Friday, January 31, 2014

Armchair Review: DWAITAS -- The 4th Doctor Sourcebook

And the next installment of the DWAITAS Doctor
Sourcebooks is out. It's the 4th Doctor -- portrayed by Tom Baker -- the longest running of all the Doctors so far, and arguably the most popular of the original series sequence.

Like the prior installments in this excellent series, DWAITAS - Fourth Doctor Sourcebook not only provides the predictable crunch (new traits, character sheets for the Doctor / Companions / acquaintances / enemies) and fluff (series and episode synposes), but also provides some thematic explorations and comparisons to the episodes and themes from prior incarnations. It even includes a synopsis of the lost episode "Shada", a must-have for die-hard Whovians.

I say, doesn't Skarga's sphere remind you of Rover, from The Prisoner?

Chapter One: Playing in the Fourth Doctor Era

Some really interesting insights here, as I'm used to thinking of the Doctor's older shows in episodic form, rather than as the grand sweep of a campaign arc. While many would cite the change in characterization as the most obvious change, I'd missed the fact that the Far Future of humanity is mapped out in this cycle of stories. Also, as pointed out in "The Demystification of the Time Lords", it's true that the mysterious Time Lords and Gallifrey are not only fleshed out more, they're also taken down a peg and portrayed as a decadent and decaying culture that possesses a great deal of power and influence in the multiverse -- a theme certainly worth exploring.

Chapter Two: The Fourth Doctor and Companions

The Two Companions that really jumped out at me here are -- surprise -- Romana and Romana. The first incarnation was not only beautiful, but had a distant and aloof aspect to her beauty; the second incarnation was more sweet and approachable in seeming, perhaps indicating the change in her personality after having been influenced by the traveling Doctor's ways (or maybe she just like Princess Astra's looks, just like she said). Of course, Leela and Sarah Jane Smith are also memorable, but the counterpoint of an equal Time Lord to the Doctor really shifted the dynamic for me in this era.

Chapter Three: The Fourth Doctor's Adventures + Shada in the Appendix

For those interested in canon, the complete run of the 4th Doctor's adventures, and adventure hooks and NPCs, opponents, and gadgets aplenty -- this section is a treasure trove of gaming delights.


The next installment can't come soon enough for me!



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fading Suns: Fief Dreams

The completist in me wants a complete compilation of all Fiefs, including the Church ones -- and perhaps the ones for the Guilds. All in one book.

And with some stats for movers and shakers in each of these areas. I did like the conceit of having each one written by a Questing Knight consolidating information, but perhaps a standard format for the report can include some non-system specific assessments of different places.

And will there be ones for the minor houses? Perhaps a single mini-book for all minor houses would be good for the newer edition with its updated timeline.

Ah, Fading Suns. Someday, we shall return to your darkening stars.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Data Scan: An Unkindness of Replicants

"If only you could see what I've
seen with your eyes."
My awareness of the replicant theme in cyberpunk really started with Blade Runner. There was a lovely series of scenes that really reinforced that these humanoid beings were not mere enhanced humans -- they were engineered, design to meet key specifications and performance ratings.

And they were unhappy with the status quo -- especially the built in natural obsolescence that was far shorter than human lifespans. A frightening prospect, considering the capabilities of the combat models.

Somehow implicitly tied to the concept of these manufactured humanoids is the corporation behind them. In Blade Runner, it was the Tyrell Corporation's "more human than human" motto that blared proudly about its achievements in creating this life form that was so close to our own.

I suppose that, in the case of this movie, replicants were used to explore (among many things) what the definition of life / sentience / humanity was in the face of technology that allowed you to recreate creatures that could arguably be crafted to be more 'human' than you.

In Bubblegum Crisis, an anime heavily influenced by Blade Runner, they're called Boomers. Again, they have different models of this artificial life form; some of them were apparently more prone to going crazy and running amok through the rainswept, neon-washed streets of Neo-Tokyo. Boomers, however, were more powerful creations, apparently requiring not only the ADPolice to quell outbreaks of violence, but also the heroic Knight Sabers (whose crusade against the evil corporation known as Genom was the focus of the series).

