Thursday, September 3, 2020

Abstract Combat In AD&D 1st Edition

 


People have deeply analyzed AD&D, especially the 1st edition, as part of the whole "OSR" project. Some detractors have characterized it as a "Rabbinical" exercise in excessively close reading, as though there were no point to trying to figure out exactly what the intentions were of old wargaming hands, especially the hands of E. Gary Gygax, in creating the rules that they did. Certainly, we know that a lot of how the game was played in those early days was actually developed by kids reading loosely and then adapting the ideas to their own needs. As a result, a lot of rules that didn't seem immediately useful were dropped by the wayside, and later editions would adapt those streamlined approaches.

But we can assume that the writers, in this case Gygax, had a very specific idea of how the game was put together, developed after years of play with hundreds of players. And it might be, the OSR thinking went, that we could find useful things that got missed. And the OSR did, indeed, find useful things in their deep reading.

But I think I've found something that got overlooked in the OSR project, too.

So, everyone knows by now that AD&D, like D&D before it, relied on an abstraction of combat. That's the reasoning behind the minute-long combat rounds, the nature of hit points, and a number of other factors that are taken for granted. It was a time when there was no need for complicated "attacks of opportunity" rules or detailed maneuvers and combat techniques because all of that was simply assumed and abstracted into some simple rolls. Good enough, though some early editions pulled the combat round back to representing 10 seconds, which is still long enough to keep combat abstract, but also conforms better to the intuition that a roll "to hit" in combat represents an actual attempt to hit the opponent. Of course, we know that the original D&D and early AD&D rules used the minute-long rounds for a number of reasons, ranging from the round's origin in mass-combat miniatures rules, the desire to recreate swashbuckling adventure movie swordfighting, with its scenery-chewing acrobatic movement all over the set and such, and most importantly with the desire to have combat be meaningful on the exploration scale that covered the main "game loop" of the dungeon crawl. A fight, that perspective holds, should be capable of taking up a full turn or two of exploration movement and action. Since a combat is unlikely to last more than 10 or 15 rounds even in most extreme cases, it is helpful to make those rounds last 10 or 15 minutes.

All of this implies a very abstract system. There should be no need to model movement within the fight, as that movement would be assumed in the context of the melee as a whole. Movement should only be meaningful in the context of moving into melee in the first place, from one melee to another, or fleeing from one. Thus, we see charge rules, pursuit rules, and so on.

Fine, we see that combat was intended to be abstract. We also see some interesting approaches to modeling combat so that players have to make tactical decisions. Missile weapons, famously, fired into a melee will have a chance of hitting any character involved in that melee, and a melee is specifically defined as everyone within 10 feet of anyone involved in that melee.

What nobody seems to have noticed, though, is the rule on page 70 of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide, "Who Attacks Whom". This extends the abstract nature of the combat system, assuming that characters are moving about, striking at opponents as the opportunity presents itself. We see that this is treated similarly to firing into melee, except that a character can't accidentally attack someone on their own side:

As with missile fire, it is generally not possible to select a specific opponent in a mass melee. If this is the case, simply use some random number generation to find out which attacks are upon which opponents, remembering that only a certain number of attacks can usually be made upon one opponent. If characters or similar intelligent creatures are able to single out an opponent or opponents, then the concerned figures will remain locked in melee until one side is dead or opts to attempt to break off the combat. If there are unengaged opponents, they will move to melee the unengaged enemy. If the now-unengaged figures desire to assist others of their party, they will have to proceed to the area in which their fellows are engaged, using the movement rates already expressed.

 This changes a lot in the way combat in the game is played. Players can no longer simply team up on one target at a time, moving on to the next only as each one is eliminated. Picking out the thief for special attention becomes a matter for Referee/DM rulings* rather than something just simply done at will. In our experience, too, it helps speed up combat in play even more as players don't really have to deeply consider who is best to spend their fighting energies on, instead just attacking whoever the dice say is the available target for that attack.

Anyway, if you're playing 1st edition and trying to use the rules as written to whatever degree, consider having characters in melee target opponents randomly. It changes things a little, and gives more of a feel, in my opinion, of the energetic combats of the films that inspired D&D combat, like Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.

*One useful area for rulings in a combat might be opponents held in place by a spell effect or a trap.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Blogiversary: Nine Years Already?

Nine years ago, I made the first post on this blog. I was very unsteady on my blogging feet, as it were, and didn't really know what I was going to do with it. Still don't, I guess, but at least now I am actually playing in some games. At that time, I had recently ended a long gaming relationship with a group due to an increasing difference in preferences for the games we wanted to play—though, perhaps it was just one person and I who had that increasingly differing preference (we're still friends, to some extent, though).

Whatever, I just thought that I should mark the occasion. Next year, even more so, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

[Obscure Games] Justice Inc.

My copy, a second print, has a different,
but similar, cover for the Campaign Book.
Back in the '80s, the game publication industry was still feeling out a lot of questions that we take for granted today. One of the debates was in regard to universal, or "generic", systems. First, were they a good idea? Second, if they were, what was the best way to present them? TSR seemed to be on the side of treating them as a bad idea, creating a new system for nearly every game they released: there was D&D and AD&D, of course, and then there were games like Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, and Marvel Super Heroes. There was a faint relation between some of them (Gangbusters almost looks like a heavily streamlined version of Top Secret if you squint at it right, and of course Gamma World famously was easy to convert to AD&D terms and vice versa), but generally TSR seemed to prefer that players learn a new system that was adapted specifically to the genre. Palladium, on the other hand, joined in with the idea of adapting their existing system to various genres, using their heavily-modified version of D&D to power games of martial arts action or superheroics or whatever. Each of the games was released as a separate title and including all of the rules needed for play. Steve Jackson Games was heading in a different direction, providing a core set of rules and then supplementary material for specific genres or settings.

Hero Games was still in the process of deciding in the mid-'80s, releasing versions of their game system adapted to specific action genres, using the Champions system, originally designed for superheroic action, to run spy fiction and modern action-adventure with Espionage!, followed the next year with a game tailored to '20s and '30s, or "pulp", action and adventure called Justice Inc. After a few more (a revision and expansion of Espionage! called Danger International, along with Fantasy Hero, Star Hero, and Robot Warriors), they would finally decide to go the route of core rules with supplements, but for that one moment, they were tuning the rules more precisely for a given genre.

Of all of the variations of Champions prior to the unification of the game under the fourth edition, Justice Inc. stands out as perhaps the best example of why and how the way of precisely tailoring for a particular approach can work.

The game was released, as so many in the '80s were, as a boxed set. It contained two books, the main rules and a "Campaign Book" that provided background on the 1920s and 1930s.

After getting some experience in giving characters who don't have superpowers something to pay points for with Espionage!, the designers of Justice Inc. returned to powers, but on a smaller scale. Instead of flying around and throwing blasts of cosmic power from their hands, pulp adventurers with unusual powers are more likely to be able to see the auras of living beings, fold their joints over double to aid in escaping bonds, or hold a séance to speak with ghosts. The most outré might be able to cloud men's minds or see dimly into the future. So, instead of providing powers like Energy Blast, Justice Inc. chose to add a sort of intermediary set of skills. Unlike other skills, these were difficult to use intentionally, but able to come into use more easily if the Referee felt it would aid the story. So, the "paranormal skills" were bought much like other skills, but if the player actively tried to initiate them they would take an enormous negative modifier (-5 on the Hero System's 3d6 roll). So, a character with a very respectable 14- skill (roughly 90% chance of success, and usually not very cheap in terms of points spent—a typical character would spend 19 points or more to get to that level, out of an initial pool of 75), if trying intentionally, would be rolling against a 9- (about 37.5% chance). Meanwhile, if it suited the Referee's purpose, whether for atmosphere or plot, they would roll against the full skill and let the player know what happened.

The Hero System relies on a large number of statistics, most with a fairly narrow use, and most roughly on the 3-18 scale. A couple of statistics are more useful than the others, and so cost 2 or 3 times as much to increase (or get back twice or three times as many points if reduced from the average). DEX, for instance, is the basis not only of DEX rolls and DEX-based skills, but also the basic CV, or Combat Value, used to hit or avoid being hit, affects the character's SPD, or number of actions per round, and so on. Meanwhile, APP is mostly a roleplayed stat, having very little mechanical effect on the game. Individual stats can be the basis of a Stat Roll, by taking the stat divided by 5 (rounded to the nearest) and adding 9 to give a target number to roll equal to or less than on 3d6. So, an average person with a stat of 10 will have a Stat Roll for that stat of 9 + (10/5) = 11 or less. Since stats have a soft limit of 20 for normal humans (the player may pay extra points to exceed the limit), these Stat Rolls never get very high, though the bell curve of the 3d6 roll certainly makes higher stats worthwhile.

