Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Game: Hope-less on the High Seas

 Grey Seas Are Dreaming Of My Death: A William Hope Hodgson RPG by Derek Sotak with Kevin Ross and J.R.Hamantashen, 2020

I've previously mentioned (ranted on) the idea that if you're going to review a game, you really should play the game. I didn't run this one, but rather was a player in our regular Saturday Night group, and the adventure was run by Steve Winter. He ran an adventure from out of the booklet itself, so there will be spoilers. 

William Hope Hodgson is not in the first DMG's Appendix N, but is the predecessor and influencer on a lot of them. Most of his work appeared in the first two decades of the 20th century, and Hodgson died in the fourth battle of Ypres in 1918. Yet he was very prolific, and wrote a lot of tales which would influence the later pulp writers. His Carnacki stories set the tone for the "Mystic Detective" character, and his "House on the Borderland" may have influenced the later D&D Module as well as being the inspiration for the pig-faced Orcs. 

But the game concentrates on his Sargasso Sea stories. Hodgson spent many years at sea as a young man, and his maritime experience comes to the fore in his stories. The Sargasso Sea is a region north of the Caribbean where the currents and flora create a region filled with seaweed (sargassum). In the real world, the seaweed is dense but not impassible, but popular imagination (including Hodgson's influence) transformed it to a haunted region of ghost ships, ball lightning, and stranded vessels. 

The game itself keeps the scope small - you are crewmen on a ship. - for our group we had a First Mate, Second Mate, Cook, and Carpenter, but there are other positions available, including Bosun, Cabin Boy, Jonah, and Fungal Human (OK, Steve didn't give that one as an option). Each position has a pregen sheet showing strengths, weaknesses, and a small bennie for that class. The GM acts in the role of Captain, which negates the arguments of who is in charge (mostly). 

The core statistics are Brawn (strength), Nimbleness (dexterity), Perspicacity (wisdom/intelligence), Physique (constitution), Seaworthiness (all ship-based skills), Salt (hit points), Backbone (morale/sanity) and Mettle (luck). Statistics range between 8 and 14, with about 10 being the averages.  Roll Statistic Checks in the game on a d20, rolling low for success, with a 1 being a critical success and a 20 being a critical miss. 

And that is pretty much it. It is not that confusing, though the rule set might make it seem so through extensive use of ALL CAPS and BOLDFACE, for important words, such that the last line of the previous paragraph would read: Roll STATISTIC CHECKS in the game on a d20, rolling low for success, with a 1 being a CRITICAL SUCCESS and a 20 being a CRITICAL MISS. So the system seems tougher than it really is. 

This was a Kickstarter, but we had three copies among the five of us, so we could check rules easily. In addition, most of us are fans of the Master and Commander movie and the various maritime novelists such as Patrick O'Brien and C S Forester, so we were well-positioned in talking a good game (though somehow most of our characters were all named "Jim"). Our ship, the Malandra, was caught in a storm in the Caribbean, and when we fought our way clear, began encountering the remains of ships that were not so fortunate. We found some flotsam. We rescued a half-drowned seaman. We took an abandoned vessel under tow. We found a ship with chanting, mindless cultists on it. And it gets worse.

And that's a thing about Hodgson's stories - they tend to build up slowly to the inevitable final reveal. Something unearthly happens, then there is an attempt to resume normality, then something even more unearthly happens. That's the case here. Kevin Ross, the designer of the scenario, did an excellent job not only capturing the flavor of a Hodgson story, but the pacing as well.

In our case? We all died. TPK. And it was a fair cop. We had access to materials that could have made the situation more survivable, but failed to recognize them at the time. Our GM/Captain is more than willing to allow us to mess ourselves over, neither encouraging or discouraging our decisions (curse you, free will!). However, it made for the an excellent one-evening session, and I would recommend Grey Seas Are Dreaming Of My Death to any RPG group that thrives on Cthulhian horror (before it was Cthulhian).

More later,

Monday, August 21, 2023

Game: Cthulhu at Seven

The Bifurcated 7th Edition
 Call of Cthulhu, Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft By Sandy Peterson, with Mike Mason, Paul Fricker, Lynn Willis, and Friends. Chaosium, 7th Edition, 2015

I've said (repeatedly) that to properly review a game you should actually play the game. Otherwise you are reviewing a meal based on the menu, or a movie based on the screenplay. Reviewing without playing can give you some insights, but will not take into account the full product. I will note that there are perils with reviewing RPGs even with playing, as each GM has their own style, and each gaming group has their own strengths and challenges, so one's mileage may differ even within a particular type of review. With all of that in mind, here is my mileage on the mechanics of the most recent edition of Call of Cthulhu.

