Wednesday, May 8, 2019

My Gaming Life, An Update And A List

My campaign of GURPS set in my own world of the Deindustrial Future is winding to a close. I have committed to running another GURPS game after that, this one being about superpowered humans in the modern day. It's going to try to explore some of the disrupting influence of superpowers, which should be interesting, in the sense that I would not want to live in that world. I  am increasingly certain that, while I still like GURPS quite a lot, it is dropping down my list of favorite systems pretty fast. Still, some settings I want to do are easier to do in that game than in others, since other games would require inventing and writing down game statistics for things and such, where those statistics already exist or are easily customizable in GURPS. It would be so much better if there were some reasonable way to randomly generate characters. Also, GURPS allows for some superpowered characters that are not possible or are difficult to depict in other systems.

I have a friend, a great Lovecraftian fiction fan, who has decided to give running Call of Cthulhu a try, and he is learning very quickly and doing very well. So, that's a second group, and one that is growing. I'm finding that to be a lot of fun too.

One of my players for the GURPS game is now running AD&D 1st edition, attempting to play mostly by the rules as written (no psionics, a few other small changes). We've had two sessions so far, one spent doing a large combat mostly so that we could get the feel for how the AD&D combat rules as written work in practice. It's so much easier than some people say to use weapon vs. armor type, weapon speed factors, charge rounds, and so on. Even so, since it was completely new to some of the players, and years since those of us who had ever played that edition had played—and even then, we weren't really playing by AD&D rules, but rather a streamlined form of B/X or BECMI using the AD&D tables—the second session was completely taken up by that one combat, as we looked up various pieces of information. Even there, we missed important information about how Clerical Turn Undead worked in that edition, but we'll get it next time now that we know.

Playing AD&D has, perhaps paradoxically, re-inspired me to work on my update to Fantasy Wargaming. To do that properly, I think that I'll need to play it as it is in order to see how things work and understand how best to approach any changes. It's been since 1982 or so that I last played that game, and my memories of it are a little foggy. I do remember that the game worked just fine, so it's definitely not "unplayable", as some allege. I do think that there are some areas that I will be changing pretty drastically, such as formalizing fatigue a little more given how important it is as a limiting factor on some activities, changing wounds to conditions instead of a pool of points, maybe tightening up the magic rules some. I have a feeling that I would want to tighten magic back toward things that were supposed to have happened, either as actual magic or as miraculous events given the close affinity of religious miracles with magic in the system, rather than the very wide-open system given—or perhaps I won't, and maybe just tighten up the rules some as they stand, or even work out a way to make it even more flexible. The question is how I am going to manage to get some play of that game in, given the limitations on which days of the week I have available for gaming. I have some ideas on how to make that work, so we'll see if I can get that working.

Which does remind me that I still plan on returning to the series on real magic and how it can be depicted in gaming. Let's just say that the source of inspiration for that series has gone silent for the moment, though I expect it to begin nagging at me again any time.

I've committed to finishing up my conversion of the meta-tasks of the Marc Miller's Traveller (aka T4) supplement Pocket Empires into MegaTraveller equivalents, even though I have no ability to test the rules. That is going slowly but surely.

I've been occasionally noodling around with ideas about running a PBEM game of Realms of the Unknown, which would require me to set up a better record-keeping system than I have managed to put together yet. It's definitely been moved from the back burner to somewhat active development, though. I'm not sure how the setting would look yet, as I'm probably going to wait to work on that until I have more useful tools for that sort of thing.

