Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ugh...Star Wars (Fantasy Flight Games)

I am NOT gaming my own choice. There were two, perhaps three interested folks (and the usual no-shows, illnesses, and "goin' to the movies" responses) but my wife is pretty darn ill right now and that trumps things for me...especially considering she's off to Paraguay again on Sunday and needs to rest up before then.

[yes, she'll be missing the Super Bowl. I'm thinking of taking a pass on the Harbaugh-Extravaganza myself...but then, what kind of American would I be?]

Which is too bad because, while I've got the Legendary Might game somewhat tightened down (you can download the one-page micro-version here), what I've REALLY been working on the last couple days (very passionately might I add) is my D&D Mine edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Corrected a few over-sights (like not confusing the risk mechanic with different die pools) and figuring out a new name that actually corresponds to the game setting. Yes, it has a specific setting. No, it's still only half-baked. Yes, there will probably be people that hate it...I don't care, I like it. A lot.

But none of that's what this post is about (nor is it about the half-dozen D&D topics that keep popping into my brain...need to keep a list). Instead, just wanted to tell people I had a chance to peruse Fantasy Flight Game's brand spanking-new Star Wars:Edge of the Empire Beginner (boxed) Set down at Ye Ol' Game Shop tonight. I even got Tim to let me tear off the shrink-wrap and plunder its contents.

What can I say? I didn't buy it.

And not 'cause it's expensive or anything. The box game is a standalone for $30 and includes a huge set of dice (important, as they are non-numerical, and of varying sided-ness), a 48-page rulebook, a 32-page adventure book, and a random assortment of tokens and sheets and maps. I flipped through it a bit, but didn't actually sit down and read it with a discerning mind, so take my words with a grain of salt.

It looked ugly.

I mean, the package and the contents aren't literally ugly. They are well produced with beautiful artwork and layout. And the words that were being mouthed at me from the pages...something about being abstract so as to allow the game to be cinematic with a non-binary (i.e. non-straight success/failure) mechanic all seemed to be a step in the right direction. Hey, at least the system didn't resemble Death Watch.

However, what it DID look like was an experimental-style, slickly-produced, narratavist-wannabe (indie-style) game. With a proprietary dice-mechanic (based on the special dice included with the game). And that, while taking a few pages from Saga (D20) Star Wars (observe the "talent trees"),  was still messy and incomplete ( Jedi?) with no mention of such being intended for the final "core"rule book (instead, FFG's on-line press release seems to indicate three separate, standalone core books will be issued with the third a few years...being released to deal with the Jedi).


Anyway, I didn't get it, despite the price and the subject matter. And I am still on a D&D kick right now, so you probably won't hear much more on the subject anyway. But with all the space opera musings/postings I've been making lately I felt I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention I had a chance to skim it. A chance to skim it and then to put it all back together and shelf it.

Ugh, I am tired...I may just go to bed early tonight.
; )

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Legendary Might (Part 2 of 2)

[continued from here]

No, when I talk about the "human element," I’m talking about the character’s actual humanity as expressed in the way they interact with OTHER humans…their relationships with other people, in other words. Their family, friends, and loved ones. It’s their relationships with the other people in their lives, interactions that aren’t necessarily tied to their “superhero aspects” that make them worth reading.

For example, Tony Stark becoming an alcoholic and ceasing his run as Iron Man isn’t compelling to me: there are lots of people who’ve washed out of privileged or high profile careers based on their substance abuse. To members of my generation (and younger), this is no big deal…it’s just a touch of reality in the comic book universe. What IS compelling, though is Stark’s relationships with his friends, especially James Rhodes and Bethany Cabe, and how his alcoholism (and inability to don his superhero persona) affects them. How does Peter Parker being Spiderman affect Aunt May or Mary Jane or Gwen Stacey? For that matter how does it affect his relationship with best friend/arch-enemy Harry Osborne?

I have never been much of a serial comic book collector, but there are a couple series I used to collect. One, during high school (early 90s), was the re-booted Silver Surfer. The Surfer is a humanish alien who has little in common with a real human (like myself), though he has a neat surfboard and a shit-ton of superpowers. However, what I found compelling were his romantic relationships…first with fellow alien sweetheart Shalla-Bal, then that green-skinned tree-hugging Mantis chick. These relationships were fairly central to the first dozen or so issues of the re-booted series, and it was only after both had left the picture (one due to death, the other due to voluntary celibacy) and Surfer became a simple, wandering (sometimes insane) ass-kicker that I lost interest with the comics and stopped buying them.

Yellowjacket is interesting for a number of reasons (with the exception of his lame-ass superpowers), but without his relationship to Janet Van Dyne (“The Wasp”) he loses the “compelling” aspect and just becomes a jerk…like Wolverine or something. But seeing how his relationship unfolds (or disintegrates) is GRIPPING. Part of you wants him to get his shit together…but if he does, the story will suddenly become a lot less interesting.

And while romantic relationships are by far the usual method of compulsion (good and bad: Daredevil and HIS poor taste in women is in some ways the “anti-Yellowjacket”), it doesn’t have to be. The kid sidekick (Robin, Speedy, Bucky) in many ways mimics the Father-Son dynamic (and shout out to Electra Woman and Dyna Girl for the Mother-Daughter thang); meanwhile, relationships with characters like Rick Jones or Jimmy Olson or “Aunt May” Parker or J.J. Jameson all carry their own special type of drama/baggage that help to humanize the otherwise ridiculous weirdness one finds in comics, whether you’re talking the Microverse or Cain and his House of Weirdness.

[I DO like the romantic relationships though, and many of these provide the most enrichment to otherwise “flat” comic book characters: Daredevil and Elektra, of course, but also Iron Fist and Misty Knight, Dr. Strange and Clea, and Scott Summers-Maddie Pryor-Jean Grey are all examples of romantic relationships transforming pretty darn boring, ho-hum characters…elevating them to a point of interest far more than their “super powers” might merit. Laserbeam eyes? Come on!]

Even in a  television show like Arrow, part of what makes the program so interesting is the interaction between the main character and his sister, or his mother, or his bodyguard/sidekick. Same holds true for less “conventional” superhero shows (I’m thinking of the TV show “Burn Notice” where the super-spy main character may as well be a superhero).

Legendary Might is a decent start for a supers game…it has some neat innovations using the DMI card mechanic that allows players to become more engaged with their characters while:

a)     Not requiring a lot of thought/back story
b)     Providing both description AND freedom of choice

Which is cool, especially considering some of the other neat parts (balancing PC participation without “balancing” character types; providing (I think) neat risk/reward mechanics) that DMI provides to the individual. But what it does NOT do, is it doesn’t tap into that human element.

Which isn’t all that surprising when you think about it…there aren’t many (any?) superhero RPGs that do so.  One that dips a toe into the pool a bit is “With Great Power…”, an indie supers RPG that requires players to put various aspects of their characters “at jeopardy” in order to acquire enough currency to beat the bad guys. In a way, it forces you to have/use relationships in order to endanger them (or yourself)…but looked at another way it’s simply repeating the same rinse-repeat formula over-and-over again. On the other hand, Jeff Grubb’s Marvel RPG is probably the first to have tried to tap into this as an actual game mechanic (and the last to REALLY do it prior to With Great Power…no, Champions’ psychological drawbacks/flaws do not count) using the karma mechanic, but it’s just soooo half-assed – or rather, subject to GM fiat, which to me is a type of “half-assed-ness” – that I find it quite unusable outside of pre-written adventure modules: in my long running MSH game I really don’t remember using karma awards for fulfilling relationship commitments.

