Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for ...


Zero is a dark dystopian SF game where you play former members of a hive mind living in a contained, post-apocalyptic society, who are suddenly cast loose from the collective, and hunted by the mad ruler of that society, Queen Zero. If it sounds like Paranoia run straight, you're not the first to come to that conclusion.

But that's not why Zero is on the list. Instead there's a story involving the game:

One year,  about the time that WotC purchased TSR (I'm guessing August of '98), Peter Adkison and Richard Garfield hosted a Game Designers' Conference a couple days right before the GenCon in Milwaukee., It was pretty cool - a small group of hobby game and computer game folk gathered together for some roundtables. Over the course of the event, several of those present admitted that they had never played an RPG.

Lester volunteered to run one, in particular a new game he had written (with artist Steve Stone) for Archangel - Zero. I was commuting to the convention from Lake Geneva at that point, so I didn't stay for the session.

But when I showed up the next morning, everyone was talking about the game. Lester's a good GM, and it was his game, so it should have been a good experience. But the guys that were MOST excited about the game, and insisted on sharing the story of what happened, were the designers who had not played RPGs before. It was an epiphany, and pretty cool one, for them.

And that's the power of RPGs. If you can get people to play them, the chances are they will enjoy them. And with that we draw to a close this challenge. There will be a couple afterwords, but that the bulk of it all. Hope you enjoyed it.

More later,

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for ...


This is one that tests the limits of memory. We had a copy at TSR. and I remember a few things about it, but this is from years ago:

1) It was texturally dense. A lot of type of the page without a lot of white space in the form of margins or leading. If the type wasn't just a courier font, it was darned close.

2) It was mechanically dense. It was part of that "fix D&D by adding more stuff" school that was common at that stage.

3) It was one of the early games to ask for a "character concept" before you start finding out your stats. And here's the part that drive me crazy about character concept. You don't really know what kind of character you really want to create until you understand something about the world and your character's role in it. That works for some genres (You're an investigator who will find out about the Mythos), less well for others. Generic fantasy is one of those where you need a little more information on what your world is like before you decide how you fit into it. So while character concept works as a player retention strategy, it is not so hot as an acquisition strategy.

Other than that, I don't have a lot. From later digging, it has resurfaced a couple times, but has always been a favorite of a small but devoted group. And that may be the fate of a lot of Old School Revival games, but that's not the worst thing in the world.

More later,

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for ...


Xerxes is an interesting animal, an Indy domain game set in 480 BC. You are one of the leaders of the city states along the fertile crescent under Xerxes I, also known as King Ahasuerus in the Book of Ester. Like your king, you are a Zoroastran, and your city's divine ahuras appear to you with a warning - a new power is rising in the west, and unless you bind together and launch a major invasion, a boy-king from that land will rip your empire to pieces and its barbarian gods will destroy your pantheons.So you have to work together but still maintain your position in court, dodging your allies assassins while trying to get their forces killed on the battlefield (without letting the Greeks win the war).

And, um....

Um ....

OK, I'll fess up. I've got nothing. I have no "X" RPG to cover. I could have done XCrawl, but I was horribly unimpressed with it when I first saw it - not horrible enough to mock, but not good enough to give it its own entry. And I could have done something like the X-men boxed set for MSH or An X-cellent Death pick-a-path book, but that was bending the rules a bit too much. I suppose I could bemoan the lack of an X-Files license.

I was going to say that "X is available for a low monthly fee". The Lovely Bride suggested "Xerxes" as a name, but thought it was about Egyptian gods (which was wrong). I said it was about Greek gods (which was also wrong), but then came up with a story by which it WAS about Greek Gods, and how you could mobilize your city-state against the onslaught of a more vibrant culture.

But just to be clear, there IS no Xerxes. But if you create one, be sure to thank me in the credits, and send me some copies.

More later,

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for ...

The Whispering Vault.

I normally hate games which start out asking me what my "character concept" is, but I really like Whispering Vault. Part of the reason this escapes my wrath is that Lester Smith was GMing the session, but also because WV does an excellent job of portraying its setting, and of telling me what my character's role is in the world.

Why yes, I am going to tell you about my character, but let's talk about the game first.

The Whispering Vault has a high and limited concept. You are a Stalker. In life, you fought against the dark parts of the universe. Now, for all eternity, you are charged with keeping reality (The Realm of the Flesh - yeah, it has a lot of Significant Capitals in the game) intact, seeking out Enigmas that don't belong in the sane world and sending them back to where they came. It's where your Call of Cthulhu investigator is recruited to become an arcane superhero to fight the mythos. And you get super powers, a true (often inhuman) form, and the chance to create your own demiplane or domain. It is a horror game, but one where you get to play the Spectre, the Phantom Stranger, or the Neil Gaiman version of Sandman.

So my character was Angel Ball, a 60s burnout that turned into a spherical smile button with a rainbow mohawk. My domain was San Francisco as drawn by Bob Crumb, and populated by grey corporate minions in grey suits with TVs for heads. Her character when she manifested in the real world was a tough biker. She was a lot fun, and the rules funneled in nicely to let me run with her.

Now what made Whispering Vault cool (Indy game fans may find this familiar) was that it had a definitive format to its story. It was a method of play as stylized and as ritual as an episode of Iron Chef. You would become aware of something wrong in the Realm of Flesh, you would gather the other stalkers, you would summon the Navigator and face the Guardian between the Realms of Flesh and Essence, you would identify and confront the Unbidden and remove the Enigma. You would heal reality. That was a structure right off the bat. No "Well, you hang around in the cyberbar until someone offers you a job" thing. You know your place in the world, you find the threat, you neutralize it. There is a goodly (but not limitless) amount of wiggle room within this plotline. And the fact that it is enjoyable shows that limitless is sometimes overrated.

The game mechanic is a nice tweak on the "roll to hit a target number" mechanic. In this case, you roll a number of dice, and add together the duplicated dice to get your result (if you roll five dice to get a 5,5,4,3,3, you would have a result of 10 from the two fives). You can reroll certain dice. I've called this Yahtzee-style task resolution, and it actually works pretty well.

