Thursday, January 27, 2022

Some Notes on Coins in AD&D

You can buy these here.
Physical coins are fun.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
, in its first edition, is famous for its heavy coins. Each has a weight of a full tenth of a pound, or 1.6 ounces for each coin! In the second edition, this was changed to 50 coins to the pound, which is better. Though still pretty heavy compared to average historical coinage, it is within the typical coin weight range.

For most purposes, either one of these is fine. The heavy coins make figuring weight carried easier (so easy, in fact, that all weights were scaled to the coin, with each "gold piece weight" being equal to a tenth of a pound*; simply divide the number of "gold piece weight" units carried by ten to get the weight in pounds), while the later coins made for a reasonable compromise.

In Dragon magazine issue #80, an author named David F. Godwin provided an article titled "How Many Coins in that Coffer?", which proposed to work out volumes taken up by coins so that chests and other boxes of coins (not to mention magic items that were given volumes but not weight limits) could be appropriately evaluated. The article details the math and physics, but the upshot is that, if you don't want to go into detail, the large coins can be assumed to take up 0.25 cubic inches each, loosely arranged, or put another way a box can hold up to 4 loosely packed coins per cubic inch. Also, coins are about an inch and a half across, and about 1.5mm thick. The author makes the assumption that all of the metals are alloyed to have a similar specific gravity for simplicity. The article was written long before the arrival of the second edition, so it didn't include the math for the lighter coins, but it works out simply to divide the volume of the coins by 5 (0.05 cubic inches per coin) or multiply the number of coins per volume by 5, so 20 of those coins per cubic inch. That is certainly the easiest way to handle the matter.

For those who aren't interested in an array of artificial alloys that make everything easier, I have worked out more detailed numbers for the AD&D coins, but trust me that you probably don't really want to use them. Still, here they are. The assumptions are that loosely stacked coins take up 10% more volume on average than neatly stacked ones, which is based on the article referred above, and that neatly stacked coins take up a number of cubic inches equal to their diameter squared times their thickness. Note that coins are given diameter and thickness in millimeters, but volumes are converted to cubic inches. I'll be using the normal abbreviations for the coin types, which are: PP for Platinum Pieces, GP for Gold Pieces, EP for Electrum Pieces, SP for Silver Pieces, and CP for Copper Pieces. The metals were worked out as 90% pure, with the alloys being: Platinum 90%/Silver 10%, Gold 90%/Copper 10%, Gold 45%/Silver 45%/Copper 10% (Electrum), Silver 90%/Copper 10%, Copper 90%/Zinc 10%. The difference of using Copper 90%/Tin 10% (or Bronze) is so small as to make effectvely no difference, about 0.2% greater specific gravity, so you could do that if you preferred.

Given those assumptions, the heavy coins are as follows:

PP: 37.73mm diameter x 2mm thick
GP: 40.87mm diameter x 2mm thick
EP: 44.94mm diameter x 2mm thick
SP: 52.92mm diameter x 2mm thick
CP: 57.58mm diameter x 2mm thick

Note that the silver and copper coins have gotten very large in diameter, over 2", so it is possible to make them 3mm thick instead, which makes the SP 43.21mm in diameter and the CP 47.01mm in diameter. This has no appreciable effect on the volume of the coins.

Loose coins per cubic inch/Cubic inches per loose coin

PP: 0.1911/5.2329
GP: 0.2243/4.4583
EP: 0.2712/3.6873
SP: 0.3760/2.6596
CP: 0.4451/2.2467

If instead you prefer the lighter coins that weigh 1 pound per 50 coins, those sizes and numbers are:

PP: 19.49mm diameter x 1.5mm thick
GP: 21.10mm diameter x 1.5mm thick
EP: 23.21mm diameter x 1.5mm thick
SP: 27.33mm diameter x 1.5mm thick
CP: 29.73mm diameter x 1.5mm thick

Cubic inches per loose coin/Loose coins per cubic inch

PP: 0.0383/26.1097
GP: 0.0449/22.2717
EP: 0.0542/18.4502
SP: 0.0752/13.2979
CP: 0.0890/11.2360

But again, it would be much simpler to simply assume that each coin has an equivalent weight and volume due to the array of alloys used, and allow exactly 4 or 20 coins per cubic inch of storage space. If your coins have another ratio to pounds, then simply multiply the volume appropriately. For example, if you have 100 coins per pound, then allow twice as many as the 50 coins per pound number, or 40 coins per cubic inch. My historical £sd coins, of which the pennies are approximately 300 per pound, would have 60 coins to the cubic inch (yes, they are tiny, just as the historical Tower pound pennies were, at 240 pence to the Tower pound; as you can see at the original article on my blog**, the silver pennies are 14.73mm in diameter and 1.28mm thick, while the larger Gold Crowns measure 17.55mm diameter by 1.5mm thick), which seems odd, but is because the specific gravity of silver is not the same as the specific gravity of the "Universal Alloy" used in the referenced article.

