Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Generic RPGs: Hate & Love

Pitchforks at Ready

So today I had a weird conjunction of rpg topics. First, it turns out Hero Games decided to cut down to a one man operation, letting go a couple of the remaining people, including Steve “My Name's On the Cover of Every Hero System Book” Long. That apparently came out of the blue for most people- a company with a wide range of material, affiliation with an on-going MMORPG, and a storied history. They might try to Kickstarter the last planned book the line. I know they've gone through some rough patches, but didn't expect a pre-Christmas bloodletting. That I expect from WotC. But the decline of one of the more interesting systems in gaming connects to some discussions I've seen on RPG Geek. In particular, some attitudes about generic systems- with GURPS in particular coming in for some real venom.

There was a recent thread considering the voting for the RPG lifetime achievement award on the Geek; a nice idea to get a core list of systems and games people see as important or influential to the hobby. Last year was the first year, and obviously D&D won. But this year was a tighter race. GURPS, among others, had done particularly well- early on in a tight race with Traveller, though the latter won strongly in the end. But, as the thread showcased, some people really don't like GURPS. Some of the criticism was aimed at SJ Games, some at players of the system, and others at the generic approach as a whole. I saw similar comments pop up in a "Question of the Day" thread, asking what things in an rpg book were a “red flag” which would keep you from buying it. Again, that the game was generic or universal was cited as a reason not-to-buy by several people- and fairly adamantly.


And my initial reaction was to be a little put off, but then I stopped to think about it. Honestly, if I saw a generic or universal system on the shelf, I'd probably skip it. I've bought and played enough games in my life that more mechanics without substance- in terms of setting, story and drama- probably isn't for me. I say that, but I also picked up the Strands of FATE rulebook- a generic implementation of that system. And while I didn't love the game, it did finally give me insight into how the FATE Engine works. So that wasn't a lost purchase. But I haven't bought many other core books for generic systems - and those I have of late have eventually let me down. However, I'm an old gamer- and I still remember how cool I thought GURPS was when it came out. We'd seen some implementations of systems used across games before- bringing us back to Hero Games. Before they actually put out the generic Hero System rulebook, alongside Champions 4e, they'd already done several different variant games using the same basic mechanics (Espionage! and Justice, Inc for example). And, of course, Basic Role-Playing had already started to chart a course towards that- linking together the various Chaosium products and giving us Worlds of Wonder.

But GURPS put that universality to the forefront- and gave players a fairly easy toolkit for building characters. Buy stats, buy skills, buy some advantages. But I think we recognized pretty quickly that GURPS really wasn't usefully a 'universal' system, though we tried to use it that way. Our first games were a former gladiators-turned huntsmen survival campaign and a dimension hopping Amber-homage campaign. The cracks showed in some places, but it offered the best toolkit for doing cross-genre stuff and the best toolkit at the time to have some of the interesting details of Hero System, without the heavy crunch and complications. But it would always be a game about relatively normal heroes, those skilled and talented, but not superhuman. The baseline in an effective GURPS campaign was well below that of a Champions or Rolemaster game- those dealt well with different power levels. So we ran horror, espionage, space, and classic fantasy in that system. But high fantasy, superheroes, wushu, and all of that we left for other systems. Going past 200 points in GURPS got into silly territory. And out of that toolkit came many really interesting campaigns. Fantasy games where fighting an actual monster, something like a beholder, was a terrible prospect, resulted in fear checks and cost PCs their lives.

Engine vs. Toolbox

The distinction, for us, between Hero System and GURPS had another dimension beyond power level. Early on, before they came out with sourcebooks for them, we tried to work out approaches to fantasy and wushu in Hero System. But that was really about figuring out how to tune the powers and details rather than making any changes to the system. Hero, for all of its flaws, is an incredible engine, one with little room to make changes to the actual mechanics. On the other hand, we never ran GURPs straight. We dropped lots of the overcomplicated rules, stripped away elements that got in the way of fun, and used the most basic details to run our games. So fatigue, experience limits and training, second by second tracking, and much else got discarded in favor of a GURPS Local Flavor 454. It meant some serious rethinking when I played GURPS games at cons and the like. But the system had enough room to do that. And you had to in some cases- GURPS has a terrible magic system. We ended up having to change a lot to make them interesting to play, and as fun in combat as other roles.

But in some ways that's the great downfall of generic or universal systems- the need to be balanced and beholden to internal consistency. GURPS Magic IMHO (and that of others in our group) works to highly limit the power of mages in combat with energy costs, extra rolls, prep time, and other significant limits. There's the sense, in some ways, that the game must keep a tactical balance and a balance with “realism.” But that means that other modules and systems which get strapped on- alternate and interesting forms of sorcery and the like also have to be hamstrung. Everything has to balance together and be consistent across the books. Some elements might get classed as more super-hero-y, fantastic, or restricted, but they have rules limits and costs which allow them to work within the same universe- for better or worse.

On the other hand, game engines don't have to worry about that so much. We have many different flavors of FATE out there, and no one cares about the balance or interchangeability or elements across those systems and settings. The same thing applies to GUMSHOE and One Roll Engine. Even d20- as an engine- didn't really have a core balance to worry about and compare to. I think the original intent of the generic system was to allow players access to a set of rules everyone could learn and use for many different games. It would also allow a GM to bring diverse elements and genre ideas together. But it also required a measuring stick, a universal center. I think that's one of the problems with the World of Darkness rules- lashing themselves to a core rules and then trying to keep some balance and interoperability between the sub-rpgs. That results in games which ought to be narrative driven, but in fact have massive amounts of rules, often asymetrical and complicated across different abilities.

But I like the idea that we don't have to reinvent the wheel, that some workable core mechanics can be taken and reused- without regret. And we can make changes freely and play with those ideas. So we perhaps lose the ability to have a universal gaming language or the power to take characters and drop them into any campaign. But out of the great generic old-school systems, like GURPS, BRP and HERO, and even Masterbook, we got interesting lighter generic systems like Savage Worlds and Risus, and game engines which can be toolkitted elsewhere like Fudge and Burning Wheel. And we can accept that certain systems and engines work better for some things than for others.

Almost Done

So a couple of last thoughts: first, what universal systems still have some vitality now that Hero seems to be dropping off the map? Savage Worlds is still out there. Basic Role-Playing maintains itself, though there's all the Mongoose weirdness for the different flavors of that. GURPS presses on, though it seems to have less and less relevancy. On the other hand, True20 seems to be falling to the wayside and I'm unsure about the state of the d6 System brand. Second, consider the tangible benefits that generic systems have brought in terms of sourcebooks. We've gotten excellent historical, regional, thematic and genre books out of them- tools which can be used for many different games. If they'd had to be tied to a specific setting or narrow game, I wonder if we would have gotten as many. From GURPS came the really interesting books GURPS Russia, GURPS Celtic Myth, GURPS Mysteries, GURPS Horror, and GURPS Voodoo, just as a few examples. Take a lot at the library of new BRP ideas and or even the wackiness that is Lucha Libre HERO. I think those of us who hack, dismantle, adapt and stitch together gaming materials have a lot to thank generic systems for.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stormbringer (1st ed.): Crazy, Random, Cool RPGs

I don't know when or where I got my copy of the Stormbringer rulebook. I bought my original copy when it came out in 1981- I'd just finished reading the Elric books and looked forward to playing in that setting. I'd first come to Moorcock's novels through the original Deities & Demigods, before TSR had to remove the Melnibonéan mythos from the book. Everyone in grade school wanted to have Stormbringer, Mournblade or a sword like those. The hot summoned chicks drawn by Jeff Dee helped raise interest as well. In the years since I bought the game, my original copy of the rules vanished. The rulebook I own now comes from a later printing, judging by the errata on the inside front cover. But I love this copy because I know someone else owned it: it is worn, there's coffee and other liquid stains on the front and inside. Someone started to trace the letters of the logo with a silver pen, but stopped half-way through the "o". Inside a previous owner highlighted every single heading and sub-heading throughout the book. Every page has four or five of these marks, despite those headings being in bold. There are annotations throughout, but the most notable thing is that someone went through and added an accent mark by hand to every single instance of the word Melniboné. Every single one. It appears a lot.

