Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Night's Black Agents: The Hite Supremacy

Last December I received the advance pdf of the new GUMSHOE rpg, Night’s Black Agents. This was a preliminary draft version- texts without layout and no real art. I wrote up some of my thoughts about that version in a post- Tinker,Tailor, Vampire, Spy. I really liked what I saw in that rough version and had high hopes for the final edition. At GenCon I finally got my pre-order hardcover- including an autograph from author Ken Hite. I liked the electronic version, but nothing compares to actually sitting down and reading the physical copy of the book.

Night’s Black Agents is the latest game from Pelgrane using the GUMSHOE system. I’ve written about that system in the past (here). For a new gamer’s guide to the line, I put together a survey: GUMSHOE:System Guide for New Gamers. In Night’s Black Agents the PCs take the role of spies who have been “burned” and disavowed. They’ve crossed paths with a vampiric conspiracy and now have to fight back against it. In order to do so they’ll need to uncover the nature of their foe while revealing the enemy’s network. Most importantly, NBA offers a highly customizable framework for running many kinds of campaigns against many kinds of opponents.

Night’s Black Agents is a 232 page full-color hardcover. The cover art’s striking and evocative. I like that the illustrations and color palettes on the GUMSHOE hardcovers have been distinct from one another. Most of the interior art is striking and excellent. The artists have to live up to the standards set by Jérome Huguenin and company in the other Pelgrane books. The best of the interior work has a photo-manipulation look that works really well in the context of the game. It is a pretty book- with a nice balance of art and text.

But the star of the show is the layout. Chris Huth knocks this completely out of the park. Last week I reviewed GURPS Alpha Centauri, a supplement which used three-column text in a way that made it difficult to read. I couldn’t go more than a couple of pages without stopping. Pelgrane’s consistently used three columns and it has worked well. But it looks even better in Night’s Black Agents. Everything- font choice, white space, icons, heading sizes, the way the sidebars run tight against the page- works to make this supremely readable and legible. The nice semi-gloss paper is the cherry on the top. Layout’s not something I can claim any expertise in, but I know what I like.

When I read the pre-layout pdf I wasn’t sure how they would manage to present the information in coherent way. Dense concepts, combined with numerous side-bits, presented a challenge. But they’ve overcome that with color and font combinations. A small detail, but one I appreciate- within each section the top-bar on the page announces the topics covered on the two facing pages. The primarily color element shifts slightly from section to section, creating flow.

The rules break down into an introduction, six major section, plus closing material featuring an adventure plus appendices.

Introduction: Right away NBA sets up the flexibility of the premise. It talks about the different modes the story can be told in from Bourne to Bond, Smiley to Westen. NBA offers the most flexible and rich structure yet presented for a GUMSHOE game. Mutant City Blues and Ashen Stars have a concept and lock in some assumptions. Those aren’t rigid, but they do require some tinkering. NBA puts all of the “dials” for the game at the forefront. The GM has to go through and set those before play. And those changes can have significant impacts on what the game feels like. NBA is a powerful toolkit, with easy to follow instructions for building the campaign.

Characters (9-42): Presenting the rules for character building, it offers a couple of interesting ideas. I like picking a “class” in the form of a general type template and then tweaking that with a chosen MOS (one skill you automatically succeed on once per session). The more detailed Drives system- with some game benefits and consequences works here. The mechanical system for tracking trust and betrayal presents another interesting wrinkle. Often these kinds of social incentive systems don’t work- forcing actions against player wishes. These rules seem easy and useful for other games. Overall the section presents the necessary rules well while offering many new options and decisions for the veteran GUMSHOE player. New players may feel a little overwhelmed.

Rules (43-93): Night’s Black Agents works through the core rules of the system in fifty pages. Ashen Stars did it in 20- or 60 if you include Starship Battles. The clear presentation keeps the focus on the purpose: emulating espionage stories. It nicely shifts the focus of the mystery process from the usual whodunit to something larger. NBA increases the number of player options (martial arts, sniping, called shots, etc.) without changing some of the basic structures (weapon damage ranges). GM’s will want to carefull annotate the details- perhaps putting together a quick list of options (with their associated numbers). The Chase system presented is especially good- elemental, evocative, and most of all playable.

Tools (94-118): I like that this section not only covers hardware, but also general tactics and player advice. It offers resources useful to any kind of modern gaming GM. Players ought to read through the insight here before diving into a campaign.

Vampires (119-163): Here Hite combines his encyclopedia knowledge with game utility. He offers a toolkit for building “your” vampires. Each campaign can be different- a distinct vision of the vampiric world: supernatural, dammed, alien or mutant. He offers quick examples of created types, followed by several unusual examples from sources. The section on creating a “Conspyramid” ought to be standard for any game involving conspiracies. It offers the GM a deceptively simple campaign creation tool.

Cities (164-179): Night’s Black Agents has a distinctly European feel- and this section covers international locations (including China, USA a a couple of others). It offers some quick and dirty ideas for prepping cities and gives three examples (Bucharest, London, and Tunis).

Stories (180-197): This covers how to set up the essential spine of an espionage campaign and considers how it differs from the standard GUMSHOE approach. It also presents a number of alternative approaches to the campaign frame.

Adventure & Appendices (198-232): A rich and multi-stage adventure, “(S)Entries,” manages to do quite a bit in nine pages. After that the book gives a modest bibliography (I would have liked to see more), blank sheets of various kinds, and a really thorough index.

