Thursday, July 21, 2016

Loot! Loot! Loot!

I love loot. Despite that I’ve been accused of being stingy with it. But that comes from the same whiners who say “ooh I don’t have enough points,” “wait I lost how much sanity?,” or “we’re only first level why is there a dragon?” You can get by without much loot. We’re been playing Rolemaster for close to two years in the same dungeon and I think we’ve gotten a handful of gems, a potentially cursed religious chalice, various nuts & bolts, and three actual magic items. Of course, I ended up with the +15 laen sword, so I may be a little biased.

Anyway, on a recent Play on Target episode we discussed loot, treasure, money, items, etc. We were lucky enough to have Sherri on as a guest. She added her player-perspective to our GM focused interests. Below I offer nine additional thoughts on filthy lucre and ancient relics in rpgs.

1. The Pudding Blade: I like weird items with strange powers players have to find a use for. They make my job easier. It means I don’t have to think about the group, their roles, and what they already have. If you’re not using a random chart to generate treasure, then any decisions about drops have the PC group as a context. If you keep dropping flails but no one uses them, and in fact everyone’s invested in everything but flails, that’s a problem. Or if it’s all swords, all the time, and the group ends up with a golf bag worth. I try to skate the line between suspension of coincidence (“look everyone got a magic weapon of the kind they use”) and punishment (“six new helms everybody!”). Bizarre things make it easy. I don’t know where they’ll end up or how they’ll be used.

2. How Much for the Eye of Vecna? Tangential to the concept of Loot as Stuff, there’s the question of the economy in games. How do we handle money and purchasing power? Better minds than I have written about the economic impact of wealth on fantasy civilizations. Money loot becomes more important when the backdrop has scarcity. As I say in the episode less scarcity means you have to shift your picture. If you want players to spend what they want has to be scarce. Night’s Black Agents makes that vital to the set up. It’s costly to run a rogue intelligence operation. You want weapons or cool Q-tech stuff, you need money. And that means doing off-the-books jobs to get that money.

3. Glorious Doom Hammer of Doom: What can we learn from Diablo’s drop system? A. Having cool names makes everything better, but be careful not to repeat. B. An easy means to dispose of items seems awesome but generally devalues them. C. Stuff should have a look, something players can integrate into their self-description. D. Giving sweet equipment to beloved NPCs can be satisfying.

4. I'll Just Pay Then Off: Some games have capital “W” Wealth. These games allow players to roll or spend points to make themselves rich (GURPS, M&M). It’s a thorny question. Obviously the GM can still make that interesting: some choices come with costs or they’re in locations where their wealth isn’t recognized. Call of Cthulhu, Fate, and a few other games have wealth as a skill. I like systems where you can throw your money around but it reduces your skill or effectiveness for future attempts. Taken to its logical extreme, wealth becomes a hit point pool or damage track. You could use that to absorb social attacks or have it assaulted by thieves. But that might be more tracking and recording than I’m good with.

5. You Don't Know, Why Don't You Drink It? Rolemaster has some interesting treasure mechanics::delving and attunement. There’s a whole set of spells (usually for Bards) to figure out what an item does. They can also uncover history and other information, but really it’s about this challenge to the PCs and the mechanics to overcome that. This means you need to be clear to the party how you’re going to handle items. If you tell players what X does, then you potentially negate the need for some spells (and therefore part of a character’s build options). Of course, since its Rolemaster, they add another shade of difficulty. In order to use staves & wands, you have to make a skill check with “Staves & Wands,” aka Attunement. I’ve seen many GMs use this skill as necessary to using any item that doesn’t offer a flat bonus. I’ve done it myself…

6. Torc Grenades: Of course my favorite mechanic for this kind of figuring out is early Gamma World’s flowchart. There you flat roll until you figure it out, break it, or kill yourself. A more interactive approach with some bonuses and skill interaction might be fun. Artifacts of a bygone age are a staple of post-apocalyptic gaming, and figuring them out is important. It’s why I’ve been curious about the long-mentioned Gumshoe PA game. What will discovery there focus on: other groups, lost lore, or how relics work?

7. Wastelands:  Mutant: Year Zero takes a middle path on this kind of loot and I dig it. MYZ has artifact cards, ranging from the obviously useful (rifle) to the oddball (air mattress). Each card has a description of the effects and even the most mundane has some bonus. The air mattress helps with recovering fatigue. Artifacts often contribute dice to checks. When they do so, players add black dice to their pool. If these dice roll 1’s they can wear out. Gearhead characters can then repair them. It’s an easy mechanic and creates opportunity and value for tech characters. The cards help too. As well, some of the more obscure pre-made relate to a meta-plot operating at the back of MYZ. That’s a nice touch and the GM can seed those as they see fit.

8. Power Up: Other genres require a different take on loot. You can still have equipment finds in a sci-fi game, but more often you’re getting money to convert into stuff. Superhero games don’t have loot per se. But we could make some rewards more concrete so they feel more like loot. Accumulating NPCs and contacts is one obvious choice. Worlds in Peril has a bonds system and that offers a mechanical benefit. Bases are another great reward for group long-term play. That’s especially true if players can invest points, effort, or “loot” into making the base better. Never underestimate the power of that kind of shared resource. Particular kinds of reputation can be a reward. It would be interesting to offer loot in the form of rep levels with different segments of the population. That could be a popularity number along with a phrase describing the kind of rep. Finally loot and stuff found in villain lairs, labs, and on downed foes can be “excuse” loot. If someone has cool stuff or strange chemicals, that’s an excuse to buy new powers or enhance existing ones. That’s the whole basis of Base Raiders.