That's pretty awesome.

And Stormbringer itself was pretty awesome. 1981 would have been the same year as the first editions of Universe, Aftermath!, Merc, the D&D Expert Set and Call of Cthulhu. Thirty years ago. It stands as one of the earliest licensed adaptations of a fantasy setting to an rpg- though interestingly it came out the same year as Thieves World, also from Chaosium. The boxed set included charts and tables, blank character sheets, a large and very nice map of the Young Kingdoms (done by William Church) and the 144 page perfect bound softcover. The book itself is solid- with decent page layout for the time, and only a few significant typos (like the accent mark mentioned earlier...). For a game thirty years old, the spine's held up better than more recent games I've owned (*cough* GURPS 3e... *cough*). It uses the classic old school grognard system for rules, so you get headings like: " Special Demon Abilities"). But what I love about the book are the Frank Brunner illustrations. He provides a set of six full-page black and white images (as well as the box cover). These show a more visceral and weird fantasy side than the art approach used in later editions of the game. Chapters begin with one of the large images and then use small cut-outs from that picture for spot illustration. The cover of the rulebook reuses two of those illustrations- but in red and white.

Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin, two titans of the hobby wrote Stormbringer, basing it on a fairly simple version of Basic Role-Playing, Chaosium's house system then as now. I should be noted that the game's based pretty exclusively on the first six 'books' in the Elric series, given that this appeared before Moorcock decided to go back and milk revisit the the setting and create more tales. St. Andre & Perrin mention some of the other places where Elric had appeared beyond those stories-including comics and magazine tales not yet collected. The authors show an understanding and affection for the material and ideas. Even if some of the systems end up being more than a little clunky, there's a sincere and honest attempt to take the magic and world presented in Elric and make it work within the rpg paradigm operating at the time. I think there's an interesting parallel to be drawn between Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu, both of which have gone through several editions- but the former which has had to change and be retooled to match the tastes and approaches of modern rpgs and the latter which set the bar high enough to remain relatively unchanged.

Stormbringer opens with a chapter offering an overview of the setting. There's a few paragraphs give over to the question of what is an rpg- but it really feels a little like lip service. The game itself assumes the players have played other rpgs. Likewise, while the setting material and story synopsis are excellent- they still really need someone who has actually read the books. Ten pages give an overview of each nation of the Young Kingdoms with special attention paid to the "cool" places of Melniboné and Pan Tang. That's follow by three pages on money and a few more notes on Fantasy Role Play or FRP gaming.

Chapter Two moves into character creation. Players begin by rolling straight 3d6 for each of seven attributes (Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity and Charisma). Size offers a whole set of charts with additional rolls to get the specific height and weight. There's no system for extra rolls or choosing placement of values, but some of the numbers can change later in character creation. Hit Points remain within a fairly limited range; these are equal to a character's CON plus one for each point of SIZ over 12 or minus one for each point below 9. Next players roll to determine their character's nationality. Here's where it starts to get a little odd. The game mentions that certain campaigns may require players to be from a particular nation, but otherwise they roll on the table. There's no balance between those nationalities- each one can restrict or allow certain classes and most have modifiers to the character's stats. For example, if you roll a 01-02 on the table, you win. You're a Melnibonéan. You roll 1d10 and add it to your INT, add 2d6 to POW, and +3 to SIZ. You're either a Noble or a Warrior, unless your total INT and POW is 32 or more, in which case you're a Sorcerer. On the other hand, if you roll 82-88, you're from Lormyr, roll 1d4 and subtract that from your INT and add +2 to SIZ. Luckily you get to roll on the class table without restriction- or course you can't be a Sorcerer, because that's not available there.

So yeah, those are the oddities of the early days of gaming. I'm certainly not in favor of absolute balance, and there's an appeal to random generation- but holy cow with these options you can end up with huge disparities in real power and cool factor. Now, the game does suggest that GMs could select a single nation for everyone. But you have to wonder about the game design logic of the early days. Why the random chart for both this and the classes? Using randomness to create an illusion of balance? Were players going to be attracted to that as an option or simply discard it fairly quickly? Perhaps they wanted to emulate the brutal and fickle nature of the Young Kingdoms stetting? Perhaps it was simply trying to break new ground in game design, asking players to move out of their comfort zone? Or perhaps they recognized that they'd have to apply massive penalties or bonuses on one side or the other to keep everyone from playing a sweet Melnibonéan? I'm not sure,

As I said, players also roll for their classes- with some restricted or switched depending on nationality. There are ten basic classes (Hunter, Farmer, Beggar, etc) representing background more than anything else. These determine starting skills and access to initial equipment. In play, they don't have any role. Three classes have sub-classes (if you roll a Warrior, you can be an Assassin if you get a 9 or 10 on a d10). Classes really only affect the character's starting skills and equipment, with a couple of exceptions, for example Priests have to choose a cult and Beggars get 1d4 random afflictions. If you were lucky enough to qualify as a Sorcerer based on nationality and stats, you get your class skills plus Sorcerer abilities. After class skills, players get 1d6+2 additional skills to pick (with melee weapons counting as two picks for attack and parry). These additional skills have a rating of 1d100/2, meaning that again the player ends up subject to the whims of fate. Skill ratings are also affected by various abilities bonuses, a percentage bonus based on characteristics. For example, a character's Manipulation bonus is affected by STR, INT, POW and DEX with each point over 12 adding +1 and each under 9 subtracting -1. Manipulation includes such skills as Tie/Untie Knot, Set/Disarm Trap, Sleight of Hard, Juggle and Pick Lock. Every skill falls into a category, with different numbers of skills under each and different bonuses or penalties. The character creation section wraps up with the mention that, unlike Runequest, attributes cannot change in this game except for divine intervention or players having made a significant attribute save, called for by the GM requiring the player to roll under the value on percentiles. Alternately players may have their attributes reduces if, as the example in the book states, they have their hands cut off.

In most books, I'd expect to move from Character Creation to Skills, since those serve as the backbone for the system. However, here we go Movement, Combat and Damage. It is a hallmark of these older games that we spend time defining the terrain effects on daily grand scale movement. Combat rounds have three segments:

1Declaration of Intent: with a round of declaration of actions, with the GM choosing either to alternate declarations between players and NPCs or else have lowest DEX declare first.
2Resolution of Missiles and Melee: Done again in DEX order from high to low.
3Movement of Non-Engaged Figures and Appearance of Conjured Elementals and Demons: Perhaps the first and last time that particular wording appeared for a game sequence.
The combat options are pretty much swing to attack- rolling under the relevant Attack skill for the weapon on percentiles. If successful, the opponent has two options. They may parry- with each parry done in a round taking a cumulative -20 penalty. Alternately, they may opt not to attack, and instead Dodge, rolling under that skill. Missiles may be parried at half value, but arrows can only be parried by shields. Critical hits happen if the character rolls under 1/10 of their skill, causing double damage and additional effects. Criticals can only be dodge by a critical dodge roll or a standard parry success, but with the parrying weapon breaking. The system offers a few other standard options (fumbles, surprise, fortifications, sea battles, and mass combat). The rules suggest for grand scale mechanics, that the players look at the Chaosium board games Elric! and White Wolf. (The latter of these may actually be a typo...perhaps referring instead to White Bear & Red Moon or a cancelled game?) The chapter presents the usual weapon and armor choices, with players restricted on their choices of such depending on their class background. Probably the thing which struck me most when I was younger was the major wound table, with characters suffering permanent injuries (hamstring cut, lost eyes) for being on the receiving end of criticals. There are particularly brutal and offer nasty attribute penalties.