I think NBA’s awesome and amazingly well-constructed. However it does offer greater mechanical complexity than other GUMSHOE games. It isn’t as complicated as something like D&D 4e or Rolemaster, but it does have a wealth of numbers, values, secondary rules, and “if, then” details. The various versions of GUMSHOE have been heading in this direction. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, but more a matter of personal taste. GMs used to more mechanical games will be able to handle it. Smart and solid GMs will try to put much of that work in the players’ hands- as many of those rules relate to PC options. That means that players will benefit from picking up and studying these rules.

That’s something of a switch for me and my group. In recent years we’ve moved to more streamlined and easier systems. With something like The Esoterrorists, I could pick up and explain the mechanics pretty easily- with a few options players could learn later. And players didn’t necessarily need to buy a copy of the game (often a sticking point with groups). It isn’t that GMs won’t be able to teach and roll with the game right away, but there’s a vast swath of options and maneuvers players will have to discover. A GM could move to streamline and simplify those options. As a GM who has shifted to lighter systems like FATE, Unisystem, and homebrews, that’s my initial instinct. However the options offered here seem really cool- I like the way they work. I fear too much reduction loses some of the atmosphere the game wants to create.

It’s also worth noting that the game has an international feel. Many modern games end up with a default American backdrop. The spy-thriller genre lends itself to that approach (consider how weaker the James Bond films set in the US are…). Obviously there are some exceptions (24, Burn Notice, a lot of Alias). But GMs should be prepared for that and the work involved. They’ll also need a group interested in that kind of globe-trotting play.

I liked last year’s preliminary version of Night’s Black Agents, and this confirms and extends that. It’s a brilliantly assembled volume with amazing layout and compelling writing. It’s certainly my favorite of the line. I really love it despite some of my reservations about portions of the core system (WhineSHOE: Rethinking GUMSHOE). Veteran GUMSHOE players will find much to love here. It presents many new approaches to the mechanics and options which they may want to port over to another published version or their own homebrew setting (GUMSHOE Global Frequency anyone?). Trust, bennies for high ability ratings, chases- all of these offer excellent new options for the detail-oriented gamer. RPGers interested in espionage games will also find this useful. Until now, I’d considered Spycraft 2.0 the recommended toolkit for GMs working in the genre. Not running the system as is, but finding useful concepts there. Now I’d recommend NBA first- as it presents ideas more tightly and in a more approachable style. Finally “Hunter” gamers should also consider this book. The idea of customizable adversaries, the challenge of discovering an opponent’s nature, and the creation of conspiracies all work for those kinds of games. Night’s Black Agents shows how to do a genre framework right.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

History of Horror RPGs (Part Three: 1996-2000)

The second half of the 1990's presents an odd mix of horror rpgs. A handful of games which would last, some odd choices/licenses big ticket games, and a few smaller press oddballs. X-Files shows its influence in this period, but there's also the impact of the millennium. So we see more end-times gaming as well as more conspiracy themes. Some of that isn't exactly horror, like GURPS Y2K so I've left that out. Others either seemed like thin spin offs (Kindred of the East) or had some horror elements but others dominated (Abyss and Revelation). 

This is an odd period for horror outside of games. In cinema, we get from Dusk til Dawn, an arguably more action-oriented film, opening the period. Blair Witch Project shows up at the tail end in 1999 to re-energize the form. In between there are a few interesting movies, but the vast majority are weak and/or running the gas out of various franchises (Scream, Hellraiser, Poltergeist, Children of the Corn). In comics we saw some horror manga and Hellblazer, but not much else. Sandman ended in 1996. On television, X-Files picked up speed, to be followed by Millennium and copycat Dark Skies. Importantly Buffy the Vampire Slayer begins on the WB, with Angel a little after. A few blink and they're done shows arrived as well: American Gothic, Fear, Brimstone, and Poltergeist: the Legacy. Perhaps more importantly are the non-tabletop horror games of the period: Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2, Silent Hill, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, and System Shock 2 for example. 

I've been trying to think of a way to describe certain kinds of horror games without being dismissive. These games use horror elements- monsters, "horrors," corruption- but they can be fought against with fists and guns. Mankind may not triumph, but they'll go down swinging. It could be called Pulp, but I actually think it is a little more cartoony. Certainly there a liberal dose of humor and self-awareness of the conventions. I have to wonder how much of this comes in reaction to the tropes and standards established by Vampire and the World of Darkness. There's a seriousness to some of that material (and fans) that makes it an easy target. Given how strongly VtM held sway over horror for the first half of the decade, games like these could show the swing in the other direction.

1. Deadlands (1996)
Deadlands represents a couple of important trends in horror gaming. First, it's among the best and most successful examples of "cartoony horror" out there. It sustains a tone of crazy, 'laughing as they bury you' energy. GMs (or Marshals* as they're called here) can run the game tongue-in-cheek or more seriously. Read closely and you'll see Deadlands manages some truly awful horror; over the course of the line they roped in many awesome writers. They crafted some bits worthy of Lovecraft and Le Fanu. But most groups I knew ran campaigns on the other end of the spectrum- puttin' bullets in the brainpans of zombies.

Deadlands also represents the first really successful horror genre mash up. There had been a couple of previous attempts (Dark Conspiracy, Dark Space, Cthulhupunk) but they never sold themselves particularly well. Deadlands wears its gaming DNA on its sleeve. It is unabashedly a Western and a Horror game. It engages and entangles those elements at every conceivable opportunity. The genre conventions lend themselves to small groups of adventurers at the margins of society fighting back on their own terms against convention and evil.

Deadlands has also had a longer lifespan than most games- going through several editions, inspiring Savage Worlds, and starting spin-off lines. Rather than give them their own entries, I include Deadlands: Hell on Earth (post-apocalyptic) and Deadlands: Lost Colony (space) in this entry.

