Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Roll and Keep: L5R and 7thSea

7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings got be back into roleplaying at the turn of the millennium, and the core of those rules -Roll and Keep- has been my favorite and go-to-engine since. Role and Keep is elegant, dramatic and flexible and I love it.

There are two released games that use Roll and Keep; 7thSea and Legend of the Five Ring. L5R is a pseudo-Japanese mythology setting with samurai and shugenga (wizards) and concepts like high honor and clan station. There is also a very popular L5R CCG, but I don't play it. 7thSea is a swashbuckling alternative world where the countries of Europa all reaching their Renaissance at the same time; where bloodline sorcery vie for power with the growing fields of mad science and technology.

The core dice mechanic, by which the system gets its name, is a dice-pool system with a twist. You create a pool of d10's from Traits and Skills but when you roll them you may only keep a certain number of them, adding the results of kept dice together to determine your total roll. By default the Trait score is the number of dice you get to keep and the dice from your skills are 'unkept'; this means your Traits are universally more important but are harder to raise to high levels. Skills are easier to improve and grant additional boons that unskilled characters don't get.

7thSea has Brutes and Henchmen, which are lesser NPC's, used to challenge or assist the Heroes and Villains in your games. Brutes are very simple, stats-wise, which makes the GM's job all the easier; you don't roll or track damage against Brutes, if you successfully hit one, he's out. Unfortunately Brutes travel in packs (Brute Squads). Henchmen have the same Traits and Skills that Player Characters have, are tougher than Brutes but aren't as hardy as PC's. 7thSea favors player characters as heroes. The worst that can happen from a fight is to get Knocked Out, and the GM is encouraged not to kill PC's, but instead have them wake up afterwards in captivity or in the midst of the Villain's devious-yet-subtly-flawed-death-trap.

Legend of the Five Rings, inspired by the book "Book of the Five Rings" by Miyamoto Musashi and Japanese mythology, has a different feel than 7thSea, but is no less dramatic. L5R characters are first defined by their clan, family and school of training. L5R characters start fairly similar to each other, but can quickly grow into distinct characters. L5R has two social traits for your character's Glory and Status, representing reputation and authority, which fluctuate quickly during play.L5R is a gritter setting and system than 7thSea, but glorious for all the same. If you're a fan of Kurosawa films and Japanese mythology, L5R is great. In addition, the canonical setting of L5R's Rokugan is continually evolving in response to events in the official CCG tournaments, which is an interesting idea even if it leads to occasional oddities.

I've enjoy the Roll and Keep engine so much, I am working on my own variant which is generic enough to handle just about any setting. More on this to come...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Burning Wheel games

(This post is about the core Burning Wheel mechanics. I'll make specific posts about Burning Empires and Mouse Guard later.)

Burning Wheel really turns roleplaying on its head in many ways, and since I picked it up, it's really changed my views on both storytelling and game mechanics. I love it and hate it for the same reason; like watching something both fascinating and disturbing, Burning Wheel sticks in your head and forever alters your perceptions. Picking up and experiencing Burning Wheel has forever infected my view of gaming and I regret nothing.

On the face of things, Burning Wheel uses a straight-forward dice pool mechanic, but it's Burning Wheel's conflict engine where things really shine. BW is both really open about story-mechanics, yet ruthlessly competitive when it comes to conflict mechanics and the consequences of choices. Also, and perhaps more importantly, Burning Wheel makes failure interesting (Mouse Guard especially pushes this concept).

Burning Wheels conflict engine uses a core concept of secretly scripting actions in advance, then revealing them one at a time and resolving them rock-paper-scissors style. Attack versus Defend? Whomever rolls higher succeeds. Attack vs. Attack? Both sides could succeed or fail, independently of the the other's success or failure, and so on.

Burning Wheel fantasy has three types of conflicts: Fight!, Range-and-Cover and the Duel of Wits. While Fight and Range-and-Cover clearly deal with martial battle, the Duel of Wits covers social conflicts. Both sides in a DOW start with a pool of 'Disposition' points, representing their initial position and strength of argument. Exchanges of Points, Rebuttals and Obfuscations whittle away at your opponent's Disposition. The side that looses it's last Disposition point looses the argument! The winner, however, may have to make concessions based on how close to zero their Disposition was brought to zero! The essential conflict mechanic scales well, and allows for narrative control over the context and feel of the story.

