Friday, April 30, 2010

Tips on Gaming in the Philippines from Pointyman2000

There's a good set of tips from pointyman2000 about getting started in the tabletop RPG hobby in the Philippines here. Read!

Interview from the Society

There's an interview of Scott Aniolowski -- a longtime contributor to much Call of Cthulhu material -- over at the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. Read!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Roleplaying in the Worlds of Star Trek -- Part I

So, the new Star Trek movie was a hit and will probably spawn more sequels that are hopefully of the same caliber or better.

It's only natural that gamers will turn their thoughts to gaming in the Star Trek universe. What games and resources are out there for the gamer seeking to play in the universe of the Federation?

Licensed Star Trek Role-Playing Games

Surely there's been a Star Trek RPG out there? Why not just go out and buy it?

Well, there have been several Star Trek RPGs. The first one was by FASA -- no, wait!

The first Star Trek RPG was published in 1978 by Heritage Models, if Wikipedia is to be believed. It was called Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier and covered under its license the original series and the animated series.

The next Star Trek RPG was FASA's, and it came out between 1982 to 1989. It was based on the Star Trek universe as defined by the original series, the animated series, some fan fiction, and the novels of noted Star Trek novelist John M. Ford (particularly his rationale for the two apparently wildly different looking Klingons in the series). Non-gamers actually welcomed this RPG and assumed that the source material found in it was canon. They were disabused of this notion when Star Trek: The Next Generation came out in 1987 and eliminated the concepts of "Imperial" Klingons, "human-fusion" Klingons, and "Romulan-fusion" klingons, replacing them with the Viking Samurai Klingons who had joined the Federation.

Then came Last Unicorn Games' Star Trek RPG, which was called Star Trek: The Next Generation Role-playing game. It received the 1998 Origins Award for Best Role-playing Game and came out with a lot of source material. In fact, they intended on coming out with a core rulebook for each of the Star Trek TV series, and nearly succeeded (they came out with a Deep Space 9 core book, and an Original Series corebook) but lost the license to Decipher before they could finish. It's rumored that they intended to come out with a Voyager core book, but it's doubtful that they would have ever considered the other, always forgotten Star Trek TV series (Star Trek: the Animated Series).

Decipher's Star Trek RPG came out in 2002. It was called the Star Trek Roleplaying Game. They came out with several books, including:

  • Book 1: Star Trek Roleplaying Game Player's Guide (2002)
  • Book 2: Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator's Guide (2002)
  • Book 3: Starfleet Operations Manual (2003)
  • Book 4: Starships (2003)
  • Book 5: Aliens (2003)
  • Book 6: Creatures (2003)

and several others, but ceased publishing and producing the RPG in 2007. And that's where that road ends.

Fortunately, there are alternate roads.

There was an RPG published by Task Force Games in 1993 (!) called Prime Directive. It is set in the Star Fleet Universe - a Paramount-sanctioned spin-off intellectual property that is essentially the original series + the animated series but never mentions certain things, like "Trek" or "Kirk" or "Spock", but does include Klingons, and Romulans, and Constitution-class ships... For old-school wargamers, yes, this is the same universe that the war games Federation Commander and the vernerable Star Fleet Battles are set in. Interestingly enough, that the author of the original Heritage Games Star Trek RPG has a connection to Amarillo Design Bureau, Inc., the long-time publishers of Star Fleet Battles.

When Task Force Games folded, the game was ported into two other systems: GURPS Prime Directive and D20 Prime Directive.

Of course, if neither of these appeal to you, there are non-licensed RPGs that can deliver a similar Star Trek feel...

continued in Part II

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Game Table Interview: GM Beej

I don't actually know GM Beej that well.

His name has come up on the Alliance of Eclectic Gamers and Interactive Storytellers (AEGIS) mailing list, most recently announcing the release of a D&D 4E supplement titled Tikbalang: Guardians of Kalikasan.

He became aware of me, however, through this blog and my recent post on Filipino fantasy settings. We got in touch with each other and so I sent him the interview questionnaire. Here's the result:

What was the first RPG you remember playing?
I have some dim memories about playing a sort-of RPG with a bunch of classmates back in 3rd grade. One person would be the storyteller, while the rest enacted characters in a familiar TV show (at the time, the most common would have to be the first Power Rangers, and everybody wanted to be green and avoided pink like the plague). We had no dice to roll - we instead used the DBZ "Charge" kid-game to handle combat.

