July 2009


MapTool Screenshot - After Final Battle with Dragon

MapTool Screenshot - After Final Battle with Dragon

Leaves are falling all around, it’s time I was on my way.

Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay.

But now its time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way.

For now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and its headed my way.

– “Ramble On”, Led Zeppelin

I’m an older gamer. Old enough so that when I originally said gamer people figured it was either RPG-ing or wargaming, not video games. I’m starting to creep up towards 40 years of age. My first gaming group was in the Howard Whitmore library in Naugatuck, CT. I was in middle school. I’d gotten the D&D game but I had no one to play with. So I had a signup for a gaming group. My first group was made up of total strangers. But many of those strangers went on to become friends throughout middle and high school – one I’ve recently re-encountered on Facebook.

As the years passed my life changed. Gaming in middle and high school was easy. I managed to play in the occasional game back in college. But after college life changed. I got married, I moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts. Through friends of friends I managed to first join a gaming group then form my own new group, made primarily of people in their late 20s and early 30s. But the real world intruded on this group too. People moved away, got married, had kids. Eventually the group diminished to near nothingness.

Deciding I still liked this gaming think, I went full circle and posted online openings for new players. Much to my surprise this worked out well. This new group has had some turnover. One of the players, oddly enough, moved to Connecticut. But he wanted to keep gaming with us. All of us in the group being techies we managed a simple system – Yahoo! Messenger with voice, webcam over the battlemat. This arrangement worked for a while but there were some issues – it was awfully hard for him remotely to keep up with things – especially as the miniature figures went dancing all over the table. It got even more problematic as we began playing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. D&D 4e is a very tactical game. Where you are and how you move matters a great deal. Some people hate this sort of gaming. I have to confess I thought I would as well, but we tend to have a blast with it. This isn’t to say I sometimes have an itch for a less tactical game – like AD&D or Wild Talents.

As it became more and more frustrating, we decided we’d look for a better solution. We looked into a bunch of online applications designed to share a map across multiple computers. Adding to the complexity is the fact that yours truly is primarily a Mac user (at least at home – at work I use a bunch of platforms – PC, Solaris, Linux, etc.) In the end we decided on the application called MapTool (which is a part of the RPTools suite). The RPTools website can be found at http://www.rptools.net/. MapTool had a number of factors in its favor:

  • It was a Java app which made it platform independent.
  • It allowed one computer to host and the others to connect to it (i.e. no need to depend on a corporate or volunteer server).
  • It didn’t care what sort of game you played (while it is obviously geared towards D&D 3.x any game  would work with it)
  • It doesn’t care what sort of map you use – you import an image file of it, set the scale, and you are good.
  • Counter/token creation is simple (using their Tokentool Java app).
  • There is an easy way to hide/reveal portions of the map as the GM.
  • It’s free.

I first did some experimenting on my MacBook Pro. The app had to be started from a Mac Terminal – a lot like a Windows Command Window or an xterm. The package I had installed had a Mac startup script. I ran into some problems with it. Being a software engineer it was easy to find the problem – Unix and Windows tend to use different mechanisms to terminate lines and it looked like the startup script had Windowisms that was confusing the Unix terminal (each line was terminated with a ctrl-M character). I used a script to parse the file and strip those ctrl-Ms. Then I was able to run easily.

In the adventure we are currently playing I’d creating a map using Profantasy’s Campaign Cartographer 3. I opened this map up on my Mac (it’s a PC-only app so I was using VMware’s Fusion app for a virtual machine – my employer EMC owns a majority stake in VMware so there’s some employee loyalty there – plus it’s a very good product, at least in my opinion). I saved the map as a JPEG file. I then imported it into MapTool. That proved to be easy as was scaling the map properly. I did a little bit of tinkering to determine the optimal detail the image file needed.

I did a little more tinkering to expose my MapTool app to the internet – really just a matter of enabling port forwarding on my router for one speecific  port. The rptools website has lots of tutorials, both for config and use, which made this easy and MapTool had a utility to test to see if the computer could be reached from the outside.

On the night of our first session using  the tool, we had a little bit of a surprise – one of the regulars was sick and couldn’t make it –  but wanted to try out the remote service as well. That meant we’d have two remote people and at my house there’d be me and two more. We tried Yahoo! Messenger conference call with voice but the sound quality was unacceptable. One of the remote players suggested an internet voice/video app called ooVoo. That worked like a dream. We had a three-way video and audio conference up in no time and the quality was excellent.