Burning Empires, the sci-fi BW setting, adds several more conflict types: the Firefight (Range and Cover writ large and with a more strategic point-of-view) and the Infection-level campaign conflict which handles events of planetary importance.

Mouse Guard introduced a streamlined version of this core conflict engine concept, which allows for settling just about any form of contest or conflict, with only four 'move' options (Attack, Defend, Maneuver and Feint). Which skills are tested for each Action depends on the nature of the conflict. Adding new conflicts is easy: simple define which skills are tested for each Action.

Unlike most other RPGs -which traditionally require a ton of creative world-building ahead of time on the part of the Game Master/Storyteller- Burning Wheel thrives on starting with simple world concepts and filling out the details and world facts through character creation and in actual play. Instead of asking "What do I know about (X)?" players instead say "My character knows (X) to be true," and then rolls to see how right/wrong they are. I love this idea, because it enables player and character investment in the game and the world, which makes for richer stories and deeper attachment to character and world.

Character creation is a process of choosing Lifepaths that affect the character's age, skills learned and traits acquired. Want a skilled, experienced character? Then accept that they will either be older, or heavily affected by the tough life experiences they've gone through to get that good. You character will pick up traits and habits that may seem negative or inhibiting, but these play into Burning Wheels drama economy (called Artha), you want complicated and challenged characters because their flaws and failures actually fuel the Artha economy. The Stocks (races) and Lifepaths available to a campaign also feed the world narrative and help to define setting.

Circles, which is a social attribute, is how well socially connected your character is. Instead of taking fixed contacts or allies before play begins, you can test your Circles to see if you can find someone with the skils/knowledge you're looking for. Failing that test doesn't mean you don't find them; instead they may hate you, or some other side-quest your character needs to meet. Circles is a brilliant idea and I've considered adding to other game engines.

Character Advancement is based on testing your character's abilities. There are no Experience Points, no Levels; killing one hundred orcs doesn't automatically make your character better at cooking. Want to improve an aspect of your character? You have to test it and push it beyond what's safe or routine. At higher skill ranks, you have to try things that are patently impossible to succeed. This is where the Artha economy really helps; you need the help of Artha to improve abilities beyond a certain rank. Tracking the number of tests for every skill and ability is a little taxing, but you only count the ones that actually count towards advancing that skill.

On the downsides, Burning Wheel is very different, ruthless and character-lethal system. It's not difficult to get your character maimed or killed in the fantasy and sci-fi settings that have thus far been published. Mouse Guard is different, but character death is still possible. The essentials of Burning Wheel's conflict system(s) are challenging to grasp at first, especially to old-school gamers who are traditional in their experience with gaming.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is similar to Cortex, in that you assign polyhedrals as the values of your stats and skills. The SW is a general set of gaming rules which have been used in a great many settings: Space 1889, Pirate of the Spanish Main, Slipstream, The Savage World of Solomon Kane, Deadlands, and so on. Savage World settings embrace the term 'savage': They are challenging and interesting places to play in, but nobody would actually want to live in a Savage World setting. Life, in a SW game, is nasty, brutish, short and occasionally awesome.

I bought the Savage Worlds Deluxe book and Action deck that go with it, so this is a review of the generic form of the rules and not of any particular setting, although the core book references several of the already produced setting books and provides a couple of 'one page' adventures to get you started.

Character creation is quick: with four core Attributes, a couple of derived Stats and Skills. Skills are linked to specific Stats, and learning a skill up to the linked Attribute rank is easy; going beyond that is more difficult/expensive. You also get Edges which break the standard rules in one way or another, and Hindrances which limit or complicate your characters' life, but earn you back Edges or Attribute/Skill steps.

Character's earn 1 to 3 XP per game session, and you 'Advance' every 5xp earned. Each Advancement lets you do one of the following: Raise an attribute one step; gain a new Edge; learn a new Skill at d4; or increase one Skill one step (or two skills one step each if they are below their linked Attribute value). Every 5 levels earns you a 'rank' increase, from Novice, to experienced, elite and legendary status. Your rank determines what kinds of Edges you have access to. Creating experienced characters is pretty easy: start with a novice, then spend as many Advancements the GM lets you.

Unlike Cortex, you roll either your Stat or Skill dice. Heroes and major villains also get a 'wild' d6 to throw as well and can choose that result instead. The target number to beat is 4, or a derived stat of your target; each 4 points you roll over the TN is a Raise for additional effects. Dice can also 'ace' or explode on a max result and allow rolling additional dice. Fast and simple.

