20 May 2016

Pinballz Lake Creek - A Review

  There are a few things in life that I am passionate about.   Fatherhood.  Tabletop RPGs.  Video games.  I have an absolute love of both console and arcade games from my childhood.  A lot of this has to do with my growing up in a family that was rather less technologically and academically inclined than I was.  I loved books, computers, and air conditioning.  My mom's side of the family with whom I spent the bulk of my childhood were hunters, fishermen, pitchers of horseshoes and and watchers of football.  For whatever reason, aside from being a Boy Scout, I never had much interest in most of these things.  I learned to shoot, but refused to hunt.  I enjoyed camping, but my favorite part was D&D around the campfire with my fellow scouts.  My favorite activities from a young age included the rush of excitement of getting that fourth ghost for 1600 points before the power pellet wore off, or potting the Worluck and getting a Double Score Dungeon on the next level.  After my parents divorced just after my seventh birthday, trips to see my Dad nearly always involved Atari and trips to Games People Play, an incredible arcade that used to exist in Houston.  I was in my element in an arcade, or in front of an Atari VCS, 5200 or 7800.

  When Pinballz opened their original Burnet/183 location in Austin in 2010, I had found "home."  A real, old-school video arcade with more than fighting games and DDR machines.  They had Atari Star Wars.  They had Gauntlet.  Pac-Man.  Q*Bert.  Moon Patrol.  SEAWOLF.  It was amazing.  The initial press for Pinballz talked up Mikki's Replay Cafe, which would serve all the wonderful snacks I remember from Games People Play plus fine adult beverages.  This promise was never quite fulfilled due to the difficulty the owners, Darren and Mikki Spohn, are rumored to have had with the city as far as permits, etc. went.  Ultimately, Pinballz original location became BYOB with snacks and sodas and a limited kitchen.  When they opened Pinballz Kingdom in Buda, that had the promise of being perfect- but it fell, in my opinion, a bit short.  The selection of classic arcade cabinets was smaller than I'd hoped and the mix of concepts didn't quite seem to gel with a heavy emphasis on redemption games but the full bar and restaurant concept with outdoor music venue and beer garden.  For whatever reason, it wasn't as attractive to us as the original Pinballz, despite being newer, larger, and having its liquor license.  Then came Lake Creek.

  This is it.  This is definitely it.  This is, nearly perfectly, the expression of what I would have done with an arcade venue had I unlimited funds and creative license.  The only things the iconic arcade in my head have that this one does not is waterslides and bumper boats- but that's only because of Games People Play having been an 80s venue during the big waterslide craze of the early 80s when people were putting up waterslides as standalone attractions in the Houston area.  So, let's talk about Pinballz Lake Creek and why it's worth the trip.

  First things first - Pinballz Lake Creek is not BYOB, so leave the booze.  There's plenty inside.  Trust me.  Vaping is not allowed inside according to signs on the window, so vapers, plan accordingly.  There are two types of currency used with the attractions at Pinballz.  At the kiosk immediately inside the doors you will purchase a card onto which you will load your game budget.  Many of the machines in the arcade use the card, while many of the classic arcades use tokens.  Tokens can be procured by waving the card at one of the token machines near the entrance.  This deducts $5 from the card balance and drops 20 tokens.  There are some machines that can use either payment method, and any machine requiring 6 or more tokens ($1.50 or more) tends to be card only.  The cards can be linked to an account with your name and contact info in the Pinballz system so that the card can be returned to you if lost.  I believe there may be a loyalty program function here, too, but I haven't had a chance to get further info.

  So let's talk attractions.  The flyer states that the venue has over 200 cabinets.  The ones that have my attention 100% is the classic game corner.  There are larger attractions as well, like the Highway 66 Mini-Bowling, Laser Tag, Bazooka Ball, and their Lazer Maze.  There's a healthy selection of redemption games and a nice ticket redemption counter with everything from tiny Gundam army men all the way up to amazing prizes it will take many, many trips to earn.  There are party rooms, the main dining area, and a section of more adult-oriented games like the more violent shooters and Beer Pong.  Unlike the original Pinballz location, there is plenty of room to move and walk, it seems extremely roomy. 
  Here's the basic layout:  If one turns left from the welcome desk after purchasing a card, you see that the middle of the venue is an incredible selection of pinball machines in four long rows (two back-to-back) up the center, leading to Mikki's Tavern.  Immediately to the left as you walk in is the Highway 66 Mini-Bowling apparatus.  This attraction has a number of lanes down which one lobs half-sized bowling balls.  The pins are backlit with LED lights, and scoring is done electronically with a scoreboard above each lane.  Each lane supports multiple players, and the cost to play is $4.00 per game.  This was a hit with myself, and with Zane and Kaylee.  We loved it.  It was just right size-wise for the kids, and big enough for me to enjoy while not aggrivating my carpal like full-sized bowling does.  Definitely recommended.
 
