reviews


Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies

Blog posting for me has been beyond lethargic of late. What with the normal life of being a parent of two young kids added to some scary moments with my eldest daughter (corneal abrasion – nothing major as it turned out, but scary as hell with several days of her eye hurting too much to open) and my father-in-law having a stroke. Work has picked up a bit.

Beyond blog posting going way down, I began having trouble with my Wild Talents game. I like Wild Talents a lot and had been having fun. But it is a fairly crunchy game and the prep work was causing me problems – while not requiring as much work as D&D 3.x, it still has a decent level of crunch. And one thing I learned is it requires a decent amount of prep work to consider the right NPCs to challenge your heroes. With some regret I had to put the game on hiatus.

What was clear was I needed something with a lot less crunch. Something I could prep super-quickly – or even, heavens forbid, run on the fly. After some investigation, I narrowed it down to two options – Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (a game of swashbuckling adventure in a world of floating cloud islands and flying skyships) and Spirit of the Century (a pulp game). After some discussion with my group – and the discovery that one player was totally on board with the idea of sky pirates – we went with Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies.

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies uses a game engine called PDQ# – Prose Descriptive Qualities Sharp. The idea is your character is centered around fortes. A forte is basically anything you can use to solve problems. They can be careers, possessions, allies, desires, etc. It is a fairly rules-lite game, but unlike others I have experienced, it seems to have just enough structure so you are not making everything up. The game is also designed for characters, to frankly, kick ass. Your characters are supposed to be good at things. And they are heroes! Even if they are pirates… After all, the Dread Pirate Roberts of The Princess Bride turned out to be a pretty ok guy…

We had one session of making characters. To set the mood properly, we needed snacks with a pirate theme…

Arrr... Pirate Cupcakes

Daughter who Frosted Cupcakes for Daddy's Playgroup

So fortified, character generation went pretty well, with the crew of the Monkey Squid’s Musket ready for action. Last night was our first game. I had a rough idea for the game in the days leading up to it, but it wasn’t until the night before that I statted things. Or at least I intended to – I fell sound asleep after a busy day with the kiddies. So stats were made during lunch at work…

The game went well – it was a lot of fun – at least for me it was – and it seemed like the players enjoyed themselves…  Certainly some tweaking to work on and I was far from worried about every rule. One nice thing about the rules was it allows social activities to be rolled just like combat ones. I first encountered that in the Dying Earth RPG. As a result, the opening encounter, which I had assumed was going to be a slugfest with the savage Blue Men of the Jungle Sky, wound up involving a PC who played a character descended from these savages, a player who excels at making things go boom in most games, successfully convinced them to go away.

I’ve seen the setting slightly criticized – I seem to recall rpg.net conversations mentioning that while the setting is quite neat, more detail would be nice. As it turned out, the level of detail worked perfectly, especially in a game where players are encouraged to help shape it. One player ran a character who was extremely lucky – but as a side effect important people have a habit of dying in his presence – from incredibly odd accidents. The player has control over this, but the character does not! This character hailed from one of the major islands, Barathi, but was exiled/ran away (little unclear as to which…) when an important noble met an unfortunate accident. The adventure took them to Barathi, where they encountered a noble woman breaking from tradition and trying to escape an arranged marriage to the heir to the throne of Barathi (it also later turned out she was a sympathizer to rebels on a minor island ruled by the Barathi). When she mentioned the heir, Markiz Donaldo Vanadi, that player chimed in “well he’s actually the second heir – I was at a party with his older brother and he unfortunately fell from the balcony to his death…. But it wasn’t my fault!” The broad brushes of the setting fit perfectly for our group – prior to this game I never knew Donaldo had had an older brother (nor did I know the Blue Men would negotiate with their more civilized cousins…)

There’s a few things I’d work on in future sessions – certain players had a bit more to do than others – and I’ll want to study everyone’s character sheets a bit more to help facilitate this. But it is something I’ll definitely want to play some more.

===

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My current campaign, about to awaken from its Christmas hiatus, uses the Wild Talents role-playing game, published by Arc Dream Publishing. Wild Talents is built using ArcDream’s “One-Roll Engine” (ORE), much like how the d20 System is at the core of the newer versions of Dungeons & Dragons. ORE is used for a variety of games including Reign (fantasy role-playing with an emphasis on the characters becoming in charge of organizations), Godlike (gritty World War II super-humans), Wild Talents (more generic superhero gaming), A Dirty World (Noir role-playing), and Monsters and Other Childish Things (school kids with real monster buddies – Call of Cthulhu meets Calvin and Hobbes).

