Sunday, January 31, 2010

Soylent Green Is People!

Watched Logan's Run and Soylent Green today...started watching THX 1138, but that was too much dystopian society even for me.

I haven't seen any of these films before, nor have I read the books (can't believe Soylent Green was written by Harry Harrison! Wow!), but nothing in the films were new or surprising to me...I've already known their plots, how they end, the spoilers, etc. Didn't stop me from wanting to watch my wife hadn't seen 'em (well she has seen SG, but not since she was a small child) so it was fun to watch with her and hear what she thought and felt about 'em.

My thoughts on Logan's Run: this film would be a great one to remake. And apparently one has been in state of development hell for most of the the decade.

My thoughts on SG: wow.

Already knowing the "big secret" of the movie (see the title of this post) I just spent the film looking at the dystopian society pained by the filmmaker...and wow, pretty friggin' bleak. And yet so atmospheric. It was great...right down to Chuck Heston's little engineer hat and scarf. The whole thing reminded me of a story from Heavy Metal magazine (a publication that really fired my imagination as a youngster, and NOT just for the erotica). I wouldn't have minded

However, what was especially interesting was the subject matter of the story in light of two recent posts. Well, interesting to me (sorry). I would certainly look at Soylent Green as a PA type of film though in category #1 (civilization beginning to crumble and folks trying to hold on)...however, their resignation of their situation, trying to make the best of things, made me realize I was a bit off-base when I said ALL PA fiction is about looking forward to what happens next.

Perhaps, the "civilization on the edge of disaster" needs to be taken out of the PA equation, though Mad Max certainly fits the ideas I wrote about, others don't...Blade Runner, Max Headroom, even Deathrace 2000 or Escape from New York...these films (and Dick's novel that Blade Runner's based on) show societies on the brink of collapse, but the characters in the story are generally trying to do what they can to live "normally" based on their circumstances. They do their jobs...whether as a police officer (Blade Runner, Soylent Green), a reporter (Max Headroom), an athlete (Deathrace, Rollerball), or what have you. Few are trying to make the world a better place or hold SOCIETY together...they're simply trying to stay afloat the best way they know how in their fairly limited fashion.

Of course, SOMEtimes the "everyman" hero is called to a greater or higher calling (see The Running Man, for example), but for an RPG this isn't what I'm interested in...I want something episodic in nature, not a one-off story of heroism and sacrifice. Soylent Green may have been a story of "the big story" but the underlying story of the character IS one that could be episodic.

Well, assuming one can avoid the big green elephant in the room.

Adventure, Exploration, and Action

I love adventure and exploration fiction.

Which is probably not all that surprising since anyone who plays RPGs are drawn to the much the same kind of escapist fantasy (pulp or otherwise) as that to which I'm drawn.

But can simple exploration work in an RPG?

What got me thinking about this? Well Raggi's most recent post over at LotFP, for one thing. The fact that my wife and I spent several hours watching 17 straight episodes of Lost's most recent season yesterday for a second.

[yes, it should come as no surprise I'm a big fan of this show...I'd seen every episode previously, but it's been so damn long, I figured I'd better "refresh" before the final season started airing on Tuesday. Yeah, I have my own theories regarding the show, including the Jacob conflict (feels pretty obvious to me this is the Old Testament Jacob-Esau showdown and Richard is a Roman Legionnaire or an incarnation of the god Anubis, but hey I'm sure we'll all find out this season, right?]

I'm drawn to this particular genre of "weird adventure" like a moth to a's part of the reason I enjoy Jules Verne and other types of mystery-solving-through-movement.

Now Lost may not be a fantastic example of this due to the prevalence of action/violence, but let's look at Disney's Atlantis: the Lost Empire, a film I absolutely loved. Here, the main character has not a single action/violent bone in his body, and while there IS a fight sequence at the end of the film, it feels very secondary compared to the rest of the movie. At least to me. The fun is not in the action sequences so much as uncovering the weirdness and exploring this subterranean/underwater kingdom.

Of course, Atlantis didn't do very well at the box office, so maybe I'm different from some folks.

I'm not a huge action fan...yes, I did go see Ninja Assassin, but I've seen only a single Steven Seagal film and precious view of the usual trite "action" flicks. Most straight action films bore the shit out of me. But then I love a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Is this because Indiana Jones is a "thinking man's action hero?" No. Is it because the action is so well choreographed by the film makers. Not really...I mean the couple gun fights or fist fights that occur are interesting in context, but there are few close-ups of the action...and much of the time Harry Ford is getting the crap kicked out of him.

I think that besides the compelling story of the film, there is something about this character's exploration of far off lands and ancient mysteries that is downright compelling to watch. Certainly in Lost, I am as much interested in figuring out "what's going on" as in seeing "what's going to happen next." Hell, that's the same thing that is so compelling (to me) about Lovecraft's stories. Precious little action, but they certainly pique the curiosity to "find out more."

This is very different from the post-apocalyptic fiction I've been blogging about the last week or so. In PA, no one really cares about "what's going on" only about "what happens next." After all, the past has this huge demarcation line called The Cataclysm or The Apocalypse, and it's a line no one can really cross...or cares to cross. That grim struggle for survival and community re-building is too all important to worry about. I'm reading Dies the Fire (about halfway through) and no one's too worried what Alien Space Bats are responsible for the Change...just how to deal with it. Same with the dragons in Reign of Fire or who-fired-first in The Day After. I haven't yet seen The Road, but my understanding is no one even bothers to explain what cataclysmic disaster has wrecked the world.

But in non-post-holocaust exploration fiction, what happens next isn't nearly as interesting as what happened before or what's going fact "what happens next" is often a piece of the puzzle being unraveled...some part of the mystery being solved, the secret being revealed. Combat, if it occurs, is generally secondary to everything else, and most often a resolution to an adventure cannot be met through violence alone.

Look at the climactic scenes of any Indiana Jones film...or Mysterious Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Or At the Mountains of Madness. Seldom, if ever, does the story end in a melee between the hero and the antagonist (which is the usual ending of most ANY action film). Characters can have adventures withOUT getting blood on their hands. Certainly I feel that my own travels around the world have been "mini-adventures" and I've never once got into a fight anywhere!

D&D is not set up to be this kind of game, and that's fine with me...I don't see it as doing "exploration adventure" so much. Hollow Earth Expedition on the other hand COULD be this kind of game, but it's a little too action-pulp oriented (in addition to being a bit mechanical-clunk heavy), a little too Doc Savage to be "action-free." Or rather, one could use it in such a way but it's not economically designed for this type of's designed to shoot dinosaurs and beat up nazis.

The original question...can simple exploration-adventure work in an RPG...remains. I think it can, but it's not for everyone. I'm not sure how you can make it a game "worth playing," not because people don't like exploration and unraveling mysteries (they do), but because people like to get this "fix" through different mediums...cinema, literature, real travel and research. Can one make a "game" that embraces this genre and interests people in playing it? it a Traveller game that doesn't take place in space.
; )

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Does Anyone Know What This Is From?

My wife found this image on-line and I have no idea what the hell this is from...J-Lo's done some crazy movies over the years but I don't remember any where she was dressed in some Keith Parkinson-type get-up.

Anyone know where this is from? A perfume ad, maybe?

Don't Mind Me...I Just Hurt

I am in pain. Real, physical pain.

Went to yoga yesterday for the first time since October 27th 2008 (I checked). Oh, man...I am overweight and out-o-shape. I can barely bend over to feed the dogs (though part of the stiffness might be that it's 5:30 in the morning). Ugh...I hurt all over...damn, even that part of the throat under the chin.

I am also in a bit of mental anguish. I forgot to mention that Kenzer and Co. provided me with a copy of Hackmaster Basic for review. Those of you who've followed my recent posts on game design Axioms with interest (not all that many, as readership dropped off this week!) may be curious as to how my thoughts on the matter are going to apply to my judgement of the new book.

Mmm...I'm not going to put down my first impression just yet.

This weekend will be one sans football (not really into the Pro Bowl...hard to get excited about a game the players aren't excited about), so I'll be taking the time to read HMB a little closer before providing a post. At close to 200 pages, this might take awhile.

Not that I'm in any shape to move around much anyway....