9. Wear & Tear: Finally, I’m torn on something I mention in the episode. Ashen Stars has an interesting system covering cyberware and viroware, both cool things with special abilities. You can pick up more of these in play. Obviously there’s a limit to how much you can have (ala Humanity from Cyberpunk 2020 or the item chakras from 13th Age). In Ashen Stars there’s an upkeep cost to these items. If you don’t pay that, you lose their powers and suffer additional problems as they break down. That’s a cool mechanic for balancing items and giving players something to spend money on. BUT I know that I loathe video games with weapon breakage and item degradation. Would I hate it as much at the tabletop? I don’t know. I suspect it would be an occasional road bump rather than a runaway treadmill. So maybe there’s something worth pursing in the idea of adapting that kind of upkeep (and maybe upgrade) mechanism to a fantasy game.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes, Google Play, or follow the podcast's page at

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Second Wave: Collaborative Superhero Campaign-Building

Last night we did a session of Microscope to build the backdrop for our new Mutants & Masterminds campaign. We weren’t building from scratch. I’d run a three arc, 50+ session campaign for this group called First Wave. This new campaign, with new characters, would take place 18 months after the end of the last one.

For First Wave, I’d had them run “Year One” versions of existing superhero characters. They’d picked Nightcrawler, Mr. Freeze, Thor, Iron Man, and Mister Miracle. That let me include and play around with Marvel and DC elements in a pastiche. In this hybrid world superheroes had just begun to emerge, including the PCs. That however turned out not to be the whole truth. Superbeings had existed for decades, but had been kept secret by a villainous group called the Cabal (the PCs would figure that out midway through the first arc). I lifted that concept from the otherwise atrocious Wanted miniseries.

The last campaign ended with many old heroes and villains released from exile in the Phantom Zone. Vandal Savage briefly transformed by New York into "New Apokolips: with time/dimensional villainy. First Wave defeated him with a dimension & time-travelling counter-strike. Afterwards many New Yorkers remembered all or fragments of that alternate timeline: being dominated by robots and rogue supers. Despite those fears and tensions, in the we established in the post-game that First Wave continued as the premier superhero team.

We came into last night with that in mind. I’d told the players our theme would legacy characters: sidekicks, supers taking up a mantle, heroes with connections to earlier ones, etc. Think Young Avengers, Teen Titans, New Mutants, etc. I only created the bookend periods for the timeline; beyond that I tried to keep an open mind. I didn't think about or plan anything for the campaign and I didn't participate beyond a couple of small additions and clarifications during play.

Below is what they did to came up with for the world. I’ve added a few GM comments in red and done some editing . In a few places they made difficult choices about calling something 'light' or 'dark'. What they settled on in each case colored the result heavily.

Add/Ban List
By default we'll generally stick close to previously established campaign facts.
  • Ban: No Time Travel
  • Add: There is a Multiverse. Time passes the same in other universes.
  • Ban: No Erotica Moves

The group just finished playing Numenera, so apparently the last one was necessary.

Themes for Rounds
Round One: Heroes (Scott)
Round Two: Politics (Carl)
Round Three: The Phantom Zone (Matt)
Round Four: Redemption vs Justice. (Fabian)
Round Five: Dimensional Meta-humans (refugees) (Ben)

Period: Aftermath of Vandal Savage’s Manhattan Takeover
New York works to rebuild and come to terms with memories of a superhero occupation. (L)
  • The Great Subterranean Exodus: In the aftermath of Vandal Savage's takeover, collapsing caverns and tunnels leads to the Mole Man bringing many creatures and “Molemen” to the surface. (L)
    • Question: Are the Molemen citizens? No, but many activists have taken up their cause. (D)
  • Mr. Freeze is elected Mayor of New York City in a landslide accompanied by many insinuations of winning the “meta” and “subhuman” vote. (L)
    • This was an early one and at first I thought I might intrude but I held back. We established that players could only reference/use a previous PC with that players permission. I wasn’t sure about the timing, but hey it’s a superhero world so anything goes.
    • Question: What is Mr. Freeze’s biggest policy blunder? His libertarian views towards superpowers makes Manhattan the center of superhero & metahuman powers. They flock there, leading to more and more damage and conflicts. (L)
  • City agents equipped with rudimentary Phantom Zone projectors back-engineered by Mr. Freeze begin “disposal” of giant monsters and gargantua. This is not done without controversy.
    • There's mention in play that these creatures belong to the Mole Man, a crucial PC ally from the last campaign.
    • Question: What ends this program? They run out of targets. Eventually city agents either drive the Molemen creatures underground or into the Phantom Zone (L).

Period: Appearance of Dimensional Refugees
Governments struggle to deal with this influx and the related strains on their economies. This leads to further fractures in metahuman v human relations due to these “alien” metas. (D)
  • Mister Miracle and allies defeat a force of extradimensional Starks bent on world conquest. The International community is introduced to SHIELD (Super Heroic Interdimensional\Extradimensional Liberty Directive), a group of red white and blue clad adventurers from across space and time. Not long afterwards, Mister Miracle vanishes into the Phantom Zone, as this organization carries on  his mission of spreading freedom across the multiverse.(L)
    • Question: Who is a member of SHIELD? Nick Furious, a massive gamma induced red/white and blue hulk who gets stronger when his country/nation/dimension is threatened. (L)
  • Congress passes legislation creating a path to citizenship for dimensional refugees; however this further incenses the Molemen activism movement. (L)
  • Molemen riot in downtown New York finally leads to some justice for them. Matt Murdock, with the aid of Mister Miracle, negotiates an addition to the legislation to allow to become citizens as well (L)
  • The Great Lakes Avengers are exposed as extra-dimensional counterparts. They claim that some meta-human refugees have disposed of this dimensions counterparts in order to take their place as heroes, and to blend into this dimension. (D)

