Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Diving Into The Inelegance

For those who come here for the D&D posts: apologies. Until the last couple days, I’ve had a bunch of Palladium rulebooks, several sets of dice, and piles of paper and pencils covering my kitchen counter (now everything's been moved to the coffee table in the living room). Even if I hadn’t originally planned on doing a deep dive exploration of Kevin Siembieda’s work...well, it’s kind of ended up happening.

It started off...hmm, let’s see...last Friday. After taking the kids to mini-golf in Edmonds, they decided we should go to our favorite game store (“since we’re in the neighborhood”), Around the Table Games. While poking around a bit, I was somewhat amazed to find no more than TWO Palladium books gracing the shelves (not two product lines...two single rule books): a used copy of Heroes Unlimited Revised and an equally used copy of Ninjas & Superspies. While I do own both of these and have in fact had HU sitting on my bedside table the last couple weeks, my son appeared to have been oblivious to this fact, asking if we could get one or both to play.

So we've been playing Heroes Unlimited.

*ahem* Kind of. Let's back up a few hours earlier in the day when I had a chance to futz around on my computer with everyone else still asleep in bed (kind of like this morning). Having just written a post about HU a couple days prior, I decided to actually go through the chargen as written in the ORIGINAL game, and create a handful of characters. One thing I've continuously had to learn and re-learn over the years: there are reasons a game is designed the way it is, and it's best to try it out before trying to "improve it."

And of course, with a laptop it's a lot easier to generate random characters than it was back in my youth. Armed with an Excel spreadsheet and the "randbetween" function, I was able to quickly generate four PCs using original HU's near-100% random system. And guess what? It worked pretty darn good! Each character came out with enough pieces that I could form an adequate picture of the character and their backstory with relative ease. I had the bullied Australian scholar from the poor background who'd ended up working for a private company and stealing their robotic exoskeleton; the silver-spoon Frankforter who'd joined the German military at a young age and built himself into a brick outhouse; the shy professor who wears hats to hide her small horns, and prefers to use her own academic prowess over her mutant psionic abilities; and the Canadian farm boy who volunteered for experimentation and was only (grudgingly) allowed to leave only after the installation realized they had no real way to hold a person with the ability to teleport.

That's some cool stuff right there.

Of course, it all falls down when it comes to the first non-random part of chargen: skill selection. I only took the time to go through the whole process for the Physical Training character...partly because skills are the WHOLE of his "power suite;" partly because, as a guy with an enlisted military background (rolled randomly) he had a lot fewer skills to bother worrying about than the guy with the Masters degree or the lady with a Doctorate. And even knowing that I was just going to take as many physical skills as possible, it took a loooong time. As such I didn't bother finishing up the other characters, let alone spend the time buying their equipment (Palladium, unlike most supers RPGs, doesn't have an "abstract" system for modeling the economy...instead you're counting individual dollars and buying every piece of equipment (even your costume, in the original rules!) from the budget that is your character's life savings).

Anyway, it wasn't just "inelegant;" it was ugly. So I set aside the HU figuring I'd come back to it in another six months/years...and then my kid encountered the books later that same day and wanted to play.

SO...we ended up going through the entire character generation process for him (by hand). After some discussion we decided to play HU (first edition) instead of N&SS. He also ended up with a German; a mutant with the power of shrinking (no change in mass). We did all the skill selection (I provided him with no hints or nudges except to explain that didn't need more than one hand-to-hand skill), just walking him through the process. He spent his fairly ample life savings buying guns and ammo out of the equipment section. It took probably close to two hours to complete the process of making "Dave Dangerfield" AKA "DD." And while that time probably could have been cut down quite a bit with system familiarity, keep in mind that a mutant is probably the simplest of the character types to create, and that we were using the un-Revised HU rules (only one superpower, everything random, choices limited).

[my original idea was to create a character at the same time, a fellow adventurer who would act as an NPC companion; however, I gave up the idea when I rolled Hardware character with a $500K budget to spend. Even without the super-vehicle design of later editions, that's just too much work for the quickie game I wanted to run]

It really emphasized Kevin Siembieda's philosophy with regard to the game's design: HU is supposed to be a "thinking man's game." It is not supposed to be all four-color action and superhero cliches (though what's more cliche than super-powered individual's saving conflicts with their fists?). The time spent in such an elaborate chargen system represents an INVESTMENT in the character; yes, it's also a part of play, too, but in spending so much time building, your identification process (with the character) starts early in the game.

