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.

11 March 2016

Games I'd Like To Play in 2016 - Old School Edition

  As a geek who's hit 40, I'm not a complete and total young'un in my hobby.  This summer will mark my 30th year as a player of roleplaying games and wargames (not counting Stratego/Risk, etc which I picked up at a younger age.)  I am proud to count among my friends and Royal Dragoon Guards conspirators Dennis Sustare, who, at 76, was there for the beginning of the hobby and rubbed elbows with fellow giants.  Dennis wrote Bunnies & Burrows and published it in 1976, just two years after Dungeons & Dragons.  Having Dennis around has made me realize that my roots don't go nearly as far back in the hobby as it feels sometimes when our younger players, all born late enough to plausibly be my own kids, reveal how new they are to the scene.  As anyone who reads my blog probably knows, I got my start the Summer of 1986 playing Mentzer Basic/Expert.  In latter years I've come to have a huge appreciation for the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B/X edition that predated me, and I'm beginning to really grok the original D&D rules and the Holmes Basic Set that clarified them.


  Being a history grad student had the side effect of giving me a keen interest in the history of the hobby.  I devoured Playing at the World, Of Dice and Men, Designers and Dragons, and most recently the E. Gary Gygax biography Empire of Imagination.  I began to fancy myself a bit of an RPG historian.  I started collecting older games that arrived before I began gaming.  Some of them, like the original Top Secret, were earlier editions of games I had played like Top Secret S/I.  Others were games I had heard of that were nearly legendary, like Metamorphosis Alpha.  This penchant for wanting to know as much as I could about the history of our hobby was spurred on by my attendance at two conventions last year.

  At Chupacabracon in Austin I met some game designers that I had immense respect for - Shane Hensley, Ken Hite, Ross Watson and others.  I was particularly happy to meet Sean Patrick Fannon and tell him I had quoted his Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible in my thesis draft.  There was a spirited discussion about Champions, a game that had passed me by as none of my immediate gamer circle played it, and we talked about Aaron Allston and his work, and how much we missed him.  Aaron was also cited in my thesis, and I am honored to have had him sit at my game table and regale me with tales of creating the first of the Gazetteer series for D&D.  I spent so much time listening to authors and artists (sometimes both in one person, like Jeff Dee!) that I didn't play a single game at Chupacabracon.  I spent all my time in panels, soaking it all in.

  Later in the year I attended perhaps the most amazing convention experience of my life.  North Texas RPG Con.  Now, I gushed about this con in a previous post- and I meant every word of it.  Being among the authors of the games I grew up with was incredible.  Mentzer, Grubb, Cook, and so many more.  Artists.  Larry Elmore, Jeff Dee (again!), Janelle Jaquays...  I got to meet and game with Merle Rasmussen, my first experience playing the original Top Secret- and it was definitely not a disappointment.

  In my quest to play and absorb the experience and feel of the games that helped form the hobby, I am making a list of games I want to find the time to play in 2016.  I'm thinking I may create pregens and have folks over for a single one-shot evening to experience these older games.  A lot of them are TSR products, but not all.  These are all games which I've either not played before, or only played once or twice a while back.  Games I think will be interesting to play for their historical significance to the hobby.  Here they are in order of publication date.

  • Dungeons & Dragons (1974) - Specifically, I want to play using Chainmail and the map from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival game, as was specified in the original rulebooks.  I want to take D&D for a spin as it was originally meant to be played.
  • Bunnies & Burrows (1976) - I'll admit it.  Playing animals was never really a draw for me, but so many folks speak fondly of Dennis' design and game, I feel I really need to give it a shot.
  • Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) -  I have a beautiful reprint of this game thanks to a Kickstarter from last year.  This was the first Sci-Fi RPG, when most of my Sci-Fi in those early years was Traveller, FASA Trek and WEG Star Wars.  I've got some modules that came with the Kickstarter, so I'm ready to take this for a spin.
  • Gamma World (1978) - Played the later versions a lot in high school, but never had the opportunity to play the original.  I have a feeling if Thundarr and Mad Max could be mashed up, you might get Gamma World.
  • Villains & Vigilantes (1979) - One of the earliest supers games, designed by Austin's own Jeff Dee.  As with Met Alpha above, I generally got my heroes on using TSR's Marvel, so never got to give V&V a try.
  • Space Opera (1980) - Looks like fun, but also has that late 70s, early 80s crunch going for it.  I have a boxed set and a few sourcebooks.
  • The Fantasy Trip (1980ish) - Proto GURPS.  I loved the Melee/Wizard games as standalone gladiatorial combat-style games.  Have never used them as an RPG, though.  I have a friend who was raised on TFT by her gamer parents, so I'll have to give this one a try.
  • Top Secret (1980) - Played twice, want to give this a spin again.  Played quite a bit of S/I, but any player of the original edition will tell you the two are so different as to be almost totally unrelated.
  • Champions (1981) - If I carried one thing away from Chupacabracon, it was that the majority of those game designers that I respected and were glued to played a LOT of Champions back in the 80s.  Specifically, the Big Blue Book era.  I have procured this book, and the GM screen from the era, and a number of the sourcebooks.  With the Kickstarter for Aaron Allston's Strike Force update/reprint, I look forward to giving this classic a try.
  • Swordbearer (1982) - This is another of Dennis Sustare's designs, but everywhere I see it mentioned it's described as innovative and novel.  This gets my interest in a big way.  Not only do I want to play one of my friend's designs, I want to see what innovative and novel were in 1982.

