Monday, May 18, 2015

[Obscure Games]WarpWorld

One of the better small game companies out there is Blacksburg Tactical Research Center, or BTRC. They started out with a game called TimeLords, following that up with two games using the same system (and at least three other main game systems, CORPS, EABA, and Macho Women With Guns, not even counting their minor efforts like Epiphany, but I won't be talking much about those today), SpaceTime and WarpWorld. TimeLords was a game of time travel, in which the players became unmoored in time through the influence of a super-tech artifact. SpaceTime mixed space operatic adventure with gritty cyberpunk aesthetics. WarpWorld, the last of the games using the system, postulated a post-apocalyptic world in which magic returns to our world, causing immense havoc. The setting has since been retooled for use with BTRC's current system of focus, EABA, but this overview will discuss the original version. Except for the setting-specific elements, the rules are largely similar between the three games, and I'll try to quickly run through the other two at the end. Notable here is that the company's supplement, Guns, Guns, Guns (aka 3G), was written with this system in mind, and so the weapon statistics generated there drop into this system with no adjustments needed.

BTRC was clearly influenced strongly by GURPS, but wanted to give more detail to the game. Also, the designer has a few… peeves, shall we say, about the math involved in games. They weren't apparently strong peeves, since the ideas were dropped in later BTRC games, in favor of playability.

That's an important thing starting out: this is a complex game. It is for people who really like to work out detailed results, using sometimes complex arithmetic and even simple equations. If you don't like that sort of thing, then these three games are not for you. Me, I like that sort of thing in theory, but when it comes to actually playing games I'm not really likely to use these sorts of systems.

The setting assumes a short nuclear conflict on September 6, 2016, after which the world changes irrevocably for unknown reasons. Whether because of the enormous energies released or because of the millions of near-simultaneous deaths, the Old Gods return to the world, bringing magic with them and artificially limiting technology. Along with magic, elves, ogres, dwarves, and the like start to appear, as well. In some ways, the setting is like Shadowrun, only with all of the technology reduced. Because of the influence of the Old Gods, items of a "Tech Level" higher than a certain value are suppressed after being noticed. There is a system to indicate how high a Tech Level is available at any given time (it fluctuates due to certain factors), and how long it takes for use of such technology to be noticed and shut down. Further, there are some magical ways to limit the ability of the Old Gods to notice tech, though not with any long-term effectiveness.

Character creation is by spending points for attributes, skills, and advantages, while more points can be gained by taking disadvantages. If desired, a character can be designated a race other than human, taking attribute modifiers and acquiring special abilities and limitations as appropriate. The races are supposed to be relatively balanced out, so there are no point costs involved. There is an optional rule for "halfbreed" characters, whose parents are of two different races, but in the basic game setting this is not considered to be possible. The attributes for a character are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Willpower, Bravado (a measure of the character's bluffing ability), Perception, Appearance, Stamina, and Power (for magic/psychic abilities). There are other abilities that derive from these or other character elements (such as Body Points being derived from the character's mass in kg, with mass being derived from the character's Strength and a die roll for height, cross-indexed on a chart). There are a few templates designed to make creating a character a bit easier, but mainly it's going to take some effort. The system in TimeLords is slightly different, including a number of tests to administer to the players in order to allow them to quantify themselves in game terms, so that they would end up playing themselves (at least until that character was lost for whatever reason), though the point-buy system exists there, too, just in case.

One important feature of the game, and the subject of the math peeve to which I referred above, is the way modifiers are used. Rather than simply adding to or subtracting from a value, a modifier is effectively a percentage modification. That is, a +1 doesn't add 1 to your score, it multiplies your score by 1.05, each +1 or -1 being a 5% adjustment. This is correlated on a handy table called the "Universal Modifier Chart" (or UMC) that serves a number of purposes, so it is at least usable. The designer does this because, as he notes, a simple modifier has a different effect on differing levels of skill. A simple +5 would double the chances for a rating of 5, while only increasing a rating of 10 by 50%. One of the other major uses of the UMC is to determine the effect of an injury. For instance, if a person with 28 body points was hit by a weapon with a damage of 7, a cross-index of the chart would show a result of 5 (= 25%, see how that works?), giving a Damage Level of 5.

Using skills in the game is fairly simple. Find the base level of the skill, apply modifiers according to the UMC, and roll a d20 for that value or less. Some skill uses are automatic (the example given is climbing a ladder, where you could work up modifiers and roll on the Climb skill, or just specify that anyone with a 2 or greater Climb skill makes it automatically - and since the average person has a base skill level of around 3 in everything, that's pretty much everyone). There is a list of the "auto-success" levels for various difficulties, and to the game's credit it extends the idea all the way up to amazingly hard events like shooting a coin out of the air. There's a mechanism for figuring out how some skills can assist others in particular situations (the example is making leather armor, which would be based on Seamster skill, but could be assisted by the Tanner skill). Oh, yeah, there are a lot of skills. When I was young, I thought that sort of thing was cool, but these days I am less fond of such attempts to find a comprehensive list of relatively narrow skills.

