Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lost Girl (TV show review)

Lost Girl is a Canadian television crime/supernatural drama show featuring Anna Silk as Bo, a succubus who is introduced to a hidden world of creatures called the Fae who appear human (for the most part) but who are much more.  Bo was raised by humans, unaware of her nature and suffering from the fact that anyone she is intimate with would be drained of their life.  After rescuing Kenzi, a Russian transient con artist, Bo is discovered by two Fae who work for the local police department.  Surprised that she was raised apart from the Fae, the two detectives Dylan and Hale bring her into the Fae community.  The Fae are divided between Light and Dark, not necessarily Good and Evil, but more Lawful and Chaotic.  All Fae feed directly or indirectly on humans, but as one Light Fae put it, "we're like Native Americans.  We respect our prey."

Bo refuses to become part of either society, since both are bound by strict codes of conduct, but instead becomes a rare neutral figure.  Her ability to mingle with both Light and Dark Fae make her a unique figure in society and she ends up frequently taking on problems no one else can.

In addition to Kenzi, Hale, and Dyson (her werewolf love interest), Bo is also helped by Trick, the owner of a Fae-only pub, and Lauren, a human doctor and servant to the Light Fae (and also a love interest for the bi-sexual Bo).

So to summarize, you have in Lost Girl a sort of sexpot-Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets World of Darkness.  It's lightweight fare, fun and easily qualifying as a guilty pleasure.  The show is pretty PG-13 with a lot of simulated sex and near-nudity, not to mention a lot of off-color humor.

My biggest problem with the show?  Anna Silk is a striking person physically, but is outshone in any scene that involves another member of the cast, especially her sidekick Kenzi, played by Ksenia Solo.  Bo's transformation from "lost girl" to "tough girl with a medieval arsenal" seems almost too quick.  And finally Lauren, the alternative romantic angle for Bo, is consistently whiny and lacks appeal.

Now it would be very, very easy to game this.  You could use the Buffy/Angel/Ghosts of Albion rules and be ready to go practically out of the box.  While the Fae society is very vague in its description, it appears that regions have local leaders, Light and Dark, and so you could create your own parallel monarchies in another metropolitan area and have the PC's be other Fae or human sidekicks that have decided to follow Bo's lead and reject the Fae social order (there's even a weird cursed tribe out there, not to mention mercenaries, so Bo isn't all that unusual as she seems at the beginning).  Everyone in the show has secrets to go with their extensive personal histories, and half the plot is uncovering all those hidden elements (the other half being taking on sketchy jobs for Light and Dark Fae).

Lost Girl is on Netflix right now, and worth checking out.

Basic Fantasy Role Playing Appreciation

Tenkar of Tenkar's Tavern recently suggested that fans of Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game should set aside January 31st as "Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Appreciation Day."  I'm a big fan of BFRPG, and I can why in one sentence:

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game combines the ethos of Old School Dungeons & Dragons without the slavish devotion to antiquated and unhelpful rules, and its free.

Retro-clones of D&D often fall along a certain spectrum in terms of where in the D&D chronology they are attempting to emulate.  BFRPG falls somewhere between "Basic/Expert" and "1st Ed. AD&D" but also goes ahead and ditches things like descending Armor Class that regardless of how you might bend over backwards to justify, is counter-intuitive to most people.

What does it have?  Four races (human, elf, dwarf, and halfling) and four classes (fighter, magic-user, thief, and cleric).  It has the standard battery of D&D monsters and spells.  It feels like D&D, but it has the house rules that I think many people would apply already built in.

BFRPG is, as I mentioned, freely available on the above-linked website, as is quite a bit of supplemental material, adventures, etc.  It's creator has not chosen to make the game available on popular RPG download sites like DriveThruRPG, and it hasn't seemed to have captured the following other retro-clones out there have.  But like many, if I were to run on OSR game, this one would be a contender.

Here's a picture of my copy, all printed out and in its own binder (featuring a stereotypical racy cover).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Wilds of Sandbox Games

So what are the fundamental themes or elements of a sandbox game?

Travel and Exploration.  The PC's have to in some way, shape, or form, move around a region, be it a wilderness, a mega-dungeon, or a distant galaxy.  It's the sense of not knowing what's out there that compels the players to do things with their PC's.  This is in comparison to the notion that the PC's will be handed a plot, through which they will move to their conclusion.

Risk and Reward.  At some level, exploration has a dimension of peril. It wouldn't be much of a game if people just wandered their local neighborhood, chatting up their neighbors and side-stepping dog walkers.  Most sandboxes have the written or unwritten rule that the wilderness is dangerous, often contrasted with the notion of some sort of civilized, safe harbor.

Take this. Go outside.

Complimenting that risk, however, is the concept that taking those risks may result in some sort of reward for the players.  Sometimes it is the direct reward of loot, scattered out there in the vast reaches.  Sometimes it is being able to cleanse a region of evil, or at least the unknown, and making it safe for civilization to expand into the area.  Rarely is there no reward for exploration, because why then would anyone justify putting their lives on the line?

Self Direction.  In a sandbox campaign, the players decide where they are going to go.  The GM provides some sort of feedback, some sort of structure that allows the players to gauge risk in a relative manner.  There is often a random element to encounters, but players usually have some sort of fair sense of knowing when they are asking for more trouble then they might be able to manage.  Resource allocation plays some hand in this as well, as players can estimate their own ability to handle conflict or just the rigors of travel.