I also think that Siembieda has made very interesting (and astute) choices with what parts are random and what parts are not. A person's education CAN be effected by a host of random elements: opportunities provided by accident of birth, changes in a family's fortune, a person's approach to academic life and standardized testing and how that balances with other aspects of the character's life (social, familial, economic). Codifying that into a random table to determine one's final opportunity at skill selection is appropriate...just as allowing the player to select skill packages based on that (random) opportunity is appropriate. There are things within your control and things outside your control. It really takes the "meta" out of character generation.

[yes, I realize long-time Palladium players will say there's still "meta" involved in selecting physical skills that will optimize a character for combat. Siembieda looks at it differently, writing (in 1E) that players should OF COURSE be optimizing themselves as part of their "training" for a career in hero work. That's not "meta;" it's putting yourself in the mind of your character, deciding whether you should be learning gymnastics or how to speak Russian or how to fly a helicopter]

Yes, I am really starting to become a Palladium system apologist (if I wasn't one already), at least with regard to the HU line of games. The problem is, that such an elaborate, granular system REALLY requires some simplification in order to run the game effectively. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, for all the "fiddly" it adds to player characters, still maintains a simpler way of codifying bugbears and goblins. A DM might care about every coin of encumbrance and the location of every belt pouch for a particular PC wizard or fighter, but NOT for individual monsters. And yet HU wants me to figure out skill packages and equipment lists for every NPC the heroes might encounter? Ugh! No way!

There are other good concepts in the game that fail in execution. Combat is still kind of a mess, as well as over-emphasized in this "thinking man's game." Some of what appears to have been "corrections" to (what was originally) a D&D chassis are over-thought, convoluted, or impractical in practice. Why bother splitting Charisma into "mental affinity" and "physical beauty?" Why bother having both "hit points" and "structural damage capacity?" And the firearms combat rules are just so...aaaaaRRRGH. I understand why they were revised (and why they were later re-revised), but going more abstract just doesn't jibe great with a combat system that was already over-specific, what with counting individual strikes and parries. The whole thing needs an over-haul.


Adventure setting.
The boy and I did get through the whole process of creating a character and had a chance to play an adventure; I used the "One Dam Thing" introductory adventure from Revised HU. While we didn't bother worrying how his German, rifle-toting mutant had ended up in Nevada, the nice thing about having the internet these days is that it's fairly easy to pull up specs for something like Hoover Dam (where the scenario takes place). I figured I'd saw the Revised NPCs down to 1E size (limiting Golden Eagle to just "gliding," for example).

But we never got that far. Danger Dave decided to set-up a hunting blind in one of the powerhouse outlets to the Colorado River a couple days before the projected sabotage was to take place. Failing a prowl roll and encountering a security guard, the PRINCIPLED character's first reaction was to blow him away with his .44 auto-mag, and did so with a natural 20 (critical) roll. After dumping the body in the river, he set up shop to ambush the other security guards (investigating the gunshots) with his H&K sniper rifle. Eventually this led to a bunch of State Troopers from both sides of the Arizona-Nevada border being called to the dam, where a melee ensued along the top of the structure. DD managed to dispatch maybe half a dozen troopers before being thrown off the top and plunging 762' to the concrete powerhouse below (while he succeeded at his "roll with fall" attempt, he still ended up taking 110 points of damage and splattering like a bag of blood and gristle).

A fitting end to our "hero."
Which just goes to show: Palladim games end up looking much the same whether you're eight, eighteen, or twenty-eight years old (at least, mine always have).

My boy immediately wanted to play again by the way, and has since created a new character: this time a Dedicated Martial Artist (ninja) using the Ninjas & Super-Spies set. More later, perhaps.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Inelegant Design

A bit of a divergence from more recent topics, but...

My kids are always asking me to play with them. This is, of course, a great blessing...I'm sure there are many parents out there who'd give their eyeteeth for children who preferred their attention to that of their friends or (worse) screens/devices.

It is, also (again, of course), annoying at times: not only are there other things that I want (or need) to do, but it bugs me that they sometimes seem to lack the capacity for amusing themselves. Growing up, my brother and I invented many games and pastimes to amuse ourselves without the need for parental supervision or inspiration...even before we'd discovered role-playing games. Imaginative play came easy (naturally?), whereas my children want direction in how to play. Lacking direction (and/or parental participation) they most often default to wanting some sort of screen entertainment: a video game or television to simultaneously stimulate and soften their brains.


