Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Playlist Fun

I ran the second session of my Wilderlands game last week. It took us about a month to arrange that follow-up meeting due to everyone's busy-ass schedules, but I think we've found an arrangement that should work. It involves bi-weekly sessions, something I haven't done in a while.

At any rate, I'm pretty happy with how the campaign is unfolding, and the promise of the pulp-gonzo-old-schoolness of the Wilderlands. In honor of that excitement, I did what I do every time I'm excited about a campaign: I made a playlist. This one might be hard to see through all the smoke, if you catch my drift, but it's a "premium blend" of old and new if I do say so myself. An apt reflection of the Wilderlands and its recent revitalization. Not to get too academic about it...

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

If I find the time in the coming days, I'll write a bit more about the campaign proper. Suffice to say the neophyte D&Ders got a chance to make acquaintance with the phenomenon known as dungeon crawling, with decidedly mixed (but decidedly fun) results.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lulu Just Made My List

I've seen other folks on the 'Net complain about Lulu before, but I've never really had an issue with them...until now.

Oh sure, turnaround time on orders is ridiculous. Take my latest order, Issue 4 of Fight On!. Ordered it March 18th, just received it in the mail today. But I understand that we're dealing with print-on-demand technology here. The shipping costs are another big complaint. I can certainly sympathize. Even living in the U.S., the shipping added half again as much cost to the mag. But it's worth all the hassle to get a quality publication, right?

It sure would be--if Lulu had managed to send me the right book! Instead, I got a copy of The Ultimate Tattoo Guide: You Can Learn to Tattoo!. What made it worse was that the book was bound in the cover of Fight On! #4. Talk about bait and switch.

So now I have to get in touch with Lulu and wait a god-only-knows-how-long amount of time to get a properly bound copy of issue 4. In the meantime I guess I can teach myself how to tattoo...hmmmm...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Gaming in the 21st Century

Working on a project yesterday, I put on the podcast where a guy from Wizards of the Coast R&D Department (::shudder::) runs a game of the current edition of D&D (obviously) for the guys who bring us the PVP/Penny Arcade webcomic. Aside from the smart-assery of the players, which got a little tiresome after a while, the main thing that struck me was the "official" approach to running D&D, particularly how the DM had the players moving their miniatures around the map even outside of combat situations. It would be quite interesting if we had similar recordings from the days of the earlier editions--third, second, first, original, etc.

Yesterday I also ran across this picture on a non-gaming-related website. I have no idea who these folks are, but I found the picture fascinating. Let's analyze it, shall we?

The title of this post is "Gaming in the 21st Century" because, to me, the photo kind of encapsulates what could very well be a "mainstream" gaming session in the year 2009. The group is playing D&D fourth edition, for example--with all that entails (more on that shortly). The most immediately arresting element is, of course, the "Futurama style" head present on the table. What a wonderful age we live in--the future truly is now! It's funny; I have yet to play 4e, but if I do, it could very well be in a situation similar to this, and I would be the guy teleconferencing in via webcam and laptop.

On to the trappings of "modern" D&D. This was the second thing that jumped out at me. In addition to the classic trappings--dice, character sheets, a DM screen--we have other elements I'd usually associate with a boardgame: a tableau of reference cards, a playing board and playing pieces.

I'm not really trying to pass judgment one way or another--as I've said, I have yet to play 4e--but the picture along with the podcast (together with the fact that I've been running a more classically-styled D&D game) struck me once again that "mainstream" gaming is something vastly changed from even five or ten years ago.

As a postscript, the title of that picture is "organizedloneliness.jpeg"--a pretty hilarious term, I think.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Honking, Wheezing, and the World Without People

Ah, late winter/early spring. 'Tis the season for rampant viral outbreaks, and I have succumbed. First honest-to-goodness head cold in I don't even know how long. Of course, the upside of being sick-but-not-too-sick is that you get to catch up on DVDs you've been meaning to watch and do a lot of thinking about imaginary worlds.