Combat is fairly baroque, as is probably to be expected for a game that originates in playing superpowered beings. When making an attack, the base chance to hit is 11-, modified positively by the attacker's CV (in this case, as the OCV, or Offensive Combat Value) and negatively by the defender's CV (as Defensive Combat Value, or DCV). There are many modifiers, ranging from the attack maneuver used to situational modifiers. If successful, the attacker rolls damage in one of two ways. For lethal, or Killing, attacks, the BODY damage is rolled on a small number of dice, usually no more than 3d6 and frequently less than that. This is compared to any Resistant Defenses the target has that affect the specific kind of Killing Damage (PD, or Physical Defense, protects against physical attacks, ED, or Energy Defense, protects against energy attacks, and so on), which is a way of saying armor that protects against Killing Attacks. The remainder is subtracted from the target's BODY statistic, which is basically a hit point pool. Then, a single d6 is rolled and 1 subtracted, which is multiplied by the original roll for BODY damage. This is the STUN damage of the Killing Attack. This is modified by any appropriate Resistant defenses the character has. The remainder is subtracted from the target's STUN characteristic, and if that value is reduced to 0 the target falls unconscious. On the other hand, if the attack is a blunt attack such as with the fists or even a baseball bat, the attacker rolls a handful of d6s. With a punch, the base damage is 1d6 per 5 pts of STR, for example, while weapons add an appropriate amount (a baseball bat adds 4d6). So, an average person swinging a baseball bat would roll (10/5 =) 2d6 + 4d6, or 6d6 for damage. This is counted differently than Killing Attacks. The total of the dice is used as the STUN damage, and any appropriate defenses (PD versus physical, ED versus energy, etc), not just Resistant defenses, apply. To figure out the BODY damage of the attack, each die that comes up 1 counts as 0 BODY, each that comes up 2-5 counts as 1 BODY, and each die that comes up 6 counts as 2 BODY damage. This can be quickly counted by starting with the number of dice, pairing off 1s with 6s to cancel each other out, and then counting the excess 1s or 6s, adjusting the base up or down by that excess. Which sounds complicated to describe, but is really very easy indeed in practice.

There are more complications, too. Like I said, baroque. And then there are the optional rules like hit locations, bleeding, and so on. I don't mind complexity in my games (wait'll I get around to reviewing Aftermath!, Bushido, and Daredevils), but I like it to serve a purpose.

Anyway, Justice Inc. continues on with rules to cover vehicular combat and chases for cars, boats, and aircraft, and special dogfighting rules for aircraft, rules for gadgets, supernatural monsters, animals, and all of the other things that a good action-adventure game needs. Unfortunately, at one point the rules cop out and refer the Referee to Champions for handling the supernatural powers of ghosts and the like. Which, enh. This is made even worse because, in the next edition of the game, the one where the company decided to create a set of core rules, they would get rid of many of the things that made Justice Inc. such an exemplar of the reasoning behind creating new games using the same system. The paranormal skills were removed, for instance, and players were told to just build them in the same way as superpowers.

Like all of the Hero System games, Justice Inc. offers a generally "cinematic" experience, with that sort of physical logic being well-simulated by the system. Unfortunately, the complexity of the game system works against that experience by being very fiddly and detailed in some strange places.

It's a truly solid game that covers the source material nicely. Unfortunately, Hero System is just not focused enough to be a really good game, in my opinion. I prefer the Basic Role-Playing system, CORPS, EABA, or especially GURPS when it comes to universal/generic games, and I daresay that those who are looking for what Hero has to offer in terms of "cinematic" feel or reality are going to be better served by Savage Worlds. Still, if nothing else, a game designer would do well to know about the paranormal skills and weird talents, as well as the vehicle combat rules, of Justice Inc. when making design decisions.

I feel like that's an ongoing refrain with me. There are many games that I like for showing the way toward certain experiences, even if the games themselves are flawed or uninteresting as a whole.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

What Obscure Game Are You Running? And Why Obscure Games?

I've had my series of reviews of Obscure Games going for quite a while now, but I wonder: how many of you out there are running an obscure game? I guess I'll just poll and ask what you're running or playing in—not what you wish you were running or playing, not what you hope to run or play in, but games that you have currently going. I'm sure that most will be types of Dungeons & Dragons, including retroclones, conjectural versions, and so on, and most of the rest will be World of Darkness games, licensed media properties like Firefly, Dresden Files, Star Wars, and Marvel Universe, GURPS, Traveller editions, Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest, various Palladium games, and similar high-profile game systems that can break $20-50K on Kickstarter without breaking a sweat, and that's great! Gaming is awesome! But I hold out hope that there are groups out there playing Aftermath!, Majus, Lords of Creation, Excursions into the Bizarre, Beasts Men and Gods, Timeship, Albedo Anthropomorphics, WarpWorld, Dark Conspiracy, Witch Hunt, or other games that most people aren't even aware exist. Like, is anyone in the entire world playing Amazing Engine?

I started reviewing obscure games for a couple of reasons. The main ones are that no one cares what my (or anyone else's!) opinion on Dungeons & Dragons is. Pretty much anyone who plays RPGs already knows how they feel about games like that. Second, I feel a close kinship with people who put in all the same amount of sweat and hard work that people who write for major games do, but do it strictly out of passion. There's no money in it. I live in a region where I know people who have careers in gaming, mostly because of D&D and Call of Cthulhu. There are also a ton of people here who write for games because they love it. I know what the paychecks in the hobbyist portion of gaming are like, and I have a good idea of what they're like in the industry portion. So, I really want to help boost the hobbyists, and really the only way for me to do that is to use my little voice here on the internet to help give them some tiny bit more visibility than they might otherwise have.

REVIEW POLICY

So, here's my review policy: If you send me a free print copy of your game, I will review it, good or bad, in a timely manner (and will mention that it was sent to me for review; every game that I've reviewed to date on this blog has been one that I bought using my own money), unless it requires me to have some other product to understand it*. At the very least, you will get your game mentioned in another place for search engine purposes. If you send me a PDF copy, I will only review it if I really, really love it; to date, there is only one game sent to me in PDF for review that I have considered reviewing here (and have ultimately declined to do so, despite it being fairly good and a subject that interests me), only one PDF that I paid for out of my own pocket that I may yet review, and one PDF that I went out and found for free that I may yet review. Sorry, but if you don't believe in your game enough to pay a few bucks per review, then why should I, or anyone, care about your game?

*If it does require some other product to understand it, such as a supplement or adventure with game information for a particular game, ask me if I already own that product. If I do not, then I will require that other product as well in order to review it, though it can be in PDF format.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Some Notes On My Evolution In Gaming Preferences

In the past, I've written a few articles discussing "My Own Heartbreaker", or MOHb, where I indicated some of my preferences at the time for game design elements. You can find most of them under the MOHb and gaming philosophy tags if you're interested. This article will discuss where I stand now, after time thinking about the matter, recent gaming, and so on.

First, let me say that I do still like GURPS, D&D, Traveller, and so on. They are some fine games, and there are quite a few games, even recent ones, that retain the old-school emphases that I like. I've even begun to soften toward PbtA ("Powered by the Apocalypse") and similar games, though they still aren't my main preferences. Still can't stand FATE, and even less the "talking stick" games like Dread and such where the mechanics exist just to determine who gets to write the next line of the story. That is terrible, and in my opinion places the emphasis in exactly the wrong place, minimizing the characters and emphasizing the players. Some of those games go so far as to allow the talking stick player to make decisions for other people's characters, and that's just annoying to me—I would still go so far as to say that such games aren't roleplaying games at all, since you aren't playing a role any more than someone playing Axis & Allies is, to choose a random example of something that is not a roleplaying game. But I'll save that discussion for when I ever get around to reviewing Dogs in the Vineyard, the game where you can't find out how well you did or didn't do until after the action is over.

So, for now I'd rather talk about what I do want to see in a game at this point in my gaming career, and maybe a bit about my history of preferences in that context.

My most formative experience in RPGs, as with most people, came in my first ever adventure. It's possible that I've discussed it on this blog before, but it's relevant now, so. I was 10, and my friends had talked me into playing this new game, Dungeons & Dragons, which I initially confused with Dungeon Dice and so was baffled by their descriptions of how their games went. When they got me over to play, I was told that since I was new I had to play a "first level" character, and what class would I like? After being given the options, I naturally picked Magic-User, because who wouldn't be enticed by the promises of infinite power dangled by magic, and anyway I had no idea what this "module" titled "Tomb of Horrors" might offer as a challenge.

Rolling up my character, I learned that I had a lot of "gold pieces" to spend on things, but I didn't really see a lot of things in the list to buy. So I innocently asked the DM, my friend's older brother as I recall, if I could hire anyone to help me out. He looked blankly at me for a moment, then remembered something in the Dungeon Master's Guide and started flipping pages. "Here you go," he said and showed me some tables of laborers and another of mercenary soldiers. I listed out some things, added up the costs, and soon I had a sizeable mercenary company at my command. To make a long story short, the DM allowed me near-complete control of my soldiers, and so as it happened, I was the only survivor of a party that included some high-level characters simply because I'd risk soldiers instead of my own character when checking traps and such. Oh, and at least three (!) party members, not even counting a couple of my troops, reached their hands into a sculpted green devil's mouth.

My lesson: have other people, or robots, to do things for you. As a result, I really like games that allow me to have a faction or otherwise put me in a position of authority. Charisma is not a dump stat is what I'm saying. For the purposes of this discussion, I have really come to appreciate systems that include faction rules that make it easier to make use of groups in play. While games that force you to track resources directly, as D&D does, are good, but not as good as ones that allow you to abstract all of that and let your virtual accountants take care of the bean-counting. Reign is probably the first I've seen to explicitly do that unless you count the megacorporate duelling rules in TORG's supplement Nippon Tech or the similar rules in Shadowrun's supplement Corporate Shadowfiles, but now it's pretty widespread, being found in everything from the Sine Nomine games like Stars Without Number and Silent Legions to even GURPS (which has a refinement of their version of factions coming out soon). So, yeah, faction rules are pretty important to my ideal game.

