Friday, August 24, 2012

Remembering a Trek Campaign

Barking Alien has been talking Trek this month and I've mostly kept my comments there but he hit a pressure point with this post and as my typing continued I decided that it belonged as a full-blown post here more than as a simple comment there.

I was fortunate enough to have the experience described in his entry - pretty much everything we did in the FASA Trek RPG was one long campaign. I rolled up a command officer and pretty quickly took command of the U.S.S. Lexington NCC-1709. That was pretty soon after the game was released, so call it 1982. We ran all over the Federation dealing with everything from Gorns to Orions to Klingons. We played through a few published adventures but it was mostly the GM's own ideas. We might go for several months without playing Trek, and then come back to it, then move on. Our friends made characters, lost characters, brought in new ones - looking back it was a lot like what I think that kind of life would be. My character was about the only constant, though our Vulcan chief engineer was around for most of the campaign too.

Eventually The Lex was used to test out an experimental sensor system which included fire control system upgrades as well. I think the original intent was to be more effective against Romulan cloaked ships (this was before Klingons were cloaking all the time) but we didn't go that route. We ended up in a tremendous fight against a Klingon task force - I don't remember the reason behind the fight but it was a big deal in the campaign universe - and though she survived the ship was in bad shape ("damn - we lived but look at this damage!") and was going to need a complete refit. This meant an upgrade to Enterprise class ("Yes!") and during the refit time  we were sent out on some intelligence type missions using a Mission class courier (that was in the basic game, I think).

The Mission was a fun little ship, more like a runabout than a "real" ship, but we focused on sneaky planetary adventures and had some fun. I'm pretty sure we were captured at least twice and had to escape. We knew the ship was temporary and our lack of attachment to it should be evident from my inability to remember its name.

We were all thrilled when the Lexington went back into service and our first mission, much like our first one ever, was to deal with a Gorn problem and the Lex quickly showed a couple of Gorn Battleships exactly what the pecking order was in this part of the galaxy. We later got involved with the Romulans and had to deal with competition more on our own level.

That campaign ran from about 1982 to about 1988 or so and the ship was always a big part of the "status" - ship good then "party" good. Ship torn up then there's a bunch of tension in the air. Awesome ship in drydock to get even more awesome = happy but stuck with crappy temp ship - no more smack-talking the local D-7 captains. Several of us were serious gear-heads back then so ship stats were something we pretty much had memorized anyway so keeping the hardware together was a high priority.

I have to say that looking back I was as happy with this campaign style, and this ship, and this arrangement for player participation as I have been with any of them. There was no set schedule and no set group of players. The GM came up with an idea, figured out who could play and when, and off we went. If you had a character, they were there. If you did not, then roll one up and they were newly-assigned to the ship. Prominent characters whose players were not available were working on other things or might even be on shore leave.

As far as the campaign itself we never decided that we were going to do things that way - it was just assumed that if we played Trek it was as the crew of the Lexington. The game wasn't tied to a particular character, or a particular group of specific characters. It wasn't even the 430 crewmen of the Lexington, because some of them might have moved on and some new ones might have joined since the last adventure, but setting it on a ship somehow gave the whole thing a continuity that a lot of other games lack.

I think it's a model that would work very well in the modern grown-ups-with-kids-and-jobs environment that many of us find ourselves in now. There's a touch of the open-table approach in there as well and it would be easy to make that a formal part of it without going to a full West Marches sandbox campaign, keeping the more traditional mission/episode style approach but still being able to accommodate a random-access player base and having a sense of continuity that makes it a memorable campaign years later.

Thanks for walking me down this road again BA, it's been awhile since I've thought about this aspect of it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

New Star Wars RPG?

Apparently it looks like this:

It's from Fantasy Flight

It's a Beta test.

It's $29.95.

Don't believe me? Take a look here.

Seriously. When did it become OK to charge people for beta testing? There used to be some kind of reward for being a PC game beta tester. Is this some kind of riff on the privilege of early access, like with an MMO game?

From the site:

This limited edition, 224-page softcover rulebook provides you a chance to lead these galactic explorers. This is a complete and playable version of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and (compared to the final version) it excludes only art and certain thematic material.

So it's not really a test version? But then they have a section on submitting feedback, so it appears that maybe it is. After Pathfinder and D&D Next I would think that some kind of open beta would be the new hotness but I guess not. For a serious playtest effort though why make it a physical book and not a PDF? There can't be much of a secrecy element to it because once you pay for a book I don't think they can stick an NDA on top of it. It's a strange approach but who knows, maybe it will work for them.