SW doesn't just use dice but also a deck of playing cards. These are used for initiative, in-between "interlude" scenes or just playing poker when the game slows down.

Savage Worlds also has a dramatic economy measured in Bennies. Spending a Benny allows you to re-roll a trait roll, or activate other effects.

SW focuses mostly on combat conflicts and strongly implies using miniatures and maps. However, I was surprised and delighted to discover a simple and effective social conflict mechanic hidden in the book. There's also the "Dramatic Task" system, as well as travel and mass battle systems.

I like the simple, streamlines aspect of Savage Worlds, plus that it's entirely open-ended for introducing your own Edges/Complications and Skills. I don't like that it's essentially a tabletop combat game with some roleplaying elements strewn in. Savage Worlds is clearly a game that tries to straddle the fence between combat-simulationism and storytelling.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cortex rules (Serenity and the BSG RPGs)

Cortex is the name for the core rules used in the Serenity and BattleStar Galactica RPGs, both products of Margaret Weiss productions (although sadly they no longer supported/licensed). I feel fortunate that I got copies of all three games while they were published. The core rule book is still available, however, both in print and digital form.

So a gamer friend asked of me: "What kind of gaming would I use Cortex for? I play D&D when I want high fantasy, I play Burning Wheel/Empires when I want heavy character pathos and worldbuilding/destroying. Do I use Cortex for combat-heavy games, or social-heavy games?"
And after thinking about it, I answered: Both, but mostly the former (combat and action).

Cortex is a polyhedral system: your character's abilities, skills and Traits are rated in a type of polyhedral die. When performing an action or testing a characters abilities, you roll the relevant dice from your Attribute and one from you Skill. You compare your roll versus another character's roll, or versus a TN set by the GM. Some rolls combine multiple attribute ratings, or you add the attribute values together to determine other thresholds. Cortex also has extended actions (for projects lasting more than a single roll), and a simple chase mechanic. If only it had a social conflict framework. There IS a sort of social meta-game in the generic version of the rules, but it's focuses on legal court battles, which isn't nearly as universal as one could want in a social conflict structure.

Cortex Skills have two tiers: general skills, and specializations within general skills. You can learn general Skills up to a d6 in rating, and beyond that you buy specializations (D8 or better).

Cortex characters also have Traits which are also rated as polyhedrals. Cortex shines in that these advantages can be added to your attribute + skill rolls when relevant, or add flat values to your derived stats. While the core rules have a wide variety of examples, Cortex easily allows for additional Traits to be added for your campaign. Traits can be Assets (which benefit you some way) or Complications (which have a negative cost, but complicate your character's life). The examples in the generic version of the rules have basic examples, but the Traits in the BSG and Serenity books are flavored like the settings they come from.

Cortex has a drama economy, measured in Plot Points. Plot Points can be spent to add dice to a roll, prevent damage, or affect the plot of the story. Plot Points are gained via strong roleplaying.

Combat has one twist that I find interesting. You have track 'stun' and 'lethal' damage separately, on reciprocal tracks against the same value. If you have, say 14 hit points, you're out of combat if you take 14 stun, or 14 lethal, or any combination of stun and lethal that exceeds your 14 total. This is less complicated than, say, the Storyteller damage tracking system, but you can get KO'd real fast in Cortex.

I like how Cortex treats vehicles just like characters: with attributes and skills/specializations and traits. They even have the dual 'stun' versus 'lethal' damage tracking system. 'Stun' to a vehicle meaning non-permanent but disruptive damage.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

FATE games

FATE is a flexible,tailor-ableRPG engine, with official licenses for Harry Dresden, Diaspora and Starblazer Adventures and Spirit of the Century.

FATE makes a number of interesting design choices; some of which I like and others I don't agree with.

First off: the dice. FATE uses 'FATE dice' (a.k.a. FUDGE dice) which are D6 with two '+' sides, two '-' sides and two blank sides. You typically roll four at a time, thus getting a range of -4 to +4 with an average of 0. Onecoulduse regular D6 and just note that 5&6 are a +, 3&4 and neutral and 1&2 are -.[The only other version of rolling a positive/negative range I have seen is rolling two D6 or two D10 and subtract one from the other: resulting in a range of +-5 or +-9.]My experience with FATE dice, however, is that I hardly ever roll a positive result. Sometimes I have terribledice luck.

