Thursday, January 11, 2018

Up and Away! My First Icons Characters

In order to get around the ubiquitous D&D Adventurer League events hogging up space at public gaming venues, I've been considering offering to run a superhero game at a neighborhood comic shop. But which system? Superhero gaming is sort of my white whale; a genre I very much enjoy with incredible potential for tabletop play, but I'd yet to find rules that properly clicked. And I've been looking all the way back since Villains & Vigilantes.

A few years ago I had good success with Supers!, but have since found parts of it at odds with my preferences. I took a chance on FASERIP (a retroclone of the 1980's Marvel Superheroes game) and had some fun rolling up characters, but ultimately decided it lacked proper GM support systems. Commentary indicated that Icons was the spiritual successor to Marvel Superheroes so I finally abandoned my resistance* to it and tracked down a copy.

I've got the Green Ronin printing of this ... which has some noticeable typos and editing mistakes. I may get the Ad Infinitum POD just to see if they were corrected.

*Why did I resist Icons for so long? Possibly out of a bizarre notion that Icons was competing for the same niche as Supers! and I had an existing loyalty to Simon Washbourne's work.

On an initial read-through, it looks like Icons is exactly what I've been looking for, a fast and breezy system unhindered by detailed modeling but with strong support for tone and genre tropes, and prompts to encourge creativity rather than procedures that contain it.

As my first glimmer of actual-play, let's see what I get when I roll up character's for the first time (character portraits are snagged off-the-cuff from GIS with no attempt made at attribution):

Quantum Cop

Origin: Transformed

Prowess: 2 (Poor)
Coordination: 4 (Fair)
Strength: 2 (Poor)
Intellect: 6 (Great)
Awareness: 4 (Fair)
Willpower: 6 (Great)

Shrinking: 6 (1" tall, Limit: max only)
Duplication: 4 (Limit: only when shrunk)
Fast Attack: 6 (Limit: only when shrunk)
Leaping: 4 (about a city block, Limit: only when shrunk)


"Always on the case"
"Lack of funding keeps me clever"
"Never truly know where I am"

Determination: 2
Stamina: 8

A brilliant and dedicated but unassuming forensic lab scientist, Phoebe Boson was ambushed in her lab one night by criminals out to destroy damning evidence she'd uncovered in their case. Locking her in an experimental quantum-scanning device to create an "accident," the rays of the machine instead imbued her with the ability to express quantum characteristics. After foiling her attackers, Phoebe now serves as the mysterious special agent Quantum Cop.

This was a pleasing result for my first try at the char-gen system. Definitely a concept I didn't have in mind going in and was happily surprised to end up with. I confess, to get the final result to match the crystallized image, I freely tweaked the results, trading in some attribute and power levels and adding the "only when shrunk" limit to buy the Leaping power, which isn't actually how the char-gen system works RaW. I'd allow (even encourage) such trading in a game I ran, but other referees may not be so flexible.

R.E.C.O.N. (Robotic Extreme Combat Operations Nocturnal)

Origin: Artificial

Prowess: 2 (Poor)
Coordination: 5 (Good)
Strength: 5 (Good)
Intellect: 6 (Great)
Awareness: 7 (Incredible)
Willpower: 5 (Good)

Adaptation: 7
Detection: 3 (Heat)
Life Support: 5 (No need to breath, eat, drink, sleep and immune to disease)

Military, Expert
Weapons (firearms)

"Mission objectives ... targeted"
"A two-hundred million dollar asset"
"Just because it's war doesn't mean we can't be civil"

Determination: 2
Stamina: 10

An android built to survey and survive even the most extreme of battlefield conditions, with secondary roles as sniper and ambusher (often serving with counterpart units A.R.M.O.R. and S.T.R.I.K.E.). After several years of experience, R.E.C.O.N. has developed a professional pride in its performance and a unexpectedly personable demeanor (it enjoys trivia contests and collecting knock-knock jokes).

I like this one as well, but it took a bit more effort to get it to solidify. Again, I freely tweaked on the fly to bring things together. Particularly, I trashed a couple rolls that gave power ratings of 1 (I don't even see why that's a possible result, since there's no compensation) and swapped the +2 Strength bonus that comes with the Artificial origin for +2 Awareness in line with the reconnaissance role. In the end, though I ended up with an interesting character, R.E.C.O.N. works better as a NPC or antagonist than a player-hero.