They also had an unnerving ability to fuse with electronic material and add to their own mass -- almost as though the technology they were constructed from allowed them to insinuate themselves into machinery and circuitry, bypassing security and overriding default functionality.

And while not all boomers were evil, those that were clearly showed how -- through sheer capability alone -- they were a major threat to humanity's technologically dependent existence. Unlike Blade Runner, this anime seemed to be more about the dangers of playing god with replicant technology and letting it grow beyond the capability of humanity to control.

But not all anime series represented the threat of the replicant as predominantly a physical one. The manga and anime Appleseed tackled the replicant / bioroid as being a benevolent race, but one that was visually indistinguishable from humans.

Not only did most humans view them as benign; many of the the bioroids shown believed themselves to be tools of humanity -- a necessary part of the new form of civilization, in order to prevent another world war from breaking out and driving humanity back into barbarism.

Still, when some bioroids begin arguing that engineering a better class of people (perhaps hybrids of the two species?), the already impressive action kicks into high gear, and the intrigue and politics get turned up a notch as well.

Meanwhile, a current TV show seems to be trying to delve into this space once more, with mandatory combat model android partners to police officers. Almost Human isn't treading the ground that Star Trek: The Next Generation trod with Data -- an android trying to become human. Instead, the android protagonist that partners with the human protagonist seems to be akin to Top 10's Joe Pi, who acknowledges that certain things are meant to simulate human interaction, that he is not human. However, he clearly feels that he is different (if not superior) to the other androids on the force, in that they operate on meticulously defined decision trees, while he operates on something more along the lines of raw intelligence and knowledge coupled with leaps in intuitive logic.

So far, I also enjoy how this iteration of the replicant has different model series with in the same type of model (an MX series android, within the set of combat android models), very much like how Blade Runner's Nexus 6 replicants were also of varying functions in society. It really speaks to how the replicant is a product of corporate production, where some models and operating systems really hit the sweet spot in terms of synergystic functionality -- and others are just 'good enough' until a better model comes along.

In my Cyberpunk campaign later this year, I intend to revisit many of these themes -- but I also plan to add the concept of the software upgrade, backups, and rollbacks to really reinforce how replicants, despite their amazing approximation of humanity, are still something other than human; something detached from what we currently consider the human condition.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Confederation Chronicles: Review and Restart

In 2012, I tried to create a campaign setting that would be based on much of the material available from Sine Nomine's RPG line titled Stars Without Number, but inspired by some favorite SF properties from live action and animated TV series.

In 2013, I tried to restart that work, but failed.

So, here I am again. As a counterpoint to the fantasy campaign I'm working on called Border Wardens, this is to be my Science Fiction work.

Review

Since it's been quite a while since that initial burst of activity, I need to refresh my memory.

In "Confederation Chronicles: A Campaign Premise" parts 1 and 2, I decided that I was going to riff off of the Battlestar Galactica concept -- a fleet of ships trying to find their way home. Unlike that show, or the other inspiration show (Andromeda), they actually come from a stable part of the Imperium: a self-sufficient cluster of worlds and systems that survived the mysterious disintegration of their galaxy-spanning Empire.

And they've been charged to find a stable path of travel along linked routes back to the Throneworld.

In "Confederation Chronicles: A Mobile Base of Operations -- Part 01", I explore the benefits of a self-sufficient, ridiculously powered ship being available to the PCs, with Blake's 7, Andromeda, and Farscape as inspirations.

In "Confederation Chronicles: A Mobile Base of Operations -- Part 02", I look at how dialing back the power levels and scale might affect the setting, while looking at the other campaign elements shows like Battlestar Galactica, Robotech/Macross, Firefly, and Starblazers/Space Cruiser Yamato dealt with life on a ship.