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Eras of the Apocalypse

There’s nothing quite cut-n-dry about apocalyptic fiction in any media. It probably stems from the fact that most people use the term “Apocalypse” incorrectly (including myself). The Apocalypse is the last book of the Bible…i.e. the Book of Revelation. “Apocalypse” is the English translation of the Greek word that means “revelation” (in other words saying the Book of Apocalypse is the same as saying the Book of Revelation); however, because of the general belief that the Book of Revelation provides a prophecy of the “End Times” for humanity, we have allowed the term “Apocalypse” to become synonymous with the End of the World.

Or as I would call it, “the end of civilization as we know it.”

[by the way, in case anyone cares I don’t believe that what St. John describes is a Doomsday scenario but rather a symbolic blueprint of the path to enlightenment based on tearing down one’s selfish separate self / “ego” and re-building the psyche in terms of being a tool for following the divine will, the Seven Seals being the seven chakras that need to be activated through meditation and right-mindedness. Not that humans don’t run the risk of destroying themselves or anything, but I don’t think John’s revelation was anything about some extra-dimensional divine being saving us from THAT…accepting and following the teachings of the enlightened masters, like Jesus, WILL save your soul from the cycle of death and rebirth, but taking Communion isn’t going to give you a chair in some Astral Plane. Read your Edgar Cayce, folks!]

ANYWAY…so when I write “post-apocalypse” (or “PA”) keep in mind that I’m using the common, slangish parlance of “After the Doom of Mankind” not “post-revelation.” The latter phrase would be mean a state of enlightenment (I guess), while the former means a miserable pile of rubble that used to be society as we know it.

SO there are many shades to PA fiction; it ain’t all Gamma World and Mutant Future, that much is for sure. And part of writing a PA game is considering which SUB-GENRE of PA we’re deciding on. ‘Cause, after all, we can’t use every sub-genre at once, can we?

[that’s semi-rhetorical: my original idea DID try to include all sub-genres in one book, hopelessly overwhelming me and being a decided FAIL]

To my mind there are four or five PA sub-genres based on proximity to The End (proximity time-wise, that is):

#1 PRE-APOCALYPSE: Society hasn’t quite broken down, but it’s at the breaking point. Things are pretty frigging bad all over, the end is nigh, and there’s little to nothing anyone can do about it. Possible examples of this in fiction/RPGs include: Blade Runner, Mad Max, Cyberpunk, Car Wars.

#2 IMMEDIATE POST-APOCALYPSE: The end has come and gone and we are left to pick up the pieces. Society has been shattered and will probably never be what it once was, but it’s still within memory of those who lived through the apocalypse. Those who live weep for what they lost and try to maintain normalcy, even as they make do and attempt to survive. After effects of the Cataclysm (nuclear winter, radiation, disease) are as dangerous as the break-down in law and order and starvation (as a society not used to rustic life gets used to a lack of electricity, plumbing, and supermarkets). Examples of this genre are many: The Stand, The Day After, Dies the Fire (and Ariel), Reign of Fire, Damnation Alley, The Postman, Deathlands, The Road Warrior/Beyond Thunderdome. RPG examples are actually few but include the Rifts supplement Chaos Earth and Twilight 2000. Shadow Run could be a fairly wimpy entry into this category.

#3 MULTI-GENERATION POST-APOCALYPSE: The End occurred generations before living memory. People have learned to survive in the wilderness that is the new world, and have rebuilt some semblances of civilization. The wonders of the pre-apocalypse world are rarely understood entirely correctly but here and there people remember and pass things down. Working artifacts from the pre-cataclysm days are scarce except for well-preserved fortifications that have gone un-looted or ruins long abandoned due to multiple dangers. In some of the farther fetched genres helpful/beneficial mutations have become common, as have giant mutant monsters. Examples include Planet of the Apes, A Boy and His Dog, Water World, Logan’s Run, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Battlefield Earth. RPGs in this category are numerous: Gamma World, Mutant Future, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, Paranoia, and Rifts to name a few.

#4 ANCIENT APOCALYPSE: The Cataclysm occurred so far in the past that is understood only as a legend, like we might think of Noah’s Ark and the Antediluvian Age. Humans know almost nothing of the pre-apocalypse Earth, having long histories of their own new societies and civilizations and any ancient technology that has survived is more akin to “magic” than anything properly understood or even legendary. Mutant people and monsters are simply part of the local fauna and peoples of this new land. Examples in fiction include Thundarr the Barbarian (yes!) and the Storm Lands, the Dying Earth, maybe Bakshi's Wizards, and possibly some of the darker sword & sorcery pulp like Karl Vagner’s Kane series. Besides RPGs based on the mentioned fiction (Thundarr and DE both having games), Ron Edwards's “Sorcerer and Sword” supplement works, as does most any fantasy RPG you choose to adapt to this…Arneson’s Blackmoore campaign setting falls into this category which means OD&D works just fine.

#5 SPACE EXODUS: The Apocalypse destroyed the Earth and the only survivors of human society have been forced to make a new home…off world! The state of civilization may be any of the types #2 through #4, and may even be close to #1 (the Mutant Chronicles is an example). An example of #2 in space would include Battlestar Galactica or Titan A.E. An example of #3 in space would be Firefly/Serenity or Metamorphosis Alpha. An example of #4 might be McCaffrey’s Pern series, MZB’s Darkover series, or M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Now in one of my original PA posts I talked about what I found LACKING in the PA RPGs out there, namely the grim struggle for survival and the re-building of community/society. However, after writing up my list of PA sub-genres, I can see that these two “integral” parts of PA fiction don’t always apply…or don’t always apply the same.

#1: In this sub-genre, there is a grim struggle to HOLD IT TOGETHER. Society hasn’t collapsed yet, and things may be dangerous, but the main thing is holding on to what one has and knows and trying to keep from bottoming out.

#2: Both integrals apply, but SURVIVAL is emphasized.

#3: Both integrals apply, but COMMUNITY BUILDING is emphasized (for example, in Gamma World it is assumed your village has learned how to acquire food and shelter, etc. already).

#4: Neither "integral" is integral; at this point you’re simply playing a standard fantasy game.

#5: The integrals emphasized depend on which sub-genre of the sub-genre applies.

Now scoping all that out, the next question is: which game do I particularly want to design? Granted, one of the harder game concepts I’ll need to work out are rules to integrate the grim struggle for survival and community re-building into the game system, but before I get to THAT I need to figure out the setting for the game. I’m kind of thinking the #2 category (Immediate PA) is the less saturated category of RPG, but besides being awfully depressing (rape, looting, cannibalism, radiation sickness) it’s…well, too much firearms and not enough homemade spears. Unless, of course, I go the “Change” route (aka the Steve Boyett/S.M. Stirling “all-technology-just-stopped-working-for-no-good-reason” plot)

Nah, if I do #2, I’m most likely to set it in space (the #5 qualifier), kind of based on Titan A.E.: humanity has got to learn to come together in a hostile universe if they’re going to survive and rebuild themselves. Earth’s been wiped out to make way for a new hyperspace bypass; hopefully the survivors remembered their towels. ; )

I think #3 holds a lot of potential (probably so many of the RPG entries already out there fall into this category). I’d prefer something less whimsical than Gamma World, much more like A Canticle for Leibowitz (I love that book…it’s similar to a PA version of Asimov’s Foundation series). However, I’m not above adding some psionic mutations to the mix…the mutants Beneath the Planet of the Apes and those found in DC’s Kamandi comics being bizarre enough without throwing in talking animals.

'Course in the words of one PA film: nothing is certain, the future is NOT set.

More later...

The Role of Class in RPGs

In considering game design, especially designing games of the 64 page and/or “retro” and “Old School” variety, I come to the sticky issue of class…specifically the question “to class or not to class.”

When considering the idea of class, most RPG designers draw directly from “the Granddaddy of them All,” OD&D. The first true RPG (in the way we consider the term today), it included several different character classes…basically “classifying” several distinct styles of play.

Where did this idea come from? That’s not a rhetorical question: I really don’t know. Off the top of my head, the only game I can think of that might have been an inspiration is chess. In chess, a player uses a variety of different pieces, with different functionality, to win the game. In D&D, a party uses its different members’ abilities to explore a dungeon and attempt to survive.

Heck, I can even equate the B/X classes with various chess pieces:

Rook = Fighter/Dwarf

Bishop = Cleric

Knight = Thief

Queen = Magic-User/Elf

There is no king, of course, because B/X doesn’t have “winners and losers” and a checkmate piece is not required. Halflings would probably be considered pawns as would low-level (under 4th) magic-users and hirelings. Although only magic-user “pawns” ever make it to the last file and become queens…a tricky road for sure.