The version I still have was a single small ringbound booklet, marked only by the symbol, and noted as a "convention advance copy" but what we would call today a Beta version. Later drafts were more in the standard squareback shown in the illo here, but it retained its heart as a beautiful niche product. It could be run for long campaigns, but it excelled at one story at a time, with a group of creative players.

More later,

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for ...

Villains and Vigilantes.

V&V is one of those "Ampersand and Alliteration" games of the early RPG era - Tunnels and Trolls, Bunnies and Burrows, Powers and Perils. On a list of game titles, it tells you right off the bat from whence it takes its gaming DNA. V&V was an early super hero RPG where you had a wide variety of powers culled from the comics.

And I love this game, if for nothing else a single super-power -

Mollusk Control.

It could be also Control Mollusk or Command Mollusk (I don't have the books at hand), but that one little grace note to fit in with Animal Control and Fish Control is just one of the things about the game that makes me smile, and sets the game up as a more light-hearted and adventure-oriented of the early super-hero games.

There were two big guns back in those pre-MSH days - V&V and Champions. Champions was very much about defining superheroics - their min/maxed character points put a lot more emphasis on character creation and tweaking it to just right. V&V was much more swingy - you could "play yourself" if you so chose (converting you into a baseline hero) and then adding super powers. Random super powers. You were given a bag of stuff, and challenged to come up with your own superhero as you emerge from the irradiated burst that created you. Including Mollusk Control.

Most genres get one big initial success and the others following. The fact that Champions and V&V were contemporaneous was, I think, due to distribution. Champions was a west coast thing, while V&V belonged to the east coast and midwest. So long before rap there was a coastal rivalry going on. But while Champions wen through numerous revisions over the year (plunging into MMOs most recently), V&V fell into that ethereal plane was Fantasy Games Unlimited, neither living nor dead. Only recently did the original designers regain control and will be launching a new version.

And I really hope it has Mollusk Control.

More later,

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for ...


[1.0] Game Description
[2.0] Character Creation
[3.0] Character Role
[4.0] Recognition of Cool Things in the Game
      [4.1] Cool Map
      [4.2] Delta Vee
[5.0] Where it all went wrong
      [5.1] Traveller Comparison
      [5.2] Changing Nature of SF
      [5.3] Modified Case Format 
      [5.4] How SPI didn't GET it
[6.0] More Later statement

[1.0] Game Description:
Universe was an attempt by wargamer publisher SPI (Simulations Publications Inc) to get into the increasingly dominant role-playing wing of the hobby industry. It came out the year after the more successful Dragonquest, and shortly before the company was purchased by TSR. While Universe did not kill SPI, it did little to provide the much-needed rescue, and it remains one of the worst games I've ever played (yes, I called out Synnibarr and Spawn earlier, but I can cheerfully admit that I never played them, their awfulness being clear to all at the first blush).

[2.0] Character Creation
I think the big reason for this failure is a character creation system that reads like a tax form and takes about as long to fill out.  I think I spent a couple afternoons putting together a character, as I had to deal with matters like the gravitational force on my home planet in order to determine my abilities (sorry, potentials). It was big on formulae, and had more granularity than a beach in Hawaii.

[3.0] Character Role
The greater problem is what did you do once you had your character. The universe of Universe was a very small place. I don't remember any obvious theme or metaplot or even long-term history that gave me factions or opposition or sense of purpose. There was a lot of low-level combat (ship-to-ship or personal melee level) but nothing that seemed to pull everything together. After a few rounds of combat, everything went back into the box and eventually passed out of my life.

[4.0] Recognition of Cool Things in the Game.
But the game did have some cool things to it.

[4.1] Cool Map
It had a cool map, showing real-space around our the Sol System, and should have been a great launching point for earth-centered campaigns.

[4.2] Delta Vee
Its space combat game was also pretty nice, and was inserted into an issue of Ares magazine. It tried to deal with the reality of space combat and setting vectors and thrust as opposed to transposing WWI dogfights into space. I think it still had, as Spock would say, "two-dimensional thinking", but it was playing to SPI's strengths there.

[5.0] Where it All Went Wrong
So what went wrong?

[5.1] Traveller comparison
If Chivalry & Sorcery was an attempt to "Fix" D&D and make it more historically accurate, Universe was an attempt to bring more hard science to bear against Traveller, which was the SF roleplaying paradigm. Unfortunately, most people would put Traveller on the harder end of a spectrum that includes both Star Frontiers and Star Wars, so flanking on that the science end made it appear even dryer than it was.

[5.2] Changing nature of SF.
The game also came out post-Star Wars and post-Empire Strikes Back, and with it we saw the popularization of more "space fantasy" than the harder popular SF of, say, 2001. The New Wave had opened up another front on the old "Rivets and blasters" school of SF, and Cyberpunk was just about to break loose. Not a place for a "traditional" SF game, especially one that was also avoiding that old-school "Buck Rogers" stuff as well.

[5.3] Modified Case Format
Most damaging to the case, I think, was the way the rules were presented in a structure called case format (or to be more accurate-  modified case format). This was an outline form that you could summarize easily at the start, and made it easy to find complex rules relatively quickly. However, it bled the life out of the game itself, stood in the way of people getting to play the game, and occupied a lot of space (particularly as all headings are repeated, and master headings need text underneath them), so that the rules got longer and more intimidating.

[5.4] How SPI didn't GET it.
Universe is used as an example of how SPI, a wargaming company, just didn't GET RPGs and somehow deserved its fate as TSR took command of the gaming hobby. Yet Dragonquest was actually pretty good, and where the company was comfortable with its subject matter it did quite well - its War of the Rings was a good simulation of the LOTR Trilogy, and Freedom in the Galaxy had that goofy Star Wars feel of Empire versus Rebels (plus the greatest bad-girl name in histroy -Thysa Kimbo). Ultimately, Universe's format, presentation, and lack of purpose created a joyless game. With a little work, it could produce something interesting and rewarding, but I could say the same of a bookcase from IKEA. That's why I put it down as one of the worst games I've ever truly played.

[5.5] More later statement

More later,

ERRATA: [5.5] More later statement should be [6.0] More later statement.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Play: How I Slept With Your Mother

this. by Melissa James Gibson, Directed by Braden Abraham. Seattle Repertory Theatre, through May 15th.