Period: Superhuman Flyers Grounded
For an unknown reason, all meta-humans gradually lose the power to fly. (D)
  • First Victim of the Grounding. Several dozen supers lose their powers and fall (some to their death), including Angel and Darkstar. (D).  
  • The superhuman group: New Mutants confront and defeat “The Skylord” thus returning the power of flight to Superhumans. (L)
  • One of the dimensional refugees from an “Age of Apocalypse” dimension, Dark Beast, manages to perform genetic studies of “The Skylord” and from there he devises and discovers why and how meta-humans are able to fly, and from that the basis of a super-weapon is created which can ground superman fliers. This becomes a politically charged event, which the military tries to keep secret. (D)
  • Victor von Doom teams with First Wave to halt a massive interdimensional invasion from the remnants of the forces First Wave defeated before. This act of ‘heroism’ sets the stage for Doom to run for the Presidency (L)

Period: President Doom
Dr. Doom (Victor von Doom) campaigns and becomes president of the United States (D).
  • The Latverian People’s Liberation Army, backed by Mindless Ones lent to them by the Dread Dormammu, overthrow the Doom regime. He flees to America, where he holds dual citizenship. (L)
  • Presidential nominee von Doom selects Mr. Freeze as his Vice-President.
  • “Anthony” Stark, himself a dimensional refugee, reveals a device for detecting “dimensional frequency” as a means of identifying non-native supers and persons. He announces its sale to the US government. (D)
  • President Doom fulfills his promise to “build an interdimensional wall and make the “dimmies” pay for it” (D)
    • Question: What is the most common way of breaching the dimensional wall? Dimensional Refugees are able to breach the wall by whenever the Phantom Zone projector is used (L).
  • Extra-Dimensional "Coyotes" manage to steal and create a flawed copy of the Phantom Zone projector to establish a dangerous and expensive means of entering and exiting the prime dimension. (D)
  • Freeze is sidelined initially but then mounts a constitutional challenge to Doom’s eligibility for the Presidency. (D)
    • Question: Why does the challenge ultimately fail? The challenge fails because Doom has replaced key members of Congress with Doombots. As well as a Wrongful Death suit brought against Mr. Freeze for Mr. Cobblepot’s demise eats up his time. (D)
  • Doom promises a cure for Nora Freeze if Freeze confesses his culpability in the wrongful death of Cobblepot. (D)
    • Question: What was Freezes response and why? Torn by his love for both Mrs. Freezes, he vacillates. He alienates the living Mrs Freeze and squanders his opportunity against Doom who then retracts his offer taunting Freeze with a partial formulation. (D)
  • Mr. Freeze resigns as Vice President, rejects all human companionship and begins working on extra dimensional technology to solve the multitude of problems he has been complicit to redeem himself to Mrs Freeze (whichever, he is flexible). (L)
  • Dr. Doom’s advisor is a dimensional “refugee”, who he has taken under his wing, he is a precognitive super-human which allows Doom to preemptively take political & military actions but divides the superhero community when they find out about it (D).
    • Question: Where was this precog from? Earth 238
    • This is a dual reference. The first part alludes to the current Civil War II storyline. The second, Alan Moore’s run on Captain Britain and his James Jaspers character.

Period: Neo-Soviet Super Empire
A superhuman cold war erupts between Neo-Soviet, Neo-Soviet satellites & the Western allies. This is triggered when a refugees using a Phantom Zone projector pull in Red Son Superman, Red Batman, Red Brainiac, Red Wonder Woman, and more. They establish a new regime in Soviet Russia. Batman becomes head of the KGB, and they take over the old buffer states of Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, (Eastern) Poland, Latvaria, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia etc. (D).
  • Latvarian Massacre - In response to the Neo-Soviet forces massacring citizens of Latveria, President Doom deploys the SHIELD to defend them, leading to further devastation and even more hostility between the two powers. This bolsters Doom’s popularity at home. (D)
  • The death and autopsy of Red Magneto reveals the Neo-Soviet supers origins as hybrids squeezed out of two separate dimensions by the projector technology. (D)
  • The NYSE halts trading for the eighth time in response to Super-Soviet/Western warfare and tensions. This time the increasing economic collapse is triggered by algae bloom contamination of the Atlantic Seaboard by Red Aquaman. (D)
  • Revelation of the neutralization of nuclear weaponry by an uncovered Cabal device leads to a military foray into Finland by Neo-Soviet troops. (D)
  • Mole Man is redeemed, he has seen the light (pun intended), and he frees his creatures from the Phantom Zone, but feeling dispossessed by America, he decides to defect to Soviet Russia (L).
  • Doom changes the “Meta Path to Citizenship” to require service in government-sponsored super teams. (D)

Period: First Wave World War I
As the world spirals into chaos and conflict, First Wave steps in to become the arbiter of international justice...whether the world wants it or not. (D)
  • Doom announces a new amnesty program in an attempt to garner public support and shore up his presidency. (D)
    • Question: What is this program? Further recruitment of powered persons generally, but specifically amnesty for hidden Rikti refugees in an attempt to have them assist in the war against the Soviets. (D)
    • The Rikti are a City of Heroes reference. The group originally met playing that MMO.
  • While fighting for the Soviets in Iraq, Mole Man has a mishap with a Phantom Zone projector. He accidentally calls in Jormungandr (the World Serpent) from another dimension and destroys the entire country (D).
  • The Tournament of the Seven Mystical Cities of Heaven convenes on the border of Soviet Russia and is cancelled when Red Heroes attack it. (L)
    • One of the players will probably be running Year One Iron First.
  • First Wave, Rikti, World Serpents, Red Supers, Ninjas, Mutants, Kree, and Phantoms clash in an apocalyptic battle over Turkey. (D)
    • This player deliberately left this open. There’s a battle, but no statement of resolution. He set it as dark, so I can assume the war continues on. He mentions several groups we haven’t seen: Kree and Ninjas for example. But he also mentions World Serpents suggesting some interesting fallout from the Iraq situation. Perhaps some transformations ala TDAR? Or actual giant serpents? Then there’s the mention of Phantoms. What does that mean? In the last campaign the Phantom Zone was a high-unbreakable prison that Mister Miracle finally cracked at the end. In this timeline so far, it’s been a more permeable version of that, with it also used as a means for exiles from other dimensions to reach this one. So what are Phantoms? A slang term? Some kind of person enhanced by contact with the Zone? A fragment of the Zone itself?
Period: Authorities Confirm Vanishing of First Wave
I left this deliberately blank at the start and the players opted not to fill in more here. That gives me plenty of room.
  • Mister Miracle reappears, stumbling out of a Boom Tube in the center of Manhattan, a flood of phantom zone refugees trailing behind him. Strangely aged, with long grey hair and a beard, he collapses upon emerging. (L)
    • Question: How does the new Mayor of NYC discover that the Mr. Miracle is not the original Miracle?  Deputy Mayor Dick Grayson, unnerved by Miracles’ rambling prophesies of interdimensional invasions from tentacled mind gods, investigates and discovers the Mark of Odinson on him. (L) 


