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Thursday 31 October 2013

Famous Pipe Smokers

Tonight's famous pipe smoker is quite appropriate for Halloween!  Because besides being quite famous for smoking a pipe, I'm told he also appeared in quite a few old scary movies:

Yes, Peter Cushing, aka Van Helsing (the original and best!), aka Doctor Who (in the cheesy 60s movies).  And let's not forget the scary Grand Moff Tarkin.

And, I should note, an avid  miniature wargamer.

Yes, Peter Cushing was a pipe smoker.


Currently Smoking: Neerup egg + Rattray's Accountant's Mix

Wednesday 30 October 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Traveller (Mongoose edition)

The RPGPundit Reviews: Traveller Core Rulebook (Mongoose)

This is a review of the new Traveller rulebook; well, one of the new ones.  I'll note it was sent to me by an interested party in light of a debate thread on theRPGsite, where people were debating the virtues of the Mongoose Traveller vs. Traveller 5e.  I had commented how I had played with Classic Trav in the good old days but had not looked at either of the new editions. So a thank you to my benefactor (and a Mongoose Trav partisan) who sent me this.

Let the record show that this is a review of Traveller: Core Rulebook, published by Mongoose; based on Classic Traveller by Marc Miller, and the new edition written by Gareth Hanrahan.  Its a hardcover book with the cover art being a recreation of the cover of the classic booklet-rules; black with a sleek red line and the title in red. The book is 190 pages long; its interior art is from a mix of sources; ranging from the spectacular to the really sub-par (I was really unimpressed with the Aslan and Vargr illustrations, for example).

I would not call myself a Traveller fanatic, but I do have very fond memories of this game.  In my roleplaying infancy I had bought the basic Traveller boxed set and later several other Traveller books, and I ran quite a lot of games with it.  More recently, I had bought the T20 Traveller rules, which I quite liked, and ran a spectacular campaign for about 3 years with it.  So in a way, I guess I would be exactly the kind of person the various purveyors of new Trav editions would like to get as a customer.

Now, on a purely personal level, I can tell you that what I loved about Traveller was: its character creation rules (which for an old-school game were truly amazing in how they created a whole backstory for your character through a series of rolls and choices), the simplicity of play, and the variety of campaign themes you could run with.  A Trav game could be very military, or not at all; it could focus on exploration, or on trade, or be set entirely on some world (be it a distant frontier, or a crucial planet in the heart of civilized space). Games could be very high-mortality or (like in the case of my last T20 campaign) could run for years without a single fight (there's not many old-school games where that's a common occurrence!).  And yes, I loved the rules for creating systems and planets.
The things that weren't particularly interesting to me were overly complex mechanics on things like starship creation or space combat; that just wasn't my thing.

So what do we get in Mongoose Traveller? Well, for starters, the whole system is really very familiar to me.  I had a lot of trouble being able to really recognize what parts of the book are new material and which are just directly the original Traveller Rules.  It is in no way a radical departure from Classic Traveller. The mechanical differences I was able to see stand out to my dulled memory were only on a couple of significant points; the rest I was not sure about.

As to those points, one of them was probably a sensible necessity: the updating of technological standards.  The other I felt somewhat less sure about, and that was that in the basic setup of the rules your character can no longer die during character creation (though they still present this as an optional rule for those who want it, which mollified me).

If you're totally unfamiliar with Traveller's system, here are the basics: the core mechanic is based on a 2d6 roll (+/- characteristic modifiers and skill modifiers) against a difficulty number (typically 8, for an average check).
Characters have a set of stats (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, and Social Standing), which are generated using 6 rolls of 2d6 with the results put in characteristics by player choice. Stats have modifiers, which technically range from -3 to +3 but in fact range from -2 to +2 in the 2-12 range.  Skills are presented as bonuses to rolls, with basic training providing a +0 modifier, while an "untrained" attempt at a skill check has a -3 penalty.
The Skill list is quite thorough, and Mongoose Traveller provides lengthy details on all skills, including "skill specialties", which are sub-skills that must be taken in some skills if a PC gets more than a +1 rank in them.
I'll also take this moment to note that unlike most RPGs, Traveller has no "experience point" system or "levels"; advancement in mechanical terms only happens (after character creation) through specific training in skills which takes time and effort in-game, and becomes progressively harder the more skills one has.

Characters begin with some basic background skills, and are assumed (at the START of the character creation process) to be 18 years old.
At this point, characters may begin to follow a lifepath-type process of selecting careers, trying to go through various 4-year "terms" in those careers, which grant them certain benefits but accumulate certain risks too.

In the Classic Traveller game as I recall it, there were three big factors that limited how many terms you could (or would likely choose) to serve in careers: first, some careers had significant dangers and could lead to the character dying in the character creation process! As I mentioned before, this no longer exists in the main rules. Second, certain results could lead you to forcibly "muster out" and no longer be capable of continuing in the process.  In the Mongoose version of the rules, players can try to continue in other careers (and may automatically continue as a "drifter" even if he cannot qualify for any other career), effectively indefinitely.  Third, characters begin to suffer aging penalties after age 34.  In the new rules, this has also been lessened in difficulties for a PC as the character can take drugs that hold off aging.  In short, I wonder if the changes to the rules might not make it too easy for a PC to keep going for quite a long while and ending up with a very old but very powerful character? Granted, even with anti-aging drugs and a relatively safe set of careers, a player character who is too old will still be likely to have significant disadvantages, but this could be used as a kind of min-maxing by certain player characters.
There are, however, optional rules that can deal with this potential problem; optional rules allow the GM to set a maximum number of terms for his campaign, and allow the option for the GM to restore risk-of-death in character creation.

Careers are listed with far more detail than in the old edition but the basic concepts are the same. Entering into any career (except drifter, or being drafted for military service) requires that you pass an attribute check; your first career gives you a set of starting skills.  After that in each 4-year term you spend in a career you get to choose a skill table to roll on to gain one new skill (or sometimes to get an attribute raised). You must also make a "survival roll" where failure leads to some kind of mishap (these are consequences that can include things like being drummed out of the career, suffering an injury, or gaining an enemy or some social problem, among others). If you pass the survival roll, you roll to see what random event occurs in the term; these include the potential to gain extra skills, personal events in your life, bonuses to other checks in the process, mishaps, or promotions. You roll for Advancement, to see if you gain a new rank in your career (in this process you may also be required to leave your career, due to forced retirement; this chance increments the more terms you spend in a career).  You can continue to take more terms in your career, or attempt to switch to some other career; if you leave your current career or are forced to quit, you will roll to see what "mustering out" benefits you obtain; you get a certain amount of rolls that depend on how many terms you served in the career, and can choose between cash benefits or "other benefits" (which vary from one career to the next, but can include attribute increases, special items, contacts, or even a starship).

As with Classic Traveller, making a character in Mongoose Traveller is clearly a whole sub-game in itself, and tremendously good fun. More significantly, by the end of the process you have a character (be he young or old) that has a significant background of life events pre-loaded through a mixture of choices and random determination.

Some alternate rules for character creation are provided in the book, including rules for a point-buy system in the place of the lifepath system; but seriously, who'd want to do that?!

After the material on careers we get into the section for Alien PCs.  These are not explicitly listed as optional, but I think that its clear from their placement in the order of things that they're meant to be.  You get here the standard list of aliens from Traveller's de-facto "Imperium" setting, but some hints as to how one could create their own alien races too (with a list of special qualities a GM could choose from for creating an alien race profile).
Again, if you're unfamiliar with Traveller, the included "standard" aliens are: The Aslan (lion-like humanoids), the Droyne (a winged race with a rigid caste system), Hivers (a totally weird multi-limbed monstrous-looking race that are highly intelligent and civilized), K'Kree (centaur-like humanoids), Vargr (uplifted wolf-like humanoids), and Zhodani (a race of humans transplanted by a now-vanished race of "Ancients" that evolved on different lines and have a much higher prevalence of psionic ability, which form the upper class of their very authoritarian society).

The absolute basics of combat in Traveller are extremely simple. Effectively, the mechanic is the same as any other; and to this you just add initiative checks, and then rules for making attacks, modifiers, defending yourself, etc.  One interesting detail is how dodging and parrying work: you can choose to actively defend yourself, but every time you do it reduces your spot on the initiative list; meaning that you could effectively keep yourself from ever getting to do anything other than defend.
Damage is calculated by the damage of the weapon in question (expressed in a number of dice; ie. d6, d6+2, 3d6, etc) plus the "effect" (how far over the difficulty one rolled when hitting).  The damage is done directly to attributes; first to Endurance and then to Strength or Dex. If any two physical attributes hit 0 the character is unconscious, if any three get to 0, the character is dead.  Armor reduces damage.

There are of course several other rules for combat: things like automatic fire, recoil, cover, communications, etc. I think it pretty well covers the gamut of what you need for a sci-fi combat situation.
There's straightforward rules for vehicle combat as well.

There's a detail-rich chapter on "encounters and danger" which gives tables and rules for animals; rather than providing a very lengthy "monster manual" the focus in the rules is on Tables for generating alien animals (given that in a setting with tens of thousands of planets, it would be kind of pointless to provide a great number of specific alien animals). Instead you have general types of animals (ie. scavenger, omnivore, carnivore) and more specific types within that (grazer, hunter, chaser, pouncer); and these give you modifiers to generating the creature's size and physical attributes as well as natural weapons (and the damage those weapons do) as well as armor; and number encountered.  There's a couple of examples of how to do this process, and a small list of basic sample animals. 
The benefit of this subsystem is that its quite generic, and could be used to generate alien animals for just about any context pretty effectively.  The downside is that it doesn't give these animals any tremendous flavor; it will depend on a very good GM to make sure that the specific animals have a memorable aesthetic.

