Friday, July 15, 2016

So, What Am I Playing These Days?

I spent last night playing in someone else's Space 1889 game, using the Savage Worlds rules.

This setting is more fun than a poke in the eye. Set at the end of the Victorian Age, sometimes on Mars where the miracle of Liftwood makes flying ships a reality. Steampunk on toast.

The GM had pregens but I begged to be allowed to play a home-built character, and turned up with a Weird Scientist with a mania for the wondrous powers inherent in Radium. He was toting a Raduim-Enhanced pistol (SMITE power), a Radium Enhanced cricket bat (aka club, c/w SMITE power) and a flask that used Radium Infusion to produce a beneficial healing elixir (HEAL power), and much scenery chewing was done in the two hours or so we played out.

Pure delight watching the others who took full advantage of the GM's wonderful photo-printed cliff scenery to leap aboard a land ironclad (tank) right before another player blew it up with more dynamite than I thought existed in the world. I merely hid behind rocks shooting at the enemy for most of the time, but my awesome Radium Enhanced attacks were quite ... average if I'm honest. Fun though.

If you get a chance to play this system and setting I urge you to have a go. It is just about the best fun one can have with one's clothes on.

If you are in NYC and happen by the Citicorp Atrium around 7pm next Thursday, drop by the table and join us.

So What Am I Playing These Days?

I'm GMing Delta Green once a month.

On the first Saturday of any given month I gather with a few people (currently down to 3 others, but there have been as many as 8 others at the table in bygone days)  and we play out a modern day, conspiracy-theory heavy cross between X-files and Cthulhu Now using the D20 version of Call of Cthulhu.

I picked D20 in part because I wanted an action/adventure feel for the campaign, but mostly because I was using the whole Delta Green thing to challenge my assumptions.

Call of Cthulhu GMs tend to be reactionary sticks-in-the-mud who cleave to the BRP or Nothing mantra. BRP, or Basic Role Playing, is the system from which Call of Cthulhu is adapted and it is a simple-to-use game engine that lends itself to quick uptake.

A character has less than twenty attributes to take care of, most of them derived from the core attributes generated by rolling dice in the familiar RPG manner, and a list of skills he/she selects to reflect competences in various disciplines. The list can be a tad arbitrary depending on the published version you are using, and GMs are encouraged to use it as a springboard rather than a finite limit on what can and cannot be achieved by a character.

BRP advancement involves identifying the skills used "successfully" by characters and allowing attempts to increase these skills at an adventure's end.

D20 is a rather more complex affair, adding (some would say "larding") to the richness of the player character build-outs with experience-earned "feats" that give characters special abilities above and beyond the skills the system also offers. D20 also has the hated "levels" that are a legacy of the D&D RPG that started the ball rolling and which drive the BRP or Nothing Brigade to apoplexy.

Advancement in D20 involves the use of "Experience Points" that are collected until one has enough to "level up". Once a player increases a character's level, that character gets more hit points, gains increases in various bonuses (to attacks and various "saving throws" that grant reprieve from pitfalls, mental attacks and poisons to name but three) more feats and points towards the purchase of more skills and so forth.

I picked D20 and Delta Green five years ago as a way to open my mind to two things I'd always turned away from without really thinking about it. I didn't care for the incredibly detailed background of Delta Green, never really found that end-of-the-millennium paranoia to my taste to be honest, and had the standard BRP or Nothing GM's stance on Call of Cthulhu.

But I had the books, and the D20 book had some rather good ideas in it. Moreover, it made the whole business of players being able to access the ancient and maddening books of magical lore much more like the original first edition of the game. Later editions had strived to make the business of reading a magic book and being seduced by the lure of power something that took so long no player would ever consider doing it. One book famously takes over a year to read!

I had long held that the model for this nonsense was "obviously" derived from the story The Dunwich Horror, but that story is really detailing the process of Magical Research rather than a straight reading.

The BRP way of dealing with books is also intended to be a "between sessions downtime" thing, something I hadn't realized until I read John Tynes' way of doing things, which is not only an in-game affair but is more evocative and just all-round better in every way than the stilted and rather pedestrian BRP loss of sanity between sessions method.

