stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-29 02:08 pm
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I have an issue and, since I hope that I’m not alone, I’m doing what any American with issues does: sharing with the entire Internet.

The issue in my case is Attention Deficit Disorder, particularly as applies to my tabletop RPG hobby. In short, I’m infamous in my game group for my habit of catching a bug to run a particular game, talking it up to my friends and getting them on-board, even creating characters and running a session (or even two!) and then... oooh, shiny! A new game idea comes along, and the previous one gets tossed aside like yesterday’s news.

The prior Crisis on Infinite Campaigns blog entry is one example: I really liked the idea of mixing-and-matching my old superhero campaigns when I wrote it. Now, after the holiday, I’m not so excited, so I have no idea if anything will ever come of it. It’s my issue live and in real time right there: Sometimes I’ve got no staying power (where games are concerned people, just games).

Truth be told, I think one of the reasons why I got into game design and writing is because of my gaming ADD (or G.A.D.D., as we may call it – I’d go with Campaign Attention Deficit Disorder, but then I would be a C.A.D.D.).

I can channel some of those random ideas for games, settings, characters, ad infinitum, into various articles, freelance projects, and whatnot, as I have over the years. I keep a running journal of the things that come to me during the day; originally in various notebooks, nowadays via PlainText on my iPhone (synced to my DropBox – ain’t the future grand?)

Still, it’s not enough. This past week alone, I’ve toyed with ideas for running:

• Gamma World: Extending the “Cavern of the Sub-Train” adventure I started into a full-fledged campaign.

• Space 1889: Red Sands: The Savage Worlds setting and plot point campaign I picked up at GenCon.

• Torg: Starting up some sort of Torg game based off either the original system, or by adapting the setting to a modified version of the system and/or Savage Worlds (a good 2–3 ideas bouncing around in there).

• Thrilling Tales: Starting my old “Thrilling Tales of the Midnight Society” game back up, based on getting some new Adamant and Triple Ace Games products.

• Mutants & Masterminds: As a playtest for an upcoming Green Ronin product.

... and on, and on. It never stops. Add to it the fact that my game group can only manage to meet about once a month these days, making game-time even harder to come by and you can start to see the challenge.

I’ve on occasion tried to manage things by going with campaign frameworks allowing for a variety of different ideas, such as my “Agents of Fate” series based around universe-hopping heroes inserted into various dramatic situations in different realities: gaslit Victorian London one week, post-Apocalypse America the next, and so on. Even that campaign approach didn’t last too long. I suspect part of the appeal for superhero settings for me is their “anything goes” attitude, allowing me to do sci-fi, fantasy, and a variety of other things in the same campaign from week to week.

In fact, part of starting up this blog was as a strategy for dealing with my G.A.D.D., one reason I’m thinking of renaming it something based on the term: eGADDS? I dunno...

So, do you experience Gaming Attention Deficit Disorder? How do you deal with it? Drop me a line at or add a comment to the LiveJournal version of this post and let me know.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-23 09:40 pm
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Crisis on Infinite Campaigns - Issue #0

So watching “The Knights of Tomorrow” episode of Batman: The Brave & the Bold, and re-reading Aaron Allston’s classic Champions article from Space Gamer #48, got me considering “legacy” style settings for superhero gaming. I’ve played around with elements of that concept in settings like Freedom City, where several generations of Bowmen have fought crime in the city, for example.

Which got me thinking—dangerous thing, that—I’ve been running various superhero RPGs since middle school, well over (gulp) twenty years ago. In essence, I have run enough superhero games to have my own “legacy” series of setting elements! What if I were to mash-up all of those various settings, Crisis on Infinite Earths-style, to create a single massive meta-setting? Let’s find out, shall we?

The Ground Rules
I’m going with elements from superhero RPGs I have run, rather than ones I’ve written. Certainly, a fair amount of stuff inspired by my various home games has found its way into my writing, but I’m steering clear of published setting material like Freedom City, which I designed from the ground up before I ever ran a game set there.

I’m also going with superhero settings that can be combined. While my Aberrant “Gods & Monsters” game was a lot of fun and generated some interesting characters and stories, it wasn’t “comic book” enough for the purposes of this exercise.

Lastly, I’m generally not counting superhero campaigns I’ve played in but had no part in running, with one exception, connected to a campaign I started.

The Settings
That leaves the following superhero campaigns:

• Paragons: My oldest, and longest-running superhero game. The Paragons campaign started under Marvel Super Heroes (the Advanced Set) but we also used Champions (third and fourth editions) and even DC Heroes for it.

• Project Youngblood: A spin-off of the Paragons campaign, featuring young protégés of some of the original PCs and new characters. Run by various GMs before it eventually folded.

• The Sentinels: A short-lived game using a homebrew set of rules based off of the Torg RPG.

• The New Paragons: A “ten years later” game set in the Paragons campaign world, using the Fuzion rules from Champions: The New Millennium and some of the same “new generation of heroes” ethos.

• The Guardians: A Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game series, featuring a new team of heroes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts (the original name being “Granite State Guardians”).

• Thrilling Tales of the Midnight Society: This is kind of a borderline, since it is technically a pulp-era (rather than superhero) game using Spirit of the Century, and set in 1930s Freedom City, but featuring original elements.

• Icons: My occasional ICONS playtest game, with characters like Volcano and Grey.