The chapter on Skills follows- with each skill being percentage based. As with other Chaosium BRP games, success with skill use allows a roll to check for improvement after a session. Unless you're rolling for Poison, Plant or Music Lore, in which case you can only improve those through training. Beyond combat skills, Stormbringer offers 40 skills broken into six bonus groups. Four of those are Language skills however. It does offer some interesting social skill options such as Persuade, Orate and Credit (the first time I'd seen that in a fantasy game). Evaluate Treasure is probably my favorite Old School skill from the list. Each skill gets a brief treatment and all use the same roll under the rating for success. There's little or no discussion of time, modifiers, or difficulty- a skill value is a skill value.

The longest chapter follows, the centerpiece of the game, Sorcery. Twenty-six pages offer a very, very different set of magics rules- distinct from the D&D approach or any of the three magic forms of its source game, Runequest. Instead Sorcerers have a Rank, from one to five, based on the total of their INT + POW. At each rank, they gain more power and access. For example, a rank one sorcerer can learn to summon one (randomly determined) type of element at a 90% rating. At higher ranks, they can summon more types, but also summon demons, and eventually at the highest ranks can on Elemental Lords, Beast Lords, or even the Lords of Chaos and Order. There are no spells in the game- no simple fire and forget magic. Instead sorcerers have to prep beforehand. Elementals can be bound, with a POW struggle, for various effects depending on their type. However, binding too many risks the wrath of the Elemental Ruler. Some of the effects are presented abstractly, for example a sylph can "...blow arrows off course." But no mechanics are given for this. On the other hand, the sylph may also "...produce enough air to last one person 1d6 minutes underwater or underearth, but doing so will slay the sylph." The effects are a mixed bag, but do offer an really interesting set of restrictions and requirements for the players. It reminds me more of the kind of work necessary to do magic in the much later Ars Magica.

Even more crazy are the rules for summoning lesser demons. Any summoning is a hugely risky proposition- with a battle of POW between sorcerer and demon. That value is randomly determined by rolling 3d8, so things can quickly get crazy. The rest of a demon's attributes are determined by totaling the sorcerer's stats, subtracting the demon's POW. The sorcerer then gets to distribute those points- usually differently depending on what type of demon they're going for. Losing a struggle can have severe consequences for the sorcerer, but winning against a more powerful demon can increase the character's POW. So summonings, of various types, are the road players need to take to increase their rank.

Stormbringer offers six types of demons. Demons of Combat can be made into weapons or else serve as bound warriors. For the former, putting stat points into STR, DEX and CON have tangible benefits. For the latter, the character can tailor a warrior and by dropping 20 attribute points gain a special ability, like Regeneration or Fear, rolled randomly. Demons of Protection can be made into armor, as guardians or to serve as a warding against certain things. Demons of Knowledge serve as general source of information- with pretty loose rules and subject to limits from the GM. But they can offer information to the sorcerer on most topics. Demons of Travel can more the sorcerer on this world or into others. Demons of're essentially demonic sex toys. Finally Demons of Possession can take over the bodies sacrificed to them. But it gets crazier.

The section finishes out with details on the dangerous process of summoning the Elemental Lords, the Beast Lords (Melnibonéan only) and the Lords of Chaos and Law. "And then my character blew up," would seem to be a likely end in a campaign like this. One the other hand, the following chapter offers some other options- detailing the Cults of the Young Kingdoms. Players can be initiated into a cult (Law, Chaos, or Elemental) and build up elan. That can then be use to attempt divine intervention or gain particular associated virtues. Characters can become agents or champions of these cults- with some significant requirements and restrictions. The game offers some interesting ideas, but less so on how these actually play out at the table.

The final chapters of the book provide a bestiary, four pages of GM's advice, stats for major characters from the books and a very, very basic introductory scenario which has the PCs assaulting a sorcerer’s tower. Ten pages of sample charts and sheets are provided...and then, bizarrely enough a four page, highly-detailed index appears- but one without page numbers. Instead it directs players to the, etc coding for the items.

So why am I fond of this? For one thing, it is interesting to see new approaches to games in that early age. But more importantly, Stormbringer was one of the first games I saw that really warped the system and rules trying to emulate a setting. It unabashedly works to try to simulate the Young Kingdoms, without regard to balance and player choice. This was the first magic system I saw that completely broke the paradigm of spell lists and magic items. It was a mess, a crazy mess that colored my thinking about games for years to come. I was disappointed when I picked up later editions of the game (in its incarnation as Elric) and saw that they'd pull back from this and offered more conventional spells, as well as making the elemental and demonic magic more reasonable. I ran Stormbringer for a time, with everyone miraculously managing to roll up Pan tang sorcerers and Melnibonéan nobles. They weren't great games, but I was young. If you're interested in gaming history or want to look at a really evocative magic system, take a look at this game.

We put on Thanksgiving for our family and then have the gaming groups over for a video game day on the Saturday after, so this will probably be the only post for the week.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cataclysms & Catastrophes: Disastrous Campaign Frames

There's nothing like destroying the world to get your players' attention. That's why disasters offer an excellent campaign starter, event or frame. In my previous post Disastrous Games: RPGs & Cataclysms I mentioned some games which put the players in the direct path of these events. I want to expand on that with a few thoughts and examples of how I've put those into play over the years.

In my mind there's a hierarchy of terms- disaster, cataclysm, and apocalypse. A disaster is an event, something the players might be able to even stop. It affects a small area over a short time. A cataclysm is more fuzzy, covering wide area and lasting longer. Players can only work to reduce the impact of these things. An apocalypse, well, everything changes and players better think about their own survival first. It's a rough guideline, but one that works.

A GM has to think about several questions with a disaster game:

  1. Is there warning? Are there omens? Can the players get prepared? Can you steer them towards prep without giving the twist away? Can they alert authorities?
  2. What's the scale of the event? Can the players stop or at least ameliorate those effects? What kinds of scenes and skill challenges can you throw at them based on this? Is there a mystery at the heart of things or a physical challenge? How will this affect their loved ones? Is this going to be a scene, a session or a series of sessions? If longer, how do you break that apart to keep the pressure and energy?
  3. Does this change the world? How can you show those changes? Do you want to time-lapse or deal with the immediate results? How dark do you want to play this?
  4. How can players pick up the pieces? Is recovery and rebuilding a theme for the game or not? Is the game now 'post-apocalyptic'?
  5. Given that most disasters can be pretty grim, a GM needs to make sure they don't wear down their group. How do you offer small victories along the way? How do you offer hope?

Zombies. I really have to get those out the way right now. They've become the "go to" disaster in recent years, although I'd say rpgs were ahead of the curve on that. AFMBE covers nearly all the zombie genres, but we have many other games working that territory (The World of Aruneus, Outbreak: Undead). I don't know what it means in terms of society anxiety that the zombie genre has become so prolific across media (Marvel Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). They're an interesting disaster trope to me because they can be used to consider many kinds of issues, about identity, limits of survival, contagion. But I think GMs who go for zombies need to consider which of the two camps their players fall into: people who want to shoot zombies and people who want to survive. Depending on the balance of players, these campaigns can swing in radically different directions. It can even drive a wedge in the group- good perhaps for a short-term campaign, but less useful for a longer one.