All of which is simply a precursor to this: my son is interested in my game design "work," and has asked me on multiple occasions to create a "superhero game." I haven't had the heart (or patience) to explain to him just how many supers games I already own and are available, all of which are lacking in some capacity. But I keep telling him I will (eventually) get around to it. One of these days.

So it is that I've been looking at Heroes Unlimited (again) for the last 30 hours or so. This would be the original, un-Revised version that I've blogged about previously. Again, I've been struck by the real design sensibilities on display here: there is reason behind all of Simebieda's madness that simply isn't explained in later editions. Again, I'm frustrated by the gross editing errors, typos, and information left out...not to mention the sheer clunkiness of a system evolved organically in play. And reading the Revised and 2nd Edition books this morning, I again am struck by how much the game has changed ("evolved" as Siembieda writes) through its various updates. And not for the good.

And yet, and yet: the sheer monstrosity of HU, of its inelegance...I finally start to see something of the appeal and of why the game has had such staying power over the decades. As I struggle to search the various entries for even basic information (like how much SDC a particular power type starts with, or exactly how many hand-to-hand attacks a character should receive), I am forced to parse out various systems and discrepancies and make decisions ("rulings") about various aspects of the game...I am, in struggling to understand and grasp the game's concepts, in the process of learning and developing a degree of expertise with the system.

RPGs are difficult beasts to grapple with the table that is. Running an RPG, managing the players, the rules, the pacing and's a tough juggling act. And yet, streamlined "rules light" design (no doubt intended to excise complexity in aid of playability) ends up making games feel, well, less game-like and more like regulated story-telling...and the more simplified, the more this is the case.

Which, for me, isn't what I want out of a fantasy adventure game. It just isn't.

However, the other thing I do not want is a game where the system IS the game: where the real "play" is in crunching the numbers of the various in-game currencies in order to actually get to play itself. This includes any game that has point-buy/build systems (GURPS, Champions, MektonZ) or anything that has excessive character building through "option selection" (any D20 game or any version of D&D post-1988). I want to get to play without the extra prep of "building" and once play starts I want players to be "in the moment," un-worried about how their character might develop over ten plus levels.

So here's this monstrosity of a game called Heroes Unlimited, full of these clunky, unbalanced character classes, non-unified systems, often ugly aesthetics, and inelegant design. And yet I can randomly generate something like 50 different character types right out of the box, not counting differences in ability scores or power selection. Assuming I have some a decent grasp of the comic book genre (even with a limited, non-nuanced perspective), I can run a game right out of the box. And even without adjusting the rules I can tailor the game play to many sub-genres of supers play, incorporating nuance (the issues of vigilanteism or incorporating modern day politics, for example) as opposed to simple, four-colored action. Its asymmetry, unburdened by toolbox aspects of later games, makes it ripe with the potential of "Advanced" play.

In that way, it really does earn the moniker "Unlimited."

Jut something I'm musing on this morning: the features of inelegant design. Cheers.
: )

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Welp, I've been back from my short "vaca" for a day or so, and it's time to get back to "work" (such as my work is). Had a lot of thoughts come into the old "think box" during the course of the trip...thinks that might apply to my proposed "South American" campaign setting. However, as I've found that writing 20,000 word, meandering posts tend to be less-than-effective at communicating (or organizing) my ideas, I'm going to try to break these up into bite-sized chunks.

SO, as a bit of a "precursor" allow me to say that on our way back from Montana we stopped off in Leavenworth, Washington for a couple nights. This was my first trip to "the Ultimate Holiday Town USA" and it was pretty trippy.

See, Leavenworth was established in 1906 (as the souvenir t-shirts proudly recount), but the small logging town went into a long economic decline after Great Northern Railway relocated its headquarters to nearby Wenatchee in the '20s. Located on Highway 2 (the road that cuts through Stevens Pass in the Cascades) the town would probably have appeared to be a nice little vacation getaway for folks seeking outdoor recreation...say fishing the Skykomish or hiking. But the building of Stevens Pass Ski Resort in the 1930s, the presence of Lake Chelan for boating and water sports, and the sheer number of similar small towns in rural Washington probably contributed to Leavenworth being nothing more than a wide spot in the road for road-trippers heading out of the more populous King County. I'm guessing.

