Saturday, February 19, 2011

Special Saturday Post - The Weekender

So today a good friend of mine is celebrating his birthday by running an all-weekend D&D game. We're playing from around lunchtime Saturday up til about midnight, then gathering again tomorrow and running until later than we probably should on what is a work night for many of us. The game is 4th Edition D&D and he has worked up his own adventure for us. We have all built brand-new 4th level characters and are ready to go. There are 8 players, so it's going to be interesting to watch how things work out. This group of players has never played together as a team before, so that should be fun too.

The group consists of a Bard, a Cleric, a Bow Ranger, an Invoker, a Dragon Sorcerer, a Warden and then Lady Blacksteel's Rogue and my Fighter. I like to have a theme for my characters - on the rare times I get to play one, anyway - so I went with a fairly easy one this time:

Marcellus Maximus, former gladiator in the Great Kingdom, now a special agent of the County of Urnst

Original? No. Easy for other players to grasp? Yes. Another new wrinkle that I wanted to try was making characters that were intended to work together most of the time, so Lady Blacksteel's character ended up as a gladiator-themed Rogue - she's the hammer, I'm the anvil. We are former arena fighters from the Great Kingdom of Aerdy (this one is set in Greyhawk) who eventually left (or maybe escaped or maybe won their freedom -it's not something they talk about a lot) and ended up in one of the Urnst states and eventually put their talents to work for the ruler.

Mechanically the trick is that rogues can add extra damage to one hit per round when they have combat advantage (this is the current version of the Backstab from 1E). So how does one achieve "combat advantage" one might ask. The traditional way is through flanking, or positioning two characters on opposite sides of an opponent, and reams of data have been discussed on the internet about how to achieve this. One interesting note as well is that a prone opponent  also grants combat advantage to a melee attacker. This is where I decided to add some focus.

The Rogue and the Fighter have both been created in a way to allow them some ability to reposition even if they are in melee. There are a lot of powers and feats built around this idea so it's not terribly difficult. Fighters though have some powers that let them knock an opponent prone and I took as many of them as I could. There is also a feat which gives me a +5 to damage rolls against a prone opponent. Lady B's Rogue gets her sneak attack damage against a prone opponent as well so if I can knock someone down and keep them there, they will not last long.  There are some other tricks in there too but that 's the main theme of this pair - I set her up and she knocks them down, and if they're still breathing I can knock them down some more. 

Anyway it should be fun. I spoke with the Warden too, the other "front line guy" and talked a little bit about how to work together so we should be in good shape. Kids are foisted off on other family members, junk food and drinks are secured, and dice are gathered. I believe we are ready.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Some Love for the Multiversal / Cross-Genre Game

I'm not sure what the official title for this type of game but I know it when I see it. Forerunners to this concept include Lords of Creation and maybe even Well of Souls in that they included concepts for characters and environments that were previously considered separate. Starting in 1988 we had moved a step closer with GURPS third edition which got very popular and touted as one of its selling points the ability to mix genres - Magic, Fantasy, Space, Supers, etc. There wasn't any particular book telling you how to do this but it was discussed among players and DM's quite a bit.

Hero System went to a 4th edition in 1989 with the express purpose of making this kind of mixing and matching possible. Pretty soon we had a new Fantasy Hero, Star Hero, and Ninja Hero written as supplements to the main rules instead of as separate games by themselves.

Both games however remained a sort of framework on which you could hang multiple genres if you choose to do so but most actual campaigns were straight-up Fantasy or Sci-Fi or a Supers or a conversion of some other game to these rules. "Universal" is not the same as "Multiversal".

The next logical step was to do this crossover thing as a part of the game setting from the start. This gave us some really cool games that took this idea in wildly different directions.

Shadowrun launched in 1989 and was really the first - "D&D with Guns" was one way to put it. The whole cyberpunk setting with traditional fantasy elements dropped in was a revelation as it did not really reflect any particular novel or movie or comic book that was popular at the time - even though it borrowed from a bunch of existing stuff it truly felt unique among RPG's and pretty much everything else. It had unique mechanics to go with it and they were pretty cool in play too. There was a second edition in 1992 that fixed a lot of small problems with the game, a 3rd edition in 1998 that was still pretty similar, and then a 4th edition in 2004 that went in a somewhat different direction mechanically. I stayed with it from 1st to 3rd, playing and running in multiple campaigns. I know in local circles at least this was maybe the closest to D&D in the ease of getting a game together as everyone could find something to play - magic-user, shaman, ranged combat guy, close-in combat guy, primitive, hi-tech, stealth expert, vehicle pilot- it covered a lot of ground and I never had a problem with a player finding something they wanted to play.

The background (which I assume most people know by now) is a baseline cyberpunk society recovering from a worldwide internet crash when the world is suddenly invaded by the Player's Handbook. Suddenly walking around town with a katana makes sense, especially if you have wired reflexes, body plating, and a friendly mage nearby to heal you. You can get claws like Wolverine, guns like Neo, and throw spells like Dr Strange, although probably not all in one character as magic and cyberware tend to not get along.

It used a dice pool mechanic, the "System of the 90's" much like percentiles were the "System of the 80's" and it worked, although it drove math people crazy trying to calculate probabilities. It was unique and flavorful and really seemed to fit the universe, kind of like the d6 Star wars game seemed to really fit the universe.