Genres.  I think, inherently, that the fantasy genre lends itself to the sandbox campaign concept.  The PC's ability to travel is fairly limited--usually foot or mount.  The world outside is full of strange monsters that lurk in shadows and that makes sense.  There is treasure lying around and that makes sense.  Basically, in a fantasy game it isn't a big effort to have a game where you wander around the woods wondering if you'll be attacked by lions, tigers, or bears.

Shifter barbarian, wildling bard, human witch (with familiar), warforged fighter.
Contemporary genre games, on the other hand, seem some of the least workable in the sandbox model, despite the fact that the term was originally used for contemporary era games like Grand Theft Auto.  Think about it: with Google maps, you can get a good look at just about anywhere you want.  In most communities, you can walk down the street without worry too much about getting attacked.

"So there I was, just wandering around, when I was jumped by 1d8 hobgoblins"
Frankly, I'd love to come up with a solution to the "contemporary era sandbox" riddle.

Science fiction seems to be the hybrid, having some of the "wilderness" aspects available as a fantasy game, but with technology gumming up the works.  If the game is some sort of interplanetary exploration, you need to eschew the whole "jump to lightspeed" or similar special effect, otherwise it will be difficult to explain mid-travel encounters.  Sensors?  Those'll take the fun out of exploration.  So might a lot of other things.

Really, when you look carefully, you'll find most sandbox games are pretty low-tech, high mystery affairs.  It seems pretty ingrained in the concept.  Concepts welcome

I don't want to know the ending

Included above is a diagram of most of my D&D games.  Three encounters, one of which follows the other fairly inexorably.  It's the "Dungeon Delve" design from WotC, but I could also make an argument that it goes back to some of the earliest D&D module designs, notably the "Slavers" series that were initially used in tournaments.  It made sense for tournament play, because you were often scoring groups playing against each other on how well they would manage in the adventure.  That meant everyone got the same treatment.

But it is not only here.  Marvel Heroic Roleplaying's Breakout or Civil War follow just as direct a layout, even to the point of having the adventure's designers strongly suggest you kill off a major character in a particular Act.  You see it in adventure design all over the place: Primeval has a multi-act adventure as its sample of play, pretty much any adventure that uses "acts" or "scenes" has this model.  You can wander a bit in play, but in the end, you're at the end.

And frankly, I'm not all that juiced about that model any more, and I'll tell you why.  Because ultimately you're just getting the GM's story.  That isn't to say it isn't a good story, but ultimately you're just trying to figure out how to survive each encounter and move onto the next one.  Which in turn puts pressure on the GM to build encounters that are survivable, because it wouldn't be much fun to not get to the end.  So everything becomes a pretty set, structured mode of gameplay.  1, 2, and 3.  Trying to go from 2 to 4 or F or whatever usually means a GM starts improving to the point where either you're steered back to 3 or had roadblocks thrown up until you backtrack to where you were before and try again to figure out what you should be doing.

And if you're a GM whose goal it is for your players to appreciate your cleverly crafted story, again that's fine, but understand that at this point I'm not invested as a GM in my own process anymore.  Frankly, I find myself getting bored by my own creation, because I already know where it is going.  I know how the evening will end.  I'm just a character with a script who has practiced it time and time again.  And at this point, I'd rather be entertained by the group as much as the group is entertained by me.

Which means, at this point, that I either need to become the most free-flowing creative mind out there, ready to just spin things off the top of my head, or I need to think about a sandbox.

Which brings me to my point.  I use blogs to externally process (I'm an external processor by nature, I suspect) and I have been thinking a lot about the next game, and I've realized I don't want a campaign structure with a focus on "storytelling" in the way that the game is going to be "episodes" or any kind of layout where I know the ending.  That means eschewing a lot of what is out there in game design, but I think for the sake of my own engagement and interest, this is the best way.

Now I know there is a lot of information and advice about building sandboxes out there, and I'll be processing some of that here.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stealing a Ship (Actual Gaming Recap)

Well, as part of my hope of being a better gaming blogger, I thought I'd share my own real-life experiences running a game, which for those of you who read this blog know is Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition.  You'll also know that it isn't my favorite game, but it is a good game and my group loves it and we have fun, and as I say in the tag line, that's what it is about.

So, who's the cast?

  • Revan, a Tiefling bard
  • Rogar, a Dragonborn sorcerer/elementalist
  • Yvanna, an Eladrin wizard
  • Aukan, a Goliath warden
  • Komos, a Githerazi avenger
  • Skyhawk, a pixie ranger
So, what's the story?

Previously, Yvanna was kidnapped by a lich necromancer called the Icicle King who was running a club for vampires in the PC's home town of Grimfest.  The PC's traveled to the Demi-plane of Ice to rescue her, but the Icicle King told them that he had information about a demon named Astaroth who killed off most of Yvanna's family.

Checking in with their quasi-patron the bizarre and ethically dubious Benalkazar, the PC's learn of a ship that can travel the dimensions, even the layers of Hell called the Marauding Dreamer.  The Dreamer belongs to a band of Githyanki slavers, and at the end of the previous adventure the PC's have just busted in and are about to kill as many slavers as possible before stealing a ship.

In last night's adventure, the PC's basically take out a large band of Githyanki running about the halls of the hideout.  They then went and freed four captives of the slavers: a ice gnome named Nim (whom they had met before); a diva named Riya; a hippopotamus-like humanoid named Paava; and a human named Slow Bob.

Then, the PC's defeated the red dragon guarding the Marauding Dreamer and, with the help of the prisoners, took off with the ship.