Next, when I first saw Hârnmaster, I was a bit in awe of the depth of the system and how it connected to the detailed setting that they'd been developing. But the thing that most captured my imagination was the descriptive wounding system. Instead of drawing from a pool of "hit points" or "hits to kill" or "stamina" or whatever, the Referee would make a few quick rolls on a chart and end up with a wound that could be described: "an infected shallow cut of 3 injury points to the left thigh", "a 25 injury point deep puncture to the chest that is bleeding 2 points per round". Injury points refer to the penalty to actions that use the affected body area, so that a 3 injury point wound would subtract 3% from any skill or other d% roll that involved the particular body part. I've since seen similar systems in a few games, such as the original BTRC house system that was used for TimeLords, SpaceTime, and WarpWorld. BTRC has since changed its preferred house system twice, first to CORPS (which used a simplified version of that descriptive wound system from their previous house system), and then to EABA, which I don't know well enough to describe how it works. I own a copy in PDF, though, so I should probably go through it one of these days. It's just that PDFs are such a pain for reference works like that, in my opinion. They're fine for adventures, but rules should be in hardcopy, in my preference.

Anyway, now I have a hard time justifying point pools to myself. Descriptive injuries are easy to implement, provide more narrative flavor while still being sufficiently quantified for simulation purposes, and provide for a lot of other related rules—Hârnmaster tracks different medical tools and procedures used to treat different types of injury, for example—that similarly add to the roleplaying experience. So, yeah, descriptive injuries are a must in my ideal game system.

When I was younger, I was very interested in "realism" in games. That is to say that I preferred games where the results were within parameters that I could envision occurring within a given set of scenario assumptions. I still am, as it happens, but in my youth that largely meant more complexity. The more elements of the situation that we could model, and the closer that model's statistical outcomes were to actual statistical outcomes, the better was my thinking at the time. Now, maybe not so much. I've come to understand that most of the elements either don't need to be modeled—the usual situation—or else it turns out that our hypothetical models of them don't actually resemble the real-world events anyway (when GDW's pioneering and excellent* work on modeling wound physics in games turned out to be only partly accurate, I learned a lot about how science really works, and more importantly just where we actually stood in comparison to the claims made about our current levels of knowledge). The point is, though, that there are ways of modeling "realism" that don't need to obsessively detail every aspect of the simulation. The bizarre "hydrostatic shock" modifiers, "stopping power", and similar minutiae in some of the optional Top Secret rules were detailed, for sure, but also entirely lacking in any sort of realism, to pick an example. So, another element that I am looking for now would be simple but accurate modeling at the table.

That aside, I am perfectly fine with front-loading complex calculations. Detailed vehicle and weapon design systems have not only never daunted me, they have satisfied my sense of verisimilitude. Such systems, of course, can never match a detailed CAD program optimized for the purpose, but they can provide statistics that are close enough for gaming purposes. They also allow the designer to weigh tradeoffs in the design phase that aren't really dealt with in fiat methods of giving equipment statistics. Sure, a designer can just make up some numbers that look good and then paper over matters by abstracting whatever they don't want to deal with, but I am interested in going at things the other way around: providing a reasonably accurate simulation, then working out designs within that simulation to optimize for various tasks. This is all a really wordy way to say that my ideal game would include detailed vehicle and equipment design.

This has gotten a little long, so I think that I'll set it aside for now. I should return to this topic later. I'll give it it's own tag, too: ideal game.

*Really, it's great. There are aspects of it that I think could still usefully inform other models to this day, like the whole cross-section thing. That would usefully cover the difference between the relatively low energy of a .45ACP and the observed injury compared to, say, a 9×19mm Parabellum or 10mm Automatic.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

[Obscure Games] Magical Fury

Star Princess Astraia getting angry
As I've mentioned before in this blog, I have a soft spot for magical girl (mahō shōjo) anime, manga, stories, and RPGs. There is something about the earnestness and kindness built into the genre—a kindness that is sometimes subverted, making the subgenre of Magical Girl Genre Deconstruction—that is a balm to my otherwise noir-inflected heart. There have been a number of versions of the genre set forth in roleplaying form, from the earliest ones like the character Bright Sun Angel described in GURPS Wizards (1998, and among the earliest published depictions of a magical girl in RPG format outside of Japan, though of course there were precursors in games like Teenagers from Outer Space and the like) or The Sailor Moon Roleplaying Game and Resource Book (1999, and of course Big Eyes, Small Mouth had already previously included ways to build such characters), through to today when there are many already published or in-progress magical girl RPGs available.

Back in 2015 or so, author Ewen Cluney was apparently struggling with putting together an RPG to describe a setting he had in his mind about a magical girl named Star Princess Astraia. He had been inspired by Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, and especially Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Unfortunately, he wasn't getting anywhere and so he decided to take a different tack toward the subject matter, just as a way to get his creative juices flowing. He started with Apocalypse World and simplified the rules considerably, coming up with a system he'd later simply call "Powered by Fury" (inspired by the "Powered by the Apocalypse" games that followed Apocalypse World) and published a short game titled Magical Fury.

The basic game is very short, only 42 pages at 6" × 9", and very light on both rules and setting. Characters are created by a simple process of answering a few questions ("What is your name?", "What does being a girl mean to you?", "What are you afraid of?", "What is your wish?", and so on), picking a few traits that describe your magical girl hero (how she changes in her henshin, or transformation, what her magical theme is, her dominant color, and of course her magical name). There are d66 tables for all of these if you can't, or don't want to, come up with your own, so beginning players are given ample assistance. Have you noticed that I haven't mentioned anything about stats? There are no stats. There's also no discussion of gender variance, magical boys, or anything like that. It doesn't really get much in the way of any particular interpretation that a Referee and their players might want to include, though.

Once the character is created, the game runs similar to a typical RPG, with description and response from Referee and players. To adjudicate actions, the Referee classifies them as (or the player chooses from among) any of a number of "moves". Each of these is a simple description of what the action boils down to ("Go on the offense", "Protect someone else", "Run away", "Sorcery", "Investigate", "Comfort", and the like; there are also special moves, only called for by the Referee, for "Desperation" and "Stay Calm"), combined with a short table on which the player will roll 2d6. The result from the table describes what happens, and may sometimes result in the character gaining Hope, Magic, or Trauma points. When one of these categories reaches three points, the magical girl experiences a "shift", or consequence to the character. There are four types of shift of each category, and when all four have occurred to the character and another shift is called for, then they must instead choose an Extreme Shift (for Trauma or Magic) or a Great Hope (for Hope).

Fights are very quick, consisting of picking moves, rolling, and taking points of Trauma or Magic as necessary. There is a table for figuring out the outcome of a fight based on the total number of hits scored by the players' characters compared to the number of characters there are.

The rest of the game is filled with suggestions for the Referee in worldbuilding their specific magical girl setting and tables to assist in various ways including with all of the choices in character creation (as mentioned). That's it. Super simple, particularly focused on narrative play.

I don't much like that sort of roleplaying game, generally. These sorts of rules always strike me as being slightly more complex versions of the games that amateur writers' groups play, and I don't much like them in those settings either—which is one reason I no longer go to writers' groups, probably to my own detriment. However, in this specific case, I am willing to go with the idea simply because the genre is that compelling to me. Also, things don't end there, as there are two supplements for the game, Magical Fury Companion and Magical Fury Appendix, as well as the "Powered by Fury" game Angel Project, which apparently (I haven't picked up a copy) describes another magical girl-style setting based around "Seraphim Suits" that can only be worn by pure-hearted girls.

Magical Fury Companion provides some new moves ("Hide the truth", "Keep up with life", "Lash out", "Patrol the city", and "Sense magic"), a new ability (Overdrive, drawn from Yuki Yuna is a Hero/Yūki Yūna wa Yūsha de Aru, which allows a magical girl to greatly increase the strength of her powers at the expense of a permanent disability), along with new tables to describe the magical girls, their various tsukaima, or animal companions, and the youma monsters that oppose them. There's also a table of potential secrets underlying the setting and the nature of magical girls for the Referee to use in worldbuilding.

Magical Fury Appendix provides a table of complications to help the Referee build a story when they're stuck, a list of types of places and some examples drawn from the author's "Star Princess Astraia" setting, a table of random youma, six example magical girls from the "Star Princess Astraia" setting (including a couple of dark magical girl antagonists), and a table of 36 more from that setting described briefly.

To my way of thinking—that an RPG should be an open-ended exercise in which the players are allowed to attempt literally anything through their characters, with success determined by the abilities ascribed to those characters—the limited nature of the moves allowed seems like a problem. [EDIT: The game does explicitly note, when discussing moves, that "you may find you need to invent new ones to do everything you want to do with the game."] That said, it is true that most things that players will try fall into a fairly limited set of categories. It's also true that the Companion shows that it is really a fairly simple matter to come up with new moves to cover whatever unusual action a player attempts. The Referee should probably familiarize themself with the ways that moves are put together and be prepared to generate new ones on the fly, but that isn't really discussed in the game anywhere. [EDIT: As I note above, it is.]