The various ORE games are customized to best suit the needs of the genre they are modeling. For example, Monsters and Other Childish Things uses a fairly simple version of the rules, without much detail when it comes to hit location in combat but a lot of emphasis on what motivates our little tykes. A Dirty World has pairs of opposing ability scores (like Purity vs. Corruption) such that as your character improves in one area he may diminish in others, much like how characters in Film Noir change throughout the course of a film, hitting rock bottom, pulling themselves back up, give into their vices, etc. These abilities don’t improve like in traditional RPGs but rather move throughout the course of a game. Godlike and Wild Talents default towards a gritty and deadly game, with hit locations and bullets that can down most heroes in a single shot to the head, though Wild Talents has genre emulation rules to handle less gritty settings such as a Silver Age inspired game.

ORE uses what in gaming terms is usually called “buckets of dice” – your abilities and/or skills are rated by how many dice you get to roll when your character wants to do something. However, unlike most games, this one roll is used for things like initiative, accuracy, damage, etc. – all at once. What you do when attempting some action is roll the indicated number of dice and looked for sets of two or more. From this you find the height and width of these sets. For example, if you roll 7 dice (always ten-sided) and get 4, 4, 4, 6, 7, 10, 10 you have two sets, one of 3×4 (i.e. three rolls of four, a height of three and width of four) and one of 2×10.

Any matched set is normally a success. As height determines the quality of your roll, tasks of greater difficulty might have a minimum height requirement. In games that use hit locations, lower heights represent limbs while a height of 10 represents a head shot. The width of your roll represents your speed. For example, in combat all characters first declare then everyone rolls simultaneously. Widest roll goes first. Also, wider rolls typically do more damage.

So which is better, height or width? The answer is it depends on the situation. If you are trying to shoot first, width is more important. If you are going for a head shot, height is more important.

Obviously if someone is taking some action against you, you might want to stop them. This is represented in actions like dodging or blocking (or in various social combat actions like those which are often found in A Dirty World). Matches you get in these rolls count as “gobble dice” which allow you to remove dice from an opponent’s die pool after they have made their roll. So a set of two with one gobble due becomes an unmatched roll, turning into a miss.

The various ORE games all use this engine at the core of their system. The different games have different permutations, depending on what they are trying to accomplish. This includes things like vehicle combat, superpowers, multiple actions, doing your homework while your pet monster is distracting you, etc.

Finally, though I indicated all dice are ten-sided, there are in many ORE games special dice. In this post I’ll be referring to the dice as used in Godlike and Wild Talents, but other games have similar concepts using different names. The first kind of special die is called a Hard Die. This is a die in your dice pool which is always a ten. If you have two hard dice you always get a success. This is handy to represent powers which always work. It is also useful to represent deadly accuracy, but uncontrolled deadly accuracy – you can’t shoot to stun for example, or you can never do anything but teleport maximum distance or fly at maximum speed. You will succeed, but without any finesse. This is usually a good thing, but in the two Wild Talents campaigns I’ve GM-ed we quickly learned it was important to use Hard Dice carefully. In character generation, Hard Dice are typically twice as expensive as regular dice.

There is also the concept of the Wiggle Die. The term does sound a little silly. A Wiggle Die is a die which you can set to any value you want, decided after you roll any regular dice in your pool. This is extremely valuable, as a single Wiggle Die, paired with any other die, guarantees at least one success. This is fantastic for representing a very skilled character, such as Batman from DC Comics. Wiggle Dice are typically four times as expensive as regular dice.

ORE is a system that is hard to classify as rules-light or rules-heavy. The basic rules of all the games are pretty simple. Some games, such as A Dirty World or Monsters and Other Childish Things are kept deliberately simple as far as rules go. On the other hand, Godlike and Wild Talents, while keeping their simple core, have a lot of different possibilities, given all the permutations when it comes to possible abilities. Even at its most complex, no ORE game approaches the complexity of a Hero System or GURPS-style engine. I’d say that Wild Talents falls a few notches below games like Dungeons & Dragons when it comes to complexity. I’ve rather enjoyed the system – it makes GM-ing pretty easy when it comes to prep-work and it allows for a ton of player flexibility. I’d suggest checking out Arc Dream’s web page for more info, free downloads, etc. if you’re looking for more info. In the future I’ll take a look at individual ORE games, but first I wanted to discuss the system as a whole.