*I need to do a list of the goofy terms used instead of 'GM' in various games.

If Deadlands is an example of cartooony horror that works and sells itself well, the Tales from the Crypt rpg isn't. It's another horror game and licenses where I go "really? that's what you wanted to put your creative energy into?". Here's the thing, TftC may have the most amazing campaign set-up and premise, but just based on the source-material and marketing copy, I can't tell. Even hunting across the internet for some discussion of that, I still don't know if they had much more than we've got gotcha horror stories you can throw your players into. I've only been able to look at Cryptic Campaigns, a GM's Cryptkeeper's supplement for it. The remarkably ugly book opens by making an argument about why TftC is a better horror game than others, claiming to truly be about the human condition. The material which follows is interesting but generic discussion of horror games, and gives little insight into what the rpg brings to the table.

3. Delta Green (1996)
I believe Delta Green helped to reset and propel Call of Cthulhu forward in the 1990's. For years Chaosium had been turning out decent product, but nothing that grabbed sales or attention. The work of Pagan Publishing helped change that in our area- rekindling interest. Delta Green seized the zeitgeist and created a new way of seeing modern Lovecraftian horror, bringing truly modern sensibilities and conspiracy themes into the game. You can see similar ideas appearing in shows like Dark Skies and the X-Files. That's not to say that CoC had ignored modern settings, but the results had been mixed- from goofy stuff (Blood Brothers) to lame (1990's Handbook) to actually compelling (The Stars Are Right). But Delta Green took a campaign framework approach, really spending time doing the kind of world-building necessary to make the stories feel fresh and new. For my reviews of the first two books see The New Delta Green: A Scanner Not-So-Darkly and Delta Green Countdown: Minutes to Midnight.

Vampire: the Masquerade really reveled in world-building- history, themes, metaplot. From the beginning it wove a rich trapestry to create the illusion of a long-lived society. Each of the lines following did the same- resulting in a creaky construct with discordant continuity. Vampire: the Dark Ages reached into that past to illuminate that history. But I think the project had other goals: allowing for more classic "fantasy" material, giving a more brutal and open world, and escaping the metaplot. Of course a number of Ars Magica creators also worked on VtM, so I wonder if that had anything to do with it. Vampire: tDA did well enough to spawn a couple dozen books, up until 2002 when White Wolf rebooted the line as Dark Ages. This new set up had core books for each lines (Vampire, Werewolf, Inquisitor) and aimed at an even earlier period. This iteration had fewer supplements and faded out.

I enjoyed VtDA's evocation of the late medieval and early modern period. It produced interesting material, especially the location and city books. Of course several other historical horror versions would be produced in the following years: Werewolf: The Wild West in '97, Wraith: The Great War in '99, and Victorian Age: Vampire in '02. Additional historical sourcebooks were produced for various lines, highlighting periods (Sunset Empires) or non-horror lines (Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade).

5. WitchCraft (1996)
One of several horror rpgs created by C.J. Carella, WitchCraft originally came out from Myrmidon Press before being picked up by Eden Studios.It follows the patterns of Carella's other games- the PCs as powerful magic users, a shadow or open supernatural war, and a number of unique rival factions. WitchCraft draws inspiration from the World of Darkness, but keeps its own unique atmosphere. It cobbles together a mythology out of many different sources and manages to make it feel sustainable. Eden published a handful of supplements, but the line never sold as well as their other core products. It is currently OOP (though available as pdf).

The year after Witchcraft came out from Myrmidon Press, they published C.J. Carella's other horror rpg Armageddon. This one feels like Twilight 2000 meets World of Darkness. Again players can have characters drawn from various mythologies, including scions of the old gods, Nephilim, and Atlantaens. The set-up is an unholy future war with demonic armies on the rise and characters fighting back against those plots- either in conventional "monster of the week" scenarios or more military-oriented battlefield games. The game has a more crunchy, gun-love sense to it- for players who like details, equipment, and heavy ordinance. The magic and supernatural power system is more piecemeal. Eden picked the game up and published it, though they never formally released any supplements to it.

7. Principia Malefex (1997)
Another horror rpg I haven't heard much about, despite being published as large hardcover. The publisher Ragged Angel appears to be British and there's an webpage for the game, featuring other supplements; the latest date I could find listed there is 2004. PM is a modern urban horror game and suggests that it is for mature readers only. Players seem to be normal people fighting back against horrific things. It claims to be different in that there are fewer monsters to face, instead the PCs dealing with vague and awful incidents. The intended tone seems to be hopeless, bleak despair.

8. Shades of Darkness (1997)
Another strange setting book from ICE for Rolemaster, this one offering a post-apocalyptic horror premise. Things like this always seemed like the strange pet projects of in-house writers who wanted their personal campaigns published. Most other RM books of the period expanded the rules or offered genre books (Pulp, Black Ops, etc). ICE clearly hoped that the revised Rolemaster Standard System (aka RMSS or RM 3rd) could become a salable generic system. And then there's this product which I honestly picked up only because I was running RMSS at the time and hoped there would be something useful in it. Instead Shades of Darkness offered a grab-bag of rules, professions, add-ons, and a sketchy version of a campaign frame. That's a consistent problem with RM setting books. Shades of Darkness has a feeling survival horror, but can't quite decide how much it wants to be science-fantasy, straight fantasy, horror, or post-apocalypse.

