Author Archive for James Nostack

09
Jul
14

nightmares of futures past – a marvel sandbox?

uncanny_xmen_141

I was asked to run some Marvel Super Heroes for Tavis’s son and his friend, who are X-Men fanatics.  To resolve some curiosity from my own childhood, I’m breaking out MX1: Nightmares of Futures Past, which as kid utterly baffled me.  But from an OSR perspective it seems like what Steve Winter was trying to do was create a sandbox during TSR’s Silver Age (during the “Dark Age” of Marvel Comics).

Nightmares of Futures Past is based on the classic Days of Future Past storyline from Uncanny X-Men and which, of course, inspired the recent film.  Nightmares doesn’t give you the time travel aspects to leaven the grimdark horror of living through the mutant holocaust.  The module throws you into “the middle of the End” as squads of gigantic, unstoppable killer robots roam the ruins of North America seeking to capture any stray mutant or super hero they can find.  The police are searching everywhere for you, and the public at large (say it with me) hates and fears you.  

 

It’s grim.

 

The module itself doesn’t give you anything resembling a plot, or even much of a setting: each “Judge” is supposed to adapt the scenario to her own futuristic, war-ravaged Anytown, USA, in which the players represent the local Resistance.  Nightmares gives you six types of Sentinels to fight, along with some law enforcement agents and the occasional mutant; it also describes in some detail a concentration camp for mutants.  It also gives you some rules about anti-Sentinel technology (magic items, effectively) designed to keep you hidden.  But almost everything else is up to the individual Judge to custom-build: not a bad idea, since the passage of 30 years and widespread destruction permits the Judge to reshape the Marvel Universe according to her own whims.

 

The main driver of the action here is the Sentinels’ neverending hunt for the players.  Players must scrounge for false identification papers so that they can work normal jobs and buy food.  Raising money–to pay for bribes, weapons, or fancy inventions–is almost certainly going to involve theft, perhaps even bank robbery (inverting the archetypal “intro to super heroes” session).  Day after day, the Sentinels zero in on your location, until you’ve got to abandon HQ and move out–or engage the Sentinels in a horrifically bloody Butch-and-Sundance last stand.

 

In game mechanics terms, the only way you can survive in this world is through accumulating enormous amounts of Karma, the game’s reward for acting like a super hero.  The problem, of course, is that acting like a super hero is going to draw attention.  So the more Karma you earn, the more danger you’ll be in.

 

And “danger” doesn’t really begin to describe it.  As presented in the Future in Flames modules, the most common Sentinel robots are terrifying opponents.  To get game-mechanical for a moment, a Sentinel shows up with 290 Health points (a standard character has maybe 100), 40 points of body armor (standard characters would be lucky to even scratch them for 10 points of damage, let alone do it 29 times), and can do 50 damage in close combat or at range (a standard character would go down in 2 hits).  To make matters worse, if the fight lasts more than 3 rounds, a Sentinel’s adaptive learning program tilts the fight even further in the robot’s favor.  In short, one Sentinel is a serious threat to even a group of competent characters . . . and they normally travel in packs of 3.

Even using the weakest model of Sentinel, and a simple hack for minions, a triad absolutely tore through a small cell of mutants I created for playtest purposes.  

The moral, maybe, is that Nightmares of Futures Past isn’t so much a framework for a super hero campaign, but rather, a survival horror campaign geared for dudes who shoot lasers out of their faces or women who can walk through walls.  (I also wonder whether the module was playtested.)    

 

So: two questions…

  1. Has anyone run the Future in Flames modules?  What were they like?  What should we expect?
  2. The classic Marvel Universe of 1981 has been completely undone and messed up in the hellscape of 2014 America.  What’s your suggestion for the fate of your favorite super hero?

 

24
Apr
14

there’s a new sheriff in town

Well, if Joesky can find the strength to post, so can I.  He is the beery wind beneath my wings.

attention must be paid

Ain’t my campaign, but word in the New York Red Box is that co-blogger Charlatan has hit the level cap for his bad-ass Halfling, Cut Coutelain, who has struggled all the way up from Level 1 in a fairly by-the-book B/X game.  Strongholds and dominion rules await, if Cut hasn’t blown all his cash building a “burrow boxing” arena for his kin-folk.  I don’t follow the blogs enough, but I’m wondering if anyone else has gone from 0 XP to Name Level since the OSR really got rolling 5-6 years ago.  It’s taken Charlatan something like 150 sessions.