So, given that my gaming priorities have been changing now that I am back to gaming mostly regularly, let's give a new list of my top 10 games, or really top 12 but who's counting:

1: MegaTraveller and classic Traveller (tied)
2: AD&D 1st edition
3: Fantasy Wargaming
5: Chivalry & Sorcery (2nd edition, though other editions are fine)
6: Hârnmaster
7: Aftermath!
8: Cyberpunk 2020
9: Swords & Wizardry: White Box and White Star (tied)
10: Villains & Vigilantes 2nd edition

Honorable Mentions: Flashing Blades, Adventures Dark & Deep, Space 1889, anything Basic Roleplaying but especially Call of Cthulhu (and I guess I haven't mentioned that the player who is running AD&D has been low-key hinting that he'd like me to run RuneQuest 3rd edition, which he loved when I ran it many years back, so that's another thing that is impinging on me; if I did, I'd have to choose whether to run it in the default Fantasy Earth*, Glorantha, or a setting of my own design that I've had simmering for a few years and is in fact a development of the setting I used for that game of so many years ago), Lords of Creation, The Arcanum (1st or 2nd edition, I haven't seen 3rd or the 30th anniversary editions yet), In Nomine, Guardians (the superhero RPG based on original D&D), Delving Deeper, Pendragon, Lace & Steel, Marvel Superheroes RPG, Realms of the Unknown.

Settings that I am working on to varying degrees of effort: the GURPS superpowers one, an authentic-medieval one with monsters and such set around the Third Crusade for Fantasy Wargaming, a feudal-medieval-authentic world based on the 20 kingdoms of the SCA that draws loosely on the actual history and notable events of that illustrious organization plus added fantasy (this would be intended for any of Chivalry & Sorcery, Fantasy Wargaming, Pendragon, or Hârnmaster, or really any game that can handle an authentic medieval feudal setting), a setting based on the world of Lords of the Middle Sea—which is an obscure wargame that Chaosium published back in the '70s—and a more detailed deindustrial setting set some time in the further future that doesn't rely on so many fantastic elements as the one that I am currently finishing up. I've also spent a few brain cycles on the Flanaess Sector idea, but it hasn't really gone anywhere lately.

Yeah, as usual, I have put way too much on my plate, but hopefully I can actually turn some of it into practical use.

*The Fantasy Earth setting for RQ3 was set somewhere roughly around the 8th or 9th century, probably, given the territory available to the Byzantines in it.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

James Smith's Family Needs Assistance

The family of James Smith, whose sad passing I had the misfortune to report, is trying to raise money to cover funeral expenses, as James had no life insurance or other resource for that purpose—not surprisingly, perhaps, considering the untimely age at which he passed. James did a great deal of work promoting and aiding old school gamers and gaming, and I think that this is certainly a time where we can give back.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

RIP James Smith

Though many of you will already be aware of this, I feel like I need to say something.

It is with heavy heart that I report that James Smith of Dreams of Mythic Fantasy has passed away. He was a wonderful addition to the online gaming blog community and to the gaming community generally. He will be greatly missed.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Thinking Of Superhero Games

Reviewing Heroes & Heroines, along with an upcoming superpowered game that I have, caused me to think about games designed to cover people with extraordinary powers. As it happens, at the moment I am not very fond of a lot of them. Champions suffers from a very clumsy game system, made worse by having to learn the system and spend a lot of time to create characters. This last is also a problem with GURPS Supers, but at least that system has developed into a very clever one that manages to deliver more "realism" for less effort than any other game I can think of. It's currently the one that I am planning on running my upcoming game in, but this post is part of a process there.

So, here are the games that are interesting me at the moment, along with links to where to get them.

Villains & Vigilantes — this is currently available in a new edition titled Mighty Protectors, but I haven't had a chance to evaluate that edition yet. I am mostly interested in the 2.1 edition linked here. For one thing, there are no point-buy systems in version 2.1, and I understand that Mighty Protectors has fallen prey to that seductive mechanic. One of the great things about V&V was always that it was just a matter of generating basic stats, rolling up—or choosing—some powers, and filling out the front-loaded calculations. That's part of the reason that I had the FBI Guide series.

Guardians — This is a little attempt to portray what the Original Adventure Game might have looked like if the authors were more interested in comic book superheroics than pulp fantasy. Like V&V, creating a character is more about picking a set of powers than spending points. That's really good from my perspective.

