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 RPG.net (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.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Consumed by Consumerism

I didn't think I had  problem, until...

Though generally aware I'd been steadily acquiring game books lately, when I realized I couldn't even find enough space on my desk between the looming stacks to fill out a notecard, it was time to take stock. So I piled together every roleplaying volume I could remember buying over the last twelve months, and here's what I got:
Covers plenty of floor space, but not as fluffy as a carpet.

Oog. And I probably missed a few. The most ironic part is I'm pretty sure a year ago I entertained aspirations of "evolving" past the need for published materials and even purging my library. Not the first time I've felt that way, and not the first time it faltered entirely.

The thing of it is, my modest buying strictures and habits haven't changed, but I've experienced a dramatic increase in opportunities that match them. I cringe at the thought of paying fifty bucks for a rulebook (or worse, a hundred or more for a boxed set) but I now live in an area with two Half-Price Books and the storefront for Miniature Market which has plenty of discounted games (note many of the volumes in the above picture still have their reduced price tags on them). On top of that, I'm closer to many more game conventions than I used to be, giving me direct access to creators I already follow (there was quite a haul carried back from Gary Con IX). Also I'm more connected through online networks than before, so I'm catching publisher discounts, Lulu coupons and even notable Ebay listings more often. So both physically and online old curiosities (Middle-Earth Roleplaying, Palladium Fantasy) are crossing my path along with idle interests (Fate, 13th Age) that were previously beyond my acceptable price range. Also, kickstarter is a seductive harpy.

Combine all that with my strong archival instinct and ... well, time to add a new wing to the Library o' Gaming.

Maybe one or two of these books has seen actual use at a table so far, which is embarrassing because I'm often chiding other people for their poor own-to-play ratios. I haven't even fully read most of them, though at least they've all gotten thorough skims.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

I've Probably Peaked

My previous post about Marc Miller and Traveller has garnered more views than anything else I've ever posted here (and possibly anything I've ever posted anywhere). I'd love to follow it up immediately to reward the attention of the many fine and wonderful people who've newly stopped by Trollbones [in other words, capitalize on the audience building], but I'm a bit busy heading off to another gaming con' this weekend, Forge Midwest (amusingly like last week's Gary Con, also in Wisconsin) so I won't have time to put together another detailed post for a while.

I guess the glory of Milwaukee keeps calling to me.
Source: olsonj

But I do have some interesting stuff planned for when I can next get back for a long sit at the keyboard:

  • Similar to the Marc Miller post, notes from Jeff Dee, who also offered a Q&A seminar at Gary Con IX, and also refereed a game I had the fortune of attending.
  • Comparisons of my recent experiences playing several different superhero RPG's: Hideouts & Hoodlums, Savage Worlds, Marvel Super Heroes and Villains & Vigilantes 3rd edition. 
  • A retrospective on TWERPS, "The World's Easiest Roleplaying System" of the 90's, my happy experiences with it and what I've recently learned about it's history. 
  • A critical review of Stars Without Number, how it's played for me, why I like it, what I think its flaws are and what I'd like to see change for its upcoming 2nd edition.
  • Heads You Win, a satirical yet totally playable role-play rule system that fits complete on a single 4" x 6" note-card.
  • Maaayyybe finally getting back to that comparison of XP systems I started last month.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mr. Miller's Remarks

Image originally posted by catsonkeyboards

Friday morning at Gary Con IX, I attended a seminar hosted by Marc Miller, lead creator of Traveller. It turned out to be a modest affair, fewer than ten people, so Marc had us all pull in close and provided rare opportunity to ask him direct questions. In particular, since I've been reading the "Out of the Box" series on Tales to Astound, I was curious about the evolution of Traveller from a generic sandbox generator to a game specifically about the Third Imperium setting, and was able to put the matter to him directly a couple times.

Naturally, Marc mainly wanted to promote his current work, Traveller5, particularly a basic beginner-friendly version he'd like to produce, but he was still willing to share his memories of the old days.