The verdict among our Red Box crew, by the way, is that the Halfling may be one of the very best classes in B/X.  Great saves, very respectable attacks, an absolutely sick ability to hide outdoors (and respectable odds of hiding indoors), plus the ability to get Dex 18 with the Moldvay point-swapping model which yields a great AC and terrific bonuses to ranged combat.  In B/X, a Halfling can build a stronghold any she has enough cash – which could be pretty damn early in the campaign.  All wrapped up with a Fighter’s XP curve and mid-tier hit-dice.  True, the music stops at 128,000 XP, but that apparently takes 150 sessions of play.  If D&D Classes mean you are what you repeatedly do, it’s no wonder the Hobbit Halfling gets to have his cake and eat it too.

Hurray for Sheriff Coutelain, champion of the half-sized pugilists!

floydvsgreatest

01
Nov
13

super frog defeats gamma world

a gamma world party

business as usual

The other week, we ran Gamma World (2e) using the Serpent Temple – Lost Tombs by Mark Thomas from the 2009 One-Page Dungeon Contest.  I replaced the Lizard Men with Hissers (snake-headed dudes armed with golf clubs), turned the undead into robots, and otherwise just said, hey, have at it.

One player went for Pure-Strain Human (“Lomez,” whose name I kept mixing up with “Lomax” all night), another went for a Humanoid (“Sir Francis” the telekinetic), and one went the route of the Mutant Animal.  The Mutant Animal, Kyrmit, was through a freak of dice rolling, the most powerful characters I think I’ve ever seen.  He had flame-thrower hands, could create 10 duplicates of himself, vaporize enemies with a psychic pummelling, bounce damage he suffered back on its source, and read minds.  Kyrmit was, basically, a Level 20 Magic-User hanging out with some durable meat-shields.  (Lomez’s player proudly points out that he stabbed a monster for 1d6 damage, and figured out “laser scissors.”)

Given the enormous hit points of Gamma World 2e characters – (Con)d6 for most folks in a world where mundane attacks typically do approximately 1d6 damage – I started the characters off in Room H – dropped in by the Snake Priestess as a sacrifice to the horrific snake-abominations.  Which were almost immediately destroyed by 10 Kyrmits, telekinetic crushing courtesy of Sir Francis, and Lomez’s lone 1d6 damage.  The characters wandered around some, encountered some horrible-to-pronounce plant monsters, killed a Snake Priest, deciphered his mystical “paralysis rod” and “laser scissors,” and then went to the Hisser village to steal a boat to go home.

the escape plan goes awry due to a bad GM call

The gang ended up using telepathy to scope out the village.  Sir Francis used telekinesis to pick up an insanely poisonous barracuda-fish to slap enemies and kill them with one hit.  Lomez liberated a boat.  They were all about to get free, when – fearing that this was going too smoothly and I should increase the opposition – I had the Snake Priestess show up and Death Field (or Life Leech, I get them mixed up) pretty much everyone, and I think there was some kind of area-of-effect attack to kill everybody once they hit 1 HP.  This killed 2/3 of the party, plus 10 Kyrmits, but Kyrmit Prime was apparently invincible and, I think, escaped handily.

Sir Francis’s player took the death of his PC stone-faced, but Lomez’s player was visibly bummed out, and thought it was bullshit that the Snake Priestess could arrive at that location, at that time, and put a whammy on everyone in the way that she did.

And he was right.  I hadn’t drawn a map of the village.  I didn’t know the distance involved or how fast the Hissers moved.  (We had already established that the Snake Priestess had this nasty mojo, though.)  It turns out when you look it up in the book, a boat movies at speed “varies,” whereas the Hissers are pretty slow.  As narrated, the boat would have been out of range long before the Snake Priestess could get into position.  (The player didn’t point this out; I checked the rules and realized it couldn’t possibly have happened.)