A Rolemaster campaign really made me look hard at the concept of the disaster kick-off. We'd been playing for perhaps a session or two, trying to get a sense of the world. This prologue made us think we were pretty much in the same run around and kill things style we'd been in for the last several campaigns. Then the hurricane hit. A massive world-shattering hurricane that devastated the land. We went through a session of desperately trying to survive the winds, storm and water. After that we wandered in a world overthrown by the event. Of course it was worse than that, this being a fantasy setting. The hurricane heralded the return of a demonic foe who used the weakened defenses to begin invading. Of course, being adventurers, we had to face him down. IIRC we lost.

Violent natural disasters: hurricanes, floods, monster invasions, plagues of frogs, can be a great way to drive the PCs together at the start. They come from different places but are literally or figuratively thrown together. It allows the GM to begin in medias res, for the players to show what they can do right away, and creates a shared bonding experience. The other tactic I like is to let things get set up and in place for a few sessions before springing the big event. This allows the disaster to raise the stakes, offer an inciting incident or even completely change the direction and expectations of the campaign. For example, run a couple of sessions of a SWAT campaign. Then the players raid a cult compound to rescue children. However they manage to get in the middle of an apocalyptic ritual. When they come out they find a world transformed. If you've played the video game Nocturne- that's a great example of of set up before things switch direction. Doing this kind of trick does require the GM to have a pretty good sense of what the players want. If players came into the SWAT campaign really loving and expecting a tactical police enforcement game, then the switch up to something like F.E.A.R. probably isn't going to go over too well. How much of a change the disaster will cause can be tweaked. For example, in a set of parallel fantasy campaigns, I used a massive event to create changes to the world and to link both games. In this case, a massive piece of land fell from the sky into the ocean, causing a tidal wave that rocked the western shores. One group was on the falling land, the other saw the event and had a short time to prepare for the awful wall of water. The event shifted the political climate of the west, destroyed several nations and ended up driving the Dwarves from their homeland, events the groups ended up bearing witness to.

Of course, disasters don't have to be natural. In a couple of cases, I've begun with the destruction of the players' community- driving them off into the wild, changing them and giving them a central purpose for revenge. In one case, the players were members of a common military and priestly order (Agrikan from the Harn setting). After a session or two, the players traveled to a major convocation of chapters. In the middle of those festivals, the winds of political fortune shifted and a trap was sprung. Their order was declared heretical and the group just managed to escape the purge. They returned home, only to find the attacks had been carefully planned and their compound razed. The campaign then shifted into several stages of their travels as the PCs reconstituted their order, gathered forces and planned on taking revenge against the other chapters. There's more than a little echo of the fall of the Templars in that plot.

I used a similar approach in another recent campaign opening, but in this case I gave the players a heads up that there would be a shift and we would begin with a prologue. I had them make up relatively youthful characters. All of them had come of age in their isolated community at relatively from the same village. They were sent off together as a rite of passage. When they returned, they found a magical enemy army laying waste to their town and families. They used a device they'd found in their adventure to make an escape. At that point, we cut to five years later. Each player had the chance to advance their character. They also drew a set of random details they had to integrate into their life story (Imprisoned, Haunted, Made a Noble, Awful Master, etc). It ended up being a potent device- giving players a strong, shared background and a driving purpose. That campaign's nearly reaching the point where they will be able to take the conflict to their enemy's front door.

A couple of times, I've begun with the classic crash device to kick a campaign off. You remember this from such famous sources as Gilligan's Island, and its later remake Lost. This is a great way to bring together disparate characters and give them a common purpose. In one case, I began simply enough with the players on a ship suddenly struck by a massive sea-monster. We jumped into the middle of things, with players making survival and swimming checks right out of the gate. In this case, the question wasn't whether they'd live or die, but what kind of shape they'd be in when they finally got there. Immediately they had a crisis and a struggle, and I had their attention. In a Steampunk campaign, on the other hand, we began with the characters meeting in the passenger lounge of their airship. After some low-key establishment of personalities and roles I introduced the disaster. The ship came under a strange assault. The players had the chance in this case to act and attempt to mitigate the damage- or at least better prepare for the landing. They crashed, revealing that one of their fellow passengers had been a strange robot in disguise. If you've played Arcanum, you may note that it begins in a similar way (though I did it first!).

In both cases, the games began with questions of survival, determining location and reaching civilization. Right away the players had to work together to function- and other agendas got set aside in favor of that purpose. In the two cases, I ended up going in different directions. The sea-monster of the first campaign was purely a device, and something which only reappeared in the final session, as a way of bookending the game. On the other hand, the attack on the airship had a sinister purpose to it, and unraveling that led to the main threads of the steampunk campaign.

Another approach I've used with some success, especially for one shots and short-term campaigns, is to begin in the middle of a massive failure, sometimes with the PCs as a party to it. For example, in one scenario, the players were entrusted with recovering a magical artifact for their lord. This had to be brought to the battlefield where he engaged a magically potent adversary. However, the PCs opened the session returning too late. Now they had to figure out how to perform their duty or if they would carry that out at all. Artifact in hand, the game shifts to a freeform planning exercise- will they charge in or will they take a more careful 47 Ronin response? In a supers campaign, I began with the PCs being recruited as a kind of B-Team for a smaller Midwestern city. However, in the middle of their initial meeting, they hear news of a catastrophe at the super-villain containment center. A massive battle between the major super teams, good and bad, resulted in the deaths of most of the participants (think of the end scene from Kingdom Come). Suddenly the players had a major responsibility- moving from secondary heroes in a nation filled with superbeings, to among the few left. It was way to have a history of superbeings, while at the same time putting the novice characters into an important position.

Not all disasters need to be literal or physical, social disasters can spur a campaign. If players owe fealty or loyalty to a suddenly disgraced lord or group, they may have to join them in exile. Uncovering conspiracies, regaining status, forging a new name could all be keys to such a campaign. Perhaps the exile is literal and distant, forcing the players to uproot and travel to a new and strange place. The dramatic downfall of someone they respect- or their own disastrous decline- could easily motivate players. Legend of the Five Rings lends itself especially well to this. I ran a Dragon-Blooded Exalted campaign which opened with a variation on this. The players were younger members of a single house, tainted by battling a Sidereal Exalted who had ruptured the lines of fate. The family didn't want to lose the characters, but neither could they allow those dangerous wyrd magics and fractures to harm the house. So the PCs were sent away to make their own fortune in a distant place- if they could forge a fate of their own, they would be allowed to return.

What I've talked about has had players dealing with the immediate impact of a disaster, either as the kicker for a campaign start or as a major event in the course of play. Obviously, the bigger genre has been post-apocalyptic, dealing with life well after the collapse. Anxieties and fears over nuclear disasters sparked games like The Morrow Project, Aftermath!, Twilight 2000, and (perhaps less so) After the Bomb. These are interesting in a different way than the straight disaster genre. The threats can be less immediate- dealing with questions of civilization and new political environments. These settings usually take up far enough away from the initial incident for new structures, societies and technologies to have evolved.