In the end, I wouldn't call this the best game, but it is certainly one that I would play if someone were to run it, or even run if I found a group or individual that wanted to. From some of the moves and the way that fights work, I think that it is probably better suited to a small group of players. Also, the tools provided to the Referee for worldbuilding are probably equally useful to a Referee of any other magical girl, or even just magical, game. The secrets suggested for settings (drawn from works like Puella Magi Madoka Magica—there are secrets that concisely describe the central secrets of both that series and Yuki Yuna) could be used as the deep secrets of a magical girl-friendly setting in a more structured game, for example. Basically, if you like magical girl RPGs at all, you probably should spend the few bucks to pick up this one and its two supplements. If that's not an interest to you, then only pick it up if you're interested in rules-light, narrative-style games.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Rumblings of Return?

I would like to get back to this blog. I think that, in this post-G+ era, blogs are where most of the interesting conversations about gaming are occurring. The groups on major social media sites are just too full of nonsense and babblings. No one cares about what alignment you want Rangers to be in your campaign—or if they do they're more likely to see it and pay attention in a blog post rather than a group post. The coming of blog "planets" like the Old School RPG Planet are helping that revival of blogs, too.

Part of this blog becoming a little less active than it once was is my own fault. Frankly, I'm really lazy about doing session write-ups. I have the first session of my new Stonehell Dungeon based campaign under my belt, but I still haven't written it up. I will, I hope.

Anyway, I was looking back at some of my series. The Obscure Games series is for sure going to be picking up, I think. I have a list of games still to review. I'll post them at the end of this post, probably behind a cut, so you can tell me what interests you most. These are games that I own in hardcopy that are broadly "obscure" by my own subjective criteria and that are not games I despise like FATE or whatever. In three cases, the fact that I own them in hardcopy is just because I or someone printed them out, but I can live with my own technicalities. There is one exception to those criteria, but only because I'm kind of smitten with the concept. And that's how reviews go here: if I don't have it in hardcopy, it will have to be ridiculously awesome to me.

I'm almost certain to do more Why I Like posts. I need to pick the games for it, though.

Goth of the Week is pretty much done, I think. It's a lot of effort for little return.

FBI Guide to Metahumans may return at some point. It may include metahumans designed for different systems than just Villains & Vigilantes, but I don't know.

Alternate Campaign Frames (for Traveller) may or may not return. It depends on if I think of something interesting to write for that concept.

My various campaign ideas that I am not actually running probably are going to stay on hiatus. I need to spend my time working on the game, or games as the case may be, that I am actually running. Unfortunately, that also includes the Real-Time Traveller thing that I didn't get very far with anyway. On the other hand, I may return to Flanaess Sector or GURPS Greyhawk because those are really high on my list.

I might do a solo game on here. Basically, I'd either pick up that Real-Time Traveller or some other campaign frame that interests me and run a solo game of it, probably using Mythic Game Master Emulator. I really want to do a Magic Noir game, whether based around GURPS Voodoo: The Shadow War, GURPS CabalMajus, or even Unknown Armies. Maybe even something else. However, running a solo game is a lot of effort that also requires writing up a session report, so it's a toss-up as to whether that will happen.

I might return to the WRG Game design exercise, but then again maybe not. I still find the idea intriguing, but my group seems more interested in playing something than helping design it. But who knows?

Anyway, without further ado, here's the list of games I currently have in the queue for Obscure Games reviews:


Saturday, February 8, 2020

Everything Has Changed!

The boom town is in hex 2409, Stonehell in 2207.
Hex 1816 contains the nearest city-state.
OK, not everything. I have changed the game I'm running. I've gotten tired of trying to balance long GURPS combats and non-combat sessions, so for now I'm just going to run an unholy mix of Delving Deeper and White Box Fantasy Medieval Adventure Game, plus a bunch of stuff I like. I'm going back to some kind of basics with it. The starting outdoor map is the Outdoor Survival map, though I also have vague plans to use Rob Conley's Blackmarsh even though I'm not yet sure where it hooks up to the classic map (and I seem to recall that it does connect to a couple of the Points of Light maps, which means I need to pick those up at some point). The game involves characters who have come to a boom town near Stonehell Dungeon in order to make their fortune.


  • Goblins are going to be influenced by Jeff Rients, especially the "What Are the Goblins Doing" table and the "Goblin Door" table.
  • I'm adding a Death & Dismemberment chart, specifically the one by Norman J. Harman, Jr. at Troll & Flame. I'm going to be crueler, however, and say that Clerical magic can't heal Death & Dismemberment damage directly. You just have to wait for those broken bones to knit.
  • I'm using psionics, with the Basic Psionics Handbook from New Big Dragon.
  • I like the concepts behind Courtney Campbell's On the Non-Player Character: Solving the Social Trap, so I'm using that. As a side note about those, it's a good supplement. Courtney has the right to price it however. In my opinion, though, it is worth $10 for the pdf, and it would be worth $15 for the print version. You could stretch the print price to $20 if you were the kind who doesn't worry too much about prices when buying your gaming materials, and you would probably not be sad about it. Unfortunately, that does mean that, again in my own opinion, the DTRPG pdf is overpriced and so is the print version. Sometimes the print one goes on sale, though. Note that I do link to all three there, and I don't have any code that gives me a cut. Take them or leave them, it is a good supplement, but not as good as Courtney apparently wants to price them at.
  • I'm changing out the spell list for Magic-Users to be the one from Delta's Book of Spells. It's more deliberate and I like the aesthetics. The only stumbling point for me is the inclusion of Magic Missile, but that's not really a big deal.
  • I've added the material components from AD&D 1st edition to the Magic-User spells, and tapped Dragon magazine #81 for the expansion on how to handle those. Clerics won't use material components, however.
  • I'm mainly using Delving Deeper, but I like the classes, experience progression, and single saves from White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game (which is, as you probably know, the same thing as Swords & Wizardry: White Box), except that I prefer the Cleric and Magic-User spell progression from DD. I also vastly prefer the dual classing method in DD.
  • I'm using a silver standard, replacing all references to gold pieces with silver pennies. I'm also using classic duodecimal coinage: four copper farthings to a penny, 12 pennies to a shilling, five shillings to a gold crown, four crowns to a pound, a pound and a shilling to a guinea. Only farthings, pennies, and crowns have actual coins, the others are notional units of account.
  • I'm incorporating a version of encumbrance by stone. In my system, there are coin weights, item weights, and stone weights. 100 coins equals an item and five items equals a stone, but round up for number of stones carried. Characters can carry up to Strength in stones, with more weight reducing their movement rate.
  • There are other classes in other regions of the setting, and Clerics and Magic-Users are mainly only found in the local region. Some of the classes I know about are Dragonriders, Mystics, Monks, Shamans, Illusionists, and Druids. Players will not be able to start as any of these, however.
  • I'm using the skill system from Savage Swords of Athanor. Sadly, you can't get that in print these days, but you can find the pdf in various places. Look at Scribd or something. EDIT: I was reminded by Sully that you can find it from Doug Easterly directly in the "Game Files" menu on the right side of his old blog.
  • I'm going to use Doug Cole & Peter V. Dell'Orto's "Grappling Old School" system, which was published in The Manor issue 8. I think you can still get it at Gothridge Manor?
  • I want to use a morale system, and the one in Rules Cyclopedia works well. I'll probably have to make Morale scores for some monsters, but that's not really a big deal.
  • I have a couple of other House Rules, which I've written up.
  • Alignments are Holy, Neutral, and Chaotic, but there are also other alignments out there. The players will not be able to choose those yet. Clerics must be Holy (or a similar alignment) and Magic-Users and Thieves may not be Holy. The vast majority of people are Neutral.
  • Around 1 in 20 people have a class and level.
  • Characters gain experience for spending money (1xp per sp spent), defeating enemies (100xp per hit die or level), converting NPCs to the character's religion (100xp flat), or a number of other means, probably taken from Pendragon's tables of Glory and Insight. Players may take advantage of the carousing rule, letting money spent carousing count double for experience (that is, it counts as spending money and then it also counts as carousing). I'll probably allow Holy aligned characters to gain xp by donating money to the Church, and Chaotic or Neutral ones to spend money on sacrifices, but those shouldn't be as beneficial as carousing.


So, that's fun. I wanted to do as little worldbuilding as possible, to do most of it as needed at the table, but I can't stop myself. Still, I've managed to not do all that much this time. I still haven't really named it. I know that there are six city-stats that collectively call themselves the Wilsur City-States, that they lie along a river valley, and I know the main structure of the Tetradic Church, which is one of the few that has Clerics. I know that Clerics are not always Priests, that sometimes they are holy people outside of the hierarchy of the Church, and that the Church is not very happy about that situation.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

I Went To Read The Ongoing Campaign Blog And All I Got Was This Lousy Post

I didn't blog anything in December, and now the end of January is almost upon us. I guess I should write something, right? A little update, talk about where gaming has taken me lately? People coming here mainly for GURPS content won't find a lot this time around, just a brief recap of the first session of a new campaign I've begun using the system.

