Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Timemaster on Sale! Set your chronometers to stop, and go!

According to this post and this link on RPGNow, at this moment, the entire selection of books is on sale. Timemaster, which is currently owned by Goblinoid Games, is a time travelling game from the past millenium -- with all kinds of awesome!

Even if you don't have any interest in the game system or setting itself, if you have any interest in Time Travel games you should pick up Timetricks. It has a number of time-related difficulties for time traveler on a mission including Significance Waves, getting caught in a Time Loop, and so on.

You can come up with your own mechanics to resolve these issues, but the conceits and their explanations are fresh and fairly unused in my experience with time travel games -- possibly because most time travel games focus on resolving matters in-stream rather than with a constant option to travel back or forward in time.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Cross-posting: Call for submissions

Apologies to my regular readership, but I'm targeting possible authors with this cross-posting. Some fellow bloggers have been included in this year's Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology, namely Pointyman, one of the mad geeks behind Nosfecatu, and -- yes -- I made it this year as well, so it's not unheard of that some folks out there may not have heard of us yet and may want to submit for the next anthology.

People are still basking in the afterglow of the successful book launch of PSF6 (you can read about it here, here and pictures here), which makes this the best time to open our virtual doors for the next volume: Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 7 (PSF7), to be edited by Kate Osias (my beloved wife and fellow writer) and some guy name Alex Osias, is now officially open for submissions.

Please read the guidelines below. Don't be afraid to email or message us if you have questions.

On a related note, PSF6 immediately sold out last Saturday. We are thinking of doing another print run, so if you want a copy or several, drop us a note so that I can forward it to our publisher, Dean Alfar.


Editors Alex and Kate Osias invite you to submit short fiction for consideration for Philippine Speculative Fiction -- Volume 7.

Philippine Speculative Fiction is a yearly anthology series, which collects a wide range of stories that define, explore, and sometimes blur the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all things in between.

The anthology has been shortlisted for the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award, and multiple stories from each volume have been cited in roundups of the year’s best speculative fiction across the globe.

First-time authors are more than welcome to submit; good stories trump literary credentials any time.

Submissions must be:

1. speculative fiction—i.e., they must contain strong elements or sensibilities of science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, alternate history, folklore, superheroes, and/or related ‘nonrealist’ genres and subgenres

2. written in English

3. authored by persons of Philippine ethnicity and/or nationality

Submissions are preferred to be:

1. original and unpublished

2. no shorter than 1,000 words and no longer than 7,500

3. written for an adult audience

In all cases, these preferences can be easily overturned by exceptionally well-written pieces. In the case of previously-published work—if accepted, the author will be expected to secure permission to reprint, if necessary, from the original publishing entity, and to provide relevant publication information.

Submission details:

1. No multiple or simultaneous submissions—i.e., submit only one story, and do not submit that story to any other publishing market until you have received a letter of regret from us. We don’t mind if you submit to contests.

2. All submissions should be in Rich Text Format (saved under the file extension ‘.rtf’), and emailed to kate.osias at gmail.com, with the subject line ‘PSF7 submission’.

3. The deadline for submissions is midnight, Manila time, September 30, 2011. Letters of acceptance or regret will be sent out no later than one month after the deadline.

Editors’ notes:

1. Please don’t forget to indicate your real name in the submission email! If you want to write under a pseudonym, that’s fine, but this can be discussed upon story acceptance. Initially, we just need to know who we’re talking to.

2. If you’d like to write a cover letter with your brief bio and publishing history (if applicable), do feel free to introduce yourself—but not your story, please. If it needs to be explained, it’s probably not ready to be published.

3. We advise authors to avoid fancy formatting—this will just be a waste of your time and ours, since we will, eventually, standardize fonts and everything else to fit our established house style.

There will be compensation for selected stories, but we’ve yet to determine exactly what. In previous years, we’ve provided contributor copies of the book, as well as small royalty shares, but we are considering shifting Philippine Speculative Fiction to digital format, so we may be shifting to outright financial payment as well.

Please help spread the word!


Alex and Kate Osias, co-editors

Dean Alfar, publisher

Fading Suns: Mining Firebirds -- what am I looking for?

I mentioned before that it's so easy to mine for the Fading Suns setting, so I guess the first thing I'd want to do is find some kind of focus in doing this mining thing.

1. Keep the setting in mind

Before you start extracting stuff from other sources, it's important to have a clear idea of where you're going to eventually insert it in the Fading Suns milieu. Here's a quick refresher taken from the Fading Suns 2nd Edition (Revised) by Redbrick:
"Fading Suns is primarily a science fiction game, which means that there are starships, blasters, powered armor, alien races, and weird science. But there are also many elements of traditional fantasy gaming: heroic characters and struggles, a feudal sociopolitical structure (noble lords, high priests and headstrong merchants), powerful artifacts and great mysteries. And there is horror: monsters and maddening discoveries revealing terrifying metaphysical truths."
With science fiction, fantasy, and horror explicitly stated as genres for this RPG, it's no wonder why I've mentioned as a "kitchen sink setting."

And yet there must be some thought to what elements are mined from this rich sources of gaming material; not everything will work. As stated in one of the Fading Suns blogs:
"Many new players in the Fading Suns universe have trouble understanding the mindset of the background. It is a place of intolerance, inequality, and of rigid dogma."
With this in mind, all extracted material should be given tweaks and adjustments so that rationale on how the various major and minor factions would view and interact with them.

2. RPGs

I essentially want to mine RPGs from different genres, rather than from the source material, because there are a lot of them out there that already have material written with an RPG adventure or campaign in mind (both fluff-wise and crunch-wise), making the mining easier.

3. Campaign Themes

Now, this may be somewhat alien to the "explore-dungeons-not-characters" crowd, but I've seen enough blogs from sandbox builders that there is some (and in some cases, much) thought also to campaign themes.

The themes of Fading Suns were succinctly explained once again in the Fading Suns rulebook:
Like medieval passion plays, Fading Suns deals with grand themes universal to human experience. Its main theme is the Seeking. This is the mythological role all heroes play: the knight on quest, seeking power to vanquish his enemies or the secrets of self-discovery. Success or failure on this quest is not as important as the insights learned while on it.

The atmosphere of the dramas played out in Fading Suns is one of tragic ignorance. Civilization is in decline, and superstition and fear are everywhere. New ideas and frontiers are spurned by a nervous populace, fearful of change for the harm it brings. But it is just this sort of willful ignorance that keeps civilization from rising again. It is such fear that keeps hope buried and great challenges from being met. The player characters represent the heroes who can break the bonds of this ignorance and bring something new and great to their culture, to reawaken and invigorate life.

Clearly, these themes can be realized even in sandbox-style campaigns by populating the setting with characters, institutions, and artifacts that evoke theme-inspired feelings.

Examples of seeking in a fantasy setting would include the classic over-arching quest to recover the Rod of Seven Parts, or the secret weapon needed to vanquish the Great Evil Overlord, or the discovery of what happened to an ancient civilization, and all the adventures along the way. Examples in a science fiction setting would include the exploration of a mysterious alien structure, or an investigation into a clandestine space-faring organization intent on destroying the Confederation of Planets.