The players continue to dig Microscope. We’d used it for our 13th Age campaign and they’d used it for Numenera. One of the players hadn’t tried it before and he dug it hugely. Including rules explanation, we managed to get in six rounds (a starter one plus one for each player) in about three hours online.

I wasn’t sure what the tone of the new campaign would be. As I mentioned above, they’ll be running legacy characters. I imagined something like Young Justice, Gen13, Infinity, Inc, or Runaways. But I hadn’t expected that to collide with a really dark timeline. The world’s at war, a war of superbeings. Dimensional invaders and refugees have shifted the balance of power. Victor von Doom is the US President. The economy has collapsed. Humanity has seen whole nations destroyed.

And the major superteam, First Wave, has mysteriously vanished.

So this may well be a darker, grittier superhero game than I’d imagined. More like a Netflix series in a devastated New York? Or perhaps it’ll be about some kind of redemption and rebirth from that crisis. We’ll see. I have a lot to think about for next week. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Sentient Meetings, Care Bears, Magical Meth Labs: Locations & Events for Magic, Inc

I ran Magic, Inc twice at Games on Demand: Origins and Steven desJardins has a generous assessment of one of those sessions. He mentions one of my favorite details; he altered his name tag as he traveled in time. Before and during the convention I sketched out a list of random places PCs might end up at or things that might happen to them as they trekked across the facility. These could be set-pieces, GM intrusions, or hard/soft moves. Anyway, here's what I've come up with so far. 