We then fired up MapTool. I had my Mac function as the server. The two remote players connected. Also, one of the local players had brought a laptop so that he and the other physical player could see a player version of the map. Getting the session started was incredibly easy. I’d say the first half hour was very awkward as we got a feel for the application. But after that we were all competent enough to use it. I wasn’t using any super-advanced features – i.e.. no light sources, individual vision for each session, etc. I did use the “Fog of War” tool to hide sections of the map from the players until they reached them. And I did use an initiative tool to keep track of initiative – that was a dream, since as a DM I sometimes forget to have monsters act… I have to say we had a blast. It worked well at the house, the remote players felt fully engaged and part of the session. The player who is usually remote really got to enjoy the game in a way he hadn’t since he lived locally. Everyone saw the same board and had the same controls.

There were a few things I’d note:

  • We all found it a little awkward that to scroll the map you dragged it by right-clicking. We’ll probably get used to it.
  • I really would have liked to have had an LCD projector at my house for the people who were local. We’ve talked about getting a cheap monitor to hook-up to a local player’s notebook, but locally using notebooks worked fine.
  • Everyone needs to be running the same version of MapTool.
  • It may have been a good night on the internet or something, but latency was no problem for any of us. There was no noticable delay. All the more impressive considering the streaming audio and video.

If you’re in a situation like my group is in, with some or all of the players remote, RPTools has  an excellent suite to simulate the tabletop experience. I strongly endorse it.

Leaves are falling all around,
Its time I was on my way.
Thanks to you, Im much obliged
For such a pleasant stay.But now its time for me to go,
The autumn moon lights my way.
For now I smell the rain,
And with it pain,
And its headed my way.
Ah, sometimes I grow so tired,
But I know Ive got one thing I got to do,

Ramble on,
And nows the time, the time is now
To sing my song.
Im goin round the world,
I got to find my girl, on my way.
Ive been this way ten years to the day, ramble on,
Gotta find the queen of all my dreams.

Several years ago my gaming group was playing a D&D game set in Eberron. I was planning on introducing a recurring villain at the end of the adventure, assuming he survived the encounter.

In the final encounter our brave heroes faced this evil necromancer. In a gravelly voice he identified himself as the source of their doom. “I am.. Ahhz Liqor!”

Pause.

One of the players looks at me and says “did he just say his name was ‘ass-licker’?”

Needless to say from that point forward I learned that it was important to say all NPC names out loud.

Ahhz Liqor is still legendary in my gaming group, years later, though oddly enough that was his only appearance…

Allan Quartermain

Allan Quartermain

In my previous post I had mentioned the possibilities of superheroes in the 1930s. I shared the posting with my group – immediately illiciting horror from my brother (who is in the group) with the message STOP CHANGING GAMES!!! Perhaps you know other GMs with short-attention spans… Be that as it may, rest assured guys I’m still pumped for our D&D 4e/Eberron game – I even splurged for shipping on the new Eberron book due out tomorrow. This is one of my outlets to explore such ideas without inflicting each of them on my group.

Some of the comments from my group were quite interesting. A player who had a modern age Wild Talents character with time control focus indicated he was rather fond of his current character – which really opened intriguing possibilities. Indeed other characters could be revisited as antecedents of their more modern characters. And more than one player noted the possibilities of being on the edge of World War II – especially interesting for a time traveler commited to preserving the timeline. Another player mentioned the possibility of making an Alan Quartermain-like character, albeit a while too late. That got me thinking of Quartermain. I’d never read the novels featuring him, but I knew the basics and knew he was a character in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I’d seen enough of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film to know it was not my ideal kind of film – but I’d never read the graphic novels. I snagged the first volume and was immersed into the world of the League. A motley assortment of fictional characters of the Victorian Age came for a visit – the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Mina Murray, Allan Quartermain, Professor Moriarty, etc. It had never occurred to me just how many “superheroes” existed in the Victorian Age until I read this work.

So what sort of a campaign would we be looking at, hypothetically? Well, to begin with I think we are looking at “superheroes” who are not extremely super. In modern comics, think of someone like Daredevil, Golden Age Sandman, Batman, etc. People who are above and beyond the common man, but not going to destroy continents or fly through space. Some characters have no real superpowers at all but are incredibly intelligent, masters of martial arts, gadget masters, etc. Alan Moore presented Captain Nemo in this manner, using Nautilus as the team’s mobile base and Nemo having a massive harpoon  gun to repel borders.

So these characters have advantages over “normal” men, but not much of one. I picture superpowers being available but they are limited superpowers. A character can be a successful adventurer without them – just like Batman is in modern comics. Here’s some sample ideas that come to mind, some pulled straight from period tales:

  • Super-strength, obtained from a potion bringing out the dark side of the persona.
  • Precognitive powers, but difficult to translate from the myriad of possible futures. However does make it easy to avoid getting hurt in a fight.
  • Flight from a special lighter than air metal – not incredibly fast flight mind you…
  • A ritualist magician member of the Golden Dawn.
  • A native studying forbidden lore of his people to fight the Imperialists.
  • An extremely competent adventurer with a big gun.
  • A cocaine-using consulting detective.
  • A monster hunter. No special powers per se, but a ton of handy knowledge and variety of tools for use against monsters.