I spent most of the first part of this year ill. We spent most of the month not gaming, then I managed to get in a Call of Cthulhu game on Saturday (my character now has a fear of bandages), then I ran the first session of my Sundaland sword & sorcery game. Due to the illness and laziness, we didn't actually do much in the latter. The characters arrived at a port town that was larger than anything they had ever imagined might exist (actual population of around 1500 people) and began learning how life works when there are more people than you can recognize offhand. There are three characters (there were going to be four, but one player has a new schedule that forces him to have to bow out of gaming on the day we play), Tech the magician, Jade the "hobbit" blowgun hunter who is small even for her small race, and Gar-whee the warrior.

The setting is around 10,000 years ago, more or less, in southeast Asia, where a substantial subcontinent, around half the size of the continental US, had not yet been submerged under the rising waters at the end of the ice age. Historically, that was probably a mesolithic society, but in my imagination, it is an early bronze age one, with currency, social organization, and pretty much everything you'd expect other than wheels and common beasts of burden. No horses, no wheels, cattle are mainly food sources, and only elephants are used for transportation—obviously only by the very wealthy. Only humans (and some rare hominins like the Flores Island "hobbits" or the few Gigantopithecus "giants" from the jungles in the north) The characters are trying to wrap their heads around a currency economy after having lived their lives in a gifting one. They are preparing to travel overland, upriver, to the city they've heard makes chieftains out of everyone who sets foot on the streets.

So good of GURPS to give me some excellent tools to be able to run this. Articles on gifting economies in the Low-Tech book and its supplements, as well as one in an issue of Pyramid. Tech levels that can manage the slightly unusual set of situations in southeast Asia of the period (even given my somewhat optimistic assumption of bronze working). An amazing magic system in the Path/Book Magic system that can handle spirits well, leading my characters to carry around little amulets and such provided by the party sorcerer. There is a lot to love in that game.

I'm reading a supplement for Chronicles of Darkness (formerly called the "New World of Darkness", being the reboot and reimagining of a world with vampires, werewolves, and magicians, plus other supernatural stuff) called Princess: The Hopeful. It's an attempt to provide a society of mahou shoujo "magical girls" inspired by the likes of Sailor Moon, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Pretty Cure, Cardcaptor Sakura, and so on. Its most important inspiration is "Sailor Nothing", a deconstruction and reconstruction of the mahou shoujo genre, one of the earliest of its kind. It posits a baroque world of "nobles", both male and female despite the title, who wield magical powers of hope and heart. They come from the lands of dreams and fight against corrupted nobles from the lands of tears, storms, and mirrors, among other threats to the hearts of humanity. It began development before Madoka existed and when Pretty Cure was not yet the overwhelming phenomenon it has become. It's been making me look at some of the other mahou shoujo games I have (the Sailor Moon RPG that used the Big Eyes, Small Mouth system, Magical Fury which is based very strongly on Madoka and uses a streamlined version of Powered by the Apocalypse, and the Star Sailors supplement for White Star that gives a mahou shoujo character class powered by the Starlight Entity and dedicated to fighting the Gloom, mainly, but I have a few more too) and considering how I would approach such themes. Mostly, I am interested in playing in a game of Princess, to be frank, but I do have other ideas to bring to the table too.

It might be fun to convert Princess: The Hopeful to GURPS. I feel like it should use something based on the Sorcery system, with some unique colleges of spells. Because another project that goes nowhere is just what I need, right?

Speaking of projects going nowhere, I'm still homing in on exactly what I want from a game of my own design, but I think I am closer than ever now. Almost ready, if I can get myself to sit down and write it. A little bit Flashing Blades, a little bit MegaTraveller, some dashes of Lace & Steel and GURPS and Hârnmaster and Pendragon, maybe a bit of some other games too. I want to tie it to a setting, at least at first, but I haven't decided on what sort of setting to tie it to yet. I think that I've been assuming a space opera type setting, with galactic empires and such, but I'm not sure if that's right yet. Being immersed in mahou shoujo stuff, I've been thinking about how the systems of interpersonal relationships drawn from Lace & Steel and Pendragon can be used to model the emotional content that is often given a position of narrative significance in anime generally and mahou shoujo specifically, and Star Sailors provides a way to tie that into a space operatic setting. We'll see, assuming I can get myself to actually do it.

Then there's my ideal D&D, which is probably unnecessary at this point in history except that I want to have a copy in print. It would combine my favorite ideas from over the years: morale from RC, experience tables and hit dice from S&W White Box, the Expert from LotFP instead of the Thief, the Attack Priority initiative system, and so on. If I can figure out a way to incorporate a social system inspired by Courtney Campbell's "Solving the Social Trap", I'd probably do that too.

Anyway, sorry about the poor content. I want to get back to this blog on a more frequent basis, but I feel like I don't have a strong or proper focus for my gaming thoughts at the moment. So you get stuck with this.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Quick Post: The Thief-Acrobat

Snipped from a video in a UPI story about the
"Spider-Man" burglar in China in 2015.
People I know who play AD&D don't, for the most part, really want to use Unearthed Arcana anyway, but I was involved in a discussion that was pretty down on the Thief-Acrobat. Some were even saying that it was useless in a dungeon, which, uh, how can a parkour expert not be useful in a dungeon? I guess their DMs didn't really use traps and obstacles?

Anyway, the discussion got me to thinking, and I do agree that some of the class's abilities should have been boosted slightly to make the class competitive with the other classes in the game, especially some of the overpowered UA monstrosities like the Cavalier or Barbarian—though I think that the Thief-Acrobat is mostly in line with the original 10 classes in AD&D and I'd be happy to include it, unlike the Cavalier and Barbarian. So, here was my suggestion:

I do agree that some of the abilities should have been boosted a little to make the split class more competitive with the other classes, but those are simple fixes like making the pole vault equal to twice the level (12' at 6th, 14' at 7th, etc), standing broad jump equal to level+2', running broad jump twice that, and make falling so that the T/A simply automatically subtracts 1d6 from falling damage at 6th level, and increase that subtraction by 1d6 per level (as an aside, I'd stick to the simple 1d6 per 10' of falling damage, to a maximum of 20d6). I'd probably also allow bonuses in areas with good geometry for things like tic-tacs and the like. (Then I included a link to a list of parkour moves in case the people involved didn't know anything about the art of movement.)

So, yeah, just a quick thing to throw out there for  AD&D 1.X edition games.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Why I Like: GURPS!

This is hopefully going to be a new series for me to post once in a while. I want to discuss why it is that I like the particular game systems that I do like. I'll probably also touch on what I don't much like about them, because that's the kind of jerk I am. Anyway, let's get started with the game I am currently running, GURPS.

I've written before a bit on a thing that annoys me about GURPS, which is the lack of any really quick way to generate characters without having to think about them. A random generation system for the game would go a long way. Unfortunately, in experimenting with them, it occurred to me that any such system would have to be closely tied to the particular setting of the game in question. And that's a key to one of the things I really love about the game.

See, most people think that GURPS is a game. It isn't, really. It's a toolkit to make a game. It's a set of rules that hang together in particular ways which can be picked among like creating a salad at a salad bar. A little bit of this, some of that, and do we want to have a detailed grappling system? Are rules for social interactions going to be something we should pay attention to? It's possible, of course, to pick among these on the fly, using the GURPS Social Engineering rules in a situation where social interaction has become important, but skipping back to the normal, simpler methods laid out in the basic rules for skill use in most cases. There are some cases where that won't work, like using or not using an optional rule like "The Last Gasp", which deals in great detail with the way that short-term fatigue in a combat situation works at the expense of greatly increased recordkeeping. Using the rule also changes elements of character creation, so it has to pretty much be chosen at the outset of the game or not used—though obviously a creative Referee could find a way to handle switching it in and out, but it seems to me like that would still be clumsy. In any case, the specific rules in use have to be picked by the Referee based on what the game will emphasize or not emphasize. Will players have a lot of options to customize their equipment, or will it all just be used at a more basic, even semi-abstracted level? Is wealth an important concept and money a subject of recordkeeping, or should it be treated abstractly?

As a result of this, a game of GURPS will only mostly resemble other games of GURPS. A lot of the choices made, however, will have to do with worldbuilding elements. And that is what really attracts me to the game. I really like worldbuilding. I keep a file with campaign ideas, which currently reaches number 114. Almost every one of those represents an entire worldbuilding exercise. Some of them are explicitly designed for a particular game, like the Flanaess Sector idea—though that one could certainly be done in GURPS as well, especially now that much of the work of converting various AD&D monsters has already been done by an excellent rules mechanic—or some of the ones that are explicitly intended to show off a particular set of rules and, usually, setting. Examples of the latter are some Glorantha-based RuneQuest games, Space 1889 (using the original rules, not the Savage Worlds conversion currently in print), obscure games like Aftermath! or Shattered Dreams, or whatever. But still, most of the campaigns I dream up are worldbuilding exercises, like the "Dawn of the Elves" game that envisions a world divided up between various "wug" races such as insect-men, fish-men, dragons, and the like, and a primitive, yet highly adaptable and curious, race of elves, before they develop their elven civilizations and nurture humanity to reach its potential. Some of those I could easily do in another game—AD&D could probably handle the "Dawn of the Elves" setting—but GURPS gives me the option to more closely tailor everything to exactly the vision that comes flowing from my dreams.