   The pinball selection is just what you've come to expect from Pinballz.  Lots of classics here.  Star Trek: TNG (Kaylee's favorite), Dungeons & Dragons (Zane's favorite), and The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot (One of my favorites.)  They even have one of the massive Hercules tables that uses what looks like a Cueball for a pinball.  There's really too many wonderful tables to list them all, but I've included some photos of one of the rows.  That's my son Zane, who is learning that pinball is tons of fun while being extremely challenging and frustrating to learn.

  Most of the pinball tables are $0.50 or $0.75, with some of the newer or more novel tables being more expensive- like Hercules at $1.50 per play.  Now, just so I can get this out of the way, inflation calculated since I started dropping quarters in the 80s means $0.25 in 1985 translates to $0.56 today.  So the standard $0.50 per play at Pinballz is actually a tiny bit less expensive than outright inflation adjustment would dictate.  Kudos for keeping the plays affordable on the lion's share of the machines.

  Proceeding to the back of the venue around the left of the bank of pinball machines one sees a cluster of video games including Cyberball.  Now, allow me to squee for a moment.  We used to play Cyberball a lot at Mazzio's Pizza in Round Rock.  The ability for two two-player teams to compete in robotic football (with an atomic ball!) and improve their players appealed a lot to me.  While regular football was never that big of a draw for me, the RPG element of players that could be improved as play progressed and the sci-fi elements made this a very memorable game.  I was told by Mikki Spohn herself that an interested player is talking about forming a Cyberball league.  This could be pretty damn awesome.

  Now, to the left as you continue to the back is the Lazer Tag and Bazooka Ball area.  I am not going to be able to review this as such since there weren't enough patrons there either time I visited to get a game going, so I'm not sure what the costs are.  Taking a gander at the playfield, it's going to be good for primary school-aged children.  For adults the course would be a real knife-fight, as it's not excessively large and much of the cover is about waist- or chest-high.  Not saying it wouldn't be fun, especially after a couple of drinks, but there we go.


   Continuing further back, one sees Mikki's Tavern to the right, and the classic game corner to the left.  I knew I was parenting right when Zane's first reaction to seeing the classics corner was to point and yell "POLE POSITION!" and run over to the cockpit Pole Position cabinet.  There they were, a bank of many of the classic games I grew up with.  Both Tron and Discs of Tron (the environmental cabinet, even!) along with Missile Command, Breakout, Centipede, Phoenix, Wizard of Wor, Satan's Hollow, Dragon's Lair and others.  Sinistar!  Commando!  A row of cocktail tables separated the classic arcades from the Mikki's Tavern area, and I nearly shed a tear to see Warlords and Q*Bert among them.  This is where I'll be spending the bulk of my time when at Pinballz Lake Creek.  This feels like home to me, and I may even grab some food from Mikki's and make it a point to eat at a cocktail table like we did back in the 80s. 



  The games are all in a good state of repair, and as always the staff are happy to hear if something isn't working right, and they'll get it fixed.  Our only issue in two trips was the knob on the Breakout cabinet being  in need of a bit of cleaning, it was a bit jittery.  But how amazing was it to play an actual Breakout cabinet!  It made me want to mail Steve Wozniak $5.
   So much nostalgia.  Playing Warlords at that table with Zane was amazing.  I haven't laid eyes on a Warlords machine anywhere but Pinballz in three decades.  It's one of my favorite Atari VCS titles.  Phoenix and Wizard of Wor are both favorites of mine, and helped while away a summer at Padre Island during the parts of the afternoon where we'd have just come in from the beach.  The Suntide III condos had a video arcade, as pretty much every place did in the very early 80s, and my uncle and I would drop quarters into these machines while still dripping wet from the pool or the ocean.  I remember the Donkey Kong machine in that arcade would actually deliver a bit of a shock if you were wet and not wearing shoes.  Walking through Pinballz triggers all these memories, as video games are so part and parcel of my growing up that nearly every machine evokes a memory of where I was or what I was doing the very first time I played that particular title.  The first quarter I ever dropped was into a Tempest machine in a Kroger's in Humble, TX in 1981.  Guess where I can play Tempest? Pinballz.

