of an individual's birth, the day on which he entered this Earthly plane, not yet knowing what effect he would have upon the world.

So, nope not going to mourn or bemoan, and certainly won't be posting any tributes till July 27th. That'll be my own little personal RPG holiday.
: )


Levels are one of the greatest inventions of man, as far as I'm concerned. Whether you're talking levels of the Masonic Order, different colored belts in a martial art, or your average old school (or D20) RPG, levels give you something absolutely wonderful:

Progressive, measurable achievement.

I am guessing that THAT, more than anything else, has kept gamers coming back to the gaming table after years of play...especially D&D play.

Sure, sure...completing a cool adventure or having a very entertaining sequence of events occur thank to a series of fortunate dice rolls may provide for hours of talking points and reminisces somewhere down the line, but it's that need to achieve that keeps us coming back. I think, anyway.

[now I realize that the base reason for doing any kind of communal activity is being with other people, so that's a given...I'm talking about the reason people continue to do the same thing, play the same game over time, rather than just hanging out & shooting the breeze]

I mean, I know there are some shmoes that, for whatever reason, are interested in getting their black belt in tae kwon do so that they can be Ultimate Cage Fighters or whatever. But most of us would be satisfied with a basic self-defense lesson or two, right? And could get more all-around exercise going to the gym or something, yeah? The only reason to keep showing up at the dojo is that little achievement in the form of brightly colored belts I think...I mean, do people really go out and pick a fight just because they've been upgraded from blue to brown?

Well, anyway, this is just an "off-the-top-of-my-head" type post. I've been blowing of some steam the last couple-couple playing a little Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (found a working XBox stashed in the closet, and what with all the Star Wars lately...). It's been a long-ass time since I played that little vid, but I have played it before, at least twice (once as a bad guy, once as a good guy). I already know how the thing ends (save the Galaxy or conquer it), so it's not like there's some big mysterious adventure to discover.

But earning levels IS fun...seeing a character's gradual rise in power, even as one customizes the game is cool, at least in a "look at what I've achieved" kind of way.

Perhaps more on this later...heading back to bed.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Art Beggary - What I Need

I know I said I'd get this list out last night...sorry for the delay. Here's the space I'm still looking to fill in my B/X Companion:

Chapter 0: Need a cover leaf for the first page. Ideally this would be a large, landscape layout illustration showing a group of high level adventurers either kicking ass or getting ready to kick some ass (think of the Willingham art in the Basic and Expert sets). As for, "what do high level adventurers look like?" ...use your imagination! Outrageous-ness is fine, but it should still be a serious composition, not humorous. Because of the importance of this piece, the illustrator will receive a free copy of the B/X Companion when finished.

Chapter 2: Characters. Need one illustration of any single or pair of characters (though it should be one of the human classes). "Decorative pieces" for illuminating the tables in this section would also be cool.

Chapter 3: Spells. Need some "wizard in action" shots. Room for three pieces OR one plus one half-page (landscape layout) piece. See below for some possibilities.

Chapter 5: Encounters. Just need one piece, ideally of a piece of siege equipment (a catapult or trebuchet for example).

Chapter 6: Monsters. Room for three or four pieces. Two can be combined into one half-page, landscape monstrosity but it better be a good one (perhaps incorporating multiple monsters, fighting each other or player characters). See below for example critters.

Chapter 7: Treasure. Room for two pieces or one large piece (but it would have to be a high level treasure trove, not just a few scraps being argued around a table!). Could also use a couple decorative "border pieces" to fill out the tables...a sword or two, a bag pouring a stream of coins and/or gemstones, etc.

Chapter 8: DM Section: Space for three pieces OR one plus one large. Ideas for possible composition provided below.

Chapter 9: Special Adventures. Only room for one small piece. Could be a weird, alien landscape (the moon's surface with binary suns) or a picture of a mage sitting lotus and projecting his astral form or something similar.

ANYONE THAT PROVIDES ME WITH AT LEAST FOUR USEABLE ILLUSTRATIONS WILL RECEIVE A COMPLIMENTARY COPY OF THE GAME WHEN PUBLISHED. This also applies to those artists that have already provided at least four guys know who you are (and thank you so much for your hard work!). All images need to be original artwork, need to be black & white and need to be scanned into the computer. You can email me at my contact address.