9. Conspiracy X (1997)
While ConX leans towards gunning down enemy threats, I've usually seen it run with a healthy dose of horror. It could have been a modern sci-fi thriller game, but instead ConX combined elements of aliens, historical threats, and the supernatural together. It doesn't always gel, but I like the overwhelming vibe. While ConX shares some concepts with Delta Green it has some key differences. The nature and reach of the patron organization, AEGIS, gives players support and access to resources. The foes, while still potent and wide-reaching, offer a more understandable and accessible targets than the Lovecraft Mythos. It makes a great modern horror-hunter campaign where your aiming less for dread and more for shocks-on-the-job. Some might describe that as horror-light, but different groups want different experiences from games. ConX has gone through a couple of versions, including GURPS Conspiracy X. The more recent release of Conspiracy X 2.0 suggest that Eden may be doing more with this line.

10. Unknown Armies (1998)
"A Roleplaying Game of Transcendental Horror and Furious Action"
Unknown Armies remains one of the best horror rpgs I've read. It came out of the blue and presented a fully-fleshed and bizarre modern backdrop unlike anything else out there. it is a precursor for the kinds of indie rpgs we'd start to see after 2005- fresh, unique, and playing out the creators' vision. Players can take many different and broadly defined roles in an world with occult undergrounds. That world is a swirling mess of uncertain entities, bad stuff going down, and people just trying to get by. There isn't a 'big bad' per se, but rather a world that eats away at people. Unknown Armies brings to the table some of the creepiest elements I've seen in an rpg- subtle stuff with horrifying implications. The magic systems feel completely different from anything else out there and manage to balance playability with horrific costs and requirements for the players. UA takes on the idea of sanity developed by CoC and expands it- allowing players to track their own decay across several axes. This game is recommended reading for anyone running modern horror.

11. Zombi (1998)
It must be a little disappointing to be the zombie apocalypse rpg that came out the year before All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Zombi was a small rpg put out by Crucible Design. It presents a simple set of rules and a basic campaign frame built around survivors. I like the idea that skill rolls can be modified by a 'panic stat' if zombies are around. That's a simple mechanic that helps emulate the genre well.

And then there's the grandaddy of zombie rpgs. All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a kind of messy game, as fits the genre. It pulls together various elements to create a pseudo-universal system, eventually called Unisystem. AFMBE gave players the right mix of light mechanics for general resolution and high crunch for things like weapons and combat. It also offered a laundry list approach to building characters- with plenty of merits and flaws to tweak them out. AFMBE smartly recognized the zombie game as an effective horror sub-genre. The core book includes rules for many different kinds of campaigns run at many different levels or even historical periods. The system remains strong today with many different genre books (Wrestling, Martial Arts, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Western) and general supplements. Not everything from those fit together- rules, mechanics, and pricing don't necessarily remain consistent across the line. But it offers everything a GM running these kinds of games could possibly want.

Another small-press horror game with a unique vision. Some of these feel like personal campaigns where the author hadn't been able to bottle what made their own play work. Obsidian, on the other hand, had a fairly strong following of players who enjoyed its bleak and weird setting. It reminds me most of SLA Industries, but less tongue-in-cheek. Players live in the last remaining human metroplex, waging a war against the demon forces who have overrun the earth. It combines horror, sci-fi, occult, cyberpunk, weird fantasy, and post-apocalypse. It feels like Judge Dredd meets the Legions of Hell.

Horror's a popular genre in anime, manga and Japanese cinema. Demon City Shinjuku's based the anime film, though the source material is a novel (and it was also a manga). Guardians of Order put this together as a complete rpg, allowing players to experience the gothic-horror of the setting. It was among the first wave of anime-influenced games which came out in the 1990's.

Hunter: The Reckoning stands out among the many World of Darkness lines. It took risks which paid off, but did end up alienating some players. I know many rejected Hunters with "powers" and disliked the framework given. Many players had cut their teeth on The Hunters Hunted and hoped to see more of that. Hunter: The Vigil seems to come from that reaction. On the other hand I think HtR brings out some really awesome and often unexplored horror themes.

The characters are called to their path, they really don't have a choice. They find themselves flung into this world and cannot ignore it. Doing so destroys their sanity as much as facing the horrors. Beyond that the game shows that being a hunter is an alienating and destructive pursuit. Others cannot see what you see, loved ones will be in danger and there's little you can do to protect them but leave, your foes are often beyond your power, you will be judged mad, and perhaps worst of all you will doubt your own sanity. Hunter can be played as a game of uncertainty and misdirection. There's an element of PTSD to the fellow hunters you meet. The supporting materials for the HtR line play this up- information is incomplete, contradictory, and bizarre. The various monster splat books don't sync up with the other WoD material- are they right? what's going on? is this what the monsters look like? Hunter the Reckoning clearly did fairly well for WW, spawning many books in the series and a couple of video games. I'll be curious if the company decides to do an anniversary product of this one.

TSR tried to branch out into genres beyond fantasy with limited success. By the end of the 1990's they'd decided to create a kind of generic engine to power these new attempts. In some ways that felt like at sequel to their work with the Amazing Engine line. The Alternity line presented some general rules modules (like Beyond Science: A Guide to FX), but also created specific campaign worlds- Star*Drive and Dark•Matter. Dark•Matter has the PCs as members of the private Hoffman Institute pulling back layers of conspiracy and mystery on the world. It looks like Conspiracy X, but actually functions more like Chill. It offers a generic world of PCs hunting monsters- supernatural, aliens, or otherwise.

17. Heaven & Earth (1999)
A game with significant religious themes; I've often heard it described as Eerie, Indiana the rpg. The game is set in the little town of Potter's Lake where weird things are happening. There's a struggle between strange magical forces and bizarre happenings all of the time. Robert McCammon's Boy's Life, Peter Straub's Shadowland, and some of the more domestic small-town stories of King make a good parallel as well. I'm also reminded of Philip K. Dick's The Cosmic Puppets. I like that there's room for low-key horror and strangeness in rpgs. I've only read about this game, I've never tracked down a copy. It has gone through at least three different editions, each with a different set of mechanics.