01 March 2016

An Ode to GURPS Sourcebooks...

  GURPS.  Steve Jackson's Generic Universal Role Playing System.  Love it or hate it, its influence and legacy are certainly part of our hobby.  The roots of GURPs can be found in the Metagaming micro-games Melee and Wizard, and the supplement that turned them into the RPG The Fantasy Trip.  These were penned by Steve Jackson, and bear a striking resemblance to GURPS even now.  According to Jackson, GURPS was a placeholder name until they came up with something better, but it stuck.  The GURPS system came into my life in 1989, just three years into my RPG hobby.
  In those three gaming-heavy years I had delved into everything I could get my hands on - D&D, Traveller, Robotech, Battletech, Cyberpunk, Mekton, Marvel, Star Frontiers, Chill, Paranoia, and on and on.  We devoured every game that one of our group purchased, and although we played a LOT of BECMI D&D, AD&D and FASA Trek, we always had time to try something new.  With the exception of the 1987 MechWarrior RPG from FASA, every game we'd played included randomized character generation.  We just assumed that was part of playing an RPG.  We still refer to "rolling up" characters even when we're using point-buy systems, of which GURPS was my first.  The cover art here is the version of GURPS I was first introduced to by my friend Quoc Tran.  We were over at another friend's place, Chris Waters, watching Evil Dead 2 on a pirated VHS, and Quoc brought out this book - GURPS.  I had no idea what the hell a GURP was, but the dude in the orange armor immediately caught my attention.  Quoc, by the way, was an amazing artist himself.  I'll never forget the exquisite Castlevania-inspired art he did in our 8th grade art class, nor will I forget our mutual love of Bloom County.  But I digress.
  The dude in the orange armor spoke to me.  I wanted to know where that guy came from.  What kind of weapon was that?  That heavy duty cable made it look like it needed plenty of power to function.  Was there a HUD inside that helmet?  I opened the book and found something I'd never seen before- a game engine designed to do anything.  Literally ANYTHING.  Fantasy, sci-fi, modern, unholy mixtures thereof.  I hadn't yet gotten my first Shadowrun book, so magic and tech together was something we thought could be a very cool and unique thing.  Little did we know. 
  The idea that PCs were built upon points that could be used to balance magic, tech, skills, etc. was mind-blowing.  Advantages and disadvantages likewise.  You mean I can GET points for bad things I used to just roleplay, like annoying personal habits or age or clumsiness?  Wicked!  Now, MechWarrior had something like this, but nothing like the amazing breadth of the GURPS listings.  The idea of default skills was new, too.  DAMN this was cool.  Plus, a combat round represented 1 second of real time... and aiming was a thing... and armor both reduced damage and had a chance of deflecting damage...  SO MUCH CRUNCH.  And I loved every minute of it.

  The one thing better than GURPS was GURPS sourcebooks.  Now, just a few days ago my son Zane pulled a copy of GURPS Vikings off a shelf at Half Price Books and checked it out.  He recognized the word "Vikings" from his school mascot.  I saw the trade dress of the GURPS I started out with, the 3rd Edition with its BIG BLOCK SERIF TITLES.  I opened the book to find a very comfortable layout and page design.  Here was the GURPS sourcebooks that I fell in love with.  The book addressed both real Vikings and their cinematic counterparts in great detail.  It offered advice on how to use that information in game sessions, and examples thereof.  It offered examples of Viking buildings, arms, and customs.  Law.  It finished up with perhaps the best part of any of the GURPS sourcebooks - a very, very useful bibliography.

  Remember, folks, this was the Time Before The Internet.  In fact, every book from this vintage included a blurb about how to access the SJ Games BBS with your modem, at blinding speeds up to 2400 Baud.  Which I did a couple of times.  At 2400 Baud.  But again, I digress.  The point here is that back in my day (creak) we didn't have Google, nor did we have Internet access in the modern sense.  Some college folks could use the early 'Net, but it wasn't nearly what we have now.  If you wanted to learn more about a topic, it was off to the library with you, and the kind of bibliography that was present in every single GURPS sourcebook was extensive and extremely useful.  Much is made of Appendix N in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide - as it should be - but each GURPS sourcebook had an Appendix N-like resource of its own.  Fantastic!