In 1990 we got Torg from West End Games which used a system similar to DC Heroes (a good start for this kind of game) which got fairly popular at first due to the spectrum of options and some innovative mechanics but it seemed to fizzle out (locally at least) by the mid-90's

The background was a baseline modern earth that was invaded by other dimensions that would then impose their own laws of reality on part of the earth. North America went Stone Age + Dinosaurs, England went High Fantasy, Japan and Italy went Cyberpunk (2 flavors), and Egypt went 30's Pulp. There were other zones too but you get the idea - if there was a genre that you liked there was probably a place for it in Torg Earth. PC's had a special rule that separated them from normal people in that they could resist the reality-warping effects of the different zones so that the cyberguy's guns would still work in England and magic would still work in the Cyberpapacy.

The mechanics innovation was twofold - something similar to the MEGS system of interchangeable units for time/distance/weight/etc. and the Drama Deck. The deck was pretty cool and dropped random conditions into encounters and could also be used by the players to change things up, sort of like a hero point mechanic.

Now I never played a lot of Torg but I played a few one-offs and liked it enough to pick up some of the game later on. Most of my players never tried it and have no interest in doing so now so I may never run it or play it again but it has a degree of cool that still differentiates it from other games. The flood of supplements turned a lot of people off as they were frequent, sometimes badly edited, and full of changes to the base rules - kind of a triple-whammy when it comes to expansion material.

Also in 1990 we got a pretty heavy hitter in RIFTS. Few can deny the coolness of Rifts' setting and concepts, but even fewer will defend its mechanics as they are ...quirky... to put it kindly. It's the Palladium system which is to say it's a hodge-podge of D&D mechanics (3-18 ability scores, d20 combat resolution), percentile skill system similar to RQ, T2K, and Star Trek, and a point system for magic and psionic powers. Let's just say the mechanics are at least familiar to most players. The background and setting though is all new and incredibly rich.

The baseline is a future-tech earth, similar to early Gamma World, say 100-200 years in the future with the expected technological advances - robots, energy weapons, power armor, cybernetics, biological enhancements, brain implants, etc. Despite these advances someone starts a shooting war and things quickly escalate. As millions die in minutes due to nuclear and other weapon exchanges the psychic energy released rushes around the world reactivating ancient energy pathways (circuits in a way) that circle the earth and where these lines cross they begin to tear open doorways to other dimensions - the RIFTS of the title - and hostile creatures and weird energies come rushing in, killing even more people. Things do eventually stabilize but the population is maybe 10% of what it was and after what is basically a human sacrifice on a planetary scale the earth is supercharged with mystic energy and is now a dimensional nexus unique in the cosmos and things begin to come a callin'. One hundred years later, man's civillization is cast in ruins and a new world rises from the old...

One major city survives in North America and becomes home to a human-supremacist anti-mutant hi-tech power and their skull-themed vehicles and uniforms figured prominently in the artwork and ads for the game and it was pretty cool. The early supplements included Vampire Kingdoms (Mexico is full of vampires) and Atlantis (a fantasy-fest magitech city run by evil alien intelligences who have magical power armor and rune weapons and all kinds of cool stuff. Triax was another early good one featuring Germany as a corporate state using power armor and vehicles to fight off a gargoyle invasion (gargoyles are a type of lesser demon in Rifts).

A potential weakness that only fully came to light later was that every possible thing a character could do is written up as a separate class and there is no multi-classing! However the classes are not a rigid list of powers like D&D but more of a list of bonuses, a few abilities, and a selection of skills followed up by a gear allowance. So they aren't terribly restrictive and the good thing is that every time I have seen it in action every player had a hard time choosing one type of character to run as there are a lot of cool choices. Not many other games cover the range of character types that Rifts does - Dragon Hatchling, Power Armor Pilot, 3 kinds of mage, 3 kinds of psyker, cyborg soldier, crazy (chip-enhanced ninja type), juicer (super-steroid soldier type), Cyber-Knight (Jedi), and Rogue Scientist (Indiana Jones) are just a part of it and each book adds more. The game also allows for the use of their other games to make characters - Ninja Turtles and Superheroes fit in pretty easily as do Palladium Fantasy characters and even Robotech if you have that book and have run out of Zentradi to shoot.

The biggest mechanical problem with the game for some people is the lack of balance between classes, powers, and gear. Compared to something like D&D 3E where balance is a goal and D&D 4E where balance is required, it's jarring - "Who would play a Rogue Scientist or a Wilderness Scout when they can play a Glitter Boy (super power armor with giant gun) as a starting character/" For those of us raised in an earlier era this is not a deal-breaker (most of the time) but it was an issue from Day 1 and it still is as Rifts is using the same system today that it did in 1990 and makes no apologies for it. It adheres to the earlier concept that role-play limitations can balance mechanical advantages that is rejected in most current game systems. If you can live with that, Rifts can be a lot of fun. If not it's an exercise in frustration.

Rifts has rolled on for over 20 years with a steady stream of new material, not all of it good, in the same 2-column black and white softbound format. They occasionally revise an old supplement or put out a compilation of something, but someone who had not looked at the game in 10 years can pick up a new book and understand it just fine. While sometimes derided as a munchkin game, it was very popular in the 90's  and has outlasted a lot of other more "mature" or "elegant" games. It is a throwback in some ways to the early days of D&D/AD&D as any ongoing game is guaranteed to have house rules, shared conventions, and possibly even misunderstandings unique to that group - it's the most old-school game still in production today and I admit I have a huge soft spot for it even now.