Supergame — The point-buy mechanic for creating characters is less intrusive here mainly because the game is very fast and loose. Still, it's less interesting to me than others in this list, mainly because of the weird, calculator-intensive rules (seriously, you roll d% and multiply that as a fraction of the base damage to find out how much damage you actually do, but only in hand-to-hand combat). Also, like most point-buy games, the players have to learn how play works in some detail before they can really create reasonable characters. There is a supposed third edition of the game now, but it is apparently a complete rewrite by new authors that only keeps the title.

Heroes Unlimited — I feel weird putting this in my list, since I really got most of my experience of it in the first edition, which we mockingly called "Heroes Limited" due to its inability to really handle the genre well. I understand that the second edition has fixed that issue, so I am bringing it back into consideration for my table. A major advantage of the game is that players can pretty much choose to use any of several character creation systems, from relatively freeform to relatively point-buy.

Marvel Super Heroes — The main disadvantage here is that the game is out of print and pretty expensive on the aftermarket. On the other hand, the PDFs at the Classic Marvel Forever website are more or less designed to be printed out, so that's an option. Still among the best possible superpowered games out there. Just don't roll on the tables in the Ultimate Powers Book, since they're really badly done. The selection is great, though. Pick your powers, I guess, and work out the power levels with the Referee.

Heroes & Heroines — This is a really unlikely choice for me, since it suffers from multiple problems such as being out of print, using a point-buy system, and so on. Still, it's not totally off the table for me because the sketched-out system is a perfect place to land a "rulings not rules" game. Still, Guardians is probably a better choice there.

GURPS Supers — Look, this is the only game that can actually handle Wolverine's adamantium-laced skeleton, and frankly I've had some of my superpowered NPCs inspired by the list of advantages and powers in the game. It's also the only game in print that can, more or less, do Dune just off the shelf, including weird things like having access to ancestral memories. The Supers supplement includes, among other things, the best discussion of Precognition as a superpower in a game that I have seen. If nothing changes, this is the game that I will be running. If only it had options to not be point-buy. Also, Wildcard Skills annoy me and the templates here rely on them to a degree, to the point that it's difficult to root them out of some of the templates—guess why I'm considering other games.

Mutants & Masterminds — I am not really fond of D20 games, except that they've allowed retroclones and such to happen, but this one seems alright. Mainly, I'm interested in the Paragons setting, which is pretty close to what I intend for my setting, and the Mecha & Manga supplement covers magical girls, which I do love. It runs a line between point-buy and not by allowing the player to effectively create a new class for their superpowered character or choose a pre-designed, relatively generic one, and then using that in a D20-like framework. Still, Guardians, and for that matter V&V, seems to cover most everything here and better.

Savage Worlds — On the one hand, the dice mechanic revolts my statistics-oriented mind, but on the other hand all of my players are both familiar with and fans of the game. Less intrusive point-buy system, but still a point-buy system. I'll leave it on the table as an option, maybe. I'll have to look at the superpowers system first. I have a suspicion that it isn't robust enough to cover some of my more outré characters.

Man, it sucks that Golden Heroes and Super Squadron are both out of print and in-demand enough to be really difficult to get. Not that I'd necessarily pick one of those, but they would provide a couple more options that wouldn't be terrible.

So, what other superpowered games that don't rely on a point-buy system—or which have a really compelling reason to consider them that outweighs the point-buy system—am I missing?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

[Obscure Games] Heroes & Heroines

It has been a long time since I've written anything in this series—the last actual review of a game was in May of 2015!—so it is time to dust it off and give some attention to yet another game that hardly anyone has heard of. This time, we're going to address another superhero game, Heroes & Heroines, one of the more ambitious games of the '90s.

In the early '90s, comics had been suffering a bit after the crash of the (mostly) black & white indie comics of the '80s, and mainstream comics were shoveling out increasingly boring storylines. Worse, creators were starting to realize that they deserved a lot more from their creations, both in terms of creative control and financial reward. This led to the rise of "creator-owned" comics, many of them attached to the new publisher Image Comics. In addition, some of the smaller publishers decided to make a bid to take over some of the superhero comics market that was so thoroughly dominated by Marvel and DC. For instance, Dark Horse began its line of "Comics' Greatest World" superhero-comics, and Continuity Comics tried to forge a world by attempting major crossover events between its titles, giving the world the "Deathwatch 2000" and "Rise of Magic" storylines.

