Saturday, February 26, 2011

Winging It, Plus a Little Saturday Insanity

Okay, okay, insanity first:

Today I went to the used book store. I found nothing of interest in the gaming section, but as I was leaving, I decided to check out the "nostalgia books" cart. This is a cart full of out of print, rare, and generally overpriced old books. There is no rhyme or reason to the organization of said cart.

Then, I saw it, next to a massive copy of the Holy Bible with gilt-edged pages.

RIFTS Gold Edition. What. The. Fuck.

Number 415 out of 600 ever printed, signed by Super Kev himself.

Fitty bucks.

Hmm...I get a ten percent discount....

Fo'ty five.... uh, no thanks.

I thought about it, and I do like to collect old gaming stuff, but... no.

Also, by a bizarre coincidence, Rob from my RIFTS group ran into me right after I picked the damn thing up. We sent a picture via phone to our GM, who I think briefly thought it was a new edition and suffered a minor coronary over it. I had to make a phone call to keep her from keeling over.

In the end, it went back on the shelf.

Anyway, about winging it...

I totally ran Traveller off the top of my head last night. I have not "winged" a session 100% in years.

I actually think I enjoyed it more than preparing for a session.

In high school, I ran an entire campaign of AD&D 2nd edition off the cuff. Maps made as I went, NPCs and encounters dreamed up on the fly, verisimilitude emerging from my brain patching things together improv style.

I'm not saying that I plan to run Traveller off the cuff entirely, (it's too late for that; I've got maps and blog entries about alien races) but I think I can worry less about preparation now. I forgot how much I enjoy thinking on my feet.

My wife really enjoyed the game.

I might have struck out at the used bookstore, but I think my spirits are lifted such that I might mosey down to the LGS and try my hand at their used bin.

...oh, and I did finally cave and buy the Rifter 53 because of that cover. A further bit of insanity: back in 2008, when I attended the local con in July, I played an excellent one-shot of Beyond the Supernatural, 2nd edition, that warmed me up to Palladium. That guy has an article in the issue of the Rifter that I bought. Full circle, man....full circle.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gamin' On

My wife suggested that I run Traveller weekly instead of every other week. The other players agreed. I'm glad that we are doing this, because I find that it's difficult for me as a GM to maintain momentum and enthusiasm about one of my games if I'm not running it every week. I spend a lot of time working on lessons and grading, so on the off weeks I tend not to think about my game, which I think hurts it in the long run. Time to step up my Traveller game.

The Sunday group has been alternating between RIFTS and Shadowrun 4th edition. The GM for Shadowrun recently expressed a desire to try running with Shadowrun 2nd edition rules. Oddly enough, I have been running across a lot of second hand copies of SR2 in various game/bookshops lately. (They are also readily available online for reasonable prices.) The GM is quite taken with the concept of Augmented Reality, however, so that will require some conversion on his part if we decide to go with SR2 in the long term. I know that every edition of Shadowrun has it's quirks, but I seem to recall having more enthusiasm for the game back when I played the older versions. I also recall less instances of having to roll seventeen goddamn dice all the time.

One quirk of Shadowrun that has always been consistent, regardless of edition, is the intermittent nagging feeling that I am playing an equipment list rather than a character.

The Shadowrun GM also told me he has been reading up on OSRIC in his spare time. This titillates me.

Hackmaster is slated to start next week. My character is as done as I am going to get him. (I am no buying individual scabbards for all my weapons. I am not buying individual items of clothing. Fuck that.) I was working on a back-up character, given how lethal original Hackmaster can be, but I don't think I have the gumption to actually finish the damn thing.

My brain is having trouble wrapping around the idea that I might be gaming three times a week and participating in a total of four campaigns. However, given that I love gaming with a fiery passion and am often forced to endure dry spells, I'm going to enjoy this almost certainly unsustainable situation while it lasts.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hackmaster Character Generation fucking tedious. I hope we actually get to play next time.

I am referring to the "4th" Edition of HM; I was sent a complimentary PDF of Hackmaster Basic sometime last year, but honestly I lost interest about twenty pages in. I'm fairly certain I deleted it.

Man, first I get bored with combat in rpgs, now I get bored with minutiae... it's like I'm not even a real gamer anymore!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fair Fights

I once heard the quote "Any man who finds himself in a fair fight is a poor tactician." I have no idea where I heard it, who said it, and I'm pretty sure that my memory has badly paraphrased it, but there it is.