As an example, I'm currently getting ready to run a swords & sorcery game set in ancient Sundaland at the end of the last Ice Age. I'm doing this because I'm having some difficulties in pacing the metahumans game I've been running in a way that makes it less enjoyable than it could be. Anyway, Sundaland, as I envision it, is a large subcontinent, about half the size of North America, which has developed civilization and metalworking in a few river valleys long before the rest of the world. Partly, that's because I think that a bronze-age civilization would be more interesting to the players. I'm doing some other slight anachronisms as well, like including some of the megafauna and hominins that had probably died out by 10,000-15,000 years ago. Megalania, for example, pretty closely resembles the dragon that bedevils Conan and Valeria in "Red Nails", so it seems like something I could use! Who cares that the species probably went extinct around 50,000 years ago? A 20+ foot long venomous lizard is something that fits a sword & sorcery setting! Another (probable) anachronism that fits the setting is Homo floresiensis, a diminutive species of hominin that happens to exist right in the region of Sundaland. While current research seems to indicate that it went extinct around the same time as Megalania, it was initially thought to have existed as recently as 12,000 years ago, which is also within the right time frame. Anyway, the point is that I can take all of these elements and easily come up with GURPS statistics, along with statistics for bronze weaponry, appropriate armor, and so on, all without having to completely rebalance the game as I might have to do to run it using a D&D-type.

This brings me, roundabout, to another thing I really like about GURPS. It's a great simulation. I know that "simulationism" gets a bad rap these days, but that's just because people have different tastes. My tastes run to games that can give me a feel similar to what I might feel if I were in a particular situation. That is, I like "immersion" in my games, and I get immersion from feeling like the things happening at the games table could happen, theoretically, if the situation in question were occurring. We shouldn't call this "realism", because the situation can include elements that are "unrealistic" like superpowers. However, GURPS also allows a Referee to fine-tune the "realism" too. Magic, as I have said recently, exists in the real world, and is therefore "realistic" in that sense, but that doesn't mean that magic acts like the magic systems of your favorite novel or RPG. No one can wave their hand and shoot a fireball at people who annoy them, not without extensive preparations and technological assistance anyway. GURPS allows a Referee to select magic systems that are more or less like those in a particular novel, like a default system that Steve Jackson dreamed up some 30-odd years ago, or like a great number of other systems. Or, as I note in the previously-mentioned article on this blog, a Referee could select elements that more closely resemble the sorts of things that magicians have done for millennia—and still do today—here in the real world, even to the point of cutting off any animistic hypothesis in favor of a materialistic one if that's the way that world should work. (As an aside, there is probably still room for fine-tuning the game in that arena, but the point is that such a thing can be done, and done fairly easily.)

On the other hand, GURPS can also be run as a very cut-down, fast and loose, largely abstracted game, too. Really, the game system only insists on the basic mechanics of a 3d6 roll under a target for success (with critical success and failure as possibilities), a number of d6 and adds for effect (mostly damage, but the mechanic has been adapted for a couple of other results as well), 3d6 with high results being good for reactions, and occasionally 3d6 plus degree of failure for effects that are impacted by the degree of failure (this is mostly only the effect of failed fear rolls). It wouldn't be impossible to run a game which removed the Health stat, for example, bringing the game a bit closer to its predecessor, The Fantasy Trip. Such a game would probably, in fact, bring the costs of all stats into line with each other, where currently Strength and Health each cost half as much as Dexterity or IQ. There are proposals in various short articles for the game to add stats, so why shouldn't a Referee consider simplifying instead?

I could go on about specific things, like the way that the game currently handles different martial arts styles—or styles of any particular thing, such as magical styles, styles of civic arts, or whatever—but I think that I've gotten my main points across. The game is flexible enough to really support my worldbuilding ambitions, offers a range of verisimilitude and detail from highly abstracted to deeply simulated, and a depth of detail that other games can't really match (it's the only game I know of that can usefully simulate Wolverine's adamantium skeleton out of the box, for example, with specific advantages to make unbreakable bones) without a much greater outlay of rules tinkering. I do wish that some things were able to be handled with randomization that aren't, and some things are presented in absolute terms that might be usefully treated with a range of values (see, for one example, the previously-mentioned unbreakable bones), but those are relatively minor complaints in the end.

Next time, I'll probably talk about AD&D 1E. Or maybe something else. Who knows?

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Realistic Magic And GURPS Mechanics

I'm still working on articles that discuss realistic magic in GURPS terms from a philosophical perspective, but a quick note on how to approach it from a mechanical perspective seems appropriate.

Coming back here to edit now that I've finished the main article, I note with irony that "quick" may be a relative term here. Still, no cut tags today. You get the whole thing! Also, I seem to have touched on a lot of the areas that I was intending to touch on in regard to the philosophical underpinnings, so I am no longer sure that a separate article is necessary. I guess I can answer questions about anything I skipped over, or go back to the article if there are enough questions to justify it.

For the most part, GURPS can handle magic without going outside of the realm of existing skills and relatively non-cinematic advantages. The exceptions are pretty well handled in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1: Philosophers and Kings, with one notable loss from the perspective of those of us who approach matters with an animist bent. Those who conceive the universe in purely materialistic terms don't even have to worry about that little bit.

Let's start with advantages and disadvantages, then skills, and then discuss the matter of spirits.

GURPS advantages that can be used to represent any number of realistic magical elements include, obviously, the set of Luck advantages, including Luck itself in its various levels, Daredevil, and Serendipity. My own experience seems to indicate that there is nothing so blatant as Super Luck in the real world—though I am open to the possibility—but Luck, Extraordinary Luck, and perhaps even Ridiculous Luck do seem to affect some people. As well, Unluckiness seems to follow some people, and I am open to the idea that some rare people may even be Cursed. Higher Purpose and Visualization might be considered to fit into this cluster, as well.

Similarly, the Empathy collection of advantages—Animal Empathy, Empathy, Plant Empathy, Sensitive, and so on—would represent the basis of a number of demonstrated "psychic" abilities.

Channeling and Medium, as well as Spirit Empathy, should be available if spirits are assumed. See the discussion below. Some would say that they represent something real even in a setting where "spirits" are not literal entities.

Charisma is a real thing. To some degree, it is a trained ability—for example, see The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane and other books that discuss "charisma"—but also represents the force of personality that magical training can build in a person.

Is Common Sense a psychic power? It certainly is a mental one, which is, after all, what "psychic" means.

Danger Sense does seem to be a real thing, demonstrated by non-human animals, and seeming to exist in some humans. Sure, you can explain it away as the result of a variety of sensory impressions being taken as a gestalt, but to a large degree that is exactly what "magic" refers to. Not exclusively, but that philosophical discussion is mostly beyond the scope of this article.

Eidetic Memory certainly covers some of the Art of Memory methods, which have been considered to be a part of magic for longer than materialism has separated the world into magic and science as opposed pairs. Photographic Memory is of a similar character.

The Basic Set doesn't mark Gunslinger, Trained by a Master, or Weapon Master as outside the realm of reality, but that's a question each Referee will have to resolve for themself. Obviously, Heroic Archer is in this cluster of advantages as well. If they do exist, then they would represent a certain sort of magic that is associated with "martial arts", speaking broadly.

I don't know if Illuminated corresponds with anything in the real world. Maybe it does. Certainly, there's nothing about it that would immediately disqualify it. Probably limit to certain sorts of settings, but still within the realm of realistic magic, I guess.

Indomitable seems like it is magical in nature, being specifically connected with the idea of influence. Unfazeable may be similar.

Intuition, of course, is clearly magical. It codifies into rules the ability to derive helpful information from seeming ignorance. It may also represent the sort of thing that goes by terms like "remote viewing", at least if connected to a skill like Intelligence Analysis and a Technique. Let's quickly write up something that we might use. We'll start with the idea that such a feat is of "Impossible" difficulty, but that it can be trained.

Remote Viewing
Hard
Default: Intelligence Analysis-10
Prerequisite: Intelligence Analysis, Intuition, cannot exceed Intelligence Analysis

By making a Remote Viewing roll, a character can get an impression about a distant target. The character may always take Extra Time in any such attempt, with a basic time of 10 seconds per attempt. The Margin of Success indicates how many interesting elements that the character successfully Views, with each element being determined by the Referee. For example, with a Margin of Success of 3, a character could receive a result of "An open plain, with a tree, and no animals or men present" (and, of course, they or their handler would already know what the target was, so they'd have to apply this description to what they already know). Note that some targets specifically include interesting but uninformative elements in an area they wish to protect from Remote Viewers. Referees should not take up more than one, or two if the false-interest objects are specifically designed (with extra cost at some level that I haven't worked out yet; probably 10 times?) for the purpose, of the "interesting item" slots with false-interest items. Failures at Remote Viewing will introduce false elements. Referees may mix false and true elements in a failed Remote Viewing session in order to particularly mislead Remote Viewers, but should never provide true elements that the characters don't already know about. For example, a failed attempt to Remote View a submarine base might include elements relating to a submarine, but then also false elements that are misleading. If the characters know little or nothing about the target for certain (Remote Viewing Mars, for example) then everything might be a false element on a failure.