So, hey, I provide this info as a CAVEAT for those of you downloading Legendary Might in its current format. Yes, I like how the game design’s looking right now. Yes, it all seems to “work.” But no, it’s NOT quite finished yet…mainly because it doesn’t find a way to incorporate that human element into the game.

And the reason it doesn’t is because I hadn’t had a chance to consider all this until after our play-test. As I noted, we had three player characters in our session. They were:

-        Winsome (Wynsomn? Wind Song?) AKA “The Hat” (hero name coined by other players): a big-headed alien (like a 7’ “gray”) with psychic powers dressed in a trench coat and Cat-in-the-Hat hat. He spent a number of decades on a hippy commune in northern California.
-        Kara Ride AKA “Stout”: a personal trainer in the style of those “Biggest Loser” types that shrinks to a Puck-like (as in Alpha Flight) strongman chick with Farah Fawcett hair. She was in a relationship with another mutant/personal trainer albeit one who was NOT a vigilante superhero and is actively irritated with Kara’s nightly excursions.
-        “Dreadnought”: basically Iron Man except less rich (and if I remember correctly, he did NOT own his own company, but worked for some sort of military-industrial complex). No family/relationships that I can recall.

Now this tiny bit of background info was created on the fly by the players based on a handful of pointed questions by Yours Truly during the chargen process: each player brought their own “stuff” to the table in this regard based on the cards they were dealt and their character concepts; none of it was forced upon them. Consequently, only Stout really had anything like a “human element” (we had the impression that The Hat’s human “family” had kind of been left behind in recent years, living in a secluded commune away from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles). 

As a consequence, the game felt a little “flat” to me…like every encounter was set up simply to get to the next encounter…which is kind of the essence of a lot of “modern” RPGs (unfortunately) but the flatness is emphasized when there’s nothing “human” to grab onto…when characters are just flexing their muscles (physical or mental) to “succeed” and “win.” Sometimes just being the biggest, baddest super on the block isn’t enough.

[ugh…I’m starting to sound like I’m going down the premise-addressing narrativist road! I have nothing against indie-gaming, but that’s not my design objective with LMZ, dammit!]

Okay, okay…this post has gotten long enough (you see now why it took me awhile to get this up on the blog!). For those who want to check out Legendary Might, you can download the one-page micro-version from MediaFire here. I’m more than happy to field any questions about the game, and I’d love to hear feedback from anyone who’s willing to play-test it. I’m going to continue tinkering with it myself, trying to incorporate more of that “human element” but like I said, it’s workable right now.  Hope folks enjoy it!

And now I’ve got some D&D stuff to write…
; )

Legendary Might (Part 1 of 2)

All right, all right…after an inward struggle of whether or not to do this, I’ve decided I would provide my readers with a copy of theone-page micro-game of Legendary Might, my new supers game (currently being tested) which makes use of my DMI (Deal Me In) game engine.

Or perhaps I should write Legendary Might™ and Deal Me In™ instead.

That’s the only real debate I had: not “does the system work?” or “will people like it?” but do I distribute, for FREE, my awesome awesome game system prior to selling it in a published (copyrighted) form for cash-money? However, leaving aside the fact that even a free publication still has a “copyright” associated with it, I’ve come to a couple-three conclusions:

1) There are a lot of pros to freely distributing something in this “bare bones” format, including free publicity and possible feedback from play-testers.
2) The game (and DMI system) still has a few bugs and tweaks to be worked out, so a full-on copy of the game would still generate some interested buyers (if there’s any interest at all) and the micro- might actually drum up some interest.
3) Games were made to be played, not kept in a dusty closet.
4) Stop being so f’ing paranoid already!

Anyway, people could already have “engineered” similar systems using the original (even BARER bones) version of DMI using the one-page micro- for Out of Time. Heck, maybe I should make MDR available, too.

So here’s the skinny: I had the chance to play-testLegendary Might (hereafter abbreviated LMZ…no, the Z doesn’t stand for anything, I just prefer a three-letter abbreviation) last Thursday at Gary’sGames in Greenwood. The three players (Greg, Kayce, and Will) seemed to have a good time with the game and (with a few tweaks from the prior week) were able to get through chargen and rules orientation, as well as accomplish some stuff(i.e. “beat up some bad guys”)…which is more than I got through in the prior week's game.

Yes, the players appeared to have fun and the game “worked”– that is, it appears to do all the things you’d expect a supers RPG to do –but for me (full disclosure time) I was dissatisfied. Not terribly, but dissatisfied nonetheless. And the reason for the dissatisfaction was that “justworking” isn’t good enough for me anymore. Most folks can work up some simple rules for an RPG (see Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, AKA “the most boring RPG ever written”)…but can they make it compelling?

I want my games to be f’ing compelling. I want people to be salivating at the mouth to play it again. Hell, forget other people; I want to be the one slavering to play the damn thing. And I just wasn’t “feelingit” at the end of the evening, despite a lot of good things happening in the session.

[full disclosure #2: my lack of enthusiasm might have been caused by several consecutive nights of less than 4 hours sleep, coupled with a long work day and a copious amount of alcohol]

But allow me to digress for a moment: it’s been several days since the play session, and I’ve had a chance to mull things over (not to mention catch up on my sleep) and I’ve come to a couple thoughts/theories.

Anyone remember a guy named Yellowjacket?

Henry “Hank” Pym is a Marvel superhero, one of the original founders of the Avengers super team (along with Iron Man, Thor, Hulk,and Pym’s wife, The Wasp). Like Iron Man, Pym is an inventor, though his specialties are more genetic engineering and electronics. His powers are derived from his inventions, including chemicals that allow for size shifting(growth and shrinking), and his specialization in insect research. He first came on the scene as Ant Man (having the ability to shrink and communicate with Ants using a cybernetic helmet), but then took on the persona of Giant Man(whose ability to grow big and strong was more about Pym’sinsecurities…comparing himself unfavorably to the likes of Thor and CaptainAmerica…then about the team needing yet another “strong man” type member).After, leaving and rejoining the group a couple times, Pym settled in his persona of “Yellowjacket,” whose only noteworthy abilities seem to be zapping opponents with a bio-electric sting, and being kind of a douche.

My first introduction to the Avengers as a child included Pym as Yellowjacket, and as a kid I thought he was pretty cool. I mean, he had a neat looking costume and he zapped people and he seemed kind of smart and,well, I don’t know he was just INTERESTING to me. Iron Man had kind of a tepid personality (in the Avengers comics), whereas Captain America was always so“goody two-shoes” (not to mention lacking real “superpowers”) and the Wasp…comeon, she shrinks? That’s just lame. Thor always had that stupid Winged hat and I just didn’t relate much to a “thunder god” at the time. Wonder Man was a coward. Tigra seemed worthless (a female replacement of the Beast who was also kind of a throwaway). Hawkeye was cool at first, but he came later (and lost his luster pretty quick).

I don’t know what it was, but I liked Yellowjacket. A lot!

But then as a (young) adult who had the opportunity to read the collected serials of my friends rather than a few scattered issues(not to mention the depth and breadth of history and information available to players of the Marvel Superheroes RPG…these days you can find info on the internet and Wikipedia, but back then RPGs were HUGE resources) I learned what a weenie Yellowjacket really was. Not just with regard to his personality: whiny , insecure, abusive, passive-aggressive, etc. No, as a SUPERHERO he’spretty lame. Tony Stark and even Hank McCoy (“the Beast”) are smarter/better inventors, he’s the weakest fighter of the group (with the possible exception of the Wasp), his size control is limited, unstable, and/or unavailable at any given point, and the extent of his insect control is pretty weak, too. He can’tfly, has no armor/forcefield, no super strength or agility; he seems clumsy and ineffectual in comparison to the other members of the Avengers. No wonder he has issues of inadequacy!

