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.