It's also set in the Rebellion Era and will be in 3 books according to the description - one for smuggler types and the Rim, one about the war, and one about the Jedi. This independent-but-combinable approach is the same one they have taken with the 40K RPG system they publish and I suppose that's fine. I think the people most likely to play a new Star Wars RPG are the ones who played previous Star Wars RPG's and those games pretty much covered all possible character types right from the start, so this approach seems kind of limiting. At least that's my initial reaction to what I see on the screen.

Oh, last but not least - custom dice. Wonderful. Is the final game going to come in a box with those dice? Will there be enough for more than 1 player? If you're wondering what I mean then take a look at this - I assume WFRP is at least a partial template to what they're thinking. Core set at $99.95 including custom dice and cards that are required for play. I'm trying to stay open minded about this but it's very difficult. I have games that use custom dice - Heroquest, Memoir 44, and Command and Colors Ancients to name a few. All of them come in a box and none of them are truly RPG's. Remember d6 Star Wars? All I needed was a set of d6's. Remember d20 Star Wars? Even there all I needed was a standard set of RPG dice. Savage Worlds uses normal RPG dice and adds in a deck of normal playing cards - I'm all for trying out new mechanics but we're not talking d14's from Goodman Games here - they're likely special dice made only for this game. Plus, aren't we moving towards lighter mechanics in games? Less fiddly bits, more fast & furious? Just looking at M&M/DCA, ICONS, and Marvel Heroic as recent launches in one typically over-complicated genre I would say "YES", and if any game seemed to cry out for that type of mechanical approach isn't it Star Wars? Again I would say "YES"! That does not appear to be where this is headed though.

I'm sure more information will come out but I'm feeling disappointed about this. I'm still a little interested but I won't be lining up for a pay-access beta version of a game book, and I'm not thrilled by what I know right now about the approach. I guess we will see where it goes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Some New Old Champions Stuff

Continuing the Super RPG theme:

An eBay pickup, this one has duplicates of a few thing but that's the price you pay with these grab-bag type lots. The main initial attraction was another copy of the 4th edition Champions rules -  you can never have too many copies of the core rules floating around the table. There are some other tasty nuggets though:

  • On the right is the 2E Gamemaster's Screen. I didn't even know they made one of those until about a year ago, and they don't turn up all that often. I doubt I'll be running 2E any time soon so I suppose this is more of a collector type thing, which is a path I really do not need to tread. Probably too late now though. It's two 2-panel screens with things like the speed chart and a list of powers and skills and most of those charts that were all over that rulebook printed on both sides. I really could have used this about 1983 when Draco and Solar Flare and Titan were rolling full-force against Gladiator, Lobsterback, and all those bads from the rulebook and Enemies 1 & 2. It's still kind of cool even now.
  • The Island of Dr. Destroyer : I've seen it online but I did not own a copy - now I do! This is the first published Champions adventure and it is comparable to some of those ICONS adventures I keep downloading from DriveThruRPG. You have a supervillian threatening the world from his fortified island base and the heroes have to go in and stop him - simple and straightforward, if a little more James Bond-ish than comic-bookish. It has pretty detailed maps of the island and the base, notes and stats for the defenses and the patrols and the vehicles that are involved, and an outline of the plan - it's ready-to-run. I think it would make a nice not-first adventure, as there should be some reason that the heroes are called in to stop Destroyer and a group of brand-new heroes seems like an unlikely choice to do that. It might make a good climax or penultimate adventure for Season 1 if you were running a campaign in seasons like a TV series.
  • The Great Supervillain Contest - I don't think I like this one as much as IoDD but I didn't have a copy before. If nothing else it's a framework for a certain kind of campaign and it does have some maps of a secret base and some new villains in the back.
  • Enemies III - Known of it for some time, have never owned a copy. I'll be scouring this one for Unfortunate Characters this week. The format is a little different than the first two but I see some likely candidates right there on the cover.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rediscovering DC Heroes

I never really grokked DC Heroes. I remember when it came out about a year or so after Marvel Super Heroes. One of my friends got it we looked at it, played around with making a character or two, and then we pretty much let it go. People then and now have varying opinions on the system but in my view it had three major problems: Champions, MSH, and AD&D.

Regardless of the mechanics we already had Champions and liked it for our "serious" superhero game which mainly consisted of us making up new characters and then running around beating up Viper agents and villains from the Enemies books - there was not a lot of plot in our games back then.

MSH was still pretty new but it had a lot of support and that system was a lot of fun mechanically. It was easy to just jump in and start playing with a pre-made hero and making your own - while not the sub-game that was Champions character creation - was pretty fun too with random rolls and a lot of on-the-fly imagination required.