FATE sorta balances this with Aspects, which can come from characters, locations and situations. Tapping an Aspect gives a flat bonus to the roll and is a narrative opportunity for the player to explain how the Aspect is a boon to their action. Players can even add new Aspects to themselves, opponents and locations by attempting a Maneuver action; success means they get to place a new Aspect. You can alsocompelother people's Aspects to force a penalty to their rolls, or straight dictate their actions.

Characters in FATE don't have fixed sets of Attributes, stats or ability scores. They are a collection of Skills, rated from Terrible (at -2) up to Legendary (+8). If you character doesn't have it written down, you're considered to have a "Mediocre" (+0) rating in that Skill. The difficulty numbers for attempting actions are rated on the same "Ladder". A "Great" Difficulty task requires +4 or better total. This, coupled with the dice mechanic, provides both a rational and a quantitative way of measuring ability, challenge and the effort a character makes.

Characters also have Stunts. These are rule-modifying or outright rule-breaking 'feats' the character possess. These are highly setting specific: In Harry Dresden the can represent magical powers; in Diaspora they could mean your character is trained on military-grade gear; In StarBlazer Adventures they represent alien abilities and other pulp sci-fi abilities, and so on.

Conflicts in FATE are fairly open structured. Maps are drawn as needed but scale and accuracy aren't necessary; they are for purely relative values/locations. One can even map out social conflicts, which I like. Characters (and other combatants) have Stress tracks to mark 'damage.' Once your stress track is full, you're out of the conflict. Players can opt to take Complications at varying levels to reduce incoming damage. Complications are essentially negative Aspects that opponents can tap in future tests and conflicts. 'Damage' is simply the difference between an attack roll and a defense roll.

FATE also has a dramatic economy measured in Fate points. These tokens of story flow allow players to boost their rolls (or reroll them), as well as tap aspects, complications and create new ones. Compelling someone else's action because of their Aspects costs you a Fate point, which you give to the compelled player if they accept. Fate points are also introduced by the GM for good and dramatic roleplaying.

Character advancement is a bit of an odd duck, but it makes sense in that FATE is a story-focused game, and not a exercise in counting experience points and gold pieces. It also differs from game to game (Diaspora having the lest detailed character advancement system), but in essence: the GM determines when the characters have reached milestones in their story arcs, and at these milestones players may make incremental changes to their characters' Skills. Aspects are the most easily changed; they can be tweaked before a game session even begins as they are highly subjective. Stunts can be swapped out as can your Skill ratings for minor milestones. For major milestones you can add new Stunts or Skills.

Overall, I like FATE in concept. I'm not thrilled with my experience with the dice mechanics, but the conflict system seems robust, flexible andscale-able. Complications and Aspects add a wonderful freeform and subjective element when most games get too detailed and deterministic. I like how character growth is also tied to story, and dissuades players from trolling for every XP point they can get. FATE is another one of those games that I have yet to actually play, but I am looking for an opportunity to give it a go.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Flashbacks in gaming

I have this idea for a game: The characters are all veteran soldiers and the war that has gone on for generations has just ended. Given detached duty, the PC's must make their way home. On the way, they must deal with the demons of their past and the aftermath of a conflict that seemed would never end. There may be ongoing battles, refugees, rogue units and the emerging post-war politics It'sWing Commander IV meets the Macross anime with some bits of the TV showsLost and Firefly thrown in. Why Macross? I'm a fan of transforming fighter-planes after all :-)

Part of the idea is that the characters are all very experienced, veteran heroes from the conflict. They've been at war for years and carry with them a wealth of experiences both good and bad. As the story goes forward, it also casts back into the past of the player characters. We learn about their past as they also strive to creating a new future. This may manifests in two ways that I see

1) at moments of crisis in the 'modern' timeline, when PC's need a dice boost or other boon, they can invoke a quick flashback in narrative form; they then must eventually pay back that karmic debt by more roleplaying after the immediate conflict.

2) given that the characters are veterans of the conflict, there's not a theater of that conflict they haven't been to, so everywhere they go there should be backgrounds, contacts and unresolved issues located there. These hooks should mostly be up to the individual players to bring into the game, but also available to the GM.

As a game mechanic, how does one handle flashback as a system? Few games deal with this directly. The only one that comes to mind is: Fireborn, where you simultaneously play ancient dragons in the age before and their human re-incarnation in the modern age. I don't own this game, but it's available cheap on DriveThruRPG, so maybe I should go ahead and get it.

So I open this post to discussion: How do/would you handle flashbacks in a game?