[his MSH stats are also pretty weak: his FASERIP scores are something like 60 total for physical/health and 50 or so for karma. That is totally weak sauce for any Marvel icon]

And then he does dumb-dumb, douchebag stuff: inventing Ultron (who becomes a crazy, indestructible super-villain) might be excusable,but then he puts together a robot menace to attack the Avengers so he can “saveeveryone” and redeem himself…and of course it backfires. What a dumb-dumb.

And it’s obvious that the rest of the universe has a degree of disdain (or apathy) for a character who should be an iconic member of the Marvel stratosphere. Pym’s the guy who gets left out of most (all?)Marvel-based video games, unless he’s showing up as some sort of NPC info-source; I don’t recall ever seeing Yellowjacket as a “playable character”in a video game format…he’d get his ass kicked even by “low-powered” characters like Daredevil. Hell, Misty Knight would probably bitch-slap him…and this is a founding Avenger!

However, having said all that, let me just say that these days I’ve come nearly full circle. No, if given a choice of Marvel characters to play I probably would NOT choose Yellowjacket. But once again I find the character to be both cool and compelling. I find myself looking up old Avengers comics I remember from my childhood, in part because I find Hank Pym to be such a fascinating character. I thought the“updated” version of Pym in the first couple ULTIMATES books was both interesting and dead-on in their presentation: self-serving and insecure, while wanting so desperately to be something more than he is. I mean, not everyonehas the abilities of Captain America or Thor and THAT’S OKAY. We all have our part to play in the real world…we’re all granted certain gifts to be used in this lifetime, and the more important question is HOW you use those gifts, notWHAT gifts you have. Fictional Hank Pym is someone who needs to learn that…andas with most REAL WORLD people, he has a hard time figuring it out. The Ultimates adapted long-running character arcs from the70s and 80s into a handful of issues to drive the point home without stringing out the soap opera.

[as I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of those initial two Ultimates series]

ANYWAY…why do I bring up Yellowjacket and what does the character have to do with my superhero game? Especially considering it is titled Legendary Might and Yellowjacket is anything but “legendary” (unlessyou’re talking about a legendary asshole)? Well, when considering what might be missing from my RPG that would make it truly “compelling” I considered what, if anything, made comic books compelling. I mean, besides the premise (people of our own times with phenomenal abilities), and the beautiful artwork, what is it about the stories that made for compulsory reading?

Because when you take your average comic serial of the Silver or Bronze age with an unbiased eye, the product (story-wise) isn’t great shakes. Every couple issues you have a new costumed villain to beat up. Often the villain has some advantage that must be overcome by the hero’s courage or ingenuity, but in the end the hero generally triumphs and the comic world returns to an idealistic state…until the next issue arrives. If this is ALL we had, even with clever plots and creatively sinister villains, the shtick would get old after a few story lines, REGARDLESS of the neat powers a superhero might exhibit. And some comics DO get old after a few issues (some more, some less), feeling tedious and tired, regardless of the pretty pictures. The conclusion I came to (when mulling this over this weekend) is there’s only ONE thing that can consistently make a hero or serial compelling:

The human element.

And no, I am NOT referring to a character’s human frailty, flaws, and weaknesses (Ha! You thought I was going THERE didn’t you?After all that talk about Yellowjacket’s character flaws). No, whether or not Spiderman is broke, or Tony Stark is an alcoholic, or Yellow Jacket is, well,Yellowjacket…all of that is throwaway character color. I mean, a weakness of that type is an ASPECT of the character (like Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite), but in and of itself it doesn’t make a character (or a story)COMPELLING. In a vacuum it may be interesting (or depressing) but so is a guy who shoots fire or grows claws…frailty by itself is not enough.

[to be continued]

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ashen Stars – Indie Space Opera

[this post was written up back in..what…early November? Maybe late October. Though it may not be entirely timely, I know SOME folks are tired of reading superhero discussions…I thereby offer this up as “new content” for the blog]

You know why people are crying out for space opera RPGs? Because in the imaginary fantasy world of space opera, all your child care needs are as simple as handing off your child to your portable android while you and the wife are busy flying the rocket ship or fighting the forces of the villainous emperor or making sure the color of your capes match that of your ever-charged ray guns.


At least I live in a day and age where my ability to eat is not based on my personal ability to cultivate crops or hunt the local wildlife.

Ah, well…so in looking over my recent posts, I see I STILL haven’t finished my “Benjamins” series, nor even yet posted my “offensive post” (exactly 1500 words in length and only about half finished…ugh!). And yet here I am with an urge to discuss my latest RPG acquisition and the points of interest are directly related to these (un-posted) topics. What O What is one to do in this kind of situation.

Press on, I guess.

Ashen Stars is yet another GUMSHOE system RPG, this one written by Robin D. Laws and featuring a space opera setting that is about as space opera as space opera gets…in the old school, serial series sense of the phrase. I know I’ve talked GUMSHOE before (Mutant City Blues, Trail of Cthulhu, etc.), largely heaping it with praise and when I first saw Pelgrane’s space opera offering a few months back I immediately wanted it…until I remembered that I’ve yet to play a single one of these excellent, excellent games.

Here’s the problem: I’m the only person I know that actually owns these games. Which means that if I want to play one, I’ll probably be the one introducing it and running it for folks. And in addition to the normal headache of trying to interest non-interested parties in learning a new RPG system (let alone getting them fired up and enthusiastic) investigation-type role-playing really isn’t my thing. I like fantasy adventure, not mystery solving. I suppose I’d be much more comfortable PLAYING such a game (as a player myself) as opposed to running it…but there again I have the issue of being the only person I know who even owns these books.

In other words, the usual issue. 

Whatever…this isn’t just a woe-is-me post (really!); I’m simply explaining my reservations at buying yet another GUMSHOE game. But Laws and Kenneth Hite (the other main GUMSHOE designer) are excellent at what they do and usually good for both insight and inspiration (not to mention good reads) AND space opera has been my flavor-of-the-month for awhile now and I’m trying to get my hands on as many different games of the genre as I can find. So when Diego and I were in the game shop a couple days ago with a little extra money, we picked up a copy (D really liked the pictures). My first impression?


Laws doesn’t disappoint. Well, actually, he does disappoint (we’ll get to that in a moment) but his entry into the space opera genre of RPG is one of the best I’ve seen. I mean it’s really got some good stuff going on, and I’m not just talking about the artwork and layout and writing (though those bits are pretty good, too).

[just by the way, did WotC ever carry an original SciFi setting for D20? I know they did Star Wars, and I seem to recall a D20 Future game, but was there ever anything more “space opera” specific? Just wondering…having had my fill of D20 I sincerely doubt I’d ever buy such a thing; it’s a question of curiosity]

Laws, like Bezio, takes a lot of the same design tactics I was using myself when attempting to design a space opera RPG…in fact, if you were to remove the unique settings and splice Ashen Stars together with X-Plorers, you’d have a (very) rough approximation of the direction I was going, pre-DMI. My problem, though, was in my attempts to “pull it all together,” and the way both Mr. Bezio and Mr. Laws manages to do so is by adding specific space opera settings to their games, something I was extremely loathe to do (I was shooting for a more “generic” space game with an “add setting to taste” sensibility…in the end it hamstrung my efforts).

This is actually something that would make sense more (to my readers) if I’d bothered to do the original posts on Action/Reaction and Benjamins/Motivation. I know, I know…cryptic references to un-published blog posts really don’t really help explain anything, but without going into to great of detail:
  • Player behavior can be self-motivated or GM motivated
  • Self-motivation is better but requires tricky game design
  • A strong theme can keep players on the same page
  • Most games take this shit for granted
Prior blog topics regarding “reward systems influence behavior” can all be filed as a sub-heading under this very broad category of discussion. The fact that I haven’t (yet) been able to pound it out should tell you something of the slipperiness of the subject matter.

But MEANWHILE let’s just grapple with Ashen Stars; here’s the basic premise:

  1. The setting is a multi-(alien)-culture galactic quadrant that is a few years removed from an interstellar war (THIS, by the way is new…I usually classify space opera in three ages: Golden Age, Age of Corruption, and Age of Strife (war). What Laws does is find a fourth stage to the cyclical space opera paradigm following Strife but precursor-ing the new Golden Age…call it an Age of Reconstruction).
  2. Characters are all members of the LASER profession: highly competent individuals acting in a capacity of mercenary troubleshooters/detectives/peacekeepers in the absence of strong government/law enforcement due to the aforementioned war.
  3. The PCs are all members of the same ship crew. PCs pick their ship and customize it, then have to upkeep it by accepting and fulfilling contracts (“missions”). Most normal GUMSHOE procedures regarding investigation and task resolution applies.
  4. Characters main driving motivation is one of Reputation: being successful LASERS and handling things in an altruistic or heroic fashion increase their Rep while being scumbuckets (acting in selfish or homicidal fashion) will lower Rep. Having a low rep means time between lucrative contracts is increased, meaning characters can run low on money and fail in the upkeep of their ship and equipment leading to a reduction in their personal (and ship) capabilities.

And if they stopped right there that would be a good enough AND cool enough game. However, in emulation of the genre (especially such serial shipboard trouble-shooting TV shows as Star Trek or Firefly), Mr. Laws oversteps in his design process, with (to my mind) nonsensical results.

[by the way, there’s a lot of other neat stuff I’m leaving out: like the various races/species, the classifications of lifeforms, the various cyber-enhancements, etc. all of which are cool and well-thought out and neater-than-your-average-inside-the-box-RPG. But those things aren’t pertinent to this discussion. However, I’d strongly recommend purchasing or thumbing through a copy if you’re into “cooler-than-usual” space opera weirdness. Lots of stuff worth stealing for your own game even if you don’t want to play in the world of Ashen Stars]

The over-stepping is with regard to Drives and “arcs” (both story and personal) which are “personality mechanics” even less useful than “alignment” in a standard D&D game. And I’m talking about usefulness with regard to mechanics and effective game design.

The funny part is I went through the exact same thought process with my last couple games, especially with my space opera game. Hell, I even called these character motivations “drives” in my game, too…and while mine were based on Jungian (astrological) archetypes, I still ended up with a lot of the same ones (duh…there’s a reason they’re archetypes). However, while mine have mechanical effect (and fail to work in practice), Laws’s Drives have almost ZERO mechanical effect…and appear to fail in practice.

[I say “appear to fail” because I haven’t played the game, but the principles seem to be in place for a failure…or at least for an extraneous system that adds little to the game]

[hmm…I’m not a very nice critic, just reading back over what I wrote. I’m not even in a bad mood or anything!]

By not providing game mechanics (i.e. a system) that describes how the mechanics impact the game you end up with little more than useless “color.” Oh sure, the author describes how the GM should take these drives and arcs into account when shaping a story, and how players should pay attention to them when determining behavior…but nothing in the rules COMPELS participants to pay any attention to such things, and nothing INCENTIVIZES participants either.

And if there’s nothing compulsory and no incentive then, um, why do I care?

Now I don’t think Laws includes this information just to “pad” the word count or something, nor simply as a writing exercise/practice. My guess is that his idea was (by including drives as a part of the chargen process) to try to draw players’ minds deeper into the role-playing “immersion experience;” something that is either unnecessary (because your players are already on-board with developing characters) or a waste of time (because players are NOT on-board and the whole idea is unenforceable within the rules).

I mean, alignment in D&D has some consequences of behavioral compulsion…specific alignments are required for some classes and the use of some magic items, and some characters run the risk of loss of class effectiveness for failure to follow their alignment (not to mention XP loss suggestions given in the DMG for alignment violations). Even though it matters little whether or not a fighter is Lawful or Chaotic (with the possible exception of picking up an intelligent sword), it still has SOME enforceable game effects.

“Okay, okay, JB,” I already hear some of you yelling. “We get it! You don’t like it! So what? If it has no mechanical effect on the game, just ignore it and play the game without it. The rest of the rules work, right?” Well, sure, I guess they do. But here’s the thing:

I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. Laws’s motivations for including it at all is a mystery to me…and I’m afraid I’m missing something here.

I own several of these GUMSHOE products, and I don’t recall seeing something like this in any of the previous books. They’re not necessary…the setting provides all the motivation you need! In Trail of Cthulhu the PCs are investigating weird Cthulhu happenings, and work as a team to do so. In Mutant City Blues the PCs are members of a (super-powered) police force trying to solve cases and keep the streets clean (and work together to do so).

In Ashen Stars, characters are all members of the same LASER crew, on the same ship, taking contracts and making money. They already have incentive to work together (completing missions) and doing things in a particular (heroic) fashion: the Reputation mechanic, which affects the monies received which affects the team’s ability to perform maintenance and upkeep which affects the crew’s effectiveness (if you can’t keep up your ship, rules-wise it starts to deteriorate) which affects the ease with which you complete missions. What did Laws find (in play-testing or the design process) that made him think it was necessary to include this aspect of the game? Is it a gross over-sight? Laws seems too good a designer for that to be the case. Did he find players would lack the proper motivation without drives? Was there something particular that “bugged” without a named character “arc” for each PC?

It confuses me and muddles things (for me) putting a damper on an otherwise excellent game. 

[I do also have some gripes with the STARSHIP COMBAT mechanics…which I have described in an earlier post…but those gripes aren’t with principle design tact taken so much as the EXECUTION of that tact; but like I said I already wrote about that]

All right, that’s enough of that…since picking up Ashen Stars (and writing the bulk of this document), I’ve since nearly completed my own space opera supplement for Bezio’s X-Plorers AND drafted the basic core of a DMI Supers game AND moved onto other things, none of which are GUMSHOE related. I really don’t want to beat up on the book; I just think it might be a little misguided in including “too much” (something I’ve been guilty of on occasion myself).

You know, one of these days someone will come out with and RPG that deals solely with the interaction of different personalities in a cloistered environment…like a spaceship or a submarine. It IS one of the more interesting aspects/dynamics you find…in film and fiction anyway…and a lot of RPGs simply take it for granted that such “interesting group dynamics” will spontaneously develop. And they do…but without some direction, some “help,” from the game mechanics/design it’s going to be kind of happenstance how it happens. And maybe THAT’s what Laws was aiming to do, but I think the execution of it was less-than-adequate (to be charitable).

Incidentally, Kayce (who will be joining the play-test tonight) has been running Bulldogs! recently, a FATE-based space opera RPG which I do not own. For her, the most interesting part of the game has been the interaction between the various PC crewmembers and their drunken oaf of a captain. But I’m not so sure that interaction was intended to be the EMPHASIS of the game (hard to say without reading the rules)…it’s just developed that way due to the disparate personalities of the players. But that’s the thing…you can’t count on your players always stepping up to that particular plate (and sometimes, you might not want them to!)!
: )

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Need to Achieve

Something in Luke/Fumer’s comment on this morning's post really struck me. He wrote:
I never liked superheroes, especially for RPGs. There’s no inherent power curve in the genre, like fantasy’s peasant-to-hero arc.
Leaving aside discussions on contrary examples (Mutants & Masterminds has a definite “level up” design principle while fantasy games like Stormbringer and Barbarians of Lemuria have made a real push to distance themselves from the D&D paradigm)…leaving ASIDE those discussions, my first reaction to this is “Huh? THAT's the issue?!”