I expect to start revisiting the idea of mixing-and-match these different campaigns in future blog entries, and we’ll see what comes of it together. Until then...
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-22 09:28 am
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SAGA System: Fighting the Good Fight

[This article originally appeared in the Legends of the Lance newsletter and a previous incarnation of my website.]

In the SAGA System rules for Dragonlance: Fifth Age, heroes use their Strength to perform actions in melee combat, like hitting their opponents. Characters with high Strength codes are also better trained in the use of melee weapons.

This approach causes difficulties with some hero concepts players may have: What about the wiry swordsman who’s deadly with a blade but not particularly brawny, or the strong hero who can’t hit the broad side of a barn? Additionally, some players may have difficulties equating combat skill with brute strength.

Worse yet, based close combat ability on Strength makes physically powerful monsters in the game nigh-unbeatable, due to the massive differences in Strength between, say, a human and even a small dragon.

One option for handling these concerns is to introduce a new ability to the SAGA System: Fighting (or Prowess, or something similar). Fighting takes the place of Strength and is aligned with the suit of Swords. It measures the hero’s training in melee combat, both armed and unarmed, and the ability to use different weapons effectively. The Fighting ability code works the same as the standard Fifth Age Strength Code; an “A” means the hero is trained with all melee weapons, a “B” is all but very heavy weapons, and so forth. If a hero does not have training in a particular weapon, the hero suffers a one level increase in difficulty when using it.

To make room for Fighting, the Strength and Endurance abilities are collapsed into one ability (called Strength), measuring the hero’s overall muscle and stamina, and aligned with the suit of Helms. It is used for actions involving brute Strength (like breaking down doors and bending bars), as well as all actions Endurance is normally used for.

Fighting is used to make melee attacks, and it is also used to avoid melee attacks, representing the hero’s skill in parrying and blocking. So attacking in melee combat is an average Fighting (Fighting) action, as is avoiding an attack. The Narrator may also wish to allow heroes the option of using Agility to avoid melee attacks, giving nimble heroes a better chance of getting out of the way. If the attack hits, the hero’s Strength still determines damage normally.

Strength is still used as the action ability for close-in unarmed attacks like wrestling, representing the advantage greater Strength provides the attacker.

The Narrator should choose the Fighting score for characters and creatures in the game. Creatures may have Fighting equal to their Physique, or the Narrator may choose to give them a lower fighting score to represent creatures that are physically very strong (high Physique) but not particularly swift or accurate (lower Fighting). This also gives heroes more of a “fighting chance” when going up against larger, more powerful creatures.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-21 01:57 pm
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Gamma World: Gamma Grass

Ever since first edition Gamma World I’ve been fond of this “monster” because it embodies the setting’s ethos of “even the landscape is out to get you”. I’ve updated it for the current edition of the game, with a little added benefit/story hook to encourage characters to actually brave the risks involved, making it a bit more than just a random hazard.

Gamma Grass: Known as “zeeth” in the language of the seer lizards, this purple sward reproduces by teleporting its seeds into the guts of nearby creatures. The seeds release a deadly neurotoxin, killing the host, which decomposes and fertilizes a new patch of gamma grass.

Mature gamma grass is a hazard that attacks any animal creature that begins or ends its turn within 5 squares of the patch. Seed teleports that miss materialize in the air nearby with a sizzling “pop” as they burst harmlessly.

Attack: Ranged 5, +7 vs. Fortitude. Targets protected by force fields are unaffected.

Hit: 2d6 poison damage, plus ongoing 5 (save ends). If target drops to 0 hit points or fewer, it dies and a patch of gamma grass sprouts from the corpse the next day.

If mature gamma grass is harvested, dried, and smoked, it grants a particular type of alpha shift: the smoker may draw the next two Psi mutations from the alpha mutation deck and choose to retain one, gaining a +2 bonus to overcharge that mutation for the next encounter.

Because of its benefits (along with a mild euphoric “high” from smoking it), serfs, sleeth, and some badder tribes use slave labor to harvest patches of gamma grass. Those that do not survive the process simply ensure a bumper crop in the following season.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-21 11:55 am
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Operation: RPG Clearout

I guess if I was going with the newfangled Leverage style this should be “The RPG Clearout Job” but what can I say, I was brought up on Top Secret...

the deal is behind the cut )
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-19 11:52 am
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FATE & the Marvel Fate Deck

Anyone familiar with my work and online presence in prior years knows that I’m a big fan of the Marvel Super-Heroes Adventure Game (aka “Marvel Saga”) from TSR/Wizards of the Coast. I think it was the best iteration of the ill-fated SAGA game engine and a pretty awesome superhero RPG to boot. Elements of it were certainly inspirational in my later work, particularly ICONS.

Which brings me to the idea of FATE and the Marvel “Fate Deck”. Before I started using Plaintext and Dropbox on my iPhone, I jotted the following down in one the various beat-up notebooks I carried around:

FATE Aspects & the Fate Deck
Discard the standard trump rules from Marvel. In their place, characters have aspects, from “The Strongest One there Is!” to “Friendly Neighborhood Web-Slinger” or whatnot. This can include relationships, origins, nicknames, and all of the usual range of different aspects in FATE.

Tagging an aspect allows a player to flip an additional card from the top of the Fate Deck and add it to any played cards for an action. The player can also choose a trump suit; if the flipped card is of that suit, flip the next card, and so forth until a card not of that suit comes up. All flipped cards are added together for the action.