Friday, July 6, 2012


And now for something completely different... Microscope.

Microscope is less a roleplaying game than a collective worldbuilding game. A round-table non-linear game of free-style history building. In Microscope, players don't have player-characters, character sheets or even dice. You have a stack of 3x5 notecards and pencils and that's it.

Let me backup and explain that again.

As a group you begin by discussing in broad strokes what your setting and history is going to be about. You define the tropes that are and aren't included in that universe. You define the beginning and end points of your history (the 'bookends'). Then you take turns going around the table, adding details both large and small to your collaborative history. The player who's turn it is has complete narrative control over what goes on, generally, so long as they don't contradict the established tropes and go beyond the scope of your history bookends. It's a completely non-linear process: On one turn a player creates a fantastic city. On the next turn someone else destroys it. For the rest of the game all players can continue to add events involving that city between it's creation and destruction. All Periods, Events and Scenes have relative order, but not explicit order (you don't assign dates to your events except as color to the narrative). If one player's input seems to derail the 'story,' there's no limit to how to bring it back on track.

The three levels of playable details are: Periods or broad history (think "The Bronze Age", or "Man's first explorations of space"), followed by Events ("The Tribes migrate to the Rivers," "The Federation and The Empire war over the Delta Sector."). Events consist of Scenes ("The Emperor confronts the Senate over Solarian slavery," "The Hero Galoka befriends the Huluzian tripartate"). You cannot play a Scene before it's encompassing Event and you can't play an Event without a Period to place it in. There's no limit to the number of Periods in your history, or the number of Events in a Period, or Scenes in an Event. Game ends either when the allotted play time has passed, or players are satisfied with what they have accomplished.

Microscope is amazingly simple, yet fundamentally deep and awesome in it's potential. It's rulebook (as such) is small and easily portable and is also available in PDF form which reads well on tablets (I have a Nook color).

While one can play Microscope entirely by its self, I think one of it's greatest potential uses is for worldbuilding for other games. Worldbuilding is best done collectively, which gives all involved players investment and involvement in the setting they are going to play in. The only change to Microscope is that when you get down to the Event and Scene level, that's when you break out your other game books, roll up characters, and play the resolution to that Event or Scene.

Microscope is just the thing for creating organic, collaborative settings and histories that have player investment and the potential for depth and inspiration to play more or other games in that setting. It's a numberless, diceless variant on the concept of the The Great Game that was used to create 2300AD's back-story and can be used much the same way.

I've only recently gotten my hands on a copy of Microscope and haven't gotten a group together yet to try it, but I am looking forward to it. Once I've gotten some actual play underway, I'll revisit it here and post some more.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


(I will be reviewing both the original GDW 2300AD game, as well as the Mongoose Publishing port of their Traveller rules for 2300AD here) 

In it's first edition (1986), 2300AD was titled "Traveller: 2300AD" but this was later dropped to remove confusion with GDW's Traveller game line. "2300AD: Mankind's battle for the stars" was released in 1988. In 2007, QuickLink Interactive released a "2320AD" source book as part of their D20 Traveller rules (I admit, I do not own this. I was not fond of the "D20 all the things!" rush of the last decade).
Then just this year (2012), Mongoose Publishing released their 2300AD setting book, which uses their Traveller ruleset to play in the 2300AD setting.

2300AD's setting grew out of GDW's original Twilight:2000 game (no, it has nothing to do with sparkly faeries- i mean 'vampires'), in a process call The Great Game. A hodgepodge ruleset for running countries and nations as a whole. It was played by the writers at GDW to cover the three centuries of time from the nuclear apocalypse of Twilight:2000 to the futuristic setting they were looking for in their new game. This means that 2300AD has a more organic back-story than most roleplaying games; being the product of several players input as well as random circumstances, rather than a unilateral vision from the outset.

Of course, some of the elements of that backstory are hilariously outdated nowadays. The third world war that started the "twilight" period supposedly happened in the 1990's. Germany was still divided into two states until the 2200s until they went to war with the French Empire (yes, you read that right. French. Empire.). Russia is still a communist power. Texas has seceded from the US and is now an independent nation. One has to think of it as alternate history for it to make sense.

On the other hand, the Twilight-to-2300 period allowed for a kind of 'international renaissance' to take place. The culture'verse of 2300AD is very international in feel. France and China have the most colonies with America coming in barely third. Many nations have off-world colonies. This makes for much more colorful character backgrounds and international intrigue.