I've said it before, but the good thing about season tickets is that you end up going to plays that you would normally never go to. Billed as an "unromantic comedy", this. (note the period) is more of a sit-com, and by that I want to get back to the full use of the word situational comedy. Humor arising from familiar characters in situations. It is funny in places, touching in others, and well-acted throughout, and would not be out of place on NBC's Thursday night lineup, except for the fact that there is real character development.

The core is the group of friends in their late thirties. Marrell (April Yvette Thompson) and Tom (Hans Altwies) are the brittle, exhausted couple who haven't slept more than fifteen minutes since the birth of their child. Jane (Cheyenne Casebier) and Alan (Nick Garrison) are the old friends from college. Jane's husband died a year ago and she is struggling as a single mom. Alan is the gay jewish wacky friend - in sitcom language, he fills the role of Barney or Phoebe. He gets to be broader and larger than life. Here, his character has perfect memory (making it the second play I've seen at the Rep with such a character, the first being the 39 Stairs). Ryan Shams is the guest star, as Jean-Pierre, the doctor without borders that Marrell and Tom are trying to set up with Jane

That's where it starts, with a party game that goes wrong (Edward Albee is stalking this entire season), and then moves in fits and starts through emotional baggage, hidden secrets, and the nature of relationships. This is New York and these are Urbanites who see plays and do the crossword puzzle in the Times and so there is a lot of wordplay and language and arguing about punctuation and how you pronounce things like a Brita water filter. But the thing is, there is character advancement, and while some of the endings have the traditional feel to them (I have no doubt Alan will be back to normal by next week), there is the feeling of character challenge and growth here.

Contributing the comfortable feel of the play is that there are a lot of Rep regulars here. And that is one of the great things about a Repertory theater - you get do actors in many roles. Han Altwies does the frustrated husband well that we've seen earlier. Cheyenne Casebier digs in a bit deeper with Jane, and the play is ultimately about her. Nick Garrison gets to be more snippy and sniper-like with Alan. Ryan Shams I want to believe is actually French, since his accent and mannerisms line up so well with some of my French friends. And April Yvette Thompson holds her own with the others, and yes, you believe that they have been friends for years even though the discussions veer into race, gender, and morality.

And the set. OK, I'm trying not to hit the "sitcom" hotkey too many times, but the well-furbished set does well as Tom and Marrell's apartment, with the second act scene change as the club Marrell sings in and with various doors for spot scenes. Yes, the components are all there, and the play strives to rise above it all.

One bit of pedantry, from the fact that so much of the play is about words and usage. The cover of the playbill calls the play this (lower case, no punctuation). But title page calls it this. (all lower case, but with a period at the end. And the website gives him This (capped, but no punctuation). So what's the deal with this?

I liked this. Not every play deals with deeper issues, and this. occupies a space higher a tad higher than traditional TV fair and Romantic comedies.  It is a good "date play". More later,

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for ...


I know Talislanta first and foremost as a world, not a game system. It came into my life with The Chronicles of Talislanta, and as a collection of squarebound books known as the Cyclopedia Talislanta (not to be confused the Cyclopedia Harnica).

These volumes, collectively unified by the incredible art of P.D.Breeding, created a very different world than either the traditional D&D-crafted universes or the more medieval creations of C&S or Harn. Talislanta's world is set in a culturally and genetically diverse realm with non-standard races. As the ad copy said - "No Elves", at a time when Elves were part and parcel of what fantasy was.

Talislanta, more importantly, had no humans. Or rather, no race that one could point at as a human analogue. Each nation had its own divergent culture, some working with its neighbors, some warring against them. And while you could create a spectrum with the Arimites and the Mandalans at the more human end, and the bestial Mogroth and the scale-plated Vajra at the other, there is no "typical" universal human race that is everywhere. Skin hues move through blue and green, we have scales, feathers, and rainbow tattoos. There is no dominant culture, and while you can say that this race is "Asian fantasy" and that race is "Melnibonean" or "Drowish" in apparent origin, there is precious little that you put down as default. In modern SF terms, it is less like the bridge of the original Enterprise and more like Quark's Bar - a place where bipedal, laterally symmetrical races thrive.

Vance gets invoked when talking about Talislanta, but I would also add Edgar Rice Burroughs, in particular Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. The latter in particular was a world filled with a huge number of different diverse peoples that had their own cultures apart from one another. The "Lost World" trope of racially distinct tribes comes down to us through a number of sources, and is going great guns in Talistanta.

The fantasy itself was tuned up a few notches as well. We have traders in dream essence and ice schooners and dune ships. It evokes a lot of old Yes covers by Roger Dean. It delighted in its off-beat strangeness, or the fact that it was a world that snubbed grandfather Tolkien and the western traditional fantasy to find its own path.

I found the rules for the original game later, but they seemed unnecessary for the core of the world, which was the diversity and interaction of the races. I will admit that I have a particular fondness for the WotC edition as far as codifying and putting everything together, but the play experience was not what I got out of the game. Rather, it was the fantasy world itself, and the reading experience of Talistanta that was its own reward.

More later

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for ...

two of the worst games in the history of gaming: Spawn of Fashan and Synnibarr (actually The World of Synnibarr).

The thing to remember with both of these creations is that they were quite obviously labors of love, created, much like Chivalry & Sorcery or Quest of the Ancients, with an eye to "Fixing" D&D, or at least to providing alternatives to it. Yet both went horribly astray, and now are legends in their own time - they are the gaming equivalents of "Manos: the Hands of Fate".

Of Spawn of Fashan, its very rarity has added to its legend. I've seen a copy, though do not own one. The mechanics were complex and as twisted as a web spun by a spider on LSD. I remember is a map that said "North, where Melvin once stood", a highpoint that might once have meant something in an original campaign but merely seems like something out of Bored of the Rings (and became a battle cry among designers for years afterwards).

Oddly, it was a tiny print run, and only attained it true goofy awfulness by way of a review in DRAGON magazine which the reviewer ultimately determined that it was all a cruel joke. Alas, it was not, and the designer tells his tale of woe and intrigue here, many years after the event. Given all the embarrassment suffered, I have a tendency to give Spawn a break - to beat on it is like a merciless review of a straw-hat theater production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Synnibarr I am less sympathetic towards, as Spawn at least had the virtue of conciseness in its poor showing. Synnibarr was a massive tome created by DTP software and cheap paper rates (I am starting to think that 1991 was a watershed year in game design - a number of games on this list were out that year). It was everything and the kitchen sink, plus several alternate kitchen sinks and a futuristic kitchen sink which is powered by a cloned mammoth from the Flintstones.