  So, let's talk about Mikki's Tavern.  First of all, it's a tavern.  This location has their liquor license and makes great use of it.  There are over twenty beers on tap.  Their hard liquor is kept in amazing arcade-cabinet styled shelves.  The bartenders on duty when Kaylee and I visited were Adrian and Michelle "Mishi" and they took very, very good care of us.  Both of them had the talents every manager wants in bar staff - they were knowledgeable, friendly, and engaged the customer.  They learned our names and made sure we had everything we needed.  When I had a special order - I'm a low-carb eater, which makes pub food a little complicated - it was taken without an eye batted and a compliment on my weight loss efforts.  These two really, really made our visit pleasant.  I saw other patrons enjoying the banter and booze, so I know it wasn't just that I had a ridiculously cute daughter with me.
  There are lots of tables compared to the small seating area at the original Pinballz.  Around the corner toward the back there are booths as well.  In a conversation with Mikki Spohn the day I took my son she said she had seen some folks come in and play cards in the tavern area, and that she would welcome gamers who wanted to come in, have a beer, and play whatever games they wanted to bring.  I immediately thought of my own gaming club, and although the staff found another venue for this Saturday's games, I am making it a  point to have a get-together here as soon as I can.  I can't imagine a better way to spend a day than surrounded by video games, pinball, friends, and a few tabletop or card games.  Having a play venue with a bar is something Emerald Tavern near the original Pinballz started, but Mikki's Tavern actually has more table space.  If it does not become too crowded, I can see this being a great place to game as long as the owners remain gamer-friendly.  For those of us who don't or can't drink alcohol the fountain drinks are refillable, so a D&D session at Pinballz offers perqs for both the drinkers and the non-drinkers.

  Let's talk food.  Kaylee and I sampled the cuisine at Mikki's and had a wonderful Daddy Daughter Date Night.  Kaylee could not be dissuaded from ordering a pepperoni pizza ($10 for the 8-inch), since that's her all time favorite food.  I opted for the buffalo burger sans bun ($10), with a side salad tacked on instead of the normal fries ($1.50)

  My burger was great.  Bleu cheese, crisp bacon and  buffalo sauce.  The salad had fresh greens, carrot, onion, tomato and cucumber with a nice smattering of chunky croutons that I reluctantly handed off to Kaylee to preserve my low-carb status.  The balsamic vinaigrette dressing was pretty tasty.  My only issue with the burger was the common issue we low-carbers have- without the bread I was still hungry.  This isn't an issue with Mikki's Tavern, it's an issue with low-carbing.  That said, the $10 price tag is pretty standard for restaurant and bar food, but makes Dr. Atkins approach to weight loss a spendy proposition.  That said, as of this writing I'm 45lbs down, so...

 
   Kaylee's pizza was fired in the brick oven they have behind the bar, visible behind a window into the kitchen.  Having worked six years in restaurants, I can tell you that any operation that makes the kitchen visible to patrons is an operation confident in their kitchen practices.  I'm a fan of this approach.  Steak & Shake's old motto "In sight it must be right" applies here.  The pizza came out with a nice browning on the crust and cheese, and pre-sliced and ready for her to put her patented Parmesan blizzard into play.  Kaylee devoured the first two slices with the kind of gusto one expects from a recently-turned-5 pizza fan.  Now, I couldn't write a review of the pizza unless I tried it, so when it became apparent that last slice wasn't going down Kaylee's gullet I removed the toppings from the crust and consumed them.  The pizza had what most folks would consider the right amount of sauce - me, I'm a Chicago deep-dish fan and love extra sauce - but this was spot-on for the way the saner members of my family eat it.  The sauce was tangy, with a good flavor.  The pepperoni was nice and crispy, just the way I like it when I'm eating thin pizza.  To me, thin and Chicago are two different animals, and held to two different standards.  On thin pizza, like this, crispy pepperoni is the goal for my palate.  This was spot-on.  My only suggestion for the pizza was from the part I didn't eat - the edges of the pizza were nice a dark, crispy brown.  The center was done, but less crisp than the rest of the slice.  I chalk this up to our going in during the first week of operation, and am confident that more experience with the brick oven will alleviate this concern.  Would it stop me from snagging pizza here again?  Absolutely not.  It passed the Kaylee test, and it passed the "daddy stealing pizza toppings" test.






















  Once your hunger is sated, one can hit the other side of the venue, to the right of the tavern if you're looking into Pinballz Lake Creek from the door.  On the right one will find the adult games in the back near the tavern.  These include games like House of The Dead, Time Crisis, Beer Pong and others.  Transitioning as one gets closer to the front are Mario Kart Arcade and Star Wars Battle Pods.  Closer to the front gets into the redemption games - two different types of Ski-Ball, crane games, the gamut is run.  Against the wall is the redemption counter, with at least one ticket station to count your tickets and spit out little receipts to replace the miles of individual red tickets.  Near the ticket counter is one of the more interesting new attractions - the Lazer Maze.  Remember the scene from Entrapment with Catherine Zeta Jones attempting to avoid the security lasers?  It's like that.  Zane gave this a try, it was a $3.00 play and rather than avoiding the lasers he chose the game where the goal was to break as many of the lasers as possible.  He came out grinning.