*In fact, in the "basic" D&D line (B/X, BECMI, Cyclopedia), weights were simply called "coins", keeping the same tenth of a pound per coin ratio.

**I am going to have to re-figure a lot of that article, as I never accounted for impure metal and all of those sizes and weights are based on pure silver, copper, and gold. I can get away with simply multiplying the diameters by the square root of the ratios of the specific gravities of the pure metals to the impure alloys (I think; right now figuring the math in my head is giving me a headache so I'll work it out in detail later). I never did figure the volume of the coins, either, but I was figuring on abstracting specific volumes to the stone/item weight categories, which was a feature of the encumbrance system I was planning.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

On The Deities Of The World Of Greyhawk

Images of Some Greyhawk Deities

For the purposes of this article, I am going to stick (mostly) to the so-called "Gold Box" release of The World of Greyhawk. In part, this is because I like 576 CY campaigns and the freedom they give for the individual DM to develop the setting as they see fit. I also take the events in the Greyhawk's World series of articles found in Dragon magazine from 1981-1982—and to a lesser extent the Deities & Demigods of the World of Greyhawk series of articles (and Gods of the Suel) that appeared in that magazine from 1982-1984—as mostly canonical, though I reserve the right to change anything in those articles to suit my purposes. So, I suppose you can call it a 578 or 579 CY campaign. One of the more obvious elisions in this article, then, will be the Elder Elemental God, Zuggtmoy, Lolth, and so on, except of course for Iuz. I'm also going to skip over the demihuman and humanoid pantheons as they are mostly disconnected from the main subject of this article.

Pretty obviously, the list of gods in the Guide divides the gods into four main "ethnic" pantheons (though, as we will see, things are not so cut-and-dried): the Oeridian, the Suel, the Flan, and the Baklunish. A number of the gods from each of these pantheons are also included in what is termed the "Common" pantheon, which we can imagine is the pantheon of gods imagined by people who aren't particularly connected to any of the particular religious expressions in the Flanaess—the gods of the common people, if you will. This Common pantheon includes all of the gods of the Flan, most of the gods of the Oeridians, a very few of the gods (to be exact, two goddesses) of the Suel, and the lesser gods of the Baklunish. In addition, the Common pantheon includes a number of gods unconnected to the other pantheons, and for the most part not to each other except for their inclusion in the Common pantheon.

It is important to note that Gygax noted that the "Greater" gods see very little actual worship, being too big to be credible in responding to the needs of some shepherd in the Hestmark Highlands or whatever, so most of the religious activity of those who are not actual clerics or the great nobility is concentrated on the so-called "Lesser" gods and the demigods.

The Flan pantheon consists of nine gods, four "Greater" gods, four "Lesser" gods, and the Demigod Iuz. The four Greater gods are Beory, the Oerth Mother, Pelor, the god of the Sun, Nerull "the Reaper", god of Death and the Underworld, and Rao, god of Reason and Serenity. This is mostly the typical "pagan" pantheon envisioned by neopagans in the real world today with the addition of a god of Reason. We can perhaps envision a central myth similar to the "Oak King-Holly King" one that developed among neopagans in the 20th century, where a great Goddess is alternately wed to a God of summer and a God of winter, changing at the equinoxes or solstices (or perhaps at the midway point between an equinox and solstice) when each God meets the other in combat and the winner takes the bride. That is, a typical seasonal myth. It's up to the DM how they might want to envision this myth as a rite, perhaps varying from place to place in the Flanaess.

The "Lesser" gods of the Flan include two who are connected to the world and two who are associated with social behavior. The two worldly gods are Berei, goddess of the home and agriculture, and Obad-hai "the Shalm", god of nature and the wilderness. The social gods are Allitur, god of ethics and proper behavior, and Zodal, the god of mercy and hope. Iuz, of course, is a demigod whose machinations drive the overarching action hinted at in the existence of the land named for him as well as the opening moves described in the Greyhawk's World articles and of course the events in such classic adventures as The Village of Hommlet.

The Oeridian pantheon is much larger, but has only two "Greater" gods, Procan, the god of oceans, and Zilchus, the god of power, prestige, and money. I envision the former as the god of the physical world, which the Oeridians must understand as arising from the surrounding ocean, while the latter is the god of actions, understood as the powers of the nobility to command, the "invisible hand" of the market, and so on.