Since 1990 there really hasn't been another new multiversal game published. I think they are an artifact of the time but I'm not sure why.  Underground was a sort of Supers-Cyberpunk combination. Vampire got popular during this time and sucked some of the life out of everything else. I think a lot of people home-brewed it with Hero and GURPS. Maybe the idea was just never that attractive to as many players as it seemed at the time, at least once the initial "Cool!" wore off. Maybe the initial concept that allows the mixing of genres also tends to limit them in some way (it's hard to mix cyber and magic in Shadowrun even if a player really wants to do it) so that it turns off some people who are interested in the idea and they go off and make their own. I'm still not sure it's juts odd to me that while 2 of these 3 games are still going 20 years later the genre of "multigenre" seems almost as dead as the PA and Cyberpunk genres: A few supported games mostly played by the same people that were playing them 10 years ago and not much new in either products or players coming along.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Love for the Western Game

This one is going to be somewhat shorter than my last two posts

Someone finally brought Boot Hill to our little group about 1983 and we played it a lot. I ended up with this cover (below) but the contents were the same

This was a fun if limited game focused mainly on shootouts. You could do whatever you wanted but most of the rules centered around gunfights. We quickly grew tired of this and used the conversion rules in the DM's Guide to mix it with D&D as that was a LOT more exciting. I spent more time in the Lost Cavenrs of Tsojcanth with a group of bank robbers running from the law than I ever did with a regular D&D party. Hostile elves (er, "Funny Lookin' Indians)? Gatling gun. Angry hill giants? Dynamite. It's fun and I recommend it to everyone at least once.

That was the majority of my cowboy gaming for a long time. There have been a few others over the years - GURPS Old West, Western Hero were both nice treatments of the historical aspects but didn't add much. Aces and Eights is a really nice game that actually lets you run a real western campaign without mixing in D&D with rules for ranching and cattle drives and a cool combat system but I've never been able to talk anyone into playing it. It's unfortunate but true as it's a really well done game.

There's only one other Western game worth mentioning in my opinion:

One of my favorite games that I've never played and only run a bit is Deadlands. It's everything cool about westerns + some D&D types stuff + alternate history + interesting mechanical systems - a home run on every level. There was a ton of supplementary material released for it from short story collections to a miniatures game to adventures and regional supplements. The whole thing is great and while it's not a truly historical or realistic old west game (there are mad scientists and magic-users) it is the coolest one by a mile.

If you don't like the original, occasionally clunky system then you are in luck as there is a GURPS conversion. a d20 version, and a Savage Worlds version. I'm a big fan of the original system but I would probably run the Savage Worlds version nowadays - it sacrifices some detail but it works really well. I thought the d20 version was fine but lost a little flavor and the GURPS version is...well...GURPS. It's the same concept expressed in a very different mechanical way and one that might lean a little too far towards "realism" to truly reflect the atmosphere of the original. If you can find a way to work in the cards and poker chips of the original into your system of choice then you are that much closer to capturing it.

As much as I love it I've only run it a few times and all of those were one-off's. Even in Texas (or maybe because we live in Texas*) no one I know has ever wanted to play a long-term western game as the primary or even a secondary game.   It's a hard sell it seems and I don't know what it would take to change it if the coolness of this game can't break through the barrier.

I know there are some other western games out there but these are the one's I've played and love so I can't say much about the rest.   If you think there's one that's contributed to the genre then let me know in the comments.

*yes I own 4 pairs of boots, no I don't own a hat or a duster (come close a few times though) and no I don't own any cows or oil wells - just to get that straight.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Some Love for the Science Fiction Game

I know I have posted some sci-fi stuff but it's mostly been Star Wars so I thought I would spend a post on other non-Star Wars RPG's that I have liked over the years.

Traveller was my first non-D&D RPG and I encountered the "3 books in a box" back in  1981. I never ran much original Traveller but I spent hours and hours generating subsector maps and planets, rolling up characters, and designing spaceships. The fun toolkit aspect of it cannot be overstated and I spent much time at the library photocopier ensuring I would have the proper sheets to record my experiments. There wasn't a lot of "chrome" or fluff back then, just hard-science mechanics and economics. I doubt many kids are asking their parents what "amortization" means at the age of 13 but if you got into Traveller it was important to know. It's not only Hard Science in the Traveller universe, it's Hard Economics too. We played through some of the original adventures and there was a fair amount of support in Dragon as well - remember, it wasn't always a WOTC house organ. There was an article on robots around issue 64 that I used far more than the official supplement.

Megatraveller came out in 1987 and it was huge - finally Traveller had a unified task system and full vehicle construction rules and even more detail on planets and systems and I ate it up. I ran and played a lot of Megatraveller and had a blast. It was backwards-compatible too, similar to how 2E D&D games could easily use 1E modules with about zero changes. This is the version I have played the most over the years. Despite having some interesting adventure material published for it, we pretty much always played our own campaigns, albeit set in the Spinward Marches. It was very much the classic "Merchants and Merenaries" type gaming that has been used with Traveller since the early days. Most memorable character was Sonny Crockett, former space detective (Hey they had a "Law Enforcer" career that was interesting and gave some good skills like Stealth, Intrusion, and Pistol.)

Then Traveller the New Era came out about 1993 and crashed hard - people hated the background, people hated the new mechanics (it was completely incompatible, mechanically, with the 15 years of prior material). I liked it as an environment and I had already seen the mechanics in Twilight 2000 2E so I still thought it was a good game it just wasn't Traveller as we knew it.  We played it a little but if anyone brought up "Traveller" in this period it  pretty much meant "Mega" not "New Era".

Traveller 4 came out some time after this and sucked. Ugly books, pointless changes to the mechanics, the worst editing I've ever seen across an entire product line - there was just nothing good about it. There were some interesting ideas like the Pocket Empires supplement that let players run a space empire (kind of like the dominion rules in the D&D Cyclopedia) but the execution was so bad that no one wanted to give them a try. T4 was so bad that it has the distinction of being one of the few games I have completely disposed of after purchasing. I got it, picked up most of the supplements, realized it was a dog, and dumped it. Bleah.

GURPS Traveller was another version that overlapped with TNE and T4 and if you like GURPS it's a cool game, using the technology and background of Traveller with the mechanics of GURPS. I've played it briefly and while I like GURPS fine for many things, it has a different feel than the original Traveller mechanics which puts it in a position similar to TNE - some people like Traveller for the system and if that's the case then you're not going to care for GURPS. My crew was never all that into GURPS so when I suggested it one time the response was that we could just play Mega and not bother with yet another system.

Eventually Mongoose Traveller came out and I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality - it went back to much of what made the original popular, smoothed out the system from the original books but didn't get as detailed as MegaTraveller and found that magic balance in the center of simplicity, elegance, familiarity, speed, and effectiveness that is so rare among game systems. It has a unified mechanic of 2d6 + skill or stat vs. a target number of 8 - that's it! There might be some modifiers to fix the maneuver drive if you're under fire and venting atmosphere, but the core mechanic is darned simple and works well. It brought back semi-random character generation and much of the good stuff from he original version without focusing solely on the Third Imperium universe. I've only played it a few times and I have not run it but it rally impressed me and I hope they keep making it for a good long time.

The second sci-fi game I picked up was Star Frontiers and it was very much the "light science" counterpart to Traveller. More playable alien races, more weapons (but still oddly fixated on current tech like Jetcopters and ATV's and bullet-guns) it was more Star-Warsy in feel but still went for some level of realism. The original box was packed with basic rules, advanced rules, a two-sided poster map, counters scaled for the map, and a starter adventure that was good enough that I am using it to kick off my Star Wars campaign 30 years later. It was awesome and much time was spent one summer fighting off the escaped hydra and chasing down smugglers on the big city map. It didn't have the subsystems like Traveller did, but it had its own kind of cool.

A year or so later the spaceship expansion came out, Knighthawks, and it was pretty cool too since there were no space rules in the original game. There was a whole series of adventure modules too, many of which didn't suck. SF as a whole continued to receive really good support in Dragon magazine as well, including a set of vehicle combat rules that we adopted instantly and never let go.

After about a 4 year run Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space came out, tried to convert the whole thing to a color chart system ala Marvel Super Heroes and Gamma World 3E and pretty much killed the whole thing. TSR was under new management and went off after Buck Rogers as their new space game. We never used Zeb's guide and we didn't think much of Buck Rogers either.

The other space RPG of my "Big 3" is Star Trek the RPG, mainly the FASA version. From 1982 on thorough the rest of the 1980's this was Trek for me. It had great production values, the system felt like it fit the universe, and it was well supported with adventures, a starship combat came, miniatures, and magazine articles.  When a new movie came out, we got a new supplement describing it. It made Klingons (and later the Romulans too) interesting and multi-faceted characters instead of orcs in space. People used to rave about Trollpak for Runequest as an example of a home-run monster supplement, but my standard has always been the Klingon supplement this set. I played it with my Captain character for years either in a party or even solo if no one else wanted to play sticking with the same ship and some of the same crew throughout that time.

It's the only game I can remember where "Luck" was a stat. It served as a sort of hero point mechanic in that you could take a luck roll at times as substitute or a backup for a bad roll or a low skill. humans were the only race that did not have a negative modifier to their Luck stat, which explained quite a bit of their success as trusting to your luck was actually viable for many human characters, unlike many aliens.

Combat used an action point system, counters, and a grid map and could be very nasty - as it should be when you can disintegrate opponents in one shot. Ship combat had several levels of detail and used counters on a hex grid plus the very cool control panel approach. In combat each character (running a bridge crew member presumably) ran a different panel - engineering for power allocation, navigation for shields, helm for weapons and movement, etc so that each player had something to do during space battles. This is something many space games have struggled with yet this effective system was published 30 years ago!

At the end of the 80's Next generation was the cool new thing and FASA lost the license. Eventually Last Uncorn came out wit ha new Trek game and I just didn't like. Decipher came out with one a few years later and I do like it, but I've never run or played it. I have all the books for it and they sit on the shelf and await their baptism of fire. If I had a choice to run a Trek game I'd go for Fasa first, then the Decipher version.

There was also "Prime Directive" - I played a whole lot of Star Fleet Battles and I know the universe pretty well and would love to play in it, but PD has been cursed with bad mechanics since it firat appeared in the 90's. The GURPS version isn't bad but I would probably go Savage Worlds for mechanics. Heck, Mongoose Traveller might work too with some customization.That's an interesting idea.

The last entry in this list is Mechwarrior, or the Battletech RPG. The 1st edition came out in 1986 just as BT was getting popular and we jumped on it right away. It was a fairly limited RPG as it was totally focused on having the players play the guys who drive the giant fighting robots used by various noble houses in an almost post-apocalyptic universe 1000 years in the future. If you were into the premise then it was awesome. if not, well, you probably didn't like Battletech either. There was a 2nd edition in 1990 and a 3rd edition in 1998 and all were heavily supported with regional supplements, unit supplements, and of course books of new mechs and other vehicles.

The problem with Mechwarrior was that most of the RPG rules kind of sucked. It's not even so much that the rules were bad it was that they were very narrowly focused and pretty clunky. Sure, we played them as they were the official game at the time, but we also converted them to GURPS (with one group anyway) and experimented with other systems too. Today I would probably use Savage Worlds (I know that's a real surprise to anyone who reads the blog regularly). Sooner or later I will be introducing the apprentices to this game but not just yet.