A few games saw players being lured in and coming, inevitably, to bad ends for the best reasons and doing so from the most altruistic drives. It was wonderful, and the sense of wonder was back in the game. I was happy.

I also liked having the possibility of mass combat with modern weapons actually be manageable. I wanted to be able to model 50 debased inhabitants of Innsmouth chasing panicked investigators armed with Glocks through the streets at dead of night with the fog rolling in off the ocean.

BRP GMs scream another old mantra "If you are using combat you are doing something wrong" but that is an overly broad interpretation of the game's reality and contradicted by the content in the published scenarios and campaigns, just about all of which feature combat prominently.

There is a school of thought that the reason people don't fight in Call of Cthulhu is tha the combat system doesn't work very well. It is derived from a rather persnickety combat system intended to model hand-to-hand combat with edged weapons and shields, and really doesn't port well into a "scared academic with a pistol" scenario, let alone the "four ex-marines with advanced tactical training and mac-10s" scenario.

D20's combat system addresses those concerns by providing a robust combat system that can be played out on a grid (BRP Call of Cthulhu didn't even specify the speed character could move, making a mockery of the old joke about Call of Cthulhu player characters having higher "flee" rates than shooting skills - everyone moved at the speed of plot.)

It turned out that just about all the concerns BRP GMs were using as places to stand and dig in their levers were non-issues.

The hit points thing ("The PCs end-up being God-Like") is simply not true. The D20 rules have and always have had something called a Massive Damage rule, which is a level of damage inflicted at which a character must take a Fortitude Save - Difficulty Check 15 - which if failed is instant death. The monsters have the same rule, but the damage threshold is 50.

This means that you would have to inflict 50 points of damage in a single attack to stand any chance of killing a powerful thing from hell, but it would only have to cause ten points of damage to you - and almost forgone conclusion and one that had people dropping like flies until they learned to keep their distance from the nasties. Just like they do in BRP.

As for the levels, well, the players tend to be irretrievably mad or so fragile they'll go mad at the drop of a tentacle long before they become "Godlike". There are only so many things man was not meant to know you can look at before you are about as stable as a three legged cow.

And the game has become fun again. If you check out the forums you'll find them depressingly full of people claiming that their players "don't get" Call of Cthulhu and that they can't seem to scare up a game these days. The evidence is right there in front of these GMs - no-one enjoys the rather sterile experience of Call of Cthulhu as it has become. I also couldn't scare up a trad Call of Cthulhu game, but people were eagerly waiting each month for the Delta Green game. I had players who fell into the lure of Eldritch Power with predictable results. I had players gleefully treading the path to madness. All having fun doing so.

And that game has generated more deep immersion "buy in" than any other I've run. The sheer effort the players drove me to at times to provide them with challenging and interesting mysteries was exhausting. I've throttled back a bit, running some published scenarios rather than home-brewing them, because I couldn't sustain the mental effort any longer.

All from a setting and rules-set I had initially thought worthless.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

New Arrivals

The Stripey Hole by Inner City Game Designs is an old-school indy boardgame in a bag, with pages and pages of rules. The basic idea of being cons in the slammer planning to be the first out either by serving out one's sentence or bustin' outta the joint is a nice one, but to pull it off and include activities like tunneling, crawling through sewer lines and/or air ducts etc requires a bunch of rules I doubt I'll get anyone from today's audience to sit still for.

I found this one at Men at Arms in Center Island and couldn't resist it, or another Inner City game Gargantuan which is an attempt to survive a sinking ship as the decks flood under one's feet. Both these are sold in 8x5 baggies like the old Task Force Pocket Games used to be, have components that must be cut out and eschew color - actually, the standees for Gargantuan are in color, printed on photo paper.

If I said I had a weakness for games produced on a shoestring in someone's front room would I be surprising anyone? Anyway, if you are in New York of a weekend and want to play an old-fashioned board game of easy-to-moderate complexity, give me a shout.

Back in 1977, as my college days were coming to an end, I remember playing a wargame set in South Africa in which players took the part of Black South African rebel forces and White South African government forces as the two sides fight for control of the country still at that point being run under apartheid. I was the rebels. I lost.

The game in question had been given away in Strategy and Tactics magazine. This was an every-two-months publication from Simulations Publication International (SPI) and I often wondered what it would be like to replay it. The nature of the changes in South Africa would lend the game a surreal feel, I thought.