  So, that's pretty much a circuit of Pinballz Lake Creek.  There really is something here for pretty much everyone.  Classic games, newer games, mini-bowling, food and drinks...  So far my daughter has asked me for the last two days when we're going back.  This is her new favorite place, I think, and that really makes me smile.  As I said above, the video arcade was the location of so much of my good childhood memories it's amazing to share those memories with my kids.  I'm so happy Darren and Mikki Spohn decided to embark on the Pinballz project half a decade ago.  This gives me the perfect place to relive my own childhood and make that of my kids just as memorable.  I grew up in arcades, and thanks to Pinballz, so will Zane and Kaylee. 

  I'm going to close with a couple of things I think would make a great location even better.  Who knows?  Maybe one of the Pinballz team will read this and think it over.

ICED TEA - For those of us who are low carbing, diabetic or otherwise limited to non-alcoholic and sugar free, the sole option at Pinballz Lake Creek is Diet Coke.  Adding tea to the menu would be an inexpensive option that would help out those of us in my position or one like it - and there's nothing more staple to a Texas restaurant beverage menu than iced tea.

THE BACK ROOM - As of my conversation with the staff on my first visit, the big back room had not been given a definite purpose.  I know some ideas had been floated, but I'd like to add my own.  First, more classic arcades could not go amiss.  While the location has lots of cabinets, there are four decades of arcade games to choose from, and having more 70s and 80s cabinets fill the room would be a big draw to gamers of a certain age.  Frogger, Pac-Man, Joust, there are a lot of iconics that could fill this room.
  Alternately, table space for walk-in gaming.  Hear me out.  Places like Dragon's Lair and Emerald Tavern have libraries of games for people to walk in and play.  The table space is offered up and the gamers inevitably spend money on either the games (DLair) or the booze (Emerald Tavern) to make the table space pay off.  It's not as power intensive as arcade cabinets, doesn't require additional staffing, and if played right organizations in Austin like the Savage Worlds and Pathfinder clubs, my own Royal Dragoon Guards, or LARP groups could make use of the space.  When I presented the idea of gaming at Pinballz to my group, some of the staff were concerned that it would be too loud in the Tavern area for one of our large wargames with 8-10 players.  If the back room was game space, it would be separate from the rest of the venue, with easy access to the bar and restaurant.  I've always wanted to have a D&D game or something at the original Pinballz, but the cost of the birthday rooms is prohibitive for a game club.  Give folks table space in that back room, and I predict the food and drink orders would flow.  Seriously.  Plus, with some chairs and tables, I know a certain blogger who would love to teach classes on arcade game history.  Where better to do something like that than inside an arcade?

  So there it is.  Pinballz Lake Creek.  Go.  Check it out.  Drop some tokens.  It's a lot of fun, and quite family-friendly.

10 May 2016

FASA Trek 3rd Edition - What would I do? Part I: Skill Roll Musings

  Space... The final frontier.  This was one of the first games I ever owned, and one I loved so very much.  Star Trek, by FASA Corporation.  My Big Three game producers when I was first getting into the hobby were TSR, FASA and Palladium.  Not exclusive, but they were the big ones.  I mean, of course I played some West End, and Steve Jackson, and other games here and there.  But these were the BIG THREE.  And FASA Trek was one of my first RPG passions that wasn't D&D.  My Mammaw and Pappaw Webb bought this for me at a B. Dalton in the mall, and I devoured it while watching TOS on VHS that we'd rented from Chic Le Blanc, a furniture store named after its proprietor in Lake Charles, LA that had a back room full of video tapes and later NES cartridges.  It was an 80s thing, when everyone was trying to get in on the video rental craze.

  With the gargantuan tomes that we see cranked out today by game companies, it's often hard to see how a box with one to three small books almost never more than 64 pages and certainly never more than 96 could constitute a whole game.  Looking back, though, many of my favorite gaming experiences came out of these kinds of games.  D&D Basic, Star Trek, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, Marvel Superheroes, Gamma World, Traveller...  They gave you the basics, and your imagination did the rest.

  FASA Trek was a great game, but had a few warts even in my tween mind.  The Action Point system was a bit clunky.  The skill roll system seemed pretty straightforward, but there was an extremely odd curve to the listed proficiency levels.  The character gen was almost a Traveller-esque lifepath, but not quite.  Plus there were a few quirks of starship combat that needed fixing to help with the Star Trek feel of the game.