There are rules for other hazardous encounters as well: disease, poison, weather extremes, falling, all the usual. This section also contains rules for healing.

The section on NPCs contains excellent random tables for generating NPC contacts, allies, enemies, and patrons; what they want, what they're doing, what kind of missions patrons have for the PCs (including tables for tasks, targets, and opposition) and random encounter tables ordered by regions.  There are several sample patrons fully fleshed out, and there's also a long list of basic NPC templates for typical characters the PCs might run into.

As one would expect from this kind of sci-fi game, the Equipment section is very complete.  Equipment includes an important classification: Tech Level.  There are tech levels from 0-15 (with 2012 Earth's tech level somewhere between 7 and 8). The core areas of the Imperium have tech levels that range from 10-13, but of course there are plenty of fringe worlds that will be lower, and unexplored worlds who's natives might have much lower levels. TL15 is not a hard limit, it is only the absolute limit of the tech levels of the Imperium itself; the mysterious "ancients" would have had far higher tech levels, for example. In addition to the normal lists of weapons, armor and equipment there are considerations for things like legality, as well as regular costs of living by social status.

One area that I believe was not in Classic Traveller is the rules on cybernetic and genetic augmentations.  There are some kind of artificial limits to augmentations for the sake of game balance; for example, a character can get a "skill augment" but only to +1 and only for one skill ever. There's some rules for computers (that I think kind of under-value what computers can do or would be able to do at higher Tech Levels); and there's no artificial intelligence.

Next we get to the part I was truly dreading: Spaceship creation.  In Traveller (classic, and this one) you can build/design your starship up from scratch, in great detail, with 12 steps and 5 substeps. For some gamers, I'm sure this is a joy. For me, its like pulling teeth. I have no interest in it. There are all kinds of details and modifications, a cornucopia for build-fanatics. That has not really changed, though some of the particular details of the construction process may have.
Thankfully, there's also about 20 pages of samples, of "common starships" of different types and sizes, including pictures and floorplans. So if you're like me, you can just skip the whole "do-it-yourself" process.

Of more interest to me is the section on spacecraft operations; here you get details on all kinds of situations that you have to handle in actual play if your PCs own or run a starship. There's rules on boarding, docking and landing; on standard monthly costs for maintaining the starship, and some excellent tables for space encounters. There's also rules on space travel (through "jump drives"), problems like life support failures or radiation, taking on passengers (along with tables of costs and random passenger tables), repairs, sensors, security, and travel times.

Ship to ship combat is not exactly simple, but it is straightforward and well-explained. In essence, it operates along similar lines as regular combat, but this doesn't mean its just abstracted. On the contrary, there are thorough rules for ranges, missiles and beam weapons, boarding actions, and all kinds of other special details and conditions.

Its worth noting that the Psionics chapter has been put close to the back, apart from the other details on characters and character creation.  Without going so far as to say it, the implications seem clear: Psionics are potentially optional. You could keep them out of the game entirely and it would not require any great adjustment.  That said, psionics has been a part of Traveller since the Classic days, and the rules here are fairly good and detailed.  Characters must be "tested" for psionic powers, this can happen during character creation or afterwards, in play. However, the older a character is, the less likely he is to have psionic potential. For most characters, psionic powers will be few and limited; but this chapter also includes Psionic careers, for those who end up making a full commitment to their psychic craft.  I should note that in the default "Imperium" setting, psionics are suppressed, giving GMs a handy excuse if they don't want PCs to be able to take full-blown psionic careers.

One of the best features of Classic Traveller was the rules on interplanetary trade; some of the best Traveller campaigns I ever ran or played in were all about a free trader trying to make a credit going from planet to planet and playing the markets.  Mongoose Traveller continues in this tradition, with the trade rules very much as they were, only expanded. There's a stunningly impressive level of detail for everything you need to run an "interstellar businessmen" campaign.

On the flipside of the starship creation, when we get to the World Creating I feel an inner glee building up. I guess you can tell I'm a "humanities" guy and not an "engineering" guy; the thought of custom-building a starship bores me to death, but the thought of creating a world with specific values for things like government, law, culture etc. is totally awesome.  Of course, one more difference between the two is that the starship-building rules in Traveller are all based on construction (you could say "point buy", where "points" are things like cost, size constraints, etc); whereas the world-creation rules are based on random tables and rolls with modifications.

Traveller does this by starting with the general and moving to the specific.  Before you create worlds, you randomly generate a galactic subsector (a space hexmap, where star systems will be randomly placed).  After that (and a few other considerations like whether the star system has a gas giant) you roll for the size of the world, the quality of space port, atmosphere, presence of water, population, government, law level, tech level, and whether there are military bases, as well as what kind of trade the world engages in.  Earlier rolls can end up modifying later rolls (for example, the size of the planet will affect the type of atmosphere it might have; and both of these will affect its water level).
The rules here are very similar to those in Classic Traveller, but as in other chapters, there's a few additions and some elaboration: for example, you have rules on generating factions in a planet (rather than a single government), rules governing how law level directly affects a group, rules on crimes and punishment, cultural quirks, contraband, etc.

So, to sum up: Mongoose Traveller is a lot like Classic Traveller, with only a tiny handful of big changes, and a lot of additional clarification and extra flavor-material.  And really, when you are making a new edition of a classic old-school game, that's pretty much what you ought to do; there's little point, if people are looking for Traveller as a game, to try to sell them something that in no way resembles what the game was.

And what it was, and is now again in the Mongoose edition, is a truly excellent semi-hard Sci-fi RPG.  The book is of very good quality, and it has reminded me of and rekindled my love of this classic game.
I'm not entirely sure if its really worth getting if you already have the entire Classic Traveller range of books (or should I say "booklets"?); except maybe for completeness in a single volume or to get those few points slightly updated that might have needed updating.
But if you weren't around to get those, or you have long since lost them (as is my own case), then Mongoose-edition Traveller is definitely recommended.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Poker + Brebbia no.7

Tuesday 29 October 2013

On "The Poorest President in the World" and Clueless Gringo Left- and Right-Wing Misconceptions

 So this image has been going around the internet for quite some time now, or variants of the same (the particular example here seems to be from a "new-atheist" group):

I live in Uruguay, so I thought perhaps I ought to educated people about this. "Pepe" Mujica is generally seen as a very admired figure here these days, and technically speaking nothing in the picture above is wrong. He does give back 90% of his money (however, he also said he's very troubled by this internet meme that rose up about it, because it makes him sound like he's somehow praising poverty, when in fact he says he doesn't believe poverty is a good thing, he wants to get rid of it!).  He is leader of the party that legalized marijuana and same-sex marriage in uruguay. He's a Maoist-oriented Communist and former MLN "Tupamaro" rebel leader (that's still now the name of his political party), so he probably is an atheist, yes (inasmuch as he believes in Marx instead of God).

I have heard, however, some people engaging in some mistaken assumptions about the guy (and by association, about this country), aside from the aforementioned notion that Mujica seeks to glorify poverty or believes that poverty is a better state to be in than wealth. His general tone in reaction to that, by the way, has struck me as always inflected with quite a bit of scorn toward affluent first-world internet-liberals not understanding fuck-all about what they're talking about.  Only someone who's never actually seen REAL poverty could ever try to imply that its in any way a desirable state for mankind, or that its somehow praiseworthy.

In any case, the other big confusion I've tended to see about the guy coming from the clueless gringos is that he was a "freedom fighter" in the 1960s (implying that he was fighting for democracy against a dictatorial regime), or that he is in fact now a Chavez-style petit-dictator whose election win was somehow dubious or who plans to dismantle Uruguayan democracy.  Usually its the lefties who want to believe the former, and conservatives who make the latter claim.  Neither is right.

In the 1960s, the Tupamaros in Uruguay were a terrorist guerilla movement. They were NOT "fighting an oppressive regime".  The Tupamaros began in the early 1960s and most of their violent terrorist/rebel actions took place in the late 1960s, when Uruguay was a DEMOCRATIC republic with a legally-elected president.  There is some controversy because now that they're the government, they have tried to revise how the history is taught in schools, making it sound like the Tupamaros "rose up" to fight the dictatorship that happened in 1973-1983, but that's not true. The guerillas happened FIRST, they attacked a democratic government, and the dictatorship only happened later in part BECAUSE of the guerilla movement having left democracy so damaged in the country.
And of course, it was NOT the Tupamaros' goal to "fight for democracy". They were fighting AGAINST democracy with the clearly-stated goal of taking over the government by violent force and forcibly imposing a Soviet-style marxist-lenninst state in Uruguay.