And so it was with some surprise that I found a copy of said magazine c/w an unpunched copy of the game inside on Amazon for a reasonable price. The game is now mine and I await the discovery of a worthy opponent so I can wreck my investment's collector value by punching out the components and playing the game with them.

I miss SPI wargames something fierce. Some of my best friendships were born over those four color maps, including that with Paul, the globetrotting wargamer of previous mention in these e-pages. But most of today's kids are scared of anything with more than a page of rules and won't try such games out.

Also scored a decent copy of Avalon Hill's Starship Trooper, a game put out in the early 1980s depicting the action from the Heinlein book. Like all Avalon Hill games it features a proper ("mounted" in game parlance) board in place of the paper maps of SPI. The humans get to fight two different sorts of alien (not at the same time), and the insectile sort have a hidden tunnel mechanism that looks like it will generate much fun for all.

Assuming I can find a player who isn't frightened off by the rulebook of course.

I picked up a digital handful of pdf game publications too.

More Lankhmar products for Savage Worlds including Savage Foes of Nehwon, a book of characters and adventure seeds featuring them - I have a similar book for Solomon Kane and it was great value for money - and Lankhmer Archetypes, a sort of quick start for players wanting to get a character up and running in double quick time.

I kickstarted into the Weird War I product launch and have a bunch of pdfs for that setting, including the GM and player handbooks and some scenarios, maps, archetypes and so forth. The product seems to be well worth what I kicked in and I can recommend these quick-delivery e-product kickstarters from PEG without reservation. I've been a part of two PEG kickstarters and each delivered in about a month or so.

Lastly, I grabbed me an e-copy of The Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. Expensive at about $25 plus tax etc but people were singing up the changes, which for the first time since second edition were more than a cosmetic change in the rulebook and some tweaks to make the mythos bits even more unplayable.

I've some very strong opinions about what has been done to the game over the years. I honestly believe that by 6th edition what had been a very simple and easy to play game had become a nightmare of contradictory nonsense, mostly concerned with implementing rules that emphasized a certain set of "realistic" views on certain crucial factors in the game that sucked all the fun out for everyone except for a few moody teens.

But 7th edition was written as an attempt to drag back an audience lost to Trail of Cthulhu and Realms of Cthulhu and umpteen other game systems' <Insert Verb> Of Cthulhu offerings. It has been back to the drawing board and emerged a different beast (or so they say). I haven't gotten too far into it, but already I'm gritting my teeth over certain pesonal hot buttons.

However, I've cut the vitriolic story-so-far I wrote and I'll post a more considered view when I've read it through again.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

New Find, New Purchase

Just before we went on vacation to Florida, I came across a game called Splendor, made by Asmodee.

The game is very well made. The components are cards, which are of a nice sturdy quality and printed in many colors, card components on thick card similar to that used by Fantasy Flight these days and by Battleline in the '70s, along with high quality poker chips with card insert artwork to represent the "gems".

Play is very simply explained. On your turn you may do one of the following: Collect three different colored gems into your "personal bank" to a maximum bank of 10, collect two gems of the same color provided that by doing so you leave at least two gems of that color in the pool, use gems to buy cards that are played openly on the table for all to see, and reserve a card for possible future purchasing by taking it into your "hand" and taking a joker gem token (the only way to collect a "wild-card" joker gem), to a limit of three cards reserved in your hand.

Cards are arrayed on the table in three ranks, displayed face up so they may be purchased. Cards offer two features: some have points scores and all convey bonus gems. Cards of the first rank are cheap to buy (typically costing three gems) but rarely offer points. Cards of the second rank are more expensive (typically four to seven gems to buy) and offer points as well as gems. Cards of the last rank are wildly expensive (typically eight to twelve gems) but offer generous points values of 4 or 5 points each. As cards are bought new cards are drawn from face-down decks to replenish the field.

The objective is to have the most points when a player declaration of 15 points owned is made and all the players left in that round have played a turn. Obviously, if the last player on a turn declares she has 15 points, she will win. If the first player in a round declares he has 15 points, the other players have one turn each to pip him at the post.

