Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Review: Alien Wars for Hero System

This post probably seems like it came out of left field as I haven't talked much about specific Hero products. It's been awhile since I played or ran a Hero game. So why review a book published in 2003 for a system I'm not currently using? Well, I've had this book for several years but never read it in detail. Over the last week or so I had a bright idea for a possible campaign to play with the Apprentices and I remembered having this book. It's labelled as a sourcebook for Star Hero so I thought it might have some good ideas or some useful material. As it turns out, I was completely wrong.

Alien Wars is one of the most disappointing game supplements I have read in years. When I read "Alien Wars" the first image that comes to mind is the movie "Aliens". Beyond that it could be anything from "V" to Independence Day to some of the Star Wars novels with the bio-tech alien invasion to even the Borg stuff from Star Trek. I might even think of 2300 when it comes to RPG's. This is not a generic sourcebook though - it's not about running a military-themed sci-fi campaign with an alien opponent. Nope, it's a very specific setting that fills in the 2300's  in the overall Hero universe timeline.

So what does this 184 page book give us?  Well it opens with 17 pages of history. The dullest history you can imagine, and I like history. It's paragraph after paragraph of made-up future governmental actions - laws and acts are passed, treaties are debated, various political groups try to gain the upper hand on each other. It's pointless backstory that does nothing to say "here's how to start a campaign". It's a terrible way to start off a book that theoretically anyway is supposed to involve fighting aliens.

Next we have 8 pages of racial packages. There's nothing here that made me get excited about playing in this universe but it's not unusable - some variant human types and some alien races.

Then we get 9 pages of "The United Earth Government" including exciting topics like "Government Functions and Agencies". Again, it's more background material that adds next to nothing to actually running a game.

Next is 8 pages on travel, trade, and the criminal underground. It's pretty dry.

Then we get to something actually halfway relevant to running a game - 20 pages of "The United Earth Military" which covers unit types, structure, organizations, and even a note on some medals that can be won. This is again very dry but it is useful if you are going to run a game where the players are members of  this military.

Next up is 16 pages on character creation - package deals, perks, powers. It's very mechanics-focused but that's OK as we're now 98 pages into the book and this is ony the second chapter to contain any mechanical information at all.

Chapter 7 is the armory chapter - alright, guns! Sure enough this is 37 pages of gear from guns to drugs to starships. You get 6 whole vehicles - seems like there could have been more but OK. There are 15 personal weapons including grenades and some of them are replacements over time for others (the war does last 100 years) so there's really not a ton of variety there either. We get 6 whole starships too, though one of them is a fighter and one of them is a messenger drone...hmmm.

Moving on the chapter 8 we get 9 pages of "Xenovore Intel" which is the player knowledge on the aliens attackers. It is fuzzy, as you might imagine. Oh and they eat people.

Chapter 9 is the GM's vault adding in some "what really happened" details to the earlier part of the book. It's 3 pages long.

Chapter 10 is 10 pages of the truth about the xenovores. For revealing the secrets of a hostile invading race it's pretty boring. Why do they eat people? Because they taste good. Seriously, that's it. When the xenovores were genetically engineered by an incredibly short-sighted race long ago, they made other sentients taste good to them. This is where the lame factor pretty much pegged for me. It's not for reproductive reasons like the aliens in "Aliens", they don;t get smarter in combat like the Kafers from 2300, they don't have some complicated honor/family system like Klingons or the Clans in Battletech - nope, it's that people just taste good. Y'know I could make that work in something like Encounter Critical or Gamma World, or Galaxyquest or Pigs in Space, but up until now this game has been portrayed in a very serious light but this "revelation" just killed it for me.

The final chapter is about how to run alien wars campaigns - sounds promising right? Finally, the whole point of the book! Al 5 pages of it! There's mention of realism, the chain of command, how to get around knowing that the humans win the war according to the future history in the book, keeping the xenos interesting beyond shooting them,  and which time period within the 100-year war to use. It's not bad advice but it's very specific to this setting and not all that helpful in how to set up and sustain say a yearlong campaign of this stuff.

Fortunately there is a section of campaign ideas next, and the first one is to have the PC's be the crew of a submarine stationed on an alien world... wait a minute, what? We have a sci-fi game set during an alien invasion and we're playing a sub crew? Why would anyone do that? Why would you even have a military submarine on a colony world? What are you protecting against? It even notes that the aliens don't pay much attention to aquatic regions and suggests that this be set during the early days of the invasion so clearly you aren't there to stop aliens. Other suggestions include playing soldiers, mercenaries, command staff, and even civilians hiding out after their world is invaded. I suppose that could be fun if you look at it as a variant of a zombie apocalypse game.

