Saturday, July 31, 2021

"Everyone Has A Gimmick"

This is a bit of a "throwaway post," but I feel like I've got to get something down on Ye Old Blog, and I've just had a hard time writing anything lately. Oh, I've started a couple-three things...I've got a post titled "Time Warp," one called "Down Rabbit Holes," and a third called something like "World Without End." Oh yeah...something-something about encumbrance. But I really don't have the mental brain sweat at the moment to address all these potentially O-So-Profound subjects with the requisite gravitas they so richly deserve. 

So F it.

Instead, I'm going to hearken back to someone else's blog post of yesteryear, specifically this little doozie from Necropraxis called Only Ten from back in 2012. For some reason I've had this old post open on some random tab of my laptop for I-don't-know-how-long and I don't even remember why I was looking at it (let alone what I was thinking saving it). Maybe it came up when I was doing some search for Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play? I don't know...really I don't.

Anyway, for the disinterested, the gist of Necro's subject was the following question: if you could only keep 10 printed RPG books, which would make the cut?  Now I'm not sure about my lovely readers, but I happen to be a middle-aged dude who's been playing (and collecting) RPG material for close to 40 years, and while much of it has been sold, lost, or stolen over the years, I still hang on to a substantial amount of printed material. Enough to fill a bookshelf and a half plus a cupboard, and (perhaps) a large plastic crate or two.  And that's just the printed material. That's a LOT of books to pare down to just 10...and a particularly tall order for a packrat like myself.

Still, while I'm glad I don't actually have to burn the bulk of my library, it's an interesting thought exercise. And it's one I went through in my head earlier today: just what would I keep? Strangely enough, B/X didn't make the cut (due partly to me having memorized most of it, and partly having purchased PDFs from DriveThru...when I absolutely have to look something up these days, B/X is quite searchable on the ol' laptop). Mainly I was thinking of games that would allow me to play (or recreate) multiple genres of fantasy, interesting systems, or thoughtful design. Here's  my list at the moment (in no particular order of priority):
  1. AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
  2. AD&D Players Handbook
  3. AD&D Monster Manual
  4. Heroes Unlimited
  5. Maelstrom
  6. Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader
  7. Sorcerer
  8. Vampire the Masquerade (1st edition)
  9. Hollow Earth Expedition
I can't really bring myself to choose a 10th book...there are a few that could make the cut. The Fiend Folio, of course (and almost certainly would be). Deities & Demigods (the original) makes a strong case if only for its official ability score tables up to 25 and discussions on clerics, worship, and divine ascension. Beyond the Supernatural, Rifts, Gamma World, Deadlands could all go in there...even Ars Magica (1e), Orkworld, ElfQuest, or Over the Edge. And I hardly need not be mentioned how much I love both Ken St. Andre's Stormbringer (1e) and Marc Miller's Classic Traveller (I have the core book compilation from GDW)...that last one (Traveller) might even be able to edge out HEX in the #9 spot. 

Ugh...I completely forgot Twilight 2000. But it's box set technically consists of multiple books. If the original system had a single hardcover, it would leapfrog several of the "possibles" for the #10 slot. It just has a wonderful system for near-future post-apocalyptic games. 

The thing is, MANY of the games I own would be simple enough to recreate, and many could stand a rewrite using a different, more convenient system. Such was definitely the case with Shadowrun (my B/X style knockoff Cry Dark Future is a testament to that). Beyond the Supernatural or Gamma World could both be remade quite easily using B/X (see Mutant Future for an example of the latter). I've run great Top Secret games using the Story Engine system (first published with the Maelstrom RPG) can easily be used for other genres asking for "rules-light-story-heavy" mechanics. Of course, OD&D is easy enough to make out of AD&D...if one wanted...

Some may find it curious that 40K makes the list when it's not really an RPG. What can I say other than it provides exactly the kind of science fiction I day, far in the future, I'll completely rewrite both it and HEX (Hollow Earth Expedition) using a different system from what they've been given. But I find their books to be incredibly imaginative and inspirational, as is. Nice art, too.

Folks might note there are no "supplements" making my list. I generally can write my own supplemental material (that's kind of what I do). That being said, I love Ron Edwards's Sorcerer supplements, especially Sorcerer & Sword. Unfortunately, Sorcerer makes the list because of its elegant design principles (and diabolic themes) more than because it's a game I play a lot (I don't). It's an inspirational reference, especially for its narrative sensibilities, and I like it better than other story driven games like Fiasco, Polaris, and Capes.