  There were GURPS sourcebooks for everything.  Fantasy, Space, Supers, Cliffhangers, Espionage.  Specific legends like GURPS Robin Hood.  Licensed intellectual properties like GURPS Conan or GURPS The Prisoner.  Even GURPS sourcebooks to run other RPGs in the GURPS system, like GURPS Bunnies & Burrows and GURPS Traveller (much later.)  GURPS Autoduel and GURPS OGRE took SJG board games and made them into roleplaying worlds.

  Now, I'll temper this with a bit of criticism.  GURPS never did work for us much beyond the range of normal humans.  That is, GURPS Supers rapidly became unwieldy.  GURPS Vehicles was math heavy and didn't model things the way we'd like.  GURPS Mecha was...  well, Dave Pulver tried.  GURPS just doesn't do larger scale very elegantly.  Armor divisors and the like make for slightly clunky game design. 

  BUT - the sourcebooks.  GURPS Espionage still sits on my nightstand among my go-to books for fun reading when I can't sleep.  GURPS Cyberpunk was legendary for earning Steve Jackson Games a visit from the US Secret Service.  GURPS Y2K held a lot of great information on what would happen if our technological society just collapsed.  Great stuff.  Tons of information, and a lot of inspiration.

  Then game GURPS 4th Edition, and Munchkin.  I name these both as they both had a huge effect on the GURPS Sourcebook stream more or less drying up.  GURPS 4th Edition went to an all-hardcover format, meaning fewer books that had higher cover prices.  Publication slowed.  It slowed further when Steve Jackson Games found themselves making money hand over fist with their Munchkin line of card games- so much so that GURPS, once their flagship product, became sidelined in favor of more Munchkin.  TONS more Munchkin.  GURPS slowly started to disappear from most Game Store shelves.  Right now, at the two Friendly Local Game Stores I frequent, only one has any GURPS books at all, and it's not one of the corebooks.  If you can't buy a corebook... you can't get a new player into the game.  Yes, there's a lot of GURPS available as PDF products, but at least for the short term there is still a real need for hardcopy books.  And those days seem to be largely at an end.

  I have GURPS Vikings and GURPS Middle Ages 1 in my messenger bag right now for recreation reading.  Both are incredibly fun books to read.  Both are very nostalgic for me due to their layout, their art, their trade dress.  They take me back to my early days of gaming in much the same way Mentzer D&D or Star Frontiers do, but to a slightly more advanced time when I was discovering point-buy systems, universal game mechanics and realizing there was more to the world than TSR, FASA and Palladium. (Give or take.)  I highly recommend taking a gander at some of the GURPS sourcebooks if you can find them.  They're a lot of fun to read, very well researched, and can serve as a springboard to knowing everything you ever wanted to know about a given genre through their most excellent bibliographies.
 
  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to reboot to my TELIX.EXE floppy and dial into the SJG BBS.

11 February 2016

Back to Battletech: How The Old Dragoon Got His Groove Back

  Life post-graduation has been pretty busy.  The holidays took a lot of time, then we took our Geek Cruise to Belize, Isla Roatan, and Cozumel.  That was an amazing trip, and thanks to my amazing wife I was there with my friends and no adult responsibilities- against my Dad instincts Zane and Kaylee stayed home with Mary, and I went adventuring with the other geeky reprobates.  We played some great games on that cruise, including Machi Koro and Shadowrun.  Twas a blast.

  Upon returning to civilization, I was more or less energized.  I am still fighting down some of the anxiety issues that developed in June of last year.  I keep asking myself why my psyche couldn't make it just four more months, and then the pressure would have been off, but I digress.  Gaming has been my passion and my escape for years- and yet I felt disturbingly dispassionate about it.  In some cases I sought to escape from it.  My Wednesday night D&D campaign, masterfully run by my friend and shipmate Bobby, had all the hallmarks of a game I should be jazzed about.  It takes place in Mystara, my favorite campaign world.  I play a swashbuckling bard patterned after Zorro or Bruce Campbell's Daring Dragoon.  Why, then, did I get to the point that I kept looking for excuses not to attend?

  Stress is a thing.  Burnout is a thing.  Also, as my doctor reminded me, the brain and the body need time to adapt to changing environments.  The stress of Thesis time hung on with me right up through the cruise.  Although I had not been enrolled in class for two months, I still felt like I was enrolled in class, and that stress was keeping me from enjoying my hobbies, my family, and kept my anxiety front and center in my mind.

  Enter Battletech.