I suspect some of these anecdotes are familiar to folks who've heard Marc talk about Traveller before; I certainly recognized some of his words as near-verbatim repeats of old essays of his. I'm no journalist, I was merely jotting down long-hand interesting discourse as it came up, so mostly these are the highlights of the talk organized roughly by subject, not by Q-and-A or chronologically, and quotes below should be taken as paraphrasing.

Creating Traveller

Marc Miller's inspirational reading was a stack of old coverless pulp magazines. As a young graduate he'd buy them one at a time from a local newstand when he couldn't afford any other entertainment.

The organization of the LBB's directly emulated original white-box D&D. "I'd finish a chapter then flip through the D&D booklets to see what part I should write next."

The distinctive minimalist visual style of the original set came about largely because the graphic designer (Paul R. Banner, I assume) didn't want to spend much time on it, as they were more interested in another GDW project they were responsible for, the wargame Europa.

The iconic imperial sunburst was another example of graphic expedience; it was copied from the wargame Iliad: the Siege of Troy where it had represented the god Apollo.

Though the popularity of D&D was undeniable, the potential for a wider field of role-playing games was unproven, so GDW pursued their science fiction game with guarded ambitions. Traveller was an unexpected success. "We hoped it would sell 2,000 copies, then we reached 10,000."

Growth and Development

The core game wasn't designed with expansion in mind, so its systems are largely self-contained. But when its popularity presented a market for adventures, GDW felt a structured setting was needed to give those adventures context, thus the Imperium was developed. [I wish I'd time to pursue Miller further about this process, particularly why he felt published adventures required a large-scale inter-connected setting rather than self-contained scenarios.] 

There was early resistance to the expansion of Traveller past the core game. Marc particularly remembers game reviewer Louis Pulver(?) complaining "I won't play a game the tells me what to do," when official setting material started to appear. 

Buyers demand expansions they'll never use, so designing for the market is not the same thing as designing for actual play. "They want thirty pages of combat rules, but will never run more than a brawl using five of them."

Traveller: 2300 / 2300AD was originally conceived as Traveller's replacement. Miller and GDW assumed interest in the original game would wane with age, losing it's market. 2300 was their take on modernized space adventure role-playing for a contemporary audience.

Opinions and Insights

Things got a little fraught when discussion turned to modern SF literature and Marc's opinions of such. He talked about sampling current works, but still prefers straightforward action-and-engineering tales to esoteric socially-focused stories. The tension came when he openly referred to authors of award-winning stories that lacked ray-guns and spaceships as "social justice warriors" and some of the audience reacted negatively (me included) to the disparaging implication, to his mild surprise. He pointed out that he's proud to have broached non-binary gender in his latest Traveller novel, but the way he discussed it indicates he still feels that's a subject best dealt with obliquely. My interpretation of the whole uncomfortable exchange was that Marc Miller didn't mean "SJW" with the full vehemence that gutter-scum like the Sad Puppies and GamerGaters do, and probably wasn't fully aware of that context. He sees himself as liberal-minded, but it's in an old-hand way, "a little edgy."

Marc was refreshingly frank about parts of Traveller's publishing history that misfired. He dismissed High Guard for its long statline that was too unwieldy to actually use, and says outright that Fire Fusion and Steel "didn't work."

I directly asked him for his reaction to players going back to a "three LBB's only" approach, who feel that the Third Imperium and its expectations make for a very different game than Traveller originally was. More or less, he shrugged and said it's fine if people want to do that, but he likes writing about the Imperium so it will continue to be part of his vision of Traveller.

Never did successful roll up a character with a Type S Scout. Source.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Paper & Pencils

Hey, let's talk stationary!

I'm still a analog thinker, so I prefer developing ideas with pencil-on-paper, especially gaming ideas. However, I have spent years trying to find a style of notebook that didn't frustrate me somehow. Partly this was because I'm left-handed thus traditional formats are a struggle to handle, but also I wanted something that was malleable yet durable, portable yet large enough to hold a couple full paragraphs per page and economical without being shoddy. The usual string of contradictions, I suppose.

Turns out the best solution (so far) is a prosaic one: 5" x 8" junior legal pads, specifically Professional Junior style with double-thick backboards (and a self-contrary label of great amusement).
My preferred brand.