Campaign-wise we usually played mercenaries - less interference that way. We usually started out with 4-6 characters with 1 mech apiece and built our unit up over time - or died horribly, depending  on how the battle went. When the Clan invasion happened we stayed with the inner sphere and slowly built up our tech whenever possible.  Most memorable character: Wolf Blitzer the XXVIII rd "reporting to you live with the famous Atlas-Cam during our orbital drop on Galtor" -yeah I made him a freelance combat reporter. With an assault mech. He was fun.

Some of the others:

Babylon 5 - a mechanically dull d20 game with a ton of background from an awesome show. Had it, never played it or ran it, eventually dumped it.I had hopes for the Traveller version but it was so full of errors that I skipped it entirely.

Shatterzone - kind of cool from West End Games that kept the card mechanic from Torg. Never ran it, never played it, still have it.

Space Opera - friend had it, tried to run  it, gave up and went back to Traveller as it was complicated for no good reason. Had some interesting ideas but that was about it. This is one I've never bothered to pick up.

Star Hero - I like the Hero System, I like sci-fi games, but I've never played or run it

GURPS Space - played some, but weapons get very deadly and GURPS out of the box is not particularly cinematic or forgiving of severe injuries. If you want gritty in space, GURPS works very well.

Robotech - the game where Mega-Damage first appeared and where it was a good idea. We played around with this a little bit and it was a lot of fun. This and TMNT were my introductions to the Palladium System and I thought it worked just fine at this level. It never took off here as we were a Battletech group but we didn't hate it and broke it out every once in a while for short scenarios.

Anyway, there's a bit more background on my gaming past- it hasn't ALL been D&D. It is funny though how the focus has narrowed over the years. In the 80's I would say Traveller not something we played much more than Trek or Mechwarrior but since then it's been the only consistent sci-fi game in our rotation. Even then, it doesn't get played a ton. These days I can't get anyone interested in Star Trek (I thought the new movie would help there -nope) and Babylon 5 was a non-starter even though a) everyone I know liked the show and b) everyone liked d20 games. I'm not sure why.

I would say maybe we don't like playing in other people's universes, but Star Wars has made a few appearances over the years. I would think maybe it's not playing in places where the main story has already been told but again - Star Wars always has at least some interest. Maybe it's the action element that makes the difference, but B5 was pretty much about a war and didn't lack for action. With Trek I blame the Next gen to some degree - back when all we had was Original Trek there was a fair amount of butt-kicking going on but then the later version got all righteous and decided that meetings were the best way to resolve conflicts. I'm pretty sure FASA Trek didn't have Facilitation or Presentation in the skill list so maybe that killed it for my guys. I suspect the later versions of the show also started to look like playing a Paladin in D&D - there are a bunch of rules you're supposed to follow and to many that equals unwelcome restrictions on what they can do. There's enough of that in real life so they would rather play something where they can cut loose like D&D. I think it's the biggest brake on Jedi players in a Star Wars game too - some don't want to deal with the Jedi Code anymore than they want to hear about the Prime Directive, so they will take a smuggler with an old beat-up ship and a 100,000 Credit debt over cool powers if they are likely to get lectured about them.

So maybe that's my insight from thinking through all of this: People (my people anyway) want to play games where they have a great deal of freedom of action and potentially important choices, even moral choices - they just don't want to be harangued or lectured or berated by NPC's for those choices. The restrictions should come from the player's head, not from fear of (or the hassle of) NPC disapproval. 

I've never really broken that down in quite that way but it does fit the pattern over the years.  Now I have to figure out how to use it. I knew this was a good idea!

Anyway if you have a thought or an insight here, or if you spent time with one of these games, post it down below.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Some Love for the Post-Apocalyptic Game

I haven;t posted much about them because I haven't been playing or running them, but one of my favorite RPG genres is the post-apocalyptic game. One big attraction of these kinds of games is the ability to run around with ridiculously overpowered weapons with no powerful authorities who can take them away from you which is a lot of fun most of the time.

The first PA game was Metamorphosis Alpha which was set on a huge generation ship somewhere out in space where things have gone somewhat wrong and now there are mutants and berserk robots running around the ship. I love the concept and I want to run that exact scenario someday, but it was not the first PA game I played.

My first PA game was Gamma World, 2nd edition. A friend bought it, his brother and I made up some characters, and then he ran it for us and it was awesome. I still have some of my characters from that game, including Roard, the mutated lion who was strong and could use a sonic blast every so often but had was vulnerable to water. He spent most of his time in plate armor and carrying a two-handed sword but he was not averse to laser weaponry when it was available. We wandered through ruins, fought bandits and raiders, took on the Legion of Gold, and eventually dropped a neutron bomb on a fortress of the Knights of Genetic Purity - not many games include nuclear weapons on the treasure tables but Gamma World does!

We stayed with Gamma World through 3rd edition and the color chart. I was OK with the mechanical differences (though I still liked 2E just fine) but I thought the background changes were annoying. The different levels of results allowed them to add in some cool effects like disintegration or stunning when certain weapons got a Red result. The most frustrating thing was that if you played it as-written then starting characters had a really hard time hitting anything.