Beyond those classic future war or economic collapse settings, we seen a number of interesting twists on the approach. In the fantasy realm, we have Desolation where the characters pick up the pieces of their world a little over a year after the big cataclysm, in this case a host of disasters of biblical proportions. Midnight posits a fantasy setting after a Sauron-analogue has won the war. Earthdawn has a world recovering from and living in fear of The Horrors. Those serve as a reason for isolation and a constant threat hanging over the campaign. Of course the big daddy of post-apocalyptic fantasy has to be Dark Sun, with a world depleted and worn down. For my own campaign, I inserted the disaster of the "Parade of Monsters," essentially a mad creator god deciding that the world had too few animals and dumping new beasts across the land. This destroyed all but the central heart and most fortified cities of the nations. It also explained why you couldn't walk outside your village without having a random encounter. Over time we've considered the ecological impact of that event- and how various monsters rose to the top or became eliminated from their new ecological niche.

Other genres offer non-nuclear takes on post-apocalypse as well. In science-fiction, Greg Christopher's excellent Cascade Failure has the players rebuilding their world after an space empire-wide disaster. They have to reestablish contact and order with other devastated worlds. Traveller: the New Era took a similar post-collapse approach. Some modern apocalypses take unique turns such as GURPS Reign of Steel's android war, the post-Hastur world of Yellow Dawn, or Summerland's world engulfed by forest. For alternate history, consider The Day After Ragnarok which has a post-WW2 world devastated by the combination of an atomic bomb and the Midgard Serpent. Or Clockwork and Chivalry which has a combination social and magical disaster arising from the killing of the sacred monarch. In supers we have eCollapse which presents an awful future or Necessary Evil which simply has the villains winning.


I've done a version of post-apocalypse for supers, but with a slightly different take. I'd just finished reading a run on The Avengers which had their old adversary Kang taking over the world for several issues- complete with devastation to New York and super-powered internment camps. The Avengers won, of course, but by the next issue, the world seemed to have returned to business as usual. The events hadn't faded away, as characters referenced them, but it seemed more like a blip on the radar screen. For the short campaign I ran, the players founded a new group in a city recently devastated by a superpowered event. In this case, the goal and theme of the campaign wasn't so much about repairing the city, but about repairing the local's faith in heroes- in building a reputation and fighting back against that ill will. I don't know how successful that was- but I think that's an interesting approach. Consider how players might deal with the fallout and recovery when they're either responsible for tied to those responsible for a disaster.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Disastrous Games: RPGs & Cataclysms

There's nothing like throwing your players into the deep end- with events, cataclysms, and disasters beyond their control. These can take many shapes or forms, as a way to open a campaign, a major game changer, or the climax of a story arc. Some disasters are natural (earthquakes, floods), some are man-made (network collapses, tailored viruses) and some are otherworldly (alien invasion, return of the Demiurge). This list collects together a number of sourcebooks offering those scenarios for play.

These could be the starter for a post-apocalypse campaign, but that genre usually covers a recovering world. In those, the disasters happened some time before the campaign start. Society's in the process of rebuilding or recovering from the disaster. Hence I've left off games like Aftermath!, The Day After Ragnarok and Earthdawn.

Please feel free to suggest other games in which the group finds themselves caught up in an immediate disaster.

1. All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Disaster: Zombies
In some ways, the Zombie disaster campaign's the most typical and common. Players find themselves in a strange new world falling apart around them and try to stay safe. However, in many cases there's no respite from that disaster- it keeps going and going. There's a big difference between the weekend horror of Shawn of the Dead and the uncertain future of The Walking Dead or even the Romero series.

AFMBE stands for me as the game that best exemplifies the zombie genre, although several other games have tried to offer alternatives. The sheer number of disaster genre variations, as well as the various forms of what a "zombie" means makes these supplements fresh.

Disaster: Infrastructure Collapse (among others)
A book like this can't help but seem dated, but SJG did an admirable job trying to provide a GURPS Disaster sourcebook. This book both a look at the Millennial Panic as well as the methodologies of survivalists. It covers all kinds of worldwide cataclysms. Perhaps they can relabel and release it for the more modern 2012 "end of the world" panic.

3. When the Sky Falls
Disaster: Meteor Strike
Part of the short "event" series from Malhavoc Press. This one covers a number of variations on the idea of a magical meteor strike in a fantasy setting. While it offers many options, the primarily arc of the book covers a magical impact with fallout in the form of new magics, new monsters, and new items. It covers a lot of ground in a small space. It is too bad they didn't do more than a few of these event books.

4. Requiem For a God
Disaster: Death of a God
Another Malhavoc event book, this one considers the impact of the death of a god (naturally or unnaturally) on a fantasy civilization. This book considers all of the ramifications of such a disaster from the loss of clerical power, to the withering of that god's array, to the struggle for power in such a vacuum. The book mixes up a consideration of the short term and long-term effects of such an event.

5. Time of Judgment
Disaster: Take Your Pick
The World of Darkness wrapped up with a capstone series of books intended to offer an "end game" to the campaign lines. Gehenna, Apocalypse, Ascension and Time of Judgement offered some very different takes on how the world ends for these creatures, some with a bang and some with a whimper. White Wolf did a good job of not only offering approaches tied into the metaplot of the setting, but options for those who hadn't really told those stories. The scenarios vary in quality and not all of them offer "disasters," but there's enough of them, including the rising of the Antediluvian Kindred to make it worth listing.

6. Wrath of the Immortals
Disaster: Gods' War and Comet-strike
If memory serves correctly, this is the module that moved the classic D&D setting Mystara (aka The Known World) from that system up into a new and revised version under AD&D. So the gazetteer module of GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos got redone as Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure. The module has the players interacting with the plots that lead to the fall of a comet on the magical kingdom of Glantri, and the wars between the various empires. I remember it for the cataclysm it added and the disaster it made of an interesting setting.

7. Crash Course Manual
Disaster: System Collapse
I've never actually read this module or the Paranoia supplements of this era, but I know some people loved it and others really disliked it. I do like the idea of dealing with the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the computer, though perhaps it would be better dealt with in a more serious campaign (as we saw a little bit later in the Fallout video game series). Still the idea of injecting a further disaster into the chaos of this world could be overdoing it or might be just what the players of an extensive Paranoia* campaign might need.

*Long-running continuous Paranoia campaign: Possible or Impossible? Discuss.

8. Disaster!
Disasters: Every One from the Movies
This is why I love going through RPG Geek, you find things like this- an rpg dedicated to simulating every cheesey disaster movie (though not all at once). How can you not love something like that? It is short, but it has the look of an extensive game.

9. Villainy Amok
Disaster: Alien Invasion/Fires
This Champions sourcebook ought to be on the shelf of every supers GM. Each chapter takes on a particular topic and offers tons of ideas for how to play them out at the table. Two included offer different options for two classic disasters: the alien invasion and the grand burning building. You get buffet of choices for presenting those, although from a supers perspective. The earlier module Invasions: Target Earth also presented a number of generic approaches to making that a campaign arc.

10. The Apocalypse Machine
Disaster: The Old Ones Return
This book offers two different approaches- one which has the players dealing with the immediate events of the disaster and the second with the players trying to pick up the pieces afterwards. This series actually begins with The Dead White World, but I love the title of this one. That's a tough and awful kind of disaster to put the players in the middle of- with the significant question of whether they can scrape together any kind of victory at all.

Blogs I Love: Never See the Light of Play

I just wanted to point people to a relatively new blog that is fairly awesome, Never See the Light of Play. It hasn't been around that long, so can easily be read from start to finish. In each post, Mr. Finn takes a game system and walks through the character creation process, with commentary. He creates a character as the post goes along and then discusses the results. Finally, he talks about what kind of campaign he might put together using that system. It's a great read and makes me furious that it didn't occur to me as a format for session reports!

The most recent games he's written on (with links)
Dark Heresy Post Here
The Mutant Epoch Post Here
Werewolf: The Forsaken Post Here
Run Robot Redux Post Here
Triune Post Here

He's also done Feng Shui, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, octaNe, Changeling: The Lost, and Godlike

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Robot Zero Tuesday: Game Night

Previous Entry.