Illustration by Max Hierro

So what worked?

Since we hadn't played since before Christmas, it was just good to get the group back together.  For whatever it is worth, the group played together as a team well, although there is still a bad tendency of certain players to tell others what to do on the grounds that it is the, shall we say, optimal response.  That sometimes hacks off the other players, who after all this time feel ready to run their own characters.

I myself really wanted to do two things, mostly as a way to get me to enjoy this game again.  First, to get more NPC's in the game with which the PC's can interact.  Riya and the others all have distinct personalities and backstories, and will also on a utility level form the crew of the ship to watch over the Dreamer when the PC's are not aboard.  I also wanted to change the feel of the campaign a little bit, to make it a bit more sci-fi and less dungeon-crawling.  I wanted to re-inject a feeling a wonder into the fantasy so that the players don't always just start breaking down my story into tactical encounters.

What didn't work?

The encounters tend to continue to be way too easy.  An encounter using the formula and monsters from the Monsters Vault versus PC's carefully tweaked from material from the entire rest of the 4E canon don't come out apples to apples.  I think that "n+2" is going to have to become the norm for a "typical" encounter, or I'm going to have to start tweaking the environments to add an edge to the monster's side.

There's also still an issue about the strikers.  One PC, the githerazi avenger, doled out 160 points of damage in a single regular-action-plus-action-point barrage that he referred to joking as it "Nova Blast."  The sorcerer regularly does half that amount without trying, and the ranger is right behind.  When that happens, I hear the wizard start making snarky comments about just casting Magic Missile and moving onto the next person, and the warden makes self-depreciating statements about what they add to the team.

I think the answer is to find ways to highlight the other players' roles, either in or out of combat.

Anyways, as always, comments are welcome.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Auctioning Off Convention Spots?

For the past two years I've attended KantCon, which is a gaming convention located in Kansas City.  I've had mixed experiences at KantCon.  I don't think that they have enough planned on Friday, which is the best day for me to go.  I don't think they have much of a plan for younger children aside from letting them check out board games.  And most importantly, I simply don't think they have enough games.  Both times I've gone, there has rarely been slots available in RPG's for myself and my son (usually this meant letting my son play while I went off with a board game or wandered the handful of vendors).

This year, KantCon is facing some challenges.  Their old venue appears no long financially feasible, so a new venue had to be found.  Regardless, prices on admission have gone up.  And finally, they are doing what so many people are doing now--using Kickstarter.  What are they offering, aside from discount pre-pre-registration tickets?  They are offering you the ability to sign up in advance for "Buy In Games."  These are particular RPG sessions that will initially be available to Kickstarter participants only, then the pre-registrants, then the schmoes coming in the door.

I get it.  KantCon needs money to operate, without it there would not be a convention.  But essentially charging an additional $70 to guarantee that you can participate in the best (if not only) gaming sessions, and I have mixed feelings about this.  I'd feel better if the KantCon organizers did something to insure that most, if not all, convention attendees could get in on at least one game when they arrived.  Maybe having a "no reservations" game or two, or a rolling miniatures game where people could walk up, play for a couple of hours, then leave.

I'd feel particularly good if they had some kid-friendly games available.  Get some reliable (maybe even background-checked) GM's to run a game for the less-than-18 crowd like Meddling Kids or Star Wars.

I feel like maybe I need to be part of the solution here, not just a sidewalk prophet yelling at the KantCon organizers to get more people involved in their planning.

But what do you think about conventions charging extra to guarantee spots in games?  What's your experience of small conventions, and what would make them better?  Comments welcome.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Altered Carbon

I mentioned a few days ago that I had read Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan, and for those who can't be convinced by my brief mention to go out and read it, here's my longer appeal.

Altered Carbon takes place centuries from now, when humanity has managed to settle a handful of planets in the galaxy but space travel remains prohibitively expensive.  One huge, society-changing technological innovation is that ability to transfer a person's memory into a digital state which is then stored on what is basically a hard drive implanted in the base of a person's skull.  If something happens to your body, you can digitally transfer your consciousness into a new body, a clone, or even an unoccupied body of someone else, called a "sleeve."

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-envoy, an elite soldier of the future trained to optimally utilize "sleeves," especially modified ones, in combat.  For decades he has been essentially emailed around from venue to venue fighting for the human government until he eventually goes rogue and ends up having his personality digitally stored in prison, an effective way to handle overcrowding.  Plus, a prisoner's real body can be used by others who wish to rent it, etc.

The truly wealthy can transfer themselves from one body to another, prolonging their lives for centuries.  The uber-wealthy can create digital back-ups of themselves in case something happens to their internal hard drive, called a "stack."

One centuries-old uber-wealthy person named Laurens Bancroft has apparently committed suicide, a futile act given that he has a back-up of his personality available.  To solve the mystery of why he would do such a thing, Bancroft arranges to have Kovacs transferred to Earth and uploaded into the body of an incarcerated police officer to solve the mystery.

On one hand, Altered Carbon has all the elements of a classic noir detective story: the reluctant protagonist, the untouchable plutocrat, the sultry siren, the grumpy police officer investigating the case ("there's no case, Kovacs!"), and of course a chorus of skeevy gangsters, laconic hitmen, and the odd hooker or three.  On the other hand, Morgan spins a pretty typically dystopic cyberpunk story with drugs, guns, cybernetically-enhanced killers, virtual reality, and a ton of sex.  Since I listened to Altered Carbon on CD, there were times when I was glad the kids weren't in the car and I was driving around with the windows up.  I don't know how these voice actors do it some times.