  Or should I say, re-enter Battletech.  Those of you who've read my blog for a while know that A) I don't post as much as I should and B) I cut my teeth on the Mentzer Basic and Expert D&D boxed sets.  Those were my first experience with roleplaying.  That same year, in 1986, I was introduced to a glorious boxed set called Battletech.  We played at lunch at school.  We played before school.  We played on weekends.  If we weren't playing D&D or FASA Trek that first year of my RPG career, we were playing Battletech or Robotech (the first game I bought with my own money.)  I had discovered the Robotech cartoon during the 1985-6 year we spent in Temple Terrace, FL and I was immediately floored.  The re-use of Macross/Robotech art in the Battletech game drew me in- but the game universe kept me there.  The idea of Great Houses fighting over an empty throne, 'Mechs that were relics as well as war machines, of technology and desperation married in a nearly apocalyptic future world- this game had me.  I rapidly discovered Technical Readout: 3025 and the level of detail astounded me.  Individual manufacturers of Medium Lasers and Jump Jets, famous MechWarriors, tidbits of history woven into the articles about each of the 55 'Mechs, 3 LAMs, 3 DropShips and 15 Aerospace Fighters, give or take some equally inspiring tanks like the Von Luckner, Galleon, Rommel and Patton.

  I had such a passion for Battletech that despite every other game I have ever played, Battletech has been a recurring theme for what is, this year, three decades.  I love many games, but it always comes back to Battletech.  So it has been these last few weeks.  My club, The Royal Dragoon Guards, was founded on Battletech.  It was preceded by the 342nd MSG of the Starfleet Marine Corps- a club which played a lot of Battletech.  That was preceded by the Caladan Highland Dragoons, formed in 1995, to play- you guessed it- Battletech.  So when the opportunity came to give my RDG campaign a hard reboot and do Battletech the way I love Battletech, I grabbed it with both hands.  I dug up the custom character creation rules Bobby and I had worked on.  I pulled out MechWarrior - the original, first edition - along with the original sourcebooks.  I pledged that I would build my campaign around Battletech the way I played it.  Nobles, antique 'Mechs, Dune with Giant Robots.

  Our classic campaign from nearly ten years ago saw the planet Royal, on the border of the Federated Suns and the Draconis Combine, in the midst of destabilizing internal strife due to the nobles that comprised its Landsraad squabbling constantly.  Duke Maglan von Kalmen decided to form a 'Mech unit dedicated to the world as a whole, and sent out a ducal proclamation requiring every House Minor on Royal to contribute personnel.  From the resulting melting pot of minor nobility the Duke forged, through Dispossessed MechWarrior Sir Richard Mainwaring, The Royal Dragoon Guards.  The year was 2914, in the early stages of the Third Succession War.  The campaign saw the Houses Minor ally with one another, scheme against one another, and most importantly expand the Battletech universe.  We created everything from secret Star League facilities to performing troupes and tobacco plantations.  Little pieces of color that fleshed out the feeling that Royal was a real world in which our characters lived, fought, loved and died.

  I decided we were going back to Royal.  Doing some refreshing of my Battletech memory I saw that Royal fell to the Draconis Combine during the Fourth Succession War, and did not return to the hands of House Davion until the War of 3039.  It was there I began to plan my campaign- the Royal Dragoon Guards would not be the original unit, no, this was a century later.  The name of the original unit would be resurrected to inspire expatriates from Royal to flock to the banner of Duke Paul Stephenson of New Ivaarsen, who seeks to put together his New Ivaarsen Volunteers to take Royal back from the Kuritans.  The idea for the campaign began to take shape - the players would be one company of the New Ivaarsen Volunteers named, for PR purposes, The Royal Dragoon Guards.  The players obliged by creating a group who had ties to Royal- some were expatriate nobles looking to gain back their family holdings.  Others were looking to carve out holdings and finding the situation such that the Duke might just grant them the lands of the treacherous nobles who supported the Kuritan military government.  The more I worked on the campaign and the plans for the plot the more excited I got.

  I realized I had my passion back when I was reading Battletech, Battletech, Battletech and making tons of notes about where this game would go.  I was adjusting the Battletech universe to make it more suitable to the campaign I wanted to run.  I was working with Bobby and Andy, one of our other players, creating new 'Mechs, tanks, and other equipment that existed in our version of the Battletech universe.  For three weeks now, my fingers have been pouring forth all sorts of background and plot for this new campiagn.  Good friends who have been absent from my game table since the last big Battletech campaign have returned just because this game is going back to the Battletech universe, back to Royal.  My enthusiasm has started to slowly bleed into other areas of my gaming interests. I've been revisiting things I started tinkering with years ago and adding bits here and there.  I've been making notes on non-Battletech games I'd like to run this year.  Completing the projects I undertook for North Texas RPG Con later this year.  I got my groove back.

  I don't know if this sudden energy burst will last - I hope it does.  When the last Royal campaign ran, it ran for four years.  My gaming brain is finally back to where it was before I became immersed in Grad School.  I'm in a good place as far as my hobby interests are concerned.  Now, if I can conquer my anxiety, life will be pretty damn good indeed.

  Stay tuned for more (fingers crossed) and check out www.texmechs.org to see what we're up to.