Emphasizing the theme of tragic ignorance can be done through NPCs: the close-minded customs inspector who confiscates and destroys aberrant religious artifacts, the power-crazed governor who secretly kills all mages to steal their magic items, the single-minded zealot focused on destroying those who differ from the idealized norm.

It can also be done through artifacts: a broken weather-controlling device deep in the bowels of a dungeon that could calm the storms raging above if only the keepers of the ancient knowledge would cooperate.

And it can be done through carefully seeded trends and fads in the towns and villages that PCs pass through: increasingly prevalent use of dark and ancient magics for trivial purposes by an unsuspecting populace, the worship of a seemingly benevolent new god whose alternative names and titles disturb the more learned members of the party due to their possible connotations.

With all these parameters rambling around, it should be fairly easy to pick from some of the more intriguing RPG systems, settings, and supplements that have come out since RPGs have been around and repurpose them for the Fading Suns game.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Inspiration: Amaya -- A Filipino Epicserye

I've seen the pics and the press releases. And while I almost never get to watch TV anyway (because my son has gained control over both units in the apartment and runs back and forth between them), I must say I'm intrigued by it. I hope it manages to garner sufficient popularity to make it to DVD release so I can watch it in one go.

An epicserye, by the way, is an 'epic series'. It's a newish term, as in the past we've had teleseryes (television series), fantaseryes (fantasy TV series), and superseryes (super-heroic TV series), and the like.

But why would I watch it?

Well, aside from the posts from GM Dariel, the work from Nosfecatu, the occasional Hinirang story, and already-finished filipino fantaseryes there's little material that I can go to for filipino fantasy inspiration. Monsters tend to get the focus -- as in the case of Hero Games' inclusion of an impressive menagerie of monsters taken from Maximo Ramos's work -- instead of the heroes.

My past posts also on the already completed fantaserye Engcantadia reveal a need for some visual inspiration as well (and not just because the women are easy on the eyes). I look forward to the costumes and gear of the heroes, villains and denizens of this setting, especially since they seem to be drawing from the pre-Spanish era --  a time when our culture was primarily inspired by our neighbors in South East Asia, not colonial powers from Europe.

It is my hope that Filipino martial culture gets some exposure as well: martial arts such as Kali, Buno, and Sikaran; weapons and shields and armor from all the tribes (I love the detail on the shield), and so on.

However, since it seems to be rooted in the past without any pictures of creatures or monsters, it's likely that there won't be any fantastical creatures nor any spell-slinging wizards. At best it will probably be a low fantasy / historical fantasy tale.

Update (May 31, 2011)

Found the HD video below on YouTube. A teaser for the series which started last night:

My hopes for its success are high, since the lead -- Marian Rivera -- is currently very
popular in the Philippines, if her current ranking in our local version of  the
magazine FHM is any indication.

Isle Imperium: Episode 1.14 -- The Second and First Numbers

As ALINA continues her boat building, MANTIUS receives an invitation from the Warder of the Second Number to a casual gathering between the two groups. The party accepts, and travels through the Great Accord of the Saint of Saints (made possible through Judith and VARIAN) to the location of the Second’s vault. Greetings and introductions are exchanged between the party and:

ELINORA, mounted by the Black Greave Warder
FIDA, mounted by the Faceless Queen
CARITAS, mounted by the Glaive Vanguard
HELENA, mounted by the Gilded Cannoneer
JIRI, mounted by the Pyre Talon
GELOVA, mounted by the Feylight Juggernaut
JUDITH, mounted by the Saint of Saints
LUCIA, mounted by the Keeper of the Vault

Much eating and conversation follows, in which many things are both discovered and revealed, including:
  • the party’s relative youth and inexperience
  • the probability that the Hyperion Juggernaut is not irreparably lost after all, since ARCTURUS still has its bond ring
  • the three Saints of Saints
  • the process of accomplishment
  • the Renegade Warder’s long ago disappearance with the Prodigious Scholar
  • the Harmonic Warder’s offense
  • the trade of Caritas from the First to the Second
  • the prevalence of predatory dueling among the Ten, particular with regard the First Number
Often misunderstood, Mantius did his best
to mend fences with the Second Number.
After the meal, the Second, led by Judith but apparently spearheaded by Fida, generously offer to grant the party “anything they need” that the Second can provide. Upon consultation with the group, Mantius cordially turns the offer down, but his refusal is misinterpreted as an insult, and the party is courteously yet coldly conveyed back to their beach.

Upon their return, they find Alina on the beach in conversation with none other SENATOR PATRICUS of the First Number, with an unidentified male figure seeming to watch them at some distance. After waving the male figure away, Patricus genially takes his leave, making a point of explaining that he has traveled to greet them instead of his warder since they have no warder at present. Following Patricus’s departure, Alina explains that he has been asking her questions (all of which she answered with lies) and additionally, left a gift for them. Investigation reveals that it is a receptacle containing a substantial amount of experience, which, despite some misgivings, they share out among themselves.

The party goes on to join Alina as she puts the finishing touches on the boat, in the process adding to their experience by fighting the “beasties” Alina tells them had been plaguing her and Rodrigo. They defeat a total of seven of the huge tentacular sea creatures, not without some difficulty since the last five attack as a group and thus very nearly cause the party’s demise.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Deconstruction in RPGs

I was reading the intro to one of the Astro City comics compilations and read something along the lines of "what's the point of taking things apart and learning how they work if you're not going to try to make something better?"

They were of course referring to the slew of 'grim & gritty' comics that came out in the 80s and 90s, along with the various deconstructionist treatments of various iconic super-heroes and super-hero teams -- some of which were watershed events in the history of the art (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Marvelman / Miracleman) while others were mediocre to bad attempts at the same fare. And some were just on the bandwagon to cash in on the trend of tearing down specific super-heroes or the entire genre itself.

Astro City, on the other hand, was successful in deconstructing and reconstructing superhero comics to achieve a different type of effect: having a surface story that appropriates many of the tropes and archetypes of the genre and layering it with more character and metaphor.

It was a revelation for me on two levels:
(1) it is possible to do satisfying riffs on superheroes and villains without being total rip-offs by drawing from earlier archetypes and / or mixing and matching;
(2) tearing apart stuff you liked while showing what parts don't work helps if you attempt to build something new after learning from the old.

So the big question is: how does this marginally interesting observation and possible epiphany relate to RPGs, thus justifying its inclusion in the blog?

1. Character creation with archetypes

When it became more possible in games to build the character that you wanted to play (character creation) rather than a character that you rolled up and made the best of (character generation), the desire to portray specific characters from inspirational material -- short stories, comics, novels, movies, TV shows, history -- was easier to satisfy.

Assuming that the game system, game setting, and game master were able to accommodate you playing a fairly well-known character ("Do you think you can stand against the power of Vecna, Conan?"), and assuming that it is capable of replicating the feats that these fictional characters are known for ("Vecna fails his saving throw, and loses the drinking contest. Conan wins!") sooner or later you'll run into the issue of canon -- because the player, or the GM or some other player will feel that the main body of work in being contradicted or even violated somehow ("No, I refuse to portray a female Conan just because of that stupid sex-change trap -- and tell Vecna to stop laughing!").

The next obvious step is to create someone reasonably close to, but not exactly like that character, often with an allusion in the name ("Call me Mississippi Smith."). Another tack is to create a character that amalgamates elements of characters into one. ("Of course we have a room for you and your female companion, Mr. James Westbondkirk.")