  In a perfect world, FASA would still be publishing Star Trek material.  At least, in my perfect world.  That would require (at least) a 3rd Edition of the Star Trek RPG.  What would that 3rd Edition look like if I wrote it?  Well, I'm of two minds about this.  On one hand, I'd want to keep it very close to the FASA-isms that made the original RPG what it was.  On the other, I'd love to go further afield and do a few different things with the game to smooth over a couple of the rough spots.

  Off the top of my head, my very first thought is to shamelessly steal the Ability Score and Proficiency rules from D&D 5e or just do it in Savage Worlds... but neither of those would have a very FASA-esque feel to them.  I'd better stick with something that looks like a 1-100 scale for attributes and skills.

  So, something that always vexed me was how skills worked.  Take a look at the following:

PROFICIENCY LEVELS IN ANY SKILL
Skill Rating
Proficiency In Field
0
Unskilled
1-9
Semi-Skilled
10
Minimum Proficiency
10-39
Qualified
40-79
Professional
80-95
Expert
96+
Acknowledged Leader

  So, there are some interesting skill rules about when to roll, and what to roll, and when no roll is needed.  In many cases these are different for each skill, necessitating a little description of each skill highlighting the various needs of each one.

  What about streamlining this system?

Easy, everyday skill rolls use a D10 to roll against the skill.  If you have a 10 or more, you're golden.  Then work out a system where more challenging rolls are done with a D40, D60, D80, and then D100.  Heck, maybe even D120 for "impossible" tasks.  Hey, wait... here's a Star Trek idea...

FASA TREK 3rd EDITION SKILL ROLLS
Situation/Difficulty
Die Rolled
EasyD10
Standard CruisingD40
Yellow AlertD60
Red AlertD100

Heck, the "boxed set" could even include dice in the appropriate colors for the rolls.  Since the "10s" die is a standard polyhedral, there would be no need for custom dice such as those used by some modern games by FFG, or odd polyhedrals like Dungeon Crawl Classic's D7 and D14.

This would be an interesting way of handling the strange conceit that 40 is "Professional" in a game that uses D100 to check skills under pressure.  Making a helm maneuver 4 times out of 10 doesn't seem very professional, nor does failing to detect something on sensors 6 times in 10.  With varying difficulty skill rolls above and beyond the D10 and D100 explicitly called for in the FASA Trek rules, this might be able to standardize things a bit without adding too much complexity, and it might even add some Star Trek feel while we're at it.

Treks Not Taken: FASA Trek What If?

  I've talked about my deep and abiding love of FASA Trek before.  One of the first RPGs I procured on my own, and one I played and read a LOT of during my "happy place" years of 1986-93.  Something I often wonder about - the "what if" scenario - applies to several games.  Things I might write about later.  What if the Robotech II: The Sentinels RPG reflected the way the Sentinels campaign would have actually played out?  Like, Cyclones from the get-go, Perytonian wizards, etc.  The VF-1V Vindicator was more than an animation error, that sort of thing.  I've often wanted to run that game "as written" forgetting all I know of the revised canon, the comics, etc.

  It's the same with FASA Trek on at least two levels.  Much like Star Fleet Battles and their divergent universe, FASA Trek had a lot of information that is now incompatible with established Trek canon.  The difference is that for almost a decade FASA Trek *was* licensed and official.  During the dry years of Star Trek, when there was only the films and novels, FASA created a version of Star Trek that will always be my head-canon.  I know this is true of many other fans, what with the Axanar fan film making some direct references to data from the FASA Four Years War supplement. 

  At this point in fandom, there was quite a bit of cross-pollination of an ideas.  The FASA Trek canon followed the Star Trek Space Flight Chronology by Rick Sternbach, and in turn a lot of Shane Johnson's information from Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise found its way into FASA canon and vice versa.  It was not as tight as the Star Wars EU that existed from the Thrawn Trilogy until Disney dismantled the EU-as-we-knew-it, but it was close.  With nothing more than a cartoon series and a feature film every 2-3 years there was a long, dry period of Trek where things like the RPG, novels and the DC comics run sought to fill our yearning for more Trek.  FASA did an amazing job with this, introducing the best take on Klingons that has ever existed, that of John M. Ford.  Though most modern Trek fans know only the Biker Vikings of TNG and later, the Klingons of FASA Trek were much more nuanced, much more akin to their Cold War Soviet roots from the original series.  A rich culture that revolved around more than just warriors appeared in the FASA books, and in Ford's excellent The Final Reflection


  The story goes that FASA started to get into hot water with Paramount and Gene Roddenberry himself over the "militarization" in the RPG.  Now, in the defense of FASA, gamers tend to solve problems with their fists/swords/phasers, so it's not out of the realm of common sense that the game would have some combat themes.  After all, the Tactical Combat Simulator boxed set wouldn't be much fun to play with if there was never starship combat.  It was about this time that Star Trek: The Next Generation came about, and FASA's last two official Star Trek products were TNG books that, also according to legend, pushed them over the line and caused Paramount to refuse to renew the license.