18. Purgatory (2000)
It’s very hard to find out much about some of these small-press horror games, especially those with publishers who have folded up shop or in the case of Atomic Hyrax left a message in 2004 on their website about going on "extended hiatus." This games seems much like Armageddon, another rpg perhaps tapping into the feelings about the countdown to the end of the millennium. The PCs apparently play Children of Purgatory, special chosen caught in the war between heaven and hell. Also known as Penitents, the PCs are apparently being pursued by terrestrial forces with their own agenda.

Friday, August 24, 2012

GURPS Alpha Centauri: The Unity Incident

There’s a cardinal sin in reviewing about the gap between the product you hope for and the product you actually get. I try not to comment on that “ideal” product too directly, unless the publisher built up my expectations too highly in a particular direction. I know that I’m not the target audience for many games and products. I’ve read any number of games in recent years where I pictured something very different (and to my mind very interesting). But the actually product isn’t that- and doesn’t come close to what I imagined. Yet smart people like the items, find uses for the material, write glowing reviews, and give them awards. I can't fault that. Today, though, in this review, I’m going to verge into the imaginative landscape a little and consider "what-might-have-been."

Part of the problem is that Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri - SMAC (and its add-on Sid Meier’s Alien Crossfire- SMAX) is my favorite video game: PC, console, handheld, arcade…it wins across the board. If I had to pick the three PC games which gave me the most sheer fun, it would be SMAC, followed at a distance by Unreal Tournament and Might & Magic VI. So to say I wanted a great deal out of this game supplement would be an understatement.

GURPS Alpha Centauri came out in 2002, towards the tail end of GURPS 3e’s lifespan. That’s three years after Alien Crossfire hit the shelves. Like many GURPS adaptations, it felt more like a labor of love than a viable product for licensing (see also GURPS Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, GURPS Myth, GURPS New Sun, GURPS Humanx). The book itself is a nice hardcover (unusual for sourcebooks like this) clocking in at 128 pages. The interiors are full-cover, with illustrations from from Firaxis’ game materials. Strangely, Steve Jackson seems not to have licensed any of the art assets from the Alien Crossfire expansion. The text and rules cover ideas introduced there (like the Cult of Planet and the warring aliens), but none of the iconic images of the leaders or advancements from that expansion appear. It’s a strange oversight. The book uses a dense three-column layout, with two-column box insets. It feels like a dry run for later text design in GURPS 4e. It ends up harder to read than it has to be- making working through the text something of a chore. The writing’s competent, a weird mixture of dry and slightly goofy (especially the adventure hooks). Author Jon Zeigler worked on a number of other sci-fi products for GURPS. Overall the book looks good- with that crisp and clinical precision of later GURPS materials. Some might uncharitably call it cold…

Adapting Alpha Centauri for a tabletop rpg requires some interesting designer decisions. For the few not aware, SMAC is a civilization building game- literally building off of the work of the Civilization series. It came out between Civilization II (from MicroProse) and Civilization III (from Firaxis). In the PC game, players choose one of several factions and guide their crashed-landed colony to expand, explore, and conquer the alien world of Planet (aka Chiron). Beginning with one city and a couple of units, you must grow your population, wealth, military, and technology over the course of years, decades, and centuries. That means two major span axis vastly different from the focus of traditional tabletop rpgs: multiple abstract units and cities spread across a vast world (space) and the passing of generations (time). Unlike many other video games adapted over to pen & paper, there’s not “protagonist” in a conventional sense. Perhaps the closest to this might be something like the adaptation of the RTS Starcraft. True, in the PC game, the players take on the role of factions with distinct leaders- but those feel like icons rather than roles you inhabit.

So how do you make that work here? The designer takes a fairly conventional approach, providing a simple setting sourcebook for Planet. That allows freedom for the GM to do what they want with it. At the same time, it doesn’t deal particularly well with the question of time. The book has to cover the hypothetical history of a world- a world which might have evolved in many different ways. So he has to present things as happening in the abstract without tying them to specific factions or persons. I think that makes the material harder to get a handle on and actively rejects a narrative. But that also rejects some of the basic form of the original source game. There’s material here on using play and the world builder tools to create a campaign, but why isn’t that front and center? Shouldn’t that toolkit be the most important aspect. Instead that’s an add on and the focus remains on the traditional tabletop approach- individual characters and PCs. Which leads to another question, especially given the separation the PC game suggests between the factions. How do you create a diverse game? How do players contact and interact with the other factions?

After a brief prologue, the book breaks into six major sections, plus appendices. The brief prologue and set up does a nice job of outlining the set up- and providing the most concrete information for the history. A little more set up about the structure of the book and campaign formats would have been useful here.

Planet (7-22): This covers all of the technical details of the planet gravity, atmosphere, terrain. There’s a lot of sidebar information. Some of the most colorful elements of SMAC like the landmarks get only a brief discussion. About six pages cover the local life forms and their dangers. Some of these are vast and overwhelming- more on a military than personal scale. Three pages cover the Progenitors, the warring aliens from SMAX. The omission of art depicting them stands out here.

Factions (23-54): Each of the fourteen factions gets a three+ page write up here. That includes beliefs, relations, strengths/weakness and lifestyle. Sidebars give just a little (very little) on characters from that faction and a single, brief adventure seed. The seeds oddly vary between aiming at characters of that faction and having players interact with that faction. There’s a character write-up with stats and history for the leaders of each faction as well.

