Friday, November 17, 2006

Five Overlooked RPGs

Today I'm just chewing the fat (or mangling the electrons, whatever) about some old games. It's sorta what I do here.

hot chick + formal attire + pistol = perfect coverJames Bond 007
The hip new kids have Spycraft 2.0 and the grognards clutch their tattered copies of Top Secret, but for me the quintessential espionage rpg will always be James Bond 007. Released by Avalon Hill's short-lived Victory Games imprint in '83 as part of Operation: Oops! We Passed On That Gygax Manuscript And Now We Have Some Catching Up To Do, designer Gerard Christopher Klug did everything right with this one. If it was a Bond staple, this game covered it. Guns, fistfights, gadgets, chase scenes, and casinos. And the first and maybe still the best system for seduction ever devised. Unlike most rpgs, these seduction rules are crunchy enough I don't think I'd feel weird if one of the PCs tried to bed their own Bond babe.

As a kid this game was a little too heavy for my group, but nowadays I look at oo7 and see something that would work well for a explodey and sexy little one-shot. The line supporting this product was pretty extensive, but large chunks of it consisted of adventure modules that were replays of the movies. I can't quite bring myself to plonk down money for an adventure I've already seen. But the other supplements were good, particularly Thrilling Locations and the Q Manual. The latter was the first 'equipment porn' book I ever owned for an RPG, though I'm not sure it's worth the collector prices nowadays. The core rulebook contains enough guns and cars and whatnot that extrapolating your own wouldn't be very hard. The one adventure module I'd really like to flip through is You Only Live Twice II: Back of Beyond. The other fake sequel Victory Games did, Goldfinger II , reputedly sucked donkey balls.

But questionable adventure modules aside, the corebook is solid. The random encounter charts include things like "shady contact" and "priviledged henchman". And the large NPC section includes stats for Pussy Galore. What else can I say?

I swiped this pic from Andy Collins.  I own a copy, mind you.  I'm just too lazy to scan it if I don't have to.
Lords of Creation

Lords of Creation was another member of the Avalon Hill rpg blitz. (The others were an oddball non-Gloranthan licensed version of RuneQuest and the infamously complex fantasy rpg Powers & Perils. It remains a mystery to me why anyone thought releasing two incompatible fantasy rpgs at the same time was a good idea.) Tom Moldvay created this puppy fresh off a stint at TSR, where he was responsible for editing the mighty 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, the one with the awesome Erol Otus cover, as well as writing the weird but fun adventure module X2: Castle Amber.

Turning the Moldvay weirdness first found in Castle Amber up to eleven, Lords of Creation was a game of dimensional-hopping, time-travelling, multi-genre adventure. Not a generic or universal system, Lords of Creation had its own quirky set of powers and skills that were not designed to cover every possibility. Rather the available powers were like the spells in Basic/Expert D&D: a good enough selection to get the game started with the implication that the GM could add more as necessary. (Crazy aside: I'd abbreviate the game as LOC but those three letters will be forever burned into my brain as Liquid Organic Cleaner. Back when I was a kid my folks almost ended up in the Amway cult and LOC was one of their big products.)

PCs in Lords of Creation worked on different rules than everyone else. They have levels, whereas NPCs do not. Although the PCs start out as simply skilled normal people, each new level unlocks some of the hidden godlike powers contained within them. It's very gnostic, really. At level ten you are declared a Lord of Creation and you gain the ability to make your own worlds. This is kinda like the ancient Gygaxian concept of the Junior Dungeon Master, as Lords of Creation are encouraged to GM when the party ventures into their realm. Although you could call achieving the rank of Lord of Creation a victory condition, the real heart of the game is much simpler than that: Here are the keys to the multiverse, kids. Go out and have fun.
If you can look at this cover and not give the Dio devil horns then you aren't in the target audience.  Also, you suck.SenZar

You gaming hipsters who know SenZar from its bad rep on RPGnet are probably laughing your asses off right now. This game has a World of Synnibarr-level bad rap over there. And it is mostly undeserved. I will grant you that it's yet another fucking fantasy game. And its over-testosteroned "Gaming in God Mode" approach is the absolute height of adolescent male power fantasy drivel. But if you judge the game on its own merits, as adolescent male power fantasy drivel, then SenZar gets a big shiny gold star. Because SenZar is the most mechanically-coherent adolescent male power fantasy I have ever seen. I am not pulling your leg when I say that before the publication of D&D 3E this was the single tightest design in the field of killing people and taking their stuff. Everything in the book was dedicated to the basic idea of rocking out - hard.

In fact, the only reason why I never played this game was because I didn't locate a copy until after 3.x was on the scene. I run a epic gestalt campaign where one guy took a level in Ninja just because he can. That, my friends, is the exact moment when SenZar started to look redundant. But if anything I've said about the game picques your interest, do yourself a favor and check out Jason Sartin's excellent review.

The MegaTraveller Players Manual called.  It wants its cover back.Space Master

RoleMaster's redheaded stepchild doesn't get nearly the love it deserves. Probably the main reason for this neglect is that by the time it really hit its stride the market for sci-fi games was already saturated. Stupid kids like me played West End's Star Wars or FASA's Star Trek or TSR's Star Frontiers. The hard core sci-fi gamers already had Traveller. But if you're the kind of nut who thinks percentile dice and uberlethal crit charts are neat, then Space Master is your kind of game. I can only really speak for the late eighties 2nd edition of the game, though I undertstand the 1st edition wasn't too different.

What really surprises me is that I have yet to hear of anyone using Space Master to run games set in Traveller's Charted Space/3rd Imperium setting. I'm telling you those two would go together like peanut butter and chocolate, especially if you had a Classic Traveller ruleset handy to cover things like starship construction and trade rules. One of the constant complaints of CT players is the relatively sparse combat rules. Space Master delivers on that in spades.

The Space Master GM book also rattles off some other ways of making the game work, aside from their own kinda bland 'Terran Empire' setting. My favorite suggestion was the idea that you could do modern era games in the mold of Buckaroo Banzai or the old British series UFO. I dig the concept of using a space operatic system for running around in dark suits (fedoras and skinny ties would be mandatory) and getting into laser powered fistfights with the grey aliens.

Subtitled The Earth Won't Hold The Dead (though I like to think of it as "That Other Zombie Game"), Zombi is exactly what you would think it is, a game about surviving the horrors of the zombie apocalypse. I got both Zombi and a huge pile of All Flesh Must Be Eaten books on the same trip to The Source in Minneapolis-St.Paul, Minnesota. The Source effin' rules. If you ever get a chance to go there, do not pass it up. It's a five star comics and games store with the best used bins I've ever seen at an FLGS.

Anyway, a year later I had sold off my AFMBE stuff but I've still got Zombi. In a nutshell here's why I pick Zombi over the more popular alternative: All Flesh tries too hard. That sounds stupid and maybe it is, but Zombi shows up to the gig, strums a few chords, and calls it a night. No big whup. Meanwhile I feel like AFMBE is killing itself trying to write a space epic rock opera concept album. AFMBE, even using just the core book, is way more game than I'll ever need for a concept as straightforward as "Holy shit! Zombies!" Hell, I have an old print-out at home for an internet freebie called Dead Meat that almost gets the job done in 3 or 4 pages. (Ron Edwards's old review of Dead Meat is almost as long as the game itself, as I recall.)

But Zombi has its own virtues, quite apart from not being AFMBE. Character generation is a snap. Your PC and everyone is only defined by 10 skills. Not traits, skills. If you want your dude to be strong or puny you use the under-defined advantage/disadvantage system. Which I like just as under-defined as it is. The zombie rising scenario outlined manages to contain both charming details and maddening holes. ("Why? Why are the dead rising?" is my favorite question to not be answered in a zombie game. I like my zombie apocalypses harsh and inexplicable, with a side order of black despair.) The brief adventure hooks are pretty sweet, too. All in a cute little digest-sized package. Well, it's made in Britain, so the books not exactly digest-sized. Rather it's some sort of alphanumerical size like A4 or B52 or U2 or something.

Incidentally, I should mention that Zombi was published by now-defunct garage outfit Crucible Design, who also released SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO. That game that should probably win some sort of award for awesomest rpg title.


  1. Uhh...I'll take one Zombi please. Yes, thank you.

  2. When they first came out with Zombi, they had this great website set up to promote it. It was this in-game radio station blog where the station DJs were trying to contact any human survivors out there. People logged on and made in-game "transmissions" about where they were and what the conditions were like. Much fun was had.