Similarly, the "Lesser" gods of the Oeridians can be divided into gods of the physical world and gods of mental states that drive actions. In the former case we have the gods of the four winds and their associated seasons, Atroa, goddess of the east wind and spring, Sotillion, goddess of the south wind and summer, Wenta, goddess of the west wind, autumn, and the harvest, and Telchur, god of the cold north wind and winter. In addition, there are Celestian, god of the stars and wanderers, Fharlanghn, god of the horizon and travel, and Velnius, god of the sky and weather. Pholtus "of the Blinding Light" stands, perhaps, in between the physical world gods and the mental gods, being god of light but also of law. To a certain extent, Pholtus seems to have developed as a nearly monotheistic god, jealous of other deities, at least in the early material about him.

The rest of the Oeridian gods include Delleb, god of reason and intellect, Erythnul, god of hate and envy, the very similar Kurell, god of jealousy and revenge, and the opposing pair of Heironeous, god of chivalry, honor, justice, and valor, and Hextor, god of war, discord, and massacres. Finally, there is the demigoddess Rudd, associated with both chance and skill. Of these gods, only Delleb, Velnius, and Kurell do not make the leap into the Common pantheon, perhaps because Kurell is difficult to differentiate from Erythnul, Velnius seemingly duplicates the four wind gods, Pholtus, and Celestian, and Delleb is maybe seen as a lesser version of Rao.

The Suel pantheon is commanded by three "Greater" gods, Kord, god of athletics, sports, and brawling, Wee Jas, goddess of magic and death, and Lendor, god of tedium and the passing of time. This suggests a culture that values on the one hand physical activity and on the other the uncanny, but considers all other events to be merely wasting time.

The "Lesser" gods of the Suloise include an interesting mix that deserve some contemplation. There are four goddesses, Bralm, goddess of insects and industriousness, Lydia, goddess of music, knowledge, and daylight, Beltar, goddess of caves and malice, and Syrul, goddess of deceit and lies. In addition, there are seven "Lesser" gods, Fortubo, god of metals, stone, and mountains, Llerg, god of beasts and strength, Norebo, god of gambling and luck, Phaulkon, god of wind and clouds, Phyton, god of beauty and nature, Xerbo, god of the sea and money, and Pyremius, god of fire, poison, and murder. Of all of these gods, "Greater" and "Lesser", only the goddesses Bralm and Lydia are to be found in the Common pantheon.

The Baklunish people hold Istus, Lady of Fate, to be the greatest, and under her are two "Lesser" goddesses, each pointing the way to a different way to meet fate. On the one hand is Xan Yae, goddess of stealth and shadows, but also mastery of mind over matter, and on the other is Geshtai, goddess of rivers, lakes, and wells. The one demigod of the Baklunish people mentioned is Zuoken, associated with physical and mental mastery, who maybe can be understood as the consort or son of Xan Yae, or perhaps her devoted follower. Of these, only Istus is not widely worshiped in the Common pantheon. My own take on this pantheon is to draw parallels to medieval Islam, with its focus on fate being previously written, and the "Lesser" goddesses being representative of an appreciative and aesthetic approach to meeting fate, and an approach to fate of mastery, suggesting a Sufi-like mysticism or, alternately, cults of assassins exerting their will.

Anyway, this has gotten long, so I'll save the rest of the gods, unassociated with any particular pantheon, for another time if there's any interest. That's where you'll find St. Cuthbert "of the Cudgel", Boccob "the Uncaring", and the nearly-Lovecraftian Tharizdun, among quite a few others.

Monday, August 16, 2021

[Obscure Games] Flashing Blades


Fantasy Games Unlimited was notorious for publishing excessively complex games like Chivalry & Sorcery, Aftermath!, or Space Opera, but in fact they just as frequently published games of normal complexity, like Villains & Vigilantes or Psi-World. Some of their games, like Bunnies & Burrows, were on the much less complex side of the hobby. And that is where we find ourselves with the swashbuckling game, Flashing Blades.

Character creation is fairly straightforward, with a few stats each rolled on 3d6, a number of figured stats including a hit point pool, the choice of several character backgrounds that give varying access to skills, giving different skills a cost of one, two, or three points each, and a number of skill points to pick up those skills. In addition, a character can learn how to fight in various ways, from picking up the skill on the mean streets to formal instruction in a fencing salle. Finally, the character can have any of a number of advantages or be burdened with a secret that gives story hooks to the character.

Non-combat skills are easy to use, simply rolling against one of the character's stats if the skill is possessed, half the stat if it isn't, and getting bonuses for a couple of levels of increasing mastery. In addition, mastery of a skill should cause the Referee to call for rolls less often, only for situations of increased difficulty.