Someday I'll splurge on the fancy colors.

I think these things are great, avoiding all the hassles I've had with binders, journals, disc-spines and whatever. First, with the binding on top my crocked writing hand isn't always bumping into a spine. They're small enough I can fit them into the side-pocket of any shoulder bag and also pop them in a ziplock to waterproof them. I can easily rip out pages when I need a scratch sheet or want to yank out ideas for development, yet I haven't had any problem with pages falling off (yet). A single page is big enough to hold a character, location or even a succinct scenario but small enough I can brainstorm at a train station or in a lobby.

A fun side effect is that, since they come in cheap packs of eight or more, I've taken to just jumping to a new pad when I start to develop a new large concept like a whole game or campaign. After the initial burst of brainstorming I leave the pad on my home desk and, if I have later ideas, I rip them out of my current notepad and put them under the previous brainstorming pad, a nice process of simple organization. Also, it's finally gotten me in the habit of regularly harvesting notes from my carry bag so I'm not going to misplace them again to a another lost or stolen bag.

The tools in action.

My only complaint is that I'd prefer graph grids so I could make maps easier, but Professional Junior Legals pads are only conveniently available in lined format. Grid pads do exist, but they aren't stocked in local stores and as far as I found don't have the double-thick backing.


If you're curious about my preferred writing implement, it's a mechanical pencil using 1.3mm lead, specifically an over-sized Paper Mate model with a triangular profile. Cheap but durable and refillable. Really easy to grip, doesn't cramp my hand, the sturdy lead doesn't break and it literally forces me to think in broad strokes.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Volcano Kings of Antarctica

The ancient Earth is drowning in the frozen cosmic night, its once staid orbit radically precessed by a long forgotten interplanetary mischance. The last refuge of mankind is a twilight continent grasping at feeble rays from a mortally wounded sun. All else of the old globe is blasted and entombed in shadow and ice, haunted by mad monsters, remnants of interstellar infestations. But upon the auster pole, enough warmth still falls from the erratically reeling sun to let water flow, and upon this sparse foothold the Volcano Kings have built their stalwart realms. Masters of primordial geo-sorcerous power, the Kings were able to draw up energy from the utter depths to warm their lands, build their cities and drive back the freezing monstrosities. Of course, their rule is not harmonious, as the Kings each hold their realm jealously and crave to add all the others to their own. Barbarian tribes prowl the frontier, calling up inhuman spirits to pursue war amongst themselves and boiling forth to raid the volcano-cities. Within those lava-illuminated city walls it is no more tranquil, as the noble-minded, the ambitious and the merely greedy (and more than few of the outright mad) all maneuver against each other, hoping to seize advantage in this last bastion of humanity.  And from the outermost dark the cold monsters still come, with ever growing boldness savaging and slaughtering, and plotting with what some see as a distressingly developing intelligence.

Volcano Castle by JamesHillGallery, Devinat Art
I was skimming through GORE last night, a open source iteration of "Basic Role Playing," wondering what use the rules could be put towards, when the above campaign context took fast form in my mind. I can see myself putting together a 40 to 60 page text out of this with a slimmed-down version of GORE as the rules base, a fun little sword & sorcery setting in the "dying earth" milieu.

The title "Volcano Kings of Antarctica" has actually been sitting around in my idea bin for a while.

My initial version was more pulpy, set in the 1920's in a jungle cavern-world beneath the polar continent, populated by Lemurians (the titular Volcano Kings) sealed off from the outside world since prehistoric times and with giant insects filling all the ecological niches. The starting point would be a contemporary university expedition literally dropped into this setting, only to discover the harsh-but-stable society of the ancients in an uproar due to a WWI German submarine and its crew who had been similarly drop-punted into the troglodyte lands half-a-decade or so earlier. The Germans, led by their sinister scarred and be-monocled Captain have used their technical expertise to ally with the cruelest Volcano King, pushing for war so they can seize the secrets of the miraculous volcano-science from all the other Volcano Kings and then use it to return to the outside world ... and conquer it all! 