In "Confederation Chronicles: A Mobile Base of Operations -- Part 03", I decide on the Stars Without Number source material I'll be using to build the campaign's traveling fleet: the Imago Dei and the Bruxelles-Class Battlecruiser sourcebooks in the Mandate Archive series.

I was all set to talk about inserting the PC roles in the campaign, but I stalled -- briefly posting on possible inspirations from the excellent Gumshoe-powered RPG by Pelgrane Press: Ashen Stars -- but not really following through.

But maybe it's time to dust off the notebooks and get back to work on this project.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Armchair Review: The Nazi Occult

The book The Nazi Occult (from Osprey Publishing) is packed solid with adventure hooks and telling details on the occult in Nazi Germany during WWII.

Here's my review as it appears on RPGNow:

It should be pointed out that this book is written as an 'alternate history', detailing a richly imagined and meticulously researched tapestry of Nazi plans, activities, artifacts and personas. 
With that out of the way, this is a must-have for GMs who are planning to run games (or are already running ones) that are set in WWII with a touch of mystical / magical elements, weird science hints, or even Cthulhoid intrusions. It's also a treasure trove of origin hooks for superheroes or supervillains from the WWII / post-WWII era of comic book gaming.
Even a cursory read will clue you into names major and minor in the network of allied and opposed occult factions; a close read will give you a rundown of a multitude of Ahnenerbe activities around the world, major artifacts that passed through Nazi Occult hands like the Spear of Destiny, the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant (with a tip of the hat to our favorite adventuring archaeologist), Nazi mystical rites with occult significance with their exact dates in the timeline, and ties to locations like Agartha and to technologies like the Vril-powered Bell.
If you want to freak your players out with fantastic and horrific adventure elements strongly grounded in history, this is the book for you.

I strongly recommend you pick it up, and read it with notebook or digital recorded in hand -- to capture all the ideas that will be triggered on a page-by-page read of this tome. And, if you're already familiar with the subject matter, you may find inclusions of well-known and lesser known characters from pop culture and gaming culture added into the mix.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Data Scan: Cyberpunk RPG Anime Fuzion

R. Talsorian came out with an RPG that expanded the ruleset toolkit for a cyberpunk setting: Bubblegum Crisis. And during the short-lived era of Fuzion -- a system touted to have the benefits of the Interlock and Hero Game Systems -- there were a slew of fan-made rule expansions and sourcebooks which included an Appleseed sourcebook!

If only Cyberpunk 2020 v.3 had been, uh, better. It could've reaped the benefits of all this source material!

Bubblegum Crisis

I was a fan of the Bubblegum Crisis anime, so when I saw this out, I snapped it up immediately.

In addition to the setting, heavily influenced by one of the cornerstones of motion picture cyberpunk -- Blade Runner -- you have a lot of gadgets and gear, and vehicles and other mecha, to draw on for your cyberpunk game. Cyberpsychosis is particularly problematic here, with the mega-corporation of mega-corporations (GENOM) purposely pushing the boundaries of their artificial life forms (Boomers) beyond the manufacturer's warranty.

There are also many suggestions for expanded campaigns outside of Neo-Tokyo, and subsequent supplements added more machine and mecha to the mix. Perfect for a cyberpunk campaign a bit further into the future than the default 2020 campaign.

Appleseed


This sourcebook details many of the guns and some of the vehicles and bots in the Appleseed setting of Masamune Shirow's manga & anime series. Cyberpsychosis isn't so much of a factor, but there is the very prevalent theme (similar to Bubblegum Crisis and Blade Runner) dealing with replicants / androids / artificial life forms and what makes them human or not.

There is also much more of a political angle to this paramilitary-heavy storyline, hence the importance of constant training for the ESWAT team, and the occasional realization of protagonists that they are pawns being manipulated by multiple factions to get some nebulous (or all-too-concrete) end.