Fifty Places and Locations
  1. Everyone in office desperately engaged in heated phone-game competition. Option: game eerily echoes recent events, movements, or situations related to the PCs.
  2. PCs get lead on information. At location the so-called department “database” is actually 20 file directories full of spreadsheets dating back to the mid-80s.
  3. A raging and ongoing battle of one-upmanship over cubicle d├ęcor. Turning violent.
  4. Department undergoing yearly emotional fallout cleaning. Uses noisy heavy machinery. Have to be careful not to get too close as it draws off hope first. Offices may or may not be currently populated. Alternative: fumigation set up for this. 
  5. Boss has all phones programmed with an assortment of popular and/or moronic ringtones and alarms. These go off constantly.
  6. Raised floor or ceiling crawlspace conceals a secret passage or a dungeon.
  7. Department staff are robots wearing ill-fitting, obvious, and/or patchwork human costumes. Will go out of their way to illustrate how "hu-man" they are. May turn Killbot if secret revealed. 
  8. Department overwhelmed by catalog and fundraising sales obligations. They've lost track of whether these come from children/relatives of workers or some outside infestation. Sellers will latch on to new arrivals. The guilt force is palpable.
  9. There’s a never-ending cycle of carry-ins, becoming more and more elaborate. Food has begun to pile up as janitorial services refused to deal with it.
  10. Workers in office all have weird jerry-rigged VR headsets they're unaware of. 
  11. Undergoing constant renovation. Workers still required to complete tasks at their desks. Tarps draped over many them. By the time the redesign has reached one end of the office, they’re beginning a new approach from the other.
  12. Danger room for “Agile” development.
  13. Formal Mondays, Casual Fridays, Medieval Thursdays, Carnivale Tuesdays, Cosplay Wednesdays.
  14. Raised floors sufficient to hide bodies. Evidence suggests they’ve been used thusly.
  15. Wizard office. Dead apprentices everywhere. Casual magic used to do the most mundane task. Glitter in the air turns out to be mage dander. 
  16. Everything in this office has an RFiD inventory sticker: sheets of paper, coffee cups, shoes. Each doorway has an alarm scanner. Best if PCs need something from here.  
  17. Call center has removed walls and encroached into the department. It keeps expanding. A constant droning din of conversations fills air. Like a siren song, but not in a good way.
  18. Threadbare department desperately trying to survive as they engage in an unending struggle to get  purchasing approval. They will strip office supplies from any interlopers.
  19. The department's a secret, not supposed to exist. The workers will try one of three things: attempt to mind-wipe the group; immediately begin dismantling to relocate; or scatter to the four winds.
  20. Care Bears. One non-Care-Bear accounts person.
  21. Office has an open plan, and it is vast and empty. The echoing halls go on and on. Absenteeism means that most desks are empty. The sound of keyboards clicking in the distance. Crossing requires survival tests.
  22. Indoor moat. PCs need to get drawbridge lowered to talk with department or cross through.
  23. Office has been contaminated: radiation, magic, moon prism power, whatever. Everyone’s working in contamination suits.
  24. Furtive and paranoid staff. They’re hiding a fully outfitted breakroom kitchen  from the fire safety division.
  25. Local libertarian vermin infestation.
  26. Doorway leads into the middle of a dangerous team-building exercise. Instructors won't accept they accidentally wandered in. 
  27. Office located next to corporate alarm panel: there’s constant drills and vendor testing.
  28. Boss brings his beloved and ill-behaved blink dogs to work with him. They're ill-behaved and set upon any visitors, like the PCs. 
  29. Office filled with card-board cut outs or mannequins. There’s a tape on loop playing office sounds. Alternately, it's silent when they look in but they hear murmurs when they’re outside.
  30. The previous department heads have had their heads mounted on the wall. Boss very proud of the display. 
  31. Giant Wicker Man set up in the middle of the office. Staff refuse to acknowledge it.
  32. Strange commissary with mystery food. Pay for it in chits and get a boxed lunch of uncertain origin.
  33. Department split between a giant industrial shredder destroying documents and a massive team reassembling other shredded materials.
  34. Difficult to get to office reveals a Robinson Crusoe-like castaway: a drone sent down here twenty years ago to get something from the supply closet.
  35. Off-the-books homemade recreation center and jungle gym built from stray furniture and supplies.
  36. Office fight club. Two workers with hands tied together by USB cables are armed with staplers and sharpened rulers. Don’t talk about fight club. They enforce that. 
  37. Numbers station playing over the speakers here.
  38. Department on the ropes, rumors of closure. Gremlins have swooped in to scavenge.
  39. Raised floor or ceiling crawlspace conceals a multigenerational horde of vermin (spiders, rats) intelligent or otherwise. Alternately, feral Borrowers.
  40. Office actually has windows.
  41. Doorway leads through onto a stage. Massive hall filled with an audiences. PCs expected to give an impromptu "TED"-style talk. 
  42. Curse, hex, and malediction storage area. Bad leakage.
  43. Office has massive electronic background noise. Workers don’t notice and can hear the PCs just fine.
  44. Sentient and vampiric meeting draws in the PCs and drains their will to live. They’re required to give a presention on their project progress as well.
  45. Office lies in ruins from some kind of recent battle. Perhaps there's a giant footprint. Alternately a crater at the center of the devastated room has a glowing meteorite in it.
  46. Office has computer system made of a system of pneumatic tubes.
  47. Abandoned freight elevator concerted into mobile lounge and bar.
  48. Office completely dark. Populated by nocturnal creatures and/or personnel wearing night-vision googles.  
  49. Statues at each of the desks, save for terrified data entry person. He'll direct them to the medusa office manager. 
  50. Meeting room empty save for a sword in a stone at the center of the table.
Events, Travel, or Otherwise
  1. Repossession of their office equipment, either taken away or infested with a ghost.
  2. Team is called in for training on a process unrelated to their work. Alternately, team is called in for “Retraining.”
  3. Player’s actions create a nemesis for no reason. Alternately nemesis shows up to challenge PC but they don’t remember them.
  4. Find themselves billed for hours and time: for something they haven’t done, for talking to someone, for a prophetic consultation. Alternately bill is a warning from the future.
  5. Cornered by an emotional vampire.
  6. Arrive at their own secret going-away party.
  7. Parasitic company member assigned to “assist” them.
  8. Assigned a job shadow. Could be a literal shadow. Could be an ongoing dangerous distraction. Could be a useful sacrifice. 
  9. Highly placed relative of a boss is assigned to their care. They're accident prone, self-destructive, and/or cursed, of course.
  10. Assigned experimental office equipment.
  11. PC(s) stunned and tagged by HR. Tag is large and obtrusive.
  12. Paranoid internal security personnel pin them down and ask them random questions looking for contradictory answers.
  13. Power Outage. Emergency lighting reveals strange signs, hidden messages, and/or a treasure map. Also they lose any unsaved work. 
  14. Mood-ring name tags. These shows wearers emotion and level of agitation.
  15. They're assumed to be high-power consultants. Dragged into dangerous task.  
  16. PCs' travels disrupt an ongoing experiment, project, or ceremony. Think Half Life.
  17. Stalked by a living chain letter/memo. Alternately a manifested email they’re supposed to sign off on.
  18. Reality show being filmed. Either they accidentally walk in on it or suddenly become the subject. Alternately: experimental film
  19. Battle between two departments results in barricades they must cross. 
  20. Briefly attacked or interrupted by older/younger versions of themselves.
  21. Armed security rush past the PCs several times, going multiple directions with no explanation. Later appearances see them fleeing back the other way.  
  22. Drafted into the company talent show. Happening RIGHT NOW. 
  23. Evil twin of a PC discovered. 
  24. Potential Attention Attacks: Internet rumors spring up about them; someone calls them out on Faceless Book; they receive a reprimand for future activities; they're written up in a departmental newsletter. All of these can be reactive and happen as the PCs do things.
  25. Lunch stolen. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

History of Wild West RPGs (Part Two: 2001-2006)

Westerns seem weird to me. So much of the mythologizing, the making of its iconic tales seemed to happen concurrently with event. Grand Wild West tales came around even as the West was being “won.” I suppose you could find other examples like the British Heroic Exploration myth or American Gangster romanticizing. But much of the Western got set down close to events themselves, gripped the imagination, and endured strongly. I can think of few other pseudo-historical themes that have that power.

In RPGs we have a handful of these genres that come back again and again. Samurai, Arthurian, Viking, and Roman fit the bill. We’ve had multiple takes on these, complete with reskins and reframes (fantasy pastiches, space versions). They pop up in RPG development across languages and eras. We have a few also-rans (Robin Hood and Gangsters come to mind). I think a smarter person than I could drill down and unpack the thematic connections between these five.