Into this ferment stepped a first-time game designer and publisher, James E. Freel III, whose publishing company, Excel Marketing, decided to try to make a splash by licensing as many of these smaller attempts as possible and putting them all into one game system, titled Heroes & Heroines. As the back cover marketing copy said, "No need to buy single or no licensed Comic Book Role Playing Games anymore!" The "single licensed" games that refers to, of course, were the Marvel Superheroes RPG from TSR and DC Heroes from Mayfair Games. The "no licensed" games referred to the likes of Champions and Villains & Vigilantes, or really any other superhero RPG of the time, all of which presented their own settings, unconnected to any actual comic books.

Heroes & Heroines was quickly followed by three supplements, The Maxx, based on the critically-acclaimed book from Image Comics, Deathwatch 2000, which covered the Continuity Comics crossover event featuring the likes of Ms. Mystic, Samuree, Monolith, and so on, and Comic's [sic] Greatest World, adding the characters from Dark Horse's superhero world such as Ghost, Barb Wire, Titan, and Division 13. Unfortunately for me, my ex-wife got The Maxx in the divorce, while I kept the rules, and I never did get either of the other two supplements. I ordered Comic's Greatest World recently from a used book store across the country, but it's still shipping, and it seems that no one in the world is currently offering to sell a copy of The Maxx supplement for the game.

The game itself is surprisingly simple and intuitive. Instead of a "strength" stat, a character is rated for how much weight, in pounds, they can bench press. This isn't really the best choice for an overall strength measure—I'd probably choose overhead press, whether strict press or push press, as a reasonable measure—but it is the one most often used in comic book write-ups when companies publish encyclopedias of their characters, and it's probably fair to estimate overhead press as about 80% of bench press. Intelligence is represented by IQ, which is rated just as real-world IQ tests present their scores, with an average of 100. Other stats don't come from real-world values, but are still fairly simple to eyeball for a given character or person.

Superpowers and skills are similarly straightforward. If a character can teleport, they buy the teleport power. On the other hand, if they pass through dimensions, they buy the dimension travel power. Which costs 5 points less but tells the reader to refer to the teleport power for details, for some reason? OK, the game could really have used some editing and development. Anyway, as noted, characters are designed using a system of points. The extensive list of powers helps in some ways but is a problem in others.

Different powers provide different Attack Ratings, Defense Ratings, and the Mental equivalents. Comparing the Attack Rating of the offensive power to the Defense Rating of the target on a chart gives the chance on 1d20 to succeed in the attack. Damage is subtracted from pools of Hit Points and Mental Hit Points, with a pool being reduced to zero causing the character to fall unconscious, while reducing the Hit Points pool to -8 kills the character. I am not sure why that value instead of, say, -10 or whatever. Taking a large fraction of the character's total Hit Points in one attack has a chance of Stunning the character.

There's not a lot more to the game. At this point in my gaming career, I find that refreshing. I am somewhat attracted to games that are only the barest of frameworks right now. We can point to the original edition of D&D, which was similarly very bare-bones in its approach, relying on rulings by the Referee to handle other situations.

The biggest annoyance with the game, for me, is the lack of editing, which is made worse because Freel is one of those writers who have picked up a lot of very idiosyncratic spellings and usages.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quick Administrative Note

I've removed the blog associated with a certain person from my blogroll here due to the accusations of abuse and other activities made against him by his former partner and several associated women, and corroborated by others. I believe them.