  I recently spoke to one of the authors of these two books, and asked about some of the decisions that were made in writing them.  One major problem was that Paramount itself had not quite decided on many of the particulars of Star Trek: The Next Generation as the books were being written.  Compound that with gamers wanting more and more information and FASA was forced to make up some details that were later proven by canon to be wildly inaccurate.  This brings me to my idea to run the game "as written" and forget about all the canon past Season 1 of TNG, which is the point at which the FASA material stops.  The differences between the books and what we saw evolve in TNG are intriguing.  I'll go over a few of them below, and you can see what I mean, and the feel of the TNG game I'd like to run.

  Among the things you'll find in the TNG Officer's Manual that jump right out at you are immediately apocryphal representations of rank insignia, uniforms and ships.  The fun part is a lot of these would be really useful had they actually appeared in the series.  The idea of diamond-shaped pips for enlisted rank insignia would have neatly solved the problem of Chief O'Brien wearing a single hollow pip (when the costume department didn't have him wearing lieutenant's pips) until they invented CPO rank insignia for DS9.  In fact, the hollow pip stood for the rank of Ensign Junior Grade in FASA's book.  Now, I have no idea what the function of an Ensign j.g. would be, but it'd be fun to work in there.  There's pay scales (which make perfect sense to me, since Starfleet personnel have to be able to interact with cultures that aren't post-scarcity) and mentions of enlisted training centers and alien integration programs.  All pretty neat stuff that makes for good story fodder.  In these books, the Ferengi are still menacing, not the buffoons they became, and the game makes some attempt to explain brand new bridge roles.  It was actually the bridge roles that made me contact the author and ask a question.

  So, new roles in Starfleet that might be fun for gaming.  The Ship's Counselor is mentioned, and it is stated that while Betazoids are in many of these positions Deltans and other psionic races sometimes fill the position.  Hmmm... a Deltan counselor.  And you thought Deanna Troi got people's motors running.  The role of the Tactical Officer is discussed, and interestingly while there is still an enlisted specialty for comunications, the officer specialty has disappeared in deference to the cross-training of the bridge officers.  Now, I've seen Worf described as a "Warp Propulsion Specialist" in various Season 1 resources, but if that were his role, why isn't he wearing a mustard uniform from the get-go?  I think Worf and Geordi both fit the description of a brilliant concept FASA created to explain the interchangeable officers in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  That idea is the Bridge Command Specialist. 

  The idea behind the BCS was to explain how we saw Worf and Geordi bouncing between stations.  We also saw Geordi, as a Lieutenant (j.g.) placed in command of the Enterprise at least twice during Season One (Arsenal of Freedom and Angel One) when there were explicitly more senior officers aboard, like Lieutenant Logan, one of the revolving door of chief engineers the Enterprise-D had in Season 1.  So why place a Lieutenant (j.g.) in command when more senior personnel are available?  Well, this, too is part of the Bridge Command Specialist training package.  A BCS gets a familiarization with Starship Combat Strategy/Tactics along with Astrogation, Helm, Communications and Sensors skills.  A jack of all trades, capable of at least normal operations at any given bridge station.  So, even at such a junior rank, the BCS is already on track to have the broad skills a starship commander needs.  I really, really like this concept.  It means that your PCs can do what the characters in TNG tend to do- and that's swap stations like mad at need.  By using elective rolls during character creation and spending advancement rolls during the campaign, each PC will develop preferences and specific skills that edge up into the expert ranges, but they will be broadly competent in case a player can't show and a key station goes unmanned. 

  Now, there are a couple of hiccups with the BCS as written.  One is the odd Navigation/Helm skill that appears despite Astrogation and Starship Helm Operation both being present.  I was told this was due to the initial interpretation that the Ops station was actually a TOS-style navigation station and that helm and navigation were still separate jobs.  There is also a Sensor Analysis skill that appears in several training packages, but not in any of the writeups of the actual TNG crew, who would presumably have the skill if it were part of their training.  Of course, Worf lacks the Security Procedures skill, so...  Also, the BCS gets no specific leadership training, which I would argue should be part of the package.  Now, I initially thought that Sensor Analysis was a shortening or mislisting of Starship Sensor Operations, but no, both appear on the Science Specialist skill list.  Sensor Analysis does not appear in the Star Trek 2nd Edition Officer's Manual, either.  It's not on the character sheet.  So what is it?
 