The newer books have expanded greatly on concepts barely hinted at in the original materials. The difference between life on the "Core" worlds and "Colonial" life is more exaggerated in more detail. My only problem with the Mongoose 2300AD book is a lack of information about the various aliens of the 2300'verse, but I'll get back to this later.

2300AD is gloriously "hard" sci-fi. The designers allowed for one science bending alteration to known physics (i.e. the Stutterwarp drive to allow FTL), while everything else remains limited to extrapolations from current science. For example: there are fusion reactors, but they are huge and require lots of maintenance and attention. Real-world science has given more nuanced details to rather flat ideas (gene therapy for colonists to survive their new homeworlds is more pronounced, for example). The international flavors also influence the technology of the setting: the French love their elegant railguns, the Americans make great warships; the Australians make the best plasma weapons and the Germans still make the best tanks (hover tanks, but tanks none the lest).

The FTL of choice for 2300AD deserves special note. The Stutterwarp Drive, in my humble opinion, is one of the most interesting and well-conceived theories of FTL travel in nearly all sci-fi I have read. It is one of my favorite concepts, and I keep coming back to it when considering new sci-fi settings. I won't go into details here (maybe in another post about FTL in general), but the short of it is: Stutterwarp allows for fun as well as rational faster-than-light travel, without the loopholes and problems of so many other FTL concepts (relativistic rocks, for example).

Then there are the aliens. 2300ad breaks from a lot of 'pop' sci-fi by making their aliens truly alien. The aliens of 2300AD are enigmas; mysteries to be unraveled or avoided. They are NOT appropriate as player characters, which makes them all the more interesting than "like humans just with funny foreheads and Nietzsche'ian philosophies". From the existential threat posed by the Kafers, to the biotechnology masters of the Pentapods (which are the least human and yet the closest thing we have to an ally), 2300AD makes aliens interesting again.

So why don't I play it?

Hard sci-fi is a difficult sell to a lot of gamers who are used to high fantasy and superheroes. "Does that mean I have to know physics and math and computers and stuff? No thanks," is the common refrain. 2300AD is a great setting, and would be fun to write fiction in, but as a gaming setting? That's a harder sell. 2300AD also suffers, like early Traveller editions, from the simulationist/gamer mentalities of most of GDW's games of that era. It's personal combat has some interesting ideas, but feels more like a table top game than a roleplaying game.

So what do we learn from 2300AD?

  • organic settings have a lot more depth than those with direct design. 
  • A good FTL concept makes the game better
  • Settings drawn from real (or alternate) near-history are easier to invest in, compared to completely (ahem) alien histories/cultures.
  • Really alien aliens are cool!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Mekton (specifically Mekton II and Mekton Zeta) is one of my dear loves far as RPG goes. It has evolved from a tactical game, to a roleplaying game and back again to hover somewhere in between. Mekton Zeta (the latest edition) has strong roleplaying elements but can also be played as a tactical game.

I'll admit it, I am a big fan of mecha. When I discovered the BattleTech board games I was thrilled. But as good as BattleTech is as a pure wargame it's lethal as far as characters go. Why bother naming your pilots? They're not likely to survive the engagement. War is hell and all that. BattleTech is also more of the walking-tanks variety of mecha genre. In looking for more character-driven giant robot gaming, a la Macross and Gundam, I found Mekton.

The Interlock system, the heart of Mekton, is a Stat + Skill + Dice roll versus a fixed target number (or another Stat+Skill+Dice roll). I am more than a little fond of it.While the core rules are based around an average of 5 in ten stats and a Skill range of 1 to 10, there's no reason not to make your own changes. This allows a more wargame-feeling setting to give each unit a single Stat+Skill value to simplify things.

Another thumbs-up to the Interlock/Mekton engine is that there's no difference in the core dice mechanic when dealing with people, big robots or giant starships. There are scalar differences, sure (people take Hits of damage, mecha take Kills, etc), but they all attempt and accomplish their actions in the same fundamental way. The key thing to remember is: it's the pilot that does things - the mecha merely modified and amplifies the character's actions. This makes it possible for an experienced pilot in a run-down agricultural mecha to tangle with lesser minions in military-grade mecha and come out on top. A very anime feel!

Most of the fun of Mekton is building your mecha to thrash about with. This is nearly a game in and of its self, called the Mekton Technical System. The core Mekton Zeta rulebook has the basics down, but an entire second book, Mekton Zeta Plus, is dedicated to expanding the MTS with tons more choices, optional mechanics, and subtle but powerful rules about scaling designs up and down the spectrum.