The Road to Transcendence (55-83): This section attempts to translate the Tech Trees of SMAC into a loose timeline. The goal is to allow the GM to emulate a particular period in Planet’s history. Each era has a tech level (TL) associated with it and discussion of the advances of that period. These break into four areas: Exploration, Discovery, Building, and Conquest. The discussion expands a little on the material from the SMAC game itself. It thankfully doesn’t bog down too much into crunchy numbers and points. I like the loose discussion here. There’s room for GMs to add these new advances and play out how they impact the campaign colony. Sidebars in this section also cover the Secret Projects of the campaign- wonders and unique advances. Some of these represent significant milestones in the history of the planet.

Colonists (84-95): This gets to some of the crunch of running an actual campaign in this setting. At this book, the book hasn’t really talked about what that would look like. Still it presents a series of character types, with suggested buys. I’m a little surprised that we don’t get character build packages- something GURPS had begun to do with other parallel supplements. There’s a discussion of other character build options: advantages, disads, skills, psionics, racial templates, and wealth/status. It is pretty by the book.

Hardware (96-114): For those players who want crunch, equipment, gear and vehicles, this covers everything. It has to take in many different tech levels, but does a decent job of that. In some ways SMAC offers a fairly conventional sci-fi milieu, so there isn’t too much unique or outstanding.

Campaigns (115-119): This all too brief section discusses using the world editor to create the planet. It touches lightly on the problems of a multiple faction campaign. One page+ actually comments on campaign types: Military, Probe Team, and Secret Project. These are pretty conventional, as are the three adventure seeds offered. Half a page considers cross-overs with other GURPS sci-fi books like Bio-Tech, Space, Vehicles, and Transhuman Space.

Appendices and Index (120-128): Appendix A offers guidelines for better adapting the SMAC technology to the tech rules of other GURPS products like Ultra-Tech. Appendix B goes over direct conversion of SMAC details to GURPS terms. So if you had a vehicle with X parameters and Y special abilities, how would it look in GURPS. I have to admire the work that went into coming up with that, but at the same time it is well beyond the level and kind of detail I want from a supplement. GM’s who enjoy that kind of number crunching will like this.

So what kind of a game does this supplement net you? It assumes a pretty straightforward space colony game taking place in a slice of time. So Planet becomes a standard backdrop- like the world of Blue Planet, for example. And yes- you could run that campaign, but what does that gain you? How much of the flavor of Alpha Centauri is lost in that version? I You need to think bigger.

I hope you’ll indulge me- here’s where I go a bit off the rails with my review.

1) IMMORTALS: Alpha Centauri allows you to see the sweep of history as you play. Things change and evolve over time- the political situation, the environment, the status of your rivals. Campaigns focusing on a single slice of time miss out on that and lose something important to the SMAC experience. We want a saga which is generational, which traces the world from beginning to end. I want the epic feel of something like Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

In this campaign framework, the PCs all begin with the early days of the colony. When the Unity crashes, they are there. They can come from the same or diverse factions. The key point is that something happens to them to create a certain kind of immortality- a staggered one. They carry out their role and adventure with the colony and then we jump forward X years or decades to another crisis point in the history of the colony (or world). Things will change in between eras, factions will rise and decline, the planet itself will change. Because they’re outside of the changes, they may bring a unique perspective.

What kinds of devices could you use to do this? Involuntary time travel’s an obvious one- perhaps linked to an alien artifact with a purpose. Perhaps the PCs are “brain-taped” at a point in time and downloaded into new bodies when they’re needed. Maybe they become a genetic consciousness reawakening in their descendants. Suspended animation? Robots? Hard-light holograms? You don’t even necessarily have to have all the players operating under the same system. The PCs pop back in when a turning point has been reached. They have to orient themselves and then find a way to help. Ideally you’d find a fix or deus ex machina for catching them up on tech and the like. They could develop a set of legends around themselves. Maybe they’re like gods (ala Lord of Light).

If you want even more control, you could use the PC game to figure out changes in between eras. Or you could use Microscope to have the players involved in the evolution of the colony.

2) I, COLONY: Another, more radical approach increases the scale and scope. Several existing games have rules for running groups or organizations. I put together a lost of those earlier: HomeIs Where The Sword Is: Communities and Groups in RPGs. Perhaps the players could collectively run the colony in an abstract way. Or they could each run colonies competing for resources. You could use a matrix argument system to resolve this kind of interaction. It might work really well as a PbF game- I can imagine building a set of tools for doing this using something like Amber Diceless, Reign, or FATE.

So who is GURPS Alpha Centauri best for? GURPS players with a sci-fi bent will likely find something useful here. It offers a solid example of world-building, but I don’t think it brings anything really new to the table rules-wise. General GURPS players and GMs looking for resources may want to hunt elsewhere. Sci-fi rpgers using other systems will likely be able to adapt most of this material pretty easily. The GURPS terms don’t get in the way. Fans of the Alpha Centauri PC game will find a cool and expanded material here- but they may end up wanting more narrative and background and less game mechanics. The book ends up in a kind of middle place- trying to appeal lightly to all of those audiences. It could good further in any of those directions- but at the risk of alienating another. The chosen approach- all times and all places without a campaign echoing that- means the product has to breeze through everything. There's no solid and compelling narrative thread for play. That the book skimps on campaign creation may speak to how the publisher viewed this- as a fan book rather than a viable setting.