Some of the attempts (well, a lot of them) are juvenile, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's all for fun, and if it doesn't contradict the gameplay style being attempted, go for it.

However, Astro City has a plethora of characters that show that with some care mixing and matching the quintessential and archetypal elements of well-known super-heroes can create new characters that are familiar enough to draw upon the connotations of those archetypes, yet different enough to allow different portryals and stories to emerge.

In the above picture, there's a statue of the Silver Agent -- which appeared and was mysteriously alluded to in nearly every storyline of the series but whose history and significance was only recently detailed with a story -- a character who, despite the lack of a shield, has echoes of Marvel's Captain America and DC's Guardian.

Because of this visual short-hand, it suggests a character who upholds ideals at great cost, but is also a leader and an inspiration. I suppose that's why the mysterious story of the Silver Agent (only recently revealed) begged telling. Especially with a statue / monument to him with the following words inscribed below it: "To Our Eternal Shame".

In the future, I do plan on revisiting other characters from Astro City and other comics that have drawn on other archetypes. In the meantime, I invite you to search online for Samaritan, Winged Victory, and Jack-in-the-Box and see if you can identify their respective inspirations (visual and otherwise).

2. OSR, D&D, and various retro-clones and neo-clones

This was my first RPG experience:
reading T1 without a ruleset. It was
still awesome though I had barely
a clue about how to use it.
Of course, the other point here is relevant to what has gone on with the OSR movement -- and in theory with every RPG that was inspired by one or more RPGs that have come before.

I see the OSR movement, and the indie movement, and the whole mess of games coming out now, and the analysis of these games in terms of system and setting, and the house rules and the rules editions as part of this process and passion.

I think that at some level we're all going back to those games that first made our eyes light up in wonder, that took us to places we'd never been to before, that taught us how to see things differently, how to say things differently, how to think about things differently. I think we're trying to find out, with our older and wiser minds and hearts, what made these things work for us and for our friends.

And I'd like to think that the ultimate goal for all of this is to make games better, so that more of our circles of friends and family and strangers might experience what we did -- only better.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bay Area Champions -- Part 5: Death to the Undead

Here's the fifth part of the short story that I wrote. There's a framing sequence that I left out, but this is technically the last bit of the story. Next time, I'll post the full story with the framing sequence 'bookends'.

Death to the Undead

What happened next is disputed by nearly every authority in the metahuman world. Somehow the ragtag team of second-stringers eluded capture by the Bone Corps, found an airfield where hundreds of necrotech-bombers were arrayed in groups, infiltrated the airfield and managed to detonate all the thermofusion bombs simultaneously, wiping out the fleet of bombers and the Bone Corps in a soul-searing inferno.

Alexandra Raven credits Krusader with some ability or knowledge that was instrumental to avoiding the Corpsemen and finding the assembled bombers. She also credits the late David Raphael Vega with the solution to the simultaneous detonation of the thermofusion bombs.

“He realized he could use his cybernetic nervous system to integrate with the necrotech, if his organic parts were killed first,” she said in her controversial deposition. “He asked me to wire him to the lead bomber’s detonation systems. He saved all of us, and the world.”

The other survivors are notoriously tight-lipped when asked about David Raphael Vega’s noble sacrifice. They are equally tight-lipped about how they managed to survive a thermofusion explosion hot enough to kickstart a star and return back home.

There is a popular theory that Jesse Burning Mountain could have used his abilities to burrow deep enough into the earth, allowing them to avoid the damage from the shockwave. It also posits that he and Killowatt would have been able to absorb the energy that would otherwise have disintegrated all of them. Wilder speculations involve a one-shot superdevice up Alexandra Raven’s sleeves, and a supernatural artifact in the possession of Krusader.

What is not up to debate is that the world of Boa has indeed been cleansed by fire, and the four survivors somehow did make it back to the San Francisco Bay Area through an extra-dimensional gate that opened up in a San Mateo County mall.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Maps of MERP: The Scale of Moria

Greg Christopher, over on his Errant Game blog, was talking about an exercise in building a megadungeon as an exploration of setting as space, inspired by the appearance of the Balrog in the Peter Jackson LOTR flick...

...and this reminded me of the Middle-Earth Role Playing module Moria: the Dwarven City.

Now, this thing is huge. In addition to the seven levels of mines, it has the seven deeps that the dwarves delved into before they 'delved too deeply'. Due to scale, there aren't maps of the entire place. There are several maps of the various levels, and several cross-sectional maps showing how all these 'dungeon levels' are connected. One of those maps is, of course the cross-section to the right featuring the Endless Stair and Durin's Chimney.

Please note all those little bridges that connect various gaps in Durin's Chimney! Also, those little domed areas are other areas that are detailed in the module.

Last but not least, it may seem to you that the mine seems somewhat narrow. That's because we're looking at it (1) in comparison to the length of the Endless Stair; and (2) those corridors actually do go on quite a bit more (there are little symbols that say the corridors are 'cut' to fit the map.

Another map that I wasn't really sure how to use was the map of the Balrog's Lair. I mean, when where the players supposed to encounter this? Of course, if you run a game anytime after ol' flamehead's altercation with a certain grey wizard it would be free of any infernal entanglements -- or would it be?

Now, because of the scale adventuring in this place requires planning, rationing of all supplies, being fleet of foot (we have to walk how far to get to the next room?), and probably a continual light spell or two.

Actually, now that I think about it, I'd probably have the cleric in the party cast ten continual light spells on coins. Each party member gets one, and the extras get thrown ahead and retrieved as people move forward, or left behind to keep an eye on possible entrances and exits, etc.

Water sources become a problem here, especially if you're keeping track of sustenance for your player's characters. I mean, how clean is the water when you can find it? The location of water pools and rivers and streams are of prime consideration so that you can keep refilling those waterskins.

Again, the cleric spells become key in making water (and food) available and consumable.

In any case, the dwarves (and the ancients) certainly built big! And if I were going to go into this megadungeon, I'd certainly be a bit cowed by the scale of the vaulted ceilings, the chambers and corridors, and so on.

It's very different from the take that Mystara's Dwarves of Rockhome Gazetteer, but that was pretty big too. Maybe I'll tackle that in another post.

Fading Suns 3rd Edition: New Blogposts on System

There are some very interesting blog posts that reveal more of the revisions to the game system on the official Fading Suns site.

The first one shows how character creation would go using the lifepath system. It reveals the stats that are used, the skills that are used, and how some kind of character concept would be used to shape the character creation options. Of interest also is the Glitch pool, touched on in an earlier blog post about cybernetics. It's a bit long, but there are a LOT of things you can glean from reading it.

What also strikes me is how easy it should be to compress the stats block for future NPCs that I plan to create on this blog when 3rd Edition comes out.

The second one shows how both physical and social conflict would be resolved. Having read prior posts and being familiar with the native FS1/FS2 combat systems, the physical conflict explanation holds few surprises except for the inclusion of stances. The stances (aggressive, defensive, and balanced) are also used in the social conflict and are intriguing from a tactical perspective -- I remember my first exposure to how stances might be used in Hero Games' Ultimate Martial Artist rules and always wanted to make them more standard since they are (literally) a foundation for nearly all martial arts styles.