Altered Carbon is a pretty solid set-up.  I'm not 100% thrilled with the execution, because way too much of the story comes in the back third of the book.  I like having all my pieces fairly up front, and let the hero put them together, instead of having the author hold out on me until the end.  This is probably why I like "English manor mysteries" over "detective stories" as a general matter of course.  There's also just a little too much Jedi/ninja/Jason Bourne in the whole "envoy" concept.  Kovacs could have been just as much a tough guy and a good detective without having be almost too good at things.

Where the story really sings, though, is in the examination of the impact on humanity that the whole stack/sleeve element provides.  Bancroft is no longer really human as a result of both his prolonged life and his ability to have every whim met by his fantastic wealth.  Others have become fractured because of the constant shifting from body to body.  How much of our personality is dependent upon the flesh, and not just our experiences, impacts how Kovacs responds to people as he interacts with individuals who knew the owner of his current "sleeve."

Friends with whom I have discussed this book have told me there is already an RPG closely modeled on this concept: Eclipse Phase.  If I was running a cyberpunk game, there's a lot I would rip off this book: characters, locales, even the way they depict post-human aristocrats.  The whole sleeve/stack thing is intriguing, and I am considering it for my EOW game, but I could see how it could quickly take over the game as a concept.

So, given that it seems to be that a bit of a cyberpunk renaissance is going on right now in the gaming world, go out and give this a read if that's your thing.  Just not around the kids.

One of my favorite sourcebooks of all time

Strike Force by Aaron Allston was a sourcebook for Champions that came out shortly before Champions II (which incorporated many of the "house rules" from Strike Force).  Basically, Strike Force is a journal of the campaign Allston lead using the Champions rules.  It includes sections on how to run a supers RPG, including what comic-book conventions are nearly impossible to place within an RPG format.  It also has the roster of the eponymous superhero team Strike Force and its split-off group Shadow Force, both in their initial 250-point versions and their later, post-XP award versions as well.

Why do I love this book above all others?  First, it has an extensive section on Game Mastering that is still in many ways superior to a lot that is out there.  Remember that this was a pretty early book as gaming books go, and I think may have actually coined terms like "Rules Lawyer."  The discussion isn't grounded in sophistry regarding narrativist vs. gamist philosophy, but rather practical things like "what do you do when a player doesn't show up" or "how to handle romance stories in a game."  In the pre-internet era he tackles issues like between-game player activity.  It's a brass-tacks-and-beer-bottles approach to supporting fledgling gamemasters that I think we could all use a little bit more of.

Second, he chronicles the entire campaign.  Keep in mind, this is several years (years!) of playing basically one campaign.  Or rather, multiple campaigns in a single world, since one of the things you read about is the way they cycled in other gamemasters, etc.  The text alternates between the plot narrative and italicized notes from the real world activity. For example, it might say "Red Archer was placed in suspended animation in a magical block of amber," while the italicized portion would talk about how the player had been deployed overseas in the military, and this was a way of removing the PC from play.

Now running a multi-year campaign has been a sort of Holy Grail for me.  My current campaign is about at the two-year mark, and while feeling a bit of the strain that Allston felt, I'm taking his advice: stop running the game and take some time off.  There's actually a one-year gap in play, after which the campaign returned in high gear.  But you also see Allston's self-admitted mistakes and mis-steps, his learning process and his evolution.  And he does so in a fascinating, humorous, and self-depreciating manner.

When I think about what I might be able to contribute to the hobby, what I might aspire to in terms of blogging, this book sets the standard. I still regularly break it out and read it, just to be reminded of the wisdom inside.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Welcome Robot Readers

There's nothing so disheartening as discovering that over a quarter of the traffic on this site is a result of "back-link" spammers: robots that will continually hit a website in hopes that, I, the website's administrator will click on the source link and I don't know, buy something or watch pornography or whatever the spammers hope I'll do.

I get that this blog is the least popular of my blogs: my zombie blog is right now dominating readership over the others, mostly because it has the most interesting content, not to mention zombies; and my wargaming blog has a more followers on the whole, but has been mightily neglected of late as I dial down some of my miniature painting.

I think also that coming up with compelling RPG-related content is difficult.  Most RPG-related blogs that I enjoy reading tend to talk about issues that I face as a GM, have helpful suggestions about neat things to add to a campaign, or just have pictures that fire up my imagination.  I'll also freely admit that I'm in the process of trying to find a way for me to find my campaign interesting and engaging while at the same time consider what I might want to do if and/or when I switch over.

But until then, Russian spambots, you're welcome to read this a few dozen times.  Everyone else too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What's up with Cyberpunk 2020

Okay, so apparently Mike Pondsmith, the brains behind R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk RPG and its sequel, Cyberpunk 2020, has signed on to work on a new videogame project called Cyberpunk 2077.  This co-incided with my reading the excellent Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk genre novel by Richard K. Morgan.

So, I say to myself, I should see if I remember if my Cyberpunk 2020 books survived the Great Gaming Purge of 2010 (I'll talk about that another day, but over 100 books were involved).  I hadn't seen them when I was organizing the shelves, so I decided to take a quick glance at Amazon to see what it would take to buy a used copy.

What the hell?  For those of you who don't like clicking links, the cheapest Cyberpunk 2020 main rulebook on Amazon costs $995.00.  Now, that's not to say anyone is buying that rulebook at that price, merely that some person thinks they can sell it at that price.  It actually goes up all the way to $1,500, by the way.