I still like it- and it does make me seriously consider how I would run an Alpha Centauri campaign. It would definitely have to be more rule-light, perhaps using Diaspora. GURPS Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri would be an awesome resource for that, though one which leaves me wanting more.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

History of Horror RPGs: Part Two (1991-1995)

In keeping with an accelerating rpg industry, the first half of the 90's saw an explosion in horror games. Most importantly White Wolf broke on to the scene. Beginning with Vampire, they created a new approach to horror gaming. In this list, I've left out several of the key and secondary WW products. While Mage: The Ascension and Changeling: The Dreaming can have horror themes, those seem secondary to the game's premise. Likewise, The World of Bloodshadows has monsters and undead but focuses on pulp adventure and fantasy. TORG's Orrorsh was a harder call- that's a horror realm, built on fear. But ultimately TORG focuses on reality wars and warriors, so I left it out. 

This period saw the arrival of many smaller and one-shot publishers. It also saw many more licensed games, universal rulesets with add-ons, and the use of horror as an add-on element. One interesting item absent from this list is TSR's announced but unupublished horror game R.I.P.. The company released a set of comic-book modules which expanded Top Secret/S.I. into horror. However despite being mocked up and listed, the actual boxed set of R.I.P. never emerged.

As Call of Cthulhu kicked off horror gaming a decade before, Vampire the Masquerade launched new directions in gaming by starting from a horror premise. At least in our area, Vampire brought many new people into the gaming community and helped shape new goals in play. VtM might not be the start of story games, but it brought a greater emphasis on the idea of narrative over mechanics.

Vampire's notable because it shifts the protagonist role. Most earlier horror games focused on normal main characters, with some exceptional ones having minor powers or support from organizations. Vampire makes the PCs potent in a world split into the more potent and the sheep. It focuses on existential horror and the horror of moral choices. More often than not, especially with the early material, I saw gamers focusing on either "style & indulgence" or "supers with fangs" campaigns. Later editions would do a better job of bringing out the question of humanity and monstrosity. Vampire would spin off several other versions, including the various World of Darkness general books, Kindred of the East, and Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom.

2. Dark Conspiracy (1991)
Dark Conspiracy always seemed like it wanted to ride be a little like Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Twilight 2000, or even TORG (which came out the same year). It never caught on around our area in part because the pitch line and premise weren't particularly clear. I didn't even realize that it was a near-future pseudo-cyberpunk game until years after it had gone out of print. MOst of the people I know who played this had a love for mechanical crunch and other GDW games. The company tried to keep it going for a couple of years, and used the same house system for their various games (allowing sourcebooks like the Heavy Weapons Handbook. To be fair, Dark Conspiracy was among the earliest mash-up games- attempting to bring together two dominant gaming genres into one concept.

3. Kult (1991)
Technically, the first English edition of Kult came out in 1993, but original Swedish version was published in 1991. This game had a surprisingly strong following in our area, despite being a kind of niche game. Few ran Kult as is- but many (inlcuding myself) borrowed concepts from it to use in other games like Champions, Cyberpunk, and Vampire. Kult's a distinctive game borrowing many occult and religious themes, but reworking them in a completely new way. It was the first time I'd seen the gnostic concepts worked into an rpg. Kult used sanity as a mechanic for attachment to reality- a kind of strange W.S. Burroughs or P.K. Dick way of seeing things. It’s interesting to see how different horror games worked with these abstract concepts (stability, sanity, humanity, etc).

I never bought into Werewolf as a stand-alone rpg. It wasn't exactly fright-based horror- but more about potent characters fighting against monsters which owe more than a little to Lovecraft. I think all of the WoD sub-lines can be measured as to how much the set up focuses on horror. Werewolf, to my mind, stands right on the edge- a little further and it is just an action game. Certainly I saw that in many local campaigns. Even more than Vampire, WtA could ignore the moral questions and existential horror. Werewolf's interesting in that it definitively establishes a linked "World of Darkness" universe- for better or worse. The immediate reaction by many was to figure out how to work both types together in campaigns despite their enmity.

I don't know much about this game- nor the comic series it was based on. Those comics started in 1896 1986, resulting in this Italian RPG in '91. It has an action oriented bent, though apparently with some borrowing from traditional horror. Considering that Italy gave us Dario Argento, I imagine this game and comic isn't exactly what it appears. I know there was an American movie version a couple of years ago which vanished quickly.

The module was the first of Ianus Publications "alternate reality" books for use with Cyberpunk 2020. These brought horror and supernatural themes to the setting (vampires, voodoo, etc). Later books Grimm's Cybertales, Dark Metropolis, and Night's Edge would expand and refine these concepts. It was the first time we'd seen a company "horror-up" an existing setting. It also fit into the shift in game publication, begun by Vampire of having recommendations and warnings for "Mature Readers."

7. Lost Souls (1992)
Another blip on the horror radar, though one which seems to have been well reviewed at the time. The character play the spirits of the dead trying to accumulate karma. The game describes itself as horror, but I'm not sure if that means that it has elements of the supernatural or it actually tries to establish a scary atmosphere. The blurbs for the game suggest there's a strong does of black humor in it, rather than a serious take on the concept (like the later and quite dark Wraith: The Oblivion (1st Edition)).

Sometimes a game arrives and then vanishes without a sound. Dracula was among those, sitting on the shelves at local stores for years. Leading Edge Games had a strange run of licensed products- none of which really took off. They also did the ALIENS Adventure Game and The Lawnmower Man rpgs plus the Army of Darkness board game. Leading Edge was never a big player and had already established itself with Living Steel as a company of crunch and detail over fun. The review's I've read suggest that while there's some interesting ideas and nice images from the movie, it fails in many other ways. For example the mysteries solving and clue hunting sections seem to be entirely mechanical- with players accumulating solution points. It seems to be simulating vampire hunting like a board game, rather than trying to be a frightening game.