The 4th edition came out in 1992 and made more mechanical changes. It dropped the chart and centered around d20 rolls (fairly similar to Alternity and 3E D&D which were still some years away) but it added classes of all things! I wasn't thrilled by this, preferring earlier versions' classless and even levelless design, but mechanically it was a much smoother system for a long term campaign so we played a ton of it too. Despite the reputation of being a silly game we usually played it as straight as one of our D&D games. It wasn't like we were playing Toon or Paranoia or something. GW characters were fairly tough and you could usually expect to be playing with them for a long time.

Down the road there was the Alternity (5th) edition and the outsourced d20 (6th) edition, neither of which I ever played.  There was also Omega World in Dungeon which was a pretty good translation I thought. Now we have the one based off of D&D 4E which looks like fun but which I have not purchased yet. I don't know when I would run it and if I had the time I would rather start people new to the game out with an older version, maybe 2nd.  I still own copies of 1st edition through 5th edition so there's hope yet, just not this year.

 The other "big" PA game I played a bunch was Twilight 2000:

 We got into this in the late 80's a few years after it had been published but it was still being supported. Despite being lumped in the same general genre this was a very different game from Gamma World. Weapons were deadly, characters were fragile, and supplies were limited.

Coming from GDW, maker of historical and modern wargames, you would think it would be very realistic and in a way it was but it had some odd abstractions. Instead of meticulously tracking each round of ammunition (potentially important in a game with a ton of automatic weapons and ammunition no longer being manufactured) the game tracks ammo in 3-round groups, so a 100 round belt of ammo is 33 shots in the game. It was a little weird because you get situations where a 7-round pistol only has 2 shots. It's an oddity in an otherwise hard-realism game because all of the real-world measurements have to be translated into this 1/3 number and of course you get questions of rounding. In the end, you're still tracking a bunch of ammo, it's just that the numbers are divided by 3. I never understood the rationale behind this but while it was jarring at first, we eventually grew to ignore it.

The game used a percentile system for rating skills and task resolution was a simple 3-level system: Easy = Skill X 2, Average = Skill X 1, Difficult = 1/2 Skill. This could be brutal as the best you could start with was 80% in a skill and most would be lower than that. This gave a very good chance of failure on average or difficult tasks, whether sneaking up on someone or shooting them with an M16. There was no hero point mechanic or anything similar, so you just had to live with various outcomes.

Despite some of these issues the game was fun as an exercise in survival. We determined that quite a bit of the time your state at the start of the game was as good as it was ever going to be - uninjured and well-supplied - and it was all downhill from there. gear was used up, lost, or stolen. Vehicles would break down. Ammo would be expended and not replaced. Your first big battle or two would be spectacular, but after that the missiles are gone, characters are hurt or dead, you've probably lost a vehicle or two and can no longer transport everything you had - it was a long downward spiral for the most part. Occasionally you might find a base or a warlord you could join and improve conditions, but it was rare or inevitably had some drawbacks. I would attribute this to DM style but it happened with multiple DM's and even when I tried to run it I found this to be true. It makes for an interesting counterpoint to D&D's upward progression in power and acquisition of stuff with a regular downward progression and shedding of stuff. It's an interesting game though not a particularly cheerful or lighthearted one.

It was very well supported with adventures that also served as regional sourcebooks. Post-war Europe was covered heavily at first and then the line moved back to America and covered most of the country in a series of books as well. Armies of the Night (New York City), Red Star/Lone Star (Texas), Airlords of the Ozarks (Arkansas/Missourri) all led to some really fun situations.

One other note - the art is very good, being almost all pencil works by Tim Bradstreet. I think the single artist using a single style approach gave the game a very consistent and realistic look, exactly what the game needed.

First edition was the "80's" edition, so in 1990 Twilight 2000 2.0 was released with a horrible (though definitely attention-getting) cover and made the impressive triple score of a) alienating most of the existing players by completely changing the rule system, b) completely failing to draw in new players with some exciting new mechanic or approach to the genre and c) picking absolutely the worst time for a WW3 game to come out as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

 The rules changed over to a d10 system where stats and skills were rated 1-10 and then added together to resolve tasks and it was bad. Nowhere near as granular as the old system and making stats just as important as skills threw a lot of players off. Automatic weapons fire was rolled with a set chance to hit, regardless of skill and while it might be realistic it didn't sit well with players who were proud of their 90% in Combat Rifleman and found that it didn't apply to one of the major parts of combat in the game. All in all it's a really good example of how to de-satisfy a vocal and passionate fan base with unrequested changes.

The rules were also dull - not that 1st edition was flashy, but 2.0 was just...dull. One of the outcomes of a new edition should be renewed excitement about the game and some positive buzz - there was none. The cover looked like it belonged on  either a Star Wars adventure module or a Paranoia supplement. The interior artwork was largely reused Tim Bradstreet work form 1E which while good it was not new or flashy or anything cinematic - unlike the cover. Combat was very by-the-numbers with no special maneuvers or  chrome rules. It ended up playing pretty similarly to the original edition in a lot of ways but it required one to learn a whole new set of rules - why bother? There was just nothing new or innovative or exciting about the game, nothing that it did better than the old one or made new players say "I want to play that".

Finally the timing while probably not foreseeable just killed the game.  I sometime wonder if post-world war 3 gaming is as much an artifact of the 80s as cyberpunk and giant robots, as the younger set just does not get it. Zombie apocalypse -sure. Nuclear war between superpowers - "oh that's not going to happen". It's a weird little historical divide that I didn't think about at all at the time but that I have noticed more as time marches on. Anyway interest in the game outside of the already-indoctrinated dwindled rapidly as the 90's went on.