Mujica, who was shot six times and imprisoned for 14 years for his terrorist insurgency, probably killed people at that time (his wife, who is now a senator and was also a rebel, admits that she killed people, I personally know someone whose uncle she killed).  However, since the restoration of democracy in Uruguay in 1984, Mujica has also publicly stated that he rejects his former ideas about armed uprising as a path to social change and that he now believes in the democratic process.  Many on the right here tried to keep pointing to his guerilla fighter past as a criticism, and that's definitely valid; but a lot of them tried to imply (when he was running for president) that he still had a plan to instill a marxist-leninist state, and he clearly does not.  The larger "Frente Amplio" coalition his party is a part of has been governing the country now for some 8 years, Mujica for 3 of those, and there has been no "chavista"-style repression of the press or appropriation of private property.  In fact, his government has come at a time of unprecedented economic growth for the  country, and generally speaking Mujica has been good for business.

Just for the record, today Uruguay has one of the most stable democracies in South America, and is one of the most economically prosperous countries. And while (however unjustifiably they try to do so) President Mujica and the Frente Amplio cannot take credit for being the sole cause of that prosperity and stability, they certainly have played their part in allowing it to happen.

So anyways, while technically true, most of those Mujica caption-memes don't really tell the full story. Except for this one, this one is awesome:


Currently Smoking: Neerup Poker + Brebbia no. 8

Monday 28 October 2013

UNcracked Monday: I love this... the Dongion

Whoever has done this is genius. Refined mockery of the Swine at its best.

My favorite? While the vicious cut at the hipster-party of storygamers was pretty good, and the outing of the secret storygamers project to do a new forum "free from the perceptions of status in the community" ended in abject failure (the Dongion headline? "Declassified Documents Reveal Indie Gamers' Failed Attempt To Be More Interesting") ; I think the one that takes best headline (thus far!) is "Bono Launches Campaign To Raise Awareness of That Time There Was a Nipple On The Cover of That Exalted Sourcebook".

Honorable mention to "Thousands of Activist Gamers Go Ahead and Take Columbus Day Off Anyway".

I wish it had been me who'd thought of this, but cheers to the person who did.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

Sunday 27 October 2013

Golden Age Campaign Update

In tonight's adventure, the Mystery Men fought for the first time against the supernatural trickster-villain known as The Shade:

He had covered all of Keystone City under a veil of darkness.  Fortunately the Mystery Men (along with The Flash, Keystone's native hero, plus his JSA-colleague Starman) managed to defeat the Shade and his "menagerie of Crime", a freakshow of criminals in the form of a clown, a dwarf, a fat man, a butcher, a femme fatale, and a rotten cop. 

The adventure was good fun.  Its also the last ICONS game we'll be running until December, as due to scheduling conflicts both the November slots for the Golden Age game had to be cancelled.

So we'll see you in December, dear readers!


Currently Smoking: Mastro De Paja Bent Apple + Dunhill 965

Saturday 26 October 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: The Patriot Incident

This is a review of the adventure “The Patriot Incident: A Terror Network Game Module”, published by Bedrock Games, written by Brendan Davis. Its an adventure written for the Terror Network RPG.
I don’t have Terror Network, nor am I a particularly huge fan of either modern rpgs, spy/law-enforcement rpgs, or the like. However, I do have to say I found this a very well-written adventure. 
The game assumes the players are FBI agents, and the action of the game plays out a bit like an season of “24″ (at least, that’s what it reminded me of).  A good mix of action and investigation, twists and turns, a race against the clock to prevent a terrorist threat, and all the other kind of goodies you’d expect.

The action in the adventure begins with the PCs being called in to investigate the murder of a Syrian arms dealer, with the possibility of this death being connected to international or local terrorist organizations; the Syrian died in what looked like some kind of arms deal gone wrong, but with who, and to what end?

I don’t want to spoil the details of the adventure’s plot itself, since it involves some twists that I think make it very interesting; in the classic style of this kind of genre, player characters might find that the initial suspects don’t turn out to be who they’re really looking for.

What I will talk about instead, then, is the adventure’s structure.  First, its non-linear: the PCs aren’t railroaded from one scene to the next, they can end up moving through any number of directions in their search for the truth and to stop a potential disaster. The GM is provided with a handy “investigation map”, which is really a kind of flowchart that shows which directions the PCs can go, and where these directions can in turn lead them to.

Nor is the adventure set up in a stupid “narrative” style, where things happen in a set order regardless of what the PCs do; instead, events take place along a timeline; character’s actions can change the timeline of events, and inaction will lead to things happening when they happen, not when the PCs happen to show up. Thus, this is a firmly immersive adventure, the kind I like.

The book is about 80 pages in total, small in size, with a full-colour cover, and a few black and white illustrations scattered throughout the interior text.  You also get a map of the Boston area (where much of the adventure is set), location maps of a terrorist compound, repeats of the same at the end of the book, as well as player handouts for clues and whatnot.

The book provides detailed and credible descriptions of the main terrorist organization that are the “villains” of the adventure, lots of information about Boston to help the GM run that part of the game (including things like websites for more information, notes on Boston lingo and accents and information about the Boston FBI Field Office), guidelines about things like obtaining warrants and the Patriot Act, and details about several locations in Boston (and other towns in the Mass. area) that give me every sense that the author is writing about real locations in that city (whether this is the case or not), all of which would really help for emulation.

There are also detailed descriptions of persons of interest and suspects, which are detailed with both information about the character, and crucially, “what this character knows”.  At the back of the module there are stats for all of the important NPCs in the adventure.

All in all, while like I said this is not the kind of setting I typically get excited about, I have to admire how well the design of this adventure really is. I think that anyone who’s interested in this kind of FBI-agent Jack Bauer kind of action RPG would do well to pick up this adventure at least, if not the Terror Network game itself (though I think that the way the module is written, to its credit, it could very easily be run with any other game system; mechanics are very much in the background of solid adventure design here).


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Compact + Image Latakia

(originally posted May 3, 2012, on the old blog)

Friday 25 October 2013

Thoughts on "Zero Charisma"

So The Wench and I have just come back from watching Zero Charisma, the crowdfunded nerd-comedy about a D&D guy.  For those of you uninformed about the film, its a story about a guy with very low social skills, living with his grandma, no decent job, never had a girlfriend, but runs a game twice a week with a stable of other similar social-retards.  Then everything changes when a new guy joins the group, who's more of a hipster-nerd, with a social life, hot girlfriend, has impeccable geek-cred (runs a famous geek website) but still has a life, and starts to encourage the rest of the group to get out of their shells.  Everyone except the main character starts to do so; main-dude sees hipster-geek as his "nemesis", becomes jealous, things spiral out of control, and hilarity ensues.

Both The Wench and I agree that the movie is very funny, unlike, oh, EVERY SINGLE OTHER GAMING MOVIE I EVER SAW.  I generally can't stand movies, fan-films or webcomics about gaming geeks; they're usually unfunny, stupidly self-referential, and tend to be more about mild ribbing while still implying that geeks are pretty darn wonderful instead of some kind of meaningful satire.  You know what all those movies and webcomics remind me of? When Evangelical Christians try to make humour "poking fun" at themselves.

This movie avoids that trap: it points out that in fact, geek culture is pretty fucking awful sometimes and the people in it are shitty.  Even hipster-geek is fairly shitty, though far less so than his counterpart.
They're also realistic, within certain limits; watching it we saw characters that we immediately identified with actual people we know (though it also reminded us in some ways just how different RPG-geeks here in Uruguay are from the ones in North America; there's no one here that I would be perfectly able to identify with the main character, while there are half a dozen geeks I remember from Canada that would immediately fit the bill).

Nor does anyone really end up "learning a valuable lesson". By the end of the film, while people have changed, main-geek guy has in no significant way "turned around his life" (no, he doesn't get a girl, nor does he figure out how to be normal with people), nor for that matter does hipster-geek figure out that the slavering Lawncrappers are actually wonderful people that should be tolerated (quite the contrary, he realizes just how fucked up they are, and that its by their own choice).

So yes, its awesome for all that.

What's more, its awesome because it takes a look at how geek culture is evolving; it doesn't really manage to do this in a very nuanced way, but within the specter of RPGs it looks at how the mainstreaming of all things previously "nerdy" is making geek-culture less and less the safe-haven for Lawncrappers it once was.
More interestingly still, it raises up the question of "who is a real nerd"?  This is a topic that's been a big deal the past couple of years, with accusations flying left and right about "fake geeks" (and that particularly toxic variant, "fake geek girls") being used to mean anyone who somehow doesn't pass the user's personal litmus-test of geekdom (which usually involves being in some way sufficiently separated from mainstream society, when you get right down to it).

The question (which the movie raises subtly but never really answers) is an important one: who gets to claim geekdom? The people who choose to be geeks because they like the activity, or the ones who are there for some other reason; be it to be seen as trendy, or because its the only place that will tolerate them?

And ultimately, that's the one thing that was missing from the movie: there was no central figure who was a "real" RPG geek there (except maybe the two secondary characters in the gaming group, who we see too little of to tell for sure); main-guy was into RPGs as an escape from the world and because it was (before it started to change) the only social outlet where he could be as useless and ill-mannered as he was and still be accepted; while hipster-geek talked a big show about friendship and fun but he was clearly ultimately doing it because he saw it as part of the geek-hipster lifestyle.  Of course, having a guy who was pretty much normal (socially capable, well-balanced in life, relationships and career) and liked to game without being either a Lawncrapper or a Swine would probably have been boring. As it is, a movie about two problematic extremities of a changing hobby almost certainly made for better cinema, albeit incomplete commentary.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Poker + Rattray's Marlin Flake

Thursday 24 October 2013

Raiders of R'lyeh: Arkham Occult Societies First Update

So, I've now started to really in-earnest work on the upcoming sourcebook I'll be doing for Raiders of R'lyeh.  Its a sourcebook about occultist groups in Arkham, and it was originally going to be an exclusive bonus for backers, though its theoretically possible that at some point it might become available to other interested parties who missed the boat on that one.