23 November 2015

Incentive To Game: The Royal Manticoran Army Marksmanship Program


As an avid reader of military science fiction, I have been a fan of David Weber's Honor Harrington series for many years.  I found out a few years back there was an organized fandom for the Honorverse, and became involved in 2014.  The organization is largely composed of members portraying Navy and Marine personnel, we the novels are focused on those branches of the Manticoran service, Navy much moreso than any other branch.  There was, however, a relatively small group within the TRMN club that portrayed the Royal Manticoran Army and the soldiers that made up the Star Kingdom's last line of home defense.  That was where I ended up upon joining TRMN along with quite a few of my friends.  We now make up Fort Shorncliffe, home of First Battalion, 342nd Armored Infantry Regiment.  Add in our good friend Dennis Sustare and his Home Guard at Sandgate Castle, and we have about 32 folks associated with the RMA who like rolling dice and doing tactical things.

  When we were an active part of STARFLEET, our group was criticized by some other groups for being too military in the way we did things.  Against Gene's ideals, they said.  I won't get into that argument, but sufficient to say moving to a club that is explicitly about military science fiction meant we fit in a lot better.  A lot of us are prior service (a couple currently serving) plus State Guard, current and former cadets, etc.  A certain amount of military flavor creeps in.  One person utters a "hooah" and conversation will be peppered with them for hours.

  We founded on gaming, and while gaming was something that happened on STARFLEET, and yes, we even started a whole yearly event dedicated to it, it wasn't supported organization-wide in any way.  This is where TRMN really fit how my friends and I do our thing.  Not only was our way of running our organization in keeping with TRMN, but TRMN actually had a program to encourage and reward gaming.  The Marksmanship Program.

  To avoid the legal hassle that would come with actual firearms use, TRMN instituted a marksmanship program in which gaming was the key activity.  Play games that were aerospace or wet naval in nature and were on the approved games list, and you racked up points toward a Pistol marksmanship qualification.  Play ground-based wargames, and the credits went toward a Rifle marksmanship qualification.  This was awesome, we could game and get recognition for it.  It also fostered some friendly rivalry.  And encouraged MORE gaming.  Thing was, we do a lot of roleplaying games, which were explicitly not on the list.  What to do?

  The Army, seeking to differentiate itself from the Navy and Marine Corps parts of the club, decided to create an Army Marksmanship Program.  This program would differ quite a bit from the Navy version in that it would be much more inclusive of other games.  It would count hours gamed instead of sessions played, since one can play 20 games of X-Wing, assuming one-on-one fighter duels, for every game of Axis & Allies played to conclusion.  An interesting mechanic introduced by the Army leadership had hours played multiplied based on how many TRMN members were in the game, up to a maximum multiplier of 4.  Thus, the program would encourage more gaming of more types of game with more people.  Perfect!  Plus, the program supporting casual and traditional games meant some of our members who preferred non-wargames could now find similar reward in play to the hardcore war game folks.  The Army came to us at Fort Shorncliffe to help put the categories together.  Here's what we came up with, and some examples of each.

Grenade: Casual games or party games.  Cards Against Humanity.  Twister.  Scene-it!  Trivial Pursuit.
Disruptor: Family games and traditional games.  Monopoly.  Chutes & Ladders.  Checkers.  Candy land.
Flechette Gun: Tactical board games, CCGs, or Deck Building Games.  Magic.  Firefly the Board Game.  Android Netrunner.
Pistol: Aerospace or Naval Wargames.  Starfleet Battles.  Crimson Skies.  Victory at Sea.
Rifle: Ground-based wargames.  Battletech.  Bolt Action.  Dust Tactics.
Grenade Launcher: Roleplaying Games.  (RPG, get it?)  D&D.  Shadowrun. D6 Star Wars.
Tribarrel: Strategic-level wargames.  Succession Wars.  Federation & Empire.  Conquest of the Empire.
Plasma Carbine: Tactical multiplayer computer games.  Starcraft.  Halo.  Battlefield 1942.
Plasma Rifle: Strategic mulitplayer computer games.  Civilization.  Master of Orion.

  So here's how it works.  Say my wife sits down to play Cards Against Humanity with our club's XO, S3 and a friend who isn't in the TRMN organization.  We play for 3 hours.  Since my wife, the XO, the S3 and myself are all members of TRMN, the multiplier is one less than our number, with a maximum of 4.  In this case, it's 3.  Non-TRMN players don't count.  Recruit the hell out of them so they will.  Multiply the hours played by the participation multiplier and get a total of 9.  Each of us has just gained 9 credits toward our Grenade Marksmanship category.  5 credits earns Marksman, but Sharpshooter requires 100, and the highest qualification award comes at 600 credits.