So, I comb my shelves and find that in fact I had not thrown out the main rulebook, but may have thrown out all the sourcebooks.  I could understand this; in my opinion the supplements ruined Cyberpunk 2020 by continually cranking up the "stuff" element of the game.  As Pondsmith says in the Youtube video linked above, the cyberpunk genre is about the interfacing of humanity and machine, but it is ultimately about the humanity.  Full conversion cyborgs and guns, guns, and more guns (the general content of most of the "Chromebooks" and "Solo of Fortune" supplements) didn't make the game better, but worse.

What I can't figure out is why people are craving this game so badly.  I like the game, and I'm a little sentimental about the game (it being the medium for some of my favorite in-game moments as a player), but there's a bazillion other cyberpunk genre games out there.  Savage Worlds has even done one, and now that it is no longer 1990 you could actually have a game that incorporated some of the actual horrors that have occurred that were only speculated about then.  Not to mention the fact that Pondsmith way underestimated hand-held telecommunication devices (the whole "wifi" thing seems to have never dawned on him, since you have to physically plug a computer into something to access the internet in Cyberpunk 2020).

Maybe it is because we're now in the years of the first edition of the game, and have that sense that the game is now realized but not as we thought.  We've got Citizens United and people constantly accessing the internet (even at a funeral reception I saw two weekends ago), but no cyborg limbs with guns or IR eyes.

Maybe it was because it had some fairly innovative ideas for its time, including the notion of having PC's command resources as a quantifiable ability (nomad gangs, police authority) that could compare with straight-up combat abilities or netrunning.  That evoked more in the way of co-operative roleplaying than a lot of games were offering at the time.  It was also one of the first really adult games--it openly talked about sex and drugs and other mature themes in a time when it was still pre-World of Darkness.

Regardless, I'm glad I spent some time hunting through my stacks and finding it.  It had random character lifepaths, scantily-clad women, and of course guns.  Apparently it also has some sort of lightning in a bottle for fans, as well.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

RPG Review: Primeval

My first exposure to the British television show Primeval actually came through my annual mini-convention EOW.  One of the GM ran a pseudo-Primeval adventure using EOW's homegrown system, then afterwards told us that he had gotten most of the plot from this tv series that was on at the time (it ran from 2007-2011).  I spotted Primeval recently on Netflix and was reminded of the EOW experience, and almost immediately afterwards spotted the Primeval RPG.  Since I was watching the series with my kids and they've been hassling me to run some kind of game for them, I spent the Amazon gift card my secretary gave me for my birthday (yes, I'm so well liked my staff gives me Christmas bonuses) on this game.

First, a word about the series.  Portals in time start opening up all over Great Britain (and I'm assuming the world, but there's little indication of this initially).  A paleontology professor, his assistant, and some young students get caught up locating and returning the prehistoric creatures now roaming the countryside.  What starts off as a cool semi-educational and fun concept unfortunately gets re-directed first into a X-Filesesque government conspiracy plot, then more towards an Action Man monster shoot-em-up.  The first season (which we all loved) got almost completely re-tooled in season two, and then there was massive cast changes around the start of season three.  After the third season the show was cancelled, then restarted for seasons four and five with again major cast changes.  Since that time there's also a Canadian spin-off, Primeval: New World.

The RPG focuses entirely on the first three seasons, which is fine with me.  Like many licensed products you have a pretty straightforward game system and a lot of series-related information.  It is the same system as the Doctor Who RPG, which isn't that surprising given the similarities between the two series.  Mechanics-wise, you have six Abilties: Awareness, Coordination, Ingenuity, Presence, Resolve, and Strength.  There's no straight "Intelligence" stat, because they want to create some distinction between innate cunning and education, which is reflected in skills.  There are 13 skills, further broken down by specialties.  In addition there are advantages and disadvantages that come into play either through direct effect to rolls or storyline.  The Abilities go from 1 to 6 (for humans), the skills have a slightly higher range, but roughly the same.  Roll 2d6, add the appropriate Ability and/or Skill and/or Second Ability, modify and try to hit a target number.  Pretty much the same mechanic as a lot of other games out there, and nothing too innovative or difficult.

Primeval, the RPG gives as its base campaign concept the notion that the PC work for the ARC, the secret British goverment organization introduced in Season 2, but also puts forward alternative campaign structures, for example the PC work for a private institution or are just novice monster hunters.  They even suggest some wacky alternatives like the PC's are displaced time travelers themselves stuck in the modern era.  My own kids came up with their own campaign concept: they are the cast of a Bigfoot-hunting reality television show who accidentally encounter a prehistoric creature from one of the time-warp anomalies instead.  My son wanted to play the scientist/tech guy (Connor, from the series) while my daughter wanted to play the rugged nature survivalist (Stephen).  The RPG, like the series writers, realized that the monster-of-the-week format would probably run a little dry quickly, so there is a whole section in the game regarding developing villains and conspiracies, and frankly this is where the RPG shines in terms of content and rules.

Like the show, the RPG reeks of light-hearted fun and would make a good beer-and-pretzels RPG for an adult group, or a great starter RPG for a younger audience.  As evidenced by the source material, you can take the concept in a lot of different directions, even in the midst of a single campaign.