So, despite some of the heat poured on the system and setting changes on RPG.net (which was apparently resolved by some very mature self-moderation by posters -- well done!), I for one, am intrigued by the changes and hope to see them work really well for the return of Fading Suns!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gaming Trivia Quiz #1

I did this before for a local organization's grand meetings -- a gaming quiz!

I've never been a real rules lawyer, but the oddest things keep getting stuck in my memory -- hence gaming trivia. The questions and answers will of course reveal my game generation, but what the heck.

Here are the first quiz's 5 questions:
  1. What is the main weapon of the fighter on the Basic D&D rulebook (the version with the Erol Otus cover)?
  2. What does the acronym FASERIP stand for?
  3. What were Black Dougal's last words?
  4. Complete this phrase: "Stay ____ !Trust no one! Keep your ____ handy!"
  5. What do the following names have in common: Joshua Leng, Jonathan Harker, Jr., Ambrose Hunt, Virgil Hector Hades, August Rath, Dmitri Katliya, and Frank Glup?
I'll put up the answers later.

If anyone takes issue with those answers for whatever reason, I'd appreciate the explanation. After all, it's always a treat to learn even more gaming trivia.

UPDATE (May 25, 2011)

So here are the answers to the questions above:
  1. a spear
  2. Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, Psyche -- from the TSR Marvel Super-heroes RPG;
  3. "Poison!"
  4. "Stay Alert! Trust No One! Keep Your Laser Handy!" from the Paranoia RPG
  5. They were all members of an organization informally known as the Theron Marks Society, as mentioned in the Theron Marks Manual found in Call of Cthulhu supplement Terror from the Stars.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thinking About Games

Neil Gaiman -- through Puck here -- is
talking about the writing of Shakespeare
and plays and fiction in general. But he
may as well have been talking about all
our RPG sessions as well.
This post on The Alexandrian and another post on Narrative games on RPG.net have spurred some thought in my restless mind on the RPG hobby.

I understand and appreciate the need to establish terminology to define what the hell we're talking about, so I'm happy that there has been some effort in sort of drawing the lines between different types of game mechanics and different types of game design goals.

There's a question that's sometimes tossed around: "Does System Matter?"

My answer: of course it does. But it's the system that is actually used during gameplay that matters, not necessarily the ones set down in the rulebooks. The system can help establish the consistency, plausibility, and "fairness" of gameplay events. The system can also frame the type of gaming experience: one that may emphasize a realistic yet boring grind, or one that may favor wild and exciting unpredictability, or some other combination of traits. And there are good systems and bad systems. And there are systems that are good, but bad at realizing their stated goals and visa versa.

They also matter because every game system is someone's first -- so here's to improving them all regardless of your personal taste.

Another question that's sometimes tossed around is: "What does it matter, as long as you're all having fun?"

And my answer is: it matters if the GM and the players after something else in addition to having fun. Let me clarify that -- simple amusement is not the only fun that people can have playing games, just as watching a TV show or reading book isn't just about the thrills and chills. We can also enjoy touching moments of drama, brilliant tactical maneuvering, and that sense of wonder that reawakens memories and emotions of the sheer breadth of imagination untainted by someone else's vision -- the ones that we once had when we were young, and fearless and knew it all.

And another question that's often tossed around: "Why do you think so much about games?"

And my answer is perhaps different from all the other defenders of our hobby: because it matters to me. I could give a dozen reasons. A hundred reasons. But ultimately, they're all my reasons and they all boil down to this: RPGs matter to me. A well-crafted game system matters to me. A stunningly realized setting matters to me. A virtuoso performance of a GM and a cunning example of player meta-gaming matter to me. Heated arguments over game versions and movements and gamer poetics matter to me.

Not as important as family or principle. Not as important as righting injustice or helping the poor.

But important nonetheless.

And I thank God that I still have space and time for it in my life, no matter how small. And I'm thankful that many other people online have space and time for it in their lives as well.

Bay Area Champions -- Part 4: The Myth of Omega Man

Continuing the series of installments on my short story, here's the fourth one.

The Myth of Omega Man

I Remember Omega Man is a page-turner, a thriller, and a tribute to a beloved defender of the people. It is also a white-washed, sanitized, and sometimes utterly inaccurate account of Omega Man’s death on Boa.

Contrary to the novel’s depiction of Omega Man’s heroic last stand against all six hundred sixty-six members of the Bones Corps, all survivor accounts – including the deposition made by Alexandra Raven at Krusader’s trial – corroborate the identity of Omega Man’s murderer.

It was a Bone Corpsman, clad not in the rags and tatters of his peers, but in a dark echo of Omega Man’s cape and armor. On his face: featureless mask made from the same silver-grey metal as the Omega Bands, its forehead adorned with a stylized and curlicued Omega symbol.

Also contrary to the novel’s portrayal of the terrified survivors’ flight before the full might of the Bones Corps, the battle actually left them.

“More than half of us couldn’t fly, and those of us who could just weren’t in the same league,” said Freddy Killowatt. “We only knew Omega Man was dead for sure when we ran into that Bones bastard again, and he was wearing Mask and the Bands. I hope to God all those bombs were enough to fry that (expletive), I really do.”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Prepare for a 6th Edition Champions Campaign in 5 Steps

It hasn't come up that often, but I'm sure that some of the readers who've been paying attention know that I am a fan of the Hero System. Now, I picked up as many books of the 5th Edition as I could all the way over here in the Philippines (and this was way back before this fantastic buy-the-PDF option was around) and now I'm looking at doing so -- more selectively -- for the 6th Edition.

In addition to the issue of price, it's also because I've not really had time to play. And if I don't play the games I buy, the only other reason is to learn about the setting or the system.

One of the big changes from 5th Edition to 6th Edition is the decoupling of the Figured Characteristics from the Primary Characteristics, making all things a point buy. Arguments about "is it even the Hero System anymore" aside, it's interesting because it should certainly make teaching the system easier (a good thing) and break up the dependencies of figured stats on primary stats (debatable), and it's one of the things I'm looking at for my sidelined project on HEROic D&D.

Anyway, this post is about getting ready to run a campaign for Champions in 6th Edition Hero System, so let's get started.

Step 1: Become familiar with the genre

Naturally, Champions: The Super Roleplaying Game is the first place I'd look. Contrary to the title, though, this is not a self-contained RPG. You have to buy the Hero System 6th Edition rulebook to get the rules -- this book's all about the genre of super-heroic RPGs.

There've been iterations of this in the past, with the 4th Edition and 5th Edition versions among my favorites for covering the genre, along with Aaron Allston's Strike Force supplement for an earlier version of Champions also among the classics. For completeness, I'd get this, but what could possibly be in it that I've not seen before? I'm not sure, but between the two authors I'm sure there's something new in there worth picking up.

I'm also happy to see the art has kept improving. There was a spike in the cover art from 4th Edition onwards (a George Perez cover!) that was sustained into the 5th edition and now to the 6th edition.

The value of this book is in helping you identify the type of campaign you'd like to run (and perhaps identifying the type of campaign that your players would be interested in experiencing). Different GMs and players have different tastes in comics, and so some knowledge of the sub-genres and tropes would be useful. Furthermore, there are some things in the genre that don't translate so well into gameplay -- knowing these pitfalls would also be advantageous when setting down the shape and scope of your game.