One of the things I'd like to have seen: more rules on creating full conversion borgs. Unlike the default 2020 setting, these guys don't really go crazy so much -- they seem to fully embrace their change, without losing touch with their identity or humanity.

Also: landmates and other iterations of powered armor aplenty!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Data Scan: Quotes on the Cyberpunk Genre

"It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes... I wanted to see dirt in the corners."

- William Gibson, "The Art of Fiction No. 211", The Paris Review

"Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor."

- Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity."

- Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

"...the street finds its own uses for things."

- William Gibson, "Burning Chrome", Burning Chrome

"Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it's the truth. It won't go away because we cover our eyes. THAT is cyberpunk."

- Bruce Sterling

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Border Wardens of Mystara: On Keeps, Villages, Cults, and Clans


Turning my thoughts specifically to a Mystara setting (I'm also contemplating doing alternate versions for Enigmundia, and perhaps even a Red Tide version), I'm thinking of placing it in the western area of Karameikos, towards the base of the northern mountain ranges at the Riverfork Keep.



Element 01: Riverfork Keep

This is the most interesting place to put it for me, because it is not only so distant from the capital, but is also separated by rivers. This would suggest that certain bridges are needed to handle a certain volume of land traffic travel, and that some river-based transportation would make sense for transportation of raw materials. It also heightens the isolation of the keep. The rivers themselves might also suggest why and how humanoid clans would frequent this area (transportation and fresh water and food).

The proximity to the Blight Swamp, and the need to pass by areas threatened by the Black Eagle Barony are also a plus.

Element 02: Village of Hommlet


Luln could arguably perform the role of Hommlet, I prefer that Luln's very Mystara-specific plots related to the Black Eagle Barony's malevolence remain uncomplicated by its own formidable subplots.

I'd place Hommlet near the Riverfork Keep, but to the west, across the river Cruth. I'm toying with creating it as an important trading route that the Five Shires would prefer to use (to avoid the Black Eagle Barony, of course) despite the added distance and difficulty.

The Vaults of Pandius have a variety of adventure hooks for Irenke, a Hommlet clone created for Mystara by Joachin Menchaca.

Element 03: The Church of Tiamat


I was troubled a bit about using the cults in Red Tide, as I wanted to really do an entire Border Wardens instance in that setting as well -- and then Zak comes up with an interesting set of cults that feel more appropriate for the Mystara world because (a) it's about dragons; (b) it has a number of colors that include red; (c) it will make for interesting realizations when the PCs figure out what's going on after running into the various Tributary Temples of the Cult of Tiamat (The Red Hand, the Black Wing, The Pale Eye, The Jade Fang, The Cobalt Claw).

So, I'll just deal with the various Humanoid Clans instead while I wait for him to finish 'em all.

Element 04: The Humanoid Clans


Karameikos is known to have various clans of humanoids in the Cruth Lowlands -- some, it is said, are under the employ of the Black Eagle Baron himself. Here are some that would be interesting to encounter, as identified in the Vaults of Pandius article by Giampaolo Agosta:

  • Greyslayers - a three-horde goblinoid tribe from the lowlands that often stray into the eastern reaches of the Five Shires. Rarely employed by the Black Eagle Baron due to the number of vendettas their clan has against many other humanoid clans. Their main strength comes from the substantial number of Cruth Ogres they are able to recruit, and a familiarity with poisons.
  • Blackstone - a six-horde tribe that is a veteran and survivor of the wars with the Five Shires. It is the largest in the Cruth Lowlands, and is distinguished also by its fondness for smoking darker and stronger pipeweed than the Hin of the Five Shires, and -- surprisingly -- by its skill at mining (a gift from the days of warring against the dwarves).
  • The Jagged Claw - a three- to four-horde tribe that are descended from the kings of Orthrong (which helps to explain their relative nobility when compared to other tribes.They live in the western Cruth Lowlands, north of the Greyslayer territory.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Data Scan: A Cyberpunk 2020 Reading List (RPGs)

There are a ton of Cyberpunk RPGs out there, but in coming up with an initial reading list of RPG-based source material, I've identified my own priority list that I'd thought I'd share with you:

Cyberpunk 2020

Since this is the primary inspiration for the campaign setting, it makes sense that a re-read of the main Cyberpunk 2020 book would top the list.