More on the latter once I'm feeling up to it (specifically, my take on Rifts Europe), but in the former category I'd like to pass along a hearty recommendation for anyone running any sort of post-apocalyptic game: a History Channel special on DVD that I picked up from the library called Life After People. Yes, obviously a shameless ripoff of the similarly-named book The World Without Us, the TV special nevertheless does a pretty spiffy job of examining what would happen if heretofore inhabited areas suddenly became uninhabited and "the wild" reclaimed planet Earth. All those niggling questions, like what would happen to nuclear power plants or what would New York City look like after a century of neglect, are addressed. The best part is that it does this in discreet installments, starting with intervals of days, then weeks, then years, then decades and into centuries. So no matter how long "after the bomb/virus/whatever" you set your campaign, there's bound to be useful information--both in terms of what has happened and what hasn't. The 90-minute special tells you most of what you need to know about the state of the world after civilization collapses and the CGI graphics--from a GMing standpoint, the major advantage over reading the book--are quite decent, even inspirational at times.

I was pleased to note that my decision to set my version of the world of Rifts a century after the Cataclysm does indeed jive with the level of post-apocalyptic ruin I'm looking for. I was also quite pleased to be reminded that, thanks to zoos, a North America after people would most likely play host to all manner of "exotic" animals (lions, tigers, rhinos, etc.) living, even thriving, in the wild. Oh, and that lap dogs would be among the first domesticated species to die out.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Of Banestorm, BRP, and the Old School-New School Continuum

For a while now I've been meaning to write about the BRP Banestorm campaign I've been running for Des. In the interest of having this not be just another one of those "let me tell you about my campaign" type posts, I've had some thoughts, however loosely connected, on matters of a perhaps more broadly applicable nature. So let's down our motion sickness pills, because there are going to be some sudden shifts along this train of thought. Let the rambling commence!

Let's start things off right away with a tangential reflection. Folks who study human sexuality will tell you about the Kinsey scale, a continuum rated from 0 to 6 along which everyone's sexuality lies. A rating of zero is exclusively heterosexual, a rating of six is exclusively homosexual. In the course of thinking about the mechanics of GURPS vs. BRP, or Basic D&D vs. newer incarnations, I thought of the Kinsey scale. I think everyone falls along a similar continuum in terms of what they're looking for out of game mechanics. A zero would be someone who is comfortable with using the rules strictly as loose guidelines, making constant on-the-fly rulings and seeing actions as player-driven rather than character-driven. A six would be the type of person who wants a rule not only for swimming and juggling, but for swimming and juggling at the same time--and the modifiers for wearing heavy armor while doing so.

Now, the campaign I'm running has to take top honors for one of the longest gestational periods of any game I've actually managed to successfully get off the ground. The roots of the campaign stretch back to some time in 2006, when I was passing a boring evening on the front register at the bookstore I worked at at the time by coming up with ideas of games I wanted to run. I struck upon an idea of having the players create "average Joe" characters (using GURPS) for a campaign set in 1981 or thereabouts. They could make any sort of character they wanted--the only connection would be that they all knew each other because they all played D&D together.

The campaign would kick off with their somewhat weird and eccentric DM (an NPC) promising them that he would be running a "special" game their next session. "Like D&D, only better!" is all he'd say about it. The "game", of course, would turn out to be some sort of magical tome that would transport the characters to a D&D-type fantasy world, and you know the rest...

From the get-go, I wanted the world to be a fairly "realistic" take (as much as possible) on standard D&D tropes. Over time, the idea gradually morphed as I thought more about it, as these things often do. I toyed with the idea of making the connection to the D&D cartoon even more explicit, by (a) having the characters all be teens/older children, and (b) grafting on "character class" templates based on each character's concept (i.e. the Jock becomes a Fighter, the Nerd becomes a Wizard, etc.). (I ended up dropping the latter idea somewhat--in the end, rather than having the characters immediately take on personae, they could discover their "class" over time, organically. In the end, Des ended up on a path towards becoming a bard.) Then I remembered that GURPS actually had a fantasy setting...and that it was explicitly designed to be a "realistic" take on standard D&D tropes...and that it had the concept of being gated from our Earth to said fantasy world as a built-in (and rather essential) component of the entire setting...and that a newly-updated hardback detailing said setting had recently been released! Ya gotta love it when things dove-tail like that, you know?