The real odd duck on the list though is (duh) Palladium's Heroes Unlimited, an RPG I've written enough of in the past. You'll note the cop out above where I don't pick any single particular edition of the game...there are a plethora of differences between 1e, "revised," and 2e HU, enough so as to really alter game play for the participants. 1e was the best written, but "revised's" tweaks to certain classes are really welcome (including the addition of the magical power set) and I would probably go with that. 2e is just a tad over-the-top...although if you want to include uber-powerful characters (equivalent to Thor or the Hulk) you really need to check out the "mega-hero" option in 2e. It's rather beastly, though nothing one couldn't work out for their own campaign (my buddies' long-running HU campaign in high school created their own "mega-powers" list using only the revised rules...long before the advent of a 2nd edition).

And, yeah, for those who hadn't already guessed, this is all just a rambling preamble to talk about superhero stuff.

As I wrote in my last post, my in-laws have been in town, and were supposed to fly back to Mexico on...mmm, Tuesday? Yeah, Tuesday last. But after our last road trip with them, the kids discovered that abuelo (their grandpa) hadn't watched any of the Marvel movies (The Avengers, etc.) and so decided to embark on an epic marathon of film watching...basically one movie per night for 2+ weeks (in chronological order), culminating in Avengers Endgame the night before they were supposed to leave town. And since it's summer time, and we still have things going on during the days and evenings (and we don't watch movies during dinner) this has meant starting 2-3 hour films around 10pm every night and not getting to bed till near 1am.  Um...yeah. And I still get up around 6:30 to take care of the one beagle I have left.

Consequently, I've been in something of a fugue state with a mind inundated by cinematic superheroics for much of the last month. Makes it a little hard to focus.

[hmm...wonder if that's had anything to do with my lack of a "will to write" lately. Certainly can't help]

Anyway: I am NOT about to start dipping back into designing superhero RPGs (again) as happened last April (wow! A month long tangent that started with this post!)...I've just got too many D&D irons in the fire at the moment (and little enough time for juggling those). But that Necropraxis article made me consider long and hard which hero game I'd bring with me to a desert island and I was, well, a little surprised at my own answer. Despite having written on or about the subject a thousand times in the past.

But in consideration for having the MCU force-shoved into my brain lately...well, sometimes I have to do something to spew the excess waste material from my cranium. Here are my current (as in, today, this morning) thoughts on the subject of superhero role-playing games (SRPGs):
  • an SRPG should be run in real time, as much as possible. Day 1 of the campaign should start on a real world date (even if heroes/villains have been "training" or whatever for years). 
  • an SRPG should be grounded in as much "reality" as possible (no picking up buildings by the corner, or flying faster than the speed of light). Super-technology can make impossible things possible, within reason, but shouldn't be readily accessible/understood by Earth humans (so as not to disrupt what passes for "daily life" in the real world) least when starting the campaign. Magic falls under the category of a "super-technology" (with the same stipulations).
  • the campaign world should be set in the real world. Imaginary cities/countries (Metropolis, Atlantis, Wakanda) should be avoided. Extraterrestrial and extradimensional entities are okay, which can explain mythological-type beings (Thor or whatever).
  • the campaign world should be allowed to spin out of control based on the occurrences of the game.
  • all heroes/villains should start as "unknowns" to the general public, i.e. they have no reputation for being "super-anythings" before the start of play. Actions taken by characters will determine public perception.
  • Day 1 marks the first appearance of super individuals in the campaign world
  • an SRPG should be generally "free-wheeling" with logical consequences to follow
  • no weapon fetishes: make and model of firearms and caliber of ammunition should have near zero impact on game play.
  • experience increases effectiveness of characters. Active superpowers (things that turn on-and-off) either increase in scope/impact, or ability of character to use. Experience is gained through play. Time spent not playing will not result in experience.
  • an SRPG is not a comic book. There is no plot immunity for characters.
  • an SRPG is not a film. There are no guaranteed happy endings.
  • an SRPG is a game about super (i.e. "greater than human") individuals in a human scale world and those individuals impact on the world. The PCs may become champions of the people or conquerors of the world. 
  • The referee's job is to establish challenges for the PCs. For villainous PCs, these challenges can take the forms of law enforcement, task forces, and heroic super teams. Challenges should be commensurate with the scale of the PCs' abilities. Scale is determined by sphere of operation as mutually decided by the referee and the players.
  • All PCs have a drive that allows them to push beyond the boundaries of ordinary humans.
  • All PCs have a flaw that can be exploited by adversaries.
  • All PCs have enough humanity to allow players (including the referee) to relate to the character. Thus, no artificial beings or alien creatures lacking human emotions, feelings, etc. The game is not about how well a player can portray a plant thing, inhuman monster, or celestial/infernal being. Likewise all PCs must be sentients of at least minimal intelligence for operating on planet Earth (the campaign setting); the game is not a comedy of errors based on an ignorance of cultural norms.
  • There should be at least some randomness in determining a PCs particular "power set;" players are neither allowed, nor expected to come to the table with a fully formed character concept.
*Whew!*  Aaand...that's about it. I've decided that I'm no longer all that interested in forcing players to act cooperatively or assign them to super-powered task forces...I'm not even (particularly) interested in them acting as "heroes." Instead, I'd rather just offer them opportunities...multiple...just as one might with, say, an AD&D campaign setting. Being a planet such as we have, it's not like the PCs couldn't hop a plane and be most anywhere in less than 24 hours, so lot of possibilities for adventures are possible...and "story arcs" have nothing to do with any of it.