Cost-wise, it retails for $40 for 256 pages.  The text is large and graphics-heavy, making the book seem a little light-weight for the cost--my biggest gripe overall.  I admittedly got it not at my FLGS, which didn't carry the game, but at Amazon for a pretty high discount, so that's ameliorated for me.

If you're looking for a fun, sci-fi game with dinosaurs, go pick it up.  If you want a good starter game for kids, this is a good option.  If you just want the rules for a whole different campaign, and you already own the RPG's for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Serenity (like I do) you can just save your money.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Playing Iron Kingdoms

My gaming group took the rare opportunity to bust out a different game than our usual 4E D&D last Friday. We were short three players, so we brought in a substitute to get the group up to four and then the alt-GM of the group ran Iron Kingdoms, the WarMachine-genre RPG from Privateer Press.

I will admit up front, I neither own nor have read the rules.  The GM presented us with pre-generated PC's from a Privateer Press publication (try saying that five times fast) which included annotations on abilities, PC background, and some fundamental tactics.  While the character sheet was two pages (or one page front-and-back), the background info was another two pages.  I will say that the character sheet had a lot of white-space in it, not to mention lots of room for additional equipment, etc. that wouldn't be used in a one-shot.  That's my long way of saying that IK characters are not burdened with the six pages of information we are used to dealing with for 4E D&D, but still have more bells and whistles than some games.

Given that none of us were that familiar with the game, it still proved fairly easy to pick up.  Unlike 4E, which has loads of powers to chose from, what IK tends to have are just a couple of attack options which can then be tweaked, much like Pathfinder: a little bonus to hit, a little bonus to damage, etc.  IK is basically a modification of a miniatures game, so miniature-based combat shouldn't come as a surprise.  It also uses movement and combat ranges as "squares" like 4E, which while not my favorite gaming convention make it an easy adjustment for the group.

For those who aren't familiar with WarMachine or the whole Privateer Press gaming universe, Iron Kingdoms is basically steampunk fantasy: goblins and elves and spells side-by-side with guns, locomotives, and coal-powered giant robots with magic brains.  Gear, especially weapons, play a pretty heavy role in the game, but you are less likely to see "plus whatever" swords as much as big guns with short ranges or hand-thrown bombs.

There are several countries that make up the factions of the wargame, but it feels to me that the focus is on the rather generic human-based kingdom of Cygnar rather than the other two human kingdoms or the non-human lands.  The pre-generated PC group was a small up-and-coming mercenary unit, which seems a likely and rather practical group concept for the game; it explains a fairly diverse group of people being together and GM's can at least at the beginning be fairly controlling in terms of plot, i.e. the mercenary contracts.

Combat was again fairly similar to 4E and other games: initiative roll followed by an attack roll (2d6) modified by a fairly static number is compared to a target defense number.  Combat was fairly quick, rather than a long, drawn out affair.  I don't know if it is either the genre or the system or just that adventure, but there is more non-combat activity to the game than 4E, with a greater focus on investigation and roleplaying.

Okay, what did I like best?  While possessing a lot of both diversity and utility in terms of group dynamics, there isn't one role that is essentially more enjoyable than the others.  I contrasting this with 4E, where being Striker is the role that it seems to me most people want to play.  If you're in a combat-centric game, being the guy who actually kills things is a lot more fun than, say, the person who just stands there and gets hit a lot.  in IK most of the pre-gen characters seemed roughly comparable in combat, with the differences in abilities more subtle, but everyone still had unique abilities that could come into play both inside and outside combat. I think my son, who is stuck being the Defender in 4E most of the time, didn't mind being the Troll Fellcaller rather than the Alchemist in IK.

What didn't I like?  Well, for someone who might be really ready for something radically different than 4E, this wasn't it.  It's a shift in terms of gameplay, but it isn't a big shift.  That made it easy to sell to a group of people who only know Fourth Edition, but if you're looking for a palate-cleanser, IK won't do it.  I'm also a little troubled by the Vorpal-sword like abilities of knockout-generating powers, which my PC had but I never managed to roll high enough to use.  Not having a copy of the rules in front of me, I could see some people cranking their PC builds to insure that they get the KO as often as possible.

Then there's the price tag. It's a big, beautiful book, which nowadays means $60 for that kind of RPG.  It's is overflowing with full-color illustration, and the rules are completely self-contained.  Ironically, it reminds me a bit of Fantasy Flight's Games Workshop-licensed RPG's in terms of layout and cost.  It makes me wonder if this is an effective pricing model.  For a gaming group of six, that would mean a total layout of $360 for everyone to have a book.  For our group, it'd probably be closer to $240, since my son and I could share, as could the husband/wife couple.  I doubt strongly everyone in the group would shell out for a $60 book, however.  I think it more likely there would be one copy (the GM's) and we'd all just muddle through.  Compare that with the notion of a $30 core rulebook for players and a second $30 rulebook with detailed background information, equipment, and NPC's for the GM.  You'd get everyone to buy that book, and have one copy of the second.  That's $60 in scenario A, $210 (6*$30+1*30) in scenario B.  Even if only four copies of the player's book sold, you're still on top.  I'd love some time to here the argument for this, and I'm assuming there is one, and that it is a solid one, since it seems to be happening often.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A First Look at Blade Raiders (still in Beta)

I was part of the Blade Raiders Kickstarter, and thus got my "first 75 pages" preview of the game, which contains the rules for character creation, combat, and magic.  I think I'll hold off on a detailed review of the game until the final product comes out, but I wanted to touch on a couple of quick rules mechanics that caught my eye.