Is a classifying of roles necessary to RPG play?

Mmm…it’s a sticky, semi-loaded question. Classes are an easy way for players to define what their role in a group is. Sometimes this is done by class ability (in B/X, for example), or by reward (Top Secret and possibly 2nd Edition AD&D are the only ones I can think of). Without a pre-defined class, players choose “role” based on skills/abilities or objectives of play, I suppose…the latter of which being the most advanced method of role-playing and not all that common.

Skills/abilities are the main way of classifying player role in “classless” RPGs. In Marvel for example, any character might have access to any power set (since powers are random)…and the type of powers determines the player character’s role in the super group. This is usual for most superhero games, though Heroes Unlimited provides an actual class system with some classes…notably the Bionics character…having fairly pre-defined roles (‘borgs have a hard time doing anything BUT playing “the heavy”).

In a game like Traveller, where no career path sets a particular role, it is the skills one has that will lead to classification…someone is going to be the main pilot, another person the main gun-bunny, etc. However, things start getting hazy as skill sets start looking the similar. How does one classify their character in ElfQuest or James Bond, for example?

Some RPGs like Hollow Earth Expedition and Shadow Run are “classless” but have pre-generated “archetypes” that help define roles for the players. Even though it divides character “type” into grogs, companions, and magi, Ars Magica (3rd edition) would also fall into this category. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of archetypes, but I see their value in helping players understand “what we’re supposed to do.” However, I consider this a fairly lazy approach to design (trying to straddle a line between open-ended and class/role oriented).

How about truly classless systems where there are no “pick and choose” power/skill sets or archetypes? Over the Edge comes to mind, as does Maelstrom (the Story Engine version), Amber, and The Dying Earth. A player’s "role" at the table is going to be based solely on what in-game actions are taken…basically, by whatever the player is bringing to the game. This can be challenging to players that aren’t used to metagaming character goals and objectives, or who aren’t practiced at coming up with backstories for their characters.

At least if the players want their characters to stand out as individuals it’s challenging. Look at Boot Hill for example. [man, can I say enough about this game? Probably not] There are no classes in Boot Hill, and no archetypes either (sorry Deadlands). There are no skills AT ALL, and all characters consist of a handful of attributes (fairly close to each other in rating due to the modification chart) and whatever equipment they choose to own.

As an exercise in playing an “adventuring party” this is fairly nightmarish for the average group of players (perhaps one of the reasons Boot Hill never had a soaring popularity rating)…what the hell am I supposed to do? How do I relate to the other PCs? Who’s in charge? Who’s walking point? Who’s in the support role?

[the guy that bought the dynamite I guess]

There’s no healer, there’s no wizard/huckster, there’s no thief/skill monkey. Just a bunch of “dudes with guns” (and probably with hats and boots).

Wow…talk about wide-open possibility…for the ambitious group of players, that is. You’re free to create your own histories, backstory, sub plots, etc. Your character is solely defined by the actions you take in game…do you have a heart of gold and help every widow and orphan with a sob story? Are you an enterprising rascal, always with an eye towards making a buck? Are you a bloodthirsty gunman always challenging others at the slightest provocation? Are you a low-down, murderin’ back-shooter and outlaw?

The only rules that are defined in-game are how to conduct combat, how far one can ride a horse, and how to gamble (if you don’t want to actually play cards). Everything else is negotiable. Of course, the game doesn’t have anything that motivates you to do anything either (unlike, say, Dogs in the Vineyard). But then neither does Deadlands…and despite the cool additions to the world of the Weird West, I find the latter game and its systems over-burdened and too complex for my taste. ‘Course it does have archetypes.

So back to class…class seems to provide two things to a game:

- Often, a pre-defined role for a player character (notable OS exception: Gamma World)

- Often, a set of class abilities (notable OS exception: Top Secret)

If you don’t care about either of these things (for whatever reason), then I suppose having specific classes of character is unnecessary…probably even undesirable.

For the most recent games I’VE been considering writing, they’re mostly leaning toward the “classless” side of the RPG spectrum. I’ve got a total of 16 ideas (+1 supplement to an existing “classless” game), many of which are no more than a name and a few ideas regarding theme and game play. Of these sixteen, five have the potential for some sort of class, but only two are definitely slated for “choosing a class” (and one of those two is a retro-clone I’m tinkering with). None of my post-apocalyptic ideas have any intention at this time of including “class” as part of character gen.

But regarding PA play, it appears to me that different eras have different needs as far as systems go…though this certainly deserves its own post.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Skills Still Suck (Axiom #1 Redux)

Got an email from a reader with regard to my prior post on Axiom #1 and skills “sucking,” and it got me thinking I might have triggered some confusion out there. A few notes to clarify might be worth the time.

Remember that my axioms are principles of what I consider to be “good game design;” Axiom #1 states that the well-designed game should only include rules necessary to the game. Games should NOT include extraneous fiddlyness, attempting to account for every possible nuance and action of the game world. Now, of course, this is simply my opinion, right? But I see a number of benefits to efficiency in game design: smaller word count (less time reading, more time playing as well as cheaper to produce), lower search & handling time (in play), and (often) faster character generation.

When I say “skills suck” (and I have said/written this plenty often), it is because I see the skill systems of most games as the most blatant and egregious violations of Axiom #1. Again, Axiom #1 is about not including what's not necessary. Certain un-mentionable RPGs include all sorts of extra random charts that do little to enhance game play…these would also be included as “violators.” But skill systems are SO prevalent in RPGs these days that I like to single them out for bitch-slapping.

So, having said THAT, we now come to the possible confusion from earlier: my reader points out that there already appears to be skill systems inherent in B/X Dungeons & Dragons: both the actual Thief Skills of the thief class AND the imbedded skills of finding secret doors, listening, foraging for food, interacting with NPCs, etc., etc….all of these actions appear to be an exercise of skill (in D20 terms: Search, Listen, Survival, Bargain, etc.) that are perhaps WORSE than a contemporary system by dint of their non-universal way of checking actions. But even if they’re NOT judged by the merits of their “streamlined-ness,” doesn’t JB consider B/X to be an example of “good economy of design?” And if so why don’t these “skill systems suck?”

Because they ain’t skill systems.

Thief “skills,” despite their name, are NOT a skill system. They are class abilities, no different from a cleric’s ability to turn undead or a magic-user’s ability to cast spells (or a dwarf’s ability to check stonework). Like the other 6 classes of B/X, thieves have their own abilities that function different from every other class’s abilities (fortunately for us B/X players there are only 7 classes, so keeping track of these class abilities is fairly easy despite the variety of play style inherent to each). Thief skills do not model anything particularly “real world;” they simply provide a system by which thieves can do the things thieves do in a B/X world.

Likewise, the other listed “skills” are not some stealth skill system; they are simply game mechanics necessary to play. “Adventurers” in B/X take some universal actions that require rules to model…a method of finding secret doors that is not automatic, a method of climbing trees or rocky slopes, a method of determining whether or not adequate game can be hunted when starving in the outdoors. As these actions are necessary for common situations that arise in-game AND are deemed to have a chance of failure (there’s no “fire building” check to use a tinder box, for example!)…they require game mechanics. However, as they are actions ANY person can take, they are NOT specific class abilities.

They are also non-defined as far as how/why they function. To detect secret doors, a character spends one ten minute turn, rolls a D6 and finds a secret door (if one is present) on a 1-2. Does the character have exceptional eyesight for detail (“there seems to be footprints disappearing into this wall!”)? Does the character have some prior professional experience (“my uncle used to build secret doors, and I recognize a false torch sconce/lever!”)? Is the character simply lucky (“hey, I was just resting against this book case and a panel opened!”)?

Likewise, why do elves get a bonus to this roll? Well, because it’s a class ability of course, but the “in-game” reason could be anything from particularly acute senses to a mystic/psychic “I feel something strange” ability.

The point is, don’t mistake game mechanics for a skill system. Most RPGs have some system that is used to determine the effects of combat. The way in which combat is handled may be based on skill use (most contemporary, commercial games besides D20) or may not be (most Old School games). In both instances the game designer decided mechanics were necessary to decide the outcome of fights, and so they included a system. End of story.

Skill systems are, in general, bullshit. However, maybe I need to describe what I mean by “skill system.” To me the skill system is some set of “universal” game mechanics WITHIN AND OUTSIDE OF a game’s set of game mechanics that ARBITRARILY LIMITS CHARACTER ACTION regardless of whether or not it is pertinent to the game design.