I have a (mostly) regular Saturday group (when we don't reach quorum, we watch old movies), we have mostly done CoC in its various incarnations over the years, including long sojourns at the Mountains of Madness, on the Orient Express, and girding the globe in Masks of Nyarlathotep. However, we had a interest in taking a new product, Berlin, the Wicked City out for a spin, and that was written for the 7th edition, and I chose to run it in the new edition. We had previous dabbled with it in an organized play adventure, A Time To Harvest, before publication of 7E, but that was run by a colleague, and this was my first chance to run the system myself. 

Most of the earlier editions of the game have been pretty interchangeable - the differences being primarily in presentation and in the skill lists. The game mechanics were pretty well-defined, and old products could easily be run with later editions. I will leave Berlin itself for another review (I have opinions), but let's talk about mechanics of the current Call of Cthulhu

CoC 7 is a different animal than its predecessors. Each edition has been larger than its predecessor, and with 7th it has fully split into two volumes - an Investigator Handbook (Player's Manual) and a Keeper Rulebook (DMG). But the big change is how they evaluate ability scores/characteristics,  which in turn makes changes to combat, and the eliminates the Power/Resistance table. This is a fundamental break with the previous editions, and to the better of the game.

The primary ability scores of earlier editions all built out of a 3d6 roll, like D&D. Some abilities are 2d6 plus 6, but that's a variant. Secondary scores are derived by averaging existing scores, often (Sanity) by multiplying by 5, creating a percentage. Skills are also created as a percentage, and where a skill in not applicable, you multiply a primary score to get a percentage. 

The new edition inverts and unifies that process. You still have abilities in the 3-18 range, but you start off the game by doing the math and multiplying by five for the characteristic. That's your starting percentage. Then you take half of that value and finally a fifth (your original score). All of these numbers go on the character sheet. When you resolve a task, you determine the difficulty and roll percentile dies as before.

That's more numbers on the character sheet, but what this does is create more degrees of success. In 7E we have Regular, Hard, and Extreme degrees of success. This both allow the Keeper (GM) to set levels for tasks, as well as help determine the level of success. I found as a Keeper that I could more accurately describe ability successes in play beyond a binary success/failure. In addition, the player can "push" a failed roll to get another attempt. The push usually consists of some mitigating circumstance in order to allow it, and a second failure indicates something has gone horribly wrong. So we have critical failures, but they are player-instigated.

This is particularly good for opposed rolls, which previously used the Power/Resistance table when dealing with two characters in direct conflict. The Power/Resistance table was a full page table of numbers that could have been an equation (50 + 5 times (Active - Passive characteristic)). The resulting curve (more of a line) sloped off quickly in both directions, such that if your Active Characteristic was more than 3 better than your opponent's, you likely would succeed. Now, each side rolls for against their characteristic, and better degree of success determines who wins. It feels better than the bare-bones comparison of characteristics, and provides a bit more swinginess for evenly-matching opponents.

This methodology also applies to combat as well, and creates a more vibrant combat environment. As opposed to making a direct "to-hit" roll, you can make choices, and your opponent can make choices as well. For the attacker, they can attack, flee, or maneuver (a catch-all category that includes things like grappling, pushing, tripping, disarming and other non-lethal attacks). The defender can choose to dodge, fight back, or maneuver as well. Making the combat round involve decision-making from both combatants improves engagement without bogging too far into tactics. It also means that in some case you can take damage as a result of your attack roll, which some players did not care for, but I found sped up play more. 

Gunfire, by the way, remains as lethal as it ever has been, given the damage that guns inflict versus the weak hit points of the PCs,.

7th Edition also embraces bonus and penalty die, much like advantages and disadvantage in 5th edition D&D. However, this does create the problem that you're hunting for every advantage in every situation ("I have the higher ground, but you've got an aimed shot and has the salad at lunch')  D&D has an advantage in that one penalty die cancels any number of bonus dice and vice-versa, and I use that as a house rule in play. 

7th Edition CoC is like 3rd Edition D&D, where we shook the entire system up and standardized it with a regular (mostly) system. It moves itself further away from the D&Dish roots, but still a clear descendant of early RPGs - The call and response of a GM (Keeper) and players, hit point terminology, character classes, etc...

And in play, it worked out much better than I thought it would on first reading. The rules are very clear, and copious amount of tables (in particular the ones on the GM Screen) help with a minimum of page-checking. I found in play that combat moved fairly swiftly, and allowed me more latitude in describing combats as opposed to standard "roll-to-hit and roll-for-damage", and in addition gives the players more options with the general maneuver rules without requiring specialized rules. It definitely moves the system forward, and (I think) will allow for easy retro-fitting to earlier published adventures. All in all, an excellent job.