Step 2: Establish the setting

There's no shortage of settings available, though in a pinch you can set yourself up in a made-up city in the same universe as your favorite comic book series.

If you're the type of Gamemaster who'd prefer a bit more source material, however, Hero Games has two setting books for you. One is Champions Universe (which details the super-hero universe of the company on Earth) and Champions Beyond (which expands the universe into space, including other galaxies).

It's important to note that the settings not only help you with a more consistent feel for your campaigns in areas you may not have considered yet (legal implications of years of metahuman antics, impact of superhumanity on sports, etc.), but may also give you a ton of thrilling locations and adventure hooks for your campaign (and perhaps for the origins of your player's characters as well).

At the very least, it will give you a DC / Marvel feel: there are heroes and villains that are doing things that may or may not impact you, even if they are far away from your city.

Step 3: Stock up on antagonists

The very next thing I'd pick up are a couple of books that are filled with an essential element of super-heroing: supervillains. Hero Games has apparently broken their source material here into three parts: one for the masterminds, and one for the supervillain teams, and one for the solo villains. This trilogy should provide a major shortcut to building the antagonists in a Champions campaign.

Of course, you don't need all of them at the same time.

Depending on your style of play, you can start off with either the book of solo villains or the book of villain teams. You can probably manage a year of super-heroics with those two books together, until you feel the need for an arch-nemesis for one of the regular heroes or for the entire team.

Masterminds should be handled carefully, and require some measure of GMing experience. They have to be played like the intelligent planners they are, rather than yet another punching bag for the player's characters.

Step 4: Oversee Player Character Creation

With all this in mind, it's important to guide the decisions made by your players during character creation -- particularly if some of them have never played in the system or the setting before.

You'll want to make sure that each player's character is the type of character they really want to play, and you'll also be in a good position to gently remind them of the type of campaign they're playing in.

It may not make sense, for example, for a player to build a grim and gritty character layered with emotional baggage if you and your other players were hoping for something more light-hearted in the vein of DC's Batman: Brave & the Bold or even the last animated incarnation of Teen Titans.

Step 5: Run a game

It's always good to have a "pilot episode" for your campaign. You'll get a better feel of the game, the setting, and the players if you do.

At the same time, your players will gain a better feel of your GMing style as well (along with how their character feels after some playtesting) allowing them to tweak and adjust accordingly.

After that, you can discuss your shared discoveries and opinions and then get started on the campaign proper!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bay Area Champions -- Part 3: Land of the Dead and the Dying

The third installment in my story on they Bay Area Champions.

Land of the Dead and the Dying

In stark contrast to the Townhouse Plaza spectacle, the only accounts we have of the three days on Boa (the name given to the Bone Corps homeworld) come from the only living beings to leave it alive: Jesse Burning Mountain, Alexandra Raven, Freddy Killowatt, and Krusader.

Allegedly, the heroic raiding party saw precious little of Boa’s unnatural wonders. Jesse Burning Mountain’s memoirs, A Rebel From the Rez, relate a landscape of twisted trees, alkaline pools, and razor-sharp rocks that were like oasis of respite from the horrors of the cities.

“[The Bones Corps] call ‘em necropolises,” said Freddy Killowatt in an interview with Geraldo Rivera. “Not ‘cause they’re cities for the dead, but because they’re made of them. Hundreds of bodies deep, thousands of bodies wide, all dead, none of ‘em rotting. All as pink and blue as the day they were killed – the human ones anyway.”

Krusader’s testimony to a House inquiry includes a list of alien corpses that reads like a membership list of the Interstellar League and the ill-fated Intergalactic Alliance.

But it is Alexandra Raven’s only published account of that harrowing ordeal that most people are familiar with: the bestselling creative non-fiction novel, I Remember Omega Man.

On the Radar: Pelgrane Press's Ashen Stars (Stellar Nursery Edition)

I'm not that clear on the details, but apparently the Stellar Nursery edition of Ashen Stars is the same as the Pre-pre-order edition. In any case you can check out the details here.

But what is Ashen Stars? Well, it's an RPG (system: Gumshoe) of a Science Fiction bent that's been mentioned by others as inspired by Babylon 5, Firefly, and Farscape. Here's the official spiel:

In this gritty space opera game, the PCs are Lasers, freelance troubleshooters and law enforcers operating in a remote sector called the Bleed. They’re needed in the wake of a massive retreat by the Combine,  the utopian empire that colonized it. Amid the ashes of a devastating war, the lasers solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space—all on a contract basis.
They balance the immediate rewards of a quick buck against their need to maintain their reputation, so that they can continue to quickly secure lucrative contracts and pay the upkeep on their ship and their cyber- and viroware enhancements.
Featuring seven new and highly detailed playable species -
  • The eerily beautiful, nature-loving, emotion-fearing balla
  • The cybes, former humans radically altered by cybernetic and genetic science
  • The durugh, hunched, furtive ex-enemies of the Combine who can momentarily phase through solid matter.
  • The humans, adaptable, resourceful, and numerous. They comprise the majority of a typical laser crew.
  • The kch-thk, warrior locust people who migrate to new bodies when their old ones are destroyed.
  • The armadillo-like tavak, followers of a serene warrior ethic.
  • The vas mal, former near-omnisicent energy beings devolved by disaster into misshapen humanoid form.
Ashen Stars also contains extensive, streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues gallery of NPC threats and hostile species’ and a short adventure to get you started in the Bleed.
I'm curious to see what it'll be like when it comes out. It'll be oh-so-minable for Fading Suns, I'm sure. :)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Genre Mining: A Team of Specialists

In an attempt to complete many of my interrupted series, here's the last of my campaign premises for the espionage genre.

Three, Four, or More

Well, unless you're a smaller gaming group this isn't really a choice. If everyone wants to play a continuing character (rather than the 'guest-star' option which you should really reserve for players who show up late or are unpredictable in their attendance), then you've gotta take the team of specialists approach.

In this approach, different members of the team have certain specializations that they're awesome at, and other areas that they're not so hot at. Ideally, the team should be well-rounded so that all the missions have all the bases covered.

I only really have one TV example that really comes to mind right now.

Mission: Impossible

A game based on the campaign premise inspired by this TV show will need the following archetypes:

The Mastermind -- this is the role that Dan Briggs had in the 1st season, and Jim Phelps had in all subsequent incarnations until he was unceremoniously killed off in the modern movie series. He is the primary contact with the folks handing out missions, puts together his Impossible Missions Force (IMF) team from a list of specialists, and does the core planning for the mission.

This role can be one of the players who really likes planning things out, or it can be an NPC who essentially lays out the details of the mission that the rest of the PCs have to enact.

The Face -- a beautiful woman who's also a fast thinker and capable of keeping in character, this role performed by top model and actress Cinnamon Carter (descendant of John Carter? Nah…) when she would essentially lower the guard of the powerful male figures either as a flirtatious woman of substance or as a sophisticated damsel in distress.

There is a certain immunity to the criticism that some women might raise about a female spy being so beautiful that this role imparts: part of the role's requirement is being a femme fatale! She can't be plain looking or merely attractive (unless the mission role calls for it); she must be attention grabbing. And this normally requires it being more that skin deep: charisma, social skills, and class are also a requirement.

Of course, the other roles which were traditionally filled with males can certainly be shifted to female ones.