So overall this is a dreadfully disappointing book:

  • As a Hero supplement it fails because there's as much page count devoted to history and organizations as there is to Hero-specific material. There's no  mechanical bits worth stealing and the concept is nothing original or distinctive.
  • As a generic supplement about running a military sci-fi game it fails because it isn't generic at all. I mention this because Champions, Star Hero, Fantasy Hero, and Ninja Hero have all been viewed as decent sourcebooks on a genre even if you didn't play Hero system. That is not the case here. There's no exploration of themes, genre tropes, the way alien invasions have been portrayed in other media or in different decades - none of that. 
  • The aliens are just boring. There is no big secret to them, no interesting cultural traits, no discussion of how they could be peacefully integrated into some kind of galactic society (or whether it would be worth trying), nothing. Look at everything from the Shadows of Babylon 5 to the Zentraedi of Robotech to Trek's Borg to (again) the Kafers of 2300 - those all had some interesting thing about them besides generic hostility towards humans. Even if you couldn't really negotiate with them there were interesting questions and possibilities raised by their mere existence. There's none of that in this book. 
In the end I'm left wondering who decided that publishing this book was a good idea, and why? The supplements for Fantasy Hero included two pretty decent fantasy campaign worlds, but Star Hero seems to be shortchanged in this department. This is sort of a setting book but it's not a sandbox type setting of "generic interstellar government" like Traveller because it only talks about a few planets here and there and not much about the society itself. It's not even enough of a specific kind of campaign book for "grim and gritty marine squad on the sharp end of an alien attack" because so much space is spent on political maneuverings and history. How about some maps of some installations that our soldiers might be sent to reclaim? How about some ship plans? Space stations maps would be good too? This book has a lot of ideas on the setting but it doesn't have much in the way of tools to help a DM actually run a campaign in that setting, and that's probably the most disappointing thing about it. The ghosts of Apone, Vasquez, and Hudson are not pleased.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 20: Thunder and Lightning

The party decides to press on while Mikal takes time to copy down some of the symbols and writings in the tomb.

Proceeding down the hallway the heroes turn a corner and see firelight coming from a room ahead. Approaching, they see a large room with two platforms holding large braziers that light the area with blazing flames.  They also see two big ogres in heavy bronze armor and one obvious ogre shaman. Unfortunately their utter lack of stealth means that the ogres see them as well and with shouts("They must not interrupt the king!") they form up in a fighting line and battle commences.

The two armored ogres form up between the brazier platforms, blocking the way forward. Kordan responds by throwing his shield in a spinning arc that smashes one of them in the face before returning to his hand. The shaman standing behind his line of defenders unleashes electric death from his staff, blasting Kordan and Jovanni pretty severely. The bard begins a song of defiance to steady the party's nerves  The shaman then calls down a storm over the party, blasting Kordan and Uthal, while Jovanni is hit especially hard.

Sensing that they need to seize the initiative, Uthal charges the ogre line and with his spear manages to push one back, breaking the line. Kordan, battered but unbowed, follows up and brings down the wounded ogre with a deep stab from his sword. Now the battle loosens up as the combatants spread out across the room.

Althea teleports in behind the ogres and watches as her Thunderwave utterly fails to harm them. The big armored ogre also lands a solid hit on Kordan (Revenge!) and he falls to the floor. The shaman unloads a thunderous blast of his own and leaves Althea and Uthal's ears ringing.

Desperate, the party fights with renewed ferocity and Jovanni strikes the killing blow on the Ogre Storm Shaman with one of his magical spells. The lone armored ironclad makes a strangely civilized salute with his mighty maul and then sells his life dearly, buying time for his lord to complete the ceremony begun so long ago.

Pausing for a moment to catch their breath, Althea claims the shaman's staff while Jovanni pulls some gold armbands off of the ogre guards. The heroes then sneak (as best they can) down the hall and take a peek around the corner. The see another decorated room illuminated by the radiance from a large pool of smoky grey-black vaporous energy. They realize this is likely the opening to the shadowfell they were sent to locate and destroy. A huge armored ogre zombie stands before the pool, and a loud chanting can be heard coming from somewhere behind the pool. As Mikal comes hustling up they realize this is the end of their quest and they prepare for the battle that is likely to come.