So it naturally figures that I'd be using a completely different system to run a setting that was in part designed to showcase the GURPS system. Ah, gaming. Sometimes you are like a Zen koan.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Once I'd decided on using Yrth (as the setting is called) and picked up GURPS Banestorm (the title of the aforementioned hardback), I started looking into previously-published resources. That's when I found Harkwood, a setting-cum-adventure that Doc Rotwang summarizes nicely here. Once I'd settled on using Harkwood as my initial point of departure for the campaign, the final modification of my original idea took place. See, the events described in the adventure take place in 1988 (Yrth's time line runs concurrently to our own). Not to give away our ages, but it just so happens that that's just about the right time to allow any of the given players who constituted my group at the time to play themselves as 10-year-olds. So I decided on that as being an option, and figured it was probably a given that my ego-maniacal players would leap at the opportunity to play themselves as children.

I had intended to run my Banestorm campaign as a follow-up to the Pendragon campaign. As it turned out, I swore off running chat-based games, burned out by the monumental task of running Pendragon for over two years. But I didn't want to let my sweet campaign idea go to waste, so I pitched it to Des as a one-on-one game. (I kept the details extremely vague--I only told her that the game would be set in 1988 and she could play herself...and she did jump at the chance, as anticipated.)

Side Tangent the Second: I can't recall if I've written about this before, but I actually have a great big soft spot in my heart for single-player campaigns. When I first got into gaming, it was just me and my buddy Alex for a good two, three years--most of our high school years, in fact. (Not a lot of gamers in our high school class, for some reason.) Although we knew we were missing out and wanted to get a group going, and eventually did, I developed a definite appreciation for the many merits of single-player gaming--for example, the ability to tightly tailor action and story arcs, to say nothing of character and campaign concepts. Since introducing Des to gaming, we've run several single-player campaigns and they've all been eminently satisfying.

At any rate, things really gelled from the get-go. (Example: when interviewing Des about what she was up to during the summer of 1988, she volunteered a memory--still having no idea, mind you, of what I was planning--of being dragged along to one of her brothers' Cub Scout events, a weekend campout called "Dragon Quest" or somesuch, an event that featured plastic goblets, a "wizard", archery tournaments, the whole nine yards. Perfect! I had a banestorm strike right in the middle of the camp, whisking away the entire Cub Scout troop and scattering them across the Old Forest. Des's den mother companion was shortly thereafter eaten by a troll, leaving our young hero alone in the middle of an enchanted forest.)

The only thing that wasn't gelling was the system. My ultimate disenchantment with GURPS is owed directly to this campaign. The prep work was tiresome. The actual game-play experience was muddled with a myriad of niggling details. Bothersome questions about how to implement various rules occupied more of my time than actually coming up with new adventure ideas. Switching to the Basic Role Playing system was a relief of simplicity.

I was thinking about this recently in regards to some developments that are soon to take place in the campaign. Essentially, Des, upon being whisked away to Yrth, gained a bit of a patron and mentor in the form of an elven bard. He's been a sort of enigmatic guide and has taken her in as his protege. As such, next adventure the now-adolescent "Little Desi"--as we've taken to calling Des's alter-ego--will be invited to attend a Bardic College (and the campaign will take a new direction, becoming a sort of bardic Hogwart's for a time). Here's the thing: in GURPS, the elven bard, using his pull with the College to get Des admitted, would be considered a Patron, an advantage costing points and bringing with it its attendant rules and exceptions. In BRP, the elven bard is simply an NPC and his actions are dictated solely by me, the GM.

This is the central problem I have with the movement towards assigning rules to cover every situation. It's like a hydra--every problem the new rules quash gives birth to two new problems. What's wrong with the GM simply making a decision?

(Incidentally, I wouldn't rate myself a full "0" on the Old School continuum, simply owing to the fact that I still see a place for having mechanics for things like, say, removing traps. I think any time a PC's life or health is potentially in danger, the dice should come out. Note that I don't necessarily think finding traps should be left to a dice roll either. I'd put myself at a "2" on the Old School continuum.)

As so often happens in this here blogosphere, Amityville Mike has apparently been thinking along the same lines, and addresses another facet of the argument against having a rule for everything:

My problem was that by defining concretely what a character CAN do, you’re also defining what he CANNOT do, or at least not do well, and I, for one, have grown very tired of falling off horses.