Let’s take a second look at the Thief Skills of B/X. These do not limit the thief at all. Instead, they provide a thief with certain special abilities that help define what the thief “class” is. Without these class abilities, the thief is a rather wussy adventurer (leather armor, D4 hit dice, worse attack ability than the fighter, etc.). WITH the class abilities, the basic adventurer becomes a fun class to play with a pretty well-defined role in the party.

All PCs in B/X have a chance to listen at doors or search for traps. Any PC can use their strength to try to break down a closed door, and (per the Expert rules) have a chance to climb rocky slopes and trees. The class abilities of the thief gives that particular class bonus abilities to all these things (better listening and trap finding, the ability to pick locks and climb sheer surfaces). Just as a magic-user’s class abilities (i.e. spell use) gives THAT class additional adventuring prowess.

Now contrast this with the “universal” skill system of D20 (it’s not truly universal after all or characters would probably use “weapon skills” for combat…like in the Basic Role-Playing or World of Darkness systems). First, of course, it makes chargen extra tedious, complicated, and fiddly right? I need to know how many skill points per level (defined by class), plus bonuses and penalties (from race and attribute scores), plus a host of other modifiers like “synergy” and item bonuses…then I need to know whether skills are class skills or non-class skills to figure out skills maximum ranks as well as how many points per rank skills cost…and of course there’s a huge list of skills to pick through (including new skills from other supplements!), most of which are open to any character as “non-class” skills at least.


Time consuming and tedious makes me want to throw the whole thing out from the get-go, even being a math-oriented guy that has little problem navigating this kind of thing. Quick! Write up the skill list for an 8th level half-elf ranger! Oh, but first make sure you roll attributes, so you’ll be able to work in all the bonuses.

Okay, how long did that exercise take you? Now imagine you’re in the middle of a game session when your character dies, and the DM tells you to create an 8th level half-elf ranger to replace your dead character…how long does it take you to get back into the game with your buddies? Don’t forget you want to be looking down the road at possible “prestige classes” so you’ll know which skills to take!


But even WITHOUT the extra time and work, what does the skill system add? It actually LIMITS what your character can do…if you don’t have a skill (or don’t have it at a high enough rank), D20’s skill system limits your option of in-game activity AND (with regard to prestige classes) limits your advancement throughout the game. Wow, how much fun is that? Especially for a new player who’s just trying to learn the game and picks classes and skills they like rather than ones that are “optimized.” And then the newbie sees other players jumping into cool prestige classes at 6th level while their fighter is struggling along with Hide 3 and a hefty penalty for armor.

But HEY, that’s not even the worst part! The worst part is that in MOST skill systems, including D20, the actual use of skills is based on arbitrary target numbers set by GM fiat! So if the GM doesn’t want you to succeed at something he/she just sets the target out of range (or hard enough that it’s nigh impossible to attain).

That SUCKS. Even Palladium allows skills to succeed if one rolls under the required percentage (with certain specifically listed penalties for things like piloting/repairing alien technology). Other games (World of Darkness, D20, even WEG Star Wars) have suggested target numbers that may be modified by circumstance as the judge sees fit…so if I don’t want you to jump the chasm/climb the wall (and circumvent a particularly fiendish trap/obstacle coming up!) I just need to set the TN out of reach. At least WEG Star Wars allows one to double their skill dice using Force points.

And what is the grand reasoning for adding Skill Systems to games? To give players more options? It limits them. To more accurately model “how real life works?” Let me tell you, flying a plane and researching a term paper are two VERY different things, even if they are both “intelligence” skills and cost the same number of skill points! To provide a universal “action” system for any action? Let me ask: how many of you have a Shadow Run character that knows “Boat, Sailing” as a skill? Who gives a shit?!

Axiom #1 is the principle that says “leave the shit out of your game that doesn’t need to be there.” Almost every “skill system” I’ve seen in RPGs falls into this category. On the other hand, class abilities (for RPGs that have classes) and game mechanics (that provide systems for taking actions pertinent to the game) are just fine to include in a game.

I hope that’s less confusing now!

: )

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

One Page Dungeon Contest

"Post-Apocalypse Week" will continue...perhaps tomorrow (I am in the midst of reading S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire), but I forgot to announce the 2010 One Page Dungeon Competition. It's going on, and I'll be one of the judges!

Ha! Is this because ol' JB is so excellent at being judgmental? NO! It simply means I volunteered to be a judge because I wanted to be involved but don't want to actually design a one page there!

For more information, check out the full announcement here. I'm looking forward to reading the entries!
: )

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Axioms & Elves

A couple posts ago I mentioned a third possible axiom of game design, but I didn’t bother to still it down or discuss it at length, partly as it wasn’t pertinent to the discussion at hand, partly due to the post being even more long-winded than usual already. But I wanted a chance to discuss it now. AXIOM #3:

Good game design rewards behavior meeting the objectives of play.

As with my prior axioms that’s me trying to be as pithy as possible. To elaborate a bit, I’m saying that the system of a game (it’s rules and how they function) should promote the behavior the designer wants to see occur around the gaming table.

Now I realize I’m making a gross assumption here: that rewards systems have ANY influence on behavior within a game. Well, they do all right?…they have AN influence I’m certain, even though it may not be the ONLY influence…which is why there are so many different ways RPGs are played, not always as originally intended by the designer.

But that’s what we’re talking about: “GOOD” game design. A designer has objectives when designing a game, whether as simplistic as “I want to play a game of ass-kicking robots” to as specific as “an intimate exploration of love, pity, and self-loathing in a remote Transylvanian village” to as nuanced as “a version of D&D that delves into cosmic/creepy horror.”

Designers have objectives, even beyond “making a quick buck.” Now, how well they meet those objectives is where we start defining what is “good” versus “non-good” game design. And the way we measure this success (or lack thereof) is by observing how easily the objectives are met IN PLAY.

In other words: are people playing the game right? And by “right” I mean, “in the manner in which its designer intended it to be played.”

Now for the record, a game design doesn’t have to be good to be successful. Like the movie that is supposed to be a masterpiece of horror, but instead becomes a campy and unintentionally funny “cult classic,” games may be used with much enjoyment in manners not foreseen by the designer when he or she originally sat down at the keyboard. If your intention was to get published or make a few bucks, well okay then, “mission accomplished.” But if you intended people to play YOUR game YOUR way and it’s NOT…well, then you missed something as a game designer.

So acknowledging that “reward systems” in games are NOT the only reasons we play games (for example, we also play for the enjoyment of camaraderie, the chance to exercise our imagination, our interest in a particular source of licensed material, etc.) and thus are not the ONLY influences on player behavior…acknowledging THAT right off the bat, we then ask: Does the system as designed reward behavior that promotes the way the game is “supposed to be played?”

If it does, then bam! – good game design. If not…well, then not. An example or two might be useful.

Chaosium’s ElfQuest is a game I’ve owned for a long time, and one I’ve played and ran many times. Based on the Wendy Pini comics of the same title (at least the first 20 issues), the game’s objective appears to be “to allow players to experience adventure in the World of Two Moons” either by recreating the original comic book plots or by inventing one’s own pastiche of ElfQuest.

And who doesn’t like ElfQuest? For that matter, who doesn’t like elves in general? Even for folks not into the particular comic IP, people who are into psionic (“magic”) elves, faeries, and trolls are going to be just fine with a little escapist fantasy. Hell, when I was a kid, my friend and I used to spend hours running around the forest behind her house, carrying bows and pretending to be Wolfriders. It helped that her dog, Molly, was a big ‘ol German Shepherd that looked very wolfish in appearance (though we did not attempt to “ride” Mol).

But, okay…kids playing in the woods, pretending they’re elves living in a tree is one thing. At the gaming table? What the hell are you supposed to do?

Go to war with the trolls, of course…over and over again.

See, for those who’ve read Mrs. Pini’s remarkable comics there’s a lot to love besides the spectacular artwork. She paints a lot of drama into her work even if there isn’t much combat/action. Oh, there’s ACTION, just not much of the fighting with swords and daggers variety. There’s plenty of CONFLICT…elves trying to make homes for themselves, trying to find/fight love/attraction, new cultures misunderstanding each other, finding one’s origins when others try to keep it hidden, political games/intrigue, proving oneself to one’s tribe/community. There’s some “exploration” that occurs, but mostly “the road” is glossed over…the main exploration that occurs is the exploration of CHARACTER.