Somehow, a lot of gamers have the notion that fights in games need to be fair. (Though often this definition of fair is "definitely winnable by the player characters) Look at console games... generally, aside from boss fights, the player navigates characters through tons of encounters that are vastly skewed in favor of the party. In many gaming groups I have been in throughout the years, as well as one-shots at cons and other events, there seems to be an expectation among many (but not all) gamers that any fight they can get into should be one where it is possible to win. (I would go so far as to say possible and probable) Later editions of D&D have even set up encounters such that they should, on average, consume x percentage of party hit points, spells, and other resources. If the "average" encounter ("encounter" in gaming very often meaning "fight") is only supposed to consume 10-25% of the party's hit points, spells, ammo, charges, whatever, then it isn't a fair fight. (Well, the players probably consider it so, but really the odds are skewed very much in their direction)

I can understand the appeal of "fair" (to the players) fights. For many, gaming is about kicking ass and being heroic. (Well, maybe for some the heroic part is optional) Media tends to give us fights in which protagonists fairly breeze through opponents, unless it is a "big bad" or climactic final battle. Given that some roleplaying games even style themselves after such media (games that encourage campaigns to be structured into seasons and refer to players as cast members, for instance) naturally bring over the notion that you are going to win because you are the hero or the main character. I can think of at least one or two roleplaying games off the top of my head where character death is impossible unless prearranged between the player and the GM.

I am no expert in military history/strategy. My tactical engagements have largely been limited to turn based strategy games such as the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars series of video games. However, from these games, I know that fair fights are not what you want; you want to make the fight as unfair for the other side as is humanly possible. If infantry will get smoked by tanks, then by the gods hit 'em with tanks. If the next boss monster is a fire dragon, equip all your characters with fire -resistant items and spells. If your party hears the orc patrol approaching down the forest path, hide and prepare sneak attacks or that web scroll you have been saving.

As my taste in games continues to shift and mutate, I find myself utterly bored by the idea of a fight that is "pre-balanced." There might be a black dragon in the Dread Swamp, even if your party is only 2nd and 3rd level. An orc village should be home to hundreds of orcs, even if there is no earthly way your party could engage that many and survive.

Not all fights need be "balanced." Not all fights need be fought. High level monsters and powerful, resource-rich opponents should exist regardless of the player characters' relative strength to them.

These thoughts come to mind because we got our asses handed to us in Shadowrun tonight. We walked right into it. We took on an opponent with vastly more resources in a relatively straightforward fight...well, we had some ambushes prepared, but we didn't scope out his resources, didn't plan for his countermeasures... I think, in a way, we all had this subconscious expectation that the fight was going to be perfectly scaled so that we could win in a head to head confrontation. The only reason half the party isn't dead is because the GM seemed to take pity on us.

During the car ride home (the GM usually gives me a ride to the game), he relented that perhaps he created enemies that were a little too strong for us. (To his credit, our ork and troll have thus far been nearly unstoppable and nigh-invincible in previous combats) He suggested that he might have overcompensated. I told him that we, as a party, were stupid and we got what we deserved. The only way we could have been stupider is if we have refused to retreat and continued to fight while clinging to the believe that we could and should win because we are the player characters, goddammit.

I have been shaken out of my complacency.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Gaming Art Bug

I know it's a sad thing, but I kind of want a copy of The Rifter#53 just for the cover... I don't know, something about it takes me back to fonder memories of the very hit-or-miss Champions 4th edition campaign my friend James ran sporadically through our high school years. I also just think it's a good picture.

I'm holding off for now, as I'm not particularly interested in the content, but it wouldn't be the first time I bought something primarily for the cover...looking at you, OpenQuest.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Holes in My Head

The clones just keep on comin'.

Although I have purchased a myriad of OSR supplements and modules, I have only ever purchased two retro-clone core books:

1. OSRIC, economy edition. Elven bucks for all the info of the PHB, DMG, MM, and Fiend Folio (yeah, I like the Folio... suck it) without the yellowed pages and old pot smell of second-hand original books. The real bonus here is that OSRIC is much better organized (well, except for the monsters.) When I ran AD&D, I found that eventually all I needed on the table was OSRIC.

2. Mutant Future- I loves me some Gamma World, but I'm not a huge fan of the old rules. Mutant Future gives me all the gonzo mutant goodness of Gamma World with a rule set that I much prefer and am far more comfortable with. Oh, and it made for some easy (and bitchin') D&D crossover.

I hate to say it, but I really have no use for print copies of Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and that whole gang... I have the original red and blue books, a near complete set of orange spine AD&D 1st ed books, and the mighty Cyclopedia. From where I sit, the differences between the clones are mostly trade dress and a few house rules.

To end on a bright note: many of the clones are free on PDF, which is how I found out that I wanted print copies of OSRIC and MuFu.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Alternity: I Just Can't Quit You


I think that I want to like Alternity more than I actually do. I think I like the idea of Alternity more than the reality.

My friend Josh peeked at the system and described it as "wonky," which I think is about as succinct as you can get. Unfortunately, succinct isn't one of my strong points.