Of course, BRP does have a skill system, complete with a Riding skill--characters can and do fall off horses. But then, BRP is an unapologetically realistic system. Combats are short, brutal, and deadly. Fumbles can lead to spectacular failures. So it goes.

This, incidentally, is why it was such a snap to convert the Banestorm setting, despite its built-in GURPSisms, to BRP. Both systems are grounded in realism, such as it is. But nonetheless, BRP plays very fast and loose and leaves most details of characterization and social interaction up the GM/PC relationship, something I like very much indeed.

The Banestorm setting, for those who don't know, is pretty much a "vanilla fantasy" world. Elves, dwarves, orcs, knights, pirates, wizards, the whole shebang. As with my original vision for the campaign, this is a world that attempts to rationally explain the plurality of sentient races and the existence of magic. The original inhabitants of the world were the elves, dwarves, and orcs. (Incidentally, the orcs of Yrth have just about the best rationale for traditionally orcish habits I've ever seen; essentially, orc culture is all about being the last to possess objects...and that the way to ensure that no one else can possess a coveted object once you've acquired it is to destroy it. Perfect orcish logic!) A splinter group of elves, in an attempt to rid the world of the orcish problem, accidentally caused a magical catastrophe that gated in races from across the universe--including a whole bunch of humans from medieval Europe and elsewhere. Traumatized by the whole situation, human culture has grown afraid of progress and actively works to discourage scientific progress. Thus, the quasi-medieval culture and technology that still prevail today, a thousand years after the first "banestorm". (Also of note is the fact that Yrth deviates most explicitly from most fantasy settings by having a monotheist religion--Chritianity, in fact--ironically putting it closer to the implicit setting in OD&D than most actual D&D settings.)

So far so good, but there's the matter of the magic of Yrth being tied intimately to one of the central conceits of GURPSian magic: mana. In GURPS, mana is the fuel for magic. Low mana areas penalize a spell-caster's skill; high mana areas make magic easier. Entire political boundaries are determined by mana levels, so it wasn't something I could easily ditch or ignore. Despite finding some really nifty conversion guidelines for using the GURPS Magic system wholesale in BRP, I decided to keep things closer to the BRP system as written and use the magic system presented therein. As a result, I decided that mana levels affect how much Power it takes to cast spells. This keeps the handicap of low mana areas but makes the mechanics more organic to the existing system.

One other change I'm implementing (apart from renaming the Great Desert as The Waste and renaming the Great Forest as the Old Forest--because, I mean, honestly...) is to draw a bit of visual inspiration (always an important element for me whether I'm running or playing) from the world of Warhammer (with a tip of the hat to noisms for his recent series of posts on one of my favorite fantasy settings). Essentially, for that small intersection of readers who are familiar with both Yrth and the Old World, I'm envisioning Caithness as being analogous to Brettonia and Megalos as The Empire--without gunpowder, of course. I'm actually considering adapting the College of Magic system from WFRP to represent the Megalan battle wizards. I always liked the different colleges, with their gang-like colors and affiliations. I haven't thought about Cardiel, but I suppose something along the lines of the southern polities like Tilea and Estalia wouldn't be far off. At any rate, I love the idea of Megalos being sort of Renaissance-like in its military structure, fashions, and attitudes. It's already pretty close to that as written. Caithness, of course, is Bretonnia without any further effort on my part.

As I mentioned, the campaign is about to take a dramatic shift. I'm looking forward to the point where "Little Desi" is in her late teens and is capable enough to set off into the big, wide world. She's already acquired a trusty steed and a smart-talking magic sword; her time at the Bardic College should round out her education nicely. Then it's off to see how much trouble she can get herself into...

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rate My Camel--er, Dungeon

With all the new megadungeon projects popping up everywhere, it was perhaps inevitable that we would see an associated project appear. Yes folks, it's now possible to objectively say, "My dungeon is better than yours, neener, neener."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Has it really been a year? Has it only been a year?

I know for many, including myself, Gygax's death was like the tolling of a bell, calling us back to the foundational roots of the hobby. A year ago, I had largely left D&D behind. Now it's practically all I run, play, or talk about. I started this blog, as did many of the other bloggers I read today, in the wake of his death. I just felt like I needed an outlet for all the thoughts and ideas that had been sparked by my personal gaming renaissance. As sad as Gary's passing is, I think it's pretty special--dare I say magical?--that even in his death he continued to be an inspiration.