The rules were deep and convoluted, but it was the setting that truly set Synnibarr apart in awfulness. The campaign setting was the hollowed-out interior of Mars turned into a starship populated by fantasy creatures, but it went through more changes and dark ages than even Tekumel could stand. And it had the glory of a seventeen-page "example of play" in which the heroes meet in a bar after school, then go off to fight a paradrake, only to be pulled over at the end by the cops, who wish them on their way. (Lemme actually dig this out to double-check -Yep, that's right - makes you want to wash out your mind with lye). The end result was a 494 page testament to excess - it is easy to bad for a couple signatures - such marathon awfulness must be recognized.

But this thing to remember is that these clumsy children were the creations of an act of love, spawned in an era where no one knew what was right and wrong. Nah, we knew, but in Spawn's case there wasn't enough of a support network to warn them off. Synnibarr lacks that excuse.

Good luck finding the old classic Spawn, which lives better as mythology. Synnibarr can be still found at the Half-Price Books, and there may well be still people playing it (we were looking at buying a car from a guy in Bellevue who claimed to be one of the original playtest crew - we bought the car somewhere else). Every genre has its fandom, and every game is someone's first and/or favorite.

More later,

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for ...

Ringworld. And maybe a little Runequest as a cameo.

Ringworld was an RPG based on the Larry Niven novels set his his Known Space universe on a huge ribbon-like structure orbiting a star. Halo old-school. At the time of its publishing, two of the four Ringworld novels were out, and I don't know if the information here would jive with what Niven eventually did. I remember this game primarily from it being in the TSR Library, along with Elfquest, which is a related game.

Ringworld is a good representative of a product for a universal game system. This was a holy grail for a while, and I suppose still is. The big practitioner has been GURPS, but the Basic Roleplaying System (BRP) from Chaosium has been another contender. Other games related through the BRP include the indominable Call of Cthulhu, the aforementioned Runequest, Superworld, Elric, Hawkmoon, and Pendragon. It is a pretty impressive family tree, and, looking at them over the years, you can see that they shared the same earthy loam. While GURPs presented itself a GURPS (name of genre or license), BRP presented itself as Name of Genre or Licence (using BRP).

The trouble with universal games is a basic challenge - which is more important, the mechanics or the world? A world (or license) has different virtues, strengths, and requirements, so bending the world to fit the Procrustean bed of set mechanics is a bad fit. However, a universal system has the advantage that, once someone understands product A, it is a shorter leap to product B, which has a similar system. And the ultimate goal of such systems, in theory, is the ability to take characters from World X and put them in World Y.

BRP, a creature of its age, creates entire systems which are glued on or jettisoned as appropriate for the game. A pretty smart move. Call of Cthulhu has its insanity, Superworld its super powers, and I think Pendragon pulled up everything but the floorboards. Its game family is so diverse that it makes world-hopping a little more problematic, but you can see the connecting tissue.

As for the Ringworld game product, only the cover and a few memories remain. I don't remember a whole lot of additional mechanics, or if those mechanics served the purpose of supporting the world it was supposed to portray. I do remember that the the data on the universe felt a little light - not a lot of parallel support (as opposed to West End's Star Wars, which practically ran lateral development and continuity for LucasFilm for many years), and I don't remember any mysteries being resolved. Further, the scope of the Ringwold was so big (the planet Earth in the novels was portrayed as a map on an island at a 1:1 scale, that the place ultimately had the problem of many "super-dungeons" there was so much there that it was hard to embrace it all.

But it and similar universal systems were a major step in RPG development. In trying to create a system that could be plugged into several genres, it helped push the entire concept of licensing, where turnaround time was vital and striking while the iron/movie/book was hot was ideal. And that's good enough for R.

More later,

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for ...

Quest of the Ancients.

OK, there's not a lot of competition for "Q", but this is actually worth examining.

Quest for the Ancients shows up relatively late in the RPG timeline, but is a great example of the games which feel like they evolve out of house rules and attempts to "fix" D&D The fixing continues until enough of the genetics are changed that it feels like a related species, like those pygmy elephants you find on Mediterranean islands (well, you USED to find). There are nine stats, and they are generated by various combinations of dice but still in the area where a character created by 3d6 could be among them. The classes are a grab-bag of Fighter classes (Cossack, Gladiator, Knight, Legionnaire, Rouge, Saracen, Viking, and Woodsman), Tricksters (Assassin, Bard, Cutpurse, and Gypsy), and Spellcasters (Druid, Earth Prist, Necromancer, Sorcerer, and Witch). A core combat system that uses a d30 (other options are, mercifully, presented as well).

And, in the true tradition of D&D-derived RPGs, it has halflings, though not as a main race, but an example (the "furfoots") of a race that the DM can create.  It also has a dedication to Stevie Nicks (the inspiration of the Witch class) and a thank you to yours truly (apparently, from a note I found in the book, for the Sigiltry spell, which sounds like a parallel evolution to the tattoos from Azure Bonds).

It is big, squarebound and a labor of love. As I said, it shows up late in the evolutionary tree, contemporaneous with Nightlife, at time when showing up with a big book full of classes and spells was what you needed to establish yourself with a market tired of the same old D&D.

And looking at it 20 years later, it does not feel horribly dated. Rather, it evokes the spirit of of the current Old School Renaissance that is sweeping through the fields of blogs, DTP and self-publishing. In the wake of the OGL, old predecessors like this one have been forgotten, but this is one of the destinations possible for those games that are currently trying to "re-think" D&D.

Look upon this, old-schoolers, and know that this path has been tread before.

More later.

[Update:] Fellow A to Z blogger Tim Branan ALSO wrote about Quest of the Ancients (told you that it was a tough letter). Check out his writeup!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for ...


It is the future. You are a living in an underground civilization after something horrible happened outside. You are a Troubleshooter, working for the Computer that controls all parts of your life. The Computer is your Friend.