So I ret-conned the last round, we had some carnage courtesy of the telekinetically wielded Death-Fish, and the three critters escaped to fight another day.  At some point it was decided that Kyrmit should have pants – he missed out on some nice treasure simply because he didn’t have any pockets – and thus an epic quest was initiated . . . to be followed up, someday.

gamma world: what is the deal

Gamma World looks like a weird game, and the design is even weirder than it appears.  In 2e, advancement is almost exclusively a question of getting better access to gear through social networking with the secret societies.  (Tavis advises that several of his characters back in the day used to play “icarus” with radioactive sites, trying to get just close enough to radiation to mutate further, without getting killed.)  Hit Point tallies are enormous, rendering a lot of conventional D&D-style weapons meaningless – though I didn’t check the more lethal ultra-tech items.  Mutations are clearly standing in for spells, but you don’t get  to change them each day, or (absent radiation) get new ones.

Most of the bestiary is full of critters with forgettable names, and who likely started as bad jokes in Ward’s home game (the badger-men who worship the University of Wisconsin mascot; bunny-men who turn things into bouncy rubber; etc.).

In effect, without a lot of inspiration and weird imagination, Gamma World seems to be mainly about the fun of rolling up an absurd character, and it’s kind of downhill from there.  I’ve never heard of a Gamma World game lasting more than a few sessions.

Obviously a big part of my problem with Gamma World is that gonzo isn’t my style of game (though I do appreciate it very much from afar).  I generally find pop-culture jokes really jarring in games like this, so you’re left with High Weirdness, which as a participant doesn’t give me enough to connect to, emotionally.  (I like Pendragon so much in part because the setting connects to my dude at so many different points, including his personality traits, his passions, his income, and his ambitions.)   A lot of the post-apocalyptic fantasy stuff that fed into Gamma World was long gone by the time I was a teenager in the post-Berlin-Wall 90′s.

I’m willing to give Gamma World a go – Jared makes a good point that Gamma World is kind of like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: the RPG,” which may be a fruitful way for me to look at it – but it’s not a passion for me.

Tell me, people of the Internet: have you played in long-term Gamma World games?  What in the world were they like?  Reveal my ignorance and stupidity that I may stand corrected!

07
Jun
13

eating out with renfield

what’s he building in there? a slow cooker no doubt

I was at a holiday party with some folks at Tor a long while back, and the editors were telling me that (at that time) the big thing was the Supernatural Romance sub-genre, with Supernatural Tourism, Supernatural Buddy Comedy, and Superntural C++ Programming Manuals as close runners-up.  I guess this must have been around the time that Twilight hit the shelves and every book with a vampire on its cover was flying off the shelves.

With my recent interest in the 2004 game Vampire: the Requiem (haven’t hit half-life yet, unfortunately) I think I have invented THE BEST COOKING CHANNEL SHOW EVER.  Do you remember how in Dracula there was crazy old Renfield, who somehow concluded:

  1. Count Dracula eats humans
  2. Count Dracula lives forever
  3. If I eat humans, I will live forever
  4. Therefore I shall eat bugs

I propose a cooking show where “Renfield” travels to various picturesque cultures and eats their Scary Magic Food like a maniac – like a strict diet of nothing but this thing, whatever it may be – and at the end of the week reports whether he has gained magic powers.  ANTHONY BOURDAIN meets GHOST HUNTERS.

This is fucking bank.

05
Jun
13

the pulsating heart of AD&D

Skidoo, one of the regulars in our on-going Pendragon epic, wrote insanely awesome combat charts for how to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) “by the book,” near as he can figure out.  Everything is explained in flowcharts.  Because Skidoo has done this, and has spent session after session watching his knight’s agenda go down in flames before the titanic incompetence of my own Sir Carabad, I must conclude that Skidoo is a masochist.  But a devilishly handsome one.

But the files are right here (36 meg PDF), and this is Skidoo’s explanation for what he’s done:

skidoo’s explanation for spending time away from his family

Hi.This is a combat flowchart for AD&D 1st Edition, by the book.  It attempts to include all the rules in the three core rule books (PHB, DMG, MM).Everybody playing AD&D 1E ignores some of these rules.  I wondered if it was possible to include all of them in a game, when I joined a campaign that attempted to play AD&D strictly by-the-book.  I created this flowchart to see how all the combat rules fit together, to see if it’s possible to play through combat with all the rules, and what that might look like.I admit it looks nuts.
This is not:
How to play AD&D.
How I play AD&D.
How you must play AD&D to play it right.
One other point:
Because a flowchart gives as much space to a rule that’s used 2% of the time as one that’s used 98% of the time, the format makes it look like there’s a lot of rules to deal with in every combat, when there aren’t.  Many of the rules would only come into play at higher levels.  Multiple attack routines are not an issue at low levels.  BtB psionics will hardly ever happen.
In a way, it reminds me of a heavily house-ruled Basic D&D game.  I imagine many DM’s combat resolution systems would actually look just as crazy if you laid them out like this.  It’s just that the decision points and sequences are so ingrained from years of play that they don’t have to think, “Okay now I’m noting all of the spells in order of # of segments” or whatever.
I don’t have a big philosophical purpose for doing this.  I did it just so I could get my head around how it (might) work.  Kind of like dissecting a frog.  Or drawing what I think the dissected frog looks like.  Use it as you will.  Please leave a message in the comments if you have a different reading of a rule, or know one that I missed.

Special thanks to DM Prata for his ADDICT document, to which this project owes a lot, especially the chart illustrating how multiple attack routines work.  And to the makers of the game.

when you meet the buddha, kill him and take his flower sermon

(These are my opinions, not Skidoo’s.)

What I fucking love about this chart is that, at least for me, it ends the OSR as a rabbinical quest for The True Game Text.  (I suppose the rabbinical quest to play the game “as Gary actually played it in the year ______” can go on indefinitely, until we get a bunch of people with Gygax Number 1 together to thrash out that beast.)  This is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Everything else is just monster descriptions, maps, and character classes, all of which are simply inputs to the engine which Skidoo has exploded out for study.  And, uh, frankly it looks kind of un-fun.

This chart also ends the Edition Wars, at least for me.  I never cared about that stuff as an adult, but as a kid, even though I was playing a game called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” it was the Second Edition.  I had this sneaking suspicion key things from 1e, such as demon tits, had been left out.  But dugs of darkness aside, I think Skidoo has pretty much demonstrated why creating 2e was a good idea, even if you don’t like the specific game that emerged from that redesign process.  It probably explains why the OSR seems to love Labyrinth Lord / BX and games derived from it so much.

Also, for me, this document kind of ends the OSR as an outlook.  My earliest interest in the OSR came from the puzzling realization that, despite mucking around with it for years as a child and teenager, I had never actually played Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that “playing Dungeons & Dragons” meant playing by the rules.  But what these charts show is that, very likely, nobody has ever played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by the rules.  Back in 2008-2009, there was a lot of reminding ourselves about “rulings not rules” and “if the rules have gaps, fill them in yourself,” and that kind of thing, as a rebellion against the comparatively rigid styles of 3e and 4e play.  But damn, man: the same problem of rigidity existed in 1979!  And people solved it the way people always solve it: by making up their own stuff to route around the bullshit: the hell with level caps and encumbrance rules.

In other words, no one has played 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e, or (likely) 5e by the rules.  Gaming didn’t need to be saved.  It had been saved the whole time. (“Saved” here of course isn’t meant to be taken seriously.)

The other thing I wonder about, when looking at these charts, is about the design process in RPG’s.  I am, despite playing D&D almost exclusively for 5 years, a Forge guy at heart, and I do believe that game design is important: it’s why I love B/X so much, for example.  But these charts, man!  When I was 9 years old, we had the super-simple Mentzer Basic rules, and we couldn’t be bothered to actually understand the text, or even read it.  We made up our own rules as we needed them, and then broke them.  Years earlier, however, poor Gary or Dave or Larry Schick or Mike Carr or Zeb Cook or whoever else, was slaving away on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e, with a zillion times more rules.  What’s the ratio of design effort in Lake Geneva to fun at your table?  I think us kids had a far better labor-to-fun payoff.  No matter how old you are, nothing beats Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time.  And maybe that’s what, in practice, the players of 1e figured out too.

05
Jun
13

you must be this lucky to play, part 2

“I’ll work up how to do the math for 4d6 drop lowest arranged, but not today.”  Well, that was more than a year ago, and I can’t say I’ve really devoted myself to the project.  Frankly, I have failed you, dear trio of readers: it was much easier to re-learn Java to solve this problem by brute programming force rather than to re-learn probability.  The University of Illinois Math Department will probably come ’round demanding that I return my diploma…

Anyhow, I worked up a crappy little program to handle 4d6 arranged to taste for one million characters.  Surprisingly, even with that many data points there’s a lot of random noise in the second decimal place and a moderate amount of wobble in the first decimal place.  But I ain’t running this beyond a million characters.

Here are PDF’s of the charts below, in case, like me, you have trouble reading the way WordPress formatted the diagrams below.

advanced dungeons & dragons, 1979

As was pointed out in comments to the earlier blog post, 1e apparently uses 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as its default method of creating a character.

Several of these stat requirements are not specifically identified in the class description, but rather called out in the ability score charts. For example, if you have a Strength of 3-5, you can only play a Magic-User. Thanks to Olivier Fanton for pointing this out.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Dr. Low, Arr.
Cleric Str 6, Int 6, Wis 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Druid Str 6, Int 6, Wis 12, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 15 2.87% 73.51%
Fighter Str 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 7, Cha 6 58.30% 99.80%
Paladin Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 6, Con 9, Cha 17 0.10% 24.19%
Ranger Str 13, Int 13, Wis 14, Dex 6, Con 14, Cha 6 0.16% 29.46%
Magic-User Int 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Illusionist Str 6, Int 15, Wis 6, Dex 16, Cha 6 0.37% 35.82%
Thief Str 6, Int 6, Dex 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Assassin Str 12, Int 11, Wis 6, Dex 12, Con 6 6.39% 93.51%
Monk Str 15, Int 6, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11, Cha 6 0.04% 13.15%
Bard Str 15, Int 12, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 10, Cha 15; Fighter 5, Thief 5* 0.00%** 1.59%

 

* = Before becoming a Bard, characters would have to survive through 5 levels of Fighter and then 5 levels of Thief, totalling around 28,000 XP, before beginning Bard training. From our five years of weekly play, that would require about three years, assuming the character didn’t get killed or super-killed in the meantime.

 

** = The odds of the 1e Appendix II: Bard is actually 0.0017%. That is, if you rolled 1 million AD&D 1e characters using 3d6, you could expect to see 17 Bards occurring in nature using 3d6 in order.  

unearthed arcana, 1985

Unearthed Arcana has a lot of alternate ways to generate character stats. I have ignored these alternate methods, as I have ignored everything else in this book. I leave rolling 9d6 or whatever as an exercise for severely bored readers.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.23%
Cavalier Str 15, Int 10, Wis 10, Dex 15, Con 15 0.03% 12.52%
UA Paladin Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 15, Con 15, Cha 17 0.00%* 0.89%
Thief-Acrobat Str 15, Dex 16; Thief 5** 0.43% 35.74%

 

* = The actual number is 0.0002%, which means out of 1 million characters rolled up using 3d6 in order, a full 2 of them might expect to qualify for Paladin status in Unearthed Arcana rules.

 

** = Thief-Acrobat has to accumulate 10,000 XP as a Thief first. I don’t know how to assess how hard that is, but several players in the Glantri campaign have hit similar numbers after three years of play (and leaving many corpses of less-fortunate PC’s in their wake). 

 

dragonlance adventures, 1985

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Knight of the Crown Str 10, Int 7, Wis 10, Dex 8, Con 10 18.56% 97.94%
Knight of the Sword Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 9, Con 10; Crown Knight 2 3.33% 84.90%
Knight of the Rose Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 12, Con 15; Sword Knight 4 0.05% 27.60%
Tinker Gnome Gnome only*; Int 10, Dex 12 23.12% 99.90%

 

Note that, like the 1e Bard and the Thief-Acrobat, the Knights of the Sword or the Rose require you to advance in level to qualify.

 

* = The Tinker Gnome must first qualify to play a Gnome: Strength 6, Constitution 8, and a Wisdom no higher than 12; they also get a +2 to their Dexterity. These stat requirements and adjustments have been factored into the “Odds to Qualify” columns.

oriental adventures, 1985

Oriental Adventures explicitly says to roll 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as the way to create characters.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.28%
Bushi Str 9, Dex 8, Con 8 52.02% 99.98%
Kensai Str 12, Wis 12, Dex 14 2.28% 80.91%
Monk Str 15, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11 0.04% 13.63%
Ninja-Bushi Str 9, Int 15, Dex 14, Con 8, Cha 14 0.15% 34.54%
Ninja-Sohei Str 13, Int 15, Wis 12, Dex 14, Con 10, Cha 14 0.01% 10.07%
Ninja-Wu Jen Int 15, Dex 14, Cha 14 0.24% 35.16%
Ninja-Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%
Samurai Str 13, Int 14, Wis 13, Con 13 0.28% 31.98%
Shukenja Str 9, Wis 12, Con 9 20.57% 99.54%
Sohei Str 13, Wis 12, Con 10 6.08% 95.23%
Wu Jen Int 13 25.93% 35.16%
Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%

 

 advanced dungeons & dragons, second edition, 1989

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition uses 3d6 in order as its default method to roll character attributes, but 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged to Taste, was listed as an alternate method that a lot of people seem to have used.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Fighter Str 9 74.07% 100.00%
Paladin Str 12, Con 9, Wis 13, Cha 17 0.13% 27.05%
Ranger Str 13, Dex 13, Con 14, Wis 14 0.18% 30.55%
Mage Int 9 74.07% 100.00%
Hard Specialist Stat 16 *, Int 9 4.63% 56.76%
Easy Specialist Stat 15 **, Int 9 9.26% 79.43%
Cleric Wis 9 74.07% 100.00%
Druid Wis 12, Cha 15 3.47% 78.28%
Thief Dex 9 74.07% 100.00%
Bard Dex 12, Int 13, Cha 15 0.90% 68.90%

 

* = The “Hard Specialists” are the Diviner, Enchanter, Illusionist, Invoker, and Necromancer.

 

** = The “Easy Specialists” are the Abjurer, Summoner, and Transmuter.

 

what have we learned?

First: that knowledge of calculus does not survive fifteen years of total disuse.

Second: wow, no wonder people like 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged!  The odds of playing a 2e Paladin jump from barely one-in-a-thousand to about one-in-four.

Third: 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged works on a “generosity curve,” for lack of a better term.  Slightly less than 60% of characters using 3d6 in order qualify to play a Fighter in 1e, but using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged this basically hits 100%.  That’s a 66% improvement in the odds to qualify.  But the 2e Bard, who occurs just under 1% of the time using 3d6 straight, is about 7000% more likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  And the freakish Unearthed Arcana Paladin, who occurs in 2 out of a million characters using 3d6 straight, occurs roughly 8900 times in a million using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged–becoming 445,000% more likely.  There’s a reason for this!  But I am now too dumb about math to understand why!

Fourth: the UA Paladin is still the hardest class to qualify for in terms of straight-up stats, but the 1e Bard is only twice as likely, and requires you to earn 28,000 XP before you can even show up for Bard College.  I think that’s got to be a huge filter, easily making the class 10 to 20 times harder to qualify for than stats alone would suggest.

Fifth: in the earlier blog post, it really looked like people back in the day had to cheat like crazy to qualify for some of those hard-to-reach classes.  That’s much less likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  Whether people still cheated on stat rolls or not, who can say. I sure did as a  kid, but we were using 3d6 in order.

 

22
May
13

half-life of gaming lust

After flirting with several different game systems lately, I am now conducting a scientific experiment: how long will it take for me to get sick of Vampire: the Requiem, and by implication, other games that I get momentarily infatuated with?  (The answer: I was fed up with the presentation and authorial voice instantly.  But maaaaaaybe there’s a game worth playing hidden in between the schlocky writing?)  I ask this because I was recently enamored of Star Frontiers and then Gamma World, only to have those feelings quickly dissolve within a few days.

star frontiers: what am I doing here, captain

Our group has been wrestling with science-fiction games for quite some time.  By New York State Law I am forbidden from playing Traveller, but it doesn’t quite seem to get a critical mass of interest from the other Red Boxers.  I know the Alternity system pretty well, but its spaceship combat rules are awful, character design takes forever, and I’m a perfectionist about designing a scenario in these types of system-is-everything games.  A friend wrote a beautiful hack of Starships & Spacemen that some of us used to play a joyous Star Trek rip-off, but he doesn’t want to run it any more.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I figured I’d check out Star Frontiers, given its TSR pedigree and remembering incomprehensible adds in Marvel Comics.  Frankly, I am not sure what Star Frontiers is about.  Apparently you’re like, the Away Team sent down to hex-crawl across alien worlds and zap things. Several of the modules take this approach, and the game’s tagline, “Exciting adventures on alien worlds!” seems to bear that out.

Somewhat awesomely, all of human knowledge has collapsed into thirteen fields of study, of which a full seven (54%) directly involve killing things.  (This amazes me mainly because in Alternity, the sci-fi game I’ve played most, there are like 109 skills, of which like 25 directly involve killing things.)  Also, the aliens aren’t described in much detail, but they’re fairly non-human, which is a plus in my mind.

Part of the problem with Star Frontiers, maybe, is that it is deliberately non-political science-fiction: that is, science-fiction that’s designed to be bland.  Star Trek‘s original series is infused with mid-1950′s techno-utopian thinking, Cold War tension, and late-60′s cultural concerns; the later iterations of the show tended to veer toward the police procedural genre, albeit ones where the police get trapped in caves a lot or date women who are actually disguised space-monsters.  Star Wars (the watchable movies, at least) is an admixture of Zen platitudes, anti-fascism, and perhaps a qualified rejection of the Industrial Revolution.  But those two are only the big sci-fi franchises in hindsight.  In the early 1980′s, there was also Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica and many other things besides, and it feels like Star Frontiers was just trying to fit in with the crowd rather than stake out new territory.

Certainly some people love the hell out of this game, enough to create a deluxe, high-quality remix of the rules with better art.  I do find it curious, though, that a company like TSR / Wizards has never tried to squeeze more juice out of this game.  Maybe the Williamses wanted the company to start fresh with Buck Rogers XXVc or something.

gamma world: that’ll do, pig

After quickly growing bored with Star Frontiers, I got into Gamma World very briefly after Tavis was kind enough to run me through a goofy little half-scenario in which my twice-super-intelligent pig, Boss Hogg, who I imagine is the Samuel L. Delany of post-apocalyptic Hazzard County, helped some benighted villagers understand the mystery of witch-fruit (“it’s really a tuber”), found them a robot-obstetrician to help with their appalling infant mortality rate, and fed pig-slops to a smelly toothless hobo, just like the real Samuel L. Delany would.

Gamma World 2e (which is kinda the Moldvay equivalent of the 1e rules) looks like a lot of fun, precisely because it’s what disappointed me about Star Frontiers: you’re some weird freak rollin’ around in an “alien” world.  Why this appeals to me in Gamma World but disappoints me in Star Frontiers is a mystery, and probably unfair.

I mainly fell out of love with Gamma World when I realized it seemed to be D&D with a facelift: modern-day ruins instead of medieval ones, tons more hit points, and an unchanging list of magic spells mutations.  To whatever extent D&D is a game about managing your resources wisely, this seems less true Gamma World in the main (though I guess you’d have to ration your D batteries pretty carefully).

I still wanna play that pig, though.  Boss Hogg, Edible Consultant, has a lot more adventures left in him.

i hope vampires are not too stupid

Over the weekend I got hopped up on old Tomb of Dracula comics, and took down my old unplayed copy of Vampire: the Requiem down from the shelf.  So my experiment started on Sunday night and I’m waiting to see when I get tired of this thing.  That way, whenever I fall into the grip of some new gaming passion, I will know to wait _____ days before taking it seriously.

I am not, and probably never was, part of the target audience for Vampire: the Requiem.  I don’t like horror movies, LARPing, or freeform role-play twiddle-twaddle.  I hate the book’s padding and fake-ass lingo.  I strongly doubt that whoever called it “Modern Gothic role-playing” had read The Castle of Otranto.  This book is not meant for me.

On the other hand, I really, really dig the idea of what a pain in the ass it would be to only be active at night.  I can barely get my shit done in 18 hours; now I’ve only got 12?  Man, what if I want to check out some Isaac Asimov book from the library and it closes at 5 p.m.?  Can’t see no animals at the zoo.  Can’t see no kids on the playground while strolling around.  Can’t renew my drivers license at the DMV; can’t pick up Amazon boxes at the post office.  Plus, every night you gotta drink blood instead of having a toasted cheese sandwich or whatever.  This is not enough to make me all emo and mopey, but it would be an interesting problem to have for few sessions.

Stripping down the game to the basics, it seems that what you’ve got is a game about extremely territorial cannibal-folks with magic blood-powers, who more or less hate each other but any big move would set off a gang war apocalypse.  There’s also some stuff about enslavement and addiction, and a risk of growing insanity, which has to be carefully managed to avoid being disabled for years or decades.  It looks like there’s a playable game lurking in there, if you can avoid the pretentious nonsense.

I expect my interest will fade by the end of the Memorial Day, but we’ll see.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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