  And does it work?  Well, YEAH, so far. Since this program went live a month ago, the members of Fort Shorncliffe have been adding extra gaming on top of our twice monthly meetings.  It's been a lot of fun.  I've had the opportunity to dig out some older games and try them on new players - most notably Shadowrun DMZ, or Downtown Militarized Zone, the Shadowrun tactical board game.  I'll be blogging about that game sometime soon. 

  Personally, I find the concept of the gaming incentive program in a fandom organization to be a really good one.  It encourages members to get together and have fun.  It gives the entire organization an activity to take part in cooperatively and competitively.  It encourages branching out to try new types of game.  All in all, this is why I'm happy to be a part of this organization.  We can play D&D and get club credit for doing so... GRIN...

29 October 2015

It's October - Let's Talk About Beyond the Supernatural

29 October - just a couple more days until my favorite holiday, Halloween.  Time to talk about Beyond the Supernatural.
another one of my favorite RPGs, which sadly is on my long list of games I'd love to play but can't find time or player buy-in.  This is Palladium Books 1988 offering

Before anyone berates me for being a Palladium fan, I am well aware of the warts of the system.  I still love this game in spite of that for two reasons.  First, the first RPG I purchased with my own money was Palladium's Robotech.  I also got heavily into TMNT, Ninjas & Superspies and Beyond the Supernatural.  I have nostalgia on my side, plus the Palladium game system is actually perfectly serviceable for games that lack Mega Damage structures.  I found Palladium Fantasy a much more straightforward system than my beloved AD&D.  Yes, things got complicated with MDC in Robotech and Rifts, but that's not what we're here to talk about... this time.

BTS.  Why do I love it?  Well... I grew up on a television series called In Search Of... hosted by Leonard Nimoy.  The series covered all manner of mysterious things, from ghosts to the Bermuda Triangle to UFOs and more.  From a very young age I devoured books on these subjects, a particular two books that I got from a Scholastic book fair in 1981 creeping me the hell out as a first grader. I was absolutely fascinated by the paranormal.  That fascination continues to this day.  I approached the paranormal from the investigative, scientific point of view based on my childhood perception of In Search Of... My first horror RPG was, as is the case with many other players, The Call of Cthulhu.  The problem was I was not yet familiar with H.P. Lovecraft's works when I played, and our GM was also 13 years old and not really experienced enough to get the feel of the genre right.  I decided to go back to fantasy and sci-fi.

My next trip to King's Hobby Shop I saw Beyond the Supernatural on the rack next to the other Palladium games I loved.  I picked it up and started to page through it and found precisely what my view of the paranormal and horror gaming was looking for in a game.  BTS introduces the character of Victor Lazlo, a paranormal investigator whose writings explain the underpinnings of how the supernatural functions within the game world.  This scientific approach to the paranormal caught my attention in a big way.  Ley lines.  Places of Power.  Ancient civilizations.  All of it linked by a coherent scientific theory of psychic energy.  Holy Time-Life Books!  This was just the right approach to make my imagination explode.

Then there was the character classes.  The Arcanist was up first, someone who spent their time and energy poring over ancient tomes and learning the secrets of magic.  That had possibilities.  It was a pretty cool idea, and certainly a handy person to have around if you are part of a paranormal investigative group.  The Latent Psychic works GREAT for a modern kind of campaign where most of the protagonists are normal humans. Someone with psychic ability who is slowly learning how to use their power.  The Natural/Genius is an interesting take on psychic ability- rather than something overtly psychic, these characters are just REALLY GOOD at something, which is how their paranormal abilities expressed themselves.  The Nega-Psychic is the Dana Scully character class, and I'll talk more about it later.  The Parapsychologist is the class I always wanted to play if I wasn't being the Game Master.  A scientist, rooted in paranormal research yet with a willingness to admit that, as Winston Zeddemore said: "These things are real."  Physical psychics are very much what Shadowrun would later call Adepts, expressing their psychic potential in a physical manner.  The Psi-Mechanic can create paranormal devices powered by their own innate psychic abilities- the forerunner of the Rifts techno-wizard.  The Psychic Healer and Psychic Sensative are just what they sound like, and all these options are followed up with perhaps the most interesting of all - Ordinary People.

 The ability to have ordinary paranormal investigators as well as mixing in the GMs preference of actual psychic characters is a sandbox primed for many sorts of investigative horror adventures.  You could limit classes to just the parapsychologist and ordinary people, you could allow one psychic sensitive or latent psychic, you could go all-out and allow all the classes for a game with a higher supernatural level.  Personally, I find the limited approach a little more interesting- when the PCs possess too much paranormal ability in and of themselves, investigating the unknown doesn't seem as dangerous or as mysterious.