Gadget Guy -- an expert in electronics and mechanics, apparently with sufficient access to difficult-to-get materials, would build all the necessary gear for implementing this portion of the mission. This was the role of "Barney" Collier.

To prevent this role from becoming a "build and turnover" type of role, the type of gear he builds should probably require him to operate them or perhaps have some kind of inherent fragility, necessitating his presence for fixes or tweaks.

Strong Man -- ostensibly the muscle in the team, the nature of espionage missions often relies on this as a last resort. "Willy" Armitage (Armitage, eh? Interesting) also acted as a critical support character, often procuring a lot of the gear needed by the mission, and graced with excellent timing and surprising social skills.

Chameleon -- master of disguise, accents, languages, mimicry, and sometimes magic tricks and sleight of hand, this role was performed by Rollin Hand and then later The Great Paris.

Of course, every frickin' member of the team has had to play a role -- some more challenging than others -- during the course of a mission, so this is certainly a way to keep the game fresh. In fact, I remember one mission where Rollin had to portray a deaf man, and had to pretend he didn't hear a gun being fired right beside his ear (CON roll? Fate points?)!

Furthermore, some episodes involved the mission going wrong somehow, requiring the team to compensate and adjust, just like RPG adventures!

Alternative Resource Material for Fading Suns

My favorite kitchen sink setting is Fading Suns, a game I've mentioned in the past. In addition to having some pretty obvious sources of inspiration (Dune) and some not so obvious sources (Hyperion, Against A Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn, and perhaps "Way of Cross and Dragon"), it's a setting that can lend itself easily to many campaign premises, or even one-shot, change-of-pace adventures.

I've run Fading Suns games inspired by Westerns and Chanbara, suggested long-term plots informed by horror movies, conspiracy tales, and victorian-era comedy of manners vignettes. I've gleefully taken mcguffins from post-human SF and from epic fantasy, and pilfered interesting characters from sources as varied as movies, novels, TV shows, and NPCs from other RPGs.

As Fading Suns 3rd Edition approaches, I think I'll also be starting a series of posts on various RPGs I've taken some stuff from and smushed into the setting somehow (not that hard, there are a lot of adventure hooks that jump out at you as you read various sourcebooks). Only this time, I'll try to be a bit more thoughtful about how I do it!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bay Area Champions -- Part 2: Showdown Over San Mateo

This is part 2 of a short story I wrote based on one of the many campaigns I played with my old gaming group in the SF Bay Area. Part 1 can be found here.

Showdown Over San Mateo

San Mateo is not known for its high-rises, so the cell of Bone Corps quislings and thralls based in that city had to make do with the tallest building available to them: the Townhouse Plaza.

Eyewitness accounts estimate the initial size of the expanding gate at fifty feet in diameter. It hovered several meters above the Townhouse Plaza penthouse, and thus was only accessible to heroes with flight capabilities.
At the time, San Mateo had only two such heroes. One was the mysterious Silent Shrike, and, of course, the Avatar of the Omega Bands and Champion of the Bay Area: Omega Man. But despite the steel-shattering strength of Omega Man, and the blinding speed of Silent Shrike, undead atrocities that escaped their attentions managed to make it to street level.

A decade later, it was Silent Shrike revealed in an interview that this was part of a plan. Each of them had fought a member of the Bones Corps before and suspected that the slavering undead hordes accompanying each Bone Corpseman were meant to attract metahuman attention and opposition for an insidious reason. As the laconic Braumeister succinctly put it: “They become stronger when they’re outnumbered.”

When the Bone Corpseman finally appeared, Silent Shrike fled the scene, allowing Omega Man to easily dispatch their undead foe.

Then the reserve sprang into action. Twin streams of high-caliber rapid-fire erupted from opposite sides of the building – courtesy of the deputized man-machine, David Raphael Vega, and the shadowy operative, Alexandra Raven – thinned the numbers of escaping undead vermin. Freddy Killowatt burst onto the scene and, in an explosion of sinuous scintilla, incinerated every foul beast in a two kilometer area before evaporating into a cloud of sparks. From atop a pillar of fire, Jesse Burning Mountain sent spirits of flame spiraling into the Bone Corps gate, turning several incoming waves of undead hordes to ash.

It was then that Krusader appeared, fired both grappling hook chains from his gauntlets and, with a howl of fury, catapulted himself into the Bone Corps gate.

Bound by some unspoken agreement, most of the heroes – led by Omega Man – followed Krusader through the gate. Only Silent Shrike, whose bionic wings had been damaged in the battle remained behind.

According to one Rebecca Smith, in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with no return address, the Bone Corps gate did not simply evaporate after the heroes disappeared into it: “It had to be closed from this end, so I closed it. They will have to find another way home.”

Of course, not all of them did.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bay Area Champions -- Part 1: Boneyards

This is the start of a short story I wrote based on one of the many campaigns I played with my old gaming group in the SF Bay Area. Only the names have been changed (somewhat) to protect the guilty and due to some artistic license. And Rob, consider this some of my long-delayed fiction for your project.


Most retrospectives and retellings of the Raid on Boa begin with Krusader’s investigation of a rash of grave robbing incidents. Earlywine’s bestselling book on Krusader and his contemporaries, Expediters and Deathdealers, correctly attributes many of the breakthroughs in this investigation to Krusader.

This was during his “private investigator” phase, when the vigilante-turned-hero had begun a mildly successful career as consulting detective, and had professed a marked aversion to the explosive displays of skillful puissance that bookended his colorful career.

As though graced by some manner of metahuman prescience or prior experience, and from only two known missing corpses at the time, he correctly divined the criteria of the body thieves: the remains of religious men from different faiths who’d fallen from grace and had committed suicide. He also correctly surmised that the Bone Corps, a legion of six hundred sixty-six undead powerhouses, was directing cells of necrotech-wielding worshippers to use the stolen bodies in a ritual for some unknown purpose. His zeal and thoroughness proved his undoing, however. By providing the authorities with a list of probable targets with disturbing completeness and unfolding accuracy, he cast sufficient suspicion on himself – leading to his temporary arrest.

His exoneration came too late, and despite the aid of his friends, a single shuddering gate of the Bone Corps was summoned into being over San Mateo, California.

New d6 Game: Astral Empires -- the RPG

I'm semi-aware of Astral Empires as a brand. I've seen the various products in my search for maps and ships and science fiction-based wargames. But the following title and description caught me off-guard over the weekend, and I'm tempted to grab it because of the low price point ($9.99 at the time of this writing):
Once in the ancient past (okay, the 1980s and early 1990s) there was an RPG that set the standard for cinematic science fiction gaming.  Many gamers got their start with this system only to see it fade away somewhat in recent years.  Now in the year 2011, OpenD6 returns to the stage to bring Astral Empires: The Roleplaying Game to life! 
Astral Empires: The Roleplaying Game combines an exciting new universe with the respected and established game system that once brought roleplaying to “a galaxy far, far away”.  In the deep, dark of space adventure lives again!  Included in this book are rules for the basic elements of the game, designing characters, combat, and background information about the Astral Empires galaxy during the 10,000 AD era.  Also available from Port Nova Media are the Galaxy Master's Guide and Technology Guide.
This tells me that they're basically going after the 'space opera' market that was once dominated by the science fantasy intellectual property juggernaut that was, and is, Star Wars -- at least as far as the old d6 game market is concerned.