Is Remote Viewing possible in reality? Certainly, there is quite a bit of experimental evidence. Some people do dispute the evidence, and in practice the ability has apparently been shown to be of limited practical use for Intelligence purposes (or is it just that Intelligence agencies have chosen to bury it deeper from scrutiny? Who knows what is really going on in that hall of mirrors. As it happens, some public entities, companies and individuals, do in fact consult Remote Viewers as part of their overall decision process, but this is another thing that should be left up to individual Referees for their particular settings). For some arguments about the method, along with some other science-based arguments toward "magic" generally, see Real Magic by Dean Radin, for example. I realize that some people disparage Radin and some others (Daniel Bem, Rupert Sheldrake, etc) on an ad hominem basis, but I can't help those people. Their studies speak for themselves, and it's fun to watch materialists move the goalposts whenever one of them seems to meet the predetermined criteria for showing an effect.

Even so, a glance at books like Naturalistic Occultism by IAO131 can show that there are a plethora of effects that have been traditionally codified as "magic" which can be described by such disciplines as modern neuroscience, and measured with devices such as CAT Scans and so on. If Remote Viewing is off the table, still a number of other abilities described here are not even controversial.

Okay, that was a little more in-depth into the underpinnings of the "realistic magic" approach than I really wanted to get into for this article. Still, it's useful, I hope.

Continuing on, it may be possible for the Referee (or players!) to come up with other Techniques that rely on mixing Intuition with other skills. Be careful to limit their effectiveness. Note that, for example, the Remote Viewing Technique above requires that the player spend as much as 12 points in addition to the cost of Intuition to have even marginal effectiveness (1 point in a Hard Skill for IQ-2, 11 points in the Technique to have it at Skill, or more likely 2 points in the Skill for IQ-1 and 10 points in the Technique to give Skill-1, either way giving a final Success Chance before other modifiers of 8). It's probably also worth looking at mixing other Advantages such as Danger Sense or even Luck with various Skills to represent other apparent abilities, such as maybe the alleged Remote Influence described by some soi-disant "psychic spies". That's getting outside of what I would consider strictly likely from my own experiences, however.

Oracle seems to be reasonable, and may be a way to represent those people who seem to be able to provide useful advice from divination techniques. However, as we'll discuss when we get to Skills, this may not be strictly necessary to represent these. From my own experience, I do think that some people are able to go beyond the limits described in Skills, but I think that the question remains an open one. Referees should probably allow a Technique that combines Oracle with Fortune-Telling if they want to allow the Advantage. I would, but I'm not going to define the Technique right now.

Alternately, a Referee could go so far as to allow the Precognition Advantage. There is some experimental evidence in its favor and the Advantage is sufficiently pricy for a fairly limited game effect. Up to you. I might not go this far, myself, but I go back and forth on it. In such a setting, the Destiny Advantages and Disadvantages are probably worth including. Similarly, the Psychometry Advantage isn't outside the realm of possibility, even if its experimental evidence is even less conclusive than that for Precognition. It is a little overly-reliable as written in game terms, though, so it's another one that is questionable.

Some theorists, such as Timothy Leary, have seriously proposed that Racial Memory might be a real thing, with a discernible, even possibly materialist, mechanism. There is some slight evidence that some sort of environmental information might be transmitted through DNA, with such things as the effects of trauma or PTSD possibly having an effect on the specific genetic sequences passed to the following generation. I dunno, maybe? This seems less well-documented than, say, Bem's precognition results. At the least, though, it isn't very outlandish in effect. Racial Memory (Active) might be pushing things, though, even at 40 points.

Rapier Wit. I mean, it's not a crazy effect, but it seems like it's probably cultural in nature. I probably wouldn't include it in a modern setting, where we're deeply indoctrinated with the idea that "words won't hurt me", but it might have a real effect in, say, an ancient Irish one where the effects of satire are understood to be real and powerful.

Single-Minded can represent certain types of trance states, but maybe it's better to leave this to the Autohypnosis Skill, which provides a similar effect. Speaking of that, I wonder if the two effects stack? Neither the Skill description nor the Advantage description rule the other out, so it would seem that they do. [EDIT: Looking into it, there is no official ruling yet, but the GURPS Line Editor has opined that the bonuses of the Autohypnosis Skill and Single-Minded Advantage should not stack, and that this should probably be incorporated into the rules. For all intents and purposes, the official stance is that they do not stack.]

Does Special Rapport exist in reality? There are certainly anecdotal reports of something like it. Sheldrake's experiments with dogs knowing about their owners returning home seem similar. It's questionable, but there is some reason to include it. Up to the Referee.

Visualization has a lot of experimental evidence in its favor. High-level athletes are not the only group of people who swear by the method. However, it seems to work best for people who are already at a high level of skill in the real world. Should it be a separate advantage, or just assumed as part of advanced levels of Skill? That's a difficult question. Should the Blessing and Cursing Enhancements from GURPS Powers be allowed? There is less evidence either way for this, but my experience would say that they should be. It's expensive enough that few characters in a realistic game are likely to have these abilities, but plausible enough to be worth allowing in theory. Cut the cost down by taking "Takes Extra Time" or the like.

I don't know about Wild Talent. Anecdotally, it does seem to exist to some degree, but I am not aware of any experimental evidence for something similar. I'd include it in a realistic game, but I can see arguments against it.

I'm not going to go through Perks in detail, though some of them clearly should exist in a realistic magic setting, like Autotrance.

Moving on to Disadvantages, let's just go through them in order, leaving out the ones we've already dealt with in the Luck cluster above.

Berserk matches up with some experiments that some groups have done with somafera "body-wild", which is specifically the idea that the human body can exceed its normal limits in particular circumstances. Advanced somafera practitioners relate that these abilities can be developed so that the loss of control is minimized. I refer the interested to Putting on the Wolf Skin and Scientific Magic, both by Wayland Skallagrimsson. Referees who accept these possibilities may make other Advantages available, using various Enhancements and Limitations. The prototypical ones would be Damage Resistance to Fire Only and Tough Skin, or Enhanced ST (or only Striking ST or Lifting ST) that costs FP, both connected via Accessibility to the Berserk Disadvantage, and then perhaps buying off the Berserk requirement (and Disadvantage) with further development.

Delusions are probably very common among real-world magicians. Certainly, in my experience, many magicians hold some very unorthodox beliefs to be true. Don't forget, though, that GURPS does specify that a Delusion might be factual in the end, it's just that most people don't believe it to be true and react to people who do accordingly.

Disciplines of Faith are a prerequisite to some of the "Technicians of the Sacred" practices described in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1: Philosophers and Kings.

Does Epilepsy allow a character to make use of the Dreaming Skill during waking hours? Up to the Referee. I'd say yes.

A lot of magicians develop something like Guilt Complex, since a lot of their worldview includes the notion that they have the ability to exert control over reality to some degree. In such cases, mishaps can be seen as personal mistakes and failings.

According to some researchers (here I am mainly thinking about T. M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist whose study, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft, is rather controversial in magical circles due to a justifiable perception that Luhrmann abused the trust of many of her informants, many magicians may suffer something very similar to Gullibility. I interpret Luhrmann's data in a very different way than she did, though. It doesn't help, when studying a social group, to apply one's own cultural assumptions to that group in interpreting the data from that group. Whatever, it's a book worth reading when trying to understand what exactly is going on in the real-world practices of magic. Like all of the ones I recommend, it needs to be understood in context, though, and not taken as Holy Writ.

Impulsiveness and Overconfidence might afflict some people who have too much reliance on their magical understanding and supposed powers. Similarly, people who rely excessively on divination might become Indecisive. Those who place too much significance on success and failure as magical outcomes might become Manic-Depressive, or even gain Low Self-Image. Obsessing over astronomical events might bring about Lunacy. Or maybe these things only reflect a deeper sensitivity to acausal connections.

Nightmares, Phantom Voices, Sleepwalker, and Split Personality can represent some cases of "demonic possession", and it may be possible to overcome them, at least temporarily but possibly as an explanation for buying them off, by using some of the magical Skills described later. That's a matter for the Referee to determine, and might already be described in the relevant rules, but I'm not going to go through them in detail right now. I think that GURPS Social Engineering: Back to School may discuss using Skills to justify buying off Disadvantages?

Pacifism is far from universal among magicians in the real world, but some do make it a distinct part of their worldview. Note that, in reality, most human beings should have Pacifism: Reluctant Killer in any case. Not having that Disadvantage is usually described, informally at least, as "sociopathic" or "psychopathic", and it might be worthwhile to give such characters an automatic Reputation Disadvantage (perhaps -2 to all who have the Reluctant Killer Disadvantage and notice that the character is a "casual killer"). Maybe Post-Combat Shakes or even Combat Paralysis could be a reasonable alternative, too, if the Referee is willing. Certainly, other forms of Pacifism could replace these.

Strange events often do cluster around people who get into the practices of magic. Whether that is because the practitioners become adept at reframing otherwise innocuous events as unusual or they actually do happen more often is an open question. If an actual thing, then Weirdness Magnet might be appropriate, though for myself I dislike that Disadvantage immensely (isn't this already assumed to be the case in a roleplaying game?) and would not recommend it.

Finally, the following Skills are directly appropriate to any character in any setting who is said to practice "magic" in the sense of occult sciences. Magicians will also often develop other useful Skills, such as the Influence Skills, Artistic Skills, and the Prestidigitation-related Skills (and see that discussion below), as well as the Cinematic Martial Arts Skills and Musical Influence if they are available, but this list is for the more strictly magical ones.