At Origins I did get to speak with a smarter person than I, Evan Torner, on a related topic. Evan works in both German and Game studies, not necessarily at the same time. I mentioned to him my surprise at the number of Wild West RPGs in multiple editions which came out of Europe. I suggested they arose from Italian cinema and the Spaghetti Westerns. He said it went even further back, that Germany had a massive appetite for the Wild West from the early part of the 20TH Century. A good portion of the backbone of Italian Western moviemaking came from German cinema veterans who’d shifted there. I love learning about that kind of thing, the transmission of these stories to places I didn’t expect. 

Originally I hadn’t planned on doing more with Wild West rpgs, but a few people asked me to continue the series. Since I don’t usually get requests, I thought I ought to oblige. So there it is.

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I focus on core books here or those that act as genre sourcebooks for a larger game. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. There’s a little overlap with the last list vis-a- vis 2001. If you spot something Wild West which came out from 2001 to 2006, leave a note in the comments.

History of Wild West RPGs: First Fifteen

A Japanese RPG from FarEast Amusement Research (F.E.A.R.). They’re the company behind recent English-translated games Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Both of these games have levels of mechanics some would call rich, some would call opaque.

Wikipedia describes Tenra the Gunslinger as, "...tak(ing) place in Terra, a fictional continent modeled after North America during the American Old West. Its theme is frontier spirit. The setting is fictitious, but actual historical Americans also appear as non-player characters. They include Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla, Jesse James and Belle Starr. There are guns and steampunk items representing lost technologies (for example, phlogiston generators or aetheric drives). Players face monsters called the Dark. Player characters may be automata, bounty hunters, gunslingers, preachers, saloon girls, steam-mages, U.S. marshals and other archetypes as they ride the transcontinental railroad on their way to the far western frontier."

Terra the Gunslinger uses playing cards with a suit = abilities approach. F.E.A.R. later released Tenra War which mashed up this setting with Tenra Bansho and a mecha game called Angel Gear. Wikipedia also notes that “On a trip to Japan, noted game designer Greg Stafford noted that he liked the look of Terra the Gunslinger.” That amuses me.

2. Dust Devils (2002)
My favorite Westerns hint at the death of the genre itself: Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch. The recent Red Dead Redemption, probably the most popular Wild West video game, embraces this. Dust Devils simulates those stories. On the one hand it’s about redemption, on the other it’s about growing old in a dangerous world. You start strong in Dust Devils, but over time can decline and weakern You have to choose how hard you’ll push that.

Like several other Western RPGs, Dust Devils uses playing cards for resolution; the GM is (of course) "the Dealer." PCs have four attributes Hand, Eye, Guts and Heart, each associated with a suit. In a conflict everyone builds their best hand of cards dealt from a central deck. A character's hand size comes mostly from relevant attributes. Conflict losses lead to attribute point losses. They can be recovered between sessions, but in play losing costs you. It means having to make hard choices about continuing to fight. Designer Matt Snyder released an updated version of this in ’07 called Dust Devils Revenged. That includes options to port the mechanics to other iconic twilight settings, like fallen samurai There’s a great review and overview of the game here at The Cardboard Republic.

An early d20 Wild West game, but not the first. That honor goes to Deadlands d20 released the year before. Sidewinder offers a solid overview of Western game elements and plenty of mechanics for those wanting crunch. The ’02 edition uses straight d20 OGL. The following year the company released Sidewinder: Recoiled. This shifted the game over to the d20 Modern rules and added almost 100 pages. I’m not a d20 aficionado, so I have a hard time telling what’s novel here. At first I assumed they’d added Action Points, used for rerolls and powering some feats. But a check of the SRD shows that comes from there. Sidewinder follows the OGL with classes reflecting themes over specifics, so you can be a Strong Hero, Fast Hero, Dedicated Hero or the like. That’s, as you might imagine, supplemented by Advanced Classes like Pony Soldier and Tin Star.

Overall Sidewinder: Recoiled looks nice. Be aware the vast majority of the book’s given over to mechanics. Of the almost 300 pages, ten cover environmental hazards, thirty present animals, and five offer a slight sample scenario. Only the twenty page introduction actually examines Wild West themes and then very generally. If you’re looking for a WW resource, this isn’t it. It has a good mix of art, though some of it is the same Dover Wild West illustrations we’ll see again and again in these games.

4. Cold Steel Reign (2003)
This first popped up on my Post-Apocalyptic lists. Here a small company takes on the a supernaturally devastated Wild West, reaching into Deadlands' territories with a new spin. In Cold Steel Reign a meteor strike during the American Civil War sparks a cataclysmic shift. It rewrites the geography and tinges the whole world with a "Western" frontier lifestyle. Despite that concrete framing, Cold Steel Reign spins off to drag in a host of craziness: demon-harboring constructs, Templars, and long-forgotten secret magics. I'd assumed this was a straight alt-history, but the reviews make it clear it dives fully into the kitchen sink.

Those reviews also suggest a clunky, crunchy system. Cold Steel Reign has an abundance of mechanics which switch from sub-system to sub-system. Add to that a host of editing problems. The game still has a FB page, last updated in 2012. You can also find character creation tutorials on YouTube. However Cold Steel Reign didn’t gain traction, with only the mammoth Player's Guide and a GM screen released. That's too bad. It has an awesome title and hints more than a little hint at Stephen King's Dark Tower series.

Eden throws its Stetson into the ring with this Wild West supplement. Notably overseen by Shane Hensley (creator of Deadlands), we get zombie Eastwood on the cover. There's a good chunk of general advice for running All Flesh Must Be Eaten in a Western mode; just shy of 40 out 140 pages if you count some of the game fiction. It’s a useful overview of the genre and shows Hensley’s expertise as he focuses on issues which might hit the table.