The Computer, however, is also nutso bananas. You hunt down mutants (oh, by the way, you're a mutant). You hunt down secret societies (oh, by the way, you're in a secret society). You hunt down traitors (everything you do can be considered traitorous). You deal with a color-coded bureaucracy where everyone is desperately, desperately trying to avoid being the next victim of the nutso bananas Computer. You are continually setting up your allies for the fall (and they are measuring you up as a scapegoat as well).

Did I mention this was a comedy?

It's a comedy. An INTENTIONALLY funny RPG that goes after the madness of top-down, nutso banana bureaucracy and conspiracy. Over the Edge deals with some similar issues, but with a more ironic and educated take. A wry smile. They play it straight. Paranoia does it with a cream pie. An exploding cream pie. An exploding cream MUTANT pie. Provided by the Computer. Who hates pie. Pie is treason, citizen.

The mechanics are pretty straightforward, as befits a game where your life expectancy can be measured in hours. Oh, and you get some clones that can sub in for you when you die (and you will). It is pleasantly lethal in its combat resolution, and a simple matter of finding the correct form or opening a door can lead to casualties. The Holloway art is just a big fat bonus, and sets the mood of the game. Also bonus points to the spot illos, which are simply a computer screen with different jokes written for it ("Screaming? I don't hear any screaming.").

This is funny game and a fun game, which is both playable and enjoyable to read. In play, there is often a strange moment with first-time players when it all sinks in. In Call of Cthulhu, it's that moment when you suddenly realize that the old stories about creatures coming down from the stars are real. Here, it is the discovery that your boss IS nutso bananas, and your co-workers ARE willing to throw you under the hoverbus at any moment. And when that moment comes, and the players realize that they're NOT in D&D anymore, they aren't expected to work together to a common goal, and the alignment governors have been removed, THEN the fun begins. I've had a couple sessions that didn't get out of the mission briefing without a TPK (Why yes, you do have clones).

It is an office comedy. With lasers. If it was redone today, they could get the Better Off Ted license for cheap. It was a brilliant take of what you could do with RPGs that wasn't being done with ten-foot-poles and paladins.

More later,

[Update:] One of the authors of a later edition of the game sent me a note to the effect that Paranoia remains a on-going concern, and that Mongoose publishing has released a 25th Anniversary edition based on the 2004 edition of the rules. Yeah, it was a surprise to me as well. When I  am going through these, I am not usually dealing with reprints, revisions, expansion, extensions or new editions, and tend to concentrate only on the original versions because, well, they were the ones I played (though the entire subject of such revised versions would be great grist for the blog mill).

Still think if you revise it again, you could get the Better Off Ted license for cheap. I see synergies here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for...

Over The Edge.

Imagine, if you will that the ur-text of FRPGs is not Tolkien's Lord of the Rings but instead is The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Instead of the traditional multi-racial quest tale sprung out of European folklore you instead get a swirling mass of free association, rival agendas, conspiracies and general philosophical debauchery. That's what you have here.

Over the Edge feels like two parts experiment and two parts gaming manifesto. It has a lot of cool bits and mechanics (particularly for its publishing age) and how they are intended to use them, presented in an accessible, almost conversational format. My favorite is a small one - if you do the same thing round after round in combat, your chances of success diminish. This strongly reduces the "I hit him with my sword" repetition nature of most combat and breathes life into what is otherwise (and oddly) one of the most sterile mechanics in the game.

But the bulk of the book is a presentation of the island of Al Amarja, off the coast of North Africa - you can see Albert Camus' house from there. It is Bill Burrough's Interzone turned into Waterdeep, a gumbo of factions, counterfactions, revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, agents, double agents, and triple agents, all with a healthy admixture of aliens, mutants, demons, drugs, mind-controllers, and a quasi-fascist government (who, among other things, have their own "Language Police" who are heavily armed).

The game is worth playing, if only to see how it unspools with dedicated players. The book itself is worth consuming, and it is of a class of RPG product that is meant to be read and enjoyed as work itself as much as translated onto the gaming table.

More later,

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Norwescon Schedule

So I'll take advantage of the Sunday-off feature of this A to Z challenge to mention that next weekend is Norwescon, at the Doubletree in Seatac. I've been asked to contribute to a few panels this year, and hope to break free of my deadlines to see people!

Friday   10am     Cascade 9            How Game Mechanics Cross Platforms
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games have revolutionized computer gaming, and become the dominant mode for computer role-playing games. They certainly learned a thing or two from pen-and-paper (PnP) RPGs. Now many PnP games today are “borrowing” a concept or two from video games. Board games and RPGs even incorporate elements from card games. Join our panel in a discussion of the increasingly blurry lines of game development.
Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Rodney Thompson, Jeff Grubb, Andy Megowan  

Friday   4pm       Evergreen 1&2  Writing and Story Development for Computer Games
This panel of writers of both fiction and games will explore the overwhelming appeal of computer games and the importance of writing and story development in world building and player immersion. From pitch to production, from pen-and-paper and live-action to multi-player worlds, the panelists discuss the process of fantasy world building for original concepts or licensed properties. They elaborate on how story development can affect game system design, character design, and environments.
Marc Laidlaw, Wayfarer's Moon, Ted Kosmatka, Kate Marshall, Jeff Grubb  

[New Addition!] Friday   7pm       Evergreen 3&4  The Continued Viability of Epic Fantasy
How has Epic Fantasy evolved in the 50-plus years since Tolkien hit it big?  What are the archetypal elements that keep people reading epic fantasy?  What's new and fresh in this arena?
M.H. (Maggie) Bonham, Spencer Ellsworth, Jeff Grubb

Saturday   10am                Cascade 4            Freelancing 101
One of the best, sure-fire ways of writing for the gaming industry is by doing freelance work. Great!  But how does one do that? What are the benefits and drawbacks to freelancing? Our panel of freelancers and the people who hire them, will share their stories and give advice on how to be a successful freelancer for the gaming industry.
Jeff Combos, Liz Courts, Randall N. Bills, Jeff Grubb  

Saturday   Noon                Evergreen 3&4  Crunch vs. Fluff: FIGHT!
Gaming, especially roleplaying games, have essentially two elements. The “crunch” is the rules that define the game system, and dictate how to simulate real-world actions. The fluff is the fiction that gives the game its setting, and aids in the players roleplaying within that setting. Not surprisingly, gamers are often divided as to which element is most important to a game, and those divisions can be strong! Our gaming panelists engage in a civil discussion on realism vs. roleplaying, rules-heavy wargames vs. rules-light/theater-based games.
Bruce R. Cordell, Jonathan Tweet, Jason Bulmahn, Erik Mona, Jeff Grubb, Stan!  