Players can claim bonus scores by being the first to meet certain criteria and getting a visit from a patron (the game's conceit is that the players are renaissance merchants). Needless to say, this makes for interesting strategic play as players attempt to win or deny patrons to others.

Not only that but the bonus gems on cards can be spent whenever a purchase is made which calls for that color of gem, and they don't get used up by doing so. This means that eventually players are able to claim cards from the first rank without necessarily spending any actual gems at all. This can be a dangerous distraction, or can be a lifesaver when one player has a corner on all the gems of a certain color as a denial tactic.

What I like about this game, and I like it a lot is the overall production values make you want to try it, the simplicity of player options makes it easy to pick up (about five minutes by experience) yet the options available to the player in a game are wide open, allowing for subtle and complex play. Each game is complex, the rules are not. Think of a game of draughts (US Checkers). The moves are easy to teach. But the play can become fiendishly complex. The same holds for Splendor.

I also like the fact that the box holds the components securely so the game can be transported, played and then packed away without losing parts or having to resort to baggies. It drives me nuts when I get a game that will not go back in its box once deployed (Mansions of Madness) or won't stay in it if the box is tilted (Tokaido).

Resources:
Splendor at Amazon.com

Thursday, January 21, 2016

New Arrivals

So I went a bit crazy on the PDF acquisition front in the last three months or so.

I began the slow process of converting some paper resources into more space-saving and generally more useful for my commute-friendly RPG research needs by buying Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown pdfs for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, an "old school" RPG very much in the vein or White Box D&D that bills itself as "Weird" while having absolutely no in-game mechanics I can discern to bring on the weird tone at all. I also picked up Hammers of the God, The Grinding Gear and The Random Esoteric Creature Generator. I already had the rulebook. Not sure whether I'll run LotFP. To be honest the game is aspiring to be Solomon Kane is as many ways as I care to notice, to judge by the suggestions in the rulebook itself. The artwork is both disgusting and awesome by terms.

I picked up a metric tonne of original GDW Traveller books in a "Bundle of Holding". Traveller is a game close to my heart and I'm dying to run it in campaign mode again, but I cannot get anyone interested in playing. In any event, the bundle provided the three rulebooks, five expansion rulebooks and a selection of the supplements. Not as complete a set as I would have liked, but not bad at all for what it cost me.

I picked up Stone and a Hard Place and a collection of Trail Guides. These represent episode three of a four part campaign of campaigns for Deadlands reloaded, and a collection of one-off adventures. Stone also contains rules re-introducing the long-gone Deadlands "Hexslinger" character type, and expanded rules that allow a player to play a so-called "harrowed" character. I am still mulling over the content of this volume, and can't say more without spoiling anyway, so perhaps I'll keep a detailed discussion of Stone for another time. In any event, after my attempt to run Last Sons hit player fatigue I am disenchanted with Deadlands campaigns for a bit. Hence the Trail Guide adventures. I'll review those as we play them.

Rippers also arrived, in record time for a Kickstarted project too. Not bad, and people will definitely take to the Gothic Horror/Victorian Steampunk Super Hero aspect of the setting I imagine. There are a few small changes to the original rules (which were included in the bundle but which I had bought recently anyway) alson with some modification of the settings backstory. The ancilliary products that were bundled in, like maps and adventures, were a welcome addition. The usual high quality graphic design is front and center but to be hinest I preferred that used on the older version. The deal included a set of inserts for the GM screen too. Nice.

I picked up a copy of Microscope, a co-operative game involving RPG elements in which the players work to build a history of, well, whatever they decide. It has an innovative approach to what would seem to be an anarchic process, and it can be used to play just for its own sake or, perhaps more interestingly, to arrive at a setting in which to place a home-brewed RPG, especially one in which the players share GMing duties. I'm looking forward to trying out this one, though th eidea is harder to convey as an exciting prospect than I imagined it would be.

I bought Weird War II after ignoring the Savage Worlds setting for years. I was trying to build my own setting and realized I might be re-inventing the wheel, so decided to take a look. The pdf is a far more lavish affair than the last paper copy I had in my hands, with color illustrations to boot! I'll be reviewing this one in more depth at a later date. Given the way the Weird West caught my attention after years of "meh" I may have a new fad on my hands.