Thanks for everything, Gary. Even Mythus.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Urban Reconnaissance Robot, Model I (URR-1)

Submitted for your approval: a little write-up inspired by my last Rifts post, a Coalition mech designed to police and control the 'Burbs.

The URR-1 Patrolman

Forerunner of all its later mecha, the URR-1 was the first mass-produced mech design built by the nascent state of Chi-Town. Working off of pre-Cataclysm blueprints and computer models, supplemented by reverse-engineered D-Bee technology, the future Coalition State constructed a compact, rugged, surprisingly agile battle 'bot that has gone on to form the backbone of all CS urban and riot control units from Iron Heart to Lone Star.

Initially developed in response to the swelling, chaos-infested 'Burbs springing up outside the fortified Chi-Town complex, the URR-1 lived up to its engineering goals of being the "big guns" that are all too often needed in the urban jungles surrounding the utopian arcologies. From dispersing crowds to taking out an errant demon summoned by some bumbling Shifter in a botched sub-basement ritual, the URR-1 is at its best with small-scale encounters. The rigorous demands of urban warfare during Chi-Town's war in the ruins of Old Chicago in 12 P.A. led to the design and development of the equally venerable Urban Assault Robot, Model I (UAR-1), which still sees front-line duties in CS armies across North America. Also of note, the design of the URR-1 led directly to the development of the infamous Spider Skull Walkers.

Height: 14 feet
Length: 10 feet
Weight: 13.5 tons
Crew: 2
Cargo: A small storage locker for each crew-member; enough space to store a suit of medium armor, helmet, riot shield, and weapon.
Power System: Power cells (sufficient for 8 hours of continuous operation)
Black Market Cost: 15 million credits

Sensors: The URR-1 packs a sophisticated sensor array designed to allow it to operate in any number of hostile urban environments. Its tri-lobe sensors allow it to see in great detail out to 16 times the normal range. It also features sophisticated night vision, allowing the crew to see even in absolute darkness out to 15 meters, infrared sensors good out to 150 meters, and X-ray sensors that can see through 10 centimeters of any substance except lead up to 15 meters away.

BRP Stats

STR 90
CON 50
SIZ 70

Hit Points: 60 (Major Wound: 30)
Armor: 25
Power Points: 100
Damage Bonus: +8d6
MOV 10

* High-Powered Spotlight: Capable of illuminating an area or object of up to SIZ 30, this ultra-powerful spotlight can be overcharged to actually produce searing heat out to a range of 45 meters, doing 3d6 damage to any targets that fall under its beam. (Use the pilot's Projection skill to zero in the heat beam sufficiently to cause damage to a single target; inflammable material can be set alight with no roll.)

* Smoke Grenade Launcher: A dozen smoke grenades be launched singly, or in multiples of two. Each grenade has a range of 15 meters and blankets a 10 meter radius with impenetrable smoke (canceling normal vision; IR or Dark Vision function normally).

* Front Walker Legs: Specially weighted and reinforced, the URR-1's front legs can be used to bludgeon or knock aside impediments or oponents. Use the pilot's Brawling skill. Damage is 1d3+8d6.

Jump 45%, Listen 45%, Navigate 50%, Repair (internal diagnostics and repair) 55%, Spot 85%

Adaptation 2 (Cold, Heat), Armor 25 (Electric 25, Heat 25, Kinetic 25), Energy Control (Light 30, Darkness 5), Energy Projection (Light 3), Extra Energy 10, Super Characteristics (STR, SIZ, CON), Super Sense (Vision 4, Dark Vision 1, IR Vision 10, X-Ray Vision 1), Super Skills (Jump 1, Listen 2, Navigate 2, Spot 3, Repair 2)

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Rifts®, The Rifter®, RECON®, Splicers®, Palladium Books®, Phase World®, The Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game®, Megaverse®, Nightbane®, The Mechanoids®, The Mechanoid Invasion®, Coalition Wars® and After the Bomb® are Registered Trademarks of Palladium Books Inc. Heroes Unlimited, Beyond the Supernatural, and other published book titles, names, slogans and likenesses are trademarks of Palladium Books Inc. and Kevin Siembieda.

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