Monday, August 10, 2020

A Star Wars Game 30 Years in the Making

Back in 1990 I was in the barracks (I had just returned from 6 months of training and was shipping out to Germany in less than 90 days, so it made the most sense) when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was a Middle Eastern linguist with a ton of tactical experience and had been in the desert for a ton of my then-young career and I was just going, the end. So much for re-enlisting to get to Germany!
Even though I was going early, we had to get ready. So I had a week to ten to load up gear, settle accounts, etc. A guy I knew from a gaming group (Keith) called one Friday and said his fiancĂ© (Lisa) and her best friend (Jen) had driven down to see him before he deployed and since they were going to dinner he wanted to grab me, too, for a good meal before  we shipped out.

 I tried to skip out but to no avail. In the group room outside my barracks room I was introduced to his fiancĂ© and her bestie.
   That was 30 years ago. It was the day that I met my wife.

Monday, August 3, 2020

In the Grim Darkness of the Future There is a Lot of Roleplaying

The Lads and I play a lot of RPGs and we like to toss in side games in new, unusual, etc. systems to mix things up. At Christmastime my father-in-law picked up a set of books at a FLGS/used book store and we ended up with FFG's D% system Warhammer 40K core books and a few splats. Nice guy, my father-in-law.
  Sam started running Dark Heresy and immediately enjoyed the 'beer & pretzels' feel of the game and system. The setting is so loveably over the top, the mechanics that perfect combination os 'dead simple idea' combined with '40,000 weird options to complicate things', and the bodycount so freakin' high that all I could think of was playing a Call of Cthulhu setting with Paranoia rules. I adored the Void-born psyker with an hysterical paranoia about open doors and such deep hypno-conditioning that under stress he is forced to recite the Litany of Pressure Sealing Bulkheads I started with so much I almost felt bad when he finally rolled Perils and blew up, taking a room full of cultists with him. But I did laugh.
  After a few games of Dark Heresy Sam tossed in Black Crusade. If you ever wanted to play a villain so cartoonishly eeeee-viiiiil that a mocking laugh while he twirls his mustache is restrained, play Black Crusade: it does to Chaos Space Marines what Mel Brooks does to Nazis. 
  After about 7games over 5 months I decided to throw my hat in the ring and broke out Only War (or, as we call it, Purely Cannon Fodder) and run a regiment. Deciding that the Grim Derpness has been causing a lot of chuckles I made a Penal Battalion that has everything going for it you'd think: Light Infantry, perpetually understrength, and green. Really embracing the setting the lads made a bunch of gonzo characters with Promethium Bill, the religious fanatic who volunteered for the regiment in hopes of using his personally-purchashed flamer on heretics, pretty indicative of the level of seriousness.
  After just 2 sessions Jack has us rolling up guys for Rogue Trader because we figure that the 4th-5th characters in each setting will be part of a massive crossover fairly soon.

  

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Dungeons and Dragons is the Best at What it Does

   The Fun Lads Four and I are prepping for what we call "The Season" - in late Summer and early Autumn we tend to play a lot of RPGs. We're also talking about the various systems we're using: AD&D 1e and 2e; HERO; 5e; Pathfinder; the various D% system books from FFG's Warhammer 40K line; and we are all knee deep in WEG's D6 Star Wars.
The second weekend of August in 1990 a friend from a gaming group introduced me to a brilliant, beautiful woman. On our first "real" date we played WEG's Star Wars. Next weekend our sons are hosting a WEG Star Wars game to celebrate 30 years of being in love.
We started discussing how D6 is an excellent universal system and it has a cinematic feel, making it perfect for recreating movie worlds (which makes sense as the D6 system grew out of making the Ghostbusters and Star Wars RPGs) and that HERO, another cinematic universal system, is likewise really good at "imitating" a setting from fiction.
But discussed the limitations of GURPS, HERO, and D6 to do "generic" fantasy smoothly. As Nick said,
  "Sure, you can make a HERO Fantasy setting, but it can't be 'Europeland in general'; it has to be distinct and frankly a little gonzo to really feel right. I think D6 is like that but more."
  And from Jack,
  "And none of them dungeon crawl well. In the end the best system for a good dungeon crawl is still AD&D with a scant handful like Rolemaster, T&T, and, yes, even Palladium right on its heels."

  Which is why I am writing this - it was my turn to opine. Later I will discuss Rolemaster as an under appreciated universal system.

  HERO is one of my favorite systems of all time because with just a bit of thought you can do anything. Want to be Green Lantern? I know 3 approaches in HERO. Want to duplicate Traveller? HERO can easily do that, too. Want to make a Kojak/Beretta/Starsky & Hutch crossover? Sure! It is amazingly flexible.
GURPS is likewise supremely flexible (and let's face it, we all know GURPS is a HERO clone). D6 is likewise capable of doing about anything and has a few great ways of adapting dice pools to reflect scale (HERO 6e Damage Reduction rules are probably derived from D6's scaling rules).
  But these games share a problem that you also encounter in D&D 3/3.5/5e, Pathfinder, and some others and to a lesser degree in some others - "breaking the system".
What I mean by this take a little lead in, so bear with me. In these you have to make sure that people have reasonable limits on their dice pools/point allocations/feats that are essentially the GM not just laying down guidelines but also vetting every character and adjusting the villains and even campaign to match specific character builds. Here's an example from HERO -  a character I made called Basement Dweller/Shadowman. Without getting into the mechanics his powers allowed him to stay in bed at home while beating up someone on the other side of the world. All strictly RAW, all properly configured, not even a high points guy. But Shadowman forces the GM to specifically make villains, scenarios, etc. just to counter him.
In a oversimplified shorthand, IMO in a system where you need to seriously discuss, limit, inspect, and react to "character builds" a large amount of (for lack of a better term) gameplay occurs away from the table. And I am when I say 'gameplay' I don't mean getting supplies, talking to an innkeeper, etc., I mean 'deciding the outcome of traps and fights and such or forcing the GM to build them for you'.

And there is nothing wrong with this. After all, if I thought this was "bad" why the heck have I been playing HERO for 35 years, right?

  But I think AD&D is best at dungeon crawls because that isn't the case in that system. Here's the contrast:
  1) I have an underground adventure I made for HERO back in 1986 that I have used maybe 12 times. Every time I run it I must adjust it for the specific characters that have been built and brought.
  2) I have a similar thing in my AD&D 1e campaign that I also made in 1986 (same weekend, in fact). I have run it about 10 times and I never need change anything.

  Yes, personal anecdote, but I hope it conveys a bit more of what I mean. To sort of boil it down a bit, here is my core conceit:
To a very real extent AD&D is much more dependent upon what you do during play at the table vs what you do in character design and out-of-play metagaming. This leads to more emotional buy-in and tension during a dungeon crawl. Consequently, AD&D is "better" at dungeoncrawling than other systems.
This is one of the reasons I prefer to not abstract things like ammo, lighting, encumbrance,  and such any more than they already are - those 'precision counts' elements, IMO, add to the emotional buy-in at the table.
  Another illustration. When the Fun Lads Four did their very first dungeoncrawl as a team in years gone by (man kids grow up fast) they got lost underground. They had to keep careful track of every bit of food and water. They limited their use of light sources and carefully tracked every turn of light left. They were getting negatives for hunger and were worried the puddle they drank from got them sick and had only 20 minutes of candle left when they ambushed kobolds and got - a ham! Tension and anxiety followed by rejoicing!
To my mind that immersed them into the game much more than,
  "Roll to see if you have more illumination"
  "A 4; we do."
  "OK, roll to check for supplies"
  "A 13, but Betty has allocated an extra encumbrance zone, so with her +2 we make it."
  etc. ever could.

  In the end this is one of the main reasons I like AD&D so much and still play it.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Feel of Different Games; an emotional post

  If you aren't aware, I run and play a variety of game systems. The list of current game systems I alone run is:
  AD&D 1e (with house rules)
  AD&D 2e Skills & Powers
  Champions 6e
  Rolemaster FRP
  (this week) Warhammer: Only War, etc.

The systems I play in currently are:
  D&D 5e
  CoC
  Warhammer: Only War, etc.

We also have a casual 'Traveller, anyone?' game, a Starfleet Battles tournament, and an addiction to Dominion, Scythe, and Seven Wonders. I'd mention Catan, but my wife has an unbroken 21 game winning streak, so....

  Recently someone asked me,
  "Why so many different systems?"
  At the time I gave my usual reply,
  "Different systems excel at different things."

  I think I was wrong. Here's why.
  I played D&D 5e and had an epiphany.

  My oldest son is running a tight 5e game and we had a raucous session full of ambushes, raids, surprise, and fighting with a side of politics. Afterwards I said,
  "Reminds me of Jim Henson's game."
Note: Jim 'The Muppet Master' Henson was an army comrade of mine at Ft. Bragg in the 80's. No relation to the puppeteer.
  Thing is, Jimbo only ever ran one system. Palladium Fantasy.
Note: once when I was very sick I spent 3 months converting my AD&D 1e campaign (started in 1979) to Palladium FRP out of the boredom of being cooped up.
  That's when it hit me.
  5e is a lot like Palladium FRP: Odd, silly races; goofy, unbalanced spells; oddball classes; math that doesn't quite work; still a ton of fun.
  Mind you, I think this is a compliment!

  But many of us talk about the 'feel' of a particular system. I love HERO system for superheroes; I can make any hero I can imagine, the action feels superheroic, and the flexibility is unmatched. But no matter how many times I try I don't like HERO for fantasy.
Note: I also converted my AD&D 1e campaign to HERO once with the idea of only playing one system. Nah.
  I love Traveller, but have no interest in using it for anything else. D6? Amazingly flexible system and I love Star Wars, Ghostbusters, etc. But....

  So I talked about it with the lads and we compared it to books. Writing is writing; English is English. But a crime novel is different from a caper book. James Bond is worlds apart from The Destroyer.
  It was when we compared it to movies, too, that is gelled.
  Want to emulate the old pulp fantasies or ERB?
  AD&D.
  Want to emulate JRRT?
  Rolemaster.
  CJ Cherryh?
  Traveller.
  HPL?
  CoC.
  you get the idea.

  But then we talked about how much 5e emotionally "feels like" Palladium FRP and I got it.
  Beastmaster.
  Palladium FRP and 5e are Beastmaster. Kinda' goofy, kinda' nonsense, but a rip-roaring good time.

  So pop some popcorn, get ready for monstervision, and play some Beastmaster.

Monday, April 20, 2020

What we owe the Western

Note: This was written by me in 2017 and was formerly on another site.

I am far from the first person to note that role-playing games, especially fantasy RPGs, do not bear a strong resemblance to the literary sources most often referred to, Epic Fantasy. While fantasy games may be filled with dwarves, orcs, elves, and goblins during play the characters do not act as if they were on a long, selfless quest for a single goal. Instead they are interested in a great deal of action, motivated by much more immediate rewards of gold and powerful items, and far prefer a series of relatively short excursions.
The rather stark differences between the works of Tolkien, etc. and actual play of fantasy games is clearly, and humorously, demonstrated by the web comic DM of the Rings – ‘the “players” in a game based on the famous books dislike the overly-complicated back story, the nature of “non-player characters”, the relatively slow pace, and also complain bitterly about the paucity of ‘loot’.
What fantasy RPG players are looking for is a much more episodic experience (with the possibility of overarching plots and goals, of course) that have a variety of goals, provide a great amount of action and a diversity of foes, and a ‘payoff’ or frequent rewards. What they are looking for doesn’t resemble a fantasy epic but does look like a pulp Western.
The structure and formula of the classic pulp Western is fairly standard and has remained essential the same from the penny dreadfuls of the 1880s to modern film: a hero arrives; the hero is obviously much more competent than the locals; a villain and his mooks are identified; the hero overcomes the mooks; the hero faces the main villain; the hero receives his reward; the hero leaves. This simple, straightforward structure has helped the Western not only survive it helped the Western dominate popular literature, radio, TV, and film for decades.
Such a simple structure has the advantages that it is easy to add elements and complexity while staying ‘true’ to the core concept. Variants include the revenge story (the motive for the protagonist), the outcast story (the protagonist is wrongfully accused and is working to clear his name), and more. Fantasy RPGs most resemble the Western variation that Dr. Wright of Colorado State University calls ‘the Professional plot’. In the Professional plot there is a group of heroes rather than an individual and the group’s goals may be more focused on rewards than virtue. Examples of this variation include some of Louis L’Amour’s books in the Sackett series as well as the films The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven.
This simple, resilient structure also allowed the Western genre to go through a number of ‘phases’ that can also be seen within the development of fantasy RPGs. The origins of fantasy RPGs strongly resembles the ‘classic Western’: good and evil are clear and obvious; non-‘civilized’ foes (Indians in Westerns, monsters in RPGs) are a looming threat yet are rarely shown in any detail other than as combatants; stories are very episodic. The “second wave” of fantasy RPGs resemble the second wave of Westerns: good and evil are more ambiguous, Natives and humanoids are presented in more complexity, etc.. Story-focused RPGs look a lot like the ‘auteur Westerns’ of the ’60’s and ’70’s with a much stronger emphasis on character development and story, a reduction in violence, and conflict arising primarily from personality and outlook rather than about resources. ‘Hack and Slash’ RPGs and the violent spaghetti Westerns like Django are cut from the same cloth, too.
But these similarities aren’t coincidence. At the turn of the 19th Century the Western was the most popular genre and this had a tremendous impact on popular literature, especially in the growth of science fiction in the 1930’s.
While Verne, Wells and their fellow writers of scientific romance obviously flourished in the 19th Century the scientific romances themselves were not as popular as we might think. Dime novels were everywhere, but were largely westerns, about exploring Africa or the Orient, etc. with science fiction not as popular. Also, a fair amount of the scientific romances, especially from Wells and his fellows, were as much a form of social commentary as entertainment. Wells was certainly not primarily a writer of science fiction (he produced a large volume of non-fiction) and in the early 1900’s he was writing primarily contemporary novels (The History of Mr. Polly), social satire (Kipps), and non-fiction. Verne likewise primarily wrote adventure and exploration fiction with science fiction being less popular at the time. With a number of European authors producing original Westerns in French and German and also enjoying high sales, if no critical recognition, from the 1880s until well into the 1970’s the Western was king.
But the Western was changing.
In 1912 a man with no previous experience as a writer changed everything with the publication of Under the Moons of Mars, which was soon re-titled A Princess of Mars. With this book Edgar Rice Burroughs created the entire Sword and Planet/Planetary Romance genre and changed how we think of science fiction forever. The tales of an Earthman on Mars and his adventures among exotic alien races led to generations of imitators and still exerts a tremendous influence on science fiction and fantasy.
But A Princess of Mars is obviously and directly derived from the dime novel Westerns. In fact, A Princess of Mars begins with the protagonist prospecting in the Southwest and his first foes are Apaches! The conventions of classic Westerns don’t end there, either. Here is an exercise for you – when you read A Princess of Mars follow these steps:
1) Imagine John Carter as a half-breed trying to find his place in the world.
2) Imagine the Green Men as various tribes of American Indians.
3) Imagine the Red Men as White settlers where Dejah Thoris is the daughter of one prominent rancher and Sab Than is the son of a rival family.
If you do you will quickly see that the parallels between Planetary Romance and Westerns didn’t end when John Carter traveled to Barsoom. The many authors imitating Burroughs followed suit, with Leigh Brackett and Lin Carter standing out as excellent examples of Planetary Romance as ‘Westerns in Space’.
The dead sea beds and abandoned cities of Barsoom echoed the deserts and ghost towns of the West, placing John Carter in territory familiar not just to the Western genre but to Burroughs, who had served in the cavalry in the Southwest. These stark landscapes placed in an otherworldly context and against the backdrop of ancient races were certainly an influence on the development of the Dying Earth genre and echoes of Barsoom can be found decades later in Vance’s Dying Earth stories.
The generation that followed A Princess of Mars contained a number of writers critically important to popular literature in general and to the development of RPGs in particular. Among them, Robert E. Howard stands out in importance.
Howard is famous for effectively inventing the sword and sorcery genre. He did this by taking the historical adventure (whether in a real or pseudo-historical setting) and combining it with supernatural elements like the undead, lost races, etc. The first of these stories,“The Phoenix on the Sword”, introduced us to this type of story and also to the character Conan of Cimmeria. This seminal story was published in December of 1932 and the impact of this mash-up is hard to over-state; Conan is as important a pop culture icon as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or James Bond and the tales of Conan are arguably the main literary source for how fantasy RPGs are played.
But the Conan stories are plotted very similarly to Westerns. Conan arrives, he is obviously more competent than the locals, a villain is identified, etc. The other classic elements of the Western, such as the tension between the individual and society, the importance of civilization contrasted with the weakness of the civilized, the special status of women, etc. are also critical to Conan stories. This is most obvious in the story “Beyond the Black River”, which concerns Conan saving a bunch of settlers on the frontier from raids by “savages”. With just a handful of minor edits “Beyond the Black River” makes an excellent Weird West story.
But the amazing thing was Howard had already created another genre in that same year!
Howard had previously written the story “The Horror from the Mound”, a Western story concerning a cowboy fighting a vampire. This tale incorporates a mix of European folktales, Conquistador legends, Native American imagery, and Western characters, showing that Howard had already succeeded in mixing horror with another genre a full seven months before “The Phoenix on the Sword” was published. “The Horror from the Mound” is considered the first Western Horror story and is the birth of the Weird West genre. The time lines are hard to pin down, but it appears that Howard had completed “The Horror from the Mound” immediately before he began transforming an older story into the first Conan tale.
Howard was also an accomplished writer of Westerns with his tales of Breckenridge Elkins, the mighty powerful but mighty dim boy from Bear Creek, standing out as not just great stories but very funny ones, too. Written at about the same time as the Conan tales the stories of Breckenridge seem to contain a few elements of self-parody with Breckenridge’s appearance and physical abilities oddly similar to a certain barbarian while his actions are aimless, destructive, and self-defeating, causing endless torment to those around him. The slapstick tales of Breckenridge are also similar in tone to the tales of Cugel the Clever from Vance’s Dying Earth, although Breckenridge is more clueless than amoral.
The Western peaked in popularity between about 1960 and 1975 when Louis L’Amour and Luke Short were at their most popular (L’Amour sold a total of over 200 million books!) but the genre has been in decline ever since. Many bookstores no longer have a section for Westerns and most, if not all, of the magazines devoted to them are gone. But during its heyday the Western brought us Planetary Romance, Swords and Sorcery, the Dying Earth, and the Weird West. Westerns have inspired writers like Burroughs, Howard, Carter, Vance, and Brackett, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Appendix N.
I urge fans of Burroughs, Carter, Vance, and the rest, people who play RPGs, and writers to open up a Western and see just why they were so popular. I recommend you start with the Robert E. Howard short stories which can easily be found as ebooks or in omnibus editions. I find that the best Westerns are fine examples of good, clear writing and plotting and they are also sources for adventures and characters for RPGs.
Happy trails!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

If Your Torches Burn for only One Hour your NPCs will be More Important

  In the Seaward campaign the PCs formed an adventuring company, got a charter from the King, bought an old inn as a home base and, most recently, built their own level in my superdungeon.
  None of them are above 7th level and most of this activity began when they were 3rd/4th level.
  The Company is about 10 PCs but they have about 45 henchmen, as well as about 100 hirelings, mercenaries, etc.

  When discussing my campaigns in blogs, forums (very rare), on my Discord, etc. a frequent question I get is 'how do you get your players so invested in the world? NPCs seem important, they use a lot of henchmen that develop their own personalities, and they start doing things we associate with being name-level very, very early. What's the secret?'.

  The really, really short answer is that in my campaigns torches burn for an hour and weigh 2 1/2 lbs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Sting of Death

A recent social media post triggered a cascade of ideas for me, all because of the partial description of one of the most horrifyingly dangerous monsters in AD&D 1e - the Intellect Devourer.



  These things are as hard as they come, a ferocious opponent that makes an anrgy dragon seem like a vacation.
  For those of you who don't know, the Death Spell is one of the most terrifying spells in AD&D.

That is one Hell of an opening description

  If you are within the HD/Level limit no save and you're dead and only a full Wish can bring you back!
  But an Intellect Devourer shrugs off a Death Spell 75% of the time.

  What doesn't this beastie ignore?
  Power Word Kill. It just slays it.

  The first implication is that Power Word Kill includes psionic power. But that isn't enough. You see, PWK is a Ninth Level Spell, on par with Wish. The real implication is that PWK is whatever it takes to kill you.
  Only vulnerable to acid? PWK is like that. Only harmed by silver? PWK is like that. Only killed by a blessed weapon wielded by a virgin brunette that got A's in Biology at Smith? PWK is like that. Enough like all those thing to kill whatever needs killing, at least.

  Spell descriptions - read them!