Dame Diamond 

Origin: Gimmick

Prowess: 5 (Good)
Coordination: 6 (Great)
Strength: 5 (Good)
Intellect: 5 (Good)
Awareness: 5 (Good)
Willpower: 4 (Fair)

Binding: 4 (Device: confetti cane; Extra: Burst)
Swinging: 4 (Device: confetti cane)

Performance (dancing)
Martial Artist
Sleight of Hand

"Wealth and fame I do Not ignore"
"Always looks good doing it"
"Knows who to know in theater"

Diana Karat was a multi-talented performer too good for the hack magician she was stuck serving as assistant to. When she learned his show was just cover for lucrative heists, she leapt into action (with full stage costume and props) to personally thwart his scheme (and not incidentally use the resulting arrest to break her contract). Flattered by the stunning front-page photos her exploit earned, she decided to pursue the crime-fighting gig full-time.

After ending up with a police officer and soldier, I began this character aiming for something decidedly non-institutional, so I deemed they'd be an artist before even touching the dice. Unsurprisingly I went with a dancer (it's a bit hard to justify an action-adventure sculptor). I like this flashy and well-rounded character who is much more of a broadly capable "adventurer" than the previous two. I don't recall nudging anything in char-gen, but the "gimmick" origin revealed I'd prefer a bit more explicit consequences and trade-offs for device-based powers. I suppose it could be argued that the vulnerabilities that come with a device are offset by versatility (Dame Diamond can just loan her Confetti Cane to anyone who needs it) so it's not really the issue I perceive it as; too much min-maxing instinct in me.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Buying a Yacht, But Paddling a Kayak.

Here's  a New Year's confession: when someone declares they're playing a heavy traditional roleplaying game like Pathfinder or GURPS, I don't really believe them. Not to say I think they're lying; I agree they're really roleplaying, and they're guiding that process using means gleaned from the text they're referencing. But they're not actually using all the rules implied by invoking the full sytem title. Because over decades of gaming I've come to repeatedly observe the following:

Given play centered around a multi-hundred page rules text, 90% of play will actually use only 10% of the official rules, and pushing play into that other 90% of rules will only produce about 10% as much fun for the participants.

Thus I regard traditional "big book" roleplaying texts as inherently ... futile, I'll say. I've never actually observed, in one-shots or campaigns, either as a player or GM, a big-book rule system that didn't in practice get whittled down to little more than just action checks, damage rolls, and whatever few broad-strokes setting points were needed to justify the wild schemes and monster hunts the players always ended up pursuing (in other words, about the same thing as a twenty-page rules-light system). Note, I don't think there's anything wrong with playing this way; in fact I feel accepting this practical upper limit on mechanical consensus only make things better for everyone involved. But somehow, despite all this, the commercial counterpart to this hobby keeps finding an audience for big texts that I think are mostly going ignored.

Perhaps I'm blinded by my preferences; I openly prefer light games, minimal stat-lines and lots of room for at-the-table improvisation and rulings. And I admit, I've heard second-hand of people playing mechanically expansive games like Burning Wheel and Champions with all the gears engaged. But I've played Burning Wheel myself (run by the author no less) and in those sessions, we ignored most of the small text on the character sheets and just threw dice like most other games.

A caveat I'll allow is that there's usually at least one participant who is very much into something in that outer 90% of rules. A player who's all about the magic system or another who's all about the personality mechanics, or a GM who dives into the tech-building processes. but those are effectively sub-games maintained by just those people; the group as a whole doesn't engage with those rules any more than is needed to validate the enthusiasts' contribution to play.

A tiny little book about vampires, from the blog On Being a Mini Mum.
Because something something rules light.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Meet the Gang, the Star-Travelling Gang

Allow me to introduce the expeditionary party from Pan-Ravenna University (PRU), a crack team of self-directed academics and support personnel with the skills and experience for pro-active archeology, daring sociological research, and dynamically finding solutions to their requirements for equipment and funding in the field (or, as baseless vicious rumor would phrase it, shameless ruin-raiders committing crimes of bribery, intimidation, assault, theft and looting far from the oversight of the deans of PRU).

Take a look and judge for yourself (pdf link).