Combat isn't much more difficult, being a process of figuring the chance to hit on a d20, rolling for hit location by picking a target, rolling 2d20 and using the result that is closest to the target location, and doing damage that is reduced by armor rating.

But a swashbuckling game would be remiss if it didn't provide a way to rise in society, and in some ways the heart of the game is found in the social status and careers. Characters start with a social status based on their background and possibly their advantages if those provide them with a position at the start of the game. They may use their skills and background to enter into any of various careers, whether in the army, the royal bureaucracy, the Church, the banking system, or a number of other possibilities. Each career starts with a low-level position, such as a minor bureaucrat, law student, or priest, then provides opportunities for advancement as the game progresses, potentially advancing as far as Pope of the Church! Of course, most characters will not make it so far in their careers, but even a Town Mayor or Provincial Tax Collector has significant clout. There are also minor careers that can be pursued, such as rising as an official within a Gentlemen's Club. The most active characters might even pursue careers in several directions. Holding a number of positions can increase the character's social rank, after all.

Most of the supplementary materials for the game simply provided some adventures to undertake, but High Seas in particular expanded the game by providing for life in the Caribbean instead of France, and opened the possibility of playing a pirate, with information on how that sort of a career could be pursued.

Designer Mark Pettigrew was only 19 years old when the game was published in 1984, but its clean design and sophisticated approach to a lifetime career speaks to a solid understanding of how those could work in a gaming environment.

In the end, it's an excellent game. You can still buy it in print or PDF. PDFs are available at DTRPG, while the print game can be ordered from Fantasy Games Unlimited directly. I do not get any kickbacks or anything from those links, I am only providing them for your convenience.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Let's Talk About Game Design


A long-time project of mine has been to update the old RPG Fantasy Wargaming, a game which was never properly developed or even well-edited. Different authors had different chapters, and those portions of the game weren't very well integrated into a cohesive whole. In addition, the people involved had very little collective experience at game design, though of course some had more than others. Further, the game was based on very early designs like D&D and Tunnels & Trolls and so had few models to examine to provide the best ways of approaching different parts of the game.

Even with all of those flaws, though, some of the ideas incorporated into the game verged on brilliant. I still haven't seen religion, especially polytheistic religion, handled quite as well (I'm  not sure that there's any other game which included the idea of appealing to a Power to intervene on the appellant's behalf with another Power and make it meaningful), and magic drew on then-cutting-edge ideas current in the so-called "Chaos Magick" movement that was happening at the time in England. It wouldn't be until Mage: The Ascension was published a dozen years later that similar ideas would be seen again in game design.

As I sit down to turn my notes into a playable game, I find myself thinking about things that I haven't seen discussed in game design before. For example, I am thinking about the relationship of the player, the character, and the setting. Some games treat the character as a mere extension of the player's desires, allowing an absolute control and decoupling the character from any setting-based relationships. This is a reflection of the purely individualist conception of a person that prevails in a lot of Western cultural contexts, but most especially as a very American attitude toward the person. I want to encourage a more social understanding of the character within the setting, so I am looking to models like Pendragon and Lace & Steel to examine elements of a character that constrain the omnipotent control by a player over the character usually assumed in RPGs. Factors like emotions, attitudes, and so on should be included in the game I am conceiving. These ideas were included in a rough form in Fantasy Wargaming, of course, in the systems related to Temptations and the resisting thereof, in the Leadership and Social Class rules, and so on.

As I'm conceiving the metaphysics of the game, as it were, I see the player as representing the soul, giving purpose and direction to the character. The character, though, has a history within the game setting, and this affects the attitudes and assumptions of the character that might run counter to or align with the will of the player. Fears, desires, hatreds, and devotions mix with personality traits like Honesty or Generosity to influence the decisions the player might make, for good or ill. Getting those personality elements to align with the player's preferences is part of the psychological work that the character and player might embark upon. In addition, social traits like Social Class and Leadership value have their effects on how the player approaches the game as well.

In Fantasy Wargaming, the personality traits were mostly expressed as the negative pole of the trait, so that they were described as Greed, Selfishness, and Lust (there's also Bravery, but that served as both fearlessness and anger). I am reversing that, so that those three traits are Temperance, Generosity, and Chastity, respectively, and I'm adding two others, Honesty and Stability, while the final personality trait, Bravery, I am leaving largely as-is. Stability is sort of the odd man out here, since it isn't involved with many Temptations, but it does allow the player to choose to temper the excesses of the character's passionate emotional reactions. I might choose to make it a regular attribute of the character instead.