Here's what its NOT going to be: Its not going to be a collection of Mythos Cults.  I think there's plenty of those already, and that's the kind of thing a clever GM (or "Keeper" if you prefer) will be able to come up with on his own.  Not that there won't be any Mythos stuff at all in it, there will be, it'll be touched on in just about every entry; its just not the "star of the show" in this case.  Rather, the book is going to be a descriptive list of different organizations and personalities in the occult world of Arkham circa 1910, most of which will be entirely original and not from existing Lovecraftian canon; so Keepers will be able to do what they like, and cherrypick what they want to focus on.  These groups will be running the gamut from occult-frauds and hucksters to "mainstream" groups from the larger world of occultism (Freemasons, Theosophy, etc) to dudes (or dames) that are positively weird in some way or another.

And right now, I have to say I've had a very fun time working on designing Arkham's own Masonic Lodge: "Miskatonic River Lodge #76", of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts A.F. & A.M.
There will be quite a few interesting characters in it, as well as details about Freemasonry in general and its place in Arkham's society.

So stay tuned for more details about what other groups and individuals will be appearing in this book; I can guarantee that for a relatively short sourcebook, its going to be jam-packed with usable stuff for Raiders or for any Mythos-themed RPG.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Egg + Rattray's Accountant's Mixture

Wednesday 23 October 2013

List of Gonzo DCC Campaign Stuff!

So this weekend we played our periodic DCC game (its been once a month the last few months, but we might start doing it fortnightly for the next while).  Its one of my favorite games, because its the one The Wench plays in, because we run it in English, because we always eat great in that session (between the Wench and Rafa, who are both amazing cooks/foodies), and because DCC fucking rocks.

Anyways, in this session we saw:

-a vengeful hipster-elf in a giant robot

-a 'control collar' for use with wild zombies and/or potential store-thieves.

-a herd of giant Great Plains Snails

-an ancient crashed spaceship of the Pithian Knights

-a pair of Killer Androids.

-a rare ancient "Papers and Paychecks" gaming manual

Anyways, it was great fun; and I'll note that in true Gonzo spirit I was, in addition to the DCC manual, using (this session): the AD&D 1e DMG, the AD&D 1e Monster Manual, Hulks & Horrors, the Adventures Dark & Deep Gamemaster's Toolkit, and Vornheim.

No doubt, more reports like this forthcoming.


Currently Smoking: Raleigh Hawkbill + Image Perique

Tuesday 22 October 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Age of Treason: The Iron Simulacrum

RPGPundit Reviews: Age of Treason: The Iron Simulacrum

This is a review of the RPG setting book “Age of Treason: The Iron Simulacrum”; written by Jonathan Drake, published by Mongoose. This is the print edition, 200 pages long; a beautiful hardcover with an image of the simulacrum, maps on the inside cover, good layout, and sparse but nice interior illustrations, including a number of very good maps.

I suppose the first thing one should tell the author of “The Age of Treason” is that puns are really the lowest form of humour. But that’s really one of the few criticisms I can make of this setting.  As I mention above, its physically beautiful, and the interior content is very interesting.

I should mention that this is not a complete RPG, but a setting.  Its designed to be “compatible with the Legends system”; which I’ve found out is apparently something like Mongoose’s version of BRP/Runequest. 

There’s another criticism I think could be made of the game, which is that sometimes the author is not the most thoughtful about how he structures the contents of his book.  He jumps right in with Chapter 1 telling the story of the Taskan empire and its emperor (who ends up becoming a kind of almost-god, and this means he’s separated from normal humanity but still acts and rules through the aforementioned “Iron Simulacrum”, a kind of golem of himself; and how there was a Marble Simulacrum first that was destroyed).  You get a lot of information about the emperor and the imperial hierarchy (and a timeline-history of the empire), and I can totally understand why this was done the way it was, because the “story” of the Emperor and the Simulacrum are a central quirk of the setting. But chances are they’re not meant to be the central thing a PC party will be dealing with in the setting. In fact, odds are most PC groups won’t necessarily ever be dealing with that guy or his golem.  I think it might have been more clever, in other words, to reserve this section for later on, and instead start with a ground-level view of the Taskan empire: what is it, what’s it like to live there, where would the PCs start?

It may even have been smart to have started with an “out of character” view of what the setting is like, some kind of introduction that points out that the setting is not your standard medieval-high-fantasy, but has more roots in the classical world mixed in with a kind of sword & sorcery fantasy.

Things do get better from there, however, as we get right into character creation guidelines.  So largely the problem was that I don’t think the introductory chapter sets off the right initial tone; beyond that, by chapter two, you start getting into what’s important.  There are new rules introduced to the core of the Legend system, starting off with Social Class. I know not everyone is a fan of social class mechanics, particularly those used to freewheeling-D&D worlds where there’s the kind of lack of class consciousness you only see in the U.S. and Canada in the real world, but I personally think that few things add more to an historical or quasi-historical setting than having social class mean something.  It instantly produces the feeling that you’re not, in fact, in Kansas anymore (or Wisconsin, or Fantasy-Toronto, as the case may be). In Age of Treason, social status is defined as a new characteristic (ability score). It determines your available starting professions and starting money.

There are several other differences as well: the introduction of talents (innate skill bonuses), genius, and there are also caps on how high you can raise a skill (their basic percentage x 5). Characters begin with a basic set of common skills for their culture, and then choose a profession which gives them certain common skill bonuses and advanced skills.  I should note that this list of professions and what they can get/do tells me WAY more in terms of the nitty gritty of “implied setting”, of what playing in the world is really like, than the introduction did. There are dozens of professions available, ranging from rogues to military men to seamen to country-folk to service-industry people (like actors, barkeeps, courtesans, professional cultists, medical quacks, etc), Artisans (you could call them “professionals”, since they include things like surgeons and scribes), merchants, gentlemen and scholars.

After this, we get into the description of the world itself.  I’m going to merely state that the world in which the Taskan Empire (the empire of the Iron Simulacrum) is set seems to me to be both vaguely familiar to anyone who’s ever looked at the classical world (its a little bit Roman, a little bit Greek, some of the foreign cultures look like other foreign cultures of earth), and also quite a bit different and unique. This is not a setting like WFRP or my own Albion setting, where you have a very close just-slightly-warped copy of a real world historical period-place.  Nor is it something completely vague and unfamiliar like you get in some of the “too weird to live” fantasy settings (of which I’d include Glorantha; the Taskan Empire seems much more approachable to me than Glorantha); but its also far from bog-standard fantasy of the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk.  So this makes it somewhat interesting.  There is both the familiar and the unfamiliar; to give one example, you have Orcs, whose homeland is on a different continent from the Taskan Empire, but they aren’t cave-dwellers, they’re pirates. This section does a good job of laying out the “rules” of the setting, in the bigger sense.  You are told, for example, that there are monsters in many variety, but humans tend to kill all the monsters they find, so you’re only likely to find these in far-away wilderlands. Spirits and demons (Daemons, really), are common and important. A person who becomes an object of worship to a sufficient extent may eventually become a god (though judging by the story of the Taskan emperor, this is not an easy thing in the least).  There are no big bad Sauron-types, great unified evils waiting to destroy civilization or snuff out the light of the world.  Magic is relatively common at lower levels of power, and has essentially snuffed out the social need for technological growth and innovation.

Religious activity is very important to the setting.  After all, people are citizens of the Taskan Empire inasmuch as they are sworn to worship the Divine Emperor. But they can worship other cults too. Religion is very old-school classical-pagan, its described as “transactional”; you worship because you get something in return. The setting book provides a decent list of the Tarskenian Pantheon; which are very much treated in a way that is more true to classical paganism than most RPGs.  “Pantheons” are not rigid structures or lists of gods, but more like matters of convenience.  Areas of influence are not all neat and tidy with divine portfolios that are all very sensible (like you tend to find in D&D), instead they’re extremely haphazard, the product of organic mythological and folkloric growth.  In game terms, you can gain magic power and divine spells through making “Pacts” with a god. Divine intervention and divine gifts are also possible.

Sorcery (non-divine magic) is also a reality in the setting, and rules are provided for the same. Likewise traditions (and rules) for spirit magic and spirit worship.  The book also provides some interesting guidelines on “cults, clubs and secret societies”, which are clearly a big part of the setting and probably would be an important part of any campaign.  These include not only things like cults of public or private worship, mystery cults, etc.; but also things like elite military units that act like a fraternity.

About halfway through the book you begin to get into the details of the empire, the gazetteer if you will. You’re given an overall detail, specific details about the most important cities, less and more general details about other cities, vague details about the outlying provinces and subject nations, and further territories.

Information is given about overland travel, including things like sailing conditions if you go by sea, and climate in general. Lists of possible encounters along the roads of the empire are provided; they’re good and useful for little encounters; I’m only sorry they weren’t presented as random tables!
Information about the other kingdoms besides the Empire are provided in a following chapter. You have people like the Korantians, who are apparently the descendants of the survivors of this world’s version of Atlantis, and who strike me as being the Greeks to the Empire’s Romans.  You have the plains of Kitan, where the “Sheng” live, barbarian horsemen that borrow a bit from the Scythians, a bit from the Huns and a bit from the Mongols. You have the Theocracy of the Jekkarenes, which are a moon-worshiping matriarchy that I think are otherwise supposed to be something like the Jews at the time of Roman occupation, what with this nation having been made into a “protectorate” of the Empire and the worship of the Divine Emperor being kind of forced upon them. You have the city-state of Sorandib, which is a city of magical artificers who are in the last throes of decadence as a power in the world.  I don’t think they’re meant to be like anyone, exactly. And you have a region called Assabia, that is mostly meant to be like Arabia.

It goes on; you also have the Kingdom of Yegusai, a client state that was unwise enough to have revolted against the Empire at one point, and the Thennalts, different cultures of barbarians or semi-barbarians, some of which have been incorporated into the empire and others of which are undoubtedly due to be. 

Overall, the gazetteer section of the book is quite detailed and no doubt provides a great deal of information needed to run a campaign in this setting.  The world is clearly coherent and well-thought-out.

The book also provides a “mini-campaign” meant to be an introduction for beginning-level characters.  This campaign is set up to assume that the PCs are all characters who are from the largest city of the Empire, Zarina (for which a nice map-illustration is provided), and are drafted into the imperial militia, sent off to the frontier, and used as a team of adventurers to accomplish the kind of missions and activities that “irregulars” would be best suited for. The mini-campaign is divided into various tasks, allowing lots of room for malleability. A flexible timeline of events is provided (complete with a calendar you can photocopy to tick off dates and thus keep track of time meticulously if you so desire; and noting key feast days and important dates); it would seem to me that this is set up so that the GM can either make the whole thing a fairly strict and linear kind of campaign, or adapt it into a kind of semi-sandbox.

The mini-campaign does a good job of adding detail to the key areas the PCs travel to. You get another very nice map of the destination-city of Pryjarna, and many details about the same, giving you some very good “implied setting” insights into how cities are supposed to be like in the setting.  There’s also a smaller-scale regional campaign map of the “frontier area” the PCs are billeted in, with interesting local details, and a map of a military fort, a village, a tower, and a caravanserai.  You get details on encounters, NPCs, the spread of a plague with guidelines on how to handle the illness which is very instructive, ruins to explore, and more.  This is a very large section of the book, and its really what finally makes the product; raising it above just “interesting but average” to something better.
The appendices to the book include some pre-generated adventurers and cultural background tables for non-Taskan characters.

So, what can I say in conclusion about the Iron Simulacrum?  The game is not without a couple of flaws in presentation, but these are relatively minor; and the book has a solid finish that totally makes up for these, in the form of his mini-campaign, which is one of those rare cases of an “adventures” section that is not only not-useless but is actually a truly great introduction to the setting.  Overall, its a very solid setting.  I have to admit that it doesn’t push my own particular buttons for a couple of reasons; first, its designed for a set of rules I don’t own based on a system I don’t use for fantasy (love CoC, but never really liked BRP/runequest for my fantasy games).  Second, it is definitely a decent “classical” (rather than medieval) fantasy setting, but if I wanted to run a game in that context, I’d probably choose a setting closer to history (something along the lines of what I did with Albion).  But these are just me.
I think that if you are looking for a fantasy setting that isn’t bog-standard medieval, you could do a lot worse than this one. And likewise, if you’re an RQ/BRP fan looking for a great fantasy setting that isn’t quite as loony as Glorantha, without becoming in any way a greyhawk-clone, this is again an excellent choice.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

((originally posted April 19, 2012, in the old blog)

Monday 21 October 2013

Un-Cracked Monday

Today, I thought I'd take a second to show you a funny set of blog posts where someone named mightygodking has photoshopped fantasy novels of their (our) youth to reflect a more accurate portrayal of their content.  Be sure to pick up part 2 and 3!


Currently Smoking: Stanwell

Sunday 20 October 2013

A Short Comparison of "Lords of Olympus" and "Lords of Gossamer and Shadow"

So to start with, I wanted to clear something up: for some reason, some people out there in internet-land seem to think that there's a rivalry, conflict, or animosity between Lords of Olympus and Lords of Gossamer and Shadow and/or their respective authors.  There isn't.  We're fans of each other's work; I got a complimentary PDF of LoGaS from him, he got a complimentary PDF of LoO from me.  We are both avid contributors to the Official Amber, Erick Wujcik and Lords of Olympus Forums (and I'm only not on the official LoGaS forums due to time constraints).  We're both people with a long history of personal friendship with Erick Wujcik, and a long history of participation in and commitment to the Amber RPG.

So if you think there's some kind of issue where you have to choose or "side" with one game over the other, don't.

Now, having written Lords of Olympus, and having finally gotten a chance to look through my copy of LoGaS, I thought I should comment some on the relative qualities of both in comparison to each other.  Here's what I'd point out:

1) Both of them are similar enough, system-wise, to Amber that material from each can be used in an Amber game, and similar enough to each other that you can do likewise.

2) Both have impressive art and production values; I don't know offhand if the print edition will be full-colour (or one of the versions will be full-colour, in any case), but if it is, then it will certainly be at least on-par with LoO as a beautiful book (of course, I take no credit for LoO's visual beauty).

3) Both feature new settings, and those settings are familiar in the sense of having to do with powerful groups of individuals capable of crossing through multiple parallel universes.

4) One big difference in that regard is that the setting for LoGaS is completely original, whereas LoO's setting is drawn from Greek Mythology. In the former, you have a set of totally new characters as the powerful NPCs; in the latter, you have the greek gods (pretty much all of them, its a very detailed and thorough list).
This doesn't make one game better than the other, but it certainly makes them different. LoGaS, in its originality, has a group of characters that come with no literary "baggage" the way the Greek Gods do (or indeed, the Elder Amberites did); you are free to do what you like with them without worrying about being true to any canon (except for what the author chose for the setting itself, but which no one will have any pre-ordained affinity or lack-thereof for).   On the other hand, the NPCs in LoO come with a ton of mythological gravitas that almost everyone playing the game will be at least slightly familiar with by virtue of cultural osmosis if nothing else. For some GMs, the former will be more appealing, for others, the latter.
So in one sense, LoGaS stays closer to the connection to Amber in its setting-makeup; in another sense, LoO makes use of a pre-existing setting-context that players are likely (even more likely than the Chronicles of Amber) to be familiar with even before getting into the game.

5) System-wise both games have some new material to offer.  In general, however, and while its true that as I mentioned above both games stay close enough to the original Diceless game to make them functional together, LoGaS is a lot more similar to Amber mechanically.  LoO has more variation, more alternatives and optional rules, and provides more definitions and frameworks to its rules than LoGaS does.  Neither are by any means cut-and-paste types of "clones" of Amber, but if what you're looking for is a game that is more strictly cleaving to the line of the Amber rules then LoGaS is definitely your choice. If, on the other hand, what you're looking for is something that presents new rules and new structure and a slightly different framework while still being very much in the same area, then LoO is closer to that.

There's a lot more to say on this subject, but unfortunately its late, and I'm going to be running DCC in just a few hours.  So I think I'll leave it here for now; I'd love to hear your thoughts about both games, and maybe I'll write more about this in the future.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Tempesta Apple + Argento Latakia

Saturday 19 October 2013

Breaking Good

So a funny thing happens when you spend 10 years living in South America.  And indeed, this week is the 10th anniversary of my arrival here.

The funny thing that happens is that you start to totally lose touch with North American culture.  Of course, a large part of that culture comes to south america anyways, secondhand. But only some things, and sometimes late, and sometimes in different ways.  Geek culture usually isn't a problem, because geeks here go out of their way to find everything new, so we have Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and Star Trek and the rest here, even if Doctor Who isn't on TV (or wasn't until very lately) and Star Trek doesn't get into cinemas.

But other things get here late or not at all.  Its part of the reason why when the Wench and I watch Saturday Night Live we no longer recognize any of the musical guests, and 4 times out of 10 we don't recognize the main host.

So its possible for us that we could only have learned about Breaking Bad with all the news of its ending.   Even though its six years old, the Wench and I have only just started to watch it now.

And its fucking good.

But then, you knew that already.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Oversize + H&H Beverwyck

Friday 18 October 2013

An analysis of the Conservative Paradigm

Today I was going to write something about comparing Lords of Olympus to Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, but I found myself distracted by an article, and especially commentary about the article.  The article was about how the head of the conservative lobby group Freedomworks said that "Obamacare" is bad because insurers should just charge the seriously ill more rather than expect healthy people to have to pay more to cover the chronically ill.  In the interview he also stated that while he doesn't think its the fault of someone born with a congenital illness, he feels that they should get help from "loved ones, family, a church, a neighbourhood", and said that the expectation to pay for universal healthcare makes people slaves.

Interesting. It was the comments on G+, however, that got me interested; wave after wave of liberal posters expressing outrage and disbelief, not being able to understand how conservatives could be such "monsters", and general confusion of how anyone could think like that!  The thing is, I think that a lot of liberals out there really literally don't understand how conservatives think, because there is such a huge paradigm clash.   The brainwashing of either group is so different, it starts from such different logical assumptions, such different memes about what's good or what's bad, that the liberals can only see the conservative viewpoint as that of "monsters" and vice-versa.

So, as a magician who has transcended the bondage of paradigms, to the point that I regularly get accused of being a fascist reactionary by liberals and of being a marxist scumbag by conservatives, and more importantly to the point that I can see just how badly you both suck ass in the ways you let paradigm overrule pragmatic reality, please allow me try to educate you liberals out there on how the Conservative paradigm works, vis a vis health care as our case-study:

To explain the conservative mindset, by which I really mean in this case the U.S. conservative protestant mindset: they view personal and community charity as laudable, and state-imposed charity as not.  The reason why they say things like the above without thinking themselves monsters is the same reason why they also vastly outstrip self-described liberals in terms of charitable donations per capita. 
That is to say, they believe that charity should be voluntary and based on a community, and not obligatory and imposed by a government.

Why? What's the difference to them?

First of all, there is the view that charity is one of the most important 'christian' virtues; and that it becomes meaningless if the option to give or not give is taken away from you through state-imposed welfare systems.  If everyone HAS to give it doesn't "mean anything" to them, because the point isn't so much about making sure everyone gets helped (see below) as it is about making sure the GIVER has the opportunity to make a free-will choice to do something spiritually laudable.
Or to put it in simpler terms: yes you care for the person you're giving to but you're not really doing it FOR them. You're doing it for Jesus. And for that to matter, it has to be YOU who makes the choice, and you can also make the choice NOT to give.  Government-imposed health care taxes take away that option (I mean, you can give more on top of your taxes, and again, conservatives DO give charitably WAY more than liberals do; but you can't "not give" anymore; you can't decide that someone deserves your charity or doesn't, instead someone else takes your money and decides for you).

Secondly,  its about "fairness".  Just as liberals have an almost insane obsession with "equal" (and more recently, with "tolerant"), conservatives have an almost insane obsession with "fair"; which in both cases can lead to some pretty absurd extremes that tend to defeat the purpose.
A liberal might think that the "fair" thing would be for everyone in the country to have basic access to medical services (but that's because they're confusing 'fair' with "equal").  But to a conservative, that's just not the case; because its not "fair" that some people have to work hard only to have their hard-earned dollars taken away from them by the government while some deadbeat who does nothing is allowed to get free medical treatment (that he "doesn't deserve", see below) without doing anything to earn it.  Its "unfair" in that the right to property is sacrosanct, and the government is confiscating our property (money) to give it away to other people. 
Now, if you actually sit down and talk to a conservative, they will be quite ready to admit that of course there are cases of people who work very hard with more than one job and still couldn't possibly afford health coverage in America's fucked-up system. They would also admit that of course there are also people (little kids, the elderly, those who are disabled through no fault of their own rather than by "lifestyle choices") that really need health care, and that are in no way just "deadbeats".  That's why they argue for the need for community to step up.  But accepting the reality of those peoples' existence does not preclude the bigger issue that they know there ARE people out there taking "UNFAIR" advantage of the system.  And that's intolerable.  Because just like a liberal will generally, when pushed to the wall, claim that its would be better for a large number of people to be unable to achieve their full potential (and thus be harmed in the process) than any one person be treated unequally, so too will a conservative claim that it would be better for a large group of people fail to get medical treatment than for even ONE willfully deadbeat slacker to get free money (in the form of healthcare) from their pockets "unfairly".

That sounds callous, but again, the point a conservative would make is that it shouldn't be the government's business to give health care in the first place; that should be up to the FAMILY, the CHURCH, and the COMMUNITY.  Why? Why are those better? Because, they will tell you, those institutions do not give out their services "equally" like some deranged marxist; they are able to Judge who "deserves it".

There, our last point: it is inherently part of the point for conservatives that health-care in the hands of family, church or community would NOT reach everyone. That, to them, is ultimately a good thing.

Because those institutions Judge.  They don't allow for "deadbeats", they're "fair" in that they will help those who really need it and cast out those who don't "deserve" it.  People without a family, or a church, or outside of a community, are immediately suspect because they are not under the supervision of the pillars of tradition that ensure compliance to societal norms.  A conservative will very strongly agree that the community (including the churches) needs to make certain that it stretches out far and wide to make sure it can help anyone who "really needs" it, they have no problem with that; but again the point is that by default if you do not have a strong social network within a church and community and find yourself helpless because of that the question is WHY were you not within these institutions in the first place? What was wrong with you that you had no church, no family, and no community around you to give you charity in your time of need? Accidental isolation can sometimes happen but a lot of the time, a conservative would guess, it was that you did something to DESERVE being ostracized, that you are in some way in violation of society's norms, and therefore do not deserve society's protections.  Just as it would be "unfair" for taxpayer's money being used to fund deadbeats, it is also only "fair" that if you make "lifestyle choices" that don't keep you centered within the norms of society, then you made your choice to be a "weirdo" of some kind and probably haven't "earned" the right to be helped by the community.  If something bad happens to you, you probably "deserve" to not get help, because you chose to not be part of the "normal" society that you're now demanding help from.

And that, liberal ladies and gentlemen, is how the conservative paradigm works, and why they can say these things and feel morally justified.

Tread carefully now,  or I might just have to do a liberal version next.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Egg + Brebbia no.7 mixture

Thursday 17 October 2013

Cultural Diversity in RPGs

Cultural Diversity in RPGs

There has been a lot of talk lately about cultural diversity in RPGs, specifically about both artwork and depictions of characters in the setting text; with people demanding that out of politically correct motives there should be more ethnic diversity in roleplaying games.

Well, I for one refuse to kowtow to the ultraliberals who are pushing this kind of bullshit.

I don’t care how much the Tangencites call me a racist, or pressure me to include white people, claim that I’m speaking from a position of “east indian privilege” or that its “subtle racism” to suggest that just because there weren’t actually any white europeans in the Mahabharata that’s a good excuse not to have them in a game based on the selfsame concept. Their absurd arguments about how this is a “fantasy setting” and that my refusal to budge on this issue while I do include many other anachronisms is clearly a sign of my extreme prejudice against whites will fall on deaf ears.

I don’t care how racist it may seem to some. If it makes me unpopular on Tangency, so be it.  In order to honor my setting and maintain a sense of credibility, I can’t have white people in it.

Well, there’s “whiter” people and “darker” people in it… yakshas are gold-skinned, and there’s Pandu, who’s a pretty unnaturally pale guy.  But those aren’t really actual white people, and I’m not trying to use them as a substitute so don’t go around accusing me of that either.  And before anyone mentions it: NO, just because Pandu is a very pale-skinned guy who is kind of a fuckup and gets himself cursed in a really stupid way and then dies young setting the grounds for a divisive war of succession that would bring all of Bharatan civilization crashing down; it does not mean that I’m making him symbolic of white people nor am I suggesting that all white people are kind of fuckups who piss off mystics and then get magically cursed and die from having sex leaving defenseless sons to the mercy of their blind uncles and evil cousins who want to usurp the throne (that should probably be theirs by right anyways, because the uncle was the elder son who was denied the throne only because of his blindness). Its just a fantasy story! I’m not implying that all white people are somehow like Pandu, and if you think that, its pretty clear that you are the one who has a pretty warped set of perceptions.

Shit, some of my best friends are white people. I have nothing against them. But I just don’t feel like some politically correct asshole should be able to FORCE me to include them in my RPG setting, just for “ethnic diversity” for its own sake.

I mention a distant kingdom of southeast asians… does that help?

Anyways, to conclude:I’m not a racist; but I won’t budge. No White People in Arrows of Indra.  If that makes me unpopular, so be it, but somehow I trust that white people who game will care more about whether its a really good game (which it will be) than about whether or not there’s a white person on the cover, or a kingdom of white people in the book.  I think that gamers are gamers first, and that gamers of all stripes are interested in the same thing: that the game be awesome.  That’s why lame, prefabricated PC-settings where “diversity” is more important than the setting actually making sense, or kicking ass, tend to do rather poorly.  And why I feel fairly certain that white people will buy Arrows of Indra even if they don’t feel “represented” by the skin colour of the characters in the setting. They’ll still relate to the characters and peoples in the setting of Jagat as adventurers, rogues, heroes, kings, merchants, priests, magicians, soldiers, people with families, people with duties, dark secrets, problems, struggles, all the things of the human condition.  I don’t think you have to be East Indian to feel a connection to the setting, because regardless of skin colour the setting is a human setting. Whether its the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Arthurian legends, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Game of Thrones.  We all get this stuff.


Currently Smoking: Raleigh Jopo + Dunhill 965

(originally posted April 18, 2012; in the old blog)

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Arrows of Indra: Vanara

The Vanaras are the race of monkey-men who live in the southern regions, in the Dandaka Jungle.  They are particularly famous in Indian Mythology thanks to Hanuman, the god who was also a member of the Vanara race and is one of the great heroes of the epic Ramayana.

The Vanara are an ancient civilization, long past their prime.  They were never as advanced as human civilizations came to be, but were already civilized when humans were still barbaric.  For much of their history, they were engaged in struggles with the mighty Asura Kings who rule in the south, and at the time of the Avatar Rama, the Vanara were under serious threat from Rama's enemy, the Asura King Ravana, lord of the mighty Asura empire of Lanka. Hanuman and Rama became staunch allies in defeating Ravana and destroying his empire.