Magic assumes that each spell is a skill. Casting multiple spells uses up the character's ability to concentrate, represented by the WILL attribute (and other activities use up concentration, too). More or less the same system, though not as detailed, is used in both TimeLords and SpaceTime for psychic/psionic powers. There are a lot of things that magic can do, but they are carefully described in game terms. There are some rules for enchanting objects, with different materials having a different ability to take an enchantment. Since black powder falls pretty well within the level of tech usually permitted by the Old Gods, enchanted pistols are pretty common.

Combat is divided into turns of 10 seconds, each turn having 10 phases. A character can act in a number of phases equal to half (rounded up) of their Speed. Speed is based on the average of Strength and Dexterity for physical actions, or Intelligence for mental ones like magic. There is a chart indicating on which phases characters of various Speeds may act. It is possible to act on other phases, but such actions take a negative modifier. Initiative within a phase is based on the average of Speed and the skill being used, plus or minus appropriate modifiers (not using the UMC for once). Hitting a target is a skill roll, but there are a ton of modifiers for specific circumstances.

When hit, a character takes a base damage of the weapon's DV/10 in d10, plus extra as dice. So, if a weapon has a DV of 28, the roll for damage would be 2d10+1d8. Odd results like 5 or 9 are still rolled as d5 or d9, by rolling the next higher die and rerolling inappropriate results (or, I'd imagine, if you happen to have the appropriate dice lying around, you could use those). Depending on the type of weapon, some of this damage will be Lethal, and some Non-Lethal. Weapons like knives and bullets do all Lethal damage, while maces do 3/4 as Lethal, wooden clubs do half as Lethal, and so on. This is modified for armor at the area hit (which might only convert some Lethal damage to Non-Lethal), and then converted to a Damage Level for that location using the UMC as noted above. In the basic system, the Damage Level is used as an Impairment modifier for any use of the affected area, and to check if the character falls unconscious, lays dying, or dies instantly. The more complex system has an extensive list of hit locations, damage levels, and a die roll to give a detailed wound result incorporating Impairment, Stun, Broken Bones, Eventually Fatal, and Fatal results. Personally, of detailed injury systems that don't rely on Hit Points, I prefer the system found in Hârnmaster, but this one is serviceable.

TimeLords, as I mentioned above, is about the players themselves being cast into the streams of Time by an artifact, which they must attempt to learn to control in order to find their way home - or to wherever/whenever else they wish to go. The game book includes the character sheets of the original playtest group.

SpaceTime suffers from trying to be both a cyberpunk game and a space opera. This was a problem with 2300AD (aka Traveller 2300), as well, but not as severely because of its focus on the frontiers. Still, it's interesting enough as such settings go. If you like star travel and computer hacking, then the setting (at least) might be worth a look.

As you can tell, the game system is very detailed and very complex. There is more, obviously, such as wilderness survival rules and so on. The setting, on the other hand, is potentially very interesting. Happily, BTRC, as I noted in passing above, has retooled it for use with their current system of focus, EABA, which is a much simpler game (and I think stands for "End All, Be All"). Sadly, they never did convert it to their intermediate game, CORPS (originally for "Conspiracy Oriented Role Playing System", I think, due to its original purpose of providing a system for an X-Files style gaming universe, though it grew far beyond that remit in the second edition, where it was said to stand for "Complete Omniversal Role Playing System"), which comes pretty close to my point-buy system sweet spot. I'll talk about CORPS in more detail some time, but for now it is enough to note that it was a simplification of the system described here which attempted to minimize dice rolling by expanding the "auto-success" rules. There are still rolls for hit location and the effects of damage, but damage itself is fixed in CORPS. But enough about that for now.

In summary, WarpWorld and its sister games are interesting designs, but mostly exist to show what can happen when things are taken too far. They aren't really the best choices for actual play, and apparently even the designer no longer uses the rules. Still, with the right group, possessed of the right mentality, they could be fun. Most of the rest of us, though, will quickly tire of the ubiquitous arithmetic, math, and modifiers, as well as the extensive need for complex and detailed record keeping. The settings of TimeLords and WarpWorld are already converted to a simpler system, so if those are what you're looking for, you are better advised to go there.


  1. I remember these.
    I really liked where SpaceTime was going, but it couldn't compete with Cyberpunk 2013/2020.

    1. Yeah. Cyberpunk had the advantage of 1) a better name, and 2) a system that was comprehensible to someone who wasn't making a master's program of understanding it.