In regard to more prosaic game design issues, I am still struggling with whether I should retain the odds tables of FW or re-figure things so that the game produces simple target numbers to roll on a d20. I am almost certainly going to replace "hit point" style damage pools with descriptive injuries, simply because that is a major aesthetic preference of mine. I am certainly going to keep the character levels approach, divided into the three types of Combat & Adventuring, Magical, and Religious, but instead of 1000 experience points of the appropriate type per level, it'll be 1000 for first level, doubling for every level after. That does mean that most characters won't be rising much above 6th or 7th level over their whole adventuring career, and rising above 14th level will be nearly impossible, but that's well within the parameters I want to see anyway. It also means that players who have to start a new character won't be really left that far behind their fellows and can catch almost all the way up fairly quickly.

Anyway, just some initial thinking about how to approach the game. In some ways, this is also related to JB's thoughts on fudging dice rolls, in the sense that we are both exploring what it means to be playing a game as opposed to just playing around. I'm not, of course, saying that JB would necessarily agree with my thinking here, only that we seem to be exploring the same questions of purpose.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Ten Years Of This Nonsense

 I've scheduled this post to go up at 12:01AM my time on the 27th of May, because that is the tenth year that this blog will have been in existence. Unlike at that time, I do have a regular game, but only the one right now. It's Call of Cthulhu, which I don't think of in the same terms as most other games.

The first actual RPG I talked about on this blog was Dungeon Crawl Classics. I didn't have a whole lot to say about it then, as I hadn't seen it and really knew little about it, other than it used some new funny dice and maybe that there was something about every magic spell having a table of varying effects in an attempt to keep magic from feeling drily mechanical.

I've been doing some prep work for a GURPS game that is inspired by the Malazan books, the Ōnin War at the beginning of the Sengoku Jidai in Japan, the Wars of the Roses at about the same time in England, the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Stephen King, Clive Barker, In/Spectre (aka Kyokō Suiri or Invented Inference), Princess Mononoke (aka Mononoke-hime), and some other things. Not sure who will be playing it, how I'll be running it, or a number of other logistical things, but I do know that I want to have it ready when I do get those things worked out.

As of two days ago, I am fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the two week period for the vaccine to get up to speed having finished up on the 25th. And you know what? I'm still going to wear a mask in public, regardless of what the CDC guidelines say I can do, because I have looked at the effects of the precautions against COVID have had on the flu, and how many lives that could save each year, and I care about the people who live around me. And yeah, I'll be judging people who don't wear a mask on that basis. Do the bare minimum for your neighbors, at the very least. What does this have to do with gaming, you ask? Gaming is fundamentally a social activity, which as we all should have learned over the last year-plus makes it a matter where the most unsanitary of us risks all of us. Unless we're doing it over the internet, in which case do whatcha like you filthy animal.

I've been gazing longingly at games set in the Solar System, with no FTL drives. Made for gaming settings that I have access to include Transhuman Space, Tales of the Solar Patrol, and GURPS Terradyne in the GURPS ecosphere, High Colonies (the original, not the newly-Kickstarted one), Rocket Age, Space 1889 (again, the original, not the recent reboot), and Jovian Chronicles. In addition to those, Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling provides an interesting setting for gaming. There's also Lowell Was Right!, but it's exhausting considering learning a new system, teaching it to the players, and also creating a setting. Learning and teaching or creating a new setting, not both thank you. Anyway, I'm more interested in something like The Expanse without the aliens.

My first project on the blog was the WRG Ancients-based game, inspired by a Jeff Rients challenge. I didn't get any further with that, which in the end is fine since it was mainly an exercise to see for myself why certain decisions were made in the early days of roleplaying games. I've gotten what I needed from that. It did provide me with some interesting ideas for future use.

I realize that the blog is currently creaking along, but I am trying to focus more on it. I'm afraid that I'll drop back into theorizing, and that does nobody any good. I need to be running something, playing in something less constrained than CoC, and maybe ideally playing in more than one genre of game. I'd especially like to be playing in an occult conspiracy sort of game, something like Majus or Nephilim. I'm afraid that I'd have to run such a thing if I really want to see it happen around me, though.