GDW retooled the game as Merc 2000 by setting the same mechanics in a less-devastated world which would allow players to be soldier types without requiring a nuclear exchange first, but it just was not that interesting for most T2K fans. They liked their anarchy and their alcohol-burning tanks and running missions for corporations in other countries was too much like Shadowrun minus all the fun stuff.

They also released a reworked edition of the game about 2 years later as Version 2.2 - this included a new version of the same system using a d20 instead of a d10 and it was much better and had a more robust skill system - I actually liked this version quite a bit and it's the same one that went out with Traveller New Era and was an update to Dark Conspiracy much like it was for Twilight. While it got some positive buzz among the players I knew it was not enough to save the game (or GDW) and it died when the company went under about 1994.

The last PA Game I have some experience with and love for is Deadlands: Hell on Earth

This is a great game with interesting (if a little clunky) mechanics featuring radiation priests, paladins, cyborgs, mutants, mad scientists, and zombies. It's everything the western version of Deadlands had + vehicles and automatic weapons. There's more of a supernatural element than in most PA games that feature a strictly technological view of things but that's kind of refreshing and helps give this universe its own flavor. Among the many supplements is one that includes an adventure that is an homage to Escape from New York, earning the whole system massive cool points with me from that alone.

When I first got it I created a bunch of characters and wrote up some short adventure scenarios and I have actually run a short campaign. I called it "Ghost Rock Blues" and wrote up a really cool introduction (think Star Wars crawl) and started the PC's off trapped in a ruined retail store in the middle of winter as a horde of walkin dead closed in. The survivors headed west and ended up doing some exploring and losing one characters running car before the game ended about 6 sessions in.

If you're a d20 fan there was a version of it made for d20 which is remarkably complete for being a one-volume treatment. There was also a separate creature book too, and it's worth finding this version if you have a group that really likes their d20 system. There has not been an official Savage Worlds version yet but I expect we'll see it someday.

Other PA games:

Aftermath - I own a copy of this and as you may have heard it is indeed ridiculously (and needlessly IMO) complex. If you think T2K is for babies, this is the game for you. Never ran it, never played it. Some of the adventures are very cool though  and I have used them for other game systems. The Australian trilogy is a particular favorite of mine.

Morrow Project - I own an adventure for this but that's the closest I have ever come to it. I've never read or even seen the rules so I really can't say much about it other than it exists and has its fans.

Autoduel - this was a GURPS supplement based on the Car Wars universe and if you like that (think Road Warrior or Death Race if you are unfamiliar with it) then you will really like this. The background and character options are very cool, the only problem comes when trying to run car combat using the GURPS combat system - you are much better off just running it in Car Wars. It's a similar problem to Mechwarrior/Battletech in integrating personal combat into a game focused on vehicular combat but it can be done. There's no nuclear exchange and not many mutants but civilization has collapsed and the countryside is now a lawless wasteland between hi-tech fortress-towns. Let me put it this way: If you think the idea of a passenger vehicle called a "Busnought" is cool then this is worth a look.

Rifts is a PA game but it is part of a different trend so I will cover it in another post.

After the Bomb was Palladium's entry into the genre (before Rifts anyway) and it's actually pretty good. I own all of the books for it and I played around with it once and it is a lot of fun. It's a little like Gamma World but not quite as random and can actually make a coherent campaign if you choose to do so.Road Hogs is an especially flavorful supplement if you get interested.

Darwin's World was an early d20 entry that I picked up in its first edition incarnation. Once they went to 2E using d20 Modern (which I never got into) I quit following the line. it fell into a sort of middle ground, being less "out-there" than Gamma World but more out there than T2K. The best thing I've heard about it recently is that a new Savage Worlds edition is coming out and that should be pretty interesting.

Mutant Future is a recent retro clone of Gamma World 1st/2nd edition and it's pretty cool though I have not run or played it yet. I expect I will in the future. You can download it here.

Final thoughts:

The post-apocalyptic role-playing game has been a rare animal, nearly dying out in the late 90's and 2000's  after being a fairly significant part of the RPG scene in the 80's. The only game that's been in print for most of that period  is Gamma World and it's been through about 7 editions in 30 years. We're in a bit of a renaissance right now with both GW's big shiny box for new-school fans and Mutant Future being available for old-school fans and Savage Darwin's World coming available as well. The one thing I keep seeing anytime one of these game comes up is that it's mainly an older crowd that cares about them. To some degree people will play what's available and these were never the dominant titles among RPG's. If most groups out there are playing D&D or Pathfinder and many players never played these kinds of games anyway then finding one is going to be difficult. In the age of the internet though, I doubt any of them will ever really die. My 2011 is booked up but given the background hype I may make 2012 my Year of the Apocalypse and run some GW or some Mutant Future for the apprentices and maybe even the main group too if they're interested.

I'd love to hear others' experiences with these if anyone reading has played them - leave a comment!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Special Valentine Post - This Thing of Ours...

Ah romance - and dice. Seems like they rarely mix for a lot of folks. If you're a guy who plays tabletop RPGs or miniatures, or even board wargames as a regular hobby thing then you've probably had The Conversation. You know, the one where you reveal your terrible secret to the object of your interest. Typically she then runs screaming.

The younger set has it somewhat easier now - nerdy things are much more common and accepted than they were. Odds are good that at least a few girls in the school play WoW and that's a good start. I can tell you that in the 80's there were maybe a few girls in an entire school that knew what D&D was and only 1 or 2 of them would play it. For the rest, it just tagged you as "NERD" and ensured they wanted nothing to do with you. So many of us did what smart guys like us (who liked girls) thought was best - we hid it.