Some ideas/examples for chapters 3, 6, and 8:

Chapter 3 (Spells)
- a wizard summoning an efreet from a cloud of smoke (lots of tusk)
- a cleric speaking a holy word, blasting opponents to powder
- a mage commanding a dancing sword
- two wizards dueling (with one obviously getting the better of the other)

Chapter 6 (Monsters)
- a two-headed troll
- a tribe of lurking yeti
- a quizzical sphinx
- a dark and bundled black night atop a fiery steed
- an incubus
- a shedu (partial or full image)
- a fierce nightmare (the equine variety)...partial profile or on-rushing shot

Chapter 8 (DM Section)
- an angry mob of outraged peasants
- a master thief revealing himself from behind his disguise
- wizard at the bow of a flying ship
- a swashbuckling warrior wielding two weapons
- an open chest, glittering with treasure
- a dwarf fingering a pretty axe

All right, that's enough ideas for now, though I'm happy to provide more to interested parties. Just contact me at my email address if you have any questions:

bxblackrazor AT gmail DOT com

If anyone is interested in taking a shot at the cover please contact me...for a color cover I'm willing to talk actual money changing hands, but my resources are extremely limited (hence the March begging).

OH, and one last item. If ANYONE is interested in doing artwork for the adventure module, I could sure use some for that as well. I have half-a-dozen new monsters that wouldn't mind being illustrated and then GOBLINS GOBLINS GOBLINS. What a goblin actually looks like, I leave to individual interpretation (hobgoblins = militant goblins; bugbears = large goblins; etc.). Anyone with a penchant for goblins or a goblin doodling fetish is encouraged to submit stuff...including goblins dressed for arctic conditions. If you're interested in illustrating the new monsters, email me.

Thanks in advance, folks.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Back to Begging - Artwork Needed

Those folks wondering what the hell happened to the B/X Companion project have every right to be frustrated with me, its creator. I've been totally slacking. I expected to have everything ready but the cover by the end of February; instead I allowed myself to be distracted by Star Wars blogging, Olympic television coverage (congrats on the hockey win, Canucks!), regular work stuff, secret projects, and...well, a lot of movie rentals.

So it's MY FAULT folks. I got a little down when my cover artist of choice fell through, but the whole reason for my pushing back the release date till May was to coincide with his schedule. Since it ain't happening, I am simply going to get this thing out ASAP.

I have guaranteed the Doc that I will be getting him the module maps for finishing THIS WEEK. As in, "by Friday." Which means I have a deadline of Wednesday evening to have till Wednesday night, assuming I am mailing 'em from the post office Thursday morning (he lives down in Oregon, so he should get 'em pretty quick). I am already committed to designing the module cover myself (the Doc will be doing the paint job), and depending how that goes I may or may not be using my buddy's roommate/graphic designer for the cover of the Companion itself.

On the other hand, maybe I'll just go the Traveller route and put the thing out black cover.
; )

No, no...that's probably a joke (maybe a threat?). But I really, REALLY need interior artwork to finish both, and I've decided that I might as well beg the beJesus out of you folks that read this blog and that have ANY ARTISTIC TALENT AT ALL.

That's right, I want finish this mother with a quickness, and that means the bar is going to be set lower than ever before (well...not to the level of Order of the Stick-People, but pretty low). Tonight I will be taking an inventory of what I need (space-wise and theme-wise) and will be posting a general call for any and all contributions in a variety of subjects. Prizes may be a possibility, but let me find my exact need first.

As we enter the time of Pisces, we should all take the route of humble doormats and Buddhas with the begging bowl out (that's the energy of the month, people) all humility, I beseech those of you with extra creativity (and extra time) to tune up your drawing instruments and consider if you'd like to contribute to my little Old School offering.

Thank you in advance, and keep your eyes open for my next post which should have a list of items.

[oh, and to you folks who've already said you had some more contributions in the works, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE get 'em to me at your earliest convenience. I want to get this thing published so that I can move onto the next project, whatever that might be! Thank you so much for your hard work, folks! You are all extremely awesome, I mean that whole-heartedly!]

Monday, March 1, 2010

1PDC Entries

Welp, there are a ton of One Page Dungeon Contest entries to review this (week? month? not sure what the deadline is) and much as I cringe at the thought of the extra reading, I am totally intrigued to see what y'all came up with.