In summary, after ten years, I'm back more or less where I started. One game, thinking about a fantasy game, wishing for solar system and occult conspiracy games that I'd probably end up having to run. I have a 146-entry list of potential campaigns, which I've pared down to nine or so "high priority" possibilities, though I need to think through some things and adjust those lists since I haven't really updated them in the last month or more. If you've made it this far, I salute your fortitude in powering through my self-indulgent yammering. Here's to the next ten years, may they be better.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Traveller: Roads Not Taken

It's pretty well understood, I think, that Traveller started out without an explicit background setting, then developed one over time. There were some implicit setting assumptions, to be sure. In the 1977 edition, it was understood that there were shipping lanes along which it was easy to purchase a ticket or Jump navigation tapes to a destination, but outside of which travel was more difficult. There were Air/Rafts, which were some sort of anti-gravity sled, and in fact which were taken wholesale from the Dumarest of Terra series of pulp sci-fi novels (a while back, I discussed the structure of Traveller play; what I didn't note at the time was that basic structure was strongly rooted in the stereotypical Dumarest plot, in which the protagonist arrives on a world, broke and in need of passage to the next world to continue his lifelong quest, gets involved with some figure who can provide the necessary cash in exchange for some adventurous task, and then completes the mission*). This implied a system of such shipping lanes. Then there were things like the Travellers' Aid Society, membership in which would provide monthly tickets for travel. Some of these have been retained in the current canon of the Third Imperium, sometimes with subtle modifications, but others have been dropped quietly and ignored. Sometimes that is for good reason—the shipping lanes of the 1977 edition are great on paper, but I dare you to generate a subsector using the procedures given. Frankly, just the number of lines on the paper are unwieldy even if using a lower density of star systems, say 1 in 3 instead of the rule given of 1 in 2. Once the Referee expands their setting to more than one subsector, the space lanes become nearly impossible to manage (though I can imagine a computer-based system that might work, such things were not practical in the 1980s, and aren't even well-supported now).

Anyway, let's talk about some of the setting assumptions that were dropped from canon, why they were dropped, and what they could bring to a non-3I setting. I'm not going to rehash "death during character creation", since it isn't really a setting element, per se, and anyway it has been discussed repeatedly elsewhere. Maybe I'll discuss it another time.

For starters, there's a big one, Jump Message Torpedoes. First introduced in Adventure 4 Leviathan, I believe, these were communications torpedoes that a ship could send through Jumpspace to carry messages. These were never well defined, not even being given a Jump rating to indicate how far they could go, much less a cost, mass, or any other factor that might indicate their limitations. Presumably, like all Jumps, their travel would take a week. Given the Jump range of the starship at the center of the adventure, they probably were capable of at least Jump-3. Probably. However, in the end they ran up against two factors that did become canonical for the Third Imperium setting: a Jump drive could only be fitted in a hull of at least 100 tons (remembering that a hull "ton" is a measure of volume somewhere around the volume of 1 tonne of liquid hydrogen), and the implicit assumption that for some undefined reason a conscious, sapient being must be in control of a vehicle entering Jumpspace—though later canon did allow for computer artificial intelligence to be "sapient" in this way, but the robots and computers of the main Third Imperium setting are not sophisticated enough for this purpose; adding artificial intelligences to the setting was part of the long-term intention behind Virus in The New Era. If not for these factors, the Imperial network of X-Boat couriers wouldn't be necessary and the Navy would have limited use for its courier vessels.

Next is the association of Marines with Cutlasses. In classic Traveller and in MegaTraveller, a character wielding a Cutlass is capable of causing meaningful damage to a character wearing Combat Armor or even Battle Dress (powered armor). This was because the source material, pulp sci-fi stories, often depicted space marines fighting space pirates with melee weapons during boarding actions, and the game rules followed suit. This also resulted in the Marines career (and others) being likely to give a character melee weapon skills, and in the case of Marines, specifically Cutlass skill. Starting with Traveller: The New Era, this capability was reduced to match perceived reality, so that muscle-powered weapons simply weren't able to penetrate advanced armor being worn in a battlefield context. From TNE onward, Marines were no longer given skill in Cutlass as part of basic training, since it was no longer part of how the setting was understood, except that, for whatever reason, the first Mongoose edition of Traveller provided Marine recruits with the option of gaining Melee (Blade) skill, presumably in imitation of the Cutlass skill in the earliest editions, though the MgT system makes melee weapons useless against advanced armor like the other later editions. That lack of thinking things through is one of many, many reasons that I am not fond at all of the Mongoose edition, though to be fair I have not seen the second Mongoose edition.

I was going to discuss double-Jumping, the process by which some of a cargo hold is filled with liquid hydrogen in order to allow a second Jump without refuelling, usually done when a ship, due to distance limits of the Jump drive, has to Jump to empty space and then make a second Jump to reach a distant star. This is most often done when a Jump-1 ship needs to get across a 2 parsec distance. However, I'm pretty sure that this is canonical now. There was a time, a road not taken, when a Jump drive could not Jump to empty space in that manner. Jump-1 ships therefore weren't able to leave the so-called "Mains", stretches of star systems that can be reached with a 1-parsec Jump. I'm not sure that limitation was ever actually written into the game, but was instead a holdover from the board game Imperium that was a predecessor of Traveller, and was also, I think, related to the origin of the shipping lanes I mentioned toward the beginning.