An aside: Charge is a very fast game that we used to play as kids, and I'm sure many kids of my generation played a version of it. Here's how our version worked: Two players would choose a cartoon/sentai/fighting game/anime character. Each turn of play is done by clapping both hands together and then making a move. The moves are either a charge, or attacks that the character is known to do - kamehameha, hadouken, ray gun, slice with green ranger's dagger, etc. Each attack, however, will only damage the opponent's life by the number of charges the player already made. The other rules, like how much life a player has, how many charges it will take to have your kamehameha destroy a planet (50?), blocking, etc are as mutable as the whims of a nine-year old.

Now that I think about it, the nine-year old who thought of incorporating such a simple game with storytelling is a genius. Six kids could sit in a circle, clap at the same time, and  resolve a combat scenario in one or two minutes - not even the fastest pen-and paper RPGs could do that.

It would be a full ten years before I rolled up my first D&D 3.5 character, so I guess Storytelling Charge qualifies as my first.

What was it about the hobby that made you want to continue playing?
Let's fast-forward to D&D 3.5 and beyond from here on in. 3.5 had just come out, and I had money then, so I decided to buy the Player's Handbook on a whim. My character was a wizard, and you could say that I was spellbound. I kept reading through the various spells in the PHB, and I was mesmerized by the promise of eventually learning ever more powerful spells.

Eventually, however, it evolved from just wanting to get to epic levels. While my fellow (optimizer) players jumped from character to character, I stuck with my wizard all throughout. As such, my DM at the time was able to weave my character's story really well, and I became as invested in his character development as a dedicated viewer would become invested in a telenovela's main heroine.

Character growth, which began with getting more and more experience points and evolved into watching my characters grow from "naive farm boy" to "contemplative Jedi Grandmaster," remains as my motivation to keep playing to this day.

What was it about the hobby that made you want to run RPGs?
I first became a GM out of convenience - our constant GM at the time was suffering a burnout, and he wanted to become a player, for a change. No one else wanted to take the role, so I took initiative and grabbed it. What kept me coming back, however, was how much I sucked at the job initially: I let a total of ten people join in one game, I gave them outrageously powerful opponents to compensate, characters died left and right, and so people kept making new characters. My only saving grace was that I knew the mechanics of the game (D&D 3.5) very well.

My games were a mess, and to me that was a challenge. I was challenged to run something worth playing, and luckily, I had players that stuck with me through all that disastrous gaming. There were a lot of hits and misses, but sometime during the third or fourth campaign I was running, someone told me, "That was a great game!" From then on I was hooked. Why do I want to run RPGs? It's because I'm a sucker for praise. That may sound selfish, but it also means that I'm always doing my best to run a great game.

What 3 novels have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Brother's War, a novel set in Magic: The Gathering's world of Dominaria. - The brothers Urza and Mishra grow from young best of friends to bitter old rivals, and the novel was the first one that taught me how to use grey areas instead of black-and-white "good vs evil." Jeff Grubb also handles the passage of time really well, not just showing characters growing old, but having changes in the objects and the environment as well.

Other than that, however, I haven't read too many novels that inspire my games. My focus is instead in short stories. It takes skill to craft a world in a limited number of words. While campaigns may last for months or even years, it's best to settle on the story. Sometimes, novels take too much time exploring the world at the expense of the story's progression.

One short story that I keep going back to whenever I work on Buan (my Filipino-themed Campaign Setting for D&D) is the "Sugilanon of Epefania's Heartbreak" (by Ian Casocot available online at the PSF sampler). That story was able to balance the feel and power scale of our epics with a feeling of being fresh and new. Through Buan, I hope to do something similar by interpreting the stories of old into the newer medium of storytelling that is D&D.

What 3 TV shows have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Sliders - It may have bombed from the 3rd season onwards (darn you Kromaggs!), but I stuck to this series from the beginning up until its cliffhanger ending. Sliders is an inspiration because it shows that worlds can become drastically different from our own by simply altering one element. What if Egypt is still a world power? What if penicillin was never discovered? What changes, and what stays the same? These questions are especially useful when running a game set in the modern world.

Rome - Historically inaccurate in many respects, HBO's Rome nevertheless presents an array of characters that fit very well into any fantasy world. From the badassery of the soldiers Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus to the literal backstabbing of the the Roman senators, I was able to model numerous NPCs to populate my games.

When I next run an Eberron game, I will be sure to take inspiration from both shows of the Fullmetal Alchemist series. Militaristic nations, forbidden arts, and the fusion of magic and technology are prevailing themes in both shows, a trait that they share with D&D's latest campaign setting.

What 3 movies have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick - My main game system right now is D&D 4E, where the player characters are a cut above everyone else. Riddick is the perfect example of such a character.