After that time, over the last several thousand years, the Vanara have become more retiring, interacting less with humans.  In those few human city-states south of the Riksha and Vindya hills/mountains Vanara are still found with some frequency, but in the north they are of sufficient rarity as to attract attention (if they wish to, of course, because a Vanara stripped of his clothing or equipment can very easily pass for a regular monkey; and Vanara wear clothing as decoration rather than out of modesty).

In terms of game-design, I had to include Vanara for emulative reasons; in fact, the Vanara were the very first PC race I was absolutely certain I would be including in addition to humans.  I think that most westerners with only the slightest notion of Indian myths would,  if pressed to think of a non-human race that can be found in Indian myth, mention the "monkey-men".  They're a very strong part of eastern mythology in general (with similar though disparate myths found in China and southeast Asia), and really that's not surprising: anywhere that monkeys were common one couldn't help but see these closest relatives of our species and think of them as taking on anthropomorphic qualities.

You could say they take up the niche of halflings, but this would be somewhat of an over-simplification: there's no doubt they're great tricksters, and sneaky, almost in ways more kender-like than the standard Tolkien-hobbit; but at the same time in the mythology its made clear they're great warriors too.
There's also a consideration in terms of Alignment niches: Rakshasas are the "unholy" non-human, Gandharvas and Yakshas are both "holy", so the Vanara satisfies the "neutral" niche.

From a personal perspective, I'd recommend GMs to be careful to advise players to walk a line with their Vanara PCs somewhere between "funny" and "stupid".  Certainly, a Vanara can have its silly qualities, but there's a reason why so many gamers these days despise Kender, and a GM should curb any temptation to end up playing Vanaras as just stupid jokers; their depictions in the sources is as very clever, in fact.  And even if you don't mind that kind of humor in your games, keep in mind that (in my experience) if you play a character into that corner of just being purely ridiculous, you will find it boring after just a few sessions.

Plus, its just a waste. There's so many dimensions of what you can play with a Vanara, don't limit them into the corner of being the group clown 100% of the time.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Lords of Olympus Q&A

This is the revival of the Lords of Olympus Q&A series; what with the new blog, I figure we ought to let people know about it again. 

The rules are simple: if you have a question about LoO, then please post it in this thread on the theRPGsite, the home of the OFFICIAL Amber DRPG, Erick Wujcik, and Lords of Olympus Forum! Remember, its the only official Amber RPG fan-forum that was authorized by Erick Wujcik himself (who was a moderator there until his untimely death).

Any question you post to the thread above will be answered within a week's time by yours truly, and will be summarized here on my blog on a regular basis.

So, on to the questions:

Q: "I'm studying the game and preparing to run it in some week.
My first question: you stated that "Olympian Magic and Primordial Magic function in every world"; am I correct in deducing that Ineffable Names, Elementalism, Enchantment and  Glamour don't work in some world?
PS It's a good game, RPGPundit!"

A: thank you!  And yes, your deduction is correct; while each of those other powers will usually work (at variable levels of strength) in different worlds, they will not necessarily work in all worlds.  Those several powers are meant to be the most significant cross-world powers available.
Note that this also means that there can be other powers that only work in one or two worlds; there are power-creation rules available in the LoO rulebook; though in some cases the GM might wish to have these powers available through role-play rather than point-buy.  In any case, the powers listed in the rulebook are those that are generally functional to some degree in the vast majority of worlds/realms.

Q: "Another question about the naga example: when our hero switch to Prowess to hit the neck of the naga, the naga too has to switch to bite and so has to loosen the grip?"

A: Actually, you will note in the combat example that I mention that the Naga continues to squeeze the hero in its grip; because it is using two different "appendages" (for lack of a better term), squeezing with its coils while trying to strike at him with its head, it can continue to use might to squeeze the hero while using prowess to try to bite at him; this is only possible because the PC has given the naga the opportunity to strike at him by letting go of the naga's head in order to try to strike at it.  The point of the example is that trying to switch abilities is an often dangerous move, and that the GM should be very careful to make sure that a) the ability can be switched, and b) that what the PC is attempting would really be governed by the new ability and not the old one.  Remember, in the example "Brett" first asks the GM if he can headbutt the Naga with Prowess, and the GM rules that in this case the headbutt would still be Might; "Brett" was trying to get to switch to his better ability without having to take any risk on his part.  Of course, its not that any switch MUST involve risk, just that it often does.
A lot of this is just common sense: the naga can try to bite even while it keeps squeezing, so it makes sense that it be able to do both.

That's it for today!  Please feel free to write with any LoO questions!


Currently Smoking: Castello 4K Collection Canadian + Image Latakia

Monday 14 October 2013

UNcracked Monday

Today, I'm off to attend a friend's civil wedding, at an ungodly early hour. Here in Uruguay you have to be married at the "civil registry" (Uruguay is a strictly secular country, and religious weddings do not count legally speaking, and technically cannot even take place without the civil registry wedding first); and this is often a problem on account of the massively incompetent and uncaring bureaucracy of Uruguay's civil service.  They randomly assign you a date and hour, which can often make it very difficult for your friends or family to attend (as its almost always on a weekday and during working hours); and this is if the whole thing isn't shut down due to union strike actions (as indeed, my wedding to The Wench nearly was).  Its a profoundly shitty system.

Anyways, for today's post, I present you a very good article about the influence of Aleister Crowley on modern society!


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Shell Diplomat + C&D's Crowley's Best

Sunday 13 October 2013

Golden Age Campaign Update

So last night, the PCs got to go to Jolly Olde England for the first time in the campaign; of course, wartime England wasn't all that jolly, and they went there to team up with the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and with MI6 Master Spy Ian Fleming, to stop a vicious saboteur supervillain called the Iron Hand:


The PCs helped stop him from destroying several important London institutions, and then flew back home escorted by the Blackhawks.  It was a fun adventure.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Stanze + Rattray's Accountant's mix 

Saturday 12 October 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: The Rustbelt

RPGPundit Reviews: The Rustbelt

This is a review of "The Rustbelt: tales of tenacity, depravity and hope"; allegedly "a roleplaying game" written by D. Marshall Burns, published by "Beyond the Wire". It is a print edition, 155 pages, with a colour cover (coloured like rust, obviously) and b&w interiors with some very few b&w "artsy-style" photographs (mostly of scenes of urban decay) for illustration.

So, the back cover of the book makes it clear that in spite of the front-cover's claim of being "a roleplaying game", the purpose of the game is to create "player-authored stories". In other words, its not a roleplaying game, its a storygame. Its also Misery Porn. The game establishes right in the introduction that "basically the GM will plunge the PCs into an untenable situation, and the players will decide how their PCs deal with it", and "this game is about people who live in a world gone wrong and how they cope with that".

The Wench, who is only the most peripheral of gamers herself, and certainly not a fanatic by any stretch, took a look at this book before she went off to her trip to Canada. Her opinion? She said to me, "No one will buy this!"
She might be wrong, of course, a tiny number of Storygame Swine may buy the game, if it proves fashionable enough to them, but really what she meant is "why the fuck would anyone want to play this"? Its presented on the back cover as a "post apocalyptic RPG". But we're not talking RIFTS or Gamma World here. No; the apocalypse it posits is a "slow apocalypse where infrastructure has rotted away" and "the Rust" (which is described as an "active, metaphysical presence permeating everywhere... twisting everything and everyone toward corruption") is gnawing at "civilization, the laws of nature, and the hearts and minds of men".
So this isn't an RPG, where you're playing in an emulative world of mad-max craziness; you're not out to loot ancient ruins or blow up Coalition Mecha, or whatever. No, here what you're doing is "emerging stories" about "people (who) find themselves in situations no one wants to be in, and how they deal with that". In other words, misery porn about ennui over urban/rural decay. Yeah, that sounds like terrific fun.

Just to make sure the reader gets it really clear in his head that this is not a game where he's supposed to do cool shit, or other immature things like have fun, the author hammers it all down by adding "the characters in this game aren't heroes"; and "a character hasn't shown his true colours in this game until he's been hurt".

So the basic premise of the "setting" of this storygame, if it can be called a "setting", is that something called the rust has been slowly worming away at society, and even at reality. The players are meant to portray ordinary people (the text repeats itself again "no heroes like in the comic books... no big villains either"; you're not allowed to have clear moral lines), getting to watch the rust slowly claim their world.

Character creation, in good Forgist Swine re-education as they attempt to redefine "rpgs" as storygames, make a point to explain to the reader that you have no control over what happens to your character, and that you'll probably only use the character for "one story" (because of course, Forge games are microgames; and long, exciting RPG campaigns are anathema to their thinking). Of course, one could argue the author is being overly ambitious; its doubtful most people would want to play one game of Rustbelt.

Characters are created with a series of traits: Hunger, Vice, Faith and Woe. Seriously, for fuck's sake, "Woe".
Hunger is your "fundamental need", Vice is an addiction of some kind that "helps you cope" with the misery of your life, Faith is what you believe or hope in to "guide your worldview", and Woe is your regret or remorse.
In addition to this, you get attributes: Tough, Savvy, Grizzled, Slick, Thorough, Personable, Cagey, and Uncanny.
There is no actual system by which to determine the numerical values for any of these traits or attributes, you're just supposed to pick numbers within the range (up to 20 in each of the traits, up to 10 in each of the attributes; with the note that any attribute that you put at 10 gets the qualifier of "freakish", as in, "you're so good there's something wrong with you").

