Saturday, December 31, 2005

Two Local Items of Note

1) The Winter War preregistration booklet is now available for download here. Winter War is Champaign-Urbana's annual gaming convention and one of the oldest gaming cons in the country. This year's War is February 3rd to 5th.

2) Big "We hate annual inventory" sale at the Dragon's Table today. The used crap in the milkcrates by the front door is 75% off. The used crap on the shelves and "red dot" items are 50% off. Most of the rest of the store is 25% off. I'm pretty sure TODAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THIS SALE.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Well, I did it

After much himming and hawing I've launched a second blog. Travellers & Traders is meant to be sort of a "Captain's Blog" for some solo merchant missions using Classic Traveller. Although I'm letting all you nice folks who stop by here know about it, the real intended audience for this new blog is just me. I'll try to keep my posts interesting for fellow enthusiasts to the tramp merchant approach to Traveller, but anybody beyond this narrow audience will probably be bored to tears. Consider yourself both duly notified and warned.

David Deitrick Mini-Shrine

Some of you already know of my appreciation for gaming art from my Erol Otus Shrine (which desperately needs an update). Now that I've finally blogged about Encounter Critical, I can pay proper homage to another truly great artist: David R. Deitrick. Mind you, Deitrick had absolutely nothing to do with the amateur line drawings that disfigure EC. Some of you may recall a couple months ago when, apropos of nothing, I devoted a gameblog post to several graphics of that bounty hunter robot known as IG-88. What I didn't say back then was that the whole point of the post was to provide reference drawings for Mr. Deitrick to produce this for me:
That's a David Deitrick character portrait of one of the PCs for my upcoming Encounter Critical convention game. I call him IG-666, and he is a Robot Warlock. Ain't he awesome?

You see, I happen to be on friendly terms with Mr. Deitrick's son. You may know him by his RPGnet name, Random Goblin. The Goblin and I seem to have pretty similar gaming tastes, and given the material he puts on his blog, The Goblin's Lair, we're pretty much on the same page politically as well. I find the latter fascinating because RG, like his father before him, is a military man. The usual perception these days is that serious soldiers vote Republican but from time to time I find people like the Goblin who don't fit this mold. When I solicited the talented folks of RPGnet looking for a photoshop of IG-88 in pointy hat, RG suggested that maybe his dad could draw one up for me. That was awfully nice of both Mr. Goblin and his illustrious father.

Anyway, enough name-dropping and personal yackety-shmackety. Back to David Deitrick and his excellent art. For those of you who weren't gaming in the eighties the importance of Deitrick's work can hardly be overstated. I don't think it's exaggerating to say that he single-handedly defined the look of 80's sci-fi gaming. His paintings graced the cover of many products from the key sci-fi lines of the era: Star Trek (the FASA version), Doctor Who (also the FASA version), and Starter Traveller. I'm hard pressed at this moment to recall a Deitrick cover for any BattleTech products of the era, but his interior illos included some aerospacecraft in the original BattleTech Technical Readout and many of the fabulous color plates inside Mechwarrior.

In sci-fi gaming it's always easy to depict bug-eyed monsters or cool spaceships or flashy equipment, but Deitrick always did an excellent job of keeping the human element front and center. For the Starter Traveller line and Mechwarrior this was an especially important task, because before his work appeared original Traveller and BattleTech were largely faceless, with concentration on the machines (starships and giant robots respectively). Consider here how Deitrick integrates a cool uniform, an attractive woman, and a sci-fi gun. With a spaceship thrown in the background for good measure.Original Traveller, you may recall, had no art on the cover of the original books, just a single stripe of color on a black background. Those Little Black Books still look pretty slick to me, but when GDW rolled out Starter Traveller to attempt to capture some of the D&D Basic money they decided to go with some killer art on the cover. Deitrick was responsible for the cover art on the Starter boxed set and many other Starter Traveller products. I'm fond of his art on the cover of Alien Module 2: K'Kree, even though Mr. Deitrick names it as one of his least favorite in a 1987 interview with Stardate magazine (volume 3, number 6). Rather than display a cover the artist doesn't like, here's another one of his Trav pieces that I enjoy:

Again you can see how Deitrick includes all the necessary stuff for a product like Alien Realms. There are aliens in the picture. You can tell from the gun and space city that it's a sci-fi product. But ultimately a human story is being told here and that's one of the reasons I think Deitrick's work is so special. He's got a storyteller's and gamemaster's approach to his work. Here's how he put it in the '87 interview:
Every one of my paintings usually has a story behind it, too -- I'm talking about my non-pay stuff...
I've got one painting in particular that shows an Indian look, a very native American-looking guy with a real light rifle and a motorized hang glider over the top. And yeah, it's fun, it's got a nice feel, but what people don't realize is that character is out of an alternate universe that I've thought up all by myself. I'm a real big alternate-history nut.
(Incidentally, what's up with the color selected for the title? Even with the actual book in hand it's only vaguely legible.)

Two other signature Deitrick effects are on display here. Like my man Otus he's not afraid to use purples and violets. And Deitrick often incorporates abstract elements into his pieces. As a lad I did not appreciate Mr. Deitrick's use of the abstract. I think I was overly influenced by the school of thinking that gaming art should be photorealistic depiction of fictional events. As I've matured more fanciful artists like Otus and Deitrick have grown more and more fascinating to me while the Elmores et al. of the world grow more tiresome. Below is the Deitrick cover of a book I purchased when it was first published in '87. Back then I just didn't get it but today I consider it much cooler than a standard photorealistic approach.I think the three pieces above give you a pretty good idea of how Deitrick operated in the 80's, but there's a lot of other good art of his out there. You can see some of it by following the links on his credits over at the Pen & Paper database. For more recent Deitrick work check out David R. Deitrick Design, his official web presence.

One other thing I ought to note about Mr. Deitrick's work is his treatment of women. He does great work with the female form but every such piece I've seen avoids the pitfall of unnecessary titillation. My favorite black and white Deitrick piece is a good example:

Like the Mechwarrior art above the subject is dressed appropriately for the milieu. And neither the pose nor the proportions show the prurience so prevalent in gaming art. Not that I'm against gratuitous displays of female anatomy, it's just that Deitrick impresses me with the way he can depict a beautiful woman in a classy and respectful manner. Even the color plate in Mechwarrior depicting a female mech pilot in her rather scanty cooling vest and panties ensemble avoids the usual traps accompanying such subject matter: the pose and facial expression are that of a woman in her work clothes taking a coffee break. Given the rest of the field of women in gaming art, that's an interesting artistic decision.

Bonus Linkage:

Random Goblin's Reliquary, CafePress shop selling T-shirts adorned with Deitrick cover art (among other things)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas among the Geeks

Every family has its own idiosyncratic Christmas traditions. Here's a couple from my family.

Once many Christmases ago I decided that the Christmas tree was the perfect place for my G.I. Joe action figures to take up sniper positions, and so I would conceal a couple of Joes in the branches. This became a sort of Christmas tree decorating tradition but one year no little army dudes were handy but my Hydra from the official AD&D toyline was available, so it took up residence among the candy canes and tinsil. As a teenager I went through a period where I thought I was "too old" for toys, but each December the hydra continued to lurk among the foil icicles. We ended up storing the hydra with the Christmas decorations and when I went off to college my parents started putting the little critter in the tree for my benefit. Well, I'm in my 30's now and have a kid of my own, but when we travel to the grandparents at Christmas there's always a certain five-headed beastie waiting to greet us:
When my in-law's get together it's a gamer-rich environment. My brother-in-law and his sons and my sister-in-law and her hubby are all gamers of one stripe or another. So after the Christmas meal is consumed and presents are opened we inevitable play a game of some sort. Usually it's something from the excellent Brittannia/Vinci/History of the World family of games, where each player directs the migrations and conquests of several whole nations and each turn can represent centuries of time. The past two years we've done History of the World. This time we even got together two days in a row for two different games. I did horribly on the first game, as a year between playings is too long for me to able to hop back on the saddle. I'm quite proud of my accomplishments in the second game. I got the Romans and did quite well (establishing the Empire in India, South East Asia, and China!). As anyone who has played History knows, the guy who pulls the Roman Empire has a target on his back for most or all of the rest of the game. Despite being handed both the Inca/Aztecs and Americans I managed to squeak out second place on tie-breakers. Huzzah!

Let's talk about Encounter Critical

It is only right that I start this thread with one of Dr. Rotwang's contributions to the Overly Honest RPG Book Covers, an excellent thread at RPGnet inspired by SomethingAwful's photoshop-fueled hooliganisms.

Not exactly the original EC cover

I think it was back in September or October that I first mentioned the fact that Encounter Critical has stolen my heart from World of Synnibarr. Don't get me wrong, I still like World of Synnibarr more than any sane RPG enthusiast should. But EC manages to cram into its 32 digest-sized pages almost as much sheer loopiness as contained in Synnibarr's nearly indigestible 500 page girth. Encounter Critical is old (the second revised edition was published in '79) and mind-numbingly obscure, perhaps not quite as obscure nowadays as Excursion into the Bizarre but pretty damn close.

So what makes Encounter Critical so special? The first reason is the author's proclaimed devotion to "true scientific realism" in a roleplaying game that features apes and elves and "klengons" and robots and magic spells and anything else you want to include. Crazy. The random mutations table that can allows you to "ignore gravity" or gives you "edible excretions" stands as People's Exhibit Number One that Scientific Realism never met Encounter Critical. Yet designers Hank Riley and Jim Ireland have the balls of steel necessary to say in the introduction "If you are a newcomer, you can enjoy the assurance that this is the only game we know to include true scientific realism in every system."

Then there's the fact that this game was kitchen sink before kitchen sink was cool. You really, truly can play a cyborg-ape ninja/pirate with no tweaking of the rules necessary. Lots of games allow you to play anything,The Warlord of Unheroic Decay whether we're talking about generic systems like GURPS or chaotic freak-outs like Rifts. But Encounter Critical liberally rips off the author's favorite geek fodder and, with only the thinnest of veneers, smashes them all into the same game. So Tolkienian elves and dwarves can hobnob with coldly logical "vulkins", aggressive "klengons", and wookies. In this class-based system your PC can be a standard swords-&-sorcery Warrior or Warlock or Criminal (thief). But you can also seek out new lifeforms and new civilizations as a Pioneer or cloud minds and levitate stuff as a Psi Witch (read: jedi) or you can play a Doxy, "the class of harlots, concubines, pleasure Robodroids, and go-go dancers." The monsters you fight range from Bee Girls to Godzillas to Orcs to Smog Monsters. The dazzlingly goofy possibilities are endless. It's like if Synnibarr is a slightly-nauseating beer buzz then Encounter Critical is a full-on Nyquil-induced hallucination.

The point of the game, like all the best early RPGs, was to "have adventures". And EC gives you some nifty little tools to accomplish that end. Take the sample campaign map, for instance. The art is extremely crude (I could draw this map myself) but the "Mighty Land of Vanth" is chock-full of nifty places to go. You ever look at an RPG map (Part of the Mighty Land of Vanthor one in a book or a real map for that matter) and see a place that just begs to be visited? I sometimes find myself pointing at spots on maps and saying out loud "I'd love to visit that place." Maybe it's one of the ruins markers on the Darlene map of Oerth. Or maybe I want to peer behind the Black Curtain on the TNE sector map. The Encounter Critical map is chock full of these kind of places. What adventurer worth their salt wouldn't want to find out what dangers await in the Holdings of the Zombie Princess or to visit the Ape Sultans?

Another great idea that makes the game all about the adventure is the advancement system. You have experience points and levels just as Gygax and God intended, but to qualify to advance a level your PC must also do something new and interesting. Warriors must defeat a foe of equal level using a new weapon, either one they haven't wielded in the past or an entirely new weapon of their devising. Warlocks must add a new spell to their spellbook. Criminals must come up with and execute a new illegal scheme. Doxies must find and seduce a new and more influential client. Pioneers must discover a new place or a new route between known locations. All this sounds like a great way to put the ball into the players' court. "Hey, I've got enough XP for level 4. Would you guys help me rob a bank?"

Finally, the slam dunk for Encounter Critical's greatness is its insane stat/skill system. Most of the nine attributes are pedestrian items like Dexterity and Strength, but there's also oddballs like also Adaptation and Robot Nature. Each of these stats are generated using the classic 3d6 plus racial modifier method. You then consult a series of charts to find out the percentage ratings of your skills. With a few exceptions for class-based specialty skills, all PCs have the exact same list. So any character with an Adaptation score of 11 will have Camping 50%, Consume Alien Food 7%, Appease 49% and Invisibility 63% while a PC with Robot Nature of 17 will have Unpleasant Order 90%, Logic 22%, Seduce -22% (a modifier to a skill tied to another stat), Invisibility +13% (so a PC with Adapt 11 and Robot 17 will have a net Invisibility of 76%), Guard 80%, Labor 100%, and Machine Friend 51%.

These skills sound crazy and they are, but they are also quite useful. Do the PCs want to activate a robot found within a ruin? Have them roll Logic to figure out how to turn it on and Machine Friend to make sure it isn't immediately hostile. If the party needs to camp out for the night in hostile territory, have someone roll Camping to find a good spot out of the way from enemy patrols. If they blow that, then the person standing watch can make a Guard roll to be able to alert the group before an attack. Some of the skills require interpretation based upon the race and/or class of the character. Consume Alien Food doesn't really work for a Robodroid PC, but should they need to recharge their batteries while onboard an alien spacecraft, a successful Consume Alien Food roll would indicate that they could adapt to the non-standard power supply. Similarly, some skills are actually magic effects when used by certain classes. For example, the Invisibility skill is simple equivalent to a hide in shadows skill. Unless you happen to be a Warlock, in which case you can pull off true invisibility. Or a Psi Witch could use the skill to cloud men's minds. The magic system is where this dynamic really comes into its own. Most folks use skills like Conjure or Ensorcel to activate magic items, but Warlocks can use the skills associated with the Magic Power stat to achieve nifty magic on the fly effects. Combine this with a limited number of traditional D&D-style spells, and EC manages to put together a magic system that is tailor made for rules-light sword & sorcery.

Other little gems of inspired lunacy can be found throughout the EC rulebook. Really, if you've followed me this far and are the least bit intrigued by the game you ought to just get yourself a copy. You can download a legal PDF of Encounter Critical here or over in the Files section of its yahoo fangroup (scroll down a bit for the former, registration required for the latter). There's also a few other items at the yahoo group, as well as a way to communicate with a couple dozen fans of the game.

And if you plan on attending Winter War in February, you can experience the insanity first hand by signing up for my EC game scheduled for the Sunday of the con. They'll be robots and warlocks! Hell, one of the PCs is both!

Special bonus! Here's a great Overly Honest RPG Book Cover from RPGnetter squideye.

I know I'm a bad person for saying it, but that version of the cover makes me want to play Exalted : The Abyssals.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Silly Internet List Meme Attack

FOURS....inspired by a post today at Political Animal

Four jobs you've had in your life: Mac lab nanny, pig pen cleaner, study assistant to a disabled law student, cog in the Kraft corporation logistics system
Four movies you could watch over and over: Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian
Four places you've lived: Bucks county, PA; Flanagan, IL; Champaign-Urbana, IL; Mahomet, IL
Four TV shows you love to watch: TNA impact!, old Saturday Night Live re-runs, The Daily Show, Thundarr the Barbarian
Four places you've been on vacation: DisneyWorld, Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, Knoxville (for the World's Fair)
Four websites you visit daily: RPGnet forums, Citizens of the Imperium forums, RPGPundit's blog, Wonkette
Four of your favorite foods: Sushi, Apple pie, Homegrown corn-on-the-cob, cheese of nearly every stripe
Four places you'd rather be: Right now? Wherever my wife and daughter happen to be at the moment. Or at the FLGS. Messing around in my game room. And, uhhhh, DisneyWorld. (Assuming my wife and daughter were there too.)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Xmas!

The Scared of Santa photo gallery in all its glory!

Also, my favorite Christmas joke:

Why is Santa always so jolly?

Because he knows where all the naughty girls live.

Star Frontiers vs Traveller ships

Star Frontiers rates vessels by a game stat called Hull Size. One-man fighter craft are Hull Size 1 while battleships are rated Hull Size 20. The Star Frontiers Knight Hawks campaign book gives the length and diameter (in meters) of each Hull Size of vessel. Assuming, as the rulebook does, that starship hulls are generally cylindrical, it's a snap to calculate the total volume of each Hull Size. This makes comparing Star Frontiers ships to Classic Traveller easy as pie.




Cubic Meters






































































































I found these results completely unexpected. Because of the way Star Frontiers uses Hull Size in construction, ships increase their capabilities on a roguhly linear basis. A Hull Size 20 battleship has roughly 33% superior weapons than a HS15 cruiser. Based upon what I knew about Star Frontiers warships I was expecting the charts to indicate that it operated on a roughly even footing with Traveller's Book 2 small ship rules. Instead we find that most PC vessels in Traveller are equivalent to Hull Size 3. The Kinunir class is HS 5, the size of a Star Frontiers frigate. In a big ship universe where Kinunirs are 'colonial' ships, that seems about right. The Azhanti High Lightining class comes in at HS 13 or 14, which means that a set of AHL deckplans ought to work pretty well for a Star Frontiers light cruiser.

Cruisers and capital ships in Star Frontiers and High Guard are pretty much equivalent in size, but the Star Frontiers vessels are woefully under-armed. Hardcore Star Frontiers fans have complained about this for years. Take a standard battleship from the game. The energy weapons for a BB are one disruptor cannon (essentially a particle weapon spinal mount), 3 laser batteries (each very similar to a single Trav double or triple laser turret), and 3 particle batteries (again, the term battery is not correct in Traveller terms, these are more like single weapon mounts). And the disruptor cannon only does about four times as much damage as a laser battery. Basically, a single 200 or 300 kton vessel from Supplement 9 - Fighting Ships could probably outshoot the entire Spacefleet of Star Frontiers.

Weirdest Savage Worlds Setting Yet

Low Life is a new Savage Worlds-based rpg of "sword & sorcery adventure in a shattered world inhabited by the descendants of cockroaches, worms, snack cakes, and stranded aliens". The art is absolutely gorgeous and the setting looks like madcap fun! Click on the banner below to check it out for yourself.

Quote of the Day

The Patriot Act originally passed the Senate on a 99-1 vote at a moment in American History where politicians were jockeying for an opportunity to sodomize the Statue of Liberty to better prove their undying patriotism.

--DCeiver, posting on
Yesterday's Diesel Sweeties comic was pretty good, I thought.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Check out these spaceship figs

They're scratch-built from balsa and cardboard and I think they're pretty cool. More importantly, I think the technique used to produce them looks like something I could do myself. I've been pouring over the Starship Combat News miniatures pages a lot lately because I'd really like a couple of fleets of figures for some hot ship-on-ship action. But which figure line? The various Trek lines are kinda expensive if you want to field a large fleet. The official Star Frontiers ships are rather large for use on a Starmada style hexmap and only a handful of designs were produced. Brigade sells some excellent figures. I particularly like the new Yenpalo aliens and the two new EuroFed models are the best faux-Star Destroyers I've ever seen. DLD Productions sells a single fleet called the Vin'Grun that looks pretty snazzy:

I also like the designs from Force XXI, but that shop is currently closed. I believe the owner's reserve unit was activated or something like that. Studio Bergstrom has released a neat new fleet of bioships called the Hive, so I guess I could put together a Vin'Grun/Hive war, but two alien races duking it out kinda lacks the pizazz of Earthmen versus bug-eyed monsters. One crazy idea I had was to go with Star Frontiers for my source material, but update the looks of the ships by using a different figure line. Xtreme Hobby's Cold Navy line could fit the bill. The quasi-Klingon lines of the Kharadon vessels could fill in for the Sathar while the good guys could be represented by the Mauridians.

But designing my own ships might be a hoot. And if they turn out well Pat might be able to help me make castings of them so that all my destroyer look alike or whatever. I like the idea of having my own unique vessels with my own races. When it comes to wargaming the puppetmastery of designing scenarios and fluff motivate me just as much as the fun of actual play. And Starmada makes design ships and races with individual identities a snap.

Starmada has been my spaceship game of choice for several years now, but recently I've had a bit of a crisis of faith regarding it's basic movement system. It's non-vector, hex-based, using a movement point system. That makes plotting ship movements easy as pie, but the system has some basic simulation flaws. First, ships can make all sorts of crazy movements in a single turn. Where they sit at the end of turn one does very little to predict where they will be at moving on turn 2. Second, movement is non-vector. Let me quote Aramis, writing on the Citizens of the Imperium boards: "Not having a vector movement system makes it a wet-navy sim, not a space sim. Space vessels simply do not use an MP-system like movement mode."

And then there's the big bugaboo of space games: 3-D movement. Talking about vectors and 3-D movement and such puts you on the path that leads to Ken Burnsides' Attack Vector, which might best be described as a game that combines the simplicity of totally-realistic vectored 3-D movement with the elegance of Star Fleet Battles. Still, Starmada has rules for 3-D movement and vectors, so I'm gonna re-read those sections sometime soon. And then there's Starship!, a game that makes 3-D movement a central component and combines that with some great looking figures.

The largest ship in that shot is over 5 inches long! Unfortunately, that ship costs almost as much as a Studio Bergstrom starter fleet for the Hive. Note the mounting of these ships. They're attached to telescoping poles that allow for six distinct elevations. I dig the looks of this S'Tang Fleet, but the Earthers (the only other fleet available) are rather pedestrian. Maybe the solution is to use the mounting poles with another set of figures.

Now you see the problem I run into every time I'm ready to take the plunge into sci-fi miniatures: too many nifty options for me to choose from.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Quote of the Whatever

What does my Traveller universe look like?

Whatever I want it to.

I run MegaTraveller, but used GT a lot, too. I recognize the Third Imperium, Strephon, the Zhodani, Hivers, the Solomani, The Long Night...but I rarely bother with them, and focus instead n what drew me into Trav in the first place: it's this big-ass galactic empire on such a scale that even little stories can be big. I've got my favorite subsectors somewhere far from Capital (emphasis on somewhere), with my own political insurgencies, corporations, terrorists and things like that. The OTU still touches and infoms 'em, but only on my terms, and when I feel like it.

--RPGnetter Dr. Rotwang

Friday, December 16, 2005

Worth a click

I don't normally pass on current events type stuff on this blog, other than occasionally mentioning events in the world of gaming, but here's a brief article that I found interesting. presents The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2005

Thursday, December 15, 2005

My Wife is Cool

Amy received a nice bonus from her employer this year and spent half of it on me. We had agreed that our new digital camera was to be our Xmas gift to each other, but she had other plans. She went out and bought me about the greatest toy ever. As a kid I wanted one but it was too pricey for my folks. As an adult I have wanted one but it was too pricey for me. Here it is:

I know it's just a toy, but I got weepy when I discovered it in the trunk of our care. She bought me the coolest starship in the galaxy because she knew I wanted one but was too damn cheap to buy it for myself. She's made of 100% Awesome.

Here's an neat item is selling some master molds for old 25mm figures from the R-Kiiv line of figs. This is old stuff like beardy wizards and Star Wars rip-off sci-fi figs, including a 25mm Aunt Beru! I especially like this guy:


A Letter from Gigi

Did you hear? DAVE ARNESON was at the WotC booth at Origins and one of their minions asked him "Would you like to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons?"

--Gigi Darn, from her Origins '04 report

Back in the good ol' days the delightful Ms. Darn had a rpg industry gossip column in the back of Different Worlds magazine. A lot of people hated it. Many fans thought it was a waste of space that could be filled with more substantive game material. Some publishers and designer no doubt hated the column because she was an opionated gal with a soapbox. But I think "A Letter from Gigi" is the bee's knees. Not only is the writing delightful, but it's one of the few contemporary sources of information on the gaming industry from the pre-intarweb days.

More Letters from Gigi

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Game Ideas for '06

My only campaign that looks likely to make it out of '05 alive is my 3.5 Gestalt game. The d20 Modern game was an interesting experiment, but I consider it over. My Marvel-based supers game could still resurface. I hate to change systems yet again, but Mutants & Masterminds isn't working as well as I hoped for. Should I just convert everyone over to the original Marvel game and be done with it? I dunno. Anyway, here are my current ideas for next year:

Western - Using either Boot Hill or Savage Worlds

Space Opera - Probably Star Frontiers setting with Savage Worlds rules

Basic/Expert D&D?

Kung Fu Action Movie - Feng Shui? Extreme Vengeance? Ninjas & Superspies? Even more Savage Worlds? I'm leaning towards Feng Shui and hoping I could get the Pancake Hut gang together for this one.

Dawn Patrol - maybe I'll just read the rules, push it around a bit, and take it to my Monday night get-together

Zombie game - AFMBE? Zombi? Savage Worlds yet again?

Starmada campaign - There's still the Four Years War to be fought for one. I'd like to get some minis fleets together still, but which figure lines? Trek? Star Frontiers? A couple of random fleets from the various sci-fi lines?

Traveller one-shot - Specifically not a tramp merchant game. Maybe something involving nobles and/or espionage. I think this would be a good one for Sue and the boys.

Prisoner one-shot? - I'd like coeli and her hubby to be in on this, not sure who else. And what system?!?

RPG-wise I'm going to continue pushing towards one-shots and mini-campaigns as my normal modus operandi. D&D is the only game for which I can really sustain a campaign.

I still miss Old Man Murray

Start to crate: 0

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

D&D Products, '74 to '76

Dungeons & Dragons (original 3-volume set)

Supplement I: Greyhawk
Supplement II: Blackmoor
Strategic Review #1-5
Strategic Preview #3-6 (There was no SP #1 or 2)

Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry
Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes
Swords & Spells
Dungeon Geomorphs Set One
Strategic Review 6-7
Dragon #1-4

These are my raw materials for my retro D&D game. Not that I have or need them all. The Strategic Preview is as rare as lips on a lizard. I've not seen a copy outside the Acaeum cover images. I also don't have Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. Maybe a throwdown with Thor at the end of the adventure could be fun. Swords & Spells is a set of minis rules designed to be compatible with D&D, but they are crunchier than I like and I've heard reports that they are broken anyway.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Magic Systems

Two new products coming down the pike that may be of interest to people who dislike the default D&D magic system.

d20 Advanced Magic from Guardians of Order is out as a PDF from DriveThru, but I've heard that a paper edition is supposed to appear in the next month or so. This product takes the magic system introduced in Slayers d20 and files the serial numbers off for generic BESM d20 and also modularizes it to be dropped into vanilla D&D. Between this product and the BESM d20 Monstrous Manual you ought to be able to do anime-tweaked D&D style fantasy with ease.

Meanwhile I've heard that Green Ronin is working on extracting the magic system from the Black Company sourcebook and selling it as a stand-alone for use in regular D&D gaming. Is this another case of Green Ronin marrying excellent mechanics to a setting that weighs them down? (*cough* Blue Rose *cough*) My friend Pat (a crunchy magic system fan) digs the Black Company mechanics, but they left me cold. Even so, I can't help but think that this system might be the prime choice for folks who want a magic system to go with Mike Mearls' combat rules from Iron Heroes. Not having read Iron Heroes I could be full of crap on this, but that's what my gut is telling me.

Speaking of Pat, send me some e-mail or something, man!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Huh? A what for what?

Here's an odd bit of industry chatter from RPGnet. Jason Vey (a.k.a. RPGnetter The Grey Elf) has pitched a supplement idea to Eden Studios. That's not the weird part. Mr. Vey is the author of Dungeons & Zombies, the fantasy book for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. I don't own D&Z, since I need another fantasy game like I need a third bunghole, but I've heard nothing but good things about it.

No, the odd part is that Vey has pitched an idea for a horror supplement to AFMBE. A horror supplement. For a zombie game. Let that rattle around in your skull a bit. Sure, you could probably find some stuff to talk about that hasn't already been covered in AFMBE's prodigious line. But I'd still feel silly buying it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

This is why my campaigns fizzle out

My priorities for gaming right now look like this:

1.) Current D&D campaign (I got an adventure picked out for next week, but I need to read the damn thing.)
2.) My 3 Winter War games (I'm going to be working my ass off in January if I don't get going.)
3.) Next campaign (probably Star Frontiers setting with Savage Worlds rules)

So what have I spent all my gaming time on lately? Frickin' Traveller. I just love dicking around with Traveller. It's a GMs playground. For the past week or so I've been crunching the numbers to work out the economics of space trade in District 268, a no-account subsector in the Spinward Marches. When would I need this info? Probably around the 1st week of Never.

I swear, every time I get a game going I get distracted by something shiny.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads! (a rant)

Do you think that hula hoops will ever come back? Will poodle skirts ever again be the Next Big Thing that all the chicks wear? Do you buy into the idea that the music world will see a re-emergence of ragtime as the primary form of popular music? No?

Then what on earth makes you think that roleplaying games will ever be as popular as they were in the 80's?!?

Let's get this out on the table: D&D was a fad in the mid-eighties. Nothing more, nothing less. Like any other fad a handful of social misfits continued to hold it near and dear to their hearts long after the rest of the world stopped caring. You and I are those rejects. And our beloved hobby will almost assuredly never reach the heights it did back in the day. Just get over it, please! Don't attempt to position RPGs in the mainstream. They were already there and the mainstream world moved on.

No licensed property or blockbuster movie will drive people back into the hobby. Stop acting like a new golden age of RPGs lies just around the corner. That golden age is already happening right now at a thousand tables where people are playing the games they love. The people who are at this very moment rolling dice aren't worried about the place RPGs hold in the world at large, nor are they dithering about whether there will be another generation of RPGers. Of course there will be more roleplayers, just like you can find barbershop quartets made up of people who aren't a million years old.

In short: Shut up and play, fanboy.

Red Alert!

25 space amoebas have entered the system!

The above image was generated using one of the really nifty mostly-for-Traveller webtoys found at The Zhodani Base, one of my absolute favorite sci-fi rpg sites.

Work continues to be crazy-go-nuts, but I'm hoping to make a substantive post in the next day or two. Until then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.

Friday, November 25, 2005

RPG Night: An Alternative Campaign Format

My Monday night boardgaming group is a pretty laid back bunch. We get together for maybe four hours and play 2 or 3 different games. We have our favorites such as Ticket to Ride, Bohnanza, Puerto Rico and recently Power Grid. Sometimes people bring a game that they want to play. I've showed up with Carcassonne in hand and Jim breaks out his El Grande set on occassion. Generally there is little controversy as to what we are going to play. If someone really wants to play a particular game, it gets played. And no one minds if someone begs off from playing a certain game, as I did with Santa Fe after several crushing defeats. I just couldn't wrap my head around that game. For a while playing it felt like hard work. Except for a couple of serial games of El Grande, we never have much of a plan as to what we're going to play. I can guess that we're going to play Puerto Rico or Bohnanza next Monday and I'd probably be right. But we might end up playing Texas Hold 'Em or some newly published or something from Bruce's game collection that hasn't seen the light of day since he bought it in '69.

I really like this set-up. We get all the new toy delights we want but also have our comfortable favorites to fall back on. And the possibility of becoming bored with a game is a non-issue. We played a crapload of Ticket to Ride for a while. But then we stopped. No biggie. In all probability we'll come back to Ticket at some future point. Until then, there are plenty of other games to play.

Recently it occurred to me that a similar format might work for RPGs. But before I talk about that, let's take a look at RPG campaigns as I know them. Somewhere along the way everyone I know in the hobby got locked into this One Ongoing Campaign thing. Wednesday night is Jeff's D&D campaign. Friday night is Sue's Champions game. Etc. I think this situation is the logical development from the main thrust of rpg evolution, particularly the 80's increase in mechanical complexity and the 90's increase in setting depth. If it takes you 6 hours to make a character and 300 pages of back story to understand the setting, then by golly you are heavily invested in this game before the first session. You don't want to dick around playing some other thing on Vampire night, you want to play Lord Gloomknickers! After all, there's at least 14 plothooks in the 60-page fanfic you e-mailed the GM last week.

There's nothing wrong with this format. I just think we should consider that other ways of organizing our roleplaying might enable better play for some people. Although I call the present dominant model 'One Ongoing Campaign', this label doesn't mean you only play one game ever. Rather it is acknowledging the fact that when you set up to game with people you say something like "I am going to run Call of Cthulhu and we will be playing every other Saturday". If you come over to my house on Saturday at the appropriate time then everybody is expecting to pick up where they left off two weeks ago. If you also play in someone else's every-Thurday night Ravenstar campaign, that's another 'One Ongoing Campaign' that you participate in.

I call my alternative 'RPG Night'. The main difference is that when you show up you might be playing a different game than last time. The time and place of gathering are fixed, the choice of RPG is not. In my mind each player has a portfolio of characters they keep in a three ring binder on a shelf in my game room. Each portfolio contains three or four Classic Traveller characters, a like number of Basic/Expert D&D adventurers, and one or two people each for several other RPGs. When you get together for RPG night you might spend a little bit of time making a character or two. "I'd like to do a Boot Hill shoot-out next week, so we'll all make some rolls on the chargen charts real quick." You might do some light roleplaying activities. "Hey, can we talk about my wizard making a magic item before the next D&D adventure. And didn't someone else want to look for a henchman?" or "The next Traveller adventure starts at the Glisten asteroid belt. Let's do four or five quick jumps to try to move your Free Trader towards that part of space." Then the group settles down into the meat of the evening. "Break out the Gamma World PCs, please. According to my notes the last time we played Gamma World you mutant freaks had saved a small farming community from a plague of giant radiated beetles. This adventure begins as you are being feted by Baron Ironeyes, the cyborg lord of the region."

Under my proposal you probably couldn't use several different crunchy games. Many people, myself included, aren't prepared to play any one of several different rules-intensive games at the drop of a hat. So for RPG Night you'd do well to stick with a single generic system or use only relatively light and fluffy games. Or you could do both. I could see including Savage Worlds in the mix along with the musty old games I've already mentioned. Slogging through intensive settings would also be a problem. My brain would melt if I went to a session thinking I might be adventuring in either the Forgotten Realms or Tekumel or the old World of Darkness. That means the settings would have to be well-known (generic D&D style, relatively normal modern era, generic supers, Star Trek/Star Wars), easily digestible (Traveller's Charted Space, maybe?), or perhaps just ill-defined (default Gamma World and Star Frontiers).

Notice how everything that theorietically works well for RPG Night gaming happens to dovetail nicely with the exact kind of games that I love? RPG Night ought to also help me out in my greatest flaw as a GM: I'm so flightly I tend to burn out before a campaign goes a dozen sessions. Even as a write this I have a Mutants & Masterminds campaign on life support and a D&D campaign that I should be working on. Most of the time my games flounder because something shiney distracts me and I move on to the next product. The RPG Night structure might allow me to turn that weakness into a strength. "Check this out guys! I've got a copy of Hot New RPG. I've photocopied the sample PCs so we could play the starter adventure tonight!" or "I know we ended last session with your dungeoneers captured by the hobgoblins, but I've got this terrible hankering for some Traveller tonight. 'Sides, I need more time to figure out what the hobgoblin king is going to do to you."

I think the right kind of players can get something out of RPG Night as well. If you like to adventure in many different times and places, here's a way to do it without playing Doctor Who or Lords of Creation. If you enjoy trying out lots of different character types, here's a way to make that happen with the disruptive revolving door effect you see in some parties. And if you enjoy the occasional player-on-player conflict but hate what it does to a long-term campaign, there's no reason why it should break the whole operation on RPG Night. Heck, take advantage of the system and play Boot Hill or Gangbusters with PCs on both sides of the law. Or fight each other as pilots/drivers in proto-rpg wargames like BattleTech, Car Wars or Dawn Patrol. RPG Night would probably be a perfect setting for an En Garde! campaign, as it would mostly be playable during the pre-game part of each session.

In the course of the hobby, players from time-to-time find themselves in campaigns that are good but they just don't particularly like the game in question. Like I could probably enjoy playing Vampire, but it's far from my list of top games to try. RPG Night means that even if you don't like tonight's game you won't have to wait too long for something new.

Another advantage is that GMs and players might be more inclined to try a different game or campaign configuration. You probably won't find much support for an all-halfling campaign, but as a companent of a multi-campaign RPG Night the idea becomes just one more item in the gaming buffet line.

Record keeping would probably be crucial for this system to work as anything but a serious of single-night one-shots. I mentioned the player portfolio idea. I think the GM or GMs would also need campaign portfolios and maybe an after-action report for each session, that way no one forgets that the bounty hunters are still looking for Smelly the Dwarf or that Gold Tooth McGee lost the deed to the ranch in a poker game.

As always, feedback on my crazy ideas is always appreciated. Does this sort of campaign sound feasible to anyone else?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

High ReZolution Images

Work's been supercrazy, but I had to take the time to point my peeps to this gallery for a minis game called Rezolution. This game has everything: cenobites, Japanese schoolgirls, cowboys on Mars, this guy, mutant demons, Neo & Trinity knock-offs, bishis with guns, robots, techno-Egytpians, street samurai.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thursday, November 17, 2005

3.X NPC Classes

There's a nifty thread over at RPGnet talking about the NPC classes: Warrior, Adept, Aristocrat, Expert, and Commoner. I'm a big fan of these classes as well as the Generic PC classes based upon them that appear in the 3.5 Unearthed Arcana. I think an Adept/Warrior based campaign could be a great way to introduce newbies to modern D&D, if you're the kind of sadistic bastard who would introduce newbies to modern D&D.

The Incomplete Pictorial History of the Bulette

A copy of the original Hong Kong toy "dinosaur" that served as the inspiration for Gary Gygax's bulette or "landshark". Also in this same set were figures that later became the rust monster and carrion crawler. Note that the creature neatly occupies a 2 x 2 area on a standard battlemat. Present to help show scale is Mordenkainen from the D&D collectible miniatures game.

The first documented landshark attacks occurred live from New York on November 8th, 1975.

The frontispiece of the original Monster Manual. In its Manual entry the bulette was noted as being absolutely fearless.

From the bulette entry in the original Monster Manual. The creature up the tree is a halfling. Gygax mentions that bulettes find halflings a particularly tasty treat and are known to dig up into their burrows.

Prototype of an 80's-era plastic bulette for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons toyline from LJN Toys. Sadly, this toy never entered into production.

The 3.X era bulette. Gone are the references to enjoying halfling meat. The 3E version of the bulette added a rather scary leap attack allowing the creature to use all four claws against a single target. This ability was dropped in 3.5.

Another great bulette illustration can be seen here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My sister is cool

So Jenn was up for this little elected office, vice president of a county-level civic organization. Like many bodies this size there's usually only one candidate so the nomination and election are virtually one and the same. Well, some fancy pants lawyer decides at the last minute that she needed to be vice president and not my sis. This lady was so classy about it that she nominated herself for the job. Couldn't even find one person to stand up and nominate you, eh? Anyway, lawyer gal must have had some support because the voting turned out to be a dead even tie.

So they game for it. I shit you not, this law-chick agrees to play my sister Rock-Paper-Scissors for the vice presidency and the organization in question goes along with it. Good ol' RPS had a spot among the games we played as kids. I know lots of people disregard RPS as a real game, but cross-my-heart hope-to-die when done properly it can be one of the greatest purely psychological games ever played. And my sister knew the first lesson of serious RPS play: novices go Rock. Try it out sometime. I don't know if it's the agressiveness of the fist you make or the strong name "Rock", but the average person selects rock as their play a helluva lot more than the other two options, especially on the first throw.

So she went Paper, right? WRONG. She was up against a lawyer, a member of a species known for their low cunning. Jenn guessed that the lawyer would also know the Rock trick and would herself go Paper. So Jenn threw Scissors and won. Ain't that awesome?

Monday, November 14, 2005

New Product at Jeff's Junk

Squidward wore a button like this in a Spongebob Squarepants episode and my wife declared that she had to have one.

RIP: Eddie Guerrero

Professional wrestler Eddie Guerrero passed away yesterday in his hotel room in Minneapolis. Cause of death is reported as a heart attack. Although not one of my all-time favorite wrestlers, I became a fan of Eddie's work during the Monday Night Wars, when I was regularly following World Championship Wrestling. He was one of the few wrestlers with enough charisma to win me over on mike-work alone but who could also put on a helluva show in the ring. I enjoyed his lWo (Latino World Order) angle and his feud with his "crazy" nephew Chavo.

Once I had an opportunity to see a live performance by Mr. Guerrero at a house show in Peoria, Illinois. The overall card was great, featuring an Ultimate Dragon/Billy Kidman bout that blew me away and a very decent "Battle of the Big Men" main event involving Kevin Nash and The Giant. If I recall correctly Eddie was about the only performer to pick up the mike that night. Man, he really worked the classic arrogant out-of-towner angle. With a simple sneer and the proper intonation on the phrase "you hicks" he had the audience hating him from the get-go. I don't remember his opponent or the match, but his sheer personal magnetism had the whole house booing him. Eddie Guerrero, I salute you, wherever you are.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Netherlands?! Crap!

Last month I waxed nostalgic in a three-part series on old game crap that no one else cares about. Part 1 was about Companion Games and their 3rd party Star Fleet Battles materials, which are about as rare as hen's teeth nowadays. Well, three Companion Games products have finally appeared on eBay, but the seller is in the Netherlands. Minimum bid is only a buck apiece, but shipping across the pond is seventeen friggin' bucks. Maybe I could justify that kind of money if I still owned a copy of Star Fleet Battles, but the price is way too high just to adapt this stuff to Starmada.

Stephen Hawking, Game Designer

I kid you not. Professor Hawking is an accomplished man. I'd call him a Renaissance man, but he's more like a transhuman man-mind from some future century. Sure, we all know he's one of the premier minds in physics. And many of you may be aware that he's the only person to ever play themselves on a Star Trek show. Of course we're all familiar with his work as a crime-fighting cyborg. But did you know that in his youth he designed games?
Later on, in my teens, I built model airplanes and boats. I was never very good with my hands, but I did this with my school friend John McClenahan, who was much better and whose father had a workshop in their house. My aim was always to build working models that I could control. I think it was the same drive that led me to invent a series of very complicated games with another school friend, Roger Ferneyhough. There was a manufacturing game, complete with factories in which units of different colors were made, roads and railways on which they were carried, and a stock market. There was a war game, played on a board of four thousand squares, and even a feudal game, in which each player was a whole dynasty, with a family tree.

--from Black Holes and Baby Universes & Other Essays
Don't those games sound nifty? One of the greatest minds in history, designing economic simulations, multigenerational medieval epics, and 4,000 cell wargames! If he wasn't busy unlocking the secrets of the universe I'd start a petition drive to get him designing games again.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

J-Con III: The Revenge

Looks like I'm going to take another stab at a Living Greyhawk event at my place, probably this Friday. The last one didn't go so well, but my sister wants to play some D&D and I got this goofy idea for a half-orc cleric. In medieval times undesired babies were often left at the doorsteps of monasteries and such. This served as a form of birth control and the church got a manpower boost out of the deal. My guy would be a half-orc child left at a temple of Boccob. The poor bastard's mum thought that the church of the Uncaring One would probably have less institutional racism than many of the so-called Good deities. So here he is, this big tough Half-Orc, a cleric of the god of magic. Meanwhile, my sister will be playing an elven sorceress ( i.e. a fairy princess).
So if any locals reading this want to give a Living Greyhawk intro module a try, let me know. Reply here or email me at jrients (at) gmail (dot) com.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ritualized Openings

It may prove useful to experiment with the idea of an opening invocation, to be recited at the beginning of each session. They can set the tone as well as signal to the players that it's time to cut the chatter and start playing. Consider the following passages, and how they work as opening rituals.
In the year 1994, from out of space, comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the moon, unleashing cosmic destruction. Man's civilization is cast in ruin. Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old. A world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice. With his companions, Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous sunsword, against the forces of evil. He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

In the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryus, there was an age undreamed of... and unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow... It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga... Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

Space... the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldy go where no one has gone before!
To any hardy adventurer words such as these ought to act as a clarion call. Combine them with kick-ass opening music and you'll have the players ready to get it on like Diddy Kong.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Quote of the Day

The quote below from the Fat Gregor material in Critical Miss, issue 8 has haunted me since I first read it.

D&D is about quests for glory and riches; WFRP pretends to be the same, but in fact is about the PCs' day-to-day fight for survival in a universe that hates them. If you don't finish each adventure worse off than when you started it, your GM is doing something wrong.

--James Wallis

Saturday, November 05, 2005

3 Little Things

Occasionally I try to convince myself that I can write. Here are the products of one of these feverish periods. The structure I wrote in is called nanofiction. Click here for more information on the form. This first piece was inspired by a throwaway line in one of Ken Hite's Suppressed Transmissions.

A Cockatrice in Shropshire

Three rustics had been petrified and then the old vicar was turned to stone. A passing burger recommended the services of a certain witch. The woman was summoned and charged with disposing of the monster. With a handful of corn and earnest clucking she led the beast into the bog. It was never seen again.

These next two are actually backgrounds for two PCs from a short-lived Palladium Fantasy campaign.

A Young Man Seeks His Fortune

When grandma died the bastard knew he had to leave the farm. He had grown fat and lazy under her wing. Before they finished weeping over her grave he stole what he could and fled. A cruel deed, but he knew they hated him. He and his big belly would take on the world together.

The Sea Puppy

His first voyage turned out to be his last. He did his best to help out around the ship when he was able but proved himself to be useless in a fight. He couldn’t blame the captain when he was discharged once they made it into port. After all, what good is a seasick pirate?

Friday, November 04, 2005


Kate Monk's Onomastikon (dictionary of names)

Atomic Rocketships of the Space Patrol

I'm tempted to put one of these on my car.

Spheres, a sci-fi rpg setting

If you're Senator isn't on this list you should maybe be asking why. Dammit, Obama, where were you?

New from Confused Message Industries

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Vintage neckties fashionable again?

Today I stopped by Carrie's, a local retro-retailer, over lunch. One of my personal affectations is an enthusiasm for vintage ties (particularly skinny 50's ties in black, red, or silver) and Carrie's is my principle supplier. When I first started shopping there in the mid-90s a tie cost two bucks. Later the price mushroomed to three dollars american. But this afternoon's visit led to the discovery of a premium vintage tie rack, with prices starting at $10! One tie was listed for 25 dollars! Surely there must be some hipsters out there somewhere with vintage neckties encircling their collars. How dare they bite my styles!

Fortunately the ties on the little carousel rack still only cost 3 smackers and I found a trio of likely suspects to bring home.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Con Game: Dragons of Ancient Days

This is my OD&D project. The basic idea is that the deeper one goes into the adventure, the further you travel along the OD&D publishing timeline. Encounters in the wilderness surrounding the dungeon will use the original Chainmail rules. Exploration of the ruins above the dungeon (an ancient, crumbling castle on a hill, of course) will use the 1974 boxed set. The first dungeon level will use Supplement I: Greyhawk. The next level will use Blackmoor, and the third level will use Eldritch Wizardry. I don't think I'll need more than three levels, but one could add the Arduin Grimoire material for the 4th level and the later Arduin trilogy books for levels 5 and 6.

Adding monsters and magic items the deeper one goes ought to be a cinch. The real tricks here are that the rules change. Blackmoor has hit location tables, for example. And Eldritch Wizardry has an inexplicable alternate initiative system. And the players will find that their characters change, too. The strange either/or multiclass system of OD&D gives way to the more recognizable format still largely used today. Wizards will find their spell lists very short initially. Thieves won't even exist until level one of the dungeon! It will be an odd play experience, to say the least.

"Okay, you descend the stairs into the dungeon. Here are your new character sheets."

"Hey, my hobbit fighting man is now a halfing thief!"

The Venturi Cluster

Regular readers may recall my post last month regarding the deep fantasy/eclectic fantasy spectrum. Since writing that piece I have begun to suspect that science fiction games have a similar dimension. On the ecletic end is Star Wars (with its cantinas full of rubbery aliens) and Star Trek (with its spatial anomaly of the week), while on the deep end might be found more staid sci-fi like Classic Traveller's 3rd Imperium setting. I don't think the distinction here is as great as the difference between Harn and Eberron, but I hope you can still see what I'm talking about.

The Venturi Cluster is the name of my new foray into a space opera setting of my own. My intention is to lean closer to the 3rd Imperium side, but to not go quite so far. I need some rubber suited aliens and planetcrushing superweapons to make a sci-fi setting really sing to me. Rather than start a new blog doomed to inactivity (cough, 6 Islands, cough) I figured I could just work out some of the details here. Basically, the V Cluster is meant to be a space setting roughly on the order of magnitude of the Spinward Marches, but with the following differences:

  • Although meant to be compatible with Classic Traveller (especially Books 1-3), it owes no particular allegiance to the 3rd Imperium setting.
  • The setting should also be largely compatible with Savage Worlds, SpaceMaster, and Mekton Zeta. Some functional compatibility with Star Frontiers would be nice as well.
  • Instead of Traveller's 'mainworld' approach to stellar mapping, I am interested in spacemaps with actual stars and such on them.
  • GURPS Aliens is to serve as my primary resource for the major races of the Cluster.
  • Unlike the Spinward Marches, the Cluster will be largely isolated from the rest of space, at least for the historical eras in which actual play would occur (see below).
  • The basic shape of the Cluster is taken from the old Avalon Hill boardgame Amoeba Wars, allowing Cluster-wide wars to be fought on that mapboard.
  • Other board wargaming would be supported, particularly Starmada and non-canonical BattleTech.
  • Different eras for the Cluster would be outlined for different uses. For example, full on Mekton Zeta robot throwdowns would be reserved for a single period in history. That way adventures could be run without giant mecha. Similarly, psionics could be a Big Deal in one or more periods, but be unknown or supressed as 'mind wizardry' in others.
  • Star systems will have a Z coordinate. The basic shape of the cluster will be a flat disc, but it won't be perfectly flat. Stars in the center of the Cluster can have a Z rating of up to +5 or -5 lightyears from the Cluster baseplane. At the edges the variance drops off to +1 to -1.
  • For the most part, FTL travel and communication will be as described in Traveller, but hexes on the subsector maps will be one light-year apart. This means that travel in the Cluster will be 3.25 easier because Traveller hexes are measured in parsecs. A jump-6 drive can take you 19 hexes! I'm considering introducing a "jump-1/2" drive that allows travel to adjacent hexes.

That's a quick rundown of the basics of the Venturi Cluster. Next time I'll talk more about my approach for building the stellar cartography using a "from the ground up" approach.

Monday, October 31, 2005

It's Halloween

a poem by Jack Prelutsky

It's Halloween! It's Halloween!
The moon is full and bright
And we shall see what can't be seen
On any other night:

Skeletons and ghosts and ghouls,
Grinning goblins fighting duels,
Werewolves rising from their tombs,
Witches on their magic brooms.

In masks and gowns
we haunt the street
And knock on doors
for trick or treat.

Tonight we are
the king and queen,
For oh tonight
it's Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

And now for something completely different...


Big Sale

Used games giant Titan Games is having a big Buy 1 Get 3 Free sale. You read that right. Pay full price for one item, get three of equal or lesser value for free. For the list of items, click here.

Shadows of the Gaming Past, part 3

Do Androids Dream of Vaporware?

Back when I was a kid Dragon magazine was my lifeline to the gaming community. Sure, I managed to get to a few conventions. Bloomington, Illinois was host to Frontier Wars (it would be almost two decades before I realized this con was named after the Frontier Wars from Traveller) and Spring Offensive played in Peoria. But Dragon was the only thing I could count on for regular contact with the rest of the hobby. I purchased the first Dragon magazine I ever encountered, issue #69, from January 1983. I'm not sure if I even paged through the thing before I got it. It had orcs, skeletons and a hot sorceress on the cover, what more did I need to know?

Nowadays you hear a lot of folks on messageboards bemoaning their isolation. "I can't find a gaming group." "Everybody here only plays D&D." "Now that I'm sixteen mom makes me change my own diapers." What a bunch of wussies. I founded my first gaming group in fourth grade, armed with nothing but a D&D Basic set and unbridled enthusiasm. If you can't get two or three people to try gaming with you, that's not necessarily a fault of the system or the hobby. Try getting a personality. Back in my youth the D&D group in Flanagan, Illinois was a handful of snotnosed kids who taught themselves all the tough lessons of gaming. Hell, I still remember the glorious moment at my folks' kitchen table when we realized that sleep allowed for no saving throw, allowing Gopher to claim the treasue for himself.

Although we were never the kind of players to willy-nilly adapt ever variant we found in a Dragon article, we did take the new stuff appearing in its pages very seriously. Without an internet or a friendly local game store or any adult mentors, our formative years of roleplaying were shaped by Dragon first and foremost. This Dragon-induced myopia left us with strange notions such as TSR being the only serious company that made real roleplaying games. It took us years to get over that nonsense. Bewteen the lot of us we collected nearly ever game TSR made in the early-to-mid eighties: D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, Boot Hill, Dawn Patrol, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Conan, and Marvel Superheroes. We eventually branched out, but mainly from lack of new games to buy from TSR! It took some solid licenses (Star Trek, James Bond 007, Ghostbusters, MERP) to get us out of that rut. One interesting footnote here is that our first semi-successful campaign with a non-TSR product was running Call of Cthulhu. I didn't know Howard Phillips Lovecraft from the man in the moon until I read the Dragon review for CoC. I may never have gotten into Lovecraft if not for that review.

Given our relationship with TSR and Dragon back in those days, you can imagine my game group's exitement when a new TSR roleplaying game is announced in the pages of Dragon. The announcement came in the form of a two page article in the ARES section of issue #99, July 1985. For those of you who don't know, in 1984 or so TSR bought out wargame veteran SPI. (For gaming icon Greg Costikyan's bitter look back at this event click here.) One of SPI's publications was a sci-fi gaming mag called ARES. Rather than continue to publish ARES as a separate magazine, the secret chiefs of TSR decided to rework the brand as a special sci-fi/superheroes section of Dragon. I don't know much about the pre-Dragon version of ARES, as I've never read an issue. Back issues go for a pretty penny on eBay nowadays.

So anyways, the article that caught my eye back in '85 was "Psybots and Battle Mechs" by Michael Breault. The Pen & Paper database indicates that Mr. Breault has almost no creative credits, but he edited a large number of TSR products over the years. Mr. Breault's article outlined a forthcoming rpg entitled Proton Fire (or, as TSR liked to put things in those days, PROTON FIRE™). They managed to squeeze in four different robot illustrations on those two pages. I've posted my favorite of the four on the right. Robo-babe, ahoy!

Proton Fire, as Mr. Breault explains, was to be a new science fiction title. The setting is the Matri system, which was colonized centuries in the past by humans via a slower-than-light colony ship. Since then the Matri system has apparently been cut off from the rest of humanity. Most of the humans in the Matri system are under the dystopian thumb of the Corporation, headed by the cybernetically immortal Quintad and ruthlessly enforced by their robo-goons, the Eliminators. The PCs are agents of the University, which obtained independance from the Corporation when a great plague disrupted business as usual by killing off 90% of the population of the system. (Aside: Why do plagues in rpg settings always have ludicrously high kill rates? You only need 10% fatalities to kick a society in the jimmy. Fer cryin' out loud, the Black Death killed a third of Europe at most.) PCs can be full flesh humans, cyborgs, or psybots. About psybots:

Psybots are the final step in robot evolution. Their minds are every bit as flexible and inquisitive as those of humans, yet they lack the empathy and insight of humans. Psybots also have feelings and experience pain much like humans.
To this day I'm puzzled as to why psybots have feelings yet lack empathy. That sounds really weird, like all psybots are programmed to be sociopaths. And why would anyone rig up a robot to be receptive to pain? But the biggest mystery about the psybots was their name. Do they have psionic powers? The article doesn't say.

Non-cyborg humans working for the University are issued gaint robot battlesuits. I can only assume that the designers envisioned very few adventures involving a lot of infiltration and stealth. The article spends a couple of paragraphs describing how cyborgs and psybots would have lotsa of options regarding the design of their robo-bodies. That was probably the part that most interested me. Mention was made of lotsa sci-fi equipment and a starting adventure in which the PCs seek out the Glory, the original colonization ship that brought humanity to the Matri system.

In retrospect the basic premise of the game seems sound even if a bit ham-handed: you are super-powered robotic college kids sticking it to the Man space! That looks like a reasonable product to attempt to sell the a D&D teenager during the Reagan 80's. Still, "Psybots and Battle Mechs" left at least two important questions unanswered. First, why set this sci-fi game in a single system? One of the perennial complaints lodged against TSR's Star Frontiers (their space opera game) is that the setting is too small, and "the Frontier" has a couple dozen star systems. Traveller, the undisputed king of science fiction roleplaying games, has over 200 worlds in the Spinward Marches setting, which is itself just one sector in "Charted Space". Yet even Charted Space can seem pretty small and crowded compared to the galaxy-spanning settings of the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. In an era where kids imagined zooming spaceships visiting a thousand worlds of adventure, Proton Fire offered us a single solar system. WtF?