The Dark Knight aka the Joker movie - The joker is the poster boy of the chaotic evil alignment in D&D, and whenever I have a chaotic evil villain these days, I use this movie's Joker as the measuring stick. He is also a a good model for most recurring villains - the types that really get to the player character's skins.

That already makes three, right? No, I have to mention one more? Well, then it will have to be all six Star Wars films. A lot of people don't like the prequel movies, but they did give us Darth Maul, the purple lightsaber, and Yoda fight scenes. (Of course, the original movies are still hold a place in my geeky heart.)

What is your favorite published RPG of all time, and why?
I think it's fairly obvious that I'm a D&D guy, and 4E for me is the best interpretation of the game to date. I am aware that in many ways, the whole class and level system limits D&D somewhat. And from time to time, I run or play in other RPGs to clean the gaming taste buds (did that make sense?). Right now, I'm running a Dark Heresy game, and I've been itching to run a Changeling: The Lost game - diwata style.

But I will keep going back to D&D because of two things. 1st, I know the rules inside and out, and whenever I think of a creative scenario, I can model it with the D&D rules without consulting the books too much. 2nd, when casual gamers think of pen and paper RPG's, the D&D brand simply wins out. So when people are interested in trying out RPGs, D&D is usually the game they have in mind.

What is your favorite published game supplement or adventure of all time, and why?
I would have to go with the Fiendish Codex series of late D&D 3.5. These are actually two supplements, with the first focusing on chaotic demons and the second focusing on the tyrannical devils. I love these two books because there's so much information on the 666 (infinite) abyssal layers and the nine hells, as well as its denizens. Also, unlike their predecessor (The Book of Vile Darkness), the codexes don't give me that ever-so-slight Catholic guilt from reading them.

Even though I don't run 3.5 anymore, I still keep going back to these two for motivations in a 4E campaign. 4E supplements, in contrast, are easy to reference in game, but there's really no motivation to just sit down and read the books.

What RPG have you always wanted to play, but never got a chance to?
Always is such a strong word. For the longest time I've wanted to play in NWoD without any supernatural powers whatsoever (I hear Hunter: The Vigil does that pretty well).

But recently, I shelved that idea, and I instead want to play Fantasy Flight Games' latest rendition of Warhammer Fantasy. They have unique dice (no numbers!), decks of cards, various counters, and even something that's called the party sheet to determine how well the characters work as a group.  Added together, it actually kind of looks like a CCG rather than an RPG, but I personally like a lot of visual aids for my games.

What upcoming RPG releases are you looking forward to seeing?
Mostly, I'm looking forward to my own releases. I have another supplement for D&D 4E coming out soon, entitled, Asuang: Shapechanging Horrors. It has eight new monsters (nine, if you count the manananggal twice), mostly for the early levels of play. Beyond that, I really want to see myself releasing more and more Filipino-themed supplements. My hope is to get D&D players everywhere to become more familiar with our own fantastical creatures.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Musings: A Filipino Fantasy Setting

Many of the attempts that I've seen on a Filipino fantasy RPG setting tend to be this: a mostly historical setting dappled with mystical elements from local myth and folklore. While this approach tends to work for an urban fantasy setting, inspiration stemming largely from the example of White Wolf's World of Darkness, I find it odd that there aren't more varied takes -- especially with the variety present in local TV, films, komiks, and other locally produced fantasy media.

Of course, it's very easy to snipe from the sidelines, so since I've prepared the noose for others, I might as well start some work on what I'd like to see in such a setting.

1st Principle: Historical inspiration over historical accuracy
Don't be a slave to history; tweak, alter, and ignore history to make the setting interesting -- which is good considering that the history wasn't that pretty (especially for us Filipinos).