The volume includes four new settings plus conversion notes for Deadlands. "Singing Cowboys" offers a starkly black and white take on the genre. Here all cowboys are effectively bards. The zombies break all those rules and there’s a secret story logic to it. The “True Grit” Deadworld riffs on John Wayne and is set in the late 1880s. Here the zombies come from Anasazi sorcery, pitting cowboys against (undead) Indians. “Spaghetti with Meat,” of course, riff on the films of Sergio Leone and his peers. The PCs are tough loners in a terrible world made slightly worse by zombies running around. “Dances with Zombies” presents Sioux Indian heroes against undead American Army troops.

I’ve often wondered how many of these Deadworlds actually get run by groups and how many simply serve as inspiration. If you’ve played AFMBE, have you played in a particular one?

6. Link: West (2003)
Another one of my unproven rules is this: when many of the images I can find of your game’s cover have a discount sticker or show a pre-pub mock up, you may not have great game. Link: West offers a modest d20 Wild West adaptation. Oddly I’ve found two different publisher blurbs for the product. One mentions conventional d20, while the other indicates the game’s based on Big Eyes, Small Mouth d20. Other places suggest its built on Silver Age Sentinels d20, which I thought was close but not the same thing. A forum post by the publisher indicates it, “offers a bit of fantasy to the Western genre.” I’m guessing that refers to the Shaman and Mystics mentioned on the back cover. In any case, this game seems to have ridden off into the sunset.

I’m slightly sorry I went for that joke.

A Brazilian RPG. It’s the Western setting book for the generic rpg, OPERA (aka Observadores Perdidos Em Realidades Alternativa). Apparently at this point no Wild West rpg had yet reached the Brazillian market, beyond an article in the local version of Dragon Magazine. The Google translation of the game blurb reads, “Western United States, between 1860 and 1890 a heroic era marked by adventure by shootings saloons, duels to the setting of the sun and conflicts between cowboys and owners of farms. People have a place to call home, sheriffs and delegates have someone to hold, the bad guys have something to steal, the gunmen can put your weapons available to those who pay better. And meanwhile the dry tufts roll through the streets of the cities showing a mix of solitude and aridity. With its setting located mainly in three fictitious cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, '1887 - Under the Sun of New Mexico' brings with adventures in the best Western style.”

The designer previously worked on a FUDGE adaptation, which influenced OPERA. 1887 apparently introduces new mechanics for character generation to the base game. The rules include some game fiction as well as scenarios for the setting. There’s a small review with an example character here. You can read more about the base system here.

I've never been sure how to pitch Dogs in the Vineyard, except that it feels like it operates in an allegorical Western space. Is there magic? Are the demons real? I suspect that's a decision the group has to come to. DitV draws on Mormon history, but feels magical realist. That's not the most helpful description. The PCs are protectors and enforcers, the Dogs of the title. They travel from town to town acting providing stability and cleansing. The GM presents the players with a situation and they must come to an interpretation. From that they must then reach a judgement as to how to deal with it. But the basis and code the Dogs have to draw from is loose and subjective, meaning the party may disagree how to read the situation.

The combination of religious enforcers trying to keep their land pure and the "push your luck" mechanic of conflict make for a striking game. More than many others, Dogs in the Vineyard evokes a feeling about the place and time. It's also a game with GM rules that made me re-examine what I was prepping for the table. If you’re interested in a niche, tough, alt-Western atmosphere game, check it out. If you’re looking for something more conventional or specifically about historical Mormonism in the West, you might not find it here.

A supplement for Action! System. That was Gold Rush Games second foray into generic systems after their work with Fuzion. It's a flexible 3d6+Skill & Attribute vs. Target Number game. AS carries over Interlock’s fascination with derived stats. The Gunslingers supplement has some basic adaptation notes (like how to handle a Western’s “Code of Conduct”) and then fifteen standard templates (Scout, Brave, Rustler) & how to customize those. It has new skills as well as a decent equipment list. Most of the book covers add-ons to the basics and genre specific bits. So alcohol and hangovers take up two pages. Nicely adventures get a larger share in this game than many others. The final third presents a version of Dodge City, two extended scenarios, and a set of plot hooks. The only discussion of the “Western” as a whole comes in various appendices which present a bibliography, glossary, and discussion of a few significant events (like the Homestead Act). That’s just shy of thirty pages, so not bad.

10. OGL Wild West (2004)
Part of Mongoose’s large-volume OGL genre series (OGL Horror, OGL Steammpunk). I expected to tumble through the usual over-stuffed d20 mechanics, but spotting Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as the designer gave me hope. There’s certainly more emphasis here on story, feel, and background. OGL: Wild West starts in the same place as other similar books, with thematic classes. These have evocative illustrations but no genre or real world examples. Occupations are called vocations here. The 21 presented seem more detailed than in base d20 Modern, with choices and additional talent trees. Action Points are called Luck here and seem to have a richer set of options, including establishing and changing events (like Fate Points). I have to note that Horses get their own feat set, a clever way of individuating those.

Unlike other d20 Wild West games, OGL WW offers more tools for the GM and more general resources. There’s a nice presentation of historical NPCs, complete with plot hooks. There’s a short section on Western towns, with example businesses and locations which would be awesome if expanded and developed. The books wraps with ideas for running Westerns, handling classic elements like gunfights, and a discussion of game-able history. It looks at Law Enforcement, the Railroad, Mining and other issues. OGL: Wild West is more developed than similar games, though I’m still left wanting more. OOH it’s a decent resource for GMs and worth picking up, even if you’re not doing d20.

11. Spellslinger (2004)
A thin d20-based setting with wizards and wagon-trains. Fantasy Flight's Horizon line reminds me of TSR's Amazing Engine and WEG's Masterbook lines: attempts to make many settings to see which actually stuck. Grimm's the only survivor from this line. Spellslinger combines classic fantasy with the Western, with an emphasis on the fantasy side of things. It feels too short, but at the same time I’m unsure if I’d dig a full-scale release. It has the classic fantasy races overlaid with Western-y bits. The Western motifis offer more chrome than anything significant. Only about a quarter of the 64 page book deals with the background and setting, and even that’s almost half bestiary. If you’re interested in this concept, I’d recommend Owl Hoot Trail which more smoothly integrates the two halves.