I hope that the company most associated with that individual does the right thing, but given the owner's association with Jordan Peterson I don't necessarily hold a lot of hope that they will. If they don't, that'll be too bad. They have made good products, ones I am still happy to own.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What Is Magic? - Part Two - Spirits

In my last post on the topic, I started to lay out a catalog of what magic was to the people who practiced it. It sort of got out of hand there, which isn't surprising since I foolishly embarked on this series without a real plan. Flying by the seat of my pants is sure fun, but let's see if we can get this thing back on track. Note that this is a very speculative post. There is only a little consensus on what spirits "really are". These are some of my thoughts on the subject, and they are necessarily incomplete.

One thing you might have noted is that I left a large part of magic to "spirits". You might also have noted that I left a really wide open space for what a "spirit" actually is, mentioning both entities of the sort that we can communicate and interact with, and also "energies" of astral powers. As I re-read what I've written there and the library with which I began this series, I noticed that I left out an important strand of thought, that of "mythorealism", the idea that myth can and does incarnate in the waking world. I do want to emphasize that this is only one model among several, though, and I am not making any particular endorsement by discussing it in this post.

In the mythorealist view, as I imperfectly understand it, "spirits" are the relationships between things. When we develop a pattern through art and tradition, we can see that pattern existing as actual instances of orally-told stories, written texts, works of art, natural occurrences, and the like. So, we find a person that we call "Thor", who is manifest as stories, statues, rolling thunder, and so on. But these things aren't Thor, are they? They are stories, statues, physical phenomena. On the other hand, the relationship we have with these things is an entity in itself. In point of fact, we can develop a relationship with that relationship, which is another level of the matter.

So, more generally, what is a spirit? We can think of a spirit as a non-physical entity. Nearly every metaphysical outlook includes room for non-physical entities. Even the most strict materialist includes "organizing principles" or "emergent properties" or an "implicate order" such as the "rules" that make gravity manifest as one thing while making gamma rays manifest as another thing. Scientists codify these rules as mathematical operations, but those are descriptions of the non-physical entities, not the things themselves. There are also relational systems, which are sometimes called "software", which are not the same as the physical systems which manifest a particular set of software.

Other outlooks describe spirits as other things, from the naïvely prosaic idea that spirits are just like material entities only made out of some unknown and immaterial substance—which is the way that most games treat them, perhaps because it allows spirits to be modeled with only slight modifications to the normal game rules; I am particularly interested in the few exceptions, even when the games that do so are not necessarily very good otherwise, and I will get to the gaming precedents as this series goes on—to the sophisticated concept of relationships mentioned above, to concepts of psychological fragments existing as processes within our material brains, and so on.

Probably the most common approach to understanding spirits is a psychological one, in no small part because our experience of spirits, for those of us who do experience them in a way that we express in that manner, is one that occurs largely within our minds. That is, not having a material existence, people can't usually observe spirits with material senses like sight and hearing. Or, if they do, many will attribute the experience of a spirit to a sort of gestalt of perceptions, such as when a lonely, windswept moor manifests a different spirit than a hot, humid jungle.

Some magicians posit a relative impermeability between the level of existence on which spirits exist and the material world we experience with our physical senses. So, in this model, a spirit has an existence on the "astral plane"—or whatever the particular magician calls it—which can't affect the "physical plane" directly, but instead causes changes in the physical world by indirect means such as influencing beings that exist on both "planes" such as humans. On the other hand, some thinkers have pointed out that spirit-like phenomena can and do sometimes leave physical traces, which has been termed the "daimonic". Items like the Simonton pancakes—a set of four apparently-normal pancakes that Joe Simonton claims were given to him by the occupant of a strange flying object that landed in his yard—or the tiny shoe found in Ireland that exhibits wear patterns exactly as if it had been worn for some time by a tiny person, not to mention the instances where radiation has been detected at alleged "UFO" landing sites, or where UFOs themselves produce radar reflections. The daimonic is sometimes absurd.