There are conflicts that lead to bloodshed in the books...a total of four by my count. Two very brief, bloody encounters with humans, one flashback scene with a big monster that needs to be put down, and the war with the trolls that occurs over the last five issues…a war encompassing three pitched battles. But that’s really it…and even after the “war” is done, there’s plenty more drama that occurs. After all, Pini is describing a world and a people, their growth and development, and it’s not all “storm the tower and kick ass” stuff. Human life IS drama much of the time, and the elves of ElfQuest, while an alien species, are still sculpted on the human experience with human emotions…which is one of the reasons they’re such beloved comics.

OK…so now, how do you translate that into an RPG?

Well, if you’re Chaosium, you use a derivative of the BRP to simulate the characters found in the comics, including a detailed and tailored-specific chargen system…and then you drop the ball. That is, there is nothing in the design of the game that supports the creation of ElfQuest-esque stories. A few sample scenarios (including a war with humans and a war with trolls, a conflict with a mad High One…call it the “evil wizard encounter”…and a fight with a monster based on the aforementioned monster fight of the comics) are provided…and that’s it.

Oh, wait…there ARE rules for “recognition” provided in the system (a percentage chance that any elves upon encountering new elves might have a couple involuntary romantic relationships formed)…but none of the provided scenarios deal with recognition, romance, or “soul names”…despite this being a major focus of much of the conflict/drama in the comics (for example, issues #2-5, issues #11-15, and issue #20).

The “reward system” of ElfQuest is limited to the normal BRP Increase-Skill-Check-For-Skills-Used. Elves don’t have money or attachment to personal possessions (in general), so there’s no adventuring for treasure or need to purchase equipment. There’s no fame points or measurement of status/prestige, no levels or experience points that are gained, nada. There’s no In-System rules that are going to lead to the exploration of character or that will lead to social conflict/drama…the design simply provides the chassis of the vehicle without a goddamn engine to run it.

Which to me is an excellent analogy. ElfQuest is a beautiful book (it has Pini’s artwork for one thing), well written with an enjoyable chargen system (we have created many elves…including illustrations!...using the rules). But it’s like owning a sports car with no engine…sure, it will move IF I get out and push the damn thing myself!

And I don’t want to have to push the car. I don’t want to have to draw inspiration (i.e. “rip off”) Pini’s stories or force/manipulate players with my plot lines and GM-designed NPCs simply to get an ElfQuest-like game. Besides being more work than I want to do (I might as well start writing short stories about elves!) it kind of defeats the whole purpose of playing an RPG, which is a collaborative effort between GM and players.

Unfortunately, ElfQuest is a poorly designed RPG in this regard. It doesn’t have a system that Rewards the behavior that is expected to lead to “EQ-style” game play. It doesn’t give you any more than what you bring to it, in other words. Well, shit…so what am I paying for? Something for my comic collection I guess.

Contrast that with the greatest fantasy adventure game ever designed: B/X Dungeons & Dragons. Characters are rewarded for adventuring, i.e. “overcoming monsters/obstacles and recovering treasure.” The reward system (XPs, leveling up) creates the desired behavior (let’s go adventure!).

Now realize that Axiom #3 does NOT say a game must have a “reward system” of any particular type…there’s no need for a game to include levels or skill boosts or any such thing. But the system that REWARDS BEHAVIOR…behavior conducive to the design goals of its author(s)…is the good game design. Ron Edward’s Sorcerer rewards behavior. So does My Life With Master, Dust Devils, and Dogs in the Vineyard.

Look at Boot Hill, which I consider to have great economy of game design. BH is designed to recreate the brutal, fast paced deadliness of the Old West. Right down to the name (most PCs are going to eventually end up on Boot Hill), the thing does nothing BUT “reward” the proper behavior. If your character insists on getting into gun fights, he’ll improve in ability until he gets dead. If he instead uses his wit to escape shoot-outs, he won’t ever increase his gun fighting ability…but he probably won’t get killed (I don’t seem to recall any stray bullet rules). The game CAN be used by the more ambitious players to create grand, sweeping epics of the Old West…but its basic design is to allow one to create gunfights in the street (both historic and fictional) like the Battle of Coffeyville or the OK Corral, and it’s well-designed to do so.

Ah, well...more design theory later I'm sure. Prost!

: )

Clicking Sands of the Apocalypse

Although I’ve mentioned him before in this blog, I completely forgot to mention Mr. Ron Edwards in yesterday’s post-apocalyptic post, specifically RE’s contribution to the PA RPG genre, i.e. the Clicking Sands.

For those that don’t know much about Mr. Edwards, he’s a college professor and professional game designer as well as a fairly brilliant RPG theorist. He’s one of the Big Brains over at the Forge think-tank, and his articles on game design should be required reading for anyone serious about writing an RPG. As a point of full-disclosure I’d have to say I agree with more than 90% of his ideas.

Ron is definitely in the vanguard of independent RPG publishing, a movement that I see as a kindred spirit to the OSR. Unfortunately, from what I’ve read around the ‘net, it appears that most Old Schoolers are derisive of Ron and his ideas, and that he is fairly dismissive of the OSR. Oh, well…I stand for something higher than both, myself (the possibility of spreading the RPG hobby as fun method of creative expression, imagination broadening, and community building) so I’m going to take from both sides of the debate.

One thing RE has admitted to more than once is his own love of fantasy RPGs (see his essays on the Fantasy Heartbreaker). If he doesn’t particularly buy into the OSR’s “recreation of the wheel,” it would appear he still has a fondness for RPGs that facilitate exploration of a mythical/fantasy environment. In fact several of his games deal with “fantasy/pseudo-medieval” settings/characters: Elves, Trollbabe, and the Sorcerer supplement “Sorcerer & Sword.”

It is from this last that I find one of the cooler and inspiring Post-Apocalyptic settings: the Clicking Sands. Based on the idea that the best post-apocalyptic fiction is extremely similar to the best Sword & Sorcery fiction (in the far future, high technology has become so lost and obscure as to seem like occultic “black magic,” and most survivors in the wasteland are using their swords and wits to overcome the radioactive dangers in their path), the Clicking Sands provides a very bare bones PA setting to run a Sorcerer game, allowing one to do an unholy Story Now game session against the backdrop of the Ruined Earth.

[note to self: The Ruined Earth is actually a great idea for the title of a Post-Apoc RPG…must get to work on the new book!]

Now though I own Sorcerer and the three supplements penned by Mr. Edwards, but I’m not going to bother explaining the system in this post with its Kickers and Bangs and Relationship Maps, etc. Suffice is to say that the game system is fairly solid for creating a hard-hitting, premise addressing, in-depth exploration of a soul-crushing story (albeit sometimes with redemption in the resolution). However, as with the other PA games mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mr. Edwards fails to satisfy MY itch for post-apocalyptic game play, precisely because it neglects those two inherent parts of the PA genre: grim survival and community building.

Oh those things might be present as BACKDROP to the game. Hell, depending on the way folks structure their Kicker, it may even be part of the premise addressed by play itself. But it is NOT inherent in the game system anymore than it is in, say, WEG’s Paranoia. The point of play in Edwards’s game is to create a story, one set in a PA world with an S&S theme, but a story regardless of all else.

And that’s just fine…that’s HIS deal and he does it well. I want a different animal of an RPG.

Part of what drives my particular gaming expectations is my experience with long-term play versus short term. This probably deserves its own separate post, but I’m still going to touch on it here. While games like D&D and Gamma World are not specifically designed to facilitate the creation of story, “story” (or perhaps “an epic saga”) still has the possibility of developing out of long-term, episodic play. Like a long-running serial drama…say 14 episodes of Firefly or multiple seasons of Kung Fu just to give two very disparate examples…even though individual episodes are connected by little more than a recurring cast of characters, the television series is still ABOUT something, something which can only be observed from a distance over time. I suppose this could be called “theme” but it’s MORE than that. As players (and game masters) explore the characters and setting they’ve worked together to create, something gets expressed out of the imagination.

In the long campaigns of my youth, this theme often came down to “love and betrayal.” What was so loved that one would put oneself out of convenience for it, and what could drive a person to betray another, even a long-relied upon companion or lover? Sure we might start with some little sub-plots (oh, my 1st level character was an orphan, or my 1st level character’s wife was killed by assassins, or whatever) but over-time and interaction with the other PCs (and the NPCs that would enter the campaign) these little “ideas” fell to the wayside as we got down to our own developing in-game relationships.