2nd Principle: Only the names have changed
There are some cultural and behavioral patterns that seem to repeat themselves a lot in our history, and -- big and small -- they should make their way into the setting. Otherwise, why'd we even call it one? Some things that come to mind are:
  • religious tensions and evolutions - before the Spaniards came over to disseminate Roman Catholicism, religion was a mix of animist beliefs, the muslim contingent (which was never completely eradicated in places in the Southern area), and whatever else came over with the traders from nearby countries (China, we're looking at you); this kind of religious diversity, openness, and intolerance must be an element.
  • cultural tensions - as an archipelago of 7,100 islands (give or take given the tide) with mountain ranges and valleys, and a host of caverns and other natural barriers and natural resources, there were a lot of varied clans/tribes/alliances that developed their own languages and customs, warred against each other, and even "betrayed" one another when the Spaniards came to invade; this kind of factionalism and divisiveness must also be an element.
  • adventuring tropes - with D&D as an inspiration, we look for adventuring sites. Wilderness adventures are an obvious choice, but cave-based "dungeons" may be done as well. City-based adventures would work, along with the smaller towns ravaged by a single creature or a small horde of 'monsters' attacking the town. There's no shortage of local creatures to fight: higantes, aswangs, pugos, kapres, tikbalangs, manananggals, engkantos, etc. Sadly, most of the big structures were built by the Spaniards (that we know of), so we'll have to be creative if we want some kind of break from this disparity. Magic systems will be interesting -- various types of local witchcraft, and local bits of color like anting-antings and oracions; these must be represented in some way as well.
3rd Principle: It's a game, man
Don't include all sorts of historical details that would make otherwise interesting characters and locales difficult or depressing to game in. While RPGs can, of course, illuminate our understanding of history, historical simulation is not the main goal.

Furthermore, there are other RPG-related concerns: game balance (or lack thereof), abilities that can consistently be represented by rulesets, thematic decisions, the ability to inspire a sense of wonder, and so on.

Okay, let's let this percolate a while before we take our first stabs at this. For inspiration, I'm gonna post pics of local fantasy film examples:

Ang Panday, immortalized by FPJ, a couple of characters from Engkantadia, and the Mulawin movie.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Free RPG Alert: Chronicles of the Drenai

GM Dariel is a busy person! If you're a fan of the late David Gemmel's work, and have been wanting to adventure in his worlds, there a free RPG available at 1KM1KT by GM Dariel!

He's done a number of these RPGs over the years, and I wouldn't be surprised if we run into a few more as we go along. In the meantime, I encourage you to take a look at this RPG and any of his work on the net.

Right now, he's busy on another RPG project in addition to his photography and modding hobbies.

Hats off to you, GM Dariel! Keep the good stuff coming.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

What's the Campaign Premise?

First off, I'm making up a term here, so sorry if your usage of the phrase "campaign premise" differs from mine.

A campaign premise is different from the campaign setting. It is based on the concept of a series premise, which is also different from a series setting. Here's an example of two series premises -- both set in the same, er, setting:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a young woman attending a small town high school discovers that she is the latest in a line of Slayers -- young women chosen by fate to battle against vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness. Aided by a Watcher (guide, teacher, trainer and source of useful exposition), and a circle of loyal (though not entirely normal) friends, she faces off against these creatures drawn or spawned by the Hellmouth.
  • Angel: A vampire whose human soul was restored to him as a punishment  -- tormented with guilt and remorse -- works as a private detective in Los Angeles, California. Along with a variety of associates they  "help the helpless" and "save the powerless", normally doing battle with evil demons or demonically allied humans who are increasingly affiliated with a supernaturally evil law firm Wolfram & Hart.

Same setting, different unifying concept that plausibly (or implausibly in some causes) rationalizes the monster of the week that plagues this type of show.

So how is this useful for D&D-type campaigns?

For people like me who want some kind of plausibility and perhaps continuity in a campaign, I like to think in terms of campaign premises because it helps me address several issues that often challenge plausibility and continuity, such as:

  • "How many of these things are there?" - assuming it's not a mega-dungeon and you've got sufficient time and skill to go through a dungeon in a single gaming session, after several months you (or your players) may begin to wonder exactly how many of these dungeons got the countryside, how they keep happening upon missions and rumors about them, and how they might be able to earn money as a dungeon construction company;
  • "I'm his sister, Red Dougal." - PCs tend to die without hope for resurrection, necessitating fresh PCs to reinforce the party, and it's not necessarily fun to role-play the sometimes in-dungeon meet-and-greet. I mean, would you really trust some creature that suddenly appears -- fully decked out in adventuring gear -- during your adventure?
  • "No one's heard from them since!" - A total party kill means another group of adventurers must show up and go through the dungeon as well. How do they know about it, and why weren't they hot on the heels of the last party, and good thing there are a lot of adventurers just waiting to go out on these expeditions immediately after the last one failed to return. If the party was trying to complete a series of quests to stop some evil overlord thing -- so much for all the clues and continuity built up with the last group!

A good campaign premise can address some, if not all of these problems. And while they may seem hokey, to me that's better than no attempt at plausibility at all! Here are some off the top of my head (gleefully ripped off from various media):

The Goons of the Invincible Overlord

Inspired by the X-files, there is an organization that recruits, trains, and sends out adventurers that deal with various problems of the empire/city-state. Most of their jobs are more mundane: breaking up/enforcing monopolies, weeding out enemies of the state, stopping rebellions, investigating high-profile crimes.