  So, it's pretty obvious that I'm looking at doing some FASA Star Trek tinkering and upgrading.  Clean up some of these odd skill entries, tinker a bit with the skill lists for various bridge stations, and come up with a Season One (FASA Style) TNG RPG.  I wonder if this is a project worth doing?  I wonder if I'll get around to it?  This blog seems to be a great place to discuss the concepts and ideas for the game.

  OK, so back to TNG FASA Style as-written.  Well, first of all we have a Starfleet that is nowhere near as hard-core Roddenberry as what we got on screen.  They get paid.  There is still a Galaxy Exploration Command and a Military Operations Command.  Starfleet is explicitly both the Federation's military and scientific arm.  Now, it's worth noting that during Season One of TNG the show itself was a bit inconsistent about this point.  In "Encounter at Farpoint" Riker berates Geordi for not delivering his report from the position of attention, and himself braces to attention twice when dealing with Picard on their initial meeting.  A few episodes later Q derides Picard for being too used to "military privilege" and Picard doesn't snap back the familiar line from later episodes claiming that Starfleet is not a military organization.  Despite the uniforms.  And weapons.  And rank structure.  Etc.  I like FASA's solution - Starfleet both is and is not the military.  Any vessel may be used in a military operation at need, but the Enterprise belongs in Galaxy Exploration Command and is therefore assigned to those types of missions most of the time.  One would assume there are vessels that spend all their time on patrol and escort missions and very rarely explore strange, new worlds.

  So, the character and "feel" of Starfleet is a mixture of FASA-isms and what we see in the very early episodes of TNG.  We have Klingons that are still mostly of the John M. Ford model, in fact some of his ideas wormed their way into the first big Klingon episode, "Heart of Glory" in Season One.  As Klingons were fleshed out more in TNG, the Ford material got buried in favor of the now-familiar Warrior Race rhetoric.  I find the more cunning and calculating Klingons to be a lot more interesting.  The Ferengi are presented as an actual threat to the Federation economically, socially and militarily.  The Romulans are described as "satanic" in their machinations.  So, we have a very hazardous galaxy.  The Klingons are part of the Alliance with the Federation, but there are a significant minority of rogue Klingons who yearn for the older days of Klingon supremacy.  This sounds a bit like those who pine for the days of the Soviet Union, most of whom weren't alive when the Soviet Union was in full swing.  But anyway...

  We have, through descriptions of what happened between ST:IV and TNG, a very different view of the TNG realm.  We have writeups for NPCs like Simone VanGelder, granddaughter of Simon Van Gelder of the Tantalus Colony.  We have an early writeup of Noonien Soong.  We have some starship classes that we never did see, due to FASA kitbash creativity and no budget in TNG.  We have a group of new character "classes" that are greatly increased in breadth but lack the depth of expertise of Kirk's time.  In a way, I like this since the bulk of specialization will occur in play, allowing for more character growth and player-driven specialization.

  How would a campaign "feel" if run using these assumptions?  If the Cardassians did not exist, and the Ferengi were the big bads?  If the Klingons still had some nuance, and the Romulans were much more of an active subversive, calculating threat?  Can a Starfleet that focuses on versatility do the same quality job as the Starfleet of yesteryear that focused on razor focus?  Would you make a PC of the ship's Crewmaster, the officer in charge of wrangling the families and dependents on a Galaxy-class ship?

  We'll explore some of these ideas more as I have time.  I am really in a FASA-Trek mood.

30 March 2016

Tech Marches On... Mekton Musings and a problem with Battletech.

  I'm a huge fan of both Mekton and Battletech.  Both are great games, and I've been eagerly awaiting the completion of the Mekton Zero Kickstarter for literally years.  It was expected to deliver in 2014... and we're still waiting...

  In the meantime, I've been giving some serious re-read to the Mekton material in hand.  Specifically, the advanced construction books, Mekton Techbook for the Mekton II edition, and Mekton Zeta Plus for the Mekton Zeta edition.  The latter is a revision and expansion of the former, but lacks the extremely interesting and fun listing of mecha from the Archipelago War on Algol.  As I've given these books a thorough re-read I've found things I prefer to Battletech and things that Battletech might just do better.  For example, without adding a Ground Effect System or similar to a Mekton, it's impossible to get the spread of land movement speeds that are evident in Battletech.  The ability to jack the basic running speed of a 'Mech up to the crazy levels of a Locust or Hussar just don't exist in Mekton without adding something better than plain old legs.  This, I think, Battletech does better.