Ultimately, the Mekton Technical System is a gearhead grognards dream; you can build anything using it, provided that you're willing to abstract somewhat. The MTS rarely uses real-world measurements, only relative ones; you can define for a given campaign what the unit conversions are as you like. All that matters between two designs are the relative differences. (In comparison, GURPS Vehicles is based on real-world engineering and numbers; you know exactly how big your mecha is and how much those fuzzy dice added to the weight of your design.)

This same awesome level of number-crunchiness is also MTS's main problem. I find it better to let the Hero and the major Villain's mecha to be fully detailed using MTS construction rules. The optional Mekton: The Movie rules allow for streamlined mecha design and destruction which is great for grunts and minor supporting cast.

Sadly, while I have designed many, many mecha and crafted several settings, I have yet to actually get a game of Mekton played. The other gamers I play with on a regular basis just aren't into the giant mecha genre. Someday... Someday...

So what do we gleefully take from Mekton?

  • A strong core mechanic that scales well between personal, mechanized and larger-scale action is a very desirable thing.
  • Relative-value design systems are more flexible than real-world value systems.
  • On The Other Hand: a system with too many stats and numbers to crunch will bog down in those numbers when you least need it to.
  • Creating such systems from scratch, however, is a difficult endeavor; remember that Mekton had ten years of playtesting, development and tweaking from the original "White Box" edition to MZ. The MTS is robust and well balanced because of extensive playtesting, feedback and tweaking.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Traveller 5 kickstarter

I didn't cover this in my first post about the Traveller game because at the time the T5 Kickstarter project hadn't closed yet, but now that it's successfully funded I am writing this addendum.

'T5' is the latest edition of the Traveller RPG franchise, and possibly the most fundamental revisiting to the setting and mechanics. I am looking forward to seeing how this turns out. The promised various 'Maker' engines described remind me of the 'Burning x' modules from Burning Wheel, and with Marc Miller's usual attention to detail and process, I imagine these Makers will easily be turned into scripts and spreadsheets. It would surprise me if a set of mobile/tablet apps are in the works...

One of the major changes is in the Tasking system: Difficulty determines how many dice are thrown, and the target number is the sum of Attribute + Skill + modifiers, which you want to roll less than in order to succeed. 

Sadly, I won't get my hands on this until the end of the year, but MAN what a Christmas present that'll be!

Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase describes its self as a "roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror.

The central element of Eclipse Phase is exploring Transhumanism by jumping in with both feet first. Your characters in EP track their EGO and MORPH separately. The EGO is transcendent and effectively immortal, while the MORPH is (sometimes literally) a vehicle for the EGO. If your Morph dies, your EGO can be downloaded from backup into a new Morph. Your EGO can even be transmitted across vast distances to be 'sleeved' into a temporary Morph for the duration of your stay. The concept of effective immortality and the ability for the EGO to switch bodies as required is fascinating. It takes some of the edge off playing characters who are utterly committed to causes; sure you may die, but with proper backups, you effectively live on. It both blurs and expands upon physical identity characteristics. An experienced character can say: "I've been male, female, even a six ton transgenic crustacean modified to survives the depths of Europa's seas."

EP is a also a very social setting. The absolute explosion of private habitats across our solar system and beyond, combined with the death of the old world cultures, have given rise near infinite range of social groups that can be explored. These newer cultures are and societies struggle in the post-apocalypse setting for survival, dominance and ideology. Reputation across social networks is the new credit rating; often more important than cash money in a semi post-scarcity setting.

When EP talks about horror, it doesn't mean Friday the 13th kind of splatterfest. EP's concept of horror is more like the movies Alien and Prometheus and the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft. Horror in the sense that characters will be exposed to intelligences utterly alien and the sheer scope of humanities' insignificance in the universe. This can be a tough element to pull off, but EP gives the GM lots of tools to work with this element.

Now I normally HATE percentile game systems. Hate, hate, hate with a burning loathing. There's something about the implied limitation of having your characters abilities and statistics measured in percentiles, and then rolling percentile dice to determine success/failure that annoys me on a instinctive level. however, Eclipse Phase works for me. I think it's due to the way that character EGO and choice of Morph interact that makes just about any other game mechanic ineffective at properly portraying this dynamic. 