I love judging stuff (in case you couldn't tell!) but generally I prefer judging food items. At work, I have been known to come up with creative haiku for all entries into our annual bake sales and chili cook-offs, but with 60+ dungeons in the mix don't expect that kind of creative energy out of me with this project.

Good luck to everyone...I can only hope the winners enjoy their prizes (and the rest of you enjoyed our personal creative out-pourings!)!
: )

One More Rant

In the final analysis, Star Wars is, in fact a entertainment for children…it is a “kids movie.” The original film, created in 1977 was designed to be a rip-roaring adventure film of the type George Lucas enjoyed in his youth.

This is a film that is created before the Reagan-Bush economics of the 80s and the New Cold War, before the extreme partisan politics and Neo-Con movement of the 90s, before 9/11 and the fear-mongering, civil liberty crushing “war on terror” of the 21st century.

Happy little adventures in space…that’s what Lucas was shooting for.

Fans that read more into it or that (like myself) try to justify parts of the film to maintain some sort of internal consistency are missing the point. How come the Emperor can shoot lightning and Vader can’t? Is it because Vader is half machine and the lightning will “short out” his systems? Or is it because by the 3rd movie you need the Emperor to have something new that no one’s seen and that makes him even more sorcerous and badass.

Why is Count Dooku such a spry old man at age 78 when Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan looks downright clunky at 63? Maybe because:

a) having established Obi-Wan and Anakin as two youthful and acrobatically potent Jedi, a doddering Christopher Lee would have been mince-meat.

b) having already used one acrobatic alien (Maul) in the first film, Lucas needed a suitable (i.e. significant threat) replacement

c) Lee provides an excellent “heavy” despite his lack of youthful spryness, and

d) We have better special effects (and a bigger budget) than in 1977.

Trying to justify the discrepancy by saying “oh, Dooku was channeling the Dark Side” or that Guinness’s Obi-Wan “was out of shape from twenty years of meditation” or “crippled by prior injuries” is just failing to go with the joyful madness.

Sure, Jar-Jar Binks SUCKS to a lot of us…that’s ‘cause we were in our much more mature 20s when he was introduced on screen. I will admit it…I LOVED the ewoks when I was age 10, and Return of the Jedi was probably by far and away my favorite movie of the original three, when I was a kid.

Yes, I loved the ewoks…I even had a Burger King glass and at least a couple action figures (though I preferred Logray and Chief Chirpa to that runty Wicket). I even dug on their little celebratory song that got cut from the re-digitized version.

Sure, there was contrivance, and camp, and cheesiness…much moreso than the first two films…but to a kid, it was nothing but sheer awesome. Puppet monsters and Jabba the Hutt? Speeder bike races? A bazillion tie-fighters swarming like angry hornets? A dark robed figure of pure evil that shoots lightning? A one-on-one showdown between Luke and Vader? Little teddy bears taking out the over-confident, faceless minions? Chewbacca yowling like Tarzan and stealing scout walkers? You bet.

All of it. I loved all of it. As a child RotJ was a fantastic capstone to the first trilogy.

Now SINCE growing up, I too have moaned and groaned about all the things everyone seems to moan and groan about. The ewoks. The camp. The “re-mastering” of the original films. The prequels not living up to expectations. But ya’ know what? I think I have been missing the point as much as anyone.

These are movies for kids. Written, directed, produced, and acted by adults…but designed (by Lucas) to target kids including “the inner child” of adults (especially Lucas himself).

From that perspective, I believe it is possible to enjoy the films without resentment and without complaint. True, one might have to actually watch the films WITH CHILDREN to get a true perspective of how well they succeed (sometimes it’s difficult in one’s 30s and 40s to remember what the hell excited you as a kid), but that’s the only fair way to judge the movies. The backlash Lucas has suffered at the hands of ADULT fans returning to a KID genre and being disappointed may be entirely undeserved. In other words, we have all (including myself!) given the man a raw deal by setting expectations he never intended to make.

- He wasn’t striving for great art

- He wasn’t trying to create a mythology spanning centuries

- He wasn’t attempting to reconcile all the internal inconsistencies and various Star Wars sources of fiction.

The guy was just trying to create fun, adventuresome, family-wholesome films.