  Now, I have to talk about the Nega-Psychic for a moment.  This class was my absolute bane as a GM for BTS.  The Nega-Psychic doesn't believe in the paranormal.  In fact, this character has significant paranormal abilities but never realizes it because those abilities serve to suppress all other paranormal activity in their vicinity and make the character highly resistant to paranormal effects.  So, if there's a haunted house situation once the Nega-Psychic enters the home the paranormal activity will stop.  It will not resume until the Nega-Psychic has left.  This causes a lot of narrative problems over a longer campaign.  It's interesting, even humorous the first couple of times.  Then it becomes frustrating and tiresome.  Unless you have an angle, I'd highly advise against allowing this type of character into the game.

  So, there's  a small but interesting section of equipment based on the finest investigative gear the 1980s had to offer.  There's a fairly big section on monsters and creatures, and the aforementioned sections on places of power, the paranormal in general, and the rules of psychic energy.  Roll all that together with the extremely neat character classes and you're ready for a potentially brilliant supernatural investigation game.  Now, this game is more or less compatible with all the Palladium games that are not MDC worlds, like Ninjas & Superspies or Mystic China.  Mixing and matching things from these games or others can be a lot of fun.  The Boxed Nightmares supplement, the only supplement for BTS, also includes a system for point-buy creation of a supernatural investigation organization for your players to be a part of.  This can be a lot of fun to play with as well, especially if the players want to talk out how best to spend their points.  "Hey, does this pole still work?"

  Beyond The Supernatural is currently in its second edition, but curiously the revised core book leaves out magic and magic-using classes.  These were supposed to be added later, but the second edition core book came out in 2005...  So...  I'm going to recommend the original.  It can be purchased quite reasonably in the aftermarket, and it can be purchased in PDF from DriveThru RPG.

08 October 2015

It's October - let's talk about Chill.

Welcome back, folks.  I am now officially in graduation holding pattern.  All my grades are in, all my tasks are complete, my GPA is 3.945 and my Master of Arts in Military History will be official on 15 November of this year.  Huzzah!

I love October.  Halloween is my favorite holiday.  Christmas is a wonderful family time, and Thanksgiving is likewise enjoyable, but for pure holiday revelry I love me some Halloween.  My  kiddos have already got their Star Wars costumes ready to rock - Kaylee is going to be Sabine from Rebels, and Zane is going as a First Order Stormtrooper.  The kids have already been introduced to one of Daddy's favorite Halloween traditions - Count Chocula.  We've been through two boxes already - mostly consumed while watching 80s cartoons on Saturday mornings.

Every year for decades now I've run a horror-themed game for Halloween.  Most years we try to live through I6 - Ravenloft.  One year Scott ran an amazing game of Vs. Monsters that I still remember fondly, and one year we tried Call of Cthulhu and I remembered why I don't try to run CoC for this particular group of players.  Since we've got a regular D&D game going on that is taking place in Ravenloft, I decided to look at other horror games as a possible Halloween treat.  My gaze fell on my copy of Chill 2nd Edition on my bookshelf.  I've always had an odd relationship with this book.  I've owned it since my senior year of high school.  I've read it, considered running it, and put it back on my shelf.  This was the Mayfair Games edition published in 1990.

There were things I liked in Chill 2nd.  I liked the idea of skills being rated as Student-Teacher-Master, that was kinda cool.  I liked the idea of SAVE.  In Chill, PCs are assumed to be "envoys" of an organization called SAVE - Societas Albae Viae Eternitata.  The Eternal Society of the White Way.  Newer editions of Chill change the "Albae" to "Argentae" for Silver Way, since White Way is considered racist.  SAVE was formed by an Irish scientist Dr. Charles O'Boylan in 1844.  SAVE has dedicated itself to investigating "the Unknown" where it can be found.  SAVE is, as of modern times, worldwide but spread fairly thin.  In my native Texas, there are two centers of SAVE activity, Houston and Dallas, each with about 30 envoys.  So, SAVE is there to have your back, but has limited resources in personnel and funding.  So... you're on your own, but not.  Limited support makes for good roleplaying opportunities.  The Game Master - or Chill Master (CM) - can use SAVE to supply lore and hints, but can throttle exactly how much SAVE can or cannot help in a given situation to fit the needs of the game. I like it.

What did I not like?  The actual presentation of the book.  The artwork in Chill 2nd Edition is incredibly quirky.  Let me show you what I'm on about...

 So... "quirky" isn't really the word I'm looking for, I guess.  I could NEVER get into the artwork for this edition of Chill.  I just couldn't.  The second and third examples are supposed to be PCs from the introductory module.  What kind of feel is this art supposed to evoke in the players?  Am I supposed to want to play an MD who looks like he descends from the Keeper of Talos IV?

So, as intriguing as the text was, I never could get any traction out of Chill, both from my own dissatisfaction with the layout and artwork and the utter "meh" response the book garnered from my players.  For whatever reason, though, the book made the cut to be on the "bedroom shelf" where I keep books I like to grab and read when I can't sleep.  Some of my favorite RPG books are in that group- Star Wars D6 1e, Lords of Darkness for AD&D, Shadowrun 1e, Earthdawn 1e, Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Red Box Basic and its immediate predecessor B/X...  so while Chill never got ran, it got read again and again over the years.