12. Aces & Eights (2005)
When the “Basic Game” of your system has a detailed action point cost chart, two tables for combat modifiers, and a transparent hit location overlay you make me seriously worried about what the “Advanced Game” entails. Aces & Eights does just that, with a weird switch up. The first few pages of the game has you generate a character with two stats: speed and accuracy, rolled with a d4. Then you roll to see if you use a pistol or a rifle, your name, and your profession. Wow. Simple. Then suddenly a rogue chart pops up and your lying in the street in a puddle of mechanics…

But let me backtrack, because I actually weirdly like this game despite it not being my bag mechanics-wise. The original Aces & Eights from 2005 is a supplement- Showdown- for any Wild West RPG. It offers a detailed gunfight engine with a shot clock and the aforementioned targeting silhouette. I’m fond of this idea for many reasons. I remember other crazy overlay games and supplements like Killer Crosshairs. As well I have fond memories of grade school me buying a copy of Avalon Hill’s Gunslinger from Hobbyland in the mall. I desperately tried to make sense of the rules. I knew it had to be awesome because the mechanics were so dense.

I never actually played Gunslinger.

Anyway, we jump forward to ’07 when Kenzer & Co took the core element of Showdown to create the massive, massive tome that is Aces& Eights: Shattered Frontier. It took home the Origins Award for Best RPG and a Silver ENnie that year. As involved as the Basic Game is, the Advanced Game is meatier. Stats run from 1-25, you both roll and spend for these, and everything has modifiers & effects. The skill list takes up two pages in ten point font. I had Rolemaster flash-backs throughout. You have wounds and damage effects that make Living Steel look easy (well, maybe not that bad). Still all of it's presented cleanly and clearly. If you want a high complexity and detail-rich Western RPG, buy Aces & Eights.

But here’s the thing, all of those rules take up the first 140 or so pages of this 400 page book. Even if we take out another 60 pages for the mechanical appendices, you still get about 200 pages of rich material It has a massive section on running campaigns, discussions of cattle drives, a chapter on gambling, and more. Beyond that Aces & Eights isn’t a purely historical setting. Instead you have a few historical shifts resulting in splintered political entities such as Deseret, the Republic of Texas, and the CSA. I dislike Successionist victory alt history, but YRMV. What you get is some serious thinking and world building. That’s done in the interest of adding more game-able material and interesting situations to the mix. Deadlands offers the only other Western even coming close to this. Its still a wall of text to wade through, but it doesn't feel like someone's campaign world write-up. Bottom line, even if you’re not interested in the system, Aces & Eights offers a useful sourcebook to any Western GM.

13. Coyote Trail (2005)
Coyote Trail had a basic and then expanded release the same year. It contains a complete and simple rpg system: roll below stat + skill on 2d6 to succeed. Penalty/bonus dice affect this. Characters pick a vocation which gives them a handful of base skills to pick from plus a “Gimmick.” Gimmicks give simple and colorful abilities. Coyote Trail's rules work also with PiG’s Active Exploits Diceless Overall mechanic take up about a third of the 150 page book. Twenty-five pages detail the locations & people of Shady Gulch, a sample city. About thirty pages cover Western stories and reference bits. Another thirty or so look at “Indian Trails, ” describing tribes, treaties, and wars. It’s much more attention than most Western games play. I’d be curious what a Native American gamer thought of the section. It seems to offer a respectful treatment and it’s certainly a resource these kinds of games badly need.

This game has two editions- a core version using Poker Dice for resolution (clever!) and a “Streamline” version using percentiles. Rather than a historical West, Gunslingers & Gamblers focuses on a cinematic universe from classic Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns. In the standard system, players roll five dice with skills and traits allowing rerolls and additional dice. Players try to reach the minimum hand established by the GM. It’s a fairly simple system. I like the detail that tied rolls in combat “suppress” the defender, making them spend the next round checking to make sure they weren’t actually hit. The book contains some GM support and background material including a quick settlement generators and a sample community. It’s a small book, coming in at less than 100 pages with public domain art. The company supported it with several small supplements, still available on DriveThru. However their website is down, suggesting that we won’t be seeing more in this line.

15. Serenity (2006)
I think we can agree that Firefly's pretty much a Western in space? It has some other trappings, but it plays with and reflects those conventions. That's been a classic trope in sci-fi for years, and its even popped up as a theme in many Traveller supplements (especially on the frontiers). But we hadn't seen a full rpg embrace that until Serenity arrived. I imagine if I broadened my scope I could spot some other loosely Wild West-y sci-fi supplements. In any case the original Serenity RPG used an early version of Cortex that you either loved or hated. Margaret Weiss released several nice supplements before losing the license…and then regaining it as Firefly in 2014.

16. Other Western
This period saw several new takes on and editions of Deadlands. In 2001 Steve Jackson Games released GURPS Deadlands, which they supported with a couple of small supplements. Two years later, Deadlands: Savage West arrived, bringing the game up into the new Savage Worlds system. Another two years later would see the release of the updated and expanded Deadlands: Reloaded. WotC’s d20 Past (2005)has material on Wild West gaming, but that’s only a portion of it. Two electronic-only products are worth noting. Vs Outlaws (2006) is a mini-rpg built on the vs. Monsters system. The Fifth Wheel (2006) is a Western fantasy game aimed at one-shots where you play the law. Its about a hundred pages and you can find it on DriveThru bundled with its supplement, Frontier Edge. Finally I have to note that I left off two important Western supplements from my last list: Rifts New West and Spirit West.
History of Wild West RPGs: First Fifteen