My initial skim of the table of contents already brings out several initial impressions:

  • this thing is a compact book of cyberpunk gaming goodness -- if a bit dated for the year 2014 in some ways -- due to the amount of material in it: character creation, realworld rules, netrunning rules, equipment lists, game fiction, an overview of the Night City mini-setting, and several game scenarios all in around 240 pages;
  • in some ways, it reads like an alternate history and culture with some things ringing untrue in the modern era: the dominance of Japanese culture and economy, the weapons lists and the wired vs wireless mentality of modern technology, the 80s / 90s feel of the crime-ridden streets of New York, the absence of social media and the computer gaming in culture, and so on;
  • in other ways, it's spot on -- the dominance of media and how it shapes perception of reality and values, the power of the megacorporations and the military industrial complex, paramilitary organizations that work for either or both of the former groups, remote controlled devices, and other ominous aspects of our very wired, very digital, very multi-cultural lives.
It should be fun giving this a re-read and figuring out how to run it with some relevance so close to the year it purports to represent. It should be fun to also pick up the other books I collected for the same setting.

Blue Planet

This may be a bit of a surprising choice, but the environmental / ecological shifts caused by global climate change would result in this increase of rain and wateriness in certain areas of the world -- and Blue Planet also handles the cybernetically-enhanced dolphins and orcas very well. I also like the way that they detail the balance between the needs of various corporations (mining for valuable resources), the need to monitor and control the frontier-ish feel of an archipelago. And if I will finally do a Philippine-based cyberpunk campaign, it will prove useful to have rules about a rain-soaked tropical setting with technology that tends to get damaged by moisture.

Actually, all the hard science in the book will be pretty useful for any near water or underwater campaign. Take your pick of the various editions out for this under-exposed game.

Kazei 5

Taking a step away from hard science, towards a more anime influence, the Kazei 5 sourcebook is another good source of cyberpunk material. You have a slightly different take on cybernetics & netrunning, rules on mecha and espers, and material on genetic enhancements that will really ratchet up the power levels of any cyberpunk campaign.

Plus, it's for the HERO system which -- while near and dear to my heart -- is also just a step away from Interlock system via their forgotten child -- the FUZION system.

Plans for 2014

Last year, posting was very erratic, and I hope to introduce more regimen into my blogging this year. So here are my plans:

Armchair Reviews

I shall continue doing my Armchair Reviews of RPG core books and source material that catch my interest. I already have quite the backlog, so there shouldn't be a lack in things to review.

I will, however, try to lock down on a better format for the reviews. These are armchair reviews, after all, meaning that they're done from the point of view is from a detached reader, and not one who's actually run the game itself.

Campaign Frameworks

The Campaign Frameworks I've started that will continue are the Border Wardens and Confederation Chronicles frames -- both of which I hope to continue until the middle of the year.

After that, I hope to shift to two other Campaign Frameworks: Night City Blues (a Cyberpunk / F.R.E.E.Lancers / Mutant City Blues mashup), and a still hazy Fading Suns one until the end of the year.

To be honest, I'm still wrestling with a format for these, but I hope to finish enough content for one of these to lay out into some kind of free PDF document.

Mining for Inspiration

I also plan on choosing occasional TV shows, Movies, Anime, Books, Comics, and other media (including old RPGs) and picking them apart for use in adventuring, GMing and gaming in general. Ideally, these are going to be centered in the first half of the year on inspirations for the Night City Blues and Fading Suns campaign frameworks -- which are both still vague to me anyway.

Here's hoping for a more productive year!

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