Because if I’m reading this correctly (and Luke can jump in here if I’m off base), it seems like he’s saying there’s a real problem with adapting the superhero genre to the RPG medium because traditionally comic book characters are fairly static in their power structure. A character may be Green Arrow (relatively low power) or the Silver Surfer (off-the-charts power) with little rhyme/reason as to why there’s such a great discrepancy (other than it makes for different styles/types of stories), and there’s little dynamic change in terms of growth/development that occurs. In other words, Peter Parker will never someday become Thor just because he’s had 400 issues worth of adventures.

Um…is achievement a requirement of fantasy RPGs?

I suppose the snarky answer from some quarters would be: It is of the good games. But personally I don’t buy that.

I’ve run and run in long-term Marvel Superheroes games in the past, and with good results. Now Marvel is pretty much the LAST game you want to play if your main interest in an RPG is “achievement.” Unlike say, Heroes Unlimited with its XP/Level based system, the only reward from session to session achieved is “karma,” a dynamic resource that varies based on both the type of action taken (good or bad) and the magnitude of that action. The value earned during a game session can even be NEGATIVE, causing you to face a net loss to your personal karma pool due to your cowardly or infamous (i.e. “un-heroic”) actions. Should your hero actually kill or cause the death of someone in the course of the game session, your character loses ALL accumulated karma. This is especially devastating when you consider the only way to “advance” in Marvel (improve your abilities/powers) is to expend your hoarded karma points…usually in the hundreds or THOUSANDS of points (and acquiring more than a couple hundred karma in a single session is a fairly rare and momentous occurrence).

But as I said, we ran long term marvel campaigns, using recurring characters over a series of different adventures and had a great time doing it. I don’t think ANY of the characters ever “achieved” anything as far as advancement goes…the rate of improvement is just glacially slow, especially if your characters are already high on the food chain of superheroes. But achievement wasn’t the point…the POINT was to run a campaign of superheroes in a world filled with the same whimsy and weirdness as your average Marvel or DC comic title (we didn’t actually use the Marvel characters, preferring to create our own villains/heroes…the X-Men might have been present in our universe, but they were “off-screen” the entire time). And we accomplished that with flying colors, facing super-villain teams and angry deities and voodoo magic and cyborgs that looked like Robocop but carried an attitude like the Terminator. We had pointy-eared aliens in fishnet stockings and Wolverine-wannabes and sentient carrots and rocks (all thanks to the Marvel Ultimate Powers book). There was some drama and romance and lots of unrelenting ass-kicking with plenty of stuns and slams and people getting punched through walls and getting knocked several city blocks back.

[ I think there was an Eternal that could turn people into jellyfish (or jelly sandwiches…that part’s a bit hazy)]

The point was to have plenty of dynamic fun, and achievement played very little part in it. Achieving “levels” does not suddenly open up new areas of exploration…all areas of exploration are open from the beginning. The chance of death and dismemberment doesn’t change from a beginning character to an “advanced” one…challenge is always present and you always have a chance to face it down…provided you and your compatriots keep your karma pools stocked up and ready.

Because so many of us got into role-playing through the gateway of Dungeons & Dragons (or RPGs that were heavily influenced by D&D’s achievement paradigm), there’s a common perception that achievement or advancement or “getting better” is or needs to be an inherent part of the game. But that’s a real fallacy of thinking…I mean, you need to understand where the whole concept came from.

In the beginning there was Chainmail and Dave Arneson’s desire to run a fantasy dungeon delve. Chainmail is a war game, similar to Warhammer: you pick out your forces, each piece or unit being worth a certain number of points. There are soldiers with various armor types and weapons, and there are some “special types” including heroes and superheroes (worth 4 fighting men or 8 fighting men respectively) as well as monsters of a (Tolkien) fantasy nature.

When Arneson was running his exploration/subterranean campaign he needed a system of rules to work out the results of combat between the players and the monsters encountered beneath Castle Blackmoor. All characters used the simple man-to-man combat rules found in Chainmail (based on weapon and armor type) to determine the results of combat. Later, based on the actions taken (and surprising success) of one particular player, Dave decided to promote the player’s character to “hero” status, giving him the fighting ability of the “hero” piece from Chainmail.

As I've discussed before, by Arneson’s own admission achievement/advancement was never the intention of his original dungeon campaign; advancement was tacked on (with good result) only AFTER players had been exploring the ruins beneath Blackmoor for some time and had become attached to their characters. The objective of game play was simply for characters to acquire treasure; the point of his game was to play the game: a game of fantasy exploration. Period, end of story.

Does this make sense? I mean, do people really grok this? Let’s put it another way: a man designs a game of exploration into a dark and hostile environment. The characters the players will play will face “death itself” in the form of fiendish traps and hungry monsters. What would motivate such an individual to do this? MONEY…that greatest motivator of all. The possibility of making a fortune, of becoming rich (by whatever your relative standards are) will compel individuals to do all sorts of crazy things…work long hours forsaking family and loved ones, embarrass themselves on reality TV, take tremendous punishment on a football field or in a boxing ring, betray the ethics and principles they were raised to believe. The promise of wealth will compel people of different backgrounds and personalities to work together towards a common cause.

[which is part of the reason why the paladin class…with its total disdain of wealth…makes so little sense with regard to the premise of the Dungeons & Dragons game]

Treasure hunting is the in-game justification for the player characters’ actions in D&D…at least originally. Not achievement or advancement or “leveling up.” Those things (and land titles, etc.) were a BONUS, a reward for doing what they were supposed to. It’s only the last 12 years that have seen the erasure of this justification (with the de-emphasis on treasure acquisition).

A superhero game should be viewed and approached with the same spirit Arneson originally had for his Blackmoor campaign, at least in so much as Blackmoor had no expectation of achievement. Playing a superhero game is about exploring the life of a person with gifts not given to average mortals…even if those gifts are nothing more than the courage and conviction in one’s belief in fighting for Truth, Justice, etc. ACHIEVEMENT (if even possible) should be a secondary consideration.

After all, does the tide of justice ever, finally, sweep aside the evil and corruption of those who would prey on the weak and vulnerable? Well, we can certainly hope for that to happen in the REAL WORLD…but in the game world, curing the world of all its woes would mean ending the game (and the fun we’d presumably be having by playing). Instead of reaching some end point, the general consensus for such a game would be for players to “fight the good fight,” doing what they could, before hanging up their cape and cowl…or passing over the mask to the next generation of heroes when the time comes.

Now, if you don’t think it would be enjoyable to play a game where you (or rather, your character) has super powers and faces off against the Forces of Darkness, then you should probably be playing a different game anyway. But if you DO like the idea…well, then, why do you need any sort of achievement to be inherent in the game? You have enough to worry about, stopping the nefarious machinations of Doctor Doom or the Riddler (or whomever) without any bother with regard to advancement or improvement or “leveling up.” In my opinion.

Now regarding the other possible beef raised by Luke…namely, the wide disparity of power ranges between, say Daredevil and Superman…well, honestly, that’s one of the things I love about the genre. Intellectually, it’s pretty ridiculous for Captain America to be leading the likes of Iron Man and Thor (sure Cap is a war hero, but Thor’s been THE go-to warrior god for centuries! You don’t think he knows tactics?)…but it sure makes for great copy!