The Narrator can choose to play a card from the Doom Pool at any time to compel one of the player’s aspects. A player can choose to ignore this by discarding a card from his hand, but the discard also goes into the Doom Pool (along with the original Doom Card). Players can also choose to impose temporary compels or setbacks on their own characters in order to empty out the Doom Pool; each setback removes one card from the pool.

Players tagging their characters’ aspects requires only a suitable description of how the aspect applies to the given situation. Tagging other characters’ aspects may also require an action to learn of the aspect, or an action to apply a temporary aspect—like “Blinded” or “Angered”—to that character.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-18 12:11 pm
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Slow & Steady Superheroes

(I almost used the subtitle “Threat or Menace?” but that wouldn’t quite be accurate.)

One criticism often leveled against Champions (the superhero configuration and ancestor of the Hero System RPG engine) is that combat is too slow. Take your pick of the various jokes about being able to take bathroom breaks, go out and pick up pizza, or other things you can do between your turns in Champions. One of my favorites was about how someone should design another game you can play while you’re waiting to take your turn playing Champions.

But is stretching out a relatively short fight to cover a lot of game time—complete with lots of focus on tactics—really a flaw when it comes to the superhero genre or is it a feature?

I’ve looked at a lot of superhero source material—comics, animated series, movies—when it comes to designing for superhero games and there are some interesting elements to the flow of superheroic combat:

One is that the combats are generally all the same length regardless of the number of participants involved. This is a limitation of the media: given that an issue of a comic or an episode of a TV series is the same length, a fight has to take up a certain amount of space, whether it involves two combatants or a dozen or a hundred.

Thus the number of individual actions of characters involved in a fight are inversely proportionate to the number of characters involved: that is, the more people in the fight, the fewer things they each get to do. Many team-on-team fights of a half-dozen or more heroes against a similar number of villains only last the equivalent of two or three turns in game terms, sometimes as little as a single turn with each character getting to act once! A fight with fewer combatants tends to last longer, with both sides really slugging it out, particularly when you come down to just two characters.

Add to that the fact that the typical RPG game session tends to be a good deal longer than the typical superhero cartoon or comic book. In three to four hours, you can cover a lot of ground compared to just 30–60 minutes. To make up the difference, you either need more plot or game activities that fill some of that time.

That’s where longer combats can be a plus. To some degree, superhero stories are arguably about combat: heroes fighting villains (or each other!). Certainly most RPGs are focused on the activity of fighting; look at the combat chapter of most games as compared to the rest of their action resolution rules. For that matter, look at the fact that most RPGs have a chapter for resolving all actions except combat, which gets its own chapter/section. Even when those sections are mixed, I’ll wager the majority of actions covered are in some way connected to fighting.
So if combat is what it is primarily about, why shouldn’t the game focus on it in greater detail and take more time working it out? Are superhero games that allow combats to end too quickly too “light” for the genre?

Of course, even more detailed, and therefore slower, combat systems don’t necessarily “telescope” to reflect the number of combatants or the importance of the combat; a Champions fight between ten characters is no different than one between just two in terms of the characters’ capabilities. It’s just to take just as many attacks to down the characters, meaning the team fight takes much longer than the one-on-one.
Truth & Justice (using the PDQ system) offers a useful take on this by dividing situations into simple, complicated, and conflict categories. Now, technically, any fight would seem to be a conflict situation, but there’s nothing stopping the GM from deciding that some fights are actually complicated or even simple situations.  Certainly, Batman taking on some run-of-the-mill thugs is more of a simple situation; it’s not even worth bothering to roll the dice most of the time. Games that offer thug or minion rules, like Mutants & Masterminds, take a similar tack for some situations to speed up some combats.

Still, fights can sometimes be too fast for some players in some superhero systems. After all, no RPG is going to combine the visual spectacle of superhero action from a film or cartoon with quick and decisive action. By definition, tabletop RPGs need room for players and GMs to paint a picture of what is going on, using both description and the medium of the game system. The nature of the medium seems more given to a “slo-mo” or “bullet time” approach to combat.

That narrative space doesn’t have to come from the pauses where other players count up their dice or refigure their modifiers, but it can, in which case the perceived weakness of a slower tactical approach can be turned into a strength.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-17 08:21 am
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How Cards Bring the Awesome

So my ruminating about Gamma World and its use of card decks as random story elements got me thinking about one of the best constellations of the concept of cards as an RPG element: Torg: The Possibility Wars from West End Games.

My game group played the hell out of Torg back in the day. We’ve even got “sendings” in the Infiniverse newsletter and playtest credits in the Orrorsh sourcebook. Submitting creatures for the two fan-written monster books was one of my early published credits. Some things about Torg really grabbed us. Part of it was certainly the multi-genre stuff; I’ve always loved genre mash-ups, and Shadowrun was also a big hit with my group. Some of it was the die rolling mechanics; the open-ended re-rolls on 10s and 20s in Torg created a certain level of excitement, and the use of a d20 make the game cinematic and unpredictable, mitigated by the use of the conversion chart to mute the extreme ends of the rolls somewhat.

But one of the biggest awesome elements of the game was and is the Drama Deck. For those unfamiliar, Torg uses a deck of cards—the Drama Deck—to handle a great many elements in the game that would otherwise be handled by die rolling or some other mechanic. In particular, the Drama Deck controls the flow of combat (initiative), introduces random elements into the plot, encourages a variety of actions, serves as a narrative countdown, and gives the players various bonuses.

That’s a lot for one game element! Part of the success of the Drama Deck is the ability of cards to pack-in a lot of information. A single Drama Deck card has two ends: one an Action side, detailing round-to-round initiative and modifiers, the other a Player side, providing either a game bonus or a subplot. So already the cards have a dual purpose. Include the Dramatic Skill Resolution line in the middle, and you have a triple purpose. Let’s look at some of their more clever applications:

Initiative: Long before Deadlands, Torg used a deck of cards to determine initiative in combat. Whereas Deadlands deals individual initiative cards to players, Torg uses a single card, which lists who goes first—the heroes or the villains—based on whether the scene is “standard” (favoring the heroes) or “dramatic” (favoring the villains).

But more than that, each initiative line often has different modifiers for either side, like “Setback” or “Rally”. These impose different bonuses or penalties, so one round the heroes might each get an extra card while the next, the villains get a free bonus to all of their rolls. This gives combat a real back-and-forth element and makes the process of controlling what card is on top of the Action Stack part of the drama itself. I recall a particular Torg game where our heroes fought against overwhelming odds and we players pulled out all the stops to keep a good initiative card on the top of the stack for as long as we possibly could. Just seeing if we could do that from round-to-round was a nail-biter, to say nothing of the combat!

Approved Actions: Each initiative card also includes an “Approved Actions” line. If a player character performs the approved action for that round, the player gets a bonus card draw. While sometimes the approved action is “Any” more often it is some sort of non-attack action like a maneuver, taunt, or test of wills (all skills in Torg). This really helps to encourage players to declare actions other than “I attack ... again” and provides a clear game benefit for doing so. Our group used to joke about the degree of “card whoring” that would go on around the approved action line in order to get more cards.

Timed Resolutions: The action side of the card also has a sequence of letters, from A to D, used to resolve multi-part challenges where dramatic timing is a factor. Basically, divide the challenge into up to four steps (A through D). If the card shows the letter of the current step, the character can attempt to complete it. If it doesn’t, you have to wait (reflecting timing, hesitation, pre-work, etc.). The line might also show a “Setback” meaning the task gets more difficult (the timer jumps ahead, a tool breaks, etc.). The trick is to get the task done before a certain number of card flips, reflecting the “timer”. It adds a dramatic element to the classic “defuse a ticking bomb” scenario beyond just “make a skill roll” and I strongly suspect systems like Skill Challenges in D&D are descended from it.

Pools: The other side of the Drama Deck cards each have an in-game bonus for a character, ranging from a plus with specific abilities (physical, mental, or spiritual), bonus re-rolls, and a variety of other things. The diversity of the bonuses also tends to encourage diverse actions; if you’ve got a card with a bonus to mental actions, you’re more likely to try and trick your foe than make an outright attack, for example.

The real brilliance of the card bonuses shows up in how they enter play: During action scenes, players can’t use cards directly from their hand. Instead, each round their character does something, the player can lay down a card into their “pool” making it accessible for use. Thus, action scenes are a slow build-up of useful resources that give the players the upper-hand. A lot of choice goes into what cards to put into your pool, since pool cards are also potentially vulnerable (see the following) and there’s a dramatic tension in working up to having access to the right combination of cards to pull off the action you have in mind.

The fact that playing cards into your pool is keyed on doing something also means the characters can’t just stand around. They have to get involved if they want the added benefit of using their cards.

Trading: The game takes the card pool concept one step better by also allowing players to trade cards during play. This is one of the most dynamic elements of the game. In my experience players were always on the lookout for opportunities to swap useful cards with each other, focusing them on helping the other players to be awesome during the game (another concept that has found its way into D&D 4e with the leader character role).

The story payoff of card trading is that you need to explain what your character does in character to provide the benefit of the card you’re offering. So if I want to trade my Willpower card to a friend, how is my character helping to improve his willpower and determination? Is it a word of encouragement? Getting him mad enough to shake it off? Leading by example and personal daring? When you need that explanation in order to swap a vital card, you get creative fast.

Dramatic action scenes in our Torg games would often pause for flurries of tactical card trading. Far from stopping the action, this added a real element of excitement to it as the players came up with killer combos and teamwork to help them carry the day.

Subplots: Some of the cards, rather than having a specific in-game bonus, list a type of subplot, like “Enemy” or “Romance”. Players can put these subplots into play and earn additional Possibilities (in-game bennies or action points) for the scenes featuring their subplot(s). This gives the players some narrative control and lets them introduce subplot elements into the story.

I found subplots both useful and occasionally bothersome. In my experience they worked best when players suggested possible subplot elements, rather than simply playing them and relying on me (the GM) to provide the plot. Indeed, I all but required players to provide some idea of what they wanted the subplot to be in order for them to play the card. The explicit bonuses of the other cards tended to overshadow subplots, and some players considered them very disappointing draws, while others loved them as an opportunity to get their characters more “screen time”.

Vulnerability: I’ve saved one of the best for last. An interesting wrinkle to the card play element of the Drama Deck was that it also provided a game benefit for the GM to take away in certain situations to make the players feel more vulnerable and challenged, without “directly” affecting their characters’ game traits. In the core game, villains can use taunts, threats, and intimidation to snatch vital cards away from the players before they are used. This is a great representation of shaking a character’s confidence and reducing the player’s options. It also puts some pressure on the card pool; put a card out there and you have to use it before it can get taken away from you.

This concept reached its full flower with the fear rules in the Orrorsh horror supplement: supernatural monsters could, amongst other things, steal multiple cards from the players, severely reducing their options, until the characters build up enough determination to overcome their fear of the creature and confront it. The first time it happened in play, the looks on the players’ faces were priceless and it was clear the rule had the desired effect of giving them just a small taste of the fear their characters felt when confronted with eldritch evil.

Deal Me In
With all of the options you can build into a deck of cards, rather than railing against the “CCG” aspect of new games like Gamma World, I hope that their use of cards as a game element inspires some additional experimentation with the concept. I’ll note that, while the Torg Drama Deck cards weren’t “collectable” as such, there were bonus cards included in various products and in the Infiniverse newsletter to add to or expand the deck. That offered just a peek at the tantalizing potential of customizing or “tuning” the Drama Deck for particular types of adventures and genres as well, which never really emerged in Torg (to my knowledge) but offers a lot of, dare I say, possibilities for RPG development.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-16 07:36 am
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Gamma World: Alpha & Omega

A particularly interesting element of the Gamma World play experience is the influence of random elements—such as character origin, equipment, alpha mutations, and omega tech—on the overall shape of the story. Both the players and I, as gamemaster, had to adapt not only to the random outcomes of action checks, but also to the random capabilities of the characters; not just whether or not characters could accomplish something with their abilities, but what options they could even attempt at any given time.

Here are some examples that came up during our game:

The Lost Bot: When Mike’s hawkoid cyborg bit the dust during the fight with the obbs, he needed to come up with a new character right away. While I was finishing up the fight, I kept an ear out for what Mike was doing with character creation, since I’d have to introduce his new character somehow. As it happened, he generated a giant android with a battlesuit (omega tech) and the intro practically wrote itself: a war-robot, usleless to the obbs because it was non-biological, deactivated and buried under the fungus of their lair. I hadn’t planned for there to be a lost robot there, but circumstances put him there for the heroes to find.

Water, Water Everywhere: Sean’s character, Clan McDougal, a hive-mind of mutant bats, drew Aquatic as an alpha mutation. Initially, I’d planned for the whole adventure to take place in a dry Ancient sub-shuttle tunnel. Since I didn’t want to screw Sean with a totally useless ability, I made the tunnel partially flooded for the next encounter. It was no more than a meter or so deep, but enough for the swimming swarm to sneak past the blaash there while scouting ahead, catching them from both sides when the characters attacked.

That Healing Touch: The initial fight with the obbs looked bad from the moment Mike’s hawkoid bit the dust (and spawned another obb to fight). The characters took a lot of initial damage before they got the radiation resistant character out front. Fortune favored them, however, in an alpha shift where two of the characters got healing abilities. The sense of relief was palpable, and far more dramatic than a hero simply using an existing healing power. In many ways, the healing “gifts” they got felt more like “miracles” than cleric powers in D&D!

Git Yer Gun: I really like the ammo rule in Gamma World, which basically says guns are encounter abilities: you can use them once per encounter, if you are rationing your ammo. You can choose to use your gun as many times as you want during an encounter, but if it’s more than once, you run out of ammo when the encounter is over, and only get more when the GM says so. This offers a tantalizing idea for “hotshotting” encounter or daily abilities in D&D, where you get an additional use (or two) in a pinch at the cost of “crippling” the ability for a length of time greater than the usual recover rate. I especially like the elegance of it being the player’s choice whether to ration or just go in “guns blazing”. Much the same applies to consumable omega tech, which is only good once, or omega tech with salvage value.

Psiracy: At one point, Andy (playing the mind coercer) commented how it would have been cool to have a Psi mutation another player drew. “Psi specialists should be able to ‘borrow’ or ‘salvage’ psi powers from other characters” he said. Let’s just say I noted that for future consideration as a special ability.

The Power Not Taken: Along the same line, it was interesting to see some of the plot-elements-that-might-have-been in the form of alpha mutations players pulled, but didn’t get to use before there was another alpha shift and they had to discard them. Time Warp and Force Field Generation were two good examples. I would have liked to see them in action, but it didn’t happen. One player even raised the philosophical issue of whether or not those mutations ever “really” happened from the characters’ perspective. If it didn’t come into play, was it ever real?

Gamma World definitely highlighted for me the fun aspects of having some random elements going in during game play beyond just success-failure checks of some sort, things that introduced entirely new things into the environment for the players and I to riff off of in creating the story. In some regards, the alpha and omega tech decks of Gamma World can count things like the Whimsy Cards and Storypath Card decks as their ancestors as much as (if not more than) themed power decks from Magic: The Gathering.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-11-15 09:01 am
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Return to Gamma World

I ran the latest iteration of Gamma World from Wizards of the Coast for my gaming group yesterday, and it was a good time.

details found here )
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-10-17 06:34 pm
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The Implied Promises of the Boxed Set

It seems that the boxed set game is the new trend for RPGs, perhaps following the growth of board game sales in the gaming industry. New games like Dragon Age, the D&D Starter Set, and Gamma World all come in boxes like RPGs of yore, and some of the Old School elements of the hobby are also looking to bring back the boxed set.

There are, or seem to be, a number of reasons why boxed sets are on the rise once again, in a business where hardcover rulebooks have dominated for well over two decades:

1) Nostalgia. A lot of the RPG biz these days is selling to gamers like me, who got their start in the hobby 10-20 years ago, and look back fondly on that “golden age” of gaming and the sense of excitement and wonder of opening that first boxed set (whatever it may have been). Certainly, the D&D Starter Set builds on this, using almost the exact same design and art as the old D&D “Red Box” that started so many playing the game. As Hollywood and numerous other purveyors of media have figured out, there’s a lot of money to be made in repackaging people’s childhoods and selling them to them again (and again).

2) Marketing. Another idea about boxed says that nothing conveys “this is a game” quite as well as having it all come in a box. After all, the boardgames folks are more widely acquainted with all come in boxes, with dice and rule booklets, and so forth. Stores that sell board games (including more mainstream toy stores) know how to handle, shelve, and display boxes, but they’re often not set up to deal with books, especially not the weighty and numerous tomes of RPG lines.

3) Accessibility. Along the same line, packaging an RPG “like a game” (in a box) might make it more accessible and user-friendly to a potential new game-player. It might be an easier transition, say, from a board game like Descent or Castle Ravenloft to a boardgame-like D&D Starter Set box than it would be to make the leap to three hardbound core rulebooks packed with text. Once they’ve taken the bait and understand how the whole RPG thing works, players can potentially move from boxed sets to those larger rulebooks. (Assuming you believe the RPG “acquisition” product is something other than eager alpha-gamers teaching their friends how to play. Even then, a more accessible boxed-set might still facilitate the process.)

4) Piracy. This last one is pure speculation, but I’ve wondered recently: can properly constructed RPG boxed sets combat electronic piracy? After all, it’s one thing to distribute a PDF of the entire rulebook (and its supplements) but quite another to duplicate all the components found in a box. Sure, you can scan and distrubute copies of things like map tiles, cards, counters, reference sheets, and other components, but it definitely raises the bar in terms of using your pirated copy to effectively play the game. It seems like at some point, some would-be pirates might decide it’s easier to invest some money in the actual game, in which case the pirated copies are serving as promotional advertising. Of course, the same arguments have been made about the pirating of more traditional print and even electronic-format only products, so who knows?

Should be interesting to see if a few RPG boxed sets will turn into a trend for the industry, fulfilling their implied promises, or if they are just a passing fancy that will soon be collecting dust with those boxed sets from twenty-plus years ago.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-10-12 10:23 am
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The Implied Promise of Gamma World

I recently picked up the latest edition of Gamma World from Wizards of the Coast (or should that be “D&D Gamma World”?) after a fun preview game at GenCon, and fully intend to run a game at home; at least a one-shot, but we’ll see how it fares.

As some know, the first edition of Gamma World (the old grey boxed set) was the very first RPG I ever purchased or played, even before the D&D Basic Set. So I have a strange and special place in my heart for the game. Thus far, I’ve got to say that the new edition seems to do it justice.

One element I really like about the new edition is the high concept: essentially (and no real spoiler here), the apocalypse comes about when particle physicists manage to accidentally collapse a multiversal continuum into a single timeline (oops...). Thus, Gamma Terra isn’t “our” Earth after an Apocalypse, but basically every Earth, after a wide range of apocalypses (apocali?): a crazy patchwork of worlds that once were, some of them destroyed millennia ago, others quite advanced, at least until their entire timeline was mushed into a blender with every other timeline...

This premise (covered in less than half a page in the rulebook) makes this potentially the most “wahoo” edition of Gamma World ever, and fulfills much of the game’s promise. Just about anything can exist on Gamma Terra, as a remnant or descendant of some forgotten timeline, from an entire ruined city (hell, continent, if you want your mutants to go exploring Atlantis) to a single creature or artifact. Although the game book doesn’t get into it, that can extend to even weird arcane or fantasy elements, if you want to harken back to the old 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and do a Gamma World/D&D crossover. There is a nod to it with the illustration of a displacer beast in the GW rulebook, and plenty of D&D monsters would also make good mutant menaces (and vice versa).

I’m working on my first adventure (as the one included in the set is a bit thin) and I’m looking forward to revisiting the wastelands of Gamma World!
2010-10-02 10:13 pm
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Spirit Day

Originally posted by [ profile] neo_prodigy at Spirit Day

It’s been decided. On October 20th, 2010, we will wear purple in honor of the 6 gay boys who committed suicide in recent weeks/months due to homophobic abuse in their homes at at their schools. Purple represents Spirit on the LGBTQ flag and that’s exactly what we’d like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality. Please wear purple on October 20th. Tell your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and schools.

RIP Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh (top)
RIP Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase (middle)
RIP Asher Brown and Billy Lucas. (bottom)

REBLOG to spread a message of love, unity and peace.

stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-09-26 11:40 am
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The Great RPG Book Purge

There is no way you can be an RPG hobbyist and professional for nearly three decades (only about half that time for the “pro” part, I’ll note) without accumulating a considerable collection of books. Problem is, of those books, the vast majority are ones I no longer use or reference, or have never used, and probably never will. I’ve got enough RPG material to last me for lifetimes of gaming at this point, particularly given my tendency to design my own stuff.

Meanwhile, I am newly enamoured of reading PDFs and eBooks on my iPad (which is a reading device that has solved my issues with reading electronic books) and in dire need of space. Thus I have decided to embark on the Great RPG Book Purge and do away with a large percentage of my physical RPG book collection.

Here are the guidelines I’m following:

1. If the book is something I’ve never used or referenced, it goes.

2. If I have an electronic copy of the book (PDF or eBook), the physical book goes.

3. If I do not have an electronic copy of the book, I can either acquire one (if I think it’s worthwhile), hold on to the physical book, or get rid of the book anyway.

4. If I wrote some or all of the book, I might hold on to one physical copy of it. The same may be the case with other books that have serious sentimental value or are truly valuable core books, but I intend to be ruthless in such cases.

