Friday, September 13, 2013

Thinking Back on Steve Jackson Games

I used to be a huge fan of Steve Jackson Games, and while I don't have anything against them they just haven't been on my radar much in the last 5 years. I thought I might work through why on this post.

Like a lot of gaming stuff for me, it starts in the 80's. I saw Car Wars on the shelf at the local mall hobby shop that was my main place for that kind of thing. It pushed three of my buttons (cars and games and blowing things up) and it was not very expensive in pocket-box form so I picked it up and had a blast. I ramble on some more about it here. Keep in mind that this was pre-Battletech, an era when the goal of most wargames was "realism" and the resulting complexity was embraced by all. Star Fleet Battles and Squad Leader were the big dogs here. The idea of a smaller game that didn't try to cover everything with a full page of rules and where "fun" was the main goal was definitely marching to a different drummer. We played it quite a bit and there was new material every year and I picked up a lot of it.

Not long after Car Wars I picked up another pocket-box game called "Ogre" about a force of conventional military units trying to stop a giant robot tank. I was already a fan of Keith Laumer's Bolo stories by this time and having a game that effectively fettered them was extra cool. The expansion game G.E.V. soon followed and now I was a fan of two SJG games.

Pretty soon I also picked up Illuminati, the conspiracy card game and though we never played it a ton it was a blast whenever we did and I loved the whole concept. That's three SJG games that were in our rotation by the early to mid 80's.

Then, as I was going through college GURPS 3rd Edition came out and was a big player in our RPG sessions for several years. A comprehensive system that provided a solid non-class-and-level approach and was as well supported as D&D was a great thing to have as AD&D petered out after 10 years for some of us. From pure historical campaigns to crazy time-travel shenanigans to standing in for Rifts and Mechwarrior we got our money's worth from GURPS.

Somewhere in the late 90's (looking back now) things started to drop off. Car Wars sputtered and died except for a few regional tournaments kept alive by dedicated gaming groups. Illuminati went through a couple of editions and a CCG version that didn't really last past the first few years and then that game went silent. Ogre had a very cool miniatures focus for a while but that pretty much dies out by the early 2000's.

GURPS kept going for a few more years but seemed to mostly be caught up in licensing stuff like Deadlands, Vampire, and Castle Falkenstein - popular 90's games. Also, GURPS Traveller, which seemed to make up a significant part of the line in the 90's - we preferred original/mega flavor ourselves. If it wasn't that then it was second editions of books we already had, from Greece to Rome to Magic to Old West to Martial Arts - it was fine and all but there was not a big incentive to go spend another $20 on a book that was a slightly cleaned up and perhaps moderately expanded version of a book I already had. Also, we were still playing third edition - there wasn't a new edition of the game. Then in 2004 they went to a new edition and that pretty much killed GURPS for my group. We were in full on D&D 3E mode and there was not room for much else. I ended up getting most of the very nicely done GURPS 4E books but I've never read half of them and never run or played the game at all.

Somewhere along in the early 2000's is also when SJG first published Munchkin, which exploded and has in some sense consumed the company. Don;t get me wrong, I'm glad they found a way to survive the d20 wave, the CCG collapse and the general tough economic times for game companies of the last ten years, and I like Munchkin as a game, but I wish that they had been able to keep more life in their other game lines while they kept feeding the beast. I'm glad the best-known Texas game company is still rolling but their games today don't interest me as much as they once did. They were a pretty innovative bunch too, running their own BBS and later their own local internet service for years. Warehouse 23 was one of the first online retailers and PDF providers too. They're still dabbling in online games and mobile apps. I wonder what their next cool thing will be - something besides Munchkin Discworld, I hope.

There is hope - they had that big Ogre Kickstarter last year ... that has not yet been delivered. They do seem to be making progress but it is clearly consuming the majority of their non-Munchkin resources and is taking far longer to deliver than they had planned but I'm sure it will happen. There has also been talk about a Car Wars Kickstarter too but that is on hold until Ogre is completely finished and they've said we won't see Car Wars before 2015.

So what took their place?

I think Mongoose was the English SJG for a while, with a wide range of RPG's and miniatures games though there was a lot of churn from 2000 to about 2010 or so.

I thought Kenzer was going there too with KODT and Kalamar and Hackmaster and some boardgames but they quieted down too in the last few years.

For me I think Pinnacle took over as the "smaller American game company doing interesting stuff." Between Deadlands, Hell on Earth, and Lost Colony they had a solid line and they had their Brave New World supers game for a while too. They then shifted over into Savage Worlds which is looking like GURPS in some ways when it comes to the product line - a nice mix of historical, fantasy, and generic support books that don't require a separate version of the core rules every time you start a new campaign. They don't really have boardgames but they do have miniatures and have had card games and seem to have some interest in expanding into other types of games as well. I like almost everything they do, and I can be pretty picky (and cheap)so that's saying something.

So to wrap up - I hope SJG continues on strong for as long as they desire. It's a little like an old girlfriend where things ended without big drama - people grow apart sometimes and while the interest isn't what  it once was I have no ill feelings toward them and generally wish them well. Maybe someday (like when they get back around to Car Wars) our interests will align again and we will see where things go. Some of us do remember them before they were the Munchkin company and hope to see them reclaim some of that status again.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fantasy Trek Campaigning

Starting scenario: Start with a large island/small continent isolated from the rest of the world, possibly by some horrendous godswar or magical catastrophe or the fall of the big connecting empire. Now, years later, the rulers of this island want to know what else is out there and so  commission a ship and begin recruiting a crew. The long term goal is to journey to the capital of the previous world-spanning empire and find out what has happened and what is going on. Armed with some old maps and rumors from fishermen and local travelers (and perhaps aided by some scrying magic) the group sets out to what should be a relatively nearby land that was friendly in the past and might have maps of the rest of the world.

The first obstacle is to come up with a reason that your starting location a) doesn't know what's going on in the rest of the world and b) wants to find out. Maybe it's not a government, maybe it's the Mages Guild or a Merchant Guild of some kind, or an individual mage or sage or merchant. If you need a real world model think of Brtiain after the departure/fall of Rome. It never was the center of the empire and after a few decades detailed knowledge of the rest of the world would be fairly scarce. It might even be a plundering expedition - some Viking lord invades Britain sacks a church and finds some information about Rome and decides to outfit an expedition to go sack it! This would be hundreds of years after it has fallen - but he doesn't know that! 

There is also a need to determine what character options are available. I would probably let the player choices drive some of this. If I end up with a party of gnomes, drow, and halflings then those three races are players in the homeland. If you're talking about a place at the far end of the world then the exotic stuff makes sense anyway.

The players should have some limited information about the world  - old maps work for me - as your party needs an idea of which way to go and what their options are. You can still change things up, but it's good to give them an outline of what might be out there. 

This is also a great campaign to break out the random encounter tables and the weather charts if you don't typically use those. Even the planes have some kind of weather - introduce your players to it.

I do think that some kind of "ship" is needed for this kind of campaign. Without a ship you have a a series of footslogging quests or an army on the march. With some kind of mobile base, the party doesn't have to carry a bunch of supplies on their back and has a place to run to when they're in trouble. It's one of the things that makes this kind of game different and I would think carefully before doing away with it. 

Not strictly fantasy but you get the idea if you've seen the show
For a fantasy campaign I also like the idea of giving them a goal beyond pure exploration. Giving them a quest - to find the old imperial capital or to track down some old hero or maybe even the previous expedition sent out a few years ago that never returned - gives some focus to the campaign and sets up a "story" if you want to make it one. There's a natural arc to it at least - traveling to the goal finding it/exploring it, and then traveling home. The story of the Argonauts tends to focus on the "finding it" while the Odyssey is all about the "going home" part, but there's no reason your campaign can't cover both.

Once it starts you have an open ended campaign that is largely player-driven. If things get too quiet there's always a chance that an evil humanoid race is taking an interest in exploring the area as well - maybe seafaring hobgoblins have developed their own civilization out there and start showing up in the explorations and random encounter tables. 

Alternate Approach #1 (from an post of my own a few years ago):

After reading through the Manual of the Planes, a short scan of The Plane Below, and reading through some of the published paragon and epic adventures a certain theme began to coalesce in my head. Call it..."Plane Trek". I would start the campaign at 11th level - PC's can be from any campaign world, any race, any class, etc. They are heroes on their home world, at least in their village/city/kingdom. They are then recruited into an organization based out of Sigil (most likely) that explores the planes and deals with threats that involve more than just one world - the Big Threats. The organization sends them out on planar ships to explore, map, and deal with these kinds of threats. I'm not sure how formal to make the organization - more rigid command structure and ranks or more loose almost like a pirate crew. If I could keep it somewhat episodic - this week the ship has detected an astral dragon heading for a githyanki fortress and is moving in to investigate - then it would make it very easy to drop in onetime players in a sort of sandbox, sort of mission-based delve format. At paragon they would be the lesser officers on the ship but once they hit epic they would be the "bridge crew" and in charge of their own travels in a big way.

Alternate Approach #2 

Flying Boats - this approach removes the need for big areas of water and makes enough sense in higher magic worlds that your player shouldn't mind. It also explains why the players are out there on their own - "hey we can only afford to make a few of these things" - and why it's an especially good idea to keep the ship intact - you can build another watercraft easily enough but you're probably not going to build another flying ship from scraps.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Star Trek Model of Campaign Design

1) The World is Not Known: In contrast to the Rangers or Star Wars, exploration is the focus and that means the setting is a major player in the campaign. Compared to the Rangers campaign where the setting is really just wallpaper behind the big action, in this style of game everything from geography to races and civilizations to even the weather can play a big role in the campaign and any of those could be the focus of a session. Compared to Star Wars the physical layout of the setting and the cultures are largely unknown, and while both can feature interaction and combat, this concept adds in the whole getting-to-know-them stage. In short: In Power Rangers you don't need a map, In Star Wars you just look up the map, in Trek the campaign is about the people who make the map!

2) Travel will be common and interesting. The PR game characters might never leave their hometown. In Star Wars travel is common and mundane but not typically a focus other than as a rest period between adventures. For this style of game travel is how the campaign advances. It may well involve a craft of some kind.  This could easily be ship based, even a flying ship or an airship if you're going in that direction fantasy-wise. A literal interpretation of the source material could lead to teleportation circles and flying carpets as supplementary travel options.

3) Character Diversity: This one is not as essential as the first two but in keeping with the source of the inspiration the concept can easily handle a wide range of character types, classes and races. It also makes some sense to start above 1st level if you're so inclined. Think those flying races are overpowered for a traditional campaign? Not so here. Always wanted to play a locathah or merman or sea-elf? This might be the place to do it. Reluctant to include the Drow character in your usual game? This is where you can "Worf" in your Drizzt wanna-bes. Steal justifications and explanations from the source without remorse.

4) Steady State: Unlike PR there is not necessarily a strong character progression here, making it more suitable for non-level-based games. That said it works fine with a level progression, and an expedition into distant planes of weirdness can be a good explanation for why your former frontier farmboy becomes a demigod. Unlike Star Wars there is not typically a huge amount of social change going on, and adding that in can distract from the exploration theme and change the campaign, moving it towards a Star Wars style game. In general the home social situation stays the same, and the characters may or may not progress a great deal, but the discoveries made by the players can certainly stir things up back home.

5) Open Ended: Also unlike PR and SW there is no requirement that characters defeat a world-threatening evil or change the state of the world. Individual characters may come and go but the exploration can continue for years. It might be different quests, different missions, or one really long Odyssey, but there is no inherent limit on it.

I did something like this with a Rifts campaign years ago described in this post. Here's how it breaks down as far as the elements in this post:
  1. In this version the only information available were a few scattered reports from other travelers and some pre-apocalyptic maps.
  2. Travel took place via a giant robot with room on board for everyone. They stomped across the post-apocalyptic US and had to deal with various challenges
  3. It was Rifts, so character diversity is a given. Wizard? Check. Ninja? Check. Cyborg? check? Dragon hatchling? Check? Power armor guy? check. Not a problem.
  4. They started at first and made it up to about 6th by the end. They were not in regular contact with the home base so it didn't really figure in the campaign. The world itself was not in the middle of a war or an invasion, just the usual Rifts stuff
  5. Some characters died, some dropped out, others dropped in, and at least one underwent a racial transformation. There's plenty of room for change, even with a seemingly limited crew.

So running this in Trek or Traveller is easy enough, and I've given a Rifts example above, how about D&D? It's not difficult as it's a fairly traditional sandbox/hexcrawl game at heart. I think I will save that for a separate post - check back tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Next - Caves of Chaos - Session 4

I really need to think up a name for this campaign. We originally started playing Keep on the Borderlands a few years ago as part of their introduction to D&D Basic. They covered about a third of B2 and about half of B1 (I stuck it in the "Cave of the Unknown" on the B2 area map like many other people) before we decided to give 4th Edition a try, but we always intended to come back to it. I was having fun coming up with a new campaign world for it all and it does have a different feel than later editions. We used the Caves for our initial foray into next and it went poorly. We came back to them for this latest Next package and it has been much better this time around.

The party is now second level:
  • Wood Elf Ranger (Blaster) - mainly a two-weapon fighter
  • Human Cleric (Blaster) - sun cleric, mainly a ranged combatant.
  • Wood Elf Monk (Who) - two-fisted fighter aspiring to try the new airbender subclass
  • Human Rogue (Red) - sneak & shoot
  • Human Mage (Red) - enchanter sub-type but pretty free with the blasting so far
The Apprentices have explored (and massacred) the kobolds and the goblins so far and tonight they went after the ogre. It's fun watching them use what they learned previously, even though it's meta-gaming in a huge way and makes no sense that they would have it. They were a little fuzzy on the exact order of the caves, but as soon as they saw the "bear' they knew for sure the ogre lair was at hand. The fear of the one-shot character kill set in and suddenly there was a lot more sneaking around.

I had seriously considered a) swapping the ogre out for some other creature or b) having the ogre slip through the secret door and come after them by sneaking out and around and trapping them in his own lair. I decided against both because I don't really want to punish them for learning from experience. As it turned out it might have been better if I had. They took Mr. Ogre down in one round. The wizard magic-missiled him, the ranger double-sworded him, the cleric inflicted wounds on him, the rogue shot him, the ogre swung and missed, and then the monk double-punched him and dropped him to end the first (and only) round.

It's not so much that monsters in Next are weaker, though his AC is fairly low. The whole party is at 2nd level now so they are tougher, but their offense is quite a bit stronger compared to Basic PC's. The ranger and monk can make two-weapon attacks with few penalties (not even an option in original Basic), the rogue gets sneak attack damage even at range (unlike the old backstab move), the cleric isn't that much stronger but "inflict" is a ranged attack in this version, and the wizard gets 3 magic missiles from his spell for 2-5 each and it still autohits - certainly a stronger contender than it used to be. When the cantrips do 1-6 each the actual first level spells have to do more and this one does. I'm sure some will complain about power creep but they are all pretty comparable defensively to old school characters, they just have a few more options on offense - I don't think it's game breaking.

There was much celebrating after this and the requisite looting. They figured out the gold-colored copper coins pretty quickly and found the rest of the treasure. There was the traditional extended conversation over how to distribute potions at low levels but nothing serious. Then they decided to move on after a short rest.

Next up was the orc lair back across the canyon. As soon as they saw the heads they remembered their previous experience in this set of caves and I am pretty sure Apprentice Red was ready to play the same gambit if he had the chance. They moved in (and of course were spotted by the "head sentry") and went left towards the banquet room. The ranger just had to check out the Big Chair in the banquet hall but had made it back to the party when the first wave of orcs attacked.

Four orcs from the guardroom tried to sneak up on the group but didn't pull it off and charged, engaging the cleric and the monk. A few rounds later three more from one of the other guard rooms came down the northern corridor and circled in behind them. A pretty good fight broke out with casualties on both sides.

Orcs are notably tougher in Next: they average 11 hp so are less likely to drop in one hit, and they swing greataxes for 1d12+2. It's not ogre damage level but it's scarier when there are 4-7 of them fighting the party! The pair that went around the back of the party (one of the late arrivals went to the front to aid the fight there) tore into the rogue and dropped him in round 4, but the fight was over by round 5 and our party retreated outside the caves to attend to the rogue and recover.

We're aiming to work in another session this week - more to come if we do.