But a small group of adventurers are awarded/punished with the "short-straw" missions -- clearing out humanoid infestations along the borderlands, securing rumored caches of fiercely-guarded locations of ancient treasure, investigating rumors of unusual deaths in outlying towns and villages, and the ever-popular "it may be nothing, but it doesn't hurt to check if there really is a tomb of a lich there, and yes you have to pay for everything for this expedition yourself".

If you wish to retain the 'sandbox' feel, (and remind the players that there ain't no such thing as 'script immunity') make sure there are a cast of NPCs and PCs up for this unusual type of work in the organization, keep a constantly updated list of mission listings (and rumors about them from other folks in the org) and have entire groups of them die, or returned horribly maimed.

Also remember that -- early on in the X-files series -- Fox Mulder was granted access to the X-files casework because of his excellence in serial killer profiling. The reward for a job well done may well be that characters can eventually pick their own missions. Just like their superiors are probably doing.

Settings that seem easily adaptable to this concept would be the CityState of the Invincible Overlord and the Majestic Wilderlands.

Port of Call

Inspired by the Babylon 5 core idea ("we don't seek adventure, adventures seek us out"), this campaign premise establishes the adventurer pool as residents with many organizational, institutional, and personal attachments to a city located at the crossroads of adventure. Key members of the party may find out about a potential wilderness trek or dungeon crawl from a dying man in a tavern, an unusual altercation in the market square, or from strange new travelers arriving at the docks.

Travel to new locations can be over land as part of a caravan, or via sea trading routes. Powerful political factions with their own agendas can also set themselves up in the city and cause trouble, resulting in occasional city-based adventures. Established patrons may be able to tie loose strands of rumor and fact together and urge the party out with specific missions -- and handsome rewards.

Freeport seems like a nice fit for this type of campaign premise.


Inspired by TV shows Warehouse 13 and Friday the 13th, the PCs are part of a secret organization trained and tasked with the recovery and nullification of various ancient mystical threats and artifacts of varying degrees of power. There are powerful NPCs who both help and hinder the PCs (many which are doomed to die, retire, fall from grace and in general be replaced by one or more of the PCs). There is potential for  betrayals and power struggles, and some pretty nasty rival organizations and lone wolf operatives as well.

Great for campaigns that want an excuse to roll out world backstory exposition quickly, but with the occasionally annoying "need to know basis" stonewall from superiors. Tends to raise the question: who's bankrolling these operations and why do they really want us to recover and eliminate all this stuff? Resolving that question tends to make a great transition into another type of campaign premise.

Both Greyhawk and Mystara (because of the Blackmoor and Immortal/Gods elements) seem particularly apropos for lots of ancient artifact retrieval.


No really! I like the setting's history and how it sets up the rationale for many underground lairs, cities and mega-dungeons. Essentially, at some point near the height of an ancient set of empires in the past -- the stars became "right". Terrifyingly powerful, maddeningly cruel outsiders and elder beings entered reality and ravaged the world and drove even some of the gods insane. Fortunately, oracles and seers saw it coming and were able to convince a lot of civilizations to prepare. Unfortunately, not all of their preparations worked.

Now that the stars are no longer exactly "right", but still "right enough" for the lesser outsiders and elder beings to exist in a greatly weakened fashion, the remnants of various empires and powers are sending out people to investigate, reclaim, and cleanse the glories of the past.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Resources for "Sandbox" Creation

While I wasn't looking, a "relatively" new term sprung up in the gaming lingua franca: the 'sandbox'.

I'm not entirely certain about the origins, though I believe that it may have originated from the IT term for an isolated server or workspace within a server that is effectively segregated from everything else in the network -- you can do whatever you want in it and it won't affect anything outside it.

In modern gaming parlance, the sandbox apparently refers to -- and I'm doing this purely from context clues -- a style of play where players are dumped into a campaign setting that can be as small as a dungeon or as large as a  world map and are free to pursue whatever agendas they wish.

Furthermore, it seems to be used as the opposite of 'story-driven' play -- which, in many OSR blog posts, seems to be used synonymously with GM 'railroading' (a more commonly used term that has seen longer and more widespread usage in gaming circles).

In any case, I've decided to find out more about this old/new style of play and am hunting down posts concerning sandbox creation.  Here are a couple of excellent meta-posts from A Bat in the Attic.

Fantasy Sandbox Creation
Traveller Sandbox Creation