Some such "daimonic" traces are clearly hoaxes. The Patrick Harpur book I mention in the library post, Daimonic Reality, includes some discussion of the photos of "Doc" Shiels, which have been pretty thoroughly examined by the periodical Fortean Times, with the conclusion that they are probably fabrications, and of course the examination in that book of "crop circles" has been undercut by a couple of groups who have come forward to claim that they have been manufacturing those unusual artworks—it's probably worth noting, though, that none of the groups making the "hoaxing" claim have been able to replicate more than a simple circle while under observation nor any of the various epiphenomena that are related to the circles, and at least one person involved has openly wondered what it is that drives him to make the circles in the first place. For that last, keep in mind the above idea that spirits operate through influencing human behaviors.

The "all in the mind" theory still leaves ample room for some strangeness. One magician wrote a book with the subtitle It's All In Your Head … You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is, which lays out some of the issues in a pithy way. One formulation of this argument is that the brain is less like a computer and more like a radio receiver. Now, keep in mind that any metaphor for how the brain works is one fraught with parochialism. That is, every era has a model of the brain that draws on whatever the currently-fashionable technology might be. In the 19th century the brain was an engine, in earlier times a pneumatic vessel, and so on. So, even if the metaphor of the computer is more attractive, still a brain is not a computer. In any case, in the "radio receiver" metaphor, the brain receives something from elsewhere that contains or manifests consciousness. The brain might store things, perhaps in the sense of a "warehouse" of sensory impressions, or perhaps a holographic "hard drive" of sense data, but the experience is still one of consciousness. Certainly, we know that each instance of remembering is a remanufacturing of the original experience, one that alters to some extent whatever it is that the brain stores. If the brain is a receiver, though, we are left with the question of where it is receiving from. A magician might answer that there is another "level" of existence, another "plane", from which consciousness emanates, though some magicians would argue that consciousness is also from the "spirit plane".

And this doesn't exhaust the models available to us, though it runs through most of the major ideas. Which of them is correct, if any? I have no idea. I tend to favor the "emanated consciousness" model to some degree, but I am also attracted to both the "relationship" and "psychological" models—with the proviso that spirits are probably not local to any particular brain or psychology, even where they might manifest in such a "place".

So, let's talk about some of the gaming models for spirits. At the moment, I am mainly interested in the models provided by RuneQuest, HeroQuest (the Gloranthan RPG, not the Milton Bradley board game), GURPS, the HERO System—particularly the 4th edition supplement titled Horror HERODogs in the Vineyard, Fantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm, the board game from Avalon Hill. RuneQuest, GURPS, HERO SystemFantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm all offer a similar model of spirits as something basically like a material being, only composed of some immaterial substance. That is a fine model for gaming, as it is easily incorporated into the rules and allows for a wide variety of interaction with the setting of the game. HERO System does present a somewhat different method for spirits to move and interact with their environments that is worth examining. The particularly interesting outliers here are Pendragon and, though as games they are not nearly as interesting, HeroQuest and Dogs in the Vineyard.

Pendragon and HeroQuest offer a similar approach to spirits, though in a sense it is hidden in the rules of the former. A character is able to develop "Passions" in Pendragon, which are relationships such as Love, Loyalty, or the like. However, a character can develop a relationship with an abstraction that does not otherwise appear directly in the game, such as "God" or "The Red Company"—while the latter may exist as a group of ruffians or adventurers, the members of the group are what interact with the setting directly. While HeroQuest doesn't call them "Passions" (as I recall at the moment, without looking up the details), there is a similar mechanism to describe a character's relationships.

Dogs in the Vineyard is, in my opinion, a nearly-unplayable game—one significant obstacle I found was that you are supposed to describe what is happening in a challenge, but you can't actually know what happens in the challenge until the challenge is over since that is when you determine "consequences" incurred during the challenge. However, its concept that an area is affected by a particular spirit, which can influence the course of challenges indirectly by favoring one side or the other in a broad sense, is one that I want to find ways to adapt.

Now, these last few paragraphs describe models intended for gaming purposes. I think that they are useful in helping to illuminate how we think about spirits, though, since they are required to be relatively comprehensive in ways that thinking about the topic abstractly doesn't require.