I rather like the idea of using the Wild Talents engine. Though I’m planning on dialing back the “super” part of powers – I view these characters as having access to something that makes them special, whether it be training, research, dark secrets, etc. This seems less an era where a radioactive spider will bite a hero as one where a “mad” scientist researches into the nature of spiders to gain those powers – only to have it not quite work out.

Why adventure in this period? What about the idea of the 1930s? Well either will work to be honest. A lot of it has to do with feel. But especially appealing about dialing back even further is the even greater limits placed on technology. While the telephone existed, it was even more primitive than it was in the 1930s. Radio is still in the extreme experimental stages. There is a cheerful Imperialism in this era, something I certainly do not approve of (Leopold’s Congo just leaps to mind as a brutal example of this) but someing that makes for excellent adventuring opportunity. Depending on how scientifically accurate one wants to be there can be ships in the ether or invasion of Martian tripods. Characters can go exploring in unknown lands, seek out Shangri La, go under the sea, visit the deserts of Mars and jungles of Venus (which will have, of course, dinosaurs). One advantage of the late Victorian/early Edwardian period is much of the well known European fiction has occurred, giving a wide menagerie of foes and adventures to mine. Also it makes the oncoming Great War something to keep in mind.

If we do go into this era, there are a variety of gaming sources to mine. The obvious ones are:

  • Castle Falkenstein,  published by R. Talsorian games. A physically gorgeous game, it takes place in an alternate Victorian Age where fictional characters interact with their creators. Dwarves, dragons, and faerie (not the Disney kind) are part of society. Great steam devices have been created. Adventure is dialed up to 11. The rules system is quite different from most other games, being card based and descriptive. It foreshadowed game engines such as FATE and PDQ. To be honest, if I were to go for a non-Wild Talents game this would be it. And for some reason there is an inland sea over much of Belgium. I guess this is good news for the Congo…
  • Space: 1889, originally published by the late Game Designers Workshop. The license reverted to its creator Frank Chadwick. Heliograph is reprinting the original game and Pinnacle Entertainment Group will be producing a Savage Worlds adaptation. Space: 1889 is less wahoo than Castle Falkenstein, positing the existence of ether that allows interplanetary space travel to the jungles of Venus and deserts of Mars.  The Great Game of Empires takes place across the solar system as well as on the continents of the Earth. I can definitely see interplanetary journeys in my game, though I’m not sure I’d keep the ether.
  • GURPS: Steampunk. While my group isn’t too fond of GURPS, this is a first rate sourcebook just begging to be exploited.
  • Savage Worlds: Rippers. This is a Savage Worlds game which cheerfully makes use of ideas from the movie Van Helsing. Even if I were not to use the Savage Worlds game engine (which I think would work well should I choose to dial back the superpowers a bit) there is a lot from this game to borrow.
  • Victoriana. I’m still working my way through a pdf of this game. It takes place far earlier than I plan on running a game, but it is all nice and moody and atmospheric. If I had more time for gaming – and it paid an awesome salary…

As far as literary and other inspirations, the possibilities are quite wide.

  • The works of Jules Verne. Verne had an amazing imagination. Captain Nemo is the perfect anti-hero – reminds me in many ways of Marvel’s Sub-Mariner. My more “serious” blog just discussed him in the post Jules Verne: Good Parts Version, with an emphasis towards the better translations.
  • War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. At some point a team has to stop an alien invasion.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore. Of course this work must be referenced as a prime inspiration.
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson. A classic story of science gone wrong, useful for both insipiration of a hero (the Hulk?) of a villain. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells would work in a similar manner.
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker. One of my favorite novels, the opening scenes are incredibly moody and atmospheric and the brides of Dracula creep me out.
  • The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman. A work of non-fiction, gives an excellent view of European society in the period between the Franco-Prussian Wars and World War I.
  • The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914, Philipp Blom. Another non-fiction work from the period.

So our 4e D&D game is going pretty well. The characters have all reached the point of leveling up, though there is one more big encounter in the dungeon they are currently in. I’m planning on continuing this game but as I’ve mentioned in the past I like churning my thoughts about campaign ideas. Sometimes they just serve as fun exercises, sometimes they can lead to actual campaigns. (For instance, I’d bet against me doing a Trek game in the near future).

The systems junkie of my gaming group mentioned that he absolutely loves the Wild Talents rules that we tried out for a few games back in the early spring time. Wild Talents is a superhero roleplayng game using the One Roll Engine (ORE). This system handles resolution by all participants in an action (whether social, mental, physical, etc.) by rolling their dice pools simultaneously. The results of these rolls determines everything to do with the action – how effective it was, how fast it was performed, etc. In combat you don’t roll for initiative or damage, these are all included in that roll. Superpowers are purchased based on effects, a bit like the Hero System, though nowhere near as complicated. Very few things are… (I say this as one fond of the Hero System).