I had some notion of a subtext of tension between innovation/discovery used for tribalism versus the general betterment of humanity, but mainly it was a blood-and-spectacle Pellucidar-pastiche allowing for a variety of characters in a sandbox-style campaign (I'd never specify how many people are in the initial expedition, and set up the initial entrance point as the "base town"). I was looking towards a hack of OD&D/S&W White Box to run it.

Honestly, I still think the pulp version of VKoA is more unique, but I didn't manifest the enthusiasm to develop it like I have for the S&S version. I suspect largely because settings feel more limiting the closer they get to chronicled history, even if they're off  in a Lost World. I just feel an obligation to make a token effort to acknowledge historical facts ("this character is a veteran of the Ottoman campaign ... what battles would he have likely experienced, what languages would he have been exposed to?") and that's, well, effort rather than fun. Likewise, with the German engineering as a central theme, I'd feel the obligation to make my descriptions of geothermal plants and steel mills at least passably realistic, something I don't have to worry about when I get to focus more on mood and invention.

Oh, my opinion on GORE? Mixed at best. The Chaosium house system has never been my first choice (I tried hard to get into Elric! back in the 90's but it didn't take, and my experiences with Call of Cthulhu and Runequest have always been frustrating). And GORE itself is terribly organized; for instance, rules necessary for character creation and combat are spread throughout the text, despite both those subjects having chapters dedicated to them. So as a game unto itself, I wouldn't recommend it. However, as an open source repository it has utility, since all that data can be easily remixed and expanded to suit one's purposes, and BRP is a thoroughly tested role play system. I can remove out all the modern-day rules, aggressively reorganize the remaining parts then add on new setting-appropriate systems and Volcano Kings of Antarctica would be a game anyone with any sort of Chaosium experience would recognize. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Couple Ideas for Alternate uses of XP

Still musing about Experience Points since my last post, here's a couple ideas I've had for supplemental ways to use them in Swords & Wizardry and other OSR games.

Magic Item Creation

This is actually a misapprehension turned around into a functioning mechanic. Back in the old days, though my rulebooks were BECMI D&D, I still picked up a lot of AD&D supplements because I was eager for material and there was so much more of the AD&D stuff available. Mostly I ignored the minor stat differences, but when enigmas like "non-weapon proficiences" and "3/2" attacks with no precedent in BECMI got in the way, I just made a wild guess. This included the XP values listed for magic items, which for some reason I surmised were costs players had to pay for wielding the items ("You're taking the sword +1? Alright Jerry, subtract 400 XP from your sheet") rather than a reward for finding it amongst monetary treasure (I suspect due to my notion that AD&D was "advanced" because it harshly penalized characters for every advantage).

Actually, this makes sense if applied to magic-users creating those magic items. In addition to spending time and gold, they need to give up a portion of their essence to give the item power, represented by the XP cost. I'd just use the XP values from AD&D (yes I did finally get those rulebooks) maybe doubled or tripled. Also, I'd limit PC magic-users to the creation of one durable magic item per class level, to avoid them spamming out bushels of +1 daggers rather than ever leveling up. They can still create as many potions and scrolls as they can afford, with no XP cost.

Raising Attributes

 I'll have more to say about Earthdawn's sharply eccentric advancement system and how it compares to old-school D&D, but for now I'd like to swipe it's XP-for-attribute-raises mechanic. The unchanging nature of attributes in old-school D&D occasionally perturbs me, so it's an easy fix to let players impede their long-term "skill" gains via levels for the short-term benefits of attributes. Eyeballing it, I'd rule that, once every class level, a character can raise an attribute of their choice one point for the cost of 500 xp per point of the new attribute rating; going from Strength 8 to Strength 9 would thus set the character back 4,500 XP. I like that this gives the player a way out of being stuck with a attribute forever on the cusp of a modifier threshold, though I imagine it opens up an exploit if the GM is offering XP bonuses for high attributes (I don't). 

And now to prevent this post from just being a wall of text, here's a picture of a stolid ranger by Caitlyn Kurilich, who looks like they've advanced a few levels: