Archive for May, 2013


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.


Playing Domains at War and Papers & Paychecks

As a blogger and a signatory to the Joesky Accords I have a responsibility to talk about play. As a publisher I need to let you know that if you want to back the Domains at War Kickstarter but haven’t yet, you should do so soon because it closes tomorrow, May 18th at 3:32 pm.

These may boil down to the same thing. I’m helping create Domains at War because I enjoy playing it. If you’re also excited about what having a wargame integrated with a RPG system for mass combat and strategic campaigns will mean for your gaming, your Kickstarter pledge is part of that process of creation. Sharing excitement about D@W is good for Autarch as a publisher because it’s in our interests for people to get into the games we make, and it’s good for me as a gamer to learn from what other people are doing with the systems I’m interested in.

You might not share either of these interests, but as a reader of blogs I often find something of value even in reading posts about games that I feel no urge to play. In the case of posts about publishing with Kickstarter, that game is Papers and Paychecks. Here are some of the system-neutral insights it’s generated.

To be a publisher, one should first be a corporation. This is the difference between rolling up a player character to go adventuring and actually descending into a hole filled with deadly traps while wearing your own skin. One of the foundational mistakes in the Dwimmermount Kickstarter was that James didn’t incorporate Grognardia Games. Happily, the potentially dire consequences of doing business as an individual have been averted in this case. We’ve managed to warp the ship off the shoals, but even if it’s wrecked on some other obstacle having Autarch at the helm will mean that all the casualties among the crew will be purely fictional entities.

It is interesting to be running a player character in real life, although usually not in the ways you’d think. Playing a role that’s made distinct from your own by the rules of the game or the laws governing corporate entities gives you the chance to act as if it is you and is not you. I think it comes down to protection from risk. Doing business as a company means that you can always roll up a new character if the current one gets killed, which leads to the same kind of exploration-based, consequence-embracing play we celebrate in games that don’t implicitly require that your guy will survive until the final act.

Autarch is actually more like a chartered adventuring party, and I think that the robustness that comes from making this the fundamental unit of play is as useful in other games as it is in Papers & Paychecks. Original D&D is the story of the world rather than the story of the characters who explore it, but making the party the recurring lens through which this takes place focuses the cumulative actions of the players and makes it easy to bring new actors into the story.

One of the cool things about roleplaying games is that they’re not just an outlet for your DIY creativity, but a chance to participate in the creativity of folks who have talents you don’t. My Night of the Walking Wet game at this year’s Gary Con introduced me to Fred Liner, who had one of the original pieces of Jonathan Bingham’s art that the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter made possible. For Domains at War, Fred pledged for a backer reward that let him choose the subject of an illustration for the book. His description nods to the Walking Wet party in which Mark’s hobbit has a special ability that makes him always appear to be a member of a group of 14:

The foreground of the picture is a small command group with a banner the banner bearer is a dwarf, Snorri One-eye, one of his eyes is a glittering black orb in the hand not holding the banner he carries an axe, his helmet is made of lizard skin. The headpiece of the banner is similar to a roman standard with “The XIV”, the banner, if it can be made out, is a griffon on a white field. The other members of the command group are 2 mages and a cleric. One of the mages specializes in fire magic and the other is a dark, necromancer. To the left and in the background are a of couple siege engines. To the right the rest of the company is in the middle distance advancing on an earthworks. There are 8 figures in this group all soldier types with various weapons with one exception. One of figures in this group should be a scout type in leathers and a cloak that is swirling around him as the cloak transforms into smoke.

Here’s Ryan’s compositional sketches for this idea:

Here’s the final piece:

I find it fascinating to be part of this process in the same way I’m amazed by people in my gaming groups who can do more than one funny voice. Of course, Ryan has a more than professional level of talent, and some of the people I’ve gamed with actually get paid as actors. Still, the personal involvement – the fact that it’s my character’s foolhardiness they’re talking about in that funny voice – means I value it much more than any exercise of skill I would appreciate as an outsider.

The last thing to say about Papers & Paychecks and other kinds of non-real-life gaming is that they fundamentally cross over. You can play Metamorphosis Alpha and you can play AD&D, but how much cooler is it to be transported from one to the other by a wish spell and realize that your campaign encompasses both of these multitudes? Likewise you could be a publisher and not play your games, or (more happily) a gamer who doesn’t feel the urge to aspire to what Gygax perhaps self-servingly saw as the ultimate level of player achievement in Master of the Game, but the greatest enjoyment comes from combining the two.