ORE first appeared in the gritty World War II supers game called Godlike. It has since been exported to other genres such as the Calvin & Hobbes meets Call of Cthulhu game called Monsters and Other Childish Things. Wild Talents grew out of Godlike, basically serving as a generic supers rules set. Arc Dream, the manufacturer of Wild Talents, is producing several genre supplements for Wild Talents. Their first supplement, This Favored Land, takes the nontraditional approach of having supers in the American Civil War. It seemed an odd concept but I checked it out and it is spectacularly well done. The sourcebook just fills me with ideas for a Civil War era supers game.

That said, I’d probably be inclined to shy away from that period at this time but it did get my mind jogging on ideas for games set in other time periods beyond the modern day. And it also got me thinking a bit more about the structure of a superhero game. I think superhero campaigns often run into conventions of the superhero genre which run counter to  conventions of gaming. These include:

  • The fact that characters in superhero comics tends to be reactive. The baddies are up to some plot that is in progress when the came begins
  • The fact that almost all superheroes are motivated, for various reasons, to do good.

Compare these with the most popular RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. In it the characters do not react, rather they explore a sandbox, the dungeon. True it is a limited sandbox and the characters are often pushed or prodded to go on expeditions, but in many ways the PCs initiate the events. Also in D&D, the motivation to do good is not required. In mos groups I’ve DMed for or participated in as a player some of the characters are motivated by altruism, others motivated by profit, but they find reason to work together.

So how would I structure a new supers game with these concepts in mind?

First of all, I’d look to a different time period for setting. I don’t want a “D&D in tights” game but the idea of exploring the unknown appeals to me and seems difficult to capture in the modern world, with GPS, wireless internet, overnight shipping, etc. For more unknown one could look to the future (i.e. Legion of Superheroes) or the past. I lean toward the past – the past is known and therefore is available. It requires research, but I’m a history geek.

I lean towards the 1930s as a time period, though I’d also consider American Civil War era games or even Colonial America games. But I think the 1930s works well. First of all, it is the period in which the superhero began appearing in comic books. Though players might not care about that, it has a certain appeal to me. And more importantly from a player perspective, the world still seems to have its unknown corners. The wilds of Borneo, lost tombs in Egypt, ruins in South America, rumors of a hollow Earth. It is probably the last period where there seems to be unknown corners on the map. And as a time period it is an exciting time. The rise of Nazism. The Great Depression – something unfortunately easy for my group to relate to – of the five of us in the group, two of us are dealing with reduced salary or hours and two of us are currently unemployed.

How to allow the characters to be the initiators of action? I thought of the old Marvel comic Heroes For Hire. Mercenary supers. It seems like something that would likely happen. I’m not thinking so much rough and tumble mercs, but rather people who make their talents available for a price. And who might refuse the job should it interfere with their ethics. But this avoids the problem of the characters employed by the government or a benefactor – I’ve found groups tend to not be too fond of a chain of command in their gaming (as I discussed in my Star Trek musings). It provides the reason to go on adventures but puts things in the players’ hands. Now if the game is about finding a temple the “dungeon” may actually be an encounter map of ways to find the temple. And of course there would need to be super powered opposition, ranging from rivals (Avengers vs. Defenders battles of the 70s come to midn) to enemies (super-Nazis).

During this thought process I also wondered what sort of power level I’m thinking. I still want a supers game, not a pulp one. But it seems clear we are not talking characters with powers you’ll find in the Justice League or Avengers. We’re looking at characters with traditional Golden Age power levels – essentially human, but with one superpower or a narrow suite of powers. When Superman first started he was pretty limited – he was basically super-tough and that was about it. His toughness gave him protection, allowed him to leap, and made him strong. To be honest I find that power level for Superman more appealing than the modern Superman.

Despite a Golden Age power level, I would certainly go with modern sensibilities. I know my group well enough to know they really wouldn’t embrace the innocence of the original comics. This isn’t all that uncommon an approach. Consider modern comics that take place in the 30s through 50s – they often abandon conventions of the genre that existed at the time – Watchmen, New Frontier, Golden Age, etc.

In closing, I’ll throw off a few sources of inspiration:

  • It’s Superman, novel by Tom De Haven. Revisits Superman by telling a coming of age story for Clark Kent. Returns Superman to his 1930s origins. Very well told period tale. You have no doubt it takes place in the 1930s.
  • Mutants & Maserminds Golden Age Sourcebook. Though I plan on using Wild Talents, this provides a good overview of the Golden Age of comics.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, novel by Michael Chabon. A love letter to comic books, covers a pair of Jewish kids who create their own version of Superman. Starts in the 1930s, works its way to the 50s.