Sorcerer (and by extension The Clicking Sands) does not wait for this natural evolution t o occur over time; as stated, Mr. Edwards has a game that facilitates a narratavist creative agenda (i.e. “we want the story NOW, not later”) and so starts off in the thick of the drama. Which is fine for a one-off “adventure” (a Sorcerer “game” usually concludes in 2 to 4 sessions), but not as satisfying to me as the continuing adventures of beloved characters.

Now that may just be me and my inertia, MY unwillingness to “let go.” But I ain’t the only one out there: anyone notice they’re coming out with a second “Sex & the City” movie? What the hell is THAT going to be about? Talk about not letting go!

So, anyway, impractical as it is for me in my current place in life, I prefer the long-term, long-running campaign to the short one-off games. In fact, I almost always approach the gaming table with the attitude that “this game could last forever if we let it.” And that especially holds true for a post-apocalyptic game setting where the “fun” of play is not just fighting off the mutants (grim survival) but the raising of society from the ashes (community rebuilding) which is best observed over time. The Clicking Sands, with its need to get to the “fun” story immediately, misses this mark and thus leaves me with the same thought as yesterday…I need to design my own damn game.

The Ruined Earth…it’s kind of a catchy title.

: )

Monday, January 25, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic Fantasies

The sun was shining today…I mean REALLY shining after weeks of grey, wet misery (that January-February kind of Seattle weather that will eventually beat down even diehard rain lovers like myself…too much mud and sickness) and even though we haven’t even got to Groundhog’s Day it feels a tiny bit like the beginning of Spring…I mean you can feel we are on the upside of days getting longer and such.

And so I find myself thinking of the Apocalypse.

I don’t know why…the last couple-four plus years that’s just what Spring and Summer start doing to me. Thinking about The End of the World is hard to do when in the midst of the happy holiday season…or is perhaps too depressing to take out and look at period during the grey, wet winter days. But Spring time…the Easter season, a time of renewal, etc…makes me think about the death of our world and the rebirth of the next.

Not to be morbid or anything…I don’t clean out the bomb shelter or re-stock the canned goods and ammo or anything. Me…I start getting in the mood for post-apocalyptic fiction and role-playing.

Post-apocalyptic fiction/lore (I’ll just call it PA for short from now on, or this post will get waaay too long) is something that’s held great interest for me for a looong time…so long I’m not sure when it started. It’s like my interest in astrology or fencing…from the moment I discovered such a concept existed it has held a great and terrible fascination for me (not that astrology or fencing are “terrible,” but they would draw my interest to the point of distraction even years..decades!...before I started practicing either).

Using Wikipedia to see the release dates of the earliest pieces of PA fiction I remember might give me a clue to when I first started dwelling on the subject. The Day After (1983) was a horrific made-for-TV movie that I remember watching as a 9 or 10 year old…though I also recall falling asleep before the end and having to ask my folks what happened (spoiler: everybody dies). Thundarr the Barbarian I watched religiously on Saturday Mornings and it aired from 1980-81 (age 7 to 8). Sometime around the same period I recall watching George Peppard in Damnation Alley on television and wow, did that one haunt my nightmares as a kid…but it was released in the theaters in 1977 so it was probably not broadcast on television for at least 5 years (’82 or so). Definitely I saw Planet of the Apes early-early in life, and found that pretty horrific…though I’m sure I didn’t see that until the 5-7 year old range (again on TV). My aunt and her friend almost took me to see the Road Warrior in the theater (US Release circa 1982), but at the last minute ended up taking my brother and I to see The Secret of NIMH instead…and I can recall vividly having a long conversation about the Apes movies on that summer day in Montana, so I must have already seen a couple of the films (possibly more than once).

But the earliest PA fiction I can recall is watching the Logan’s Run television series on TV (broadcast 9/77-1/78…’round about the age of 3-4!!). While not dealing with the horror of nuclear holocaust (or did it? Was that the one where there were these crazy scarred mutants wearing gold masks and black cowls to hide their disfigurement?), it certainly involved dystopian societies and bubble cities.

Hmm…I wonder if I can get that one on Netflix. I might need to re-watch it.

Anyway, I’m sure growing up in the Reagan "2nd Cold War" 1980s helped fuel the paranoia/fascination with the coming apocalypse and “what happens thereafter.”

[Hmmm…just remembered that I also saw the 1978 version of the Time Machine on television when I was 5 years old, and the whole Morlocks/Eloi-cannibalism depiction of THAT film had more impact on my young psyche than any other version of the Time Machine I’ve seen since…this might even have something to do with my whole squeamishness regarding cannibalism]

Yes, long before I ever picked up a copy of Gamma World (2nd edition, found used in the usual Montana bookstore) I was watching and reading tales that would depict (either in plot or background) the End of Civilization as We Know It. Hell, what 13 year old spends his own money to pick up a paperback of After the Bomb? Probably the same kind of kid that grows up watching Buck Rogers (with the nuked Earth surrounding “New Los Angeles”) and videotaping Chuck Heston in The Omega Man to watch multiple times. Yes…I am weird.

So it might strike some as odd that I’m kind of indifferent about most PA RPGs on the market.

But allow me to clarify: I love-love-LOVE the IDEA of the PA RPG. When I first started designing RPGs myself (as a hobby…my B/X Companion is going to be the first thing I actually publish, folks), I had a half-dozen fairly different RPGs all of the PA variety. I even figured I would call my “company” (whoa! Delusions of grandeur!) something like “Post-Apocalyptic Games.” I just felt there was such a dearth of material out there…and I wanted MORE.

Here’s the short-list of published PA RPGswith which I’m familiar:

Gamma World (1st through 3rd editions)

Rifts (and After the Bomb, etc.)

Twilight 2000 (and Cadillacs & Dinosaurs)

Deadlands: Hell on Earth

Car Wars (post-peak oil)

Mutant Chronicles (more Cyberpunk than PA)

Shadow Run (more Cyberpunk than PA)

Cyberpunk (see above)


And of course other assorted weirdness that can be categorized as PA: Obsidian, HOL, World of Synnibarr, some versions of Terra Primate (of course) and AFMBE (zombie apocalypse!), etc. And of course there’s Mutant Future, the OSR’s current darling of whimsical PA mutation & exploration.

The problem for me is: none of these games really satisfy my itch for PA role-playing.

I suppose I should look for a copy of Aftermath! (which I’ve never owned, nor read). But the reputation for being especially fiddly is off-putting to me, even as I like the idea of a grim survival based game.

'Cause that’s 50% of the problem…”grim survival” is the thing that is really missing from all the RPGs I listed above. Gamma World has the potential to be an excellent metaphor for man and his relationship with technology (especially the 1st edition with some minor 2nd edition tweaks), but usually gets bogged down in silliness like fish that turn people to stone and rabbits that turn guns to rubber (not to mention all the rest of the well-known gonzo mutants). Rifts and DL:HOE are waaaay too over-the-top to ever be considered grim in a semi-realistic way...and most of the other games don’t even come close.

I’ve never owned Twilight 2000. My friend Jocelyn DID, but we never played it…and her descriptions of the game to me did nothing to entice me to play (she made it appear to be a WWIII simulation fought with conventional weapons only, rather than a broken military in a PA world which might have been intriguing). I DO own Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, a true PA meets Lost World type pulp game that uses the same system as Twilight 2000. Unfortunately, I find the system to be incredibly BORING. I’m not sure exactly why (I’d have to pull it out and read it again), but after picking it up (recently…within the last 12-18 months), I was left feeling like I REALLY wanted to read the Xenozoic Tales comics instead of playing the RPG.

Grim survival ain’t present in these games, system-wise…and that’s something I’d want to see (yes, yes, a GM or referee can certainly tailor events to be “grim” but I want it INHERENT, dammit!) for a real PA game no matter WHAT the nature of the apocalypse. I mean, look at Reign of Fire (the film). Here’s a world that’s been burned to a near-cinder by DRAGONS but (as with all the best PA stories) still there is the over-reaching story of the GRIM STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL. Not, oh dragons exist maybe we should study magic. Not whimsical stories of captured maidens or bad guys allying themselves with the beasts. This is HIDE OR BE EATEN. Which is a common theme in many types of PA fiction (even without dragons).

But as I said “grim survival” (or lack thereof) is only 50% of my dissatisfaction with PA RPGs. The other 50% of my dissatisfaction comes from the other missing integral part of the genre: COMMUNITY BUILDING. The PA story is NOT simply concerned with 'O woe is us we don’t have electricity/plumbing anymore.' Most PA stories involve some sort of rebuilding/rebirth…a rise from the ashes and possibly a redefining of what community and “civilization” means to those left behind.