First, there are no stats.  None. There's four background options, from which you pick three.  You then pick three talents, which represent broad abilities and skills (e.g. "fighter" or "water magic") and then there are specific skills that are developed through play.  Use your sword often enough, you'll get points in that skill.

This is an interesting aspect of the game, because what tends to be reflected in stats ends up reflected in talents.  For example, rather than have a high Charisma or Dexterity, you have the "Charmer"  or "Quick" talent instead.  But these same types of qualities share the same roster as magical spell schools or some skill-based notions like "Blacksmith" (which is a big deal, as you will see below).  I read Noism's comments regarding the use of stats in games, and immediately reflected on this game which has no mechanism for a discrete description of physical, mental, and social attributes.

The other aspect of game mechanics I found intriguing had to do with how they handle armor.  In most games, armor either reduces damage by a certain number of points (ala Champions) or reduces it completely (ala D&D).  In Blade Raiders armor is instead another pool of hit points from which the player can affect damage either in addition to or in lieu of the personal hit points of the PC.  For example, a PC hit with 6 points of damage can take 3 points to his armor, and another 3 points personally.  The 3 points taken off the armor are gone until the armor is replaced or repairs by a blacksmith (hence their value as a PC option), which personal hit points are healed by nature or magic.  This is a bit of tactical wrinkle.  Are you likely to be able to affect repairs easily by either being close to an NPC blacksmith or having one in the party, or are you more likely to be reliant on natural and magical healing?  You decide.

There's some other interesting tweaks in the game like only being able to play humans, every PC can access magic as a character build option, etc. but I will save that for my more detailed review.

24th Villain of Christmas(ish): Interface

Interface (Erin Ghata)

Solo d8
Buddy d6
Team d4

Half Cyborg
Wronged by the World
Mad (in both uses of the word) Scientist

Power Sets

Superhuman Strength d10
Superhuman Durability d10
Enhanced Stamina d8
Optic Laser Blast d10
Machine Control d8
SFX: Multipower
Limit: Human half.  When the "Half Cyborg" option is taken as a d4, shut down CYBORG HALF BODY powers for that action and either add a d8 or step up a Doom Pool die two steps instead.

Combat Expert
Science Master
Tech Master

History and Powers
Erin Ghata was a brilliant scientist and inventor working at BioTech Laboratories when the facility was attacked by the villain Technophage.  The armored hero Genesis Knight intervened, but during the battle an experiment Ghata had been working on exploded, severely damaging the left half of her body.  Ghata's fellow scientists were able to save her only by replacing her limbs, organs, and the left half of her face with robotic implants.  Ghata was horrified by the transformaton, and blamed BioTech Laboratories, Genesis Knight, and Technophage for her condition.  She used her cyborg body to quickly amass wealth in a string of robberies, then upgraded her cybord implants farther using a secret lab funded by her ill-gotten gains.

After enacting revenge upon Technophage, Interface (as Ghata now called herself) clashed with Genesis Knight on several occasions until his death.  Interface still continues to seek more power and wealth through both her formidable intellect and mechanical abilities.

Interface wears a green coverall over her body, leaving her left arm exposed.

23rd Villain of Christmas(ish): Hunter's Moon

I've told myself: no other blogging until this gets done!

Hunter's Moon (Unknown)

Solo: d8
Buddy: d4
Team: d6

Searching for a challenge
Woman of Mystery
Martial Arts Master

Power Sets

Enhanced Reflexes d8
Enhanced Stamina d8
SFX: Multiattack, as MHR

Weapon d8
SFX: Lethal precision.  Step back the highest die in your attack action pool to add a d6 and step up physical stress inflicted.
Limit: Gear, as MHR  

Acrobatics Expert
Combat Master
Covert Master
Crime Expert
Menace Expert
Psych Expert

Powers and History

Little is known about the Asian woman calling herself "Hunter's Moon," except what she has occasionally revealed to her opponents during combat.  She claims to have been trained in the martial arts by a secret sect of warrior monks, and is now traveling the world looking for suitable opponents against which to try her skill.  She has sought out both heroes and villains, and has gained the enmity of both, including Raven and Brawl.

But about a year ago Hunter's Moon was sought out by Codex to join the Dead Man's Hand, a group dedicated to killing the worst supervillains.  Promised the chance to pose her skill against some of the deadliest beings on the planey, Hunter's Moon agreed, and became Codex's teammate and covert action specialist.  The two have worked steadily together since.

Hunter's Moon's costume consists of a light blue bodysuit with yellow trim.  She carries a crossed pair of swords upon her back.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

22nd Villain of Christmas: Keraptis the Dragon

Well, Christmas came up and took up most of my time.  But I thought I'd try to get back on the wagon and finish this out, even if it is a little late.  

Keraptis the Dragon

Solo d10
Buddy d8
Team d6

Mythic Beast
Ancient Evil
Aspiring to Godhood

Power Sets

Godlike Strength d12
Godlike Durability d12
Superhuman Stamina d10
Subsonic Flight d8
Fiery Blast d10
Mental Defense d8
SFX: Claws, as MHR
SFX: Multiattack, as MHR
SFX: Invulnerability, as MHR

Menace Master
Mystic Expert
Psych Expert

History and Powers:
Keraptis is an creature from another age, one far removed from human's remembering.  When magic returned to Earth in force, Keraptis returned as well.  The great dragon has attempted to take over the world on several occasions, but now finds itself  pitted against beings nearly as powerful as itself.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Things I do to be a better GM: Interesting NPC's

Barking Alien once mentioned on his blog that he created something like 300 NPC's to serve as a crew for his FASA Star Trek RPG campaign.  My first thought was, "does this man even have a life?"  But while that question remains unanswered, the second was, "how on earth could you do that?"