Saturday   4pm  Cascade 9            Table-top gaming is DEAD....or is it?
With the continued impact of electronic gaming against traditional gaming, do people still want to play our games? It seems that young kids today are playing more video games than tabletop games, right?  Yet, despite the annual doom-and-gloom bloggers, the hobby seems to be flourishing. Why?
Erik Mona, Jeff Grubb, Jeff Combos, Sean K Reynolds

More later,

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for ...


Here's a game where you play monsters but you have to keep your humanity. You can play any of a number of diverse, nigh-immortal "Kin" in a modern urban setting who prey on the "herd" and engage in their own inter-group politics. You have a large number of superpowers but also compulsions and feeding habits that force you to create your own subculture. You hang out at night clubs. Your world is one of darkness.

Oddly enough, I am NOT talking about Vampire: the Masquerade, which showed up a year after Nightlife hit the streets and bodychecked it into the boards like an SUV driving a SMART car off the road. Nightlife feels closer to the games of the 80s, and is pretty much what VTM would have been if it had followed a more traditional route.

The game itself is ability and skill-based, with your breed of kin determining your early super-powers (sorry, edges). Vampyres (with a Y), Werewolves, Ghosts, Daemons, Wyghts (also with a Y), Inuits (so we get that West Coast vibe) and Animates (Frankenstien). Yeah, that seems like the marketing plan for White Wolf, but it is also the casting call for horror movies from the 1950s on. Both games are mining the same rich vein of lore, out on the old Annie Rice claim. But VTM was taking drama classes while Nightlife was watching a lot more cheezey movies on USA Up All Night.

Yet for declaring itself a horror game, in fact dedicating itself to splatterpunk, the game is relatively bloodless. Save for a couple paragraphs on how deep the knife sticks in and mild-R-rated art that flirts with the borders (all but now erased) of good taste, its mechanics are as tame as regular D&D, and that puts a wall between the player and the horror. The opponents are reduced to a bag of hit points to remove, the powers to a group of toggles to throw. Mind you, this is pure D&D adventuring from the old school, where the color and the gore is brought to the table by the DM and imagined in the minds of the players. But its more detailed mechanics put it at a disadvantage to the more visceral and dramatic (though lest precise) mechanics of its World of Darkness follower.

In the end, the game stayed true to its roots, doing a musical version that would make the Vampire Lestdt happy, and a couple post-apocalyptic expansions that felt like Gamma World as presented by Troma films. If an Old School Revival hits the Vampires (and it is only a matter of time), then this is one of the foundation stones they should look at for how they got where they are.

More later,


I didn't really expect to come back to talking about the Tacoma Art Museum so soon, particularly after going on at length about the Norman Rockwell show, but such is the nature of life.

In addition to the Rockwell show, the museum had in one of its smaller galleries a show called "Mighty Tacoma" (through 24 April) which had art (photos and original art) about Tacoma as well. And part of the presentation involved taking pictures in the gallery, the subject seated (and unified) by a pair of oversized red chairs.

OK, it a little cheesy and a little boosterish for the town and the museum and most of the pictures were of smiling, happy people delighted to have their pictures taken at the museum. Nothing wrong with that. Families on a day out, clustered in typical portraiture as taught by innumerable family reunions and Christmas card shots. And there were those who would sit upside down in the chairs, or turn them around and peek over them, but they were in the minority (and the whole bloody lot of them can be seen online here.

And I thought about it for a moment, and realized that in a lot of pictures I have taken of me, I have little control of my own image. Candid shots are taken at conventions all the time, along with posed photos for others, but usually I am with others, and am just moving where I am told. There are exceptions, like the "Iron chef" shot that I use at the start of the current Grubb Street blog, but that's an indulgence of the cameraman who was supposed to take "real" shots of me for the website.

So I asked the cameraperson at the TAM for something particular, and she accommodated me. I asked for a specific shot, and we did it, and we cropped it to make it exact. And when I got it on the Flickr site, it was uncropped and less effective, so I recropped it for here.

And I have to say, it is a new favorite picture. A picture is worth a thousand words, but only tells half a story (so the average story length should be 2000 words). I like the negative space and the encompassing of the ubiquitous red chair to provide unity. The logo wear and message shirt are not part of the discussion. And I am not smiling for the camera. I am being.

So I made a little art, where a lot of people were just taking pictures.

TAM is also important at the moment since they want to bring the Hide/Seek exhibit to the PNW. This exhibit caused a dust-up when it was shown at the Smithsonian, when a conservative agitated and got one of the pieces pulled, and liberals in turn elevated it to a cause celebre, which raised more awareness on both sides than the show would have gotten if it had simply been presented. So yeah, I'm curious, and would go if they decide to put it one here (and the Keith Haring piece is excellent).

More later,

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for ...

Not Marvel Super Heroes or Mekton or Mouse Guard or Mutants & Masterminds or Mechanoid Invasion or Mage: The Ascension or Metaverse or even Macho Women with Guns but for …

 Metamorphosis Alpha, that great predecessor to Gamma World and one of the handful of "foundation RPGs".

As far as I can determine (and I would delight at an earlier sighting), this came is the first RPG product to call itself a Role-Playing Game on the cover (as opposed to, say, a fantasy game of miniatures combat or a miniatures game of fantasy combat or whatever). It was also the first SF Campaign Setting, depending on your definition of SF (you could argue that EPT was SF given its futuristic origins, or that MA was not SF because radiation causes you to have superpowers, as opposed to killing you). It was an early self-contained setting, constraining itself to the many levels of the Warden, a starship where something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

The game part of it is a direct D&D descendant, but casts aside the traditional statistics for ones that are applicable for the campaign, like Radiation Resistance and Leadership. Also add a horde of mutations and a heaping helping of technology, plus overall maps of the levels of the Warden. All in 32 tightly-packed pages.

This is one of those foundation RPGs, that you can track others back to. It is a great early example not only of RPGs, but what you can DO with an RPG. It had all the lethality of early RPGs,but with it an expectation that your character might be around for the next session. And it stresses the idea that you can have a campaign without having to design an entire world, and that campaign design is a valid and worthwhile component of RPG play.

And it is proof positive that James Ward is one of the leading lights of early RPGs.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for ...

Lace and Steel. 

Oh, what a great game. Swashbuckling and High Court! Satyrs, harpies and centaurs as PC races! Donna Barr! Totally unwieldy box! Australian designer!  Combat resolved by card play!

OK, let me take a deep breath and get started again.

Lace and Steel is probably the best RPG I’ve never played. Even looking at it, sitting on the shelf next to a later reprint, makes me smile. It is oversized, a white destructo box in a paper sleeve, horribly impractical for just about every market I can think of from Bill & Walt’s Hobby Store to Border’s. It has four funny-sized books with black and white illos, all by the same artist. It has a card-based resolution system. Actually, several card-based resolution systems. Yet is an ugly duckling that turns out to be a swan. 

It is swashbuckling roleplaying in a 17th century fantasy world. But it is not a typical fantasy world given guns. Instead it is the Donner Three Musketeers transplanted into fantasy terms. Elves and dwarves, no, but rather harpies and centaurs, with a blissful disregard for how the logistics and play balance would work.

It uses dice for its skill system, dice and tarot cards for its character generation, a different set of  cards for sword dueling (and biting repartee at parties) and a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT set of cards for magical combat. The universal game system, the holy grail of most of 80’s design? It was pretty much the opposite of that. And it is joyful and delightful in its driving for the far end of the field.

The art is by the indominable Donna Barr, and is her trademarkable loopy, dynamic, detailed pen and ink. It’s a style that doesn’t normally work for me but it works here perfectly. Her command of character and action is perfect for the style and the world. She can handle a quiet seduction and full-scale military battle with equal aplomb. I can’t imagine it being any other way. 

The art style is lusty and busty, and the world presented has an earthy knowingness that evokes those parts of the Forgotten Realms we normally keep under wraps. When your main character races include centaurs and satyrs, the whole question of romance and seduction comes up with amazing regularity. Plus the fact that Dumas’ original had a, shall we say, continental attitude often missing from fantasies bred in more scholarly settings. The end result is more of the feel that En Garde wanted but couldn’t pull off.

It remains a novelty, a side path not taken by the industry. Perhaps because of genre, perhaps because it went in too many ways at once. And perhaps because simply at the time, it required using card in a roleplaying game. And who could afford to make playing card quality cards in that age?

More later,

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Family Games 100 Nominated for an Origins Award

Family Games: The 100 Best, a great collection of essays to which I contributed, has been nominated for an Origins Award under the "Best Game-Related Publication" category. The category is at the bottom of the list, but take your time perusing the other nominees on your way there, as many of them by talented friends.

Congrats to all!

More later,

K is for ...

Killer. Also called The Assassination Game

This is the game that guaranteed that TSR would never do LARPs. TSR did not publish it, but the metric crap-ton of grief that it brought down on the company was enough to make it permanently gunshy of anything even slightly north of cosplay.

The game concept was pretty simple – you have a group of people, you give everyone someone else’s name. That’s their target. You “kill” the target and you get the target’s target’s name, and work your way up the daisy chain of death while trying to avoid getting eliminated yourself. Most of the rules beyond that point were what was and was not permissible (witnesses, play space, useless paens to safety that fall on deaf ears, etc…).

But even in the antedevulian times before the towers fell, there were a lot of people who found people running around public spaces with squirt guns and violating personal space as being sketchy. And when someone got shot …

Here’s a side note. I remember there was an incident, at least one, but now years later can’t tell you what it was. Perhaps it even descends into urban legend, but I don’t think so. Someone (security guard, campus cop?) shot a player who engaged in the game, thinking them dangerous. The wiki page is relatively quiet on this, which is odd.

Mind you, this was a time when TSR, the leading voice in RPGs, was trying to convince people that D&D was not actually played in steam tunnels. Something like this just ratcheted up the volume, and the fact that TSR never had anything to do with the game and never wanted to do anything like it (OK, we did a set of Party games, but that was IT), was of no matter – cue the angry moms from heck and bring on the onslaught. 

Suprisingly, I have played TAG (or AN assassination game, anyway) at a friends’ house on Lake Geneva for a long gaming weekend. Within two hours, one player was blown up in the bathroom (bomb rigged to the light switch), every surviving player had been reduced to paranoid madness, and the winner took out her own husband with poisoned lipstick. And a good time was had by all.

More later,

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for ...


OK, officially, it is Skyrealms of Jorune, but I have too many games in the S category.

This is a game I should love. Alien world where high-tech humans invade and then are cut off from their home planet. Lost technology. Alien races. Good art. Sounds like Empire of the Petal Throne, right?

Well, wrong. It leaves me cold. The game system is nuanced to the point of opacity. There is a lot of white space and beautiful full page B/W art that is repeated through the books and makes it feel lighter and less effective than it really is. But where the game fails to reach out for me is the overuse of world-specific terms, dumping a huge data load onto you and expecting you to dig your way out.

The game writing renames a lot of gaming terms with in-world terms. Your GM is a Sholari. Your player is a Tauther who is applying for Drennship (Citizenship). It is actually a case where the names get in the way of explaining the game world. Plus they use terminology in the definitions of other terminology, which does not help. An entry for the players, sorry, Tauther, defines the Pibber is “Furry and forgettable, except when thisting”. But the definition of thisting in another booklet is: “Pibbers [do?] this when in danger”.

Well, that makes everything clear.

It is actually a good example of where names work and where they don’t in worldbuilding. Defining something by a name that in turn requires a definition strains the patience of the reader, and an overload of such terms becomes a wall. Working it into the text on the assumption that the reader will eventually “get it” through context creates the problem that many will not, and lessons supposedly learned early in the text reduces comprehension further deeper in.

In the end, though, EPT succeeds were Jorune does not in that the final world of Tekumel is first and foremost of world of adventure. EPT definitely has its ancestors in among the pulp worlds of Barsoom and Clark Ashton Smith. Jorune feels drier, almost bloodless and never seems to settle if it is motivated by action or investigation, nor how much the PCs truly know about their world.

This one always makes me feel a little regret. It feels close to the mark, but just misses. Great art, though.

More later,

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for ...

 In Nomine.

Looking at my gaming shelves, I seem to have accumulated a lot of these quasi-religious reality-is-not-what-you-think, conflict-in-the-shadows-away-from-the-muggles games during the 80s and 90s. The type where there is a hidden global gnostic war going on and you’re about to be drafted. Kult, Unknown Armies, Noir, and In Nomine. Not to mention the bulk of the Vampire: The Masquerade/World of Darkness oeuvre. 

So how does In Nomine rate as an example of this genre? One thing makes it stand out over the others.

The demon of stale bong water. That’s what you really need to know.

That sort of thing (which is part of the reward system in the game – you do better, you don’t get crap areas of responsibility) that takes all the starch out of this type of secret-sacred war. The nature of the war itself has the various members dealing with their own bureaucracies and rules as much as with each other. All in all, it is one of the more real-world takes on celestial combat.

It is one of those "good read" RPGs. The story text plays reinforces the style of gaming, the mechanics are solid but not overblown, and the illos are stylish and a great use of the four-color press.
Fun Bonus Fact: This is a translation of a French game with the family-friendly name In Nomine Satanus. Yeah, that’s a blue-light special at Walmart. And while Steve Jackson Games does mention this in the book, it is on the very last page of text, right before the index. Talk about burying your lede.

More later,

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Norman American Rockwell

Triple Self-Portrait/ © The Norman Rockwell Estate
Yesterday I took the day off and went to the Tacoma Art Museum for an exhibit of Norman Rockwell's art. It required a little side street negotiation, because the main drag was occupied by the Daffodil Festival Parade. In other news, Tacoma has a Daffodil Festival Parade, which is actually four parades in four towns (Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner, and Oorting) which results in marching bands bundling onto school buses and daffodil-covered floats engaged in high-speed chases. Or so I imagine. The end result a Saturday morning in a museum surprisingly light in traffic.

The Tacoma Art Museum is a small operation up the hill from the Museum of Glass (Museum of Glass + Earthquake Zone = Momento Mori). The floor plan is like an angular letter "p", with the counter (hole) in the letter consisting of bowl-shaped, tiled, mirrored interior court, which, in the modern style is titled, "Untitled", but everyone apparently calls "The Wave". The area surrounding "The Wave" are a series of small galleries. I don't know if they have a permanent collection, though they did have a gallery dedicated to Chihuly (because an entire museum dedicated to glass a half-mile away was obviously not enough).

Anyway, Norman Rockwell. America's best-known painter and illustrator, but still, after all these years, is still pushing against the wall of being called a true Artist-with-a-capital-A. Which is a pity, because he obviously is a Great American Artist to all but the most blinkered of academics. But I think this is because of his artistic strengths, his background, his subject matter, and his longevity.

Rockwell was a master technician and portraitist in a world that went non-representational in his lifetime. His ability to imbue emotions into the human face and body and to add depth, is as legendary as it is obvious.He could make Bob Hope look creepy and Dick Nixon look wise. He was direct in his goals - there is little wondering what the artist was trying to say here. He told stories in his work, pure and simple, refining the moment to single image. And I think denying the puzzle to the critics reduces his charm to them.

His background also rankles the movers and shakers of big-A Art. He was an illustrator by trade and training, a common craftsman who toiled for mere compensation to a deadline and an art order, as opposed to garret-starved wretch who wrests deeper truths from a patron or gallery system. He belongs to a mighty heritage that gets tarred with the small-a brush. Lautrec, Parrish, and Mucha were antecedents in this tradition. In the fantasy of the 80s we have Elmore, Easley, and Parkinson. And currently I have had the pleasure of working with the new generation -  Dociu, Kotaki, and Anderson. I am not going to deny to any them that they are doing Art. The same goes for Rockwell himself.

Rockwell's subject matter was very American, in particular its virtues. That made him a patriotic comfort food, his work suitable to grace the end table, the school room, and the phone book cover. He belonged to the small town America where he painted, recruiting his neighbors as models. And he seemed to have an inherent niceness about him, and it is hard not to conflate him with Mister Rogers in his grounded, positive nature. He apparently could not "paint angry" and in the exhibit, you can see his rawer emotions for "A Murder in Mississippi" get refined and crafted to the point that the magazine used a color study instead of the final work.

The Problem We All Live With/ Detroit Institute of Arts
His work has become iconic, and in taking on that iconic nature, makes itself the establishment to play against. He has been equated with the nostalgic, and with it the conservative. Yet once he moved from the more stodgy Saturday Evening Post to the more liberal Look, he unleashed a deep multiculturalism that was part and parcel of the struggles of the '60s. He was probably the only artist in America who could scrawl a racial epithet in the background "The Problem We All Live With" and have it published nationwide. He was like the original Star Trek - quaint now, but for the time radical and on the front lines.

His career spanned from the 20's to the 70s, and consisted of him breaking out of boxes into bigger boxes. He started with Boy's Life, and was labeled as a children's artist, then moved into the well-known Post gig where he defined the genre to a great degree. Casting loose from the Post, he moved into a New England Progressiveness that has been diminished as the more liberal arts cede the past to its more conservative brethren. Rockwell's America is an active verb, moving forward, doing things, and encountering life.

Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ/Detroit Institute of Arts
The sum total of the criticism reflects more badly on his critics than on his art. To say his work is old-fashioned, or too realistic, or too American is to admit that modern art has no place in its galleries for such things, and the big tent shrinks. Yet to dismiss his work as mere craft is to do the artist, and all art, a disservice. His "Uneasy Christmas in the Birthplace of Christ" holds more emotional tonnage than Picasso's "Massacre in Korea"

You should go see this exhibit. It runs until the end of May, and may be one of the PNW's best kept art secrets. Yes, you should get yourself down to Tacoma (time does NOT pass slower there - it's just the way they time their traffic lights) and see it. There is something deeper and more meaningful in seeing the texture of this original art as opposed to a high gloss artbook or on a screen. Or on the cover of Saturday Evening Post.

More later,