Here’s a game I ran in which the players led armies across the original outdoor map, seeking to be the first to extract the riches of Dwimmermount:

You can read more about the session from Tenkar’s perspective here. The thing I learned from it as a gamer is that I tend to make my scenarios front-loaded with choice. As a player I love the stage where we spend a long time coming up with a plan after considering all options and making elaborate preparations, and there’s a legitimate argument for including some of this even in a one-off game. Given a finite amount of time for play, though, spending more on these choices means having less room in which they can become meaningful by creating consequences at the table.

Something I’ve been doing with the character generation templates in the ACKS Player’s Companion might suggest a workable intermediary. You roll 3d6 for starting wealth, and this gives you the package of thematically-related equipment and proficiencies that your village elders or whoever have invested in providing for you. The option I give players if they don’t love that template is to swap it for any of the lower ones on the table and pocket the difference in gp value. This is awesome not just because it creates choice but because it immediately creates a context in which it can become meaningful. Why did your forefathers want your Dwarven Fury to be a Foehammer? How did you become a Vermin Hunter instead? These are juicy questions to launch directly into from character creation.

Here’s a snapshot of the final turn in my spur-of-the-moment recreation of the Battle of Arsuf with Paul, which you can read more about here.

The thing I learned here is about limits of attention rather than time. When I ran a Domains at War battle at Gary Con, it was the switch between playing a commander of units and zooming in to focus on your leader’s actions as an individual hero that I found most exciting and immersive. At that game, we had multiple players per side so each of us could manage the decisions about when to make that switch. When Paul and I played we were each running a general and three commanders, and the tactical decisions they were making for the divisions of thousands of troops each one led occupied our complete mental bandwidth.

One mark of a good game is that it can expand or collapse to meet the circumstances around the table. For me, Domains at War does this really well. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of battle lines seen entirely from an eagle-eyed commander’s view as much as I did the more heroism-focused game at Gary Con in which characters sometimes duked it out man to man. If we didn’t have enough attention for either we could have used the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Campaigns, and the game was fun in the Dwimmermount session above even when no mass combat ensued at all!

This flexibility is one of the key features of Domains at War’s inspiration Chainmail – sometimes you use the man-to-man system, sometimes the fantasy combat table, sometimes it’s purely unit-based. In the afterschool class when we started out playing 4E, I saw the importance of collapsibility. I’ve had great times with 4E’s uber-tactical resource management, but it breaks down when you play it with a group of kids with the attention span of 8 to 12 year olds and in the confines of an 80 minute session. I’m eager to use D@W more in my life as a gamer because of the extra degrees of expansion and contraction it offers, letting the story of the world be told at a number of scales from player characters in nightmare mazes to rulers of mighty hordes.


Weird Tables: Corpse Bits 4 Ca$h

Arch-wizards, alchemists and taxidermists crave various chunks of monster anatomy for their own peculiar purposes, and sometimes they’re willing to pay good money for such things! Players who recognize this may get into the habit of chopping up everything they encounter and hauling the bits back like deranged slaughterhouse workers. To keep the PCs from overdoing it, you may wish to limit such sales to specific requests (or “quests” for short) proffered by enchanters for whatever fresh ingredient they happen to need at the moment, as determined by the


Roll twice on a d20 to determine what weird thing the local magician desires. If this offers a nonsensical result, like a ghoul horn or hellhound wing, ignore it and roll on the “special reagent” table instead.

Roll Creature Reagent
1 Basilisk Blood
2 Cockatrice Bone/Skull
3 Doppelganger Brain
4 Dragon Ear
5 Ghoul Eye
6 Giant Flesh
7 Gryphon Genitals
8 Harpy Hair/Feathers/Scales
9 Hellhound Hand/Foot/Paw
10 Hydra Heart
11 Manticore Horn/Antler
12 Medusa Liver
13 Minotaur Nose
14 Mummy Saliva
15 Ogre Skin/Hide
16 Owlbear Stomach/Intestine
17 Troglodyte Tail
18 Troll Teeth/Beak
19 Wereolf Tongue
20 Wyvern Wing


Roll 1d12.

Roll Reagent
1 Carrion crawler tendril
2 Displacer beast hide
3 Fire beetle gland
4 Gelatinous cube gelatin
5 Giant scorpion stinger
6 Giant spider venom
7 Giant toad tongue
8 Killer bee honey
9 Ochre jelly protoplasm
10 Rust monster antennae
11 Shrieker spores
12 Stirge proboscis

Appropriate payment will vary based on how much gold you want to put into the PCs’ hands. In the past, I’ve generally offered 1d6 x 100 gold pieces for reagents. Now I’m considering monster HD x monster HD x 100 gold pieces. This may inspire PCs to go after monsters that outclass them in order to earn some sweet loot!

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2013
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