It's a little different from how I've thought about SRPGs in the past. 


  1. My ten:

    1: The Traveller Book
    2: Barbarians of Lemuria
    3: Stars Without Number revised
    4: Worlds Without Number
    5: Empire of the Petal Throne
    6: The Arcanum 2nd edition
    7: Atlantis the Lost World
    8: Unknown Armies 2nd edition
    9: Cyberpunk 2020
    10: RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha

    Surprisingly, no GURPS. That's because I ended up filling out ten volumes of just GURPS books and still wasn't fully happy. Better to lose the whole thing. Same goes with AD&D, really—they just take up too many slots where I can run a solid D&D based on S&W Whitebox almost entirely from memory. Maybe I should replace something with Delta's Book of Spells, which is the only thing in a D&D I can't quite do from memory. Maybe I could replace Barbarians of Lemuria with it.

    I'd be interested to see a superhero game with the parameters you list, but I'd point out that, in my experience, players get really touchy about not being able to pick their powers. As a player who once had a character (for MSH) whose primary power was swimming really fast, put into a scenario where swimming didn't fit well into the plot, I can sort of see the point. In a game with the parameters you mention, though, where players are in a sandbox and trying to leverage what they get to achieve personally-chosen goals, it might be a different story.

    1. I may just love those old AD&D books too much to let them go. That's kind of the reason behind keeping VtM (all the great Tim Bradstreet art!), when I could probably run THAT game from memory...if I ever wanted to do so again.

      I understand wanting to pick your powers, wanting to emulate Batman or the Hulk or whatever (and, for the record, I HATE the randomness of power generation in MSH, especially the advanced game). But I've come to a couple conclusions:

      A) I can't think of any "designed" super character (EVER) brought to ANY of my SRPG games (in any system) that didn't annoy the heck out of me. These include MY OWN "concept" characters. Maybe gamers aren't the best judges of what makes good super characters?
      B) When characters HAVE worked, they were randomly generated (but had sensible powers) and the player just "rolled with it."

      This has led me to foment a half-baked theory that MAYBE when you give players the autonomy to create their own characters it emphasizes the individual rather than the game being played...and RPGs are supposed to be cooperative. When a comic/film creator designs a character, it's with the idea of telling a certain story (or stories)...but that's not the point of an RPG (well, not MY RPGs). Instead the point is to go on merry adventures together and see what happens. And I think the latter (random) method of creating one's character helps DE-emphasize the individual. Or something.

      But, yeah, hopefully players would be too busy dealing with the opportunities presented in the campaign world (using what the dice or whatever gave them) to worry about not getting to be "Spider-Man."
      ; )

    2. Ugh, looking at my list, I see some things I'd have to change somehow. I really want Over the Edge, because Naked Lunch the RPG is just too much fun. Probably drop Worlds Without Number in favor of Delta's Book of Spells, Atlantis the Lost World for Over the Edge, and then The Arcanum for either the Sailor Moon RPG or Stormbringer 4E. This is hard. I also want a copy of Fantasy Wargaming (the original English release, not either of the American editions).

      And then there's Flashing Blades, which is great, but was a boxed set and then also had at least one must-have supplement (High Seas). Or Hârnmaster, which has a ton of setting material that is pretty important.

    3. I have the original (British) FW and, yes, it nearly made my list. I understand your agony.
      ; )

  2. I wonder about the possibility of an indirect system of character generation like Traveller. Where you might have a general idea of what you want but you have to follow a set of nesting tables and gambles to get to the final result.

    1. Traveler’s “game within a game” of charges is pretty cool, but not quite what I’m thinking of. After all, PCs are supposed to start as newbie super persons, not experienced veterans…in this way (at least) they mimic the first issue of a new comic series.