Of course, you have to account for this in your game design. If you don’t, then what happens when Dazzler gets punched by, O say, anyone with a strength class equal to or greater than Spiderman…for example, and single member of the otherwise “wussy” Wrecking Crew? Answer: One dead Dazzler, that’s what. A person with the ability to punch a (small) hole in a tank will inflict devastating injury on any character not made more durable due to their superpowers. Batman, for example. One lucky punch will quite literally “knock his block off.” You want to see the original caped crusader decapitated by the likes of Bulldozer? A guy who Spiderman one-shots without batting an eye?

[by the way, if you DO want to model that kind of super world, you’ll want to direct your attention to Heroes Unlimited…though you might want to divide SDC totals by a factor of five or ten]

In the superhero world, “fortuitous circumstance” tends to conspire to keep the more squishy heroes breathing, and when modeling that world (especially due to the disparate power level between characters), you’ll want to make sure there’s something present that provides that same “safety net.” Or at least, provides the option for folks who like that kind of thing. That, too, is part of the fun. In my opinion.

Bumblebee Boy

Welp, finished up my Supers one-sheet micro-game and am considering uploading it to Ye Old MediaFire for wholesale download by the masses. In fact, I might as well since games are meant to be played and yadda-yadda-yadda.

The only thing that brings out my paranoia is my proprietary DMI system being so blatantly present in the one-sheet. On the other hand, who cares?

And really, who does? It seems like a lot of folks (including several regular role-players I know and with whom I game) are not big fans of the superhero genre...for a variety of reasons. Me...well, I grew up taking long road trips with my family before there was such a thing as laptop computers and portable DVD players: the parents would simply buy a bunch of random comics and toss 'em in the backseat with my brother and I, and we'd read them all the way to Montana, thrilling to the likes of Daredevil and Ghost Rider and The Avengers.

Last night, my two year old son was running around the house wearing a cape and pretending to be a superhero. Why? Not because of his weirdo papa or his games or comics or superhero DVDs (all of which are kept well out of reach...Star Wars and show tunes are enough "bad influence" from the Old Man). Nope...the nanny took him to the library yesterday and he came back with a a big picture book called The Amazing Adventures of Bumblebee Boy, a story about a young boy dressing up as a superhero and being pestered by his younger brother until he finally relents and adopts the munchkin as his heroic sidekick. It's a cute book filled with the fun of make believe and echoing the experience of older brother childhoods all over the world.

Anyway, D wanted a cape so he could be "Bumble-Boy," too. I tend to be indulgent when my child shows interest in my own interests.

But my boy is not your average 20-something gamer (he's got a couple decades to go) and to a lot of younger folks who didn't grow up with the Silver Age (or even Bronze Age) of superhero comics they really don't get what all the fuss is about. The movies might make pleasant diversions (or not) but their initial point of reference is more likely to be a cartoon than a comic...the former of which I find to be a pale knock-off of the original medium, nice voice acting or not.

So anyway, just in case I haven't mentioned it, I AM working on a supers RPG for which this micro-game provides a nice little abstract. And the full-blooded RPG already has more that a few pages written for it, though it's far from complete. Here's a couple paragraphs culled from the introduction of the full RPG that (I hope) kind of sums up my reason for bothering to spend time designing a game for this tired genre:

Why Superheroes? 
Fantasy role-playing games exist in a variety of genres including swords & sorcery, super spies, and science fiction. All these games allow players to enjoy the fantasy escape of pretending to be someone different from ourselves, and to experience adventures from the safety and comfort of our gaming table. People in real life don’t get the opportunity to explore strange planets or fight monsters with spell and axe or single-handedly end the Cold War with the help of a few James Bond-style gadgets; role-playing games allow us to do these things, at least in our imagination.
In some ways, playing a superhero is the ultimate in wish fulfillment fantasy. The superhero genre doesn’t take place in a faraway galaxy or some Ancient Time inhabited by dragons…it takes place in the here and now of the 21st century. And the powers available to superheroes…winged flight or super strength or magical might or incredible inventions or whatever…are limited only by one’s imagination. Comic books provide a huge range of diversity, from aliens to playboy millionaires to sorcerers to living plants to mutants to demigods to super-soldiers to robots, all interacting with the normal folks walking the streets of Any Town, USA.
That’s pretty cool.
In addition, people familiar with the comic book genre know that much of the game revolves around fighting foes and villains that no one else can; adversaries that will, left unchecked, run roughshod over everything good people hold dear: life and love, truth and justice, public and private property. It is the responsibility of superheroes to provide that check on the Forces of Darkness…and in general that means going out and kicking ass. In real life, the problems of the world – poverty, exploitation, tragedy, natural disaster – can’t be solved with a punch in the mouth. Pretending to be superheroes can, at least for an evening’s play, allow us to imagine a world where problems are so easily solved.
And that’s pretty cool, too.
Look, I am fully aware that designing superhero games...especially a game not based on the intellectual property (and built in fan-base) of an established comic book a pretty lost cause. Table-top RPGs themselves are already a niche market, and a "generic hero" game is going to be two stages more "niche" than that. But I find I just cannot help myself sometimes. Just let me at least put together something that I can finally say satisfies my personal biases and design sensibilities; let me just do that and then I can stop messing around with the thing altogether. And I'll go back to working out the details of D&D Mine (something I hope to be writing more about later this week, by the way).

Play-testing is going down on Thursday. Depending on how things go, I'll have something available for public consumption shortly thereafter. We'll see if it's working.

[just BTW, Blogger tells me this is post #1313, which is of numerological me, anyway]

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ruins of the Undercity

The new micro-game is coming along swimmingly...usually, I can knock one out in a day, but I didn't have as much time to work on it Friday as I wanted, and my entire weekend was taken up with Good Ol' Family Time (Happy Birthday, D!)...and the problem with doing a one-page Supers game is figuring out how (or if) to list a good enough slate of powers.

Anyhoo, right now I'm taking a break from that because, well, because I've got other projects on my mind. Several have been bouncing around the cranial sphere of late (i.e. the last year) with progress occurring on 1st one, then another, then a third...often with results that end up causing me to go back and modify (or even re-write) an earlier project. Not necessarily because I'm "wishy-washy" (though I admit that may be part of it) but because my thought on game design continues to evolve.

Recently, I've been rethinking about delving back into D&D Mine...something that's been on-hold since I started bouncing around the three-way triangle of dinosaur pulp-space opera-superhero fantasy games I've been working. I just haven't been in much of a "D&D mood" of late for a number of reasons, two of which are:

- my growing dissatisfaction with even B/X D&D (leading me to write D&D Mine), and
- the lack of a rule set that can do what I want it to do

The latter of which is one of those terrible circular traps: I'm out of the mood of writing D&D because I'm frustrated with the lack of a good rule set for D&D because I haven't completed the writing of my own rule set for D&D because I'm out of the mood of writing D&D. See what I mean?

In fact, I just spent an hour or so blowing off steam on the subject with an employee at the local game shop...which sucks for my readers, of course, because (having already vented my thoughts out loud) I have little left to write on the subject.

But PRIOR to that, I did take the time to read a game supplement someone has recently published and sent me requesting a review. That someone is Kabuki Kaiser and that supplement is Ruins of the Undercity. While I am generally slow at getting to (and often less-than-complimentary) this kind of thing, I've decided to make an exception and say a few words on the book...possibly to avoid making a decision on what other writing I should be pursuing at the moment.

Ruins of the Undercity is compatible with Labyrinth Lord (the B/X-retroclone) and provides a Random DM-less  Dungeon Generator for One Player or More. It does this mainly by adapting the old random dungeon generation rules from Gygax's 1st edition DMG, putting them in a specific game world/setting and updating them to be both LL friendly and compatible. Those of you who, like me, owned the old DMG and used the random dungeon generator for solo play on days when you didn't have your regular game group available and couldn't get enough D&D will remember those old random tables generating quirky maps with twisting corridors and ill-fitting and strangely shaped rooms. I'm not really interested in talking about THAT part of the may be done fine or not, but it's not terribly original (save that Kaiser adds additional random town tables for both before and after a delve). Instead, I want to talk a bit about the setting specific stuff.