There are no skill rules, nor equipment rules; why would you need either in a non-rpg, after all? You're told you just have what makes sense for your concept.

Finally you have some "pools of points" called Blood, Sweat, and Tears; you get 20 points in each to start, and (to make it really really fucking clear that this is a Forge game, gimmicks and all), they are represented with poker chips. These are I guess the "hit points" equivalent, if you end up running out of Tears points, you are "emotionally overwrought or depressed as to be useless", if you run out of Sweat you're exhausted, if you run out of Blood you're (almost) dead. If you're out of these, you can "push" them by using up other chips, except Blood, once you're at zero blood if you "push" to keep doing something, you die.

There follows fairly extensive (13 pages worth of) rules governing how psyche (traits) are used, all of it very abstract; events that affect a trait are responded to by relying on another trait, having an "outburst", or reducing points in the trait (how many? that's up to you. Did I mention this isn't an RPG?).

Task resolution, which follows, is extremely simple: you roll a d10 and add the appropriate attribute (like Grizzled), against a target number. If you don't make the target number you then get to CHOOSE whether you actually failed or not. If you want, then you failed, and suffer whatever happens as a result of that. If not, if you decide you want to succeed anyways, then you are "pushing", and will have to pay some kind of "price", probably in drama.
To be fair, in order to "push" you have to fulfill one of a number of criteria: either you have to be trying (in what you're attempting to do) to satisfy your "Hunger", your "Vice" or your "Faith", or trying to make up for your "Woe". Or you're using faith of vice to "steady your nerve". Or you're doing what you're doing for the sake of someone else you care about.

Mind you that before you get to any of this, that is, before even rolling, you have to state your "intent". As is typical in a storygame, your intent is a declaration of what you want to see happen in the game, which for no apparently good reason other than adding extra storygamey Jargon, is divided into the "Goal" and the "Task". The goal is what you want to happen, and the task is how you want it to happen.
The GM in turn declares what "The Danger" is; that is to say, what will happen if you fail. Again, proving its not an RPG, in a totally anti-emulative anti-immersive style, you are told what will happen already, before any rolling is done. The GM is also the one who decides what the difficulty rating is, and what attribute is the basis for the check.
You may end up rolling more than 1d10 in certain cases, but only take the highest rolled result.
After the task is resolved, "someone" (not necessarily the GM, the text explicitly states it can be "anyone") will "narrate what happened"; i.e. retell the whole mechanic in the form of a story.

There can also be opposed checks, which I'm guessing is where the author feels the real drama here; because remember, you don't just succeed or fail; if you fail a roll you can "push". SO in an opposed check, both sides roll the dice, and the higher number wins, but the guy who rolled the lower number can choose to "push", meaning the two are now equal, and then the winner has to choose to either "push back" or he's actually the loser. If he does push back you get a "Deadlock" (Christ, the jargon is thicker than an old London fog). In a Deadlock, either player is first given a chance to back down. If they don't, they both roll a d10, the difference in the roll is the new level of failure which the guy that originally lost must either choose to "give" or to "push back" yet again; if he does the victor can also choose to "push back". If that happens, or you roll a tie, the whole deadlock process repeats itself and can do so indefinitely.

There are also procedures for dealing with multi-party conflicts that are not strictly win/lose dualities, and some vague guidelines for how to handle other types of conflicts or situations that wouldn't seem to be immediately applicable to the standard storygamey task resolution.

The "cost" of "pushing" is called "The Price". This is figured numerically as the difference between the needed target number and the actual rolled failure. But it isn't always a standard numeric price; the GM can instead say that a possible price can be that "bad thing x or bad thing y" happens. Apparently, the GM is supposed to offer more than one possible Prices, but at least one of them must always be accepting the damage as a numerical cost in "blood" "sweat" or "tears". So again, in standard Storygame fashion, the GM is required to negotiate events with the players.

Combat is pretty much handled as just another kind of task resolution, with a few extra guidelines. Its all pretty vague, and I don't see anything that directly implied a fight had to be handled in any way even resembling emulation; if a person's intent is just "I kill this dude", then success would mean that yes, he kills the dude, fight over. But you can, theoretically, make a fight go on longer (why would you, if you can do that? I guess because its better for a dramatic STORY). The one main guideline is that there is a hierarchy of which tasks get resolved first: attempts at social influence, for example, always get resolved before physical violence; so a guy trying to just kill a dude might have to first get past another guy trying to intimidate him first, or to convince said guy not to kill the dude.

There is a table with what seem like relatively arbitrary damage ratings for various weapons, which I guess are the values of damage one takes if one doesn't "push" to avoid the "Danger" of "you will be shot". I don't really see why they bothered to put this in though, it seems like a mechanic that's so unwieldy and concrete in a system that is otherwise so disconnected and abstract in how it resolves things.

Similar issues arise in the descriptions of armor and guns; its like at times this storygame is trying to put on a thin veneer of being an actual RPG and failing miserably at it. It just looks weird, and pointless; like a transvestite with a mustache, its not fooling anyone.

Next we get to a description of "The Rust" itself; its a concept vaguely reminiscent of the sort of thing you'd see in a King novel: urban and rural decay as an evil disembodied entity. Its not just literal rust, its a force that wears away at people's mind and at reality itself, potentially creating places with weird phenomena, convulsions in space and time, the natural world turning on you, etc.
The reader is told that the GM is supposed to "present opportunities for corrupt behaviour, tempting and even encouraging the PCs toward it". And that its not enough to just "treat people like crap in order to benefit", the Rust wants the PCs to be "horrible for no reason at all".

People touched by the Rust become odd and act irrational, and those most badly affected literally become mutants or freaks; large hairy brutes, or tall gaunt eerie people, or greenish-tinged pseudo-goblins.

Cities are where the Rust has the least influence, though it can have stronger influence in the more run down or abandoned parts of a city. In the countryside, the rust is stronger, and the areas where the Rust has basically totally claimed the countryside, its called the Expanse; a vast wasteland of ruins and ghost towns; where the only place even moderately secure are the highways that connect cities. In the worst places of the Expanse, there are terrible monsters that man was not meant to know.
Even so, some people try to go into the expanse to find incredible treasures or gifts, and occasionally a tiny number of them come out alive with them, because the Rust uses this as bait to keep encouraging people to try going into the expanse.

This setting section isn't bad, it could be a decent sort of horror "slow-apocalypse" setting if it was just a little more oriented toward heroics and adventure. Unfortunately, it is predictably slanted toward the "theme" of ennui, of exploring the rust as decline, rather than on beating the shit out of the rust through virtue. What's implicit in the treatment of the rust is that its slow and inevitable, inexorably, its going to break down everything and win.
The author describes the "distilled core" of this game as "a place where hardship and desperation are the norm, and there are forces at work (ie. the Rust) urging people toward corruption and depravity".

Anyways, most of the rest of the book is a guide to how to set up an adventure (they call it a "Yarn", just to add another little piece of jargon), with advice to the GM (most of which seems absurdly off to me because it is the opposite of what you'd do in a roleplaying game), and interestingly enough, advice for the players! I guess that makes sense when, unlike in a roleplaying game, the players are assumed to be equal participants in creating the setting (inasmuch as they're creating a "story" together). The advice to the players suggests that they should want their characters to get into trouble, to risk things that matter, to "learn to give up"; in other words that playing the game with the safest survival strategies is not really the ideal way to play (understandable, in its own way, because it would reduce the "drama" of the "story").

The "GM Guide" session explicitly says not only that players can read that section, but that its strongly recommended they do. It also shows its Forgist colours by going into a spiel about the GM is not "Lord and Master" or "High priest of the rulebook". The "GM's duties" are described as "framing the scene" (you know, the way a banker in monopoly has to hand out the money?), moderating disputes between players, and "providing adversity" by doing things like representing the NPCs and the Rust. He's also advised to "spotlight the Psyche", to escalate the game gradually, and not to railroad.

The games appendices provide a script of a sample play (I'm left to wonder if it was a real one, or a staged one), and ways to shift the setting of the game to other concepts, like a fantasy game where "the Rust" could become "The Moss", a sci-fi game where the rust would be "the Dark" of space itself, or an urban crime game where the rust might become "The Heat" of the city.

Finally, you get a page citing the game's influences; they make a point there of citing the kind of books that hipsters love for this kind of thing, presenting an absurd level of pretentiousness. Seriously, citing any one of Homer and Shakespeare, William S. Burroughs, Borges, or Frank Miller as your influences for a game would be ridiculously pretentiously; citing ALL of them for the same game is just absurd. They also cite game authors; the list being both short and telling: Ron Edwards, Vince Baker and Clinton R. Nixon, the unholy trinity of Forge Swine. They also give a long and effusive thank you to the Forge.

So how do I honestly judge this game? If I were to judge it as an RPG (and remember, this game does claim to be an RPG (it says so right on the cover)), it would be an appalling appalling failure. I would rate it a zero out of ten, really, except that maybe the fact that the setting isn't completely lame might rate it a 1 out of ten (plus, I'm not sure if theRPGsite's rating system allows me to give it a zero).

As a Storygame, I would not be qualified to judge it. Nor would I care; my beef with it is mainly in that it pretends to call itself an RPG. And as an RPG, its crap.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell compact + Image Latakia

(originally posted April 6, 2012, on the old blog)