Then there was the fact that most of our RPG time went to AD&D anyway. That's just how it was back then. A day off from school meant scraping together some money, cutting a Domino's Pizza coupon out of the back of the phone book, arguing over what to order, and hours and hours of AD&D most of the time - at least we had some focus back then! We also had a lot more time, but it took a lot for a game to break into our regular rotation. DCH never did.

Additional considerations: I was more into Marvel comics - between the Avengers and the X-Men I was not at all interested in Superman and Batman. Also, Teen Titans? I hated that name and I was unfamiliar with the characters, instant turn-off - they should have focused on the Justice League.

Later in college when the 2nd Edition came out one of that group tried to fire it up - this was around the time of the big Keaton Batman movie - and got all of one session out of it. I remember hating it and wanting to get back to our regular games. We played a lot of GURPS in that group and compared to that it was not intuitive. We also played a lot of Champions which also had a bright new edition about that same time and became our standard set of rules for the next couple of years.

The funny thing looking back is that the rules are not any more complicated than Champs or AD&D or even GURPS. Even MSH isn't necessarily in a different class other than one key area: MSH used one big bright colored table. DCH used two tables, with a lot of numbers in them, and no real color. I think that was a bigger factor than I like to admit, and likely not just for me. Rolling up success and degree of success into a single roll made the game feel like it was an order of magnitude simpler when it was up against the to-hit roll/damage roll mechanic of most other RPG's at the time. Even though DCH still only used one actual die roll, you had to check two tables, and I think that really held it back. Plus colors are friendlier than numbers when you're going to have a whole table of them. Compare:

Find your stat, roll your dice, tell me what color you get.

Find your stat, find their stat, roll your dice, check for column shifts, now look at the second table and find your other stat, find their other stat, look at the number, shift up or down, now tell me your final result. 
I think this was one of the barriers to DCH becoming more popular - it looked like a more serious game (yes back in the 80's more charts = more serious game)  and most people did not take superheroes as a "serious" game. Now I know it had to have some success as there was quite a bit of material for it but I still think Marvel was the more popular game for most of its run. I know it was locally - didn't know anyone who played it regularly during high school and college. Even at local conventions you might see a Marvel or Champions game but I don't recall seeing any DC games.

Regardless of this prior experience, I have somehow ended up with copies of all 3 editions of the game. I decided to give it another look and started with the 1st edition. I have to say I think it's a pretty good game, and after my comments above I think we can rule out nostalgia as a factor here. I think the mechanics work well and of course the one thing everyone says about the system is that it handles a massive range of powers - I see that and agree. I think it shares a quality with Champions in that it looks complicated when looking over the rulebook but in play it's really not all that complex. I'm going to try it out with the Apprentices in the very near future to test this theory and I expect to be proven right.

Also, this was a damn fine boxed set: intro booklet that actually shows the mechanics - player book with the system and character creation rules - DM book with advice, a universe guide, maps to bases and cities, lists of gear and gadgets, and a big batch of character stats - a striking and well-done 3 panel DM screen - cards with character stats for a bunch of DC heroes - and stand-up counters for all of these same heroes - that's a huge batch of awesome in one box! How did I not like this? I wonder how much something like this would cost now? I'm guessing it would have to come from Fantasy Flight and would cost a lot. Just flipping through it makes me want to put the kids in front of the TV for a Justice League DVD viewing followed by a multi-hour session of this game!

The stats for the game were elegant as well. Physical/Mental/Spiritual on the horizontal, Action/Effect/Resistance on the vertical - that may be the finest way of doing these things that I can remember. It's intuitive, it helps the player remember what these stats mean, and it looks good on the page. Also, I was a fan of the Tri-Stat system's concepts, and I have no doubt that here we see some of its origin. 

Now I am sure there are some clunky bits in there somewhere. I'v heard some negative things about the gadget rules, and actual play tends to reveal the sharp edges of any system, but it looks much better than I remember as I read through it 20+ years later.  Plus I do have Second Edition, and Third if I need to start tinkering.

A lot of the fun to me in a DC or Marvel game is in being able to play the iconic heroes. Sure, I like making my own just as much as anyone, but I have Champions/ICONS/V&V etc etc for that. Sure, I could play the Amazing Aluminum Man in Marvel New York and have him join the Avengers, but why not just play Iron Man? If I'm going to have all of the background (or baggage) of Metropolis or the Watchtower then let's play the characters who belong there! A long-term campaign might be different but for the games we tend to play I think the brand-name heroes will work just fine. Plus there is the appeal of handing out the cards - "here, you're Superman, you're Batman, and you're Green Lantern - let's go."   

I've run on quite a bit here but the net result is this: we're going to give it a try, and of course I will report back when we do.

Motivational Monday