So it was that in the 1960s, a pair of "Seattle business men" who had bought a roadside cafe and was looking at a way to increase the tourist traffic to the area, hit on the idea of developing Leavenworth as a "theme town," a recreation of a Bavarian village with buildings featuring architecture out of 1800s Germany, shops selling lederhosen and Alpine hats, and menus filled with schnitzel, beer, and brats. The wikipedia entry says they were inspired by Solvang, California who sport a Danish-themed town, whose town has been a tourist draw since the late 1940s, pulling a million visitors per year. As Leavenworth draws twice that number annually, I think it's fair to say they've succeeded in becoming the tourist attraction they want to be.

For me, I have mixed feeling about it. Yes, it's cute (and I am, of course, a fan of beer and brats), but it feels excessive. Worse, much of it feels, not just artificial, but a touch insincere. My kids' first reaction was "it looks like Disneyland" (they've never yet been to Disneyland), and why not? Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle is the model for Disneyland's iconic palace, and it's located in the heart of the region (and time era) that Leavenworth seeks to model.

And that's the thing: I've been to Bavaria. I've been to Neuschwanstein and Munich and Rothenburg. And while, yes, there's a lot of beer and schnitzel and sausage to be had, there's much more than that. There are plenty of buildings that don't have the cutesy architecture and faux gothic signage going on.  I mean, even the local hospital looks like some sort of Alpine chateaux!

The thing about Solvang is that it was a Danish community that originally settled it. And it was Danish immigrants and their descendants that, after WWII, tried to recreate some of the architecture and sculpture they'd seen in the fatherland while fighting in Europe. When the Danish Prince Frederick visited Solvang as part of his US tour in 1939 it was to see the Danish people living there...the "theme town" hadn't yet become a "thing," though I'm sure there were Danish traditions being kept alive in Solvang just as the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle keeps alive parts of the community's Norwegian and Swedish heritage (you can buy lutefisk at the right time of year, they have a seafood festival to commemorate Norwegian Constitution Day, for example).

Leavenworth, on the other hand, has no particular German heritage, and certainly no connection to Bavaria. They could have chosen to style themselves after an English village or a province of China or some town in Mexico or whatever. It's cultural appropriation, I guess...though since the culture being appropriated doesn't belong to a minority or historically oppressed people, I suppose there's no real stink to be raised about it. Probably there's some enterprising business folks in Berlin considering how to transform some small community into a theme town based on the "American West" with cowboys and Indians and saloons and whatnot.

[oh, wait...there already is (thank you, internet): Pullman City Harz is an American "wild west" town in Northern Germany. Awesome...especially as it appears to be named after Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!). If I ever get back to Germany, maybe I'll give it a visit]

Anyway, despite my queasiness over the blatant commercialism...and a certain amount of bloatedness that comes from two days of sauerkraut and maibok....the place IS cute and a very nice place to visit. Yeah, it's goofy/weird but at least I can get a German-ish meal at a restaurant that will serve my kids, too (such is not the case with the best German-style pubs in Seattle), AND a big ol' stein of HBH. Most of the locals are engaged in the tourist industry, and most of the working folks I saw were younger than me, or not much older. I'd guess they've never known their town as anything other than what it is, and while they share a similar strained-weariness all tourist-industry folks have towards their clientele, they still approach their theme with a certain amount of gusto. When I spoke of "insincerity," I wasn't talking about the people, more the choices made in executing the "theme" (I can forgive a hotel called The Edelweiss but "Mozart's Steakhouse" is a bit tougher for my Austrian heritage to swallow).

*ahem* The POINT being, that Leavenworth is a fun place, and one I wouldn't mind returning to...maybe not for Oktoberfest, but definitely for a long weekend in summer or around the winter holiday season. And while I doubt I'll ever pick up a pair of lederhosen, I'd probably buy a beer stein if I found one that suited my taste (or lack thereof)...and I wouldn't feel too bad about it.

All of which, I realize, appears to have ZERO to do with gaming. But as I consider using real-world geography, history, and peoples to build a campaign setting, these issue of cultural appropriation looms in my mind. I'm not so much worried that I'd be giving offense to someone, so much as I worry I'd be perpetrating bad, false, or tasteless stereotypes in the name of "fun." How much is "appropriate appropriation" and how much is excessive? What amount of authenticity is acceptable and what constitutes "too little?" What amount is respectful to the cultures in question? Maybe these are silly, academic considerations (especially considering I'm not even running a game at the moment), but they are things I think about.

More on this later, along with some ideas I've had on possible approaches to my "problematic" campaign setting.