Then it hit me, and I've been trying out the solution ever since.  Here's how it works:

First, find some friend of yours who is really into Facebook.  I'm talking about the one that has 800+ friends on Facebook.  You might also want to look for the friend who has lots of friends from around the globe--that's always helpful.

Then, you just cruise their "friends" list picking out the names of interesting looking people with unusual sounding names.  Check their profile; a lot of times they will list where they are from, what kinds of things they are into, etc.

In the name of being not a total creeper, you may want to mix and match a bit.  But here's an example:

Billie Rain
From: Seattle Washington
Occupation: social-conscious media creator, part time burlesque dancer
Languages: English, French-creole, and Arabic
Description: Multi-racial woman with dyed red hair.  Colorful attire.
Storyline: Billie was dancing at a local club when she noticed a local political leader meeting with an lesser-known person reputed to be involved in human trafficking (Billie knows about this through her website).  She approaches the PC's, asking for help in uncovering the connection.  Plot complications: Billie will continue to dance at the club in an attempt to learn more about the two's plans, but will eventually be recognized by the trafficker and will be grabbed outside the club.  The PC's may have to rescue her before she is shipped overseas.

Austin Tinsley
From: Belton, Missouri
Occupation: Technical Animator at movie studio
Languages: English and Old English
Description: Slightly overweight, brown hair, glasses, unshaven
Hobbies: Renaissance Festivals, Bar Trivia nights
Storyline: Austin is trying to develop a new interactive game and wants to know if the PC's would be interested in being "live action models."  This would involve them wearing special suits under their clothing that would monitor their actions as they move about.  Of course, in order for it to really work, the PC's would have to do something exciting, while not getting into too much trouble at the same time.  Theoretically the PC's could engage in some parkour, paint-balling, etc.  Complication: the information is later used by a programmer at the same studio to set up the PC's for a real crime, using the computer model of their actions spliced into video footage from surveillance cameras.

See?  I got the name, physical description, the job, and the languages spoken from four different friends of the same person.  Since my gaming group will likely never encounter the person from the physical description, I could even snatch the photo off Facebook or draw a version of it myself.

I find it interesting that I went with near-future Cyberpunk stories for each of them, probably because it is easier to port modern people into that genre than, say, fantasy.  But you could easily tweak it to make them far-future, superhero, etc.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Things I do to be a better GM, Part 2: Voices

This is a little bit of add-on to my previous practice of reading more books, but I do listen to a lot of books on CD.  I do this while traveling in my car for great distances or when I'm just hanging around the house painting miniatures.

This isn't just a good way to multi-task the whole book-reading thing, but I also pay close attention to the narrator, especially the really good ones.  A few years ago my gaming group at the time pointed out to me in a not-so-subtle way that all my NPC's tended to have the same voice: I'd squint up one eye and start talking vaguely like a pirate.

Apparently every NPC in my games
Doing voices isn't easy, especially when you need to do a lot of them in the same campaign.  Narrators of books on tape often have to manage a whole cast of characters, male and female, young and old.  I try to listen to hear how the narrator, often a man, adopts different accents, tones, and speech patterns to distinguish people within even a single conversation.  Like I said, some are better than this that others, but sometimes I try to file away in my own mind the way they did it.

Again, this isn't ground-breaking innovation like some clever new way to do NPC write-ups, just some small ways I try to do things better.  Hope it helps.

Things I do to help be a better GM, part one

Noisms came up with the idea, and others are following suite, of  talking not specifically about how you could be as good a GM as I am, but rather about what I do to help myself do a better job running games.  I think this is a subtle but important concept: I'm a good GM, and maybe a great GM, but I'm not some Epic Level GM where people would pay good money to sit at my table.  I also continually try to be better.  So I think there is some value in talking about what I do to try to improve the craft, that subtle combination of art and science, that is running a roleplaying game.

And here's my first, very simple thing I do to try to make myself a better GM: Read More Books.

A few years ago a friend of mine began giving to me for my birthday a stack of books to read.  These are not books I would ever pick up for myself, because honestly I don't read a lot of books.  Or rather I didn't, and what I read tended to be a very narrow corridor of tried-and-true, fairly predictable authors.  Thankfully I didn't just let these books sit on the shelves, but have been reading them each year.

You may think that the best benefit of reading lots of books is being able to rip off the plot, but this is actually the least beneficial aspect of reading books, because book narratives and gaming narratives don't match up well.  I had a friend who loved book-style plotlines and was forever frustrated when players didn't emulate the genre in the way he wanted.  He should have just written his own books, and I told him so.

No, the thing that you can glean from books is little nuggets of treasure to file away for later.  For example, I read Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murukami a couple of years ago.  It's not a story that would make its way into any gaming adventure, really.  But in the opening chapter there is a description of a location called the Dolphin Hotel that is brilliant.  And I promptly copied the description down and used the Dolphin Hotel showed up in a later game.

Characters, locations, little clever turns of phrases or even the odd plot point or two can enrich your own creativity when it comes to gaming.  And it doesn't hurt to move out of your comfort zone.  If all you read are  Douglas Child and Lincoln Preston books, then all you are going to get is the same sort of fare (although some of them aren't bad at all).

More to come!  Comments welcome!

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