I recently had the opportunity to get my hands on some of the older edition Chill material.  In 1984, Pacesetter Games produced the original version of Chill.  I'd never gotten to see any of the original stuff, since I only became aware of Chill after Mayfair started producing it.  I laid my eyes upon the cover of the boxed set and I immediately just *knew* I was looking at a Jim Holloway cover.

Now... THIS was something I could sink my horror gaming teeth into just from the feel of the cover alone.  A frightened man with a lantern stands in a decrepit grave yard covered in fog, looking over his shoulder with an expression only Holloway could illustrate staring at... what?  We see a hand, but not what that hand is attached to.  NOW my imagination is racing.  Now I'm thinking of old Sherlock Holmes films in black and white and Hammer horrors from the studio's earlier years before quite so much camp appeared.  NOW I am starting to feel like this is a game I can RUN.

Funny how art can do that.

Let's take a look at a couple of pieces of the interior art of Chill 1st Edition that illustrate the kind of feel that catches my eye and makes me want to play.

 Now... THIS is more like it.  I know, art is subjective and one man's Holloway is another man's crayon doodle, but damnit, Jim, I like Jim.  Holloway.  Art.

The title page art is awesome.  The rotted arm breaking out of the grave to the horror of the terrified man with Lemmy's facial hair and a revolver.  Yeah.  I can work with that a lot more than the odd illustrations above.  I can show this to players and they get the mood and tone of the game immediately, as opposed to the 2nd edition aesthetic.

I eagerly dove into the book and found a game I really, REALLY want to run.  So, Chill - it's a percentage die system with a table to determine how well or poorly a particular die roll comes out.  The levels of success remind me a tiny bit of Shadowrun's wound levels.  Speaking of wounds, it doesn't matter if you're attacking a creature with a .22 revolver or an elephant gun, it's not the weapon that determines damage in Chill, it's the skill of the attacker.  That might sit poorly with some of my friends who are obsessed with gear, but it works just fine in a game running in the horror genre.

PCs have limited access to "The Art," which seems to be psychic ability and the ability to manipulate magic.  While PCs can learn how to use the Art in certain ways, you won't really find any Gandalf-level exploits.  As is expected in this kind of setting, you're more likely to have someone sensitive to paranormal presences or able to speak with the departed than someone who can throw fireballs and teleport.  Quite genre-evocative.

I'll say this, the system isn't complex, per se, but there is a little bit of 80s game fiddly about Chill.  Figuring base skill levels by averaging this ability or that, then adding +15 for Student level or what have you.  Then you roll against the stat and compare the margin of success to the table and you get a letter result...  At first, it's going to take a bit of getting used to, but I imagine it will speed up with regular play.  It's not rocket science.  I dig it.

Now, Chill had some GREAT supplements, but there's one or two that might have damaged the game's reputation a bit.  I've heard folks say that the Holloway artwork was a liability rather than an asset to Chill, since it gave a bit of campy Hammer-horror look to the books and covers.  OK, I can kinda see that when the premier horror game, Call of Cthulhu, had art that tried to communicate the existential horror of the Great Old Ones in a game that was anything but campy.  Me?  I like the look of the books, and the feel that look engenders.  However...  The Elvira supplement might have reinforced this point.  As much as I am a huge fan of Elvira and her huge -ahem - talents, her show did emphasize exactly the kind of horror-as-camp that turned some people off to Chill.  This doesn't mean I'm not currently planning to pick up a copy of the Elvira supplement... just that I can see where it damages my case that Chill can be every bit as serious-scary as Call of Cthulhu.

Let's be honest, here, though.  Cthulhu is its own genre of horror.  Lovecraftian horror is something that you ultimately can't really deal with.  Chill seeks to present the kind of things that may be horrific and overwhelming, but can ultimately be dealt with - at least in the short term - by the plucky SAVE envoys.  Not every Cthulhu adventure can end in success if something truly Lovecraftian is involved.  The best one can do is try to stay sane...

So I've now read the original Pacesetter Chill boxed set cover to cover.  I plan on making this my Halloween game for 2015.  The system is not too complex, the setting's SAVE is a sponsor organization that is just the right power level to leave PCs on their own while being a conduit through which the CM can pass information at need.  I'm looking forward to scoring some of Chill's supplements in the hopes of eventually collecting all of the Pacesetter edition.

For those of you wishing to give Chill a whirl, you have three options.  First you can chase down the original on the secondary market.  Second, you can purchase the new Chill 3rd Edition from Growling Door Games.  Finally, you can check out the resurrected Pacesetter's game Cryptworld, which has all the classic Chill game mechanics without the SAVE information, as Growling Door currently has the Chill license.