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Doctor Who RPG

Doctor Who RPG

My first encounter with Doctor Who was in the 80s. I was in High School and kept seeing FASA’s Doctor Who RPG at Waldenbooks. I was curious about it but wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. My father mentioned to me he’d seen the tv show on PBS.

Being über-cool in High School, one Saturday night I was home and happened to see Doctor Who on Connecticut’s Channel 49. I remember the episode – it was Meglos, featuring time loops and an evil cactus monster. I didn’t quite follow it but it was sure neat. A few weeks later I caught it again and they’d begun running the 5th Doctor episodes. Most people have a Doctor who is their personal Doctor. For me, it is the 5th incarnation, as portrayed by Peter Davison.

My brother and I played the FASA game quite a bit — one of the really neat things about Doctor Who is it really lends itself well to small groups. I thought the  FASA game was pretty neat — it was basically the Star Trek RPG modified somewhat from a percentile system to a 2d6 ability vs. difficulty (via resolution table) system. Looking back, I have to say the system really wasn’t quite right for Doctor Who. It was very tactical and not well-suited to lots of improvisation — indeed there were no rules to even attempt something unskilled. That didn’t stop us form having a lot of fun with the game. The supplements were pretty neat — they get criticized a bit now for violating canon with some of its assumptions. For example, they posited that the Meddling Monk was an early incarnation of the Master. And the adventures were pretty neat. They reminded me of the GDW adventures of the day, especially Twilight: 2000 — a basic adventure outline, lots of details on NPCs, maps, expected events, etc. They seemed incredibly loose at the time.

After the FASA license ended there was a one-off Timelord RPG. I believe it came out around 1993 or 1994 — I know I picked it up in summer of ’94. This being the start of my post-college gaming hiatus, I never had the opportunity to play it but it seemed like a reasonable adaptation. It was more stylistically similar to the television show than the FASA game, with a fairly simple task resolution system. The authors have released the game for free – you can download it from scribd or here. (Be warned that the latter site greets you with a screeching TARDIS sound – I hate web pages that greet you with sounds…)

The newest incarnation of the game is made by Cubicle 7. I’ve been very impressed with their output over the last year or so. They also make the Starblazer RPG, based off the British comic book. I’ve never read the comic book, but the RPG is perfectly suited for generic space opera. They also make the Victoriana RPG which  has proved to be an excellent resource for my 19th century Wild Talents/Kerberos Club campaign.

I’ve not fully read through the newest incarnation of the Doctor Who RPG, having just received it yesterday and having given it a preliminary scan and begun working my way through the players book. Below are some random impressions I’ve taken from it:

  • First of all, this is an expensive RPG. In the US it has a cover price of $60.00, though I got it for much less at Who North America.
  • Going against the grain of modern RPGs, the new Doctor Who RPG is a boxed set. I’d forgotten how neat boxed sets were and Cubicle 7 makes the most of the format. Player, GM, and Adventure books. Also character sheets, gadget sheets, etc. And it comes with dice!
  • The production values are good, quite similar (no doubt deliberately) in style with much of the officially licensed Doctor Who non-fiction of the past few years. Glossy color, lots of pictures from the series (all images are, I believe, of the adventures of the 10th Doctor).
  • To try to balance things out, more powerful characters have a lower maximum of story points, which, I believe, can be used to modify reality in the player’s favor. This makes it easier to model a campaign with a Timelord and his companions.
  • The rules don’t make much an assumption as to what sort of game you’ll run. It suggests the Doctor and companions (old or new) or characters of your own creation. The rules make it possible to make new Timelords, aliens, etc.
  • One of my favorite things is the game encourages the use of words vs. guns, very much in keeping with Doctor Who. In action scenes characters who talk act first, followed by those who run, perform non-offensive actions, and finally those who fight. Also, non-combat skills can be used vs. combat skills. An example in the rules features Mickey using his Convince skill in a quick contest against a Cyberman who is using Marksmanship. Basically the Cyberman is intending on shooting him while Mickey is trying to convince it to take him alive. I really like this idea a lot — too often games say they discourage violence but I see lots of instances where this new game gives the tools to do so. I started a thread about this on rpg.net and hey – it’s four pages now. That’s a first for me… (My rpg.net handle is Breschau of Livonia.)