But maybe the designers of the game did intend for Proton Fire to have a larger scope than just one system. The Proton Fire marketing blurb from the "Coming Attractions" department of that same issue of Dragon says:
Outer space, undersea, airless mons, turbulent atmospheres of strange gas giant planets, alien landscapes under far stars... explore the galaxy and discover strange new worlds as a giant robotic psybot, cyborg, or (if you insist) even a human being.

That sounds like a star-spanning game to me. Not that I'm inclined to trust marketing blurbs.

The second unanswered question is why a new sci-fi game at all? Star Frontiers, while never crushing Traveller underfoot, seemed like a reaonably popular game. It was at least in the middle of the pack based upon the volume of supplementary material produced for it. And splitting your fans between two different-but-similar products seems like a pretty easy way to lose money pushing new products out the door. Other examples of this marketing insanity include Avalon Hill releasing 3rd edition RuneQuest at the same time as Powers & Perils, FGU trying to simultaneously sell Chivalry & Sorcerery and Swordquest, and the fifty-settings-supported-at-the-same-time 2nd edition AD&D fiasco. And let's not forget the daddy of them all: AD&D and Basic/Expert D&D. That never led to any confusion or frustration. Doubling down may work in blackjack, but I can't recommend it in rpg publishing.

Still, I remember wanting to get a copy of this Proton Fire game. It was the lure of crunchy robot-building rules, I think. I was almost a decade away from reading Mekton Zeta and BattleTech wouldn't appear on the radar until October of '85. My first BattleTech experience occured at the same Frontier War gaming convention where I bought my Call of Cthulhu boxed set. That was my first con, my first go at playing in an AD&D tournament, and my first time playing D&D with adults. And I think BattleTech and CoC were my first non-TSR gaming purchases. Going strictly by publishing dates it's possible that I already owned James Bond 007 and Dave had his copy of MERP, but I don't think so. Either way, that first con was a hell of a turning point in my evolution as a game geek.

Back to Proton Fire. As I indicated earlier the setting seemed limited in scoped, but the possibility of building your own robot or cyborg PC outweighed any other considerations. Alas, it was not meant to be. Two months after Michael Breault heralded the coming of Proton Fire, Dragon #101 pulled the plug with the following announcement:

In DRAGON® Magazine #99, we proudly announced the impending release of the PROTON FIRE™ Robot Role-Playing Game, both in this column and with an article in the ARES™ Section.

Well, it didn’t happen, folks. The truth is that after the original information was prepared and printed, we decided there wasn't a big market for a stand-alone robot game—so instead, we're re-packaging it as a STAR FRONTIERS® game accessory. That way, your STAR FRONTIERS game will be enhanced with new options, and the fascinating works of PROTON FIRE will expand the Frontier Universe!

Watch this space for news as it develops!

That actually sounded promising. The Matri system may have been insufficient on its own merits, but as an expansion to the Star Frontiers setting it had legs. Imagine a first contact mission in which PCs from a Star Frontiers campaign discover the lost human colony and become entangled in the University's guerilla war. The first volume of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space came out in '85, so at the time I thought maybe the robot rules would be printed in a later volume. Maybe they would be published alongside or integrated with the battlesuit rules that had already been promised to appear in a later volume of Zebulon's Guide. But this line of thinking quickly dead ends. No other volumes of Zebulon's Guides ever materialized. Volume one of the series was the last Star Frontiers product released by TSR.

But the story doesn't end there. It is received wisdom in the Star Frontiers internet community that robot and cyborg rules were written for Star Frontiers, and that they were in fact published, just not as a Star Frontiers product. According to reports, these rules were published in the 3rd edition Gamma World module Epsilon Cyborgs. On the face of it, publishing rules for one game in a supplement for another game seems nonsensical. But in this case the idea is not absurd. Gamma World 3rd edition was part of what I call the Color Chart Revolution at TSR. Back in 1984 the so-called Game Wizards made a big splash with their Marvel SuperHeroes rpg. One of the unique features of MSH was it's four color universal resolution chart. Someone at TSR decided that this chart was the Next Big Thing, so for the next few years all their non-D&D rpgs joined in the Revolution. The first licensed Conan rpg (1986) used a color chart similar to the Marvel system. Gamma World was retooled to use a color chart in 1986. And Zebulon's Guide gave the same treatment to Star Frontiers. For all intents and purposes it was the 3rd edition rules for Star Frontiers (the first two editions where substantially the same). The color charts turned out not to be a guarantee of success. Gamma World and Marvel SuperHeroes flourished while Conan and the new Star Frontiers floundered.

So although the mid-80's roleplaying games from TSR weren't as compatible with each other as say GURPS, Chaosium's BRP engine, or even the Palladium MegaVerse, they shared a common core mechanic. So let's assume that there was at least a partially completed rough draft of Proton Fire already written when "Psybots and Battle Mechs" was published. When the game is cancelled someone at TSR decides to salvage that material as a Star Frontiers project. I think the "Coming Retractions" announcement could support this hypothesis. When Star Frontiers goes belly up, it was decided to re-recycle this material for a Gamma World module about cyborgs. That's quite a voyage for this manuscript to take, but it's not the craziest thing TSR ever did.

Given my obvious fascination with the Proton Fire story, you may be surprised when I tell you that I don't own a copy of Epsilon Cyborgs. Well, I don't need too. The enthusiasts over at have excerpted the cyborg rules. I can't say I'm impressed. Mr. Breault promised that "You design every detail of your character: the size and shape of the body, the number and types of limb" and the "Coming Attractions" blurb also makes this point. But the Epsilon rules are just a bunch of percentile charts you roll on to produce a grab-bag of results. That doesn't sound much like designing every detail. Even back in 1985 many people generally understood the difference between random character generation and generation by design. Champions had already gone through 3 editions by then. So maybe Proton Fire would have disappointed me had it been released all those years ago.

Of course the scenario I've outlined may be wrong. The Epsilon Cyborgs rules may have nothing to do with Proton Fire. Perhaps the Proton Fire manuscript never saw the light of day or perhaps Mr. Breault's announcement was premature and serious work had not even begun on the game back in July 1985. But there is another, more intriguing possibility. Veteran RPGnet reviewer Dan Davenport stated on one occasion that the Proton Fire material was reworked into Nuts & Voltz, a little robot rpg published in issue #10 of White Wolf magazine. Since I consider Mr. Davenport a credible source I tracked down a copy White Wolf #10. I couldn't find a date of publication inside the magazine, but the back cover is an ad for MegaTraveller, published in 1987. Nuts & Voltz approaches character generation via a bunch of percentile charts in much the same way as Epsilon Cyborgs. But it's clear that the Epsilon Cyborgs rules and Nuts & Voltz are not the same material re-hashed in two different venues. Or if they are, one or both documents went through serious revisions prior to publication.

Accepting both documents as descendants of Proton Fire creates an interesting question of authorship. Nuts & Voltz was written by Merle and Jackie Rasmussen, the couple behind the original version of Top Secret, TSR's espionage game. But according to Lawrence Schick's Heroic Worlds (the definitive pre-internet reference to roleplaying games), Epsilon Cyborgs is credited to Kim Eastland, who also has the design credit for Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space. None of these names matches the credit given in the "Coming Attractions" blurb though. According to that, Proton Fire was to be written by Bruce Nesmith. Mr. Nesmith is also given credit in Zebulon's Guide, for "Special Contributions".

I'll probably never know the whole story behind what exactly happened regarding the sudden announcement and retraction of Proton Fire and any legacy it left. Is there a print-out of some crunchy, build-your-own robot rules yellowing in the back of some former TSR employee's filing cabinet? Or did "Psybots and Battle Mechs" simply over-hype the robot construction rules? Are Epsilon Cyborgs and/or Nuts & Volts true reflections of the original Proton Fire concept? Given the state of chargen systems in other early 80's TSR games my guess, for what it is worth, is that one or both of them are children of that lost Matri colony. Either way, there's enough information in Mr. Breault's article to serve as the seed for an adventure. If you run an exploration based sci-fi campaign, it might be worth checking out.