9. SLA Industries (1993)
A Scottish game, SLA had many enthusiastic supporters in our neck of the woods. However I rarely saw it actually run. It presents a far-future dystopia of murder, corporate power, monsters, conspiracy, drugs, and backstabbing. Again, this game leans more heavily to action and black humor over frights for the players. The horror here is visceral and splatterpunk. It is another notable genre mash up with cyberpunk, perhaps suggesting either that the nature of that genre lent itself to that or that gamers who liked CP-style also liked nihilistic violent monsters.

10. Whispering Vault (1993)
This originally came out as a small booklet before being published in a more elaborate form by Pariah Press. It was among a group of marginal, surreal, or weird rpgs which came out in the mid-1990's. I'd include SLA Industries, Everway, HōL, Underground, Nexus, Psychosis: Ship of Fools, and so on. Few of them lasted, but some are remembered fondly. They seemed to reflect changes in the greater geek culture (music videos, Vertigo comics, shifts in mores). In Whispering Vault you play humans recruit to battle against supernatural forces in 'hunts" through a weird landscape- one part Dark Tower, one part Dreamlands, and one part Silent Hill. It had an interesting twist in that characters and adversaries could come from any time. It also had a distinctive art style.

I have a hard time looking at this without snickering. HERO system is among the last games I can imagine actually running a horror scenario with. The slower combat and highly detailed mechanics would get in the way for me as a GM. I'd have to handwave a lot of rules, and at that point why bother using the system. Still HERO made a brave attempt to put together genre books for all of the popular game types out there. I could see perhaps using this as a source for Pulp HERO adventures, but again there the emphasis is on action.

A generic set of rules for modern horror gaming. Players can take any kinds of roles from the clueless to the informed. The focus seems to be on offering a simple set of rules rather than establishing a unique horror gaming world. Has gone through two editions, and there were rumors of a third.

13. Shattered Dreams (1994)
Here players have to enter the dreams of others and battle the nightmares within those. The movie Dreamscape's the most obvious reference point for this. But here some of the dreams and nightmares seem tied to supernatural sources and beings. While it had a couple of supplements, it was another fringe game from a small company which came and went quickly. When I see products like this, I have to wonder how they would have done today. With Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, IPR, and RPGNow allowing different kinds of access and feedback, the authors might have access to more information or lower production costs. We have the term "Heartbreaker Fantasy" to describe fantasy rpgs which hit epic fail in their vision. Is there a term for these kinds of flash-in-the-pan fringe rpg projects?

An ambitious game, and White Wolf's first attempt to offer a ghost-based niche for their World of Darkness (see also Orpheus, Mummy: The Resurrection, and Geist: The Sin Eaters). In some ways, Wraith ends up being a kind of fantasy horror setting given the world-building of the afterlife and the lack of connection with the real world. WW makes the existential horror more confrontational here as players also assume the role of other players' "Shadows." These act against the interests of their original PC.

West End Games is another company which took on odd licensed properties in the 1990's. Like Leading Edge and Steve Jackson, some of these made sense but others covered an incredibly niche line or setting. WG had both Star Wars and Tank Girl. Necroscope is based on the book series by Brian Lumley, a horror author who built his career on Lovecraft pastiche and lifts before finally finding a series that got him more serious attention. When this came out, about nine books of the series had been published. Necroscope has modern horror investigators with psychic powers battling ancient conspiracies. Like the books, the rpg has a heavy dose of espionage. Using the Masterbook system, Necroscope generated four supplements over the three years of publication.

16. GURPS CthulhuPunk (1995)
Going back to look at this, it isn't nearly as bad as I remember it being. Like some of the other games from this period, Cthulhupunk mashes up horror with cyberpunk, but in this case the highly specific Lovecraftian variant. It definitely lifts concepts from the CoC system (Mythos tomes for example) and tries to codify and mechanize the unspeakable. There's always a challenge to bringing a high details system in contact with a setting or genre with significant abstractions. There's something of the problem which comes from giving deities hit points. Still the book spend more time on world set up, ideas of the mythos, and how the creatures of the Mythos could run rampanent in a chrome future. despite being the product of the mid-90's, it feels less dated than many other CP books. There's interesting background and plot hooks which makes this valuable for GMs working in this territory. We've seen more recent takes on these concepts, notably CthulhuTech, so the concept still has tentacles.

17. Nightbane (1995)
Another dark modern setting where the PCs play fantastic monsters battling other fantastic and nightmarish monsters. Originally titled Nightspawn, Palladium had to change the name after Todd MacFarlane threatened a lawsuit. But it isn't Spawn that this borrows from, instead it feels more like it lifts from Clive Barker's Nightbreed. The game is more action-oriented, as are many of the Megaversal rpgs. It feels a little like all of the WoD ideas tumbled together and turned up to 11. The creator, C.J. Carella, would go on to create a number of other significant horror rpgs.

18. GURPS Voodoo (1995)
Besides GURPS Horror, Steve Jackson produced a number of other GURPS supplements with a horror bent- GURPS Monsters, GURPS Blood Types, and GURPS Creatures of the Night. I won't single out all of these in my history, just the few that stand out. GURPS Voodoo is subtitled "The Shadow War" because it isn't like other standard topic sourcebooks. Instead it presents a campaign frame of modern Voudunistas battling it out in a supernatural war. It isn't a book for how to bring Voodoo into other settings and games. The mechanics and details here focus on supporting the narrow campaign presented. It feels like a stand-alone rpg which happened to get published with the GURPS system. Again, C.J. Carella pops up here with a game which feels like a dry-run for Witchcraft.