I'm intrigued because I was one of those early adopters who picked up (and still have) the Star Wars RPG and Star Wars Sourcebook from the olden days and am a big fan.

Character creation was a breeze, the combat and skill resolutions were fast, and really fit the genre of the movies being emulated. I'm curious to see what they've done with it in this setting.

As for the setting itself, it seems massive, but I'm a bit confused as some of the wargames focus on 'humanity is alone for now' while others have multiple ship-building alien races (which may seem somewhat... familiar when you read about them) in the related wargaming releases. But I think they might do better if they shared a bit more about their setting in the write-up.

Granted, it may already have a following from those familiar with Kevin Monk's universe, but for other segments of the market, it may help to share a bit more.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Isle Imperium: Episode 1.13 -- the Ninth Number

Okay, well something like this -- only
thornier and more juggernauty.
Having managed to depart Proserpine’s demesne with their lives, the party (with CANIS VARAS) returns to the beach to rest, though not before trying out some of the items acquired from Lacadaemon’s lair.

The results are harrowing: DUMAS’S head is partially punctured by a possessive though not entirely unbeneficial circlet; VARIAN and ARCTURUS are compelled to enter into honorable combat in connection with Varian’s wearing the Armor of Concealment; ARCTURUS’S actions are rearranged by a helm which resists removal until he disdains equipping it the following day; and CATALINA is not only killed by the circlet associated with Dumas (then fortunately revived through her lifethorn), but finds herself in involuntary negotiation with a succession of the Idecca, who claim to have come in response to her requests for an escalating series of bottle cases.

Later, during the second watch of the night (after eating a crab cleansed of blue by Catalina; and after ALINA and ROGELIO have likewise retired), ALECTO, Dumas, and Varian are remotely beseeched to come to the assistance of the Watchful Warder and its mount, TERENTIUS. They acquiesce and quickly find themselves helping the man against a construct called the Thornsmith Juggernaut. Through a series of accords, they are able to break the Juggernaut open, revealing an Oriental-attired man within who, surprisingly civilly, proceeds to concede the battle to Terentius. After each has chosen his respective claim resulting from the combat (Terentius, his fallen comrades; and the man, his Juggernaut), the unnamed man departs and Terentius thanks the trio and avows that his number owes theirs a favor, thereafter sending them back to their companions.

Soon after everyone has awoken and been apprised of what occurred, MANTIUS receives a summons in his office as Renegade Warder. He is given the opportunity to take three of his comrades with him; and so it is that Mantius, Aly, Catalina, and Varian meet the Diamond Blood Cloak Warder, who greets them all cordially and, in recognition of their success in obtaining the Eye of Pluto, elevates their number to Ninth in the hierarchy of the Army of Shards, displacing the group formerly in that position. He then proceeds to invite the warders of the eight numbers above them to come meet the new number, each warder bringing along three of his or her own group. The shards and bearers who therefore attend are:

The Eighth
Veda (female) mounted by the Intrepid Warder
Clemens (m) mounted by the Saint of Widows
Bartolomus (m) mounted by the Unbound Warder 
Torrence (m) mounted by The Simple Man

The Seventh
(male) mounted by
Barnabus (m) mounted by the Keeper of the Fourth Flame
Andras (m) mounted by the Paragon of Will
Ezekius (m) mounted by the Thunderbreaker

The Sixth
Urich (male) mounted by
Lucia (f) mounted by the Accomplished Grey Opportunist
Ricius (m) mounted by the Accomplished Thornsmith Sage
Cornelius (m) mounted by the Accomplished Rumormonger

The Fifth
(male) mounted by
Hereus (m) mounted by the Accomplished Seismic Juggernaut
Crispianus (m) mounted by the Accomplished Feylight Harrower
Josias (m) mounted by the Accomplished Aurora Talon

The Fourth
Cinelis (female) mounted by
Danielus (m) mounted by the Accomplished and Essential Scarab Monk
Sextus (m) mounted by the Accomplished and Essential Runic Titan
Aloysius (m) mounted by the Accomplished and Essential Cerulean Warder

The Third
Terentius (male) mounted by the Watchful Warder
Yvgeris (m) mounted by the Accomplished and Essential Tempest Mage
Megaera (f) mounted by the Accomplished and Essential Ravencloak Walker
Ionis (m) mounted by the Accomplished Thrice-Crowned Prince

The Second
Elinora (female) mounted by the Black Greave Warder
Fida (f) mounted by the Accomplished Faceless Queen
Caritas (f) mounted by the Accomplished and Essential Glaive Vanguard
Helena (f) mounted by the Accomplished Gilded Cannoneer

The First
(male) mounted by the Tearstained Warder
Lady Adria (f) mounted by the Paladin of Last Chances
Lord Hanor (m) mounted by the Accomplished and Essential Caged Penitent
Senator Patrikus (m) mounted by the Cyclopean Grenadier

Most of the numbers leave quickly once courtesies are performed, but the third number stays behind when Terentius evidently accedes to MEGAERA’S request to be allowed to speak to her younger sister, Alecto. Aly infers that Meg had some sort of falling out with their eldest sister Tisiphone, which led the former to leave home some time after Aly’s own departure. All members of both groups seem to be getting on well enough until Aly mentions to Meg that she finds Terentius attractive, which, combined with Catalina’s display of charm in Terentius’s direction, clearly discomfits Megaera and causes her to urge the third number’s immediate departure.

Meanwhile, the Diamond Blood Cloak Warder has been in conversation for some little while with the chauvinistic warder encountered previously by Catalina. Despite the chauvinist warder’s sudden turnabout—explaining that he had been testing Catalina’s comportment when she was bearing the Harmonic Warder—he is severely chastised by his superior officer and eventually stripped of much of his power and demoted to the sixtieth rank of numbers.

After being informed by the Diamond Blood Cloak Warder that (a) they will soon be audited, (b) he will send them a new mission in 24 hours, and (c) they should be aware of the problem they face in the Harmonic Warder, they are returned to the beach, where it is not long before they are contacted in quick succession by three numbers of the circle of ten, each seeking a trade of shards, as follows:
  1. The Sixth comes in desperate need of a ‘terra’ shard; the party obliges trades them the Stone Mage for the Oracle of Equinox.
  2. The Fourth comes in search of fire, blue, or bardic shards; the party is unable to oblige.
  3. The Eighth, including Spectral Bowyer Banisa (?) seeks healing and/or summoning shards, and accepts the party’s counteroffer of the Ivory Mage, Cyclopean Nuncio, and Saint of Eaves in exchange for the Meridian Walker, Daughter of Passion, and Opalescent Mage.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

New Game: Agents of S.W.I.N.G.

Well, this a bit odd. As I've been working on the series of Genre Mining posts on espionage -- a new game has appeared on RPGNow that's currently at the top of the list of bestsellers.

It's called Agents of S.W.I.N.G. and is apparently a Fate-powered game system meant to emulate the types of spy movies and TV shows from the 60s and 70s.

I heard that it was really popular at a convention in the UK, and the cover looks very reminiscent of the James Bond / I Spy / The Avengers opening sequences.

I have no idea how good it is in terms of mechanics, setting, or genre resources.

It does look interesting though, but that could just be because it's heavy on my mind now.