So judging them based on THAT, I find only a couple-three problems with the entire six film series:

1) Jar-Jar binks, as a character, is COMPLETELY FORGIVABLE AND EXCUSABLE. I imagine that many kids would find his hijinx funny and entertaining; certainly all of it is secondary to the main plot line and thus simple comic relief in the Shakespearean style. However, his accent (and that of the other gungans) is pretty darn thick to try to understand. Why make his language semi-incoherent when you you could (instead) use subtitles and have the human characters fill in the important expository dialogue, as was done with Greedo and Jabba the Hutt. As far as little kids not reading sub-titles, neither Jabba nor Greedo actually SAY ANYTHING that needs translation thanks to the (English-speaking) opposite actor’s responding dialogue. Frankly, I can only catch the context of the Gungans words BECAUSE of the dialogue from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan most of the time.

2) The addition of Greedo shooting Han (the “Han Shot First” scandal). I don’t recall Lucas’s justification for this, but I think the original sequence was (from a screenplay stand-point) an important illustration of the Han Solo character’s personality. It provides more dramatic pay-off later in the film when he comes back, choosing friendship over selfish self-interest. The character loses something with this particular ret-con.

3) And that’s about it. From a “film critic” perspective, the addition of the Jabba scene in the first film doesn’t provide much in the way of additional exposition or plot development, and for me slows the pacing and downplays the “pay-off” when Jabba is revealed in all his bloated splendor in the 3rd film, but it certainly doesn’t derail a serial adventure story like Star Wars.

SO after saying all that, I say the films should be celebrated for what they are: wonderful fantasy children’s movies and real pieces of Americana and classic Hollywood film-making, as well as historic examples of ground-breaking special effects.

[does that mean I think people should NOT dress up like stormtroopers at conventions or write down “Jedi” for religion in their 2010 census? Hell, no. People should take their fun as seriously as they want, dammit. This is a call for appreciating what the films ARE and a request for folks to stop complaining about what they are not]

Now What O What dear blog-readers does any of this have to do with RPGs (since this IS an RPG blog)? Plenty…if one is interested in writing a Star Wars RPG.

For one thing, if Star Wars (and its sequels/prequels) is a kid movie, shouldn’t the game be kid friendly? Or at least have the potential to be so? To me, this means designing a game that is ACCESSIBLE to kids, including the 10-12 year old range…something easy to learn and easy to play. Which for the most part would cut out most of D20s overly-complex, multi-hundred page books (including the multi-hundred page sourcebooks as well).

For another thing, it suggests that much of WEG’s original RPG “got it right,” at least regarding the ATTITUDE and presentation. I’m not so sure about the game system itself (which has a few problems for me), but the writing very much promotes a wa-hoo, kid adventure type game.

[you know, thinking about it, only the prequel Episodes II and III feel/seem too dark for the Star Wars genre. As an adult, I enjoy them, though I wouldn’t call ‘em “high art;” as a kid, I’m not sure what I’d make of ‘em. Might have to consult with some of my friends’ younger teenagers]

In addition to being accessible and having the proper attitude, a Star Wars RPG should have a degree of OPEN-ENDEDNESS to it, something akin to Classic Traveller (sans Imperium, in other words). Look at the metric tons of fan fiction created for the “Star Wars Universe” from books and novels, to fan movies, to comics and magazines and games and cartoons. Regardless of Lucas’s original intentions, he has indeed spawned a living, breathing mythology that is ever-growing and expanding. A Star Wars RPG should NOT attempt to encompass all of the material (yow! That would be ker-razy!) but should leave room for folks to make their own stuff and create their own sourcebooks, etc.

In my opinion, a Star Wars RPG would do well to not even include stats for specific film NPCs, assuming the point of the game is “to allow play within the Star Wars universe.” If the point of play is to recreate the films, participate in the Battle of Hoth or go toe-to-toe with Vader in the Death Star (for example), then yeah, you need stats for all the principal characters. However, I’m inclined to leave that for a single, separate sourcebook.

What am I saying? That I’m interested at taking my own stab at a Star Wars RPG? Um, yeah, I guess that’s the point. I would think A LOT of people are interested now that WotC is giving up the license come May 2010. Last summer, I was working on my own Jedi-specific game, bitterly resentful that Hasbro/WotC had their iron grip on the RPG IP. Now, I’m filled with…dare I say it?... "A New Hope."

But if ANYONE’s going to do a Star Wars RPG, it ought to be done right, and by “right” I mean, in the spirit of Lucas’s original vision, NOT in our adult perception of what we think that vision should have been or even could have been. But that’s just my opinion, folks.

I wonder how much the license costs…?