When I got my first apartment, all the gaming stuff went into its own room along with the computer. Compartmentalization ensures that your place looks like a perfectly normal  guy pad as long as you keep that door closed or don't let her go up to the loft - at least not with the lights on. It's also a good place for those posters that you realize are kind of dorky but secretly still think are cool and don't want to just get rid of. It's also a safe place to hang up your Greyhawk or Faerun or Metropolis poster maps.

As a single teen or twenty-something getting your own place you might think "Sure, I hid it from girls in junior and high school but now I'm getting out into the working world or going to college, it's different, right?" No - keep hiding it. Trust me, it's better that way. She's probably hiding something too so it ensures balance in the relationship.

Ok but what if you meet that special someone and you date for months or years and you really want to open up to her about this thing we do. You can show her your Hall of Gaming and see if that freaks her out or you could let her sit in on a session and see if that freaks her out, but the order might be important. Is she more likely to think ill of you because you have a shelf of books that say GURPS on them or will she be bothered more by your friends speaking in weird accents and quoting Monty Python and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Whichever one it is pick the other one first. I'd say you've got about a 50-50 shot of keeping her that way. if you aren't sure but she's still asking why you are unavailable every other Friday night let her go right on wondering - she might think you're cheating on her but that sometimes makes girls feel competitive and that usually livens up those other Friday nights - at least for a while.

Oh, another hint- before you try to explain it by saying "it's kind of like WoW" FIND OUT WHAT SHE THINKS OF WOW! It is possible to make things worse with an unwelcome analogy. If she's into scrapbooking then "it's kind of like scrapbooking with dice" is a solid opening. Plan this out and make it work - you only get one shot.

When I got married (see - hiding your stuff works) all of the gaming stuff lived in the garage - mini's, paint, poster maps, shelf after shelf of books - a lot of women won't mind your obsession as long as it lives in The Garage which is the traditional storage place for guy stuff (at least down south - for our more northerly brothers it may be "The Basement" or more likely "That small unfinished room off the basement with the bare concrete walls and floor" ) This also ensured when I got divorced that my stuff was already out in the garage and it could be conveniently thrown in  boxes and left in the driveway to be hauled off, but that's not really what you're shooting for at the beginning.

So then, being 30-something, single, gainfully employed, an adult, and on my own again I went about setting up my own place and sticking with what worked before I hid my game stuff again. I had a garage and a spare bedroom so that's where the shelves went. Close one door, keep them out of the garage and voila - I look like any normal person upon a casual inspection. Plus it keeps kids and pets from messing with them too - I still shudder at the memory of the 3-Year old vs. the Man O War mini' poor ships!

I continued this policy for several years being vague about how I was spending some of my weekend evenings and found no lack of female companionship. Only after someone had been around for at least 6 months did I show them the Batcave and reveal my secret. Generally this led me to realize there were only a limited number of states one could be in:
  • Significant Other/Doesn't know about game stuff - This is where most relationships will start. Hey if she doesn't know then it's not a problem. She will probably find out eventually though. Stability: Moderate
Once she finds out or you open up the secret door and let her in, then you can be in one of three states:

  • Significant Other/Does Know/Doesn't like it - Doomed, baby. You're not going to stop gaming are you? She's not going to stop hating it is she? Hear that ticking sound? You should. Stability: Minimal

  •  Significant Other/Does Know/Doesn't Care - A refreshingly open-minded stance that can last for a long time. She doesn't gripe about it (most of the time) and doesn't care about joining in. She also knows you're hanging out with guy friends so she isn't concerned about other girls causing problems. Stability: High
  • Significant Other/Does Know/Likes it - this is the rarest situation of all in my experience but it is wonderful if you can find it. You don't have to hide it anymore, your stuff can come in from the garage (some of it anyway) and she might even let you paint minis on the dining room table when the garage is too cold. You almost have a gaming group right there at home, you can plan characters as a team if you choose to do so, and you finally have a reason to paint up that "female fighter in chainmail" mini you got in that set 10 years ago. The only potential problem is that if there's a game on Friday night at a buddy's house and you have kids she's not going to volunteer to keep them at home while you go play - so find a good sitter and don;t screw it up! Stability: High
Now after several years of interviewing potential candidates I eventually ended up with that last situation, pretty much for the first time ever, and I highly recommend it. Now she wasn't a gamer before I met her - she was pretty much unaware of the whole scene. I eventually let her in on it then she asked if she could come over during a game. She did, she liked it, and within a month or so she rolled up a character and joined in. Of course I married her pretty quickly after that as you don't let something like that happen and just ignore it - it's clearly a sign from Thor or Uatu the Watcher or something.

Sheriff Sandie and Sheriff Blacksteel

 Now we had known each other for quite a while (years) and had many other things in common (kids etc) so gaming was not the only factor there but it definitely made a difference. Finding a long term relationship that enhances my little hobby instead of ignoring it or even interfering with it is an amazing thing.

Night Falcon and Storm Bird
 Sometimes they will even indulge you with your silly computer games and join you in something they never would have even conceived of a few years earlier - making up a costumed superhero and joining you in your new obsession.

Aluminum Girl and Aluminum Falcon

So this is my tip of the helmet to Lady Blacksteel, who sometimes reads my ramblings and is usually polite enough not to make fun of what I say. Thanks for being just that little bit more special- in this particular way - than I already knew you were. I don't say much about it  when we're together but it's one of the many things that assured me you were the one when this started, and I still shake my head sometimes because of it and think about how lucky I am to have found you.

Captain Shamrock and The Martian Manhuntress

Motivational Monday - Special Star Wars Valentine Edition