“So...” he says as he clears some kind of lingering mucus from his throat I don't even want to think about- and I know he's about to try to get under my casing because I'm up pretty well in this hand and the doubler's been rolling hot this evening. Which is to say I might actually come out ahead from one of these card game nights. But he's been saving up this comment all night- his one stupid little dragonfly wing buzzing and twitching from excitement. It creates an ultra-high frequency than somehow the dog across from me doesn't ever hear, but manages to interfere with my pre-set emotional channels. I keep getting hungry which isn't something I can actually deal with.

“So...” The Assemblymantis repeats to make sure he has the attention of the whole table. Which he does, since it is his play and we can't do anything until he actually lays some freaking cards down. “I'm surprised you're here tonight, Robot ZZZZZZZero...I saw your team on the news just before I left to come over.”

And here it comes.

“I'd already penciled in my time off...”

“Really?” breaks in Pull-Yourself-Together Man. “Jeez...if I could get on a team, I'd be out there fighting the good fight, I mean they're doing something important...something real...” And he looks of wistfully in the distance even as I hear one of his legs drop off and bang against the floor. He's earnest, which might be more irritating that Assemblymantis' wing drone. It helps that I call him Putem for short.

“Tell them what your team's doing, ZZZZZZZero.” I look bug boy in what passes for a face. He's a composite alien, built from several different alien species, but not necessarily the useful parts. Some kind of cosmic intelligence cut and pasted an experiment together. Multron's the better known result, with the spectacular natural talents of each of the seven races, including humanity's cunning. I won't tell you what human part Assemblymantis got, but using it to fight crime might generate a whole level of Rule 34 I don't want to think about.

And Putem's looking to me for an answer, so I tell him.“They're busting up Occupy Peoria. Yes Man hopes Oakland will give us a call after that. It's an audition...”

Assemblymantis lunges at the chance. “Not sure that's going to happen. Chrysalis Archer got in the middle and someone grabbed the quiver off his back. Then all hell broke loose. Someone hit Cyber-tron with a water balloon and Kim Reaper went nuts...”

“So all hell, literally...” This is going to be a mess.

“Ya'll know what I think...” comes the deep southern drawl across from me and all of us groan.

Wrathwolf, the talking dog, who's just to the right of Super-Patriot on the political spectrum. He's got an American flag bandana for a costume and a jaw full of razor sharp teeth and jingoism. Sometimes we actually manage to stay away from politics on these nights...not often, in fact, once...and that was because of an accident with some aerogel. Of course when I say accident, I'm distorting things slightly.

“Hippie-Kibble. Round 'em up and throw up in the ocean and let them swim back to Uzbekasocialistan or wherever they want to feed off other people's labor and effort. Get a job and shut up you ungrateful whiners. You should thank god you live in a country that's going to be back in the right hands in 2012 and ready to fight once more against the Islamo-Marxist menace sneaking across our borders. Damn right they should clear them out- I just wish they'dve used right two-fisted justice instead of godless magic...bust them back to their stupid sand...”

The mummy coming back in from the kitchen brings Wrathwolf's foaming diatribe to a halt. His lumbering form fills the doorway.

“No offense, shiek...” Wrathwolf mutters and noses down at his cards.

Viking Mummy comes back and sits down with his reheated pizza, a little confused. He salts his slice and looks over at me. “I miss something, no?” he says, his thick accent muffled by bandages and helmet. I've to explain to Wrathwolf that Viking Mummy comes from Norway, but he doesn't get it. And mummies aren't even...ugh. My processor reboots slightly.

And I look down at my hand and realize that I've just purged the game-state. I have no idea what card to play.

“I hate this game.” I say to no one in particular.

Which I do...I really do. We could have simply gone with something like Poker- then I could have downloaded an app and be able to keep up with everyone. Instead we played Cubit Red Nine, a game Assemblymantis claims comes from the Bonsuphrax people, a race of calculational telepaths. Mind you, Assemblymantis's only one-seventh Bonsuphrax and that's his left leg. I suspect he'd made it up instead. The rules seemed remarkably flexible owing to the “transtemporal probability bug” built into the cards themselves. That handles the shuffling and every once in a while declares that everyone's lost- at which point the pot vanishes.

But Cubit has a couple of advantages, beyond being difficult to cheat at with powers. For one thing, the cards are made of a difficult to destroy metal. Some of them chew on them...I'm not naming names. For another, they can levitate, which make it playable by some of our less handy members.

Yes, I make that joke every single time.

We're effectively a card game and support group for artificial supers or those sufficiently marginal to be lower than C-List. Wrathwolf had perhaps the most prominent of us (besides me), having briefly being in one of the big league super teams. Then he went off on a Tea Party rant and bit a single mother on welfare. He'd then been summarily rejected by the League of Super Pets because he could actually talk. Pull Yourself Together Man was an animated doll, Viking Mummy was a mummy, and Assemblymantis was a dick who was clearly about to run the table on this hand.

We would see about that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Combat Complexities

Last Saturday I started the big fight in our game at 11pm.

Your reaction to that will probably say a lot about your age and what kinds of rules you play. This particular group's split pretty evenly between forty and thirty-somethings...older gamers by some reckonings and younger by others. Once upon a time our games regularly ran past midnight, but not so much now. Some games, of course, allow you to run the epic fight from start to finish in under an hours. Some games go the other way- we used to play a lot of Champions, and a fight like the one we had (6 players, 18 mooks, 7 named baddies) would have taken the entire evening. A friend who runs Pathfinder had a big fight the same evening. He started it at the beginning of the session just make sure he could finish it, and he only has four players. My fight used a heavily modified FATE variant with damage rolls and detailed stress tracks it still took a while

So today I want to talk around a couple of questions about combat complexity. Obviously system complexity doesn't solely determine how long a conflict takes to resolve- but I suspect it is the major factor.

Let me start with one of the places where I have my real love/hate relationship with combat complexity: martial arts systems. You can see some examples of this in a couple of lists Boot to the Head: Martial Arts Treatments in RPGs and RPG's that feature Fencing (by Bruce McGeorge). Primarily I love the idea that you can create a set of options that give the flavor of a particular 'style' and make different builds of fighters feel distinct. So narrowly, we're talking about MA, but more broadly any system which offers sets of combat maneuvers which players can add to their character.

What really got me thinking about this again was the game I ran last Sunday (the day after the big fight in the other game). We'd missed a couple of sessions and then we had a couple without fights. That night the players transported into a major bad guy base, facing a dozen+ mooks and eight named adversaries. And the fight felt like molasses. At the start players had to shift around their character sheets, pull out the rules and organize their combat options. Some time back I'd hit on what I thought was a fairly decent idea. I ended up using it as the basis for the Wushu campaign I ran and for the combat system in this fantasy campaign. Basically players learn martial styles- with each style offering elements (like additional damage, defense bonus, grappling bonus, sweep). Players can then mix and match those elements to create new maneuvers with limits based on the styles they know and a separate rank determining how many they can apply. In theory, it works. In practice it works, up to a point. When a player knows one style, they have five elements to play with. Two styles doubles that, still a manageable number. Three styles and above- well, at that point we start to get into serious slowdown. Most of the players have written their options on blank business cards- which means shuffling through those, organizing them and trying to figure out what to put together with what. Some of the problem arises from figuring out the best way to access that information. But the greater problem comes from the base mechanic.