Autohypnosis, Body Language, Breath Control, Cryptography (one magical text, Steganographia, is entirely a manual of cryptography presented in magical terms), Dreaming, Esoteric Medicine (if available, and perhaps it should be), Exorcism (see the discussion on spirits below), Fortune-Telling, Hypnotism, Meditation, Meteorology/TL4 (aka Weather Sense), Occultism (of course), Philosophy, Propaganda, Psychology, Religious Ritual, and Theology.

It's important to consider the "Technicians of the Sacred" section of GURPS Low Tech Companion 1: Philosophers and Kings. There are a number of skills described there which can be used to induce Autotrance and Dreaming effects in those lacking those Skills, including Religious Ritual, Dancing, Singing, Musical Instrument, and so on, even Erotic Art (which corresponds to a fairly large section of magical practice known as "sex magic").

Now, keep in mind that it was the magician John Dee who founded the world's first espionage agency (and his code name in it was 007!), and that previously espionage was treated as a largely esoteric and magical practice. Specifically, the deliberate obscurantism of the magical arts in history have been useful to those trying to control the flow of information. Even today, espionage agencies are frequently found skulking around esoteric sciences and philosophies.

Prestidigitation. In the past, magicians had to provide a show for their clients, going all the way back to the shamans of Siberia and other such "primitive" magicians. Magic is largely a practice that affects the mind, and so its effects are not immediately visible. This can reduce the effectiveness as the client stops trusting in the process and begins to fall back into previous patterns. To dramatize these rituals, some magicians have made use of "special effects" involving sleight of hand and misdirection, such as seeming to withdraw "disease" matter from the body of the client. Modern "skeptics" have pointed to these practices as indicating that the underlying techniques were therefore ineffective, with many modern stage magicians getting in on the scam of "debunking" anything that isn't described in purely materialist terms. They're mistaken, of course, but then as someone who doesn't accept the automatic supremacy of the materialist hypothesis, I would say that. Anyway, a magician, especially before the early 20th century, is very likely to have learned various prestidigitation skills like Sleight of Hand, Filch, Holdout, and the like, as well as Performance and such.

Spirits. Here we come to the biggest break between the materialist and the animist worldviews. The fact is that we can't measure spirits. On the other hand, we have fairly reliable methods of communicating with them which anyone who wants to take the effort can learn. The more sensitive among us can naturally feel their presence even without communicating directly. Materialists have attempted to explain these feelings with talk of standing sound waves, low-frequency sounds, and the like, but these seem to ignore the intermittent nature of some of these perceptions.

So do spirits exist? I would argue that they clearly do, as many people report being able to sense them, and that is repeatable enough, if not 100% reliable. Religions exist because many people are able to sense the presence of spiritual forces or entities (and then those perceptions are organized into social forces; the existence of the latter does not disprove the former). If some can't sense them, that doesn't disprove them any more than the fact that some people are blind or deaf disprove the existence of light and sound. They do seem to be very subtle forces, of course. I wouldn't go so far as to simulate them even with, say, ST 1 Telekinesis. Or maybe they are capable of such limited effects, as some hauntings correspond with physical stigmata such as scratches appearing on the afflicted, and of course some people have documented, inconclusively, some sort of "poltergeist" phenomena. Don't even get me started on the weirder end of what has been called the "Daimonic", though the interested can begin with books like Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallée, Daimonic Reality by Patrick Harpur, or just about anything by John Keel (but especially Operation Trojan Horse, aka UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse).

How, then, to represent them in GURPS terms? The simplest method would be to start with the Astral Entity Meta-Trait, and to assume that Medium or Channeling are the only sure ways of communicating directly with them. Alternately, some of the Spirit Meta-Traits described in the Basic Set, GURPS Fantasy, or GURPS Horror provide a great place to start, and then the Probability Alteration Power from GURPS Psionic Powers can represent the more direct effects that some Spirits can use to affect the world. In any case, the ability to affect the material world should definitely be kept to a minimum, but that doesn't mean that it should be ruled out entirely. Even beyond that, though, these entities have the ability to communicate with those who are sensitive to them, as seen through Medium and Channeling, but perhaps also through Dreaming Skill. Dreaming communications may require interpretation via Fortune-Telling (Dream Interpretation), and are likely to be presented in symbolic terms, such that a Spirit wouldn't just say, "Hello, there are people preparing to raid your headquarters," but would instead be understood through a communication of dogs bursting through the windows of a dream house. How this is differentiated from the same dream being a sexual metaphor and wishful thinking is via the use of Fortune-Telling (Dream Interpretation).

Some such Spirits should be tied to locations, representing the Spirits of those locations, while others will be tied to objects, groups, or concepts. A great many Spirits are those of living or formerly-living persons, with Spirits of dead people commonly being called ghosts while those of living people have various names such as doppelganger, the Double, and the like. GURPS Spirits has some discussion of different sorts of Spirits. The most complex and powerful Spirits are frequently called Gods, Lwa, O-Kami, and similar terms that usually indicate deep respect and worshipfulness. In my own experience, apparently contacts with these great beings are usually with entities that are representative of them, rather than the beings Themselves. GURPS Voodoo: The Shadow War was particularly accurate, in my opinion, in framing all such contacts as being with Spirits of varying power level and able to appear in more than one example, such that one person could call for a Major Manifestation of a particular Lwa, while their friend could also call one at the same time, and the person they were opposing potentially could as well! These could be said to correspond to angels "messengers", while the Arch-Angels of monotheistic traditions would be in roughly the same position as the Gods of polytheistic ones. (I will refrain here from arguing how polytheistic assumptions seem to match observed reality better than monotheistic or atheistic ones. See A World Full of Gods by John Michael Greer—note, absolutely not the one of that title by Keith Hopkins, which is on an entirely different topic relating to the rise of Christianity in the ancient world—if you are interested in that topic.)

I'm not going to enter into a long discussion of herbalism (GURPS: Pharmacy (Herbal), at least in part, plus Meditation and other Skills described in "Technicians of the Sacred" in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1), entheogenic substances (again, see that "Technicians of the Sacred" section in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1), alchemy (GURPS: Chemistry/TL0-4 plus Meditation, as well as the occasional prestidigitation Skills), and the like.

Finally, it is useful to any real-world magician to have detailed and specific knowledge Skills. Everything from Intelligence Analysis to Naturalist to Market Analysis to Strategy and Tactics Skills, and many more besides, are going to be useful parts of the knowledge base of a real-world magician. Gambling is useful in calculating the odds and so advising a King or other decision-maker, which is a common enough place for magicians in history (again, see Dr. John Dee and his relationship with Queen Elizabeth I's court). Even outside of that, magicians were sought out by other people looking for advice on topics ranging from love to healing and beyond.

Because I think that it can be useful to end a long article with a bibliography of works that are useful but weren't referenced in the body, here are some works that are going to be particularly useful in understanding real-world magic that weren't referenced above:

Betz, Hans Dieter - The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation

Brennan, J. H. - Astral Doorways (also a game designer, known mainly for Timeship, which was notorious for blurring the lines between magical practices and roleplaying, and that during the Satanic Panic years)

Child, Alice B. and Irvin L. Child - Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples

Couliano, Ioan - Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (if you read nothing else I've referenced, read this one)

Dukes, Ramsey - How to See Fairies

Dunn, Patrick - Magic, Power, Language, Symbol

Dunn, Patrick - Postmodern Magic

Greer, John Michael - Green Wizardry (attempts to be for the modern world what Picatrix and similar texts were, in part, to the early modern one, a collection of useful science and art that can help a community or individual in daily life; more importantly for these purposes, discusses in some detail what such texts were trying to transmit, and so what magicians were often expected to know)

Greer, John Michael - Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth

Keith, William H. Jr. - The Science of the Craft (a somewhat credulous, but definitely worthy, attempt at understanding magic through modern, cutting-edge science; written by a noted gamer and fiction author)

Lecouteux, Claude - Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies (really, anything by Lecouteux is worth looking into; pick a title that interests you and go from there, and if you can read the French originals, more power to you)

Marsh, Clint - The Mentalist's Handbook

Paper, Jordan - The Deities Are Many (along with Greer's A World Full of Gods, an excellent primer of polytheistic theology; where Greer's work is an apologetic and even a polemic, Paper's is a confessional; I should probably point out here that "polytheistic" and "animistic" are pretty well synonymous in the world outside of academia and the people who build their worldviews on the frequently artificial and theoretical distinctions of the academy—which is to say that I can't think of a real-world instance of a polytheistic religion which isn't also animistic, nor any pre-modern example of animism which is not also conceptually polytheistic)

Paxson, Diana - Trance-Portation

Pócs, Éva - Between the Living and the Dead

Skelton, Robin - Spellcraft (especially in conjunction with Thompson, below)

Skinner, Stephen - Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic

Skinner, Stephen - Techniques of Solomonic Magic

Smith, Dave - Quantum Sorcery (another credulous approach to mixing science and magic)

Smith, Morton - Jesus the Magician

Stone, Kelly L. - Thinking Write

Thompson, Christopher Scott - A God Who Makes Fire (especially in conjunction with Skelton, above)

Whitcomb, Bill - The Magician's Reflection

Wier, Dennis R. - Trance: From Magic to Technology

Wilby, Emma - Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

Anyway, I hope this is helpful to you in some way.