What are some other roads not taken in Traveller as it developed, ideas that maybe seemed good at the time, but were dropped from the game as it became apaprent they didn't fit in with the setting as it was developing? Obviously, there's the "split timeline" phenomenon in which the official setting still includes the Rebellion and Virus, while some campaigns take place in timelines where the Rebellion never happened, or perhaps just that Virus never did, but I'm thinking less of story-oriented, "metaplot" concepts and more in terms of setting elements.

*In many of the more recent editions of Traveller, it has been an article of faith that adventuring groups should nearly automatically have access to a starship, and so mechanisms to enable this are presented such as "ship shares" or whatever, but this assumption was not present in earlier editions.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Request For A GURPS Expert

 I've been playing GURPS, off and on, since the late 1980s, when a friend convinced me to get involved in a playtest for GURPS Cyberpunk. That turned out to be fun, and I slowly warmed to the system. However, I never became an expert in it, and due to circumstances beyond my control I was away from gaming from about when 4th edition came out until maybe 2008, then was pulled away again in 2011 or so, when I was forced into reading games more than playing them. As a result, I've never really gotten how some of GURPS works on a deep level. For that reason, I like to see examples of cinema explained in GURPS terms, such as the author of GURPS Technical Grappling, who has described the Black Widow fight in Iron Man 2, among others, or the author of the GURPS Tactical Shooting supplement describing various movie gunfights in GURPS rules (there are more than gunfights from movies under that tag, but unfortunately I don't think there's a tag more specific to that genre of post at his blog).

When one of the YouTube channels I follow, which is about stage combat among other things, posted the following video about the Max/Furiosa fight in Mad Max: Fury Road, it occurred to me that there are a number of useful and somewhat complicated elements in that fight which would come in handy for a GURPS GM to know how to portray in the combat rules for that game. So, I'd like to ask that someone who can write up such a thing please describe that fight in GURPS terms. If someone would be so kind, thank you in advance.

Friday, March 12, 2021

[Obscure Games] Lords of the Middle Sea


I am sure managing to keep up with this blog, aren't I? Better than six months since the last post, you'd think that I'd just give it up. But no! I am stubborn! Perhaps I should say persistent, to not be so hard on myself.

Let's look at a game that hardly anybody has heard of, except perhaps recently, though I have mentioned it in passing a few times in this blog. That is the point, sort of, of this series of reviews of obscure games after all. This time, we'll look at Lords of the Middle Sea, a wargame put out by The Chaosium back in 1978, around about the time that they were putting out their first roleplaying game, RuneQuest.

The scenario is loosely based on a 1963 short story by Allen Danzig published in GALAXY magazine titled "The Great Nebraska Sea". The story, which can be found [Edit: in an abbreviated version; further edit: here is the complete story] in the forum thread at the link along with an impression of what the map might look like, is a travelogue-style description of life around a great sea created in the midwest of the US when the Great Plains collapse at some point in the future. The game's scenario starts with that premise, implying that extraction of helium (and, presumably, other related resources such as natural gas) result in a massive collapse across the midwestern states as far north as the southern parts of North Dakota and as far west as the eastern portions of Colorado and Wyoming. This sets off a chain reaction resulting in increased volcanic activity, followed by cooling temperatures due to the volcanic ash, then ultimately a massive greenhouse effect that warms the planet and causes sea levels to rise as much as 30 feet per year at one point.

While the temperatures are cooling, populations flood south from Canada and the US into Mexico, creating massive social disruptions. Just for good measure, the remaining nation-states of the world exchange nuclear weapons, ending the dominance of nation-states and triggering the rise of local city-states.

During this time, apparently, the continental shelves sink somewhat, causing sea levels to end up around 1000 feet higher than previously, in addition to the Nebraska Sea, but this isn't really discussed in the background information. An important terrain feature in the game is the Godwall, a huge cliff, over a thousand feet high, along the western edge of the Nebraska Sea, which only dirigibles can pass (though there is one break in it, at the Mexican location of La Barrera).

In Mexico, a conflict between the traditionally Catholic Mexicans and a new sect of "syncretic versions of pre-Conquest Meso-American beliefs" push Mexico north as a new Nahua Empire rises. Mexico comes to hold most of what was the US and Canada, along with parts of northern Mexico, except for the islands that remain of the eastern portion of North America. This gives them control of the great storehouse of helium that was collected in the Rocky Mountains, and will eventually give them the ability to build dirigible airships.