I’m stil working my way through the game, so I might post more impressions. That said, I think this’d be a blast to run. I’d probably have a ton of fun with the the time travel aspect of it, especially to the past, as I love history. Maybe after our current Wild Talents game runs its course. So many games, so little time…

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XXVc RPG Cover

XXVc RPG Cover

In the latter half of the 1980s through its sale to Wizards of the Coast in 1997, TSR was run by Lorraine Williams. This is viewed by most games as a “dark age” for TSR and I can’t really dispute the allegation. Adventurers were made that allowed PCs to watch the stars from various novels perform heroic actions. Page margins expanded to a rather impressive size, filling up an absurdly high portion of pages with “whitespace”. There’s several tales on the internet that Lorraine Williams did not at all care for gamers, an odd attitude to have for someone running the company that created Dungeons & Dragons.

Lorraine Williams is the granddaughter of Flint Dille, the man who had been responsible for the Buck Rogers comic strip being syndicated in newspapers an it is the Dille Family Trust that has the rights to Buck Rogers. Contrary to what many believe, Flint Dille was not the creator of Buck Rogers (though I don’t believe he ever made that claim) – he worked with Phillip Francis Nowlan, author of the proto-Buck Rogers works Armageddon 2149 and the Warlords of Han, starring Anthony Rogers (changed to Buck in the comic strip per Flint Dille’s desire for a more marketable name).

I’ve been reading IDW’s reprints of the comic strip over the past week or two. It’s a fascinating look at the future from the perspective of 1920s and 30s America – and also an interesting look at newspaper comics, the standard medium for comics prior to the emergence of superheroes in the late 1930s. Of course the casual racism of the era is also evident, reflected in the “Yellow Peril” influenced Mongol overlords of Earth.

In the late 80s TSR began publishing products for Buck Rogers under the XXVc beginning with a boardgame and series of novels. This was followed in 1990 by the release of the XXVc roleplaying game. (Note to self – do not do a google image search for “xxxvc” without adding the word “rpg”.) I imagine there were strong economic reasons for a member of the Dille Family Trust to want her company to make games and books based off of Buck Rogers.

Whatever the reasons for its genesis, the  XXVc RPG is an interesting entity. Its primary designer is Mike Pondsmith, best known for his work at R. Talsorian Games (Mekton, Cyberpunk 2013/2020/203x, Castle Falkenstein). Its rules engine is a remaking of the then-current Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition rules for science fiction. While Gamma World’s first and second editions had some similarity to D&D, I believe this was the first time most of the concepts from the AD&D rules were ported. The 4th edition of Gamma World later followed a similar strategy of AD&D rules reuse and this became far more commonplace with the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition.

To be honest, the rules are a somewhat clumsy fit for a science fiction game. Skills are very important in this setting but AD&D’s nonweapon proficiencies are not really up to task of realizing this. But the setting shines. It is an unusual mix of hard science fiction and space opera. It also shares quite a bit of feel with the Firefly universe, though I doubt it was an actual inspiration. All the action in the setting takes place in the solar system. There is no faster-than-light drive, rocketships cross the solar system at speeds that make interplanetary travel take place in the order of days as opposed to months or years. Planets have been terraformed as best they can be. Mercury has underground cities and mobile track cities, always staying ahead of the dayside of Mercury. Venus has cities atop plateaus. Earth is a war-ravaged planet, with civilization ranging from advanced arcologies to primitives in the blasted ruins. Terraformed Mars is the most “civilized” of the planets. It gained independence from Earth and has since brutally exploited it. It is ruled by RAM, Russo-American Mercantile, an alliance of Soviet Russia and the United States (recall the setting was developed in the late 1980s), an eerie preview of the Alliance of Firefly, made up of a unification between Communist China and the United States.

Freedom fighters from Earth, the New Earth Organization (NEO), try to regain Earth’s independence. Genetically engineered beings, “Gennies”, have been created to dwell in the more inhospitable parts of the solar system, from the Desert Runners of Mars to beings designed to exist in the outer solar system. The setting has room for idealistic freedom fighters, mercenaries, smugglers, etc. – an excellent setting for campaigns.

It’s my impression that the game never really caught on. You can find a few fan sites for it on the web, but Star Frontiers, which preceded it, is more popular to this day. I’ve never managed more than the occasional one-shot out of it. That said, I have mined it for ideas. The Desert Runners and terraformed Mars became the inspiration for the planet Ares and its native Aresians in several of my Star Wars games. I’ve raided adventure ideas and settings for a Serenity RPG. I very strongly doubt there will ever be another incarnation of this game (indeed, TSR abandoned it and tried a second Buck Rogers RPG of which I’ve never read). But Buck Rogers itself is one of those properties which gets reborn from time to time. It is possible that somewhere along the line some incarnation of Buck Rogers will again appear in an RPG.

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.