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.