For several years now, I've presented this regular set of pre-generated PC's at my Stars Without Number convention sessions. Though the concepts have stayed consistent, I've revised them several times statistically, narratively and in presentation. The biggest change is that originally I wrote up these character's as neutral as possible. Just stats, no personality or motivations, on the assumption that would leave room for the players to turn the characters into what they wanted. But in practice players were eager for ready behavioral hooks to launch off from, so I added some flavor in part based on how I'd seen these characters played already. I still have the players come up with their own names and appearances, though (note that descriptions are also gender neutral).

So far, no expedition of the PRU team has looked like this...
Mechanically, these are all mostly standard 1st edition SWN 3rd level characters, which I find to be the sweet-spot when running OSR games at conventions (capable enough to have a couple tricks to choose from, sturdy enough to take a solid hit and keep standing, but still limited enough to require shrewdness and teamwork). I've incorporated the higher skill point advancement suggested by Kevin Crawford, and bumped the attributes up a touch from natural-roll results. Also, I've tinkered with the background and training package to make them more colorful and given each character one unique piece of gear with a enigmatic description of subjective utility, which has turned out to be a rich inspiration for player improvisation (I've seen a whole session hinge around the Space Marine's crystal alien pet).

... but quite a few looked like this.

I only run tables for up to six players, but offer eight characters to choose from so there's plenty of variety for everyone and the choices made can indicate how I should tune the scenario (everybody took the Warriors but nobody took the Psychics? okay, time to set up a bunch of combats). But still, making the party a research team with wide discretion on a far-away survey mission seemed a good way to keep options open for a wide variety of scenarios. Rather than being mercenaries all about battle or merchants only looking for profit, these folks can get caught up in anything from "the Dean at PRU orders you to go investigate the Bloody Murder Planet," to "you're broke and stuck in a backwater starport, and you need to figure out a way out of here," or the classic "the local Mafia King has a Shiny Pre-Tech Dingus that would look really good in the PRU museum (and win you a healthy commission)." I'm sure I'll convert these characters to SWN 2nd edition when the time comes, and continue to offer them to players for years.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Landsscape of the Imagination ... with Dice

It feels so dignified to be the subject of a portrait.

While I was running my "Terrible Thunder Lizards" scenario for Stars Without Number at Fear the Con X last weekend, unknown to me Jeb Brack was sitting behind us painting the whole tableau of the game-in-progress.

Since we're all middle-aged nerds, this probably mostly still counts as a Still Life.

The reveal of the work at the end was a humbling surprise; I'm glad I happened to be wearing a colorful shirt that day. Mr. Brack is amiable to sending me a full scan, so I'll likely get to have this framed on the wall of my home gaming parlor before too long.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

So it Began

Talking with folk at last weekend's DieCon, I was reminded that my initiation into tabletop roleplaying seems to be atypical of most others in the OSR audience.

As a kid in the 1980's, I didn't have a an older brother or wargaming uncle (or venerable SF-fandom aunt) to show me how to throw my first d20, nor a hobby/SF/Computer/AV club to hang out with. Growing up literally isolated in the hills, I didn't have many friends to hang out with at all, so if there were kids caught up in the (by that point waning) D&D fad in my area, I never met them. What I did have though was a TV and a heedless dedication to adventure cartoons. So my introduction to "Dungeons & Dragons" was the eponymous Saturday morning show. And that show was amazing back then (actually, it still holds up pretty well even today). 

Episode 16 The City at the Edge of Midnight

Of course, though it was great entertainment, the cartoon wasn't at all good at conveying what D&D actually was. Somehow, probably general pop-culture osmosis, I got the insight that D&D was originally a game ... but at the time and at that age, "games" meant to me either boring old boardgames like Monopoly and Scrabble, or hot exciting computer games (mostly in arcades), and I had never seen Dungeons & Dragons in either of those contexts. Eventually however, I caught the right ad and I finally knew what D&D really was: a bulky squawking castle-shaped slab that you moved an adventurer around trying to find the treasure before the dragon got you and the buzzer went off.

Yes, that was what little-me thought the show (and all those D&D action figures and comics and coloring books) was based on.