On the downside, every time you switch Morphs, you have to re-factor your character's effective statistics, which can be a little complicated to keep track of. EP is a game that benefits from computerized gaming and character sheets almost have to be spreadsheets in order to handle the changes well.

There's also the potential for bad burnout in a setting where no matter how hard your characters and players try, sometimes it doesn't matter one bit. The universe is too vast, complicated and we're just too small and powerless to stop the godlike forces set in motion against us.

What does Eclipse Phase teach us?

  • Bold settings attract bold ideas and potentials for roleplaying
  • Transhumanism is fascinating.
  • The right game mechanics enforce the desired feel for the game.
  • You have to find the right balance between existential horror and empowerment for characters in a setting like this. it takes the right kind of players to not only get into playing EP, but to thrive there as well.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Classic Traveller and MegaTraveller

The second edition of the Traveller game, MegaTraveller, has the honor of being the first RPG game I bought for myself. Previously I had dabbled with someone else's copy of the LBB edition and played classic D&D before, but MT was the first game I chose to acquire and follow. (Just for the record, the first boardgames I bought for myself were CarWars and OGRE.)

Traveller (in all it's iterations) was unique because character creation is part of the gameplay; from determining homeworld to the years spent in character's career all feeds into the character you end up playing. Traveller also was a first in that in some versions a character could fail to survive character generation! Also Traveller is a fairly "hard" science-fiction setting. Playing characters who were older and professionally trained and experienced was a new compared to other games I had played.

MegaTraveller completed the basic concepts presented in the initial version (the 'Little Black Box' as it is known) with a uniform Task system, detailed vehicle and ship construction rules and thorough star system and trade rules. MegaTraveller was so complete, you could almost play it solo. The world creation and trade systems didn't require any real character interaction, so one could spend hours rolling for what trade items your merchant could acquire and dice out the haggling over price. Some of the first programming and spreadsheets I created for my own use were for automating and supporting MegaTraveller gaming.

On the downside, MegaTraveller is a very simulationist kind of game. Starship combat, for example, was quite complex (I didn't quite grok it until I read an article in Challenge magazine that explained it). Vehicle construction required a spreadsheet to keep track of details. (The next edition, Traveller: The New Era, was an order-of-magnitude more complicated!)

Also, MegaTraveller doesn't have much in the way of character advancement systems. On the one hand, this made sense: It took your character forty years in the Navy to learn how to navigate as good as he can. What makes you think only a few game-months are going to make him any better? Character advancement is measured more in the story successes your character(s) achieved. Unfortunately, aside from purely financial gains, there is no mechanical way to measure such successes.

Traveller also benefits from a very creative and active fan community. Massive amounts of history, backstory and additional materials have been written for it in all it's iterations. The Third Imperium (the default setting area for Traveller) had over eleven thousand star systems, and that's just the core setting!

So what can we learn from MegaTraveller?

  • Character creation that gives your character backstory is a good thing.
  • A unified, but very flexible Tasking system means you can handle just about any challenge.
  • Well developed 'sub-games' give the DM and players a lot of easy tools to use.
  • Character Advancement needs to be measurable, however. Even social and political gains need some way to quantify.
  • Broad settings allow for players to create a lot of details. and even have considerable impact, without changing the setting as a whole.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

You all meet in a Tavern...

As an introductory post for The Eclectic Roleplayer, this one's going to start a bit mild.

The impetus for starting this blog was the overwhelming urge to make a public place for sharing my experiences with roleplaying games, gaming and their design and evolution. I love roleplaying. I enjoy games. I indulge in game theory. This blog is mostly going to be about the latter.

My goals with this blog are thus:
  • Review games settings and systems.
  • Discuss principles, concepts and methodologies of roleplaying.
  • Hammer out ideas for new game systems, models and settings for my own use.

My focus is going to be mostly roleplaying games, storytelling games and worldbuilding. I may also dabble in boardgames and miniature gaming here. While I adore painting assembling miniatures, I can't play Warhammer 40K to save a squig's life.

I welcome constructive comments, but be it known I am the owner and wielder of the BanHammer(tm) here. I respect everyone's right to free speech but your comments on my blog reflect upon me and I take that seriously. I reserve the editorial privilege to edit comments before they go live. Spammers and harassers will be banned or shunned with stunning alacrity.
Got a problem with that? Start your own blog.

I've also created a Twitter account: EclecRoleplayer.
I'm not much for Twitter, but we'll see what comes of it.

Okay. Enough for now. Time to roll for initiative...