I say that the mechanics of the game are... well, unnecessarily mechanical. Perhaps that seems an odd comment, but I submit for your review:

The core mechanic of Alternity is to roll a d20 and try to roll under your skill. That's not so bad, is it? I mean, it's good enough for GURPS, right?
Well, then they go and cock it up with a bunch of totally unneeded crap.
The d20 is the control die, see? You also have to roll a situational die, which is the ugly cousin that other games might call "a +2 modifier" or the like. The default situational die is a d0, which means you aren't rolling a die. (Yes, there's a term for when you aren't rolling a die) Bonuses are negative steps, which give you a situational die of -1d4- -1d20. You subtract the negative situational die from the control die, which means you want to roll low on the control die and high on the negative situational die, since it subtracts from the control die and you want to roll low.
Penalties, on the other hand, are +1d4- +3d20, and are bad because you add them to the control die, so you want to roll low on the control die and low on a positive situational die.

Irritated already? I know I am.

Add to this the degree of success, which is Failure, Ordinary, Good, and Amazing. Oh, if you can't fail, then Failure is called Marginal. In combat, each weapon has a different damage level at each of the success levels. You also have three types of hit points: Stun, Wound, and Mortal. Oh, and Fatigue, which are sort of like hit points except only for strenuous physical activity.

I hesitate to even mention the part where I cracked open the Starships supplement and found myself staring at XYZ grid-based movement and some square root signs splattered all over the page.

None of it is difficult to understand, it just seems so goddamn overly complicated. Three and half different types of hit points? (Although RIFTS does this... but RIFTS is hardly an example of intuitive or coherent game design, is it?) Go back and read that action resolution summary to yourself and tell me that you can't think of half a dozen other games that handle action resolution in a much, much more intuitive and elegant fashion.

...and yet...

Something makes me want to not give up on this game. It might be the same misguided motivation that makes me continue to play RIFTS even though reading the rules to RIFTS makes me want to slam my head in a car door over and over until it makes sense or until my skull cracks open like a pinata on Cinco de Mayo. Something about Alternity makes me want to never give it up, never let it down, never- oh, you get the idea. Is it the artwork? I have to say that the artwork in Alternity speaks to me. It might be the modules. It might be the alien races, which I like quite a bit. It might be that, like RIFTS, there is a game that I want Alternity to be that it isn't, and I think if I just find the right house rule or tweak the right mechanic, it will suddenly stop being so dumb, rules-wise.

Did I mention that Alternity's initiative system divides combat into four phases, named after the success levels in the task resolution system? Yes, that means if you have really good initiative, you get to go on Amazing, then the schmucks who got Good on their initiative roll can go, and so on. No? Didn't mention that?

Reading back on this entry, my relationship with Alternity is almost like an unhealthy relationship with a crazy ex. A sad reflection on me, I'm sure.

Oh, and Friday group, if you happen to read this: I am not converting the Friday game to Alternity. This is just me fussing over obscure game systems. Let it be.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Back in the Saddle

Traveller is going well.

The game ran much more smoothly last night, especially since the ship captain PC and I are trying to do the ship bookkeeping behind the scenes, so as not to bog down actual play.

I like the characters, who are cheerfully amoral but not complete bastards. I also find that I'm having to make up a ton of stuff as I go along, as the players are quite curious about the galaxy. I scribble it down in my notebook and then mentally flesh it out in my head during the session and on the drive home.

Oh, one or two of my players probably just read that. I'm sure it's no secret.

I find that my GM skills are returning quickly after the long months in hibernation, though I am not yet firing all cylinders.

I have world-building fever right now, but I am ignoring it. I have half a subsector map, and right now I'm focused on further developing what I have, rather than trying to map the entire goddamn universe.

I consider the visceral disgust my players have of the kreesh to be a personal victory. :)

I believe we are continuing Shadowrun tomorrow with the Sunday group. Life is good.

A quick word on Alternity...

I still find the system to be slightly counter-intuitive on a lot of levels. Wait, no... let's not say counter-intuitive, but rather just not intuitive, if that makes any sense. I'm not sure this is the group for it, but I know a gamer or two who would probably dig it's more robust (complex) rule system over the bare bones simplicity of Traveller's "2d6 + DMs, get an 8 or higher" mechanic.

I've been snatching up material for Alternity from the used book store, as they keep gradually shifting their Alternity collection into the clearance bin for a buck or two per book... I'm not sure why they're still holding out on a couple of the source books, but I will bide my time.

On a purely aesthetic note, I will say that my Traveller universe, as it appears in my head, is more visually similar to Alternity (particularly Star*Drive) than to the artwork in Mongoose Traveller.

I also hate that it is spelled "Traveller."