Genre Mining: The Differentiated Duo

Since we’re looking at mining the spy movie / TV show genre, it makes sense to look at examples of protagonists that number more than one (as in the Lone Spy / Super-Spy campaign premise) because, well, we normally have more than one PC when gaming.

Duo Dynamics

Having two regulars as the primary protagonists works well, because the tendency is to have the two characters capable in all the areas they’re expected to be good (much in the same way that the Lone Spy is a well-rounded agent) but normally those two are differentiated in different ways.

Some of the classic TV shows are good examples of this:

I Spy

The two characters involved were Kelly Robinson (played by Robert Culp) as an international tennis player and Alexander “Scotty” Scott (played by Bill Cosby) as his tennis coach. Both are considered equal agents, with Culp’s Robinson being slightly more senior.

However, Cosby’s Scott was a multi-lingual conservative Rhodes scholar, while Culp’s Robinson was a more athletic, think-on-his-feet agent closer to the mold of James Bond. Both were portrayed as mature adults, however, and tended to make poignant observations as often as they dropped light-hearted witticisms. And the banter and chemistry (on and off screen) between the two were fantastic.

Of note is also the cover story: I really found the cover story here – tennis players – refreshing. Including that in a game premise adds a layer of Bruce Wayne / Batman to the story, instilling a layer of tension (keeping a cover story during a mission) in the course of the game.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Here we have Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin as field agents for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.)  -- an agency with agents from all corners of the globe apparently acting in the interests of the world at large.

Solo is suave, confident, with a relaxed style of charisma. Kuryakin is enigmatic, thoughtful, and intensely guarded.

In addition, both would subtly and boldly push forward the ideological premises of their native countries in the course of their missions while remaining heroic and intensely professional.

The Avengers

There were several teams of the British Avengers TV show, but the ones that I really saw were the John Steed – Emma Peel and the John Steed – Tara King duos.

For me, the most memorable formula is the experienced professional + talented amateur combination personified by the John Steed and Emma Peel period of the series.

John Steed is the picture of the classic British gentleman: impeccably dressed, outwardly conservative, seldom perturbed, incredibly knowledgeable, effortlessly cultured, and – of course -- skilled in a variety of agent skills: combat, vehicles, etc.

Emma Peel is one of the early feminist heroines that broke the damsel-in-distress mold: strong, independent, a master of multiple combat disciplines, a genius in various scientific arenas, and constantly dressed in far-from-conservative outfits that – to this day – hold her up as a fashion icon.


In essence, having a duo allows the players to have player character who are more or less equal (an certainly capable of taking on a mission on their own) yet allowing some space to differentiate themselves from one another NOT in terms of capability but in terms of style, personality, and focus.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Top Secret Potential Characters in Sprechenhaltestelle

I unearthed my old Top Secret modules and rulebooks and found the following names that you may wish to use as NPC names and aliases for your modern campaign in the Sprechenhaltestelle module.

"The Silencer" - a gentleman and scholar
"Kingbreaker" - a not-so-nice guy
"Shark" - ex-marine, ex-bouncer, pool hustler
"Dr. Firestone" - explosives expert
"Omega" - last person victims see

"Pigeon" - ex-con prisons expert
"Whitecollar Harry" - computer / electronics expert
"Green Thumb" - counterfeiter
"Fingers" Malone - master of sleight of hand
Wes Smith - firearms and ammo provider

"The Inquisitor" - veteran investigator
"Glass Eyes" - typical window-watcher
"Ratchet" - safecracker
Lafayette True, righter of wrongs
Melville Sharp, wronger of rights

I really liked these intro characters, though I was more mystified by the module than I was for any D&D intro modules. Is there some inherent difficulty in running the espionage genre as opposed to the fantasy genre (at least for the very young)?

Good or Bad, she's got the gun. (reconstructed)

My original blog post was lost by Blogger during their fubar over the last few days. So here are the pics and what I remember of my post.

As I said before, I've shifted focus from the Western genre to some more modern ones, and I wanted to celebrate that fact by posting some pics of local cosplay celebrity Alodia Gosiengfiao. She makes a mean Baroness.

And I also said before that I never realized it, but the Baroness has this subtle hot teacher / hot librarian thing going for her. Aside from the gun, that is.

Genre Mining: Solos and Super-Spies

One of the earliest RPGs I ever

When I first began thinking about tackling this genre, what struck me was the wide variety of inspirations available for it -- all of which add to and muddle up the understanding of it. Furthermore, there are related genres that sometimes cross over (plausibly) into the same space as the espionage genre, confusing things further.

Before we go on, therefore, I'd like to take some time to explore my understanding and classification of some of these sub-genres, meta-genres, uber-genres, etc. But instead of arguing genre, I'd like to tackle them as distinct campaign premises, and explore them from the point of view of creating an RPG campaign around that campaign premise.

So here's the first one:

The Lone Spy / Super Spy

James Bond is naturally the first character one thinks of when talking about the espionage genre. Suave, debonair, and deadly, Mr. Bond has enjoyed numerous novels, a slew of movies, and a ton of imitators. He is also -- appropriately -- a good example of the lone spy that becomes a super spy.

A lone spy is surprisingly close to real life espionage, but different enough to be enjoyable in play. Does anyone really want to play the role of a deep cover mole, spending years of life in obscurity waiting to be activated? Well you could, in a one-shot adventure. But it's not much of a campaign.

Instead, you get to play the operative sent into the field with a prepared cover story and fake IDs. You're out to gather intelligence, to meet up with assets, to counter the agendas of enemy agents, to secure valuable prototypes or to sabotage the plans of your enemies. You don't get to carry weapons unless they fit in with your cover story. You don't get a neat gadget from your Tech division each mission you go out on.

This is exactly what we see of Bond in the movie Dr. No: he isn't an expert in all things yet; he doesn't get multiple super-spy gadgets yet; and he comes across as M's classic "blunt instrument".

Subsequent films, including the respectable run of the Roger Moore era, he truly becomes the quintessential super-spy: a polymath capable of correcting the so-called experts; a martial savant displaying impressive training in a variety of combat disciplines and equipment (how many vehicles is he qualified to drive or pilot in combat anyway?). And he seems to have a ridiculous budget for his gadgets. God only knows why he keeps dropping his name -- the entire espionage community knows it!

Ridiculousness aside, he's not superhuman. He has his frailties, not the least of which is the tendency to die if he's shot in the head or dropped from a great height. He actually comes across like an RPG character who's been played for years and has garnered so much experience that he doesn't quite now where to spend it.

Of course, a lone spy doesn't have to become a super spy. Patrick McGoohan's Dangerman / Secret Agent Man character John Drake remained solidly in the lone spy genre throughout the series. Not only that, every episode was nail-bitingly tense -- certainly not the escapist, wish-fulfillment stuff of Bond. But it was just as entertaining a different way, though marathoning it might lead to stress.

And based on the difficulties that he encountered during those missions -- difficulties brought on by his opponents and his employers -- it's no wonder he resigned and became The Prisoner. (Not official but it's clear it was meant to be the same character.)

Anyway, as a campaign premise it can be pretty limited. It's a two player campaign (GM and Player), possibly more, but all other Players get to be supporting characters who don't necessarily continue into the next mission. What if they want their own chance in the limelight?

Well, that leads us into the next campaign premise: the Differentiated Duo.