5. If the book is an especially rare or unique volume (such as my Limited Edition copy of Shadowrun 3e with my name embossed on the cover). I’ll hold on to it.

Where are all the books going? Chances are, I’ll offer them to Noble Knight, since that’s what I did the last time I purged extra comp copies and other extraneous RPG books. They were a breeze to work with and it was far easier than trying to dispose of the books piecemeal. The idea of handling individual eBay auctions or even just shipping gives me hives.

I will also focus my future book acquisitions on electronic versions to keep the clutter down and make this effort worthwhile.

I know many of my friends and fellow gamers are bibliophiles who will no doubt find this effort horrifying. As I respect your views, please respect mine and do not clutter the comments section with posts about how you could never do this, or discussions of the merits of ebooks versus hardcopy. If you want to give some of my books a good home, well, Noble Knight has a very effective cataloging, sales, and shipping operation.

The purge should commence soon, but I expect it will be a work in progress for a fair while.
2010-09-21 11:56 am

Home Again

What's that? An LJ post? Is this thing still on?

Hello, those of you still bothering to read my LJ. This post is for two things:

1) If you've recently added me to your friends list, welcome! This journal has lain somewhat fallow due to Facebook's support of micro-blogging, but I hope to change that in the near future.

2) If you are a member of the Between the Worlds community and newly subscribed to this LJ, drop me a message so that I can add you to the BTW filter on here. I expect to post thoughts and reflections on this year's gathering soon.

Now back to your regularly scheduled Internet...
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-08-10 12:00 pm
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GenCon 2010

So I find myself with one of those odd hours of time in between various chores and errands which should be nicely filled by writting a summary for my time at GenCon.

The con was just a massive whirlwind of activity this year. Seems like I hit the ground running and didn’t stop for the entire time. At least some of that is owed to both running DC Adventures demos for large portions of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and the brisk traffic and sales at our booth. I managed to talk myself hoarse by early on Sunday, and seem to have also caught the typical “con crud” cold as well, which will hopefully clear up quickly.

Thursday evening was the annual gaymers mailing list dinner at the Rock Bottom Brewery, as well-attended as ever by fourty-some list members. I mentioned to several that it would be nice to organize an additional get-together (we did a “club night” occasionally but it has fallen out of the mix in recent years) or something at a venue allowing for a bit more mingling than the restaurant.

Although I didn’t get to catch up with as many industry and hobby friends as I would have liked, I did get lunch with [ profile] princeofcairo with the added bonus of [ profile] anaka and a business meeting provided an opportunity to share time with [ profile] robin_d_laws. I got to see [ profile] lucien_soulban after a multi-year absence and, of course, spend some quality time with the rest of Team Ronin (whom I only get to see in person a few times a year).

My demo games seemed to go well and folks enjoyed themselves (or at least politely lied and said they did). My favorite demo moment involved a father accompanying his young son to play; the kid really wanted to play a villain, so I had his hero get mind controlled so he could fight the other good guys like he wanted. I signed a lot of DC Hero’s Handbooks and a fair number of copies of ICONS as well.

One ICONS game at the con portrayed me as possessed by a mad cosmic entity called “The Rules Lawyer” — I’m glad the Conventioneers were able to save me from such a terrible fate! (I’ve always preferred to think of myself as more of a “Rules Rabbi” — a rules lawyer who uses his powers of interpretation only for illumination and the good of all.) My other favorite ICONS moment was the father telling me about playing the game with his eight year-old son, who rolled up a hero with Precognition and Weather Control, thus creating “The Forecaster”! And so my desire to build a random-roll hero creation system was justified...

The ENWorld Awards were a huge success for Paizo Publishing and fellow Ronin [ profile] righteousfist, whose Atomic Overmind Press took home two awards. I may be in the odd position of having two (if not three) superhero RPGs eligable for next year (DC, M&M 3E, and ICONS).

Some of my game-gets of the show include Smallville from Margaret Weis Productions and Season Two of Cartoon Action Hour. I also picked up the Red Sands Savage Worlds edition of Space: 1889, which may well become my next campaign to run. I was a fan of the original setting, and the campaign in the book looks like fun. Chances are good I’ll modify it a bit with the addition of some “psychic” Arcane Backgrounds and the inclusion of some Golden Dawn and Society of Psychical Research (founded in 1888 and 1882, respectively) pulp goodness alongside the other Victoriana. A possible connection with Tesla’s contemporaneous work in wireless transmissions? We’ll see. I’m thinking the copy of Realms of Cthulhu I also got at the con may provide some useful bits to borrow by way of ritual power use.

My only real regret of the show is still not getting to meet Wil Wheaton. Apparently, whenever he stopped by our booth I managed to either be out or in the midst of a demo game. Wil, if you read this, I’m a big fan and hope you had a fantastic time at the con!

There’s much more, of course, but my hour is up and the day’s errands call. Still, tired and congested as I am (thanks to the annual post-con cold) I’m already looking forward to next year!
2010-06-06 10:20 am
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No Place to Hide = No Compromise on Pride

With Boston Pride coming up next week, the issue of “pride” and being out is on my mind of late.

One reason why civil rights for sexual minorities—from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and marriage rights—are so very important at this time is because of the demolition of the closet. It’s not just a matter of how living your life in the closet is unhealthy (and it is), it soon may not even be a viable option.

The spread of social networking, issues surrounding online privacy, and studies like “Project Gaydar” at MIT are demonstrating that the conservative idea that minority sexual orientation is something that should remain “private” (i.e., should not be revealed or talked about in the public sphere) is built on a rapidly erroding foundation. It used to be relatively easy to compartmentalize and keep different aspects of one’s life separate. You could have a circle of gay friends and family and a circle of straight friends and family, for example, even live two (or more) different lives. But what happens when they all share your online friends list and “meet” in the virtual space of places like Facebook?

Sure, you might not have a Facebook account but, as the MIT study reveals, even sharing your photos on Flickr or your playlists on iTunes may tip your hand in terms of aspects of your life you think are private, from your sexual orientation to your political affiliation, your hobbies, or your spiritual beliefs. As more and more communication and life in general moves into the vastly distributed network on the Internet, it becomes harder and harder to cut one’s self off from it. “Privacy” may come at the price of being a virtual hermit (so to speak). Even now, not having an email address is as big an anachronism as not having a telephone number. Soon, not having an online identity may well be the same, and that raises questions about the management of said identity.

If you think maintaining the lie of living in the closet was hard before, just imagine it multiplied by a hundred or a thousand; maintaining not only constant vigilance over your own behavior, but also over the behavior of everyone you know, all in real time. The closet is a rapidly shrinking box, more and more uncomfortable to live in than ever. Gay pride and gay rights issues are going to come to a decision point because the default position of the opposition (go back to being invisible so we don’t have to deal with you) is very soon not even going to be a real option (in as much as it ever was). When there’s nowhere to retreat, nowhere to hide, then you have no choice but to fight.

Or, as the gay civil rights chant goes: “We’re here, we’re queer ... get used to it!”

The trends of history and technology say you may have no other choice.
stevekenson: (go-play)
2010-05-16 07:16 pm
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Lazy D&D Sunday

Not that today was a lazy Sunday: I was up early (stupid body clock) and spent a good part of the day proofreading and answering emails. No, what I realized is lazy today is my attitude towards Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, after our monthly D&D game today.

When it comes to the game, about all I can be bothered to do is show up and remember to bring my character sheet and dice, and at least a couple of times I haven’t even properly managed the “character sheet and dice” part. Not that I’m not having fun (I am) but I confess to basically zero interest in keeping up with all the latest game system releases, reading about ways to improve or optimize my character, reading articles or sourcebooks, or generally being involved in D&D anywhere other than at the game table. I have no idea about my character’s backstory; even the fact that he has a name is largely a concession of tradition and convenience.

Not that I’m knocking any of these things. They’re not bad. I actually really like being able to approach our D&D games as more of a problem-solving board-game where we pour over the battle grid, looking for the best places to maneuver our little plastic figures: how to grab that flanking bonus, set things up for the Dragonborn Cleric to “Split the Sky” or for my Eladrin Wizard to unleash a Fireball. We enjoy being able to banter about comics, TV, movies, and our lives in-between rolling dice and taking our turns, because game day is also our primary hangout day. Our D&D game is fun, but low-key, low-commitment fun.

It’s interesting that D&D 4E has provided this experience for me in ways other games do not. In most RPGs, a lot of thought goes into the design of my characters, as if I were creating them for a novel rather than as game-pieces. Some might only be sketched-out initially—our group is known to have games not “stick” sometimes, so it’s unwise to get too invested too soon. Even still, a pretty complete picture emerges. I likewise put a lot of thought into character design from a game system perspective, making sure game traits fit fictional viewpoint and vice versa and that the character will be both fun and interesting to play on multiple levels.

With my Eladrin Wizard, I glance at the Player’s Handbook (maybe Arcane Power) when we’ve got some spare gold or we level up, just to “shop” for a new magic item, feat, or power, and that’s pretty much that. I do have a Paragon Path picked out for 11th level (Wizard of the Spiral Tower was basically made for my character) but that’s about as much advance planning as there is. Our relationship is very “casual,” very no-strings ... we just seem to have mutually agreed to have a good time and not worry about it, my character and I.

I’m sure there are other reasons for my laziness: I’m a good deal busier than I ever was when I created and played my most lovingly detailed characters. I work in the RPG biz and design stuff all day, so I might not be as motivated for a creative outlet as I once was. I’m older and ostensibly more mature, certainly less given to trying to live vicariously through my paper-and-dice fantasy life. Still, D&D takes it to a whole new level. Fortunately, our able Dungeon Master is very interested in the game, and I’m sure his extensive preperatory work is one thing that allows me to just kick-back and coast when it comes to enjoying the game.

It’s exciting when the dice fall in the right way and everyone is firing on the right cylinders to bring off a great battle-plan that wins the day. Our D&D game is definitely fun, but it’s a lazy kind of fun.
stevekenson: (calvin)
2010-04-04 05:24 pm

Facebook Forward

Glazed ham, mac & cheese, asparagus with orange butter, green beans, pumpkin bread, french rolls, chocolate pound cake, vanilla ice cream, coffee ... let's see did I miss anything? Oh yes, my impending caloric coma... That's holiday dinner at my parents. Good time.
2010-02-24 03:36 pm

Will I Miss LiveJournal?

So, my paid LJ account is expiring soon and I'm on the fence about renewing it. All it really gets me are more user pics, which I hardly use (I'd be fine restricted to just a few) and ... well, I can't really think of anything else.

So it seems unlikely I will renew. Not so on the fence after all.

Edit: I'll almost certainly remain a free LJ user and still update, just don't think there's any reason to re-up the paid account.