Actually, let me back up a bit...I want to talk about D&D Mine first. Those of you who recall me blogging about that project (5 or 6 months back) will recall I was having some frustration with reconciling the fantasy setting with the basic tenets of D&D, namely how to to reconcile the background setting (an ancient Arabia/Persia setting) with the basic conceit of the game (going into holes looking for treasure). Or perhaps you DON'T remember, because perhaps I never got around to discussing it. Well, suffice is to say it WAS frustrating for me...D&D in its most basic (i.e. primordial) form...doesn't do well with the idea of wandering free-booting adventures because it's original incarnation (after Chainmail) was with the static delve site of Arneson's Blackmoor. And Gygax's Greyhawk. And whatever-it-is Rob Kuntz called his basic mega-dungeon. The rules and regulations, the mechanic limitations of the game, were created for a particular type of exploration...and don't work as well once you pull the PCs out of the dungeon and start expanding their "fantasy world." Since the time players got bored with the initial premise and started looking "outside the box" designers (both the Founding Fathers and their descendant designers) have been tweaking and adjusting and modifying trying to find away to "make it work;" the subsequent evolution of the game has done some good things and many, many bad things ever since.

[that is REALLY abstract and over-simplified, but it's not the point of the post and I just want to get on with it, not rehash earlier blog thoughts]

In the end, I figured the only way to do my D&D Mine in a way that even VAGUELY resembled D&D (and still make sense) was to factor a similar "ancient mega-dungeon" into the game's Arabian Nights inspired fiction containing both the post-Islam Bagdad and the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. And the way to do that would be to set everything in  one huge and fabulous city of ancient origin (like Sinbad's Bagdad) built upon the site of an earlier ancient and awful (and necromantic) ruin and city. GMs would still have full leeway to design the dungeon (entrances would be dotted all about the town), but would have justification for the adventuring action of professional treasure seekers. It wasn't what I had initially wanted, but it would be a possible "out" for me.

Still it was frustrating, and I never got around to writing it up, instead adapting old AD&D modules (like Dwellers of the Forbidden City) to the new game rules for play-testing. Figured I'd finish making sure things worked before bothering to write up the setting.

So now we return to Ruins of the Undercity, which basically beats me to the punch.

The premise of RotUC is remarkably similar to my own Big Fat ancient and huge city, built upon the ruined heap of an older, more ancient ruin, providing all the "home base" stuff up top (not to mention places to work one's standard D&D endgame scenarios) with a huge "adventure complex" (to be randomly generated) underneath. RotUC also has a similar "flavor" to it, skipping the more Western Europe flavored monsters in exchange for something more Middle Eastern or east Indian (love-love-love the magic turbans). Even leaving out the random dungeon generation stuff (and rules for "solo play") it's a tasty game setting, and one I wouldn't mind stealing from...absolutely adored the "lich thieves" (though their metal masks was a little to Frank Miller 300 for my taste).

A lot of his monsters (Kaiser provides a fairly fat bestiary) are recognizably cribbed from the Fiend Folio, though it would appear he only took his favorite ones that might do well in the setting (two thumbs up from moi). He adds a few of his own, setting-specific ones, however, and is happy to change the modify the original FF critters to suit his purpose...he also provides combat tactic lists for the non-straightforward monsters (the better to use them in solo play; very serviceable), which is a nice little default to have on-hand.

However, there's nothing absolutely special about the first 64 pages of the book...most anyone with a Fiend Folio and DMG could come up with something similar (including the random town events) with a little mental effort and the time and energy to put it all together (most anyone could do it, but I haven't seen it in such a nice little compilation before; it makes for a good supplement/setting book). What IS impressive (to me) was what came AFTER those first 64 pages, specifically the Appendix A with regard to campaign play, specifically with regard to a codified system of personal objectives for player characters. Long term game goals is something I like to see (and encourage) in my players, but it's something I rarely encounter: most players are too busy learning the game rules, are trying to stay alive or finding gold coins to bother thinking about such things. Kaiser puts together a specific list of high level goals (many of which can be accomplished prior to achieving Name level) for adventurers, as well as the specific mechanics required for accomplishing these objectives. Some examples include: becoming a high priest of the city's patron deity (available even to non-clerics), becoming a member of the city council or even the city's ruler, founding or taking control of a guild house, becoming a city folk hero, achieving immortality through undeath, or wedding a king/queen in a distant country. All of these are cool and will appeal to different personalities (and might evolve out of random events); some PCs might accomplish multiple long-term objectives (I don't think any are mutually exclusive) and they all provide role-playing rewards outside the normal D&D "box" without breaking the D&D game system. That's cool and new and I wish I'd thought to do it first.

[well, I HAVE thought of similar goals/objectives, but I haven't codified them like Kaiser has; and certainly not in such a way that they work directly with the campaign setting for which he's created them]

So that was cool. Coupled with the nice game setting, the sensible monster lists, and some out-o-the-box magic items (fairly pulp fantasy stuff with good and bad benefits of the kind usual to folklore and NOT found in modern D&D editions) this is a nice little book to pick up and run a campaign. The random dungeon creation and solo play rules are fine, but nothing I'd proclaim as a reason for getting the game (my days of solo gaming are long behind me...I don't have time for that anymore!). I did like the random town events (easy to use and more sensible than a lot of the tables I've seen on the internet the last couple years), and Ruins of the Undercity is probably something I would use...if I hadn't already decided to re-write the rules of D&D to my own personal purposes.

But I'll certainly be checking out parts of RotUC if and when I ever get back to finishing up my version of D&D Mine...especially the rules in aforementioned Appendix A.

[Ruins of the Undercity available for purchase here]

Friday, January 18, 2013

Missing the Mark

I’m feeling the need for a new micro-game.

[we’ll come back to that in a second]

How O How did I miss the new television show featuring one of my all-time favorite superheroes? That would be Green Arrow, about whomI've blogged before. The new TV program is called ARROW (duh) and is running on the CW (I thought that was the Country-Western channel?), but I couldn’t tell you when it normally airs because I am the parent of a small child…unless shows are running late at night, I’m generally only watching them “On Demand.”

So having newly discovered Arrow, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the shows I’ve missed. It’s not awful (which I feared) and certainly a step up from The Cape…has kind of a J.J. Abram’s feel to it (what with the flashbacks and the mysterious past/hidden agendas and the castaway-island-weirdness stuff) which is generally a good thing, if not terribly original. On the other hand, the casting for Oliver Queen just seems so YOUNG. Though I suppose the idea of the older gentleman, play-boy (read: creepy chauvinist-womanizer) doesn’t work as well in the 21st century as it might have in the 1960s (see Mad Men). The reinvented Queen is a young Hollywood in the tabloid style of today’s n’er-do-wells (see Paris Hilton, Jack Osborne, etc. for examples).

My how the world turns.

I also like the Longbow Hunters-style archery (of course) and the reinvented “Speedy” (Queen’s crank-snorting younger sister in this show…ha!)…and the hood, too. Warms my heart, it does. I’m not too keen on the green leather jumpsuit and the romantic interest looks like she belongs on one of those WB shows…but otherwise, it’s enjoyable throwaway action-TV and really has some potential to go to some of the dark places worthy of Green Arrow (as opposed to simplistic PSA-style, “One To Grow On” moralizing).