Over time, the northern regions of this new Mexican state split off to become the fiercely independent Transwyoming, comprised to a great extent of horse nomads and related groups. Meanwhile, the Wardoms of the eastern islands eventually consolidate into a larger polity. In addition, there are the Centerline Confederacy on the island that surrounds what was once Lake Superior, beaten down to a minor state by the time of the game, and the Salvaree Council, composed of the great Arks that ply the sealanes. Originally raft cities formed as the seas rose, they eventually learned to build steam engines and control their drifting, becoming for a while the arm of decision and the dominating factor in trade in the Middle and Nebraska Seas, as well as along the western coast of the continent. With the final consolidation of the Wardoms as they incorporated Treanor (the person credited with Conception is Dennis P. Treanor) on the Ozark Island, the Salvaree Council was broken and reduced to squabbling individual Arks which hired out their services to the mainland nations. (Note that there are two centers of the former Salvaree Council on the map, the eastern Salvaree, located on the Ouachita Island just south of Ozark, and the western Sol Salvari, based in the island ruins that used to be San Francisco and the Bay Area.)

The game is divided into a Basic and Advanced version, the primary differences being that the Advanced version adds a monetary economy to purchase units, along with more fluid rules regarding alliances between the four factions, further uses for Arks (such as sending divers down into the depths to find caches of goods and materiel stored in protective plastic to aid in the competition between nations; in the Basic game, Arks are used mainly for transport and to ferry troops in addition to their considerable combat abilities), an experience advancement system for Rulers, allowing them to become Hero-Kings or Sorcerer-Kings with special abilities related to movement and combat (in addition to changing their combat strength and movement rate, the list of abilities a Ruler can display includes Mountaineer, Sailor, Diplomat, Speech-Maker, Master of Disguise, Warrior, Tactician, and Strategist, with Hero-Kings selecting one ability and Sorcerer-Kings being able to deploy them all), the ability of Rulers to Quest for lost Libraries of information, militia to help protect cities and farms, and rules for tracking the success of wars in an extended campaign game.

Combat works by a CRT (Combat Results Table) that compares the relative strengths of each side as a ratio (1:1, 1:2, 1:3, etc.), with results given as a number of counters for each side to lose. This prompts a bit of a balancing act as a player wants to maximize strength in the counters allowed in a hex ("stacking limit"), but losing a greater amount of strength in each individual counter if they are all of a high value. It helps to have some weaker counters to lose so that your strength doesn't drop precipitately. Even so, though, if you can completely maximize your strength that is best, since everyone has the same stacking limit.

Turns are in seasons (three months), hexes are 70-odd miles across, units are of various sizes, from 1200-3000 for infantry Gangs and Levies, 600-1000 mounted cavalry Hordes, 600 elite guards for Rulers (though Rulers can also travel incognito, with no guards), 10-15 large combat ships plus support vessels, or 5-7 dirigibles. The economy of a nation is represented by Cities and Farms (each major nation starts with four Cities and seven Farms) which produce money in the Advanced game, accounted in Cruzados, a large gold coin used to regulate large-scale trade, apparently.

There is discussion in the rules about the assumptions of the game, such as what Cities and Farms mean, how units are armed and an overview of their tactical doctrine (it's a mix of primitive weapons and more advanced ones, resulting in an unusual method of battle).

Because of the extensive notes on the background, this setting could be pretty easily converted for use in a roleplaying game. I tend toward GURPS since most of the work is already done, just needing to be plugged into the setting, but pretty much any game capable of a postapocalyptic setting (no mutants or other gonzo elements) could handle it, and of course with effort a Referee can adapt anything to any system.

Here's the work in progress cover art
by Ossi Hiekkala for the RPG,
 as pointed out in the comments.

Unfortunately for me, my current copy is only partly playable since it is missing one counter, which disrupts the counter mix and makes one of the four nations unplayable. I made a replacement, but because it is easily distinguished from the rest of the counters, it isn't actually usable (counters are supposed to be selected randomly from their type due to differing combat and movement factors). Maybe someday I'll find a replacement counter sheet for less than the hundred-plus dollars that copies of this game often go for. I occasionally have dreamed about buying the rules and background from Chaosium and reprinting the game, or expanding and publishing the background as a roleplaying setting, but that is more money than I have access to. Also, as I was just now Googling around for more information and pictures to illustrate this post, I learned that Chaosium has already been working on a roleplaying version of the setting, using the Basic Role-Playing system naturally. Well, I will certainly be picking that up.

(Edited on 3/15/2021 to add RPG cover art work in progress)

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.


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: