Friday, January 18, 2019

Children of the Olympian Gods

Greek Champions
Heracles is a hero-god and the son of Zeus. Perseus is also a son of Zeus (Zeus has had lots of affairs with mortal women). Achilles is the son of Thetis, a sea nymph, who dipped him in the river Styx as an infant, thus making him nearly invulnerable. Jason (of the Argonauts) is a grandson of the messenger god, Hermes. In at least one version of her backstory, Wonder Woman is formed from clay by her mother the Queen of the Amazons and has life breathed into her by four of the Olympian gods. Looking for a fresh take on the Champions superhero RPG, why not draw upon the mythological Greek heroes?
I recently acquired one of the cornerstone superhero systems and am finding it to my liking. Champions takes combat quite seriously and I rather enjoy that sort of approach if I am not going for fast and frantic White Box style combat. In fact combat and character generation (Champions 1e pretty much invented point buy chargen) take up the bulk of the Champions Complete book. The character point costs are based on how useful the abilities are in combat, so essentially, combat is the assumed standard of play. That is all-good by me, as I enjoy making the rest of the stuff up.
So the setting is an heroic version of ancient Greece before Herodotus starts writing things down...maybe even before Homer. The Olympian gods play their games with mortal human lives and monstrous creatures of legend still roam the land. (Champions Complete doesn't have a bestiary, but I feel confident I can make up some game monster stats after starting with human bandits.) Drawing on the rules for powers in Champions it seems likely that most any supernatural ability from myth and legend can be reproduced in Champions by applying the rules and a little imagination. Cyclops, yes, big and strong, with an inability to judge distances, a weakness for strong drink and a taste for human flesh. The cyclops can toss big rocks, but does so inaccurately (single eye).
Medusa will be fun. The Gorgon sisters have been described variously as a winged human with snakes on her head, the giant crawling snake hybrid seen in Clash of the Titans (1981), or even as the tree-like creature depicted in Perseus the Invincible (1963) sporting a single glowing eye that can turn men to stone (while a dramatic soundtrack plays).
Giant vultures that shoot lightning, hell hounds, animated statues, a metal bull, even sword wielding skeletons can make their appearance as threats for our mythical Greek superhero. The overlap with The Original Dungeon Role-Playing Game is intentional. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson include many classical Greek monsters in the original game. The more tactically complex combat system of Champions should make confronting even a single fantastic creature an epic game event.
Characters will be drawn from the Champions archetypes reinterpreted through a classical myth and legends lens to get the period feel. Game play will be action focused in the manner of comic book hero stories. Villains will be recurring and challenges will be legendary. I am thinking of starting the action at the heroic scale (around 200 CP characters).
The fickle and capricious nature of the Olympian gods should make the referee's job fun. Acting as the agent of one deity who is conspiring against another deity has all sorts of potential. Magical items may bestowed by one god only to arouse the jealousy of another. The fame of a hero's accomplishments may offend the collective gods who decide this mortal needs a lesson in humility (Odysseus!). In classical mythology there are hints at older, non Olympian gods who could present themselves as super villains. I am thinking there is a lot of grist for the Champions mill in this idea.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Game from a Different Time & Place

The 1974 White Box
The 1970s were a very different time in many ways. Authors write what they know and are of course heavily influenced by the times they live in. I recently reread Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes In Amber and was very cognizant of the time warp I was experiencing. There were no disco balls (that I recall) in the book, but the text was full of other popular culture references from the 1970s. For one thing, the characters lit-up a cigarette on almost every page - that screams 1970s (and before) to me. Add side burns, bell bottom pants and polyester shirts to complete the picture.
This is the decade when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created White Box and in which I discovered their new game and fell in love with it. I had been a wargamer enjoying tabletop boardgames and historical miniatures battles for a number of years. I was also driving a yellow 1967 Dodge Dart and attending the local college. Sports, wargames, art, and reading history and science fiction fantasy stories were my passions. In high school I had discovered the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. I had read Tolkien at an earlier age and in college had stumbled onto Fritz Leiber - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. These and other authors are listed as influential works in Gary Gygax's Dungeon Master Guide, Appendix N.
The Little Brown Books were a hit with gamers and a new hobby, adventure games or role-playing as it came to be known, was born. Other designers had ideas too and soon there were a number of new games to choose from. TSR's original game continued to gain popularity and sales grew. Years passed, then decades, and new material was added to the original product, and finally new editions were released , all reflecting the changes over time in culture and popular taste. What we have available today is descended from the original game, but is also influenced by many sources not present in the original design of the 1970s.
We can not help but look at White Box through our modern eyes of today, but it is also helpful to be aware of its context at the time of its writing and introduction. Perhaps this is the historian in me, but I think this is an important point. I recently heard a hobby personality say something on YouTube to the effect that half of the sources listed in Appendix N were crap. This shocked me. I recognize that tastes differ and while I may enjoy a book, you may dislike it and vice versa. I have read more than half the titles and authors listed in Appendix N and while the quality of the writing varies as does the originality and creativeness of the content, I would not consider any of it "crap". It is all written better than I can do (which may indeed be crap). Much of it will not suit the modern sensibility and may seem archaic or even sexist and racist given modern standards (to be clear, I do not condone sexism or racism). Being archaic doesn't make the stories "crap", however. Not in my eyes. It may make the literature, especially the "pulp" sources "reader beware" - there may be things presented as acceptable behavior which will offend you.
White Box is heavily influenced by the games and fantastic fiction available up to the time of its writing. It is also written for wargamers by wargamers. Additionally it is a product of its time and place, the 1970s American Midwest. The design and writing reflects all of these and I choose to evaluate it with respect for the time and place it was written. As a result I think there is a very fine game in those Little Brown Books.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Champions

The Complete RPG
Superhero role-playing is a new sub-genre for me...or is it? In White Box a fighting man starts not much better than an average person, but progresses in power. A fighting man of 4th level experience is referred to as a "hero" and at 8th level as a "superhero". reflecting their increased ability and reputation. Starting with 3rd Edition certain PCs feel more "super" than merely heroic. Certainly in Pathfinder and 5e beginning characters have powers that place them well above the curve in comparison with White Box or 1e characters. They have more spells, more hit points and a better chance to slaughter monsters than starting characters in the older versions of the game. In effect, I may have been playing with "superheros" for quite some time.
Champions (first designed and released in 1981) is often credited as being the first point-buy character generation system. Everything about the Champions character is purchased using Character Points (CP) - stats, powers, even equipment. This is an attempt to ensure starting characters are roughly equivalent (balanced) in game effectiveness, especially with regard to combat which takes a central role in the game's mechanics. The powers and abilities in Champions (and the related Hero system) all focus on "effect" and rely on the players to add "color". In other words, one purchases a damage power and can flavor it as fire or lightning or whatever. In this way it is possible to create almost any character one can imagine, provided you have enough CP to spend.
So what kind of game does Champions support? Obviously the system is aimed at comic book superheros such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and the Marvel Universe heroes. But those are not the comics I read growing up. I recall pouring over Hercules, Conan, Sgt. Rock and Weird War comics (and Thor because of his Norse connection). Champions purports to be usable for any comic superhero, Doctor Strange, Jonah Hex, Magnus Robot Fighter, and Conan the Barbarian.
I am thinking about the Haunted Tank, is that possible with Champions? I think the answer is, "yes". What about John Carter of Mars? Again, "yes".
So how much fun is Champions Complete to play? I don't know, I have not brought it to the table yet, but it does seem to cover superheros in all their ilk. Although Champions Complete appears able to handle just about any hero I might want to create, it has limits. Being a generic superhero game, there is no detailed setting, but it is implied that characters are human (or human-like), and live in a modern world much like our present, except for superpowers, of course. There are no monsters in Champions Complete, other than a few lines on creating villains, no bestiary, no alien races, no spirits, haunts or deities. All those things seem possible within the parameters of the rules (and many may exist in other Hero system books). Champions Complete is "complete" in the sense that it gives me everything needed to play, everything except a setting. I will have to do the world building for myself...and that is where much of the fun exists!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Moral Imperative

A Princess Bride Story?
The party is charged with escorting a princess to her wedding on a neighboring planet, island or whatever. The point is that the party is trusted with the safety of a princess and the integrity of a treaty which is to be sealed with her hand in marriage. The trouble is that she secretly loves another. Thus we have the makings of a moral dilemma.
The bridal party is followed and attacked by "bandits" of an unusual nature. It turns out the bandits are led by her secret lover. Once this fact is discovered, the party will need to decide to let love take its course (and perhaps decide what "course" that entails), or to continue toward the destination where they may discover that a dastardly fate awaits the princess bride. Perhaps the groom is a monstrous vampire who eagerly awaits his latest ...er victim, and who will not take lightly to being stood up at the alter of state. The jilted vampire will dispatch his minions to fetch his wayward bride and the party may have to defend her once again. The vampire may even decide that a breach of bridal treaty is cause for war with her country. It could all get very complicated and promises to be great entertainment as the players debate their course of action.
Put simply, it is the job of the referee to set the stage, to present the players with an interesting challenge, one that will cause them to take sides in the struggle between good and evil. Often their deciding what action is good and what is evil is half the fun. Finding out where it all leads is why we play the game.
There are many ways to re-skin a situation. The McGuffin... er bride can be recast as a mermaid sent to secure peace between her people and some land lubber nation. The attack can come from pirates. The moral question can then involve assisting in the imprisonment of said mermaid or setting her free and suffering the consequences.
What if our crafty referee replaces the princess bride with a demon assassin in disguise. Our seeming "innocent" is now a harmful weapon aimed at the unsuspecting groom. The "bandits" that attack the escort party are now members of a secret society of "do-gooders" who wish to intercept and derail the attempt to deposit said demon into the bridal chamber. Our unsuspecting and powerful groom awaits his bride and will most likely take it poorly if his betrothed doesn't arrive, possibly taking the insult as a cause for going to war. What to do?
The moral question can come in a number of forms and may not involve a bride at all. Perhaps it is whether or not to raise a dead hero in time of need? The details are what makes the story unique, but the moral question makes it interesting.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Rethinking RuneQuest

RuneQuest: Standard Edition
In 1984 Avalon Hill published an updated version of Chaosium's popular RuneQuest RPG which became known as the third edition. Originally released in a deluxe version with five paper bound booklets and also in smaller player editions and game master editions which separated the game materials into smaller batches for some marketing reason I never understood, in 1986 Avalon Hill switched to the Standard Edition which contains the core rules, the magic booklet and some character sheets. The original setting, Greg Stafford's Glorantha, is not a part of the Standard Edition (and only appeared in its own booklet in the deluxe third edition).
A good friend recently gave me the Standard Edition copy pictured above and I have been thinking "outside the box" about RuneQuest as a result. My introduction to RuneQuest was through the 2nd edition rules in which Glorantha is an integral part. When the AH 3rd edition came out, I purchased the deluxe box and it included a booklet on Glorantha even though the included map and references were of a fantasy Europe setting and the rules purported to be usable with any setting. (world/setting is of great importance to me for establishing mood, tone and verisimilitude allowing for immersive play and a good fit between rules and setting is essential) RuneQuest remains for me closely associated with the world of Glorantha, although I ran (back in the late '80s) a brief campaign using the Vikings setting material published by AH for 3rd edition.
RQ Standard Edition is setting neutral in the sense that it does not include the Glorantha material, or any reference to fantasy Europe or any other setting. The magic book, which includes rules and spells for "spirit magic", "divine magic" and "sorcery", is really the only carry over from a Glorantha type setting and is the weakest part of the game if using the rules outside Glorantha. Fortunately magic is its own booklet. The core rules are all about character creation, skills and combat. RQ is a class-less, skill based system with fairly realistic (and therefore deadly) combat mechanics based on the original author's experience in the Society for Creative Anachronism.
RuneQuest sans Glorantha? I am wondering what that might look like? With decades more experience than I had in the 1980's, I am probably able to think more imaginatively about the possibilities the game RuneQuest presents divorced from the Glorantha setting. RuneQuest is a system built for a mythic world where the spirits interact with the living and the gods are an everyday part of the world, often expressing themselves through various magic runes which humans (and other creatures) may learn to access and control (hence the title of the game). The alternate setting of a fantasy dark age or medieval Europe suggested in the original AH presentation seems to miss the mark a bit. I think RQ works better for a bronze age mythical setting such as is found in the works of Homer or the epic of Gilgamesh (or the original setting of Glorantha). Hence, I am thinking about a "mythic" bronze age Scandinavian milieu where Odin (Wotan), Frey and Freya seem to interact on the lives of the characters as they struggle with the ljosalfar, trolls and giants. (I may post more on this later as my thoughts ripen).
I am somewhat amazed at the effect a previously unseen version of an old favorite has had on my thinking. Sometimes novel presentation and what is left out can greatly influence how we perceive even a familiar topic. The RuneQuest system in all its editions, remains a strong choice for role-playing, one that adapts well across settings and has formed the basis of Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing system which is at the core of several games including Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, ElfQuest and Ringworld. I am starting to wonder if I can adapt it for play in M.E.?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Conflict & Discovery

A New RPG Title?
Yes, I believe Conflict and Discovery describes the game-play of most early fantasy role-playing games and many current ones. The game we all play is about imaginary conflict and discovery, whether that is a melee with monsters or a social or legal conflict that resolves itself through the presentation of evidence supporting a position. The discovery can happen in many ways as our characters explore the world/setting and uncover new species, forgotten ruins, hidden secrets and clues to a mystery. Whether we are uncovering a plot against the establishment or filling our pockets with liberated treasure, it can all be thrilling adventure that whisks us away from our everyday lives and allows us for a moment to experience the joy of a triumph.
Conflict adds tension and excitement to the game. Conflict can be social or legal in nature. Some games such as The Burning Wheel offer specific mechanics to deal with changing an NPC's mind or successfully arguing a case in court. Conflict can be a source of challenge for players as they develop strategies to win the conflict. Winning feels good, even if it is expected, but especially if the challenge was difficult.
Discovery adds wonder to the game. Being pleasantly surprised is entertaining. Being unpleasantly surprised, while under no actual threat, can also be entertaining. Threatening a character is way different from threatening the player and this is an important distinction. People enjoy horror movies because it is all make believe. The audience is in no real danger, but our minds can suspend disbelief and we can be "scared" for the people on screen.
Adventure games which are set in our imagination serve much the same purpose as children playing at make believe. It is a way we can explore what might be, what could happen if this were true. We can learn things about the real world and discover things about ourselves, all while enjoying some entertainment. It is different from reading a book or watching a film because we have more control over where it takes us. And it exercises our imagination and expands our capacity for creative thinking.
"You need to believe in things which aren't true. How else can they become?"  - Terry Pratchett

Monday, December 31, 2018

A Year: Past & Future

Goodbye 2018, Hello 2019
In many ways 2018 has been a good year for me and the tabletop gaming hobby. I attended both Origins and Gencon and hung out for extended periods with good friends who I only see at conventions. I played what seems like a good many games, both at the convention and with my home groups. I got to travel south and spend an extended visit with my oldest and dearest gamer buddies. The hobby saw the publication of many really top shelf products, both board games and TTRPGs. The online streaming and vlog community put out some informative commentary on the game and some entertaining gameplay video. Yes, it has been a good year.
As with many good things, however, the year 2018 has produced some darker events. The hobby continues to lose members of the old guard, those who were present for the beginning and who have shepherded the hobby along these many decades. I will especially miss Greg Stafford at Gencon 2019. Mr. Stafford founded The Chaosium to publish White Bear and Red Moon introducing the hobby to his world of Glorantha which has been the setting for several games including RuneQuest and HeroQuest. We also said good-bye to Eric V. Clark this year. Eric was a driving force behind the Legends of the Shining Jewel living campaign and ran the biweekly Pathfinder game in which I frequently played over the last decade and he was a good friend.
Looking forward into 2019 I am excited about several things. The Castles & Crusades campaign run by a good friend is starting up again and we are already a couple sessions into that. I have not got to play enough Gloomhaven yet and am hoping that game is again in my 2019 future. Scythe is another board game I was introduced to last year that I would like to play more of. I have enjoyed Legacy of Dragonholt as both a cooperative group experience and in solo play this past year and hope to finish it in 2019. FFG's Lord of the Rings LCG continues to provide thrills as well.
Tabletop role-play games I hope to run this coming year include a one-shot of Rolemaster set in 4th Age M.E. which I started working on this year. Rolemaster is an older system which I think does a nice job at the table if the referee knows the game well and has prepared the charts. I will use pregens for a couple reasons - it gives me more control of PC abilities so the session can feel like M.E. and frankly creating and leveling up PCs can be a chore in RM (more on that project in a future post).
I picked up the Mongoose Traveller 2e this past year and have a mini campaign setting in mind I hope to run in 2019. Conan 2d20 is still on my short list, so I hope to see it at the table in 2019 (as referee or player). I watched Kevin Madison run the new Legends of the Five Rings on his Youtube channel Dungeon Musings and as a result I recently purchased that game, despite it using a variant of FFG's Narrative Dice System. I like the way Kevin Madison ran the game and I think I may be able to live with the FFG funky dice/narrative mechanic as long as I am the one running it. (I'll say more on that thought in a future post.)
My love for the White Box and the OSR remains as strong as ever and I will be jumping at every chance I get to run old school games again in 2019. I have been with that system for over four decades and still enjoy it. It seems my homebrew sandbox gets bigger each year and I have had several thoughts I added this past year that can be developed into Dreadmoor game sessions fairly quickly.
Under the renewed leadership of Greg Stafford, Rick Meints, Sandy Petersen and friends Chaosium is once again turning out the quality products I learned to expect from Chaosium back in the day. Call of Cthulhu 7e is my favorite edition of a favorite game going back to 1981 and the supporting game aids being released for 7e today are nothing short of awesome. I just added the beautiful Masks of Nyarlathotep 7e slipcase edition to my collection and I may bring it (or some other CoC module) to the table in 2019. RuneQuest is back with Chaosium thanks to Mr. Stafford and the new RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha book is awesome in appearance and content. If I don't run RQ:G, I will be looking to play in a session or three. I believe one of the last things Mr. Stafford accomplished in this life was to bring his King Arthur Pendragon RPG back under the Chaosium tent. Pendragon has been on my favorite game list since I grabbed the 1st edition box set off the shelf and played it later that same day. Mr. Stafford sold me a copy of the beautiful new 5.2 edition this past Gencon.
I ran three sessions of the Pathfinder 2e Playtest beta this past year and my players seem to have enjoyed the changes from PF 1e. If the interest is there, I will be happy to referee more of that system in 2019. The Playtest beta is limited enough in options at present to make it a manageable affair for me and I do like some of the innovations - the 3 action combat economy for starters. I own several rules-lite FRPGs that I believe are a good choice for one-off sessions and I would like to experiment a bit with them in the coming year. Tiny Dungeon immediately jumps to mind.
OSR setting material I acquired in 2018 includes some real gems. Midderlands is a unique take on the English midlands from a creative fantasy perspective and an absolutely beautiful product I highly recommend. Hubris is a setting for DCCRPG and in keeping with the spirit of that system is full of weirdly entertaining and frightful material I can borrow for use in Dreadmoor if I don't decide to set a campaign in the land of Hubris. Finally I have to mention Hot Springs Island, a generic self contained setting in two beautiful volumes that begs to be inserted into any campaign. There is so much good stuff contained in these products that any one of them could form the basis of a lifetime of adventure gaming.
As for anticipating products for 2019... I am hoping to shortly get my hands on the Black Hack 2e. The Black Hack is one of those rules-lite games in the spirit of White Box that has seen some popularity in the last year or so and which I supported through Kickstarter. Steve Jackson Games acquired the rights to The Fantasy Trip last year and ran a Kickstarter for a new edition of Melee, Wizard and a whole lot more in that line. I backed it and am hoping to have my game(s) this coming spring. The Fantasy Trip was one of my favorite systems during the 1980's and has an elegance never quite equaled by GURPS in my eyes. I am also in for the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea player handbook Kickstarter and a couple of cooperative RPG in a box type board games (Set A Watch and Dark Domains) expected to deliver in 2019.
Cubicle 7 released Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e late this year and thereby complicated my life. WFRP 4e is an awesome and beautiful book, but I was just working my way up to conning my friends into some Zweihander by Grim & Perilous Studios when I received 4e. Zweihander won the ENie's GOLD Award for 2019's Best Game and Product of the Year, so you know it's awesome (for me it's beyond awesome!). Having read through WFRP 4e it is awesome too! Both are fresh takes on the original grim and perilous WFRP game by Games Workshop, but while Zweihander sticks closer to the original, offering fixes for the 1e's troublesome bits and adding a host of supplemental and original new material, all grand, and frees us from Ye Olde World setting (owned and monkeyed with by GW) so that we can use a fresh setting of our own wonderful creation, hence 4e is an awesome game too (the combat mechanic using success levels is brilliant imo). The changes 4e makes excite me in a way few modern games have. The folks at Cubicle 7 have a Best Game/Product of the Year contender for 2019. Unfortunately, I don't have a player group primed for either. Grim & Perilous adventure is right up my dark alley, but many gamers I know seek a more "heroic" experience. Although we play them, it often seems that White Box and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG may be pushing their limits.
Thinking ahead, I am as excited about this hobby as ever, which is not bad medicine for a gamer turning sixty. Here's hoping you too have lots to look forward to in the coming year.