So some of the complexity issue comes from # of distinct choices and another comes from how you ask the players to organize those options. My system hoped to get around the problem of maneuvers all with slightly different parameters- with some choices not optimal. Some of the World of Darkness systems suffer from this. Beyond the "buyable" combat choices, as well, some systems offer a host of options that can be overwhelming. Any game where you have to have reference cards for the basic actions anyone can do seems to me to be problematic. Mutants & Mastermind 2e for example, overwhelms players with choices and discrete resolution systems for those choices. Even with a deck of reference cards printed and distributed to players, most fall back to "I punch him." I've commented on Champions as a slow system, but actually handles this well. All of the basic combat maneuvers and elements appear on the character sheet. You knew what you could do at any point.

Of course one major factor in determining combat speed comes from the players' experience with those rules. Hero System and Rolemaster both had a lot of complexity options and decisions in them, but I ran them enough that I was able to get the fights to go fast and smooth. Both systems had stages of resolution. For the former you had declaration, roll to hit, roll damage, calculate final results and apply effects; for the latter declaration, decide ability allocation, roll to hit, check damage, roll for critical, calculate final results, determine reactions, and apply effects. Systems like World of Darkness and FATE reduce these steps, collapsing and doubling up the purposes of rolls. But any of these will be slow playing with new or untrained players.

In the fantasy case I mentioned above, we hadn't gone to combat for several sessions. In effect, the players had to relearn the system and their own abilities. Depending on the campaign, the number of actual combats I have varies. Most games average one combat every other or every third session. Fantasy and superhero games will likely be higher. But rarely do I run more than a single combat in a session. That means, ironically, the games where more narrative weight rests on the combat because it happens less frequently are the same games where players may lose touch with the combat mechanics and options.

That's more true if those mechanics also differ greatly from the other resolution systems in the game. If, when we get to combat, it feels like a very different game, we'll have more of a barrier to player transitions. So some systems, like FATE and Heroquest, resolve everything in pretty much the same fashion: all tested conflicts and results are fairly equivalent. Consider how much space is devoted in the rules you're playing to combat. Then consider how much of the non-combat rules have an significant or exclusive role in combat (like many spells).

Another interesting issue comes up when you want to do something pretty specific with the combat: where you want to simulate a duel. These kinds of showdowns are crucial to Wushu, Samurai and Western games (among others). But they're actually hard to pull off. In systems where you have to wear down an opponent, like games with high HP values, then instead of a real sense of balance and shifts you instead get a weird dice-based race game: with both sides seeing how fast they can wear their opponent down. Introduce risky maneuvers, and the complications mentioned above, and you get more options, but at a cost. The blog Whitehall Paraindustries posted on that this week. Giving players the feeling of a deep one-on-one struggle adds complexity. And how do you balance that against what's going on in a larger scale combat?

Because of course, the difference between the classic duel centerpiece scene and that resolved at the table is that you have multiple protagonists. In films, even when you have a group of heroes, you have one (maybe two) actually fighting a "duel" and then we cut to the rest of the group carrying out supporting actions- like fending off mooks, keeping the castle doors shut, setting up a distraction. You could do that at the table- but you'd need a group with real trust for one another, a belief that if X persons gets the spotlight for this scene, they'll get there's latter. Doing an amazing job as support still comes in behind doing an OK job fighting the big bad. There's a mental calculation there- and if you aren't doing combats every session, then it can take a while for the non-aggressive players to get their "duel."

Then there's the functional part of the showdown duel. How do you best simulate something that happens that quickly- like a fast draw at high noon or the flash of a blade for an iaijustsu duel? L5R and some others use a raise system, with players wagering until we see who goes for the resolution first. Another approach is to have several stages of the conflict: rolls for assessing the opponent, for psyching them out, for maneuvering into just the right position- with those providing a bonus to the strike when resolved. Some systems have skills, advantages and abilities for just those narrow circumstances...which adds more complexity. And how can you integrate those moments into a larger fight or into the actions of the wider group of players?

I don't know if it is an absolute battle between highly detailed options (feats, maneuvers, advantages) and generic approaches (extra dice, aspects covering everything). The former can mean a slower game and players perhaps left out in the cold. The latter potentially means reducing everything down to sets of +2 bonuses or the like. They might have different names, but when they're absolutely interchangeable, do those names matter? I'm not sure yet, but I do know that we started that combat at 11pm and drove home pretty satisfied, if more than a little wired from caffeine.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boot to the Head: Martial Arts Treatments in RPGs

I do love combat chrome, and I enjoy tons of options for players- at least in the abstract. When the miniature base hits the table, though, I'm not so sure. Can we have a game system with lots of options, lots of flavor and incredible speed for resolution? Here's a starter list of systems which have more detailed treatments of one colorful aspect of combat, martial arts.

Top Secret (1st and 2nd Editions)
I remember Top Secret, the first edition, being the first game where I saw martial arts styles named. IIRC they had a cross-reference chart for the collision of various styles and the effects. It was also the game where I learned the definition for "solar plexus".

2. Danger International
I remember Danger International having groupings of maneuvers together for martial arts. I don't recall if the first incarnation of this game, Espionage, had the same set up. We used this system for a GI Joe (comics) rpg for a while, including ninjas, of course. The elements of DI would eventually form one of the better of the early Martial Arts treatments-- Ninja Hero, which actually provided some interesting material. We used Ninja Hero for some early Wushu games, trying to handle kung-fu movies. Then at some point some of Tony Wong's Jademan comics started to be distributed in the States, like "Oriental Heroes" and "Fist of Buddha's Palm". We spent hours trying to build a set of super-martial arts styles and systems out of a mash-up of Champions and their existing MA system, but I don't think we ever did much with it.

3. GURPS Martial Arts
We played a lot of GURPS up through 3e, but for some reason we never cared for the MA system they presented. It felt too mechanical to us-- or rather the mechanics got in the way of the play, requiring extra rolls and introducing a set of structures for buying martial arts that most of us never liked that much. It has been interesting to see how this has evolved over the years through several incarnations- adding more material and ideas, but becoming more and more simulationist. Not that there's anything wrong with that- I like chrome and detail- and for people who want a detail oriented system, this can be great. However, I like a little more abstraction, and a little less data management.

4. Claw Law
One of the first games that really brought an organized approach to martial arts into fantasy games. I remember the earliest editions had the same martial arts silhouettes I would see in many other games of the years. It had a core engine in the form of IIRC hard and soft martial arts, with ranks of progress and different styles have some slightly different modifiers to the system. I recall Warrior Monks becoming extremely powerful in this system-- especially with the use of the kata options which allowed them to use weapons with their martial arts. I don't recall many people using the actual style breakdowns, however.

5. Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game
I looked at this, but I never picked it up. I've heard some people speak of this game with great reverence. It was among the first to do really wild martial arts- and take that as the core rather than as a set of more outlying options. IIRC it had reference cards for the various actions and maneuvers. The combat sourcebook from the World of Darkness line, WoD: Combat, eventually adapted some of these elements in. That's an interesting book, but I'm not sure that useful within the limits of the Storyteller system and the established powers of the various monsters.

6. Blue Dragon, White Tiger
I never played the original Hong Kong Action Theatre-- but I did pick up this and their wire-fu sourcebook at one point, Swords of the Middle Kingdom. This system uses a discrete set of powers and abilities you purchase IIRC which had some power point costs. SotMK was the first time I'd seen the historic Shaw Brothers movies be given a real simulation. BD, WT is for the edition published by Guardians of Order. It is actually a dynamite book- with tons of great ideas on how to run a wuxia campaign.