  On the other hand, Mekton has something in place  to fix a problem I've long had with Battletech.  The fix also reveals perhaps why Battletech doesn't deal with it.  I'll elaborate.  Sitting in front of me is a pair of 25-inch flatscreen monitors.  Ten years ago, these monitors would have been about five times more expensive, and a bit bulkier.  Twenty years ago, they'd be CRTs that would have so much depth to them they wouldn't fit on my desk.  Plus, the screen size would have been something only design drafters or professionals in the electronic art industry would have even had access to or been able to afford.  As technology marches on, established technologies tend to get smaller, cheaper, and more readily available.  This happens only sporadically in Battletech.

  For example, only in the last ten years have the PTB in charge of Battletech added "primitive" versions of familiar equipment to the lists.  The effect before this change was made was that a Large Laser produced in 2700 was the same weight, cost and effeciency as a Large Laser produced in 3025.  Sure, the ER Large Laser improved on the normal weapon (ish), but the bog standard LL was no lighter, smaller, or cheaper than the 300 year old version.  The Clans got a marginal improvement, and then proceeded to use the new versions in an almost nonexistent manner in most of the published material.  Standard engines got no smaller or cheaper.  XL engines were introduced, but again those seem to be completely different products with ridiculously higher costs.  This is appropriate for a new technology, but the mature technologies seem to never improve. 

  Mekton has a fix for this.  There is a section in Zeta Plus that allows for "Research Points" that can take a component or device and improve on it.  For 20 RP, one can take an established piece of technology and make it up to 10% smaller, lighter, cheaper, or more efficient.  For 100 RP, an Innovation is created.  This can improve a characteristic of an invention up to 33%, or combine an Improvement with an Innovation.  For example, a 10% increase in damage for a weapon would be a 20RP Improvement.  Add this to a 60RP Innovation reducing the size of the weapon by 33% and another 60RP for combining the Improvement and Innovation and the net result is a weapon that's 1/3 smaller and 10% harder hitting for the same cost and mass as the original.  Further research could reduce the cost further, or boost range, or... anything.  It just takes time and research.  100RP constitutes an Invention, and that's something entirely new. 

  The reason this would be a bit cumbersome becomes quickly apparent.  One would have to keep track of Improvements, Innovations and Inventions on literally every single item, since they don't apply to classes of item, but particular items.  For example, if this system were applied to Battletech one could take a particular weapon, let's say a Medium Laser, and apply an Innovation to add a 10% range boost (+1 Hex, basically), and then two Innovations to increase the damage by 33% (+2 points) and combine this with the range bonus.  One would then have a Medium Laser that did 7 points of damage at up to 10 hexes range.  This would effectively add a new weapon to the weapons list.  One would assume this weapon is only available to the faction who invented it, and only on 'Mechs created or refit since its inception.  Complexity would jump upward very, very quickly.  On the bright side, there would finally be a reason to select a Martell Medium Laser over an Aberdovey or ChisComp Medium Laser, as they could all potentially have different stats.

  This is where the argument of flavor over playability comes into the discussion.  Is it more valuable to your game to have every weapon be unique for flavor's sake, or for every Medium Laser to be identical to cut down on referencing stats during battles?  Speed, or depth?  What is more essential to the feel you want out of your campaign?

  All that said, reading this over has given me some ideas I want to use.  My MechWarrior campaign in the Royal Dragoon Guards has revamped some of the tech assumptions in 3038 to give some advanced techs to the Inner Sphere factions to add flavor to their forces.  Kurita got some advanced PPC tech.  Davion got some advanced autocannon tech.  Liao got some ECM tech.  Things like that.  Using Mekton, I am beginning to cobble together ideas for breaking down the tech in Mekton Zeta Plus into categories and trees similar to the Inventions table in Space: 1889.  This would allow a baseline tech level, then GMs could assign knowledge of certain advanced techs to factions and allow PCs to control the research efforts of their own factions to attempt to improve on what has come before.  In a campaign where the GM is creating or controlling warring factions in the pattern of the Successor Houses in Battletech, this could allow each House to have its own particular technological feel and have that feel trickle down into the design of their combat units.

  Of course, this suggests a bit of a metagame for the players that has shades of Master of Orion.  A clever GM could add a lot of concepts from those PC games into the tabletop campaign.  Espionage- can the PC faction steal new tech from other factions?  Can other factions teal from the PCs?  Economics - Is it enough to have the most technologically advanced mecha when your neighbor can throw five times as many of their less advanced mecha against you?  Technological - should our scientists attempt to unlock the secrets of more damaging energy weapons, or spend their time inventing better armor?

  This whole concept bears a lot more thought.