While on the subject of Savage Worlds I decided to buy a pdf of the Kerberos Club setting, which I have in paper form and have not really taken much a liking to, but on re-reading find a little more interesting. The setting is Victorian England (my original reason for buying was to increase my library of Space 1889 resources) and the conceit is that of the Victorian Costumed Hero. Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and you are in the right neighborhood. The paper copy is of rather indefferent quality to be honest, far below the general Savage Worlds accepted standard. In pdf these things matter less. More to come later.

I finally weakened and bought The Vorkosigan Saga, a self-contained RPG set in Lois McMaster Bujold's "Barrayar" universe and a gorgeous production. It took so long to bring it to press it became that rarest of things, a fourth edition setting book for GURPS (for the rules in the book are GURPS-Lite). This is a great thing if you are a buying in hardback (I was an early adopter). Buying the pdf perhaps will inspire me to run a GURPS game for a bit, though I find the though terrifying. It's like trying to interest people in tax instructions. The base rulebooks are hysterically funny, insisting on the essential symplicity and stripped down feel of fourth edition GURPS in a sidebar on a page containing dense type explaining how to calculate fractional characteristic values. But nobody does a setting book like the GURPS guys do, which makes the idea of porting the thing wholesale to a different engine if not easy, at least not a herculean task.

Please note that while I find GURPS unattractive for many reasons as a GM I do acknowledge the awesome flexibility of the engine itself and also the people who built it. An achievemment that is underappreciated by many, including (of course) me.

Perhaps the most unlikely new purchase for me has been that of the Firefly RPG and a couple of scenario books for it. I got one of these in a "for charity" bundle I coughed up for, and was intrigued despite never having been a fan of the Firefly series or the Serenity movie. Some reading, and I was hooked. Hooked enough to start planning a game and start researching by buying and watching the series and the movie on Blu-ray, both soundtrack albums for planned background music (I rarely use music in my games as it usually becomes a distraction, but the "feel" I got from my reading was that it might work positively here. And I buy and listen to soundtrack albums anyway. I also felt the need for a small model of the ship as a focus item for the table. The cheapest way to that goal was the Firefly Yahtzee set, which has a very nice model of the Serenity as its dice cup. So yes, I bought in to the FIrefly game bigtime and can't wait to run it.

And despite my feeling that the Sixth Edition of Call of Cthulhu is the least accessible rulebook for the game ever published, making what should be a simple and quick assimilation by a new GM a tortuous trip through contadictory and confusing nonsense, I bought that in pdf too. I was about to start running Call of Cthulhu again from the BRP rules (I've been running a Delta Green game using the much-maligned D20 rules for more than five years for perhaps the best Call of Cthulhu gamers I've ever had but missed the 20s and BRP experience) and needed an electronic form of the book. I'm using 5.2 for the game itself, but couldn't source that as an e-book for luvner money.

This brings me to the lamentable quality of comparably high-cost Chaosium e-books. Chaosium have been coasting on their quality for some years, with customers acting as appologists for the horribly dated look and the fact that the lack of production values has resulted in every case I've paid for in a book that is functionally useless as an in-game resource.

The products are consistently higher priced than lavish equivalent products from other publishing houses, lacking any sort of relief from the tedious greyscale. Compare, for example, the monochrom but much more interesting Trail of Cthulhu with Call of Cthulhu and you'll come away with a sour taste in your mouth.

Forget the artwork for a moment. Let's look at the way a pdf is navigated. Hyperlinks from the table of contents to the content itself is best, but not essential. Bookmarks are absolutely essential, the more granular the better. These become most useful if they approach index levels of depth, but don't have to go that far, as long as they can be used as anchors in which to page back and forth as a game progresses.

Not one of my Chaosium pdf products has bookmarks, meaning that one is reduced to using "search", just about the lousiest, most useless way of using a rule or setting book in-game. And I'm not talking about old products here. Gold Book BRP, Cthulhu by Gaslight (the latest one that was delivered by the author as an electronic version for Hastur's sake!), Beyond the Mountains of Madness (a magnificent but most of all HUGE book that cries out for bookmarks), House of R'lyeh and, of course, the Sixth Edition Rulebook. All came without bookmarks.

