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 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.