 DM Notes: So much for working in more encounters. The warlock's player couldn't make it so we left him in the previous room studying the tomb paintings. Much time was spent catching up after a 2-week layoff and I didn't push especially hard as I wanted everyone to be present for the final battle if possible. As it turned out the fight with the shaman and the guards went a full 10 rounds, so it ate up quite a bit of time anyway. It was a good fight, as most of them are in 4E at this point, and no one seemed terribly put out by only working in one encounter for the night. 

Next session: The final confrontation with the Ogre King!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Games and Expansions: A Tipping Point

James at Grognardia had a retrospective on Car Wars a while back and it prompted me to go dig my box-o-car-wars out of the garage (I was digging out some old D&D stuff too). Looking through it, and at my dusty piles from a few other games a thought occurred to me.

Where it started...a classic

The pocket box Car Wars (circa 1983) had a 24-page 4" X 8" rulebook. Within those pages there were the complete rules for the game including pedestrians and continuing characters (pages 1-19) and 5 pages of vehicle construction rules including 7 body types, 4 chassis strengths, 4 power plants,  suspensions, and 4 types of tires. On an additional play sheet were the tables and charts for the game - crash results, hazards, the 7 types of weapons, and some other accessories for the cars like targeting computers, turrets, and fire extinguishers. As you might imagine, this meant that there was a lot of customization possible to try new combinations of weapons vs. armor vs. speed and turreted vs. front-mounted vs. broadsides - it was a small but rich environment for tinkering and experimentation and it was pretty popular.

Very cool at the time but a harbinger of things to come

Over time the line grew with a quarterly magazine (Autoduel Quarterly), annual new equipment supplements (Uncale Albert's Auto Stop and Gunnery Shop Mail-Order Catalog), annual new car designs compilations (AADA Vehicle Guides) and some bigger supplements like Sunday Drivers (Characters and terrain), Truck Stop (the first serious escalation bringing in 18-wheelers, buses, and things like Tank Cannons) and Dueltrack that brought in gasoline engines to the previously simple all-electric car design. Pretty soon there were boxed supplements covering boats, planes, trikes, trailers, hover craft, racing vehicles, helicopters, hovercraft, and eventually tanks! By 1990 we had the "Car Wars Compendium" that was full sized, 112 pages long and included rules for all of those in one volume of which 49 pages were playing rules and the rest was mostly design rules. Even then, we clearly didn't have enough "stuff" so by 1992 we have "Uncle Albert's Catalog from Hell" which is 208 pages of equipment and design rules including new goodies such as airships, armored personnel carriers, armored cars, and self-propelled artillery!

I absolutely loved this book, as you might guess from the amount of wear on the cover

All of these supplements had taken the game so far from the original "couple-of-guys-strapping-a-machinegun-to-the-hood" concept that it was just fantastical now. X-Ray Lasers mounted in universal pop-up turrets with cyberlinked targeting systems supplemented by radar-guided missiles and fireproof laser-reflective armor turned it from a charming little game to play with friends into a competitive min-maxing environment with arguments over errata and minutia bogging down games and convention play mostly revolving around seeded tournaments with car designs optimized to four decimal places rather than open play arenas using published designs.

Where we ended up a few years down the road

Any of that sound familiar? I think it describes D&D 3rd edition fairly well. Battletech fits the pattern to a degree too. Oddly enough I don't think it really fits 4th edition D&D or Star Fleet Battles.

I think that in any game with a construction system or building element that the progression of supplements and rules updates that add options to that system will inevitably lead to a tipping point where many of the people involved in the game spend more time building and optimizing to find the "best" design than they spend time actually playing the game. 

A very cool supplement for playing the game solo - it was even better with a  referee

Car Wars is the first game where I saw this happen and I hated it. Battletech suffered from it later, Warhammer suffers from it now, and even Hero system games are affected by it to some degree.  Some of the warning signs include a point system for building units, multiple supplements devoted to adding new parts, and the insistence among serious players that a computer design tool is "essential".

Remember when game mags went for less than 5$? 

Battletech kept a much tighter lid on it even though mech design was one of the major attractions of the game. From 1985 up to about 1989 there was minimal equipment expansion (Citytech being the main one and even it mostly filled in gaps in between existing weapons) but once the Clan Invasion hit it alienated many of the players by introducing a whole separate set of different and clearly better technology. This caused a split between fans that for some has lasted until the present day. Try to jump in now and a new player is confronted with pages and pages of weapons and armor and equipment options. Find a copy of the old box or the newer starter box (a good move by the current publishers) and you're back to 10 or 12 different weapons systems, 10 or 12 different chassis sizes, and basic armor and engines and you're back to a small-scale fun game that can actually be played in an hour or less without agonizing over design for hours beforehand. You don't even need a computer program to design your own mech.

Still the coolest mech in the game

Star Feet Battles in contrast is another complex popular in the 80's boardgame that never really suffered this problem. No design rules were ever published. New ships and races and weapons were introduced to the game over time but the publisher kept the design rules in-house so that the focus of the game has always been on playing rather than designing the perfect ship. Mastering the rules and how different ships fight is a big part of playing the game (and the tournaments, not that I've ever been a big tournament guy for any game) and that can only be gained through actually playing the game, not through running iteration after iteration of your ship through a spreadsheet  until you have the perfect design.

Why Romulans need a cloaking device

I think some RPG's have experienced the same problem. Hero was probably the first as its system makes this kind of thing possible. GURPS has a little of this with figuring stats vs. skills vs. advantages and disadvantages. Prior to 3rd Edition you really didn't hear about "builds" in D&D. There wasn't really a system within the game that allowed for this. Sure, a lot of people aimed for the Gauntlets/Girdle/Hammer of Thunderbolts combo but magic items were about the only thing one could shoot for within the system to "optimize" a character. Now once 3E came along and applied more rigorous math to the game, added feats that had mechanical elements to  the game, and allowed unlimited per-level multi-classing, that's when the optimization started. As more and more of these elements were added, including prestige classes, the interactions multiplied with every book, creating even more fodder for the ruthless weeding-out of inefficiency and finding the "correct" path.

C'mon, it's only 800 pages of rules!

Interestingly 4th Edition is less susceptible to this in my opinion. Sure it has point allocation as the primary way to generate ability scores and it does have feats but it has very limited multiclassing and only allows one choice of Paragon Path and Epic Destiny. Also the math is tighter for the whole game which tends to level things out at each ... level. By limiting the number of "buildable" elements it helps control the focus on optimal builds and the number of interactions that must be checked.   Most other RPGs, especially non-point-build games seem to have a similar handle on it whether it's Runequest or Star Wars or Savage Worlds.

OK I've narrowed my army down to this...

It happens in miniatures games too. Warhammer and 40K tend to have fierce internet debates over the perfect elements to include in one's army, and the mix of those elements changes with each new edition of the game. The number of people discussing optimization is greater than the number of people actually playing the game, often by straight-up admission of those same posters! Compare this to DBA, an ancients game that's been around for roughly 20 years where each army consists of 12 elements chosen from a limited number of types. There is very little debate over composition, at least in the sense of "what's more efficient" while there is a lot of discussion of playing, base sizes, how to represent various forms of terrain - actual gaming elements rather than theoretical exercises in discovering the 'best". Even the more open system of Hordes of the Things, the fantasy version of the same system, tends to have more discussion over how to best represent certain things in the game rather than how to build the killer force.

I think the key is not even really rules bloat - it's the number of customizable or constructible elements in the game, especially those added after the game is created that tends to skew things over to the building rather than the playing as those later elements tend to be less tested than the originals. There's a point where a game achieves a nearly perfect balance among its elements to where there is no "best" solution for all problems. The problem is that companies rarely stop at that point. the temptation to keep adding new stuff to the game is too great, and inevitably things are introduced that are clearly better or worse than others and disrupt this balance in the system. Once it becomes clear that certain elements are just better than others, the race begins. Much of the focus around the game shifts from playing to setting up and the game starts to die. The internet has actually made this worse in some ways as thousands of players around the world quickly determine the optimum configuration for various situations and even casual players start to disdain certain units or elements or combinations as suboptimal.

What's the downside? Well, a vocal online player base that's more concerned with counting rivets than actually playing the game for one. Heated arguments that start to paint the game's "players" as hardcore or unwelcoming to newcomers. A push to add more to the game because analysis has narrowed the "real" options down to a mere handful of what was put in the game originally and players want more choices. Rules bloat, supplement overkill, multiple compilations of prior products being released as new products - these tend to alienate customers as well.

How to avoid it? Car Wars measured multiple factors for each element: Spaces (a car can only hold so many systems), Weight (weight slows down the car and there is a limit), and Money (effectively the point system in many ways) were factors in building a vehicle while to-hit numbers, damage dice, and number of shots were factors during combat. Now this gives a ton of design flexibility - some elements might be cheaper but heavier while others might be more accurate but do less damage - but I think it's too many to really track when designing a game intended to be expanded. Some of those factors mean nothing in certain conditions. There are systems that mitigate high to-hit numbers. Special ammo can boost damage. Some vehicles can carry so much weight that it ceases to be a real limiting factor.  Battletech handled it better in some ways by making weight an overriding factor and spaces consumed a less important factor while money was not even a consideration in the basic game (It's a huge concern in the RPG which adds an interesting element to the game without busting up the initial balance found in the boardgame rules). In combat range and damage are the main considerations which works well. DBA costs each unit the same but each one is better under certain conditions - the trick is arranging those conditions which is something that can only happen in play, again keeping the focus on the game and not the point costs found in the construction appendix at the back of the book!

Of course point systems simplify things

Some will tout the value of a point based construction system and sometimes it is a good idea but it is not the universal solution. 2nd edition Warhammer actually included a point system for constructing and  costing individual miniatures in the game (something removed from later editions) but it also included a warning that it will not be perfect. The example they gave was say you developed a creature that has Strength 10, Toughness 10, and Attack Skill of 10, but a Movement ability of 0 (10 was the highest rating in the game, 1 would be the lowest and 0 would indicate no capability in an area). How would one cost that? If it gets charged by an enemy, then it's going to absolutely vicious in combat. If it's opposed by a force of archers it's going to eventually die (or be avoided) without inflicting a single casualty n the enemy. You can come up with similar scenarios in nearly any point-based game. Champions 4th edition had some particularly good examples as well so I'm not just talking about board games here. Points can be useful but there are always extremes which can be exploited to break the system, meaning it's not an absolute fix.

An awesome supplement - we should have more books like this

The most effective solution I have found for a board game is to make it a role-playing game. Playing 3055 era Mechwarrior in a vacuum is a very different experience from playing it as part of a mercenary unit that has to pay for all of that equipment - suddenly all those Gauss Rifles and Pulse Lasers disappear in favor of less efficent but cheaper weapons. Same with Car Wars - building a teched out Division 100 laser sled is fun and all, but if you have to fix it up after the battle you better hope there's enough prize money to make it worth your while. Start down at Division 5 or 10 and you have a lot more options and smaller repair bills.

For RPG's the key is to make theoretical designs just that - theoretical. Want to multiclass from fighter into cleric then into rogue? Better find a temple that will have you and then a guild that will trust you too. Playing a dwarf and planning to take Deepwoods Sniper? That's kind of an Elf thing and you've been playing grumpy scottish tree-hugger-hating longbeard, so how exactly are you going to get in? Sure Frenzied Berserker is awesome but they're only found up amongst the Frost, Ice, and Snow Barbarians and we're adventuring down in the Amedio Jungle so how are you going to pick that up? We're playing in the Realms and you want to pull in a race from Eberron? No. Playing Fantasy Hero and you want your wizard to use a variable power pool for his magic? No, you're not Green Lantern.  Hardcore optimizers sneer at this kind of stuff but to me it's the difference between an RPG and a board game or card game  - the universe of all possibilities is a theoretical one, not one found in any particular campaign. In many ways RPG campaigns are defined by what subset of the game they embrace, not how many different books you can use to max out your damage bonus with the Impilturian Greatsword when fighting underground and wearing a holy symbol of Cyric..

It's surprising how much of an RPG it turned into near the end
As for Car Wars The militarization of the game was disappointing to me as originally this was a light, fast, interesting little tactical game with some roleplaying elements if you wanted them. I didn't need another game featuring tanks and SPA - I already had a ton of those! For me the game collapsed under its own weight about 1990 and I haven't played it in most of 20 years. However, the discussion and research on it has triggered some interest with me in going back to the basics. I really like the way everything is presented as an in-universe document, something we wouldn't see again until 1989 and Shadowrun. I think I'm going to get out the pocket box game with the apprentices and run a small arena fight and see what they think. All these years later I don't feel as compelled to use everything ever published for a game so we'll stick to the basics and spend an afternoon shooting holes in cars. Sounds like fun to me.

Cars from the State Fair of Texas 2037 

Motivational Monday