And Chaosium are not alone in "not getting it" when it comes to how pdfs get used by GMs. Wizards of the Coast finally published pdf versions of their D&D 3.5 core books. As locked-down pdfs.

Now you may be wondering who would lock down a pdf of an obsolete version of an RPG which for all intents and purposes is available at a fraction of the cost under a different name in an unlocked format, and so am I. The locking of the pdf means that the GM cannot annotate the rulebook they have just bought (and not cheaply either I might add; Pathfinder is a better buy on cost grounds too). So no highlighting and no post-it notes, something I have come to understand is more than just extremely useful to me as a GM, it is essential. Way to protect your IP, Hasbro. On a game nobody wants to buy anyway. Pfft!

I am told that the Seventh Edition rulebooks (plural, there are now two sold for the game) for Call of Cthulhu do have bookmarks, but I am not remotely tempted to pony up almost thirty dollars for the GM manual to find out. Chaosium have burned out all the customer brand loyalty from me with mediochre and half-hearted attempts to "serve" their audience. There has been a change of management there of late in an attempt to revitalise the company still reeling after a financial misstep in the 1990s (!) but we can still see self-defeating behavior such as floating the Seventh Edition Kickstarter before they had fulfulled the long over-running Horror on the Orient Express Kickstarter, with predictable results wioth respect to both products and unhappiness in the backer ranks.

Oh, and I picked up Legend, the pdf that replaces Runequest in the Mongoose line of products (lapsed licence) so I could contemplate running an Elric or Hawkmoon game, but that is way off in the nevernever future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fall of Magic Arrives

About two weeks or so ago I took delivery of The Fall of Magic, a project I had kicked into in late May, and a nice item it is too.

The box it comes in is reminiscent of the sorts of games my great grandmother had hiding in the back of her closet. More like the box in which you'd find a tenor recorder than a game. Inside is a really neat idea.

The chief component of the game is the map, which is presented on a linen scroll that the players unroll as they advance through the game, depicting a road and towns along the route, each with four locations picked out. There are counters for the players, cards that extend the map when the players reach "the islands" and a die for the rare random number needs.

The conceit of this GM-less RPG is that the magic in the world is dying. We don't know why. The players are students of The Magus. The Magus is undertaking a journey or pilgrimage. We don't know why. All the things we don't know about the magic, the Magus, the journey and the other players will hopefully be made manifest as the journey progresses.

Each turn a player can move his/her counter along the road to a new location or move the (non-player) magus to the next town. As each player moves, he or she adds a little more detail to the story of the journey, prompted by hints determined by that player's location.

There's a bit more to the game than this, but that is the gist of what the game is about. It is a cooperative storytelling, a cross between Fiasco! and Tokaido to put it entirely too broadly.

This game also represents something of a rarity: a game Kickstarter project that ran for less than a year and delivered what it said it would only about three weeks late. That should make it eligible for some sort of Kickstarter award.

I can't wait to play.

Pictures to follow later when I have time to arrange them; Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cluless In Nottingham

Thirty five dollars for an e-book format Codex?

And it isn't even available as a PDF?

Please stop sending me this nonsensical blither, Games Workshop. If you want people to buy your stuff again you must start getting realistic about how much they have to pay. It simply isn't sustainable to ask people to fork over $70 for a rulebook that then requires at least one $50 codex before it can be used in a tournament. Then there are the armies that cost in the hundreds of dollars to acquire, and the hours needed to assemble and paint the bugger.

And now you are "offering" me the chance to invest in overpriced e-books in formats notorious for markup f*ckups, formats that won't travel well and require a proprietary reader to access?

Still not getting real, chaps. Your heyday is o'er and the hobby you built from nothing is now as moribund as the daft gothic universe you made up to house it all in.

And it all started so well, too.

I guess you all lost the thread, a fact obvious to some when you killed off the bits business. The whole point of the hobby to most of us was the customizing of the miniatures to personal standards using stock pieces from other minis. To have to buy the entire mini just to get an arm or the wings, though, is a plan for millionaires and idiots.

And when you did away with the custom casting business you killed my Imperial Guard army expansion plans. "EBay" said a GW rep when I asked how I was to source stuff. This after two decades of being warned away from "recasters" and fakes.

"Time to die", as Rutger Hauer once said.