Now maybe this is just the Plutonic/Scorpio part of me (Pluto, ruler of Scorpio, is greatly concerned with volcanic upheaval that leads to karmic transformation within our lives) but that shit fascinates me. Surviving the apocalypse? That’s tough enough. But re-building the world from the rubble up? Now THAT’s a heroic task.

And again, while this can be simply “injected” by the GM of the game, I’d prefer it to be a real and integral part of the rules, hopefully directly linked to the “reward/advancement” system in the RPG. Reward systems based on behavior encourage that behavior that engenders rewards. Call that Axiom #3 of RPG design. If characters are only rewarded for killing monsters and getting treasure, guess what: that’s what they’re going to do (unless they wander off on a tangential Creative Agenda like, say, Story Now…hello Trollsmyth and Oddysey!). If characters are rewarded for “good role-playing” (whatever the F THAT means) then you’re going to get some hammy play-acting from your players (or you’re going to get players leaving the group disgruntled ‘cause they’re not into being judged on their improv abilities).

Now again, Gamma World (2nd edition) comes O So Close to establishing this in its Status/Rank reward system…after all, what is being measured in GW appears to be characters value TO their particular community (or Cryptic Alliance, should they join one). Defeating mutants raises their “standing” in the eyes of their people, as does turning in valuable (and working) artifacts with the instruction book attached.

However, while community is INVOLVED in the advancement process, it is not being directly BUILT (perhaps INdirectly, depending on how many mutant monsters get killed and how many tribesmen the PCs arm with Tech III weapons). And community building is the main component of the PA genre…after the grim struggle for survival of course.

[as for the non-Gamma World games, they don’t even come frigging close to addressing this]

Community building or defining: you see it in the Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. You see it in A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Postman. You see it in The Stand, The White Plague, and even Battlefield Earth and the Matrix films. In all these stories, the grim survivors of the Apocalypse (no matter what form the Apocalypse takes) must come together and redefine what their community is, what it stands for, what they’re all about and how they are going to relate to each other in this changed world. Heck…even those little rag dolls in 9 do this!

Yep, there is the ever-so-faint smell of Spring in the air and I’m itching for some Post-Apocalyptic action. I’ve yet to see The Road or The Book of Eli but I fully intend to see both if possible at my earliest opportunity (watched It’s Complicated on Friday which was very good but certainly not “apocalyptic” in subject matter). I’ve also been meaning to check out S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire, which seems to be a rip-off of Steven Boyett’s 1983 book Ariel (though without the unicorns). I just discovered Stirling in the last year with his throwback planetary romances (Mars and Venus) and Marching Through Georgia, but his PA series has gotten some of his ravest reviews and I’ve yet to peruse any of ‘em. As I finish up work on the B/X Companion and its companion adventure module, I find myself more and more enticed with doing a new 64 page RPG…and I wonder if I have enough junk material (and new ideas) to distill some sort of Post Apocalyptic goulash that will meet MY particular needs of gaming in a world gone mad.

; )

Fun with LARPing

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I was totally out-o-commission for most of this weekend (Saturday I did absolutely NOTHING, being in "recovery from illness" mode and Sunday was full of football and party hosting).

I did have a chance to watch the pretty amusing Role-Models movie. Can't believe I missed THAT one for so long, especially as I am a long-time Kiss fan (Destroyer was the first vinyl album I begged/cajoled my parents into buying for me 'round about age 6-7). Rudd does a good job of walking the thin line between silliness and curmudgeonly straight man as usual, and his (originally Minnesotan) side-kick wasn't nearly as annoying as usual. Oh...and the kids were great.

I found the treatment of LARPing in the movie to be, frankly, pretty damn tasteful, something I was not expecting at all. Personally, I've never been into LARP, and actually the LARP depicted in this film was different from what I've usually seen (i.e. Vampire scenarios). This seemed more like a spin of the SCA, something with which I have had some familiarity. However, it just seemed so much less dysfunctional than the SCA I've known in the past...which again surprised me.

I mean, I love the IDEA of the SCA and it's associated groups (who doesn't want to be a knight or whatnot), but the political in-fighting, spouse swapping, mead swilling, and occasional embezzlement has always put me off a bit. I'll stick to visiting the annual Renaissance Fair in Carnation...the rest is too much like your everyday office environment (without getting paid!) for my taste.

Oh, well...maybe life in the LARP has changed since the 90s. Cetainly, regular human interaction with fellow humans is a healthier way to spend one's time than on-line gaming (you are welcome to disagree, of course). I've never been huge into improvisational theater (participating I mean...watching is hella' fun!) and cool as it is to heft and swing a true (or foam) broadsword, I've always found the RPG tabletop to be more fertile for my imagination than real life folks dressed in armor.

Now if they'd let ME dress up like Gene Simmons, it's possible I MIGHT change my mind.
; )

Friday, January 22, 2010

Kindred (Super) Spirits

And this is one of the reasons I enjoy reading other peoples' blogs...they hip me to even MORE blogs to follow!

Over at Paladin's Citadel, I followed a little link to the Earth Alpha blog. Originally, it appears to have been started up to discuss Castles & Crusades, but over time it has morphed into one blogger's exploration of the superhero RPG and an attempt to recapture the imagination and creative energy of yesteryear ( I can relate!).

O how I share this poor young soul's pain and suffering! Why O Why is there not a truly wonderful superhero RPG that does everything one requires? That provides randomness along with coherence; that is non-clunky/fiddly while still having the minutia required to keep it from being simplistic?
Although I've never come right and said it in this blog, I am a huge collector of superhero RPGs, and the reason is this Quixotic search for the perfect supers game. Yes, yes I have been very "anti-hero" when it comes to some RPGs...but superheroes are by definition, um, superheroes. One is supposed to create and play a superhero in a superhero game.

As they say in The Holy Bible: there's a time, a place, a season for everything (okay, yeah, I'm paraphrasing, but you get the drift).

Anyway let me list some of the superhero games I've owned and played over the years (I say "some" because there's no way I can remember all of 'em):

Heroes Unlimited (2nd Edition and Revised)
Aberrant (as well as Adventure! and Trinity)
Godlike (and boy would I like Wild Talents!)
Marvel Superheroes
Advanced Marvel Superheroes
Guardians of Order (??...I believe this is the name, have to check)
With Great Power...
DC Heroes

These are in no particular order...and certainly other games I've owned can easily fall into the "superheroic" category: Big Eyes Small Mouth, all the 2nd Edition World of Darkness books, Rifts and TMNT, Amber, etc., etc..

The problem is, they all suck.

Does that sound harsh? Yeah, I guess it does and I'm being curmudgeonly again. But they all fail to satisfy my itch to role-play superheroes which kind of defeats the point of being designed in the first place.

Marvel comes pretty darn close, but requires too much to play (specifically boards and pieces and preferably a pre-made adventure module that lists karma awards/penalties for each scene). Heroes Unlimited is probably my (*shudder*) favorite game for its combination of randomness and excellent classes but needs so much WORK, house rules wise that it's a true pain in the ass. Guardians screws itself (though I love skills like "flourish"), Capes has the truly awesome click-n-lock character generation system (and I like the bidding system, but in practice it turns out to be more of a collaborative story-telling system rather an objective RPG), and Sketch! is too simplistic and turns off people that don't like to draw. Aberrant is as close to Champions as I ever want to get, but the one-sidedness of the characters (no Iron Man characters here) and it's over-long chargen system hampers it...I want to blow people up, and that means needing a quicker way to roll up new characters. This goes for ANY system that has point-buys or skill selection steps (which is one of the reasons I've never bothered to invest in Mutants & Masterminds).

Scaling is a problem with most, especially DC (which is overly complicated to my logarithmacally-challenged brain anyway) and Marvel. And Superworld is just a bit less than complete for my taste.

ANYhoo...the point of this post is I feel Earth Alpha's pain...I really do. I was never a big comic collector as a kid but I was a huge comic reader...many summers in Montana I was spending my allowance to pick up comic books down at the old Circle K, just for the pleasure of reading some thrilling tales and lingering my eyes over the excellent art work. The on-going story-line wasn't important to me (as an adult it is moreso, when I pick up the occasional graphic novel like The Watchmen or the first two Ultimates trade paperbacks). But I wanted a chance to BE a superhero like Green Arrow or Ghost Rider or the Silver Surfer or even (lately) Captain America...kicking ass in a world of black & white bad guys and using my super cool powers for good.