    And I'll echo your comments on The Source. Until I moved to Minneapolis I had no idea such things could be. Not only does it stock pretty much every game known to mankind, but they've got a huge comics, boardgame, Osprey book, and DVD selection. AND the owners are super-nice - they offered to buy 10 copies of my mini-comic to sell there, of all things.

  3. Anonymous8:33 AM

    I'm with ya on the Bond game. It was too heavy for my group of Beer and Pretzel gamers back in the day. But we sure did love that Q manual!

  4. Anonymous10:29 AM

    CrucibleDesign may have folded but LateGaming picks up where they left off and has just sent sample copies of The 23rd Letter, SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO and Zombi off to Brennan at IndiePressRevolution.

    I'm glad you liked it. Muchly glad.

    I do now wish I had subtitled it "That Other Zombie Game"....

    I'm totally there with the James Bond game. I was lucky enough to pick up an entire armful of boxes for sourcebooks and scenarios =) Man - they don't make em like they used to. And the system in James Bond was to heavily influence my writing of Zombi/SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO/Testament/Creed.

  5. One thing that kept me from fully enjoying the Bond rpg was that for some dumb legal reasons, they couldn't include Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.! And so they made the decision to make up a new Bond nemesis of their own, T.A.R.O.T., wasn't it? That always bothered me, though it wasn't really the designer's fault...

    Lords Of Creation, yeah! I finally just acquired all three of the published adventures and I might just be crazy enough to try and run 'em... The game is ridiculous! By the way, have you seen this other, super obscure Moldvay adventure/game called "The Future King"? It has Cyrano de Bergerac, Bruce Lee, Doc Holliday, and Nostradamus on the cover!

    SenZar, well I dunno. That review you linked to is pretty amusing, though!

    SpaceMaster, no comment... Probably cool but I never tried out any Rolemaster stuff. Am into percentile dice too though.

    And I guess I'll be looking at IPR for that Zombi rpg...

  6. matt: I am super-pleased to hear that your games will be available again! I did this post precisely because I feel all these games deserve better than to languish in obscurity.

    horrox: I would have liked SPECTRE in the book as well, but TAROT is a pretty cool substitute.

    Also, I know nothing about The Future King other than that pic. I've seen a couple copies at various places going for around 30 bucks. I've never been 30 bucks curious about the game. Maybe after I break down and spend the dough to get Moldvay's module Seren Ironhand.

  7. Anonymous2:54 PM

    Of these, the only one I have played is 007... and, though I still have the book, I haven't played it since about 1983.

  8. Anonymous3:16 PM

    I was big into SpaceMaster back in the day. 'Bland' may be one word for the 'packaged' Terran Empire setting - but I prefer to think of it as 'flexible'; you could comfortably play any style of sci-fi goodness somewhere in the 'universe' of SpaceMaster - Dune style inter-House power-politicking, Blade Runner style replicant hunts in grim industrial backwaters, 'boldly going' to explore unkown frontiers, or interplanetary criminal hijinks in the style of the Stainless Steel Rat.....You could do all this and more and we certainly tried to and had a blast. The ruleset would probably be a bit crunchy now for my current tastes - but damn those were good times we had with SpaceMaster.

  9. "I prefer to think of it as 'flexible'; you could comfortably play any style of sci-fi goodness somewhere in the 'universe' of SpaceMaster - Dune style inter-House power-politicking, Blade Runner style replicant hunts in grim industrial backwaters, 'boldly going' to explore unkown frontiers, or interplanetary criminal hijinks in the style of the Stainless Steel Rat"

    Pitched like that I can totally see the appeal. The Terran Empire never lit my jets back in the day, but you make a strong case for it.

  10. 007 has one of the best designs ever. It was for me the first game that really had rules designed to emulate a certain genre and style, that was into player empowerment, and a lot of groundbreaking things. I still play it (these days I'm playing Goldfinger with my g/f).

    By the way, Jeff, I'll cast a vote in favour of the official adventures. I only own two (A View to a Kill and Goldfinger), but both differ from the movies enough to have surprises, but not so much as to be totally unrecognizable. Great work, indeed. Check them out.

  11. Goldfinger II for James Bond was good, I have run it and it is fun.

  12. Anonymous11:32 AM

    Since we hadn't gotten into any of the other science fiction games you mentioned yet, the move from Rolemaster to Space Master was a natural and easy one for my high school game group.

    I would never want to run it, but playing a session or two for nostalgia (especially a bug hunt or two) would be a lot of fun.

  13. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Woot! SpaceNinja and Zombi available on KEY20!

  14. Lords of Creation rules... I still have dimensional sight.

  15. Anonymous6:29 AM

    A long time ago, like 10 years or so the developers of SenZar were all over The problem was that they totally verified the stereotype of gamers who "powergame". all the posts are still available in Google Groups and there are 100's. There was a very legendary flame war which erupted due to the authors self-aggrandizing the product and themselves. Some of the sillier things I recall were the authors web site claimed that one of them was an Olympic class fencer, and the other's greatest achievement was in Karate where he was able to "punch a sand bag 10 times in a second" something which is physiologically impossible.

    Bu the worse thing was they all went out and got fake e-mails by hacking AOL accounts and made pretended to be happy users and even people in the game industry to blost the sales.

  16. Anonymous11:28 AM

    We played Spacemaster not too long ago. As mentioned earlier, it is very flexible (and quite lethal too, just as it should be in real life!). Best scifi campaign I played was with this system but using a different background than the one in the book. We didn't care about all the animal races... Thanks for these reviews. I'd like to try 007!

  17. Jeff, the 007 modules explicitly tell you not to assume they follow the movies, doing so will place your character in severe risk.

    The SPECTRE/Blofeld crap was the result of the fact that the novel Thunderball was actually an adaptation of the screenplay written by Fleming and Kevin McClory (and Jack Whittingham). This lead to a copyright issue over SPECTRE and Blofeld that resulted in some out of court settlements that gave McClory rights over those entities.

    Check out for a download of the playtest for the never released From Russia With Love module.


  18. Anonymous9:32 PM

    Every now and again, I com back to this review...Its just excellent stuff. Well done, Jeff.


  19. I have to admit that, from what I remember, I actually liked T.A.R.O.T. more than S.P.E.C.T.R.E. I thought it had a cooler thematic structure to it, neat organization, and, if I remember correctly, even the leader of the organization was kind of a dark mirror of Bond himself.

  20. Anonymous5:17 AM

    Got to find zombi....

    By the way, have you ever read The Dead? Sweet little free zombie rpg.

  21. ok umm the only one ive ever played was 007....i love that game and i love the movies...i am the type to love action/adventure things

  22. As someone with over 200 games on his shelf and an obsession for trying them all out, I congratulate you on tagging 3 that I don't have (and 4 that I've never played) in that list.

  23. Zombi is now available for free download sans some of the art.

  24. Del Beaudry1:43 PM

    I am not hip enough to know which games have been overlooked by RPG history blogosphere, but I will throw out several good ones:

    -Dragonquest: Not playable, or barely so, I grant you. But one of the most interesting (& influential!) magic systems ever designed. Tons of great texture, too. (What other game asks you to roll up your PC's "aspect"--a kind of outre astrology--which them affects magic use?)

    -Swordbearer: Among the best 80s RPGs. Thoughtful & highly playable. Runequest II stole its fascinating spirit magic system. Also has nice art.

    -Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes: T&T rules, Raymond Chandler vibe. Absurd? You bethca. But also hella playable & very durable. I ran this for years, because it takes next to no statistical prep time.

    Oh, and a big YES! to James Bond RPG. Always though that was among the all-time best designs. It runs so smoothly, it's almost ridiculous.

    LoC is cool in concept, but I remember it being a mess design-wise.

  25. I'll agree with both Spacemaster and James Bond 007 as being two very great games that were not played as merely as much as they should have been. From what I understand the James Bond game was selling fairly well but Victory Games for whatever reason lost the rights to use the James Bond brand so they quit rather than make some sort of generic version of the game. Spacemaster, or Chartmaster in space, was awesome. We played the hell out of it in early high school, though I don't think we ever really used all the rules correctly, we just loved those combat damage charts. Nothing like wailing away with a plasma repeater against rebellious mutants on a rebellious planet. It was great fun at the time.

    Thanks for posting, you brought back some memories. I'll have to check out the other three games.

  26. Lords of about a throwback

  27. The hippest kids play Night's Black Agents, Agents of Oblivion, or possibly leverage. Spycraft's so passé.