But wait, it gets even goofier: the first roleplaying book I ever bought was the 1st edition Monster Manual, but only in an act of complete misapprehension. Through the 80's, parapsychology was still a fad, and "non-fiction" books listing monsters and ghosts were common, particularly illustrated ones written in list-format directed at kids like myself. So when I found the Monster Manual in a hobby shop, I took it for another encyclopedia of monsters for its own sake, albeit with spectacularly involved stat spreads (sorta like baseball cards). As for the "D&D" branding on the cover ... well, it was a time of Battlestar Galactica beach towels and Kool-Aid video games; trade dress often had nothing to do with function. 

Really, with that great cover image, it's surprising I ever got around to even reading the title.
Eventually enough clues piled up that I figured out, "oh, this is a paper & pencil version of Rogue ... and I can play it without a computer!" Like I said, I'd met computer games first, and played uncounted hours of the ASCII-dungeon game Rogue on a primordial desktop (which both gave me a head-start on a lot of D&D's concepts but a lot of incorrect notions about others).

Still prefer it over Nethack; that little dog is a pain.

Entranced by the boundless possibilities, next birthday I asked for the Red Box Basic set, much to my father's chagrin. He was distressed at my persistent interest in monsters and science fiction and fantasy, things he thought I had to grow away from in order to become a real man (he was already annoyed I'd wasted all that time on the computer playing Rogue instead of learning how to make spreadsheets). So I was disappointed but not surprised when the celebratory day came and went without the requested gift. But the next day, my mother conspiratorially handed me a brand new Red Box. She said they just forgot to bring it out with other presents, but I suspect there was a behind-the-scenes showdown and late visit to the hobby store in defiance of the old man's gruff. Thanks mom, you're the best.

So there it is, I'm a testament to successful media licensing.

Where it all started ... eventually.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Casting Woo onto the Dice

The annual Pagan Picnic is this weekend here in St Louis. Though I long ago filed away witchcraft, wicca, faery magic and other pagan revivalism into the category of "benign bullshit," I yet still love to participate in gatherings dominated by such magical thinking and perspectives. The vibe is just so positive, the craftwork so sincere and the community so welcoming. I'll even buy the occasional Green Man or Artemis icon just to be supportive.

Official event photo, credit unknown

Another thing it quickens is a particular sense of nostalgia, one integral to my approach to roleplaying. I don't hear it often mentioned anymore, but some of the earliest adopters of Dungeons & Dragons after it got away from the war-gamers were Medievalists (SCA'dians, Renaissance Fest actors) and late-era bohemians, especially the one's heavily into Tolkien and pantheistic spiritualism. Though by the time I found roleplaying it was not physically present in the circles I gamed in, their foundational influence was still a big part of the culture. Articles and rulebooks would discuss running campaigns taking more-than-casual inspiration from history, ancient art and "personal discovery." It was an approach that resonated with me, much more so than play focused on combat or advancement-hunting, because it was reaching, however vaguely, for something sublime. Not to say it was dourly serious-minded; these were the folks who loved Monty Python, after all.

As far as I've seen, contemporary game texts don't really acknowledge that flavor of "Woo" anymore ("woo" meaning a soft, non-rigorous belief in magic, a bit of harmless irrationality). Sometimes I wonder if it all got drawn off into then used up by the Gothic aesthetic of the World of Darkness. Todays' tabletop culture seems largely dominated by hackers and collectors, builders of spreadsheets and action figure archives, not a tarot card reader to be found. Sometimes I ache to experience a game with a little old-tyme magik in it, and I don't mean a spell list.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

200 Words and a Coupla' Coins

These are Quadrans, You'll get it in a moment.

I threw an entry into this year's 200 Word RPG Challenge, mainly because I'd recently sketched out something that fit the parameters. Didn't win any accolades, and I didn't expect to, since what I submitted wasn't all that ambitious, didn't have an inherent theme and mechanically was boringly traditional (though I do feel it was at least a bit clever). But it was something I actually conceived and finished and there's a mote of pride in that.

My submission, Cast a Quadrans, started as a private joke years ago, abruptly developed last month in a post on (where it was called Heads You Win) and then upon the announcement of the contest was revised into something I could actually see playing before submission. The rules are deliberately open to interpretation but, I feel, absolutely playable, and all you need to run it are a couple coins. If I ever do a "2E," I'm tempted to expand the range up to three coins.

The official Cast a Quadrans character sheet.