[Daredevil was also a favorite]

I've read/heard that the thing that saved and promoted comic books through the lean years were there attention to story and their gripping characters/human dramas. As a kid, these things never mattered much. I didn't care that Yellow Jacket and Wasp got divorced or that Tony Stark was battling me these were side-plots that DETRACTED from MY reason for reading comics. Sure, I always hoped that Forge and Storm would get married (ah, the X-Men) but I was more intrigued by the sacrifices that had to me made (by both) in the service of the plot to stop the Adversary and "Save the World." These things made a compelling adventure story more poignant (Daredevil was great at this kind of thing) whereas other sub-plots showing the "human side" of superheroes (Peter Parker's BS drama with Flash Thompson and all that jazz) were less interesting to me.

So what, then, would I like to see in a superhero RPG? Unfortunately, it appears superhero RPG designers tend to focus on only one aspect or another in their games: worrying about the "drama" of the human stuck with super powers (and responsibilities, super or not) OR worrying about making a "butt-kicking"superhero combat game and hoping that SOMEhow, "story happens." Somehow a game needs to be devised that creates human drama within the adventure, as part of the rules design, while still allowing the players to live out the superhero fantasy (sorry Capes, WGR). I haven't yet seen it, though.

So, Earth Alpha, having said all THAT, I will be following his blog to see if he can somehow shape his many different RPGs into one coherent masterpiece of a game. I am pulling for him (and I'm not brave enough to try it myself!). Plus, I just like reading about different folks' superhero campaigns. I'm weird like that.
; )

Sherlock Holmes

By the way, saw the new Sherlock Holmes the Wednesday (did I mention I've been watching a lot of films lately), and it was pretty good. I mean, I'll never really think of Holmes as the "action hero" portrayed in the film, and Robert Downey Jr.'s English accent DID wander all about the various regions of the UK (ugh!), but it was well written and well-paced.

Plus I love the subject matter...I've always been a Holmes fan and love all that Victorian-era, steam punk stuff. It reminded me a bit of Young Sherlock Holmes, a film I really liked as a youngster; I should probably try to rent and re-watch that one. Charles Dickens + guns + Aleister Crowley/secret societies + up-tight sexually-repressed heroes/heroines = great fun in my book.

Though it IS a fine line. I did recently acquire Castle Falkenstein and though I've tried to read it a couple times, I find it a bit tedious...I mean it feels a bit too much like Shadowrun in the 19th century for my taste and that is NOT what I'm looking for in an RPG.

Doesn't mean Holmes doesn't make good fodder for an RPG. Coming out of the movie my wife, who loved it, exclaimed "I wish I could watch that every week...with a new mystery every time!" There we go, all the networks need to do is hatch CSI: Dickens England and they've got a sure-fire homerun least in JB's household.

But IF a film makes you want to keep watching it, or keep following the characters, especially in episodic vein...well, history has shown there's usually a properly licensed RPG on its way to press. Regardless of whether or not the RPG is any good or not. Of course, I don't think anyone could LICENSE Sherlock Holmes (perhaps the images from the film) as it's probably a matter of public domain by now. So perhaps we'll have several on their way to market? For my money, I'd want the Pelgrane Press, GUMSHOE version (if one is forthcoming) as that's about the only system I could see working for a Holmes-style RPG.

Of course, I have become infatuated with the 64-page RPG myself these days (I've got two already in the hopper...I'm starting to think it's the perfect medium for the role-playing GAME book). Maybe I should do my own version of Holmes?

Well, maybe not. Holmes by himself is a tad one-dimensional...but something steam-punk that pastiches Holmes (and maybe allows him to be an action-hero, etc., etc.) might be worth a pass at the drafting table.

Wow...all these ideas. Maybe I DO need to hire some staff artists!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

And Speaking of Drawings...

Just checked the ol' email and found a new illustration waiting for me...and of one of my favorite monsters! Added it to the working copy of the Companion tonight and I just have one word to say:


Some days, I have no worries about where this thing is going. Regardless of anything else, this is going to be a beautiful piece of reading. I can't say enough about the artwork I'm getting. I love it.

Thank you all!

Drawing is NOT Sketching

So a little confession...I'm much more of a sketch artist than anything else.

Having not taken any real visual art classes since high school (circa 1990), I sometimes forget this glorified doodles are SKETCHES, what are defined by wikipedia as "rapidly executed freehand drawings not intended as finished work."

Well, shoot...I just didn't have a reason to FINISH them before.
: )

I remember the first time I was pointed out as a fraud. This would have been sophomore year in high school and the particular "pointer-outer" was a girl in my Japanese (language) class named Sharlyn (as with all the other students in the class, neither of us were Japanese, and there was often some goofing and certainly daydreaming that went on). Sharlyn WAS an artist and could draw just fine. I, on the other hand, did nothing but sketch. "See?" I said, "here's a good one of the Little Mermaid hanging from a fish hook!" (years later I would mature and decry the abuse heaped on a Little Mermaid pinata, but life is different when you're fifteen).

"That's not a drawing," she said, "that's just a sketch."

She was cute and I had a bit of a crush (or maybe that happened in our third year? I don't remember), so I paid attention. Yet to this day I've never been much for real drawing, only pencil sketches.

Still...doesn't mean I can't try.

Tomorrow, the "to do" list includes getting a new sketch pad...scratch that, "drawing pad" in order to transcribe some of my sketches into a more permanent, finished form. The problem with the current sketch pad (in addition to it being full of sketches and not drawings) is that it's too small...I need something the maximum size my scanner can use so that I can get full-size images and shrink 'em down.

Anyhoo, gotta' get to work, especially with regard to the maps. The good Doctor is getting anxious, and it's tough writing numbered encounters without numbers.
; )

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Movie Madness

Ya' know, I've been so busy with...well, you know...stuff...that I've completely neglected to mention all the films I've been watching lately. Things like Avatar in 3-D and Ninja Assassin (at the Crest $3 movie theater). And of course all the Netflix like the post-apocalyptic 9 and Pixar's Up.

All great movies in their own way for certain...amazing, visually stunning, fantastic cinema (and home cinema) experiences. People are really starting to throw down when it comes to the film medium.

Of course, I'm a movie guy, so I'd watch 'em anyway even without all the fancy-shmancy F/X (saw Up in the Air as well); I like to watch old movies and re-watch movies (even old ones...saw Lost Horizon again and it's still great).

Anyway, I know there's been snarky talk on the blogs lately about all the poorly done pulp getting ready to hit the celluloid: Solomon Kane, Burroughs, new Conan. However, I'm more excited about a NON-pulp fantasy movie already in the works: The Hobbit.

Yes, I realize I have written some less-than-kind words about Bilbo Baggins in the past, but that was specific to some of the impact on the RPG industry. I love The Hobbit; I've read it at least 3-5 times, and have watched the Bakshi film at least as many (probably more). In fact, I saw the film before I ever picked up my first D&D game, or even the Dungeon! board game. The Hobbit may not be the main basis for fantasy role-playing but it was certainly MY first inspiration.

Anyway, Peter Jackson is producing and Guillermo del Toro is directing. I think del Toro is awesome. My wife introduced me to del Toro with his film Cronos (she's been a fan for awhile) and Pan's Labyrinth is one of my favorite films of the last five years. His ability to tell the dark fairy tale is something I really appreciate...I like the grim Grimms' tale, much moreso than the Disney-fied versions.

So I've been excited ever since I heard he'd signed onto the project: and one thing I've been telling anyone who will listen is I sure hope he takes a look at Dragonslayer before throwing together some lame-ass CGI critter for Smaug. You have JB? Yeah, I have. In fact, I was just saying it over brunch yesterday when discussing the upcoming film with some friends.

So now check out THIS quote I found today:
"One of the best and one of the strongest landmarks that almost nobody can overcome is Dragonslayer [a 1981 movie]. The design of the Vermithrax Pejorative is perhaps one of the most perfect creature designs ever made..."

As well as this on-line conversation with Jackson and del Toro. I won't bother quoting it here, but frankly I can't help but think one of my favorite novels of childhood is in truly excellent hands.

It's too bad the film isn't scheduled for release till 2011 (I do hate waiting), but at least we'll be able to see it before 2012 (when the world goes up in flames). Woo-hoo!