[“Speedy” = crank addict. Ha! Every time I think of it, makes me chuckle]

You know, it’s funny (interesting)…I know there’s a lot about Green Arrow that echoes the Batman character, which isn’t all that surprising as they’re both knock-offs of Zorro (invented 20 years before Batman, thank you very much)…wealthy socialites during the day and grim masked men of justice at night. The secret hide-outs, the gadgets, the M.O., the sidekick, the character-themed vehicles, the acrobatics, etc. all make them seem like mirror image characters, other than the color of their costumes.

However, it’s the minute differences of personality that (for me) makes all the difference in the world, catapulting one onto my Top 5 or Top 3 all-time list. And no, it’s not just the fact that GA has the beard and uses a bow instead of a Batarang. I mean, let’s just draw the clear distinction right here and now:

[and, yes, this will get back to gaming in a moment, really…]

Batman IS an interesting character…as a child I read his comics, watched the old Adam West show, saw the cartoons, saw that first Michael Keaton movie a dozen times or so, and own all the Christian Bale films (for whatever reason, I never got around to watching the in-between films). I owned the whole Jason Todd/Death in the Family series at one point, as well as the Frank Miller post-apoc Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. I like Batman, but after mashing all these sources together, here’s how I see Batman (minus the ninja training):

-          A man with a keen, detective mind; armed with gadgetry purchased by wealth; driven by a childhood trauma, but with an unshakeable resolve regarding preservation of life even with his relentless pursuit of justice.

Compared to Green Arrow who is:

-          A man with the hunting skills developed from his castaway experience; driven by a desire for social justice forged in the years of isolation and contemplation; owing more to the Law of the Wild than the Kantian philosophy of Batman (the issue of wealth and gadgetry varies depending on the GA series/portrayal).

Leave aside the fighting ability both characters possess: “Who’s a better fighter” is a pretty moot point in comic books (and their ilk) when nearly all (male) characters are scrappy and fight-worthy and have as much brawling power as is necessary for the story/plot at hand. Instead look at three things:

  1. What motivates the character (origin of their heroic impetus)
  2. What is the character’s method (power that sets character apart)
  3. What is the line the character won’t cross (self-imposed limitation)

The last is perhaps the MOST important part of a superhero…at least one that is well developed…because while folks are always quoting the “with Great Power comes Great Responsibility” line from Spiderman, the unsaid part about being greater than other mortals is “with Great Power comes Great Temptation.” The question is important because without a line, nothing stops the character from using their abilities for selfish and self-aggrandizing purposes. Doing THAT drops the character from the ranks of what we call “heroes.”

For example: Nothing physically stops the She-Hulk from intimidating the hell out of normal people (she might do so on occasion for a laugh, or because she’s annoyed with someone, but generally she attempts to put people at ease despite her strength and power). Nothing stops Steve Rogers from pursuing a lucrative career as an underwear model and living a life of debauchery with fame and fortune. Nothing prevents Spiderman from becoming the world’s greatest cat-burglar or from Reed Richards using his scratch-built spacecraft to ferry the rich and famous into orbit for a hefty fee.

But the threshold of self-imposed limitation varies from character to character. She-Hulk MIGHT intimidate someone for amusement, but Superman would not despite having the same (or greater) power…at least not while in uniform. Spiderman will happily knock the teeth out of some mugger in a dark alley, but he generally stops short of psychologically scarring and inflicting mental torture on an individual like the Batman will. The line a hero won’t cross comes to define the character as much or more so than anything else…compare Wolverine to his fellow X-Men in the 1980s as a stand-out example.

And while Batman is all about inflicting fear and terror and rough justice on the street criminal, his own code of ethics stops him short of bleeding someone with an edged weapon…unlike Green Arrow. Sure, it’s a fine line but it IS a line: the Bat is perfectly capable of giving some guy a concussion or sending ‘em to the hospital with a rupture, but piercing someone’s femoral artery or spleen runs the risk of putting someone in the MORGUE. That’s a decided difference between the two. GA doesn’t rank in the same category of the Punisher (who sets out to murder criminals in the name of “justice”) but he is one of the more flagrant and reckless of masked vigilantes, judged solely on his methods, at least since the Longbow Hunters.

[compare Green Arrow to non-Ultimate Hawkeye who continues to use non-lethal “trick arrows”]

So while there are superficial similarities between the GA and Batman, for me they are extremely distinct based on the answers to those three questions: motive, method, and limit. And the Arrow’s answers to those questions make him one of my favorite characters while Batman’s answers (respectable though they are) do not.

Okay, so what does all this rigmarole have to do with gaming?

Welp, last night I was back in play-testing mode with the wife back in town from business and BECAUSE of the all the Arrow TV watching and comic book contemplation, I decided to run my Supers game rather than the new Space Opera setting. Longtime readers know how easily my mind wanders from one subject to another with only the vaguest inspiration, so I realize none of you are all that surprised.

The most recent iteration of DMI Supers has quite a few differences from the last version (play-tested with Will a few months back), and this time I even had a pretty serious adventure mapped out for the thing (cribbed from a prior adventure I’d written for Heroes Unlimited). Unfortunately for Greg (the sole player to show up…more on THAT in a separate post), I discovered the fast-and-loose style of DMI does not lend itself well or easily to the “scripted adventure” and we never got past “Chapter 1” nor did the game have the chance to show off its strengths.

ALSO, as with my Lost World game there were serious issues of motivation that just ended up “falling short.” The DMI system provides a versatile, visceral, and expressive system that is not only fun to play, but helps define your character within the play itself…I haven’t found the thing that JUMPSTARTS play. What gets you INTO it…what creates an impetus in players to be PRO-active as opposed to RE-active?

[in case I forgot to mention this in an earlier posting, this proactive player stance is important for a richer role-playing experience, but I don’t want to get off topic just at the moment]

Old school D&D is excellent at this, for example: character advancement is tied to treasure acquisition and the characters are (by definition) treasure hunters by trade. Consequently, players have an impetus to self-motivate in looking for treasure (and being creative in how they recover it), immediately immersing themselves in the game at hand.

The best version of DMI so far (by which I mean, the most EFFECTIVE version) has been my post-apoc-mutant-style game MDR. In MDR, character are presented with an immediate situation and goal (by design and by character definition) and thus have an immediate impetus to “get on it.” But the Lost World game and the Space Opera game and Supers game all have a more “open format” that is supposed to be built and based on the characters’ personal motivations, which is nice in THEORY…but then the players end up sitting back and waiting to REACT (using their proper motivation) to whatever the GM throws at you.

As opposed to being proactive.

SO NOW (going back to the original sentence) I’m starting to think I need to write a new micro-game. It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these one-sheeters and maybe I need to go back to that format, at least briefly, in order to fix some of these issues. The micro- format forces me to be short, sweet, and elegant and really distill down the basic elements of a game…giving me a parsed version that can be elaborated on as necessary (and/or appropriate) if the stripped-down, basic version is at least FUNCTIONAL. I think the last one I completed was, in fact, the first version of DMI (for the Out-Of-Time game)…but that worked well enough that it led to the two-page version of MDR which worked so well that I started incorporating the basic DMI engine into other genre games. But the difference between OOT and MDR and the later versions of DMI is that those earlier games had set, specific victory conditions (so to speak)…and the later versions do not.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve got to return to the basic parameters of DMI first if I want to develop it into a full-blown game engine…and I’ve got a feeling/inkling that (with regard to the Supers game) the key might be to revisit those three distinctions I’ve listed above: the motive, method, and limitation that really differentiates one street-born vigilante from another. That might actually be more important for such a game than the power list I so diligently slaved up.

*whew!* That was pretty random.

; )