7. Feng Shui
Some time after I saw HKAT, Feng Shui came out. I'd played and enjoyed the card game. I like the way FS presents heavily structured styles and with real color to them. The rest of the system I didn't care as much for, but the system presented there has some great options and ideas I'd use in other games. It appraoches combat with an interesting mix of player options and abstract mechanics to allow real narrative control of the flow. This is one of those Grail games I really want to have a chance to play someday.

8. Enter the Zombie
The All-Flesh Must Be Eaten Martial Arts sourcebook. I was really disappointed in this one. The scenarios and ideas we interesting, but the core mechanic left something to be desired. IIRC it revolved around generating chi to do any kind of effects, making it more of a set of spell or supers powers that anything like what I wanted. Even in the various Unisystem games I saw or played in, these ideas got dropped since they didn't fit with the rest of the systems. I know some people have generally criticized Unisystem for that strange imbalance, but to be fair it kind of evolved into a more general system in pieces.

9. Legend of the Five Rings
Here martial arts was presented more abstractly, but by the time we got to The Way of Shinsei they'd added in kiho powers. It didn't treat martial arts per se particularly well- except for some new schools in Way of the Crane and Way of the Dragon. The kiho powers for monks were interesting- various different kinds of channeled powers which could create effects. In retrospect, it isn't that far off from from Enter the Zombie did, but I'm not sure why it worked better for me here. I can say whether the martial arts presented here worked in the context of the L5R system. When I ran L5R I did whole scale adaptations of the material over to Rolemaster the first time (my mistake) and then classic Storyteller. It was pointed out to me that Way of the Open Hand later tried to create a more limited and realistic approach to martial arts, but that was in L5R 2e which mashed together d20 and the standard system.

10. Oriental Adventures
I guess we could talk about Oriental Adventures in two different ways- with the first being the classic AD&D version. But that didn't deal with martial arts in depth- instead things were attached to class bonuses and benefits. The latter OA was the d20 adaptation to L5R. At least it would end up getting developed through the Rokugan supplement. Here we began to see feats given some more organization in order to create martial arts styles and forms. As this adaptation would evolve later books would give more options on this. That "pack of feats" approach would be used by a number of d20 systems for MA's. I picked up this because it related to L5R more than anything else, but I'll admit to not being a d20 person, so I can't judge the coolness or relative success of how it does it. There's a whole branch of d20 feat-pack approaches to martial arts, like Martial Arts Mayhem. I believe Spycraft 2.0 also has a set of structured trees with feats for martial arts styles.

11. Exalted
Another system that uses discrete powers in the form of martial arts charms to simulate effects. I guess I mean that as distinct from the approach of using maneuvers (ala Ninja Hero or GURPS). I've run quite a bit of Exalted 1e, but the martial arts doesn't feel all that different from the rest of the charm powers. Still it does provide a high-flying set of abilities to allow people to do more wushu style stuff. It also gives distinct styles with their own appearance and dramatic flair. I like some of the supplements which have come out expanding those ideas.

12. Weapons of the Gods
Probably my favorite game where the actual mechanics of the system seem beyond what I'm willing to get into. It has great, highly distinctive martial arts-- each form provided a history and a set of visual characteristics. I love so much about this game but it is really hard to read through and get a sense of what is going on. They have an example single combat download on the Eos Press site and just reading through it completely lost me- if a single combat takes that much back and forth and different rolls, I can't even imagine what a larger scale fight would look like. I'm at that point in my game mastering where I want cool things to happen in combat, but at the same time I don't want a fight to take more than an hour of table play. The WotG Companion provides nice rules for developing your own styles, which is a great toolkit for anyone trying to homebrew a martial arts system. Apparently this is going to be revised and republished with a more generic setting.

There's a lot more, but I'll leave this list as a starter for consideration.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

RPG Catch Up

So a few observations going into November. First, Robot Zero Tuesday will be back next week with new material. Second, as I head towards the end of the year, I hope to hit my milestone post right at the end. I have a couple of players & friends who have generously offered to do guest posts, so I hope to have a couple of those pop up before 2011 runs out. Third, I'd planned on posting something substantive every day in October, since I wasn't going to be doing a review each day. I came close- ending up with 29 posts. I consider that a victory given that the primary hard drive on my computer died and I lost...well nearly a decade worth of work and notes. I'm still trying to find a solution, but I've set that aside for the moment so I don't make myself crazy.

Towards the end of the year, I'll be putting together an overview of the campaigns, where they stand, where they've been in the last year, and where I see them going. But I'll mention a couple of things that have recently happened in a couple of the games:

*In both the Libri Vidicos and the Pavis High Fantasy games, the players have developed approaches I didn't see coming. Now I expect some of that- you can't predict everything the group will do, but an experienced GM will usually have a range in mind and what the group does will often overlap with that. In Libri Vidicos, the players managed to bring back the apparently dead Headmaster Gravast Direlond, in a pretty epic scene I'd been building towards for the last year and a half. But in some ways that's one of the few things I foresaw and planned for that the PCs have done. They've been cutting deep into the meta-plot and things are, as they say, “getting real.” In the Pavis game, they crossed a bad guy, who killed one of their NPCs. I expected them to deal with that- work around to taking him out and changing up the political situation in the city. Instead, they called on the last favor owed them by a god, and asked to be teleported into the bad guys lair. And then they went to town on the bad guy and his minions. Boom, boom, boom. I might have described it as overkill, but the players saw it as just-right-kill.

*In the Changeling the Lost campaign, I took advantage of a major quest arc wrapping up to make changes to the mechanics of the game. I'm hopeful about that. Essentially, I wanted to add the aspect and tags system from FATE to the game since it had worked well in a couple of the other versions of our house rules. We'll see how that plays out- this last session the group essentially changed the rule sof the game literally and figuratively in the campaign's freehold: establishing their own Court and subverting some agents of the enemy into joining them. Now they have to go and present themselves to the Princes of the city and then go and finish off the Draconic servants of a Keeper.

*In the "Treasure Hunters" campaign, we had a long, long session. I'd say most of our weekend games end by midnight at the latest. Our Thursday and Sunday games end by 11pm at the latest. There's some calculation on the players part, especially regarding elements which refresh from session to session (such as abilities and drama points). On Saturday, the group continued their invasion of the Ninja Fortress. I'd intended the adventure to take one session, but the previous session had been delayed by two players arriving late from a horse-riding accident. So we pressed on- and I watched the players spend their points. It got later- mostly based on bad pacing on my part, but I was determined to wrap the adventure that night, so we started the big epic battle at 11pm. The group faced four times their number in enemies, including seven named and significant adversaries. We wrapped up at 1:30am after a pretty awesome battle. I like doing that every once in a while and it did mean the players had already tapped some of their resources.

Lastly, I wanted to point to an interesting article I found recently. It had apparently been out there in the game blog community for a number of years, but I'd missed it. Five Geek Social Fallacies hits home pretty hard- because I've seen that go on and I've engaged in that apologist behavior over the years. I've been thinking about that recently, because we've seen some 'at table' social bullying: getting angry, threatening, and so on. It bothered me when one player I respect told another that they'd just have to 'give in' to make everything fine. The problem I have is that approach privileges one player over another, and rewards and reinforces bad behavior.

Finally, which I'm guessing comes after lastly, I'd like to point out this miniature:

And this post. I used to play with Tom Anders, M:tG mostly. I found him to be one of the most excellent, generous and personable gamers I've ever known. He is a genuinely good person who shows immense enthusiasm for the games he plays. He's been instrumental in the Blood Bowl (tm) community, as I understand it. And when I say instrumental, I'm completely underselling his role and impact. And of course, because it was a Games Workshop product...well, if you're a gamer you can probably finish that story yourself. Anyway, I'm incredibly pleased to see Tom receiving such a nice gesture.