    2. Ugh. That should say “chargen” (“character generation”) not “charges.” Damn autocorrect.

  3. Oooh, a toughie...
    1. Original Fasa Mechwarrior rpg
    2.The Traveller Book
    3. DnD rules cyclopedia
    4 3028 vehicles tech manual by FASA
    5. Starships and Spacemen
    6. 3025 Mech Technical manual by FASA
    7. Citytech
    8. 1626 Battletech Rules of Warfare
    9. House Marik, fasa
    10. Cranston Snords Irregulars

    1. Wow, that's a heck of a lot of BattleTech! I'd be tempted to throw some of that up there myself...especially the original MW...except that I know the base system by heart (and could probably construct many of the classic 'mechs from memory).
      ; )

  4. The manly option is taking Holmes Blue'77 and 9 porn magazines

    But I personally would add Pokethulu, Pits and Perils and Blueholme to the list, also Pendragon (never into it but, knowing myself I will probably like it)

    1. I don't know about that being the "manly" option, but certainly the "porny" option.

      Many of the Chaosium systems would give you (more-or-less) enough to recreate any other Chaosium (or similar) system, but Pendragon really is its own ball o wax. A good ball, though, and a lot you could do with it if you step outside the Arthur setting.

  5. There are a lot of things on your list of supers rpg shoulds setting-wise that run counter to the source material. Is that just the sort of game you're interested in now or are you saying that's the best way for supers settings to be period?

    1. Mmmm...neither? Or maybe both.

      I'm not sure a cooperative RPG based on the source material is entirely possible...I think that's the reason so many super RPGs fail to deliver on expectations. The stuff I listed above is what I'd like to try...maybe it would fail miserably, too, but it's a bit of a different route than I've seen previous.

      My joy for comic books in general is pretty low these days.

    2. @JB: I think that the issue is that superhero games are intensely reactionary (or reactive). The characters, as "heroes", are reacting to the actions of the "villains", rather than pursuing any actual goals of their own. They are trying to maintain a pre-existing status quo, not do something proactively. If the characters were villains within the game setting, though, things might be different. The players could devise plans, enact heists, generally make changes in the setting that were in keeping with their characters' goals.

      I'm not the first person to notice, this, but I can't remember who it was that I first read about the perspective.

    3. I'm still thinking about this, of course. Maybe the Referee could set up villainous organizations, with locations, agents (both normal and superpowered), resources, criminal activities like protection rackets and whatever. Then the players could maneuver their characters through finding out how the organizations are structured, develop plans to affect them, and so on. The game would probably have to be structured like the Sine Nomine games, with detailed faction rules. That's how Kevin Crawford handled his sandbox horror game, Silent Legions, which suffers from similar issues of agency.

    4. "Supers Without Number?"
      ; )

  6. I decide to try the "ten" exercise. It is difficult, as JB notes, and I made it more difficult by adding a d6-only rule. Here's where I landed. I cheated on "Final Frontier" which will not see print publication... but mostly these are titles that I've enjoyed reading and re-reading and which I find fun and inspiring.

    Feng Shui (2nd Ed)
    Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition
    GURPS Autoduel (1st Ed)
    GURPS Humanx
    GURPS Lite 3e + Final Frontier*
    Icons Assembled Edition
    Risus: The Anything RPG (Excessively Deluxe Edition)
    Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator's Toolkit (Last Unicorn)
    Star Wars RPG (WEG revised 2nd edition)
    The Fantasy Trip: In The Labyrinth (Legacy Edition 2nd printing)
    Usagi Yojimbo RPG (Gold Rush Games)

    1. Ha! Hardcore with the challenge. Much respect, Bob.
      : )

    2. Nothing like a nine-year-old meme to eat up two or three hours of brainpower. Seriously, I needed to soak my skull in ice afterward.

  7. This is actually timely for me, as I've been slowly reducing the number of rpg books that I have, particularly as I've been able to get the in pdf format. But I'm no where close to getting down to just 10. So my list is:

    Star Wars 2nd ed Revised & Expanded (WEG)
    Tales of Jedi Companion (WEG)
    Star Wars Dark Side Sourcebook (WotC)
    All Flesh Must Be Eaten
    One of the Living
    Armageddon- The End Times
    Rules Cyclopedia
    Alien RPG
    GURP Cabal

    Similar if this included box sets a couple I can think that would replace some of the things on this list.

    Twilight 2000 - 1st edition possibly with a supplement or two.
    Forbidden Lands
    Star Trek (FASA)

    1. I've acquired a lot of great box sets over the years: from FASA, TSR, Chaosium, etc. Great supplements, too (like Thieves World). But I had to draw a line with the exercise, otherwise I'd be wracking my brain even more than usual!