More later,

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Top Ten

I don't pay attention (much) to stats and traffic on this blog, but we've just edged past 20 years, and I got curious. There have been almost 2500 posts on this blog, and over a million views. Most of the entries have had a very short shelf life, in that people catch up on them in the first couple days, then they go into the archives, never to be seen again by mortal eyes. But the platform does indicate which posts get the most traffic. 

This Spelljammer post is the all-time winner, with 12.5 k views. Spelljammer gets attention every so often (particularly around the new release of the setting), so it has perked up.

Here's a writeup of why I left TSR, which pretty much sums up to disappointment over a project that went south (Mystara), new opportunities, and realizing it was my time to move on.

Another big one is my announcement that I was leaving ArenaNet for Amazon Games. No hard feelings on this one - I had a great time and had a great time at Amazon as well (and now I am at Zenimax Online Studios, working on Elder Scrolls Online, for those who are keeping track).

Here's a review of the 5E Player's Handbook. At the time of release I had a credit as a Design Consultant, but the Design Consultant credits were removed from later printings because of ... stuff. That's cool. I have not been asked in on 6th Edition, and that's cool as well. 

I try to wrap my head around why layoffs for TSR and WotC always seemed to hit around Christmas-time. The image to the appropriate Dork Tower cartoon is broken, but you can still click on the space to call it up. Since the Hasbro acquisition, they seem to have calmed down, and now do layoffs and staff reductions throughout the year. So that's ... better, I guess?

I use this space to work out my own thoughts on stuff, and here's one about Tekumel, in which I try to work through the fact that good things can be created by bad people. Still thinking about the separation of artist and art.

The highest-rated non-game review is a book about games - Playing at the World, which was a detailed treatise on the origin of wargames and RPGs from the dawn of time to my first GenCon. Still an excellent book. Go read it.

This post is a reprise on the earlier post about the product that went south at TSR. It was an overview of the Mystara project that I had to abandon. I gave the original manuscript away to a fan who planned to make it available to others, but they ultimately could not get permission from WotC/Hasbro legal. Ah, well. At least I got the manuscript out of the house. 

Similar to the Spelljammer posting at the top, I did one on Marvel Super Heroes as well, giving a peak behind the process of creation. I did one on the Forgotten Realms as well, but that clocked in lower on this list. 

Finally, the sole political post on this showed up, and this one was complaining about advisory votes on the Washington State ballot. I have no idea why THIS one gets the nod - perhaps it caught an algorithmic wave. Ten years later, the legislature is removing these votes from the ballot. They are supposedly making the information available on a web site, but I'm not seeing any roll-out on this. Knowing what your representatives are voting on is good, but this particular process was just sad.

So what do I get out of this? Well, posts about gaming and gaming history seem to do well. Personal stuff is OK with major moves in my life. Missing are theatre reviews, local politics (mostly), and comments about commemorative quarters. But I'm still going to do them, since, you know, I'm doing this primarily for my own benefit. 

See you folks in another decade, maybe.

More (inevitably) later,

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Twenty Years Before the Blog

Not a Hopper piece, but Van Gogh -"Two Crabs" (1889)
I just liked the way it looks.
Today, Grubb Street turns 20. The first test post was made at Thursday, 14 August, at 1:50 in the afternoon, PST, followed by this one, which talked about where the name came from (with more info about it here). And it is a surprise that it has lasted 20 years, particularly in such an ephemeral media as the modern Internet.  Other platforms for medium-length writing have blossomed and faded/disappeared over the two decades - Myspace, Google Plus, Livejournal, Twitter, yet this trusty little Blogger has survived (perhaps Google don't realize they are still running it). Though even this has diminished, as the practice of blogging has receded into the depths of hobbyist activity, like model railroading or HAM radios. Those hobbies are still around, but you never hear from them anymore.

Part this reduced throw-weight is Facebook. You look at the blogroll over to the right and you see a sudden drop about in entries starting in 2011. That was about the time I started in on Facebook, and those spur-of-the-moment bon mots that I dealt with HERE suddenly went over THERE. But mostly, I use Facebook to send people HERE when I make a new posting, chiefly because there is an easy link at the bottom of the entry to do so. Ditto X/Twitter. I actually only have a Twitter account because Stan! set one up for me. And I use it to send people HERE.

But I do pay attention to Twitter, even in its now-diminished times. There are enough people that I find interesting that I follow there, in particular Gail Simone, Jennell Jaquays, William Gibson, and Paula Poundstone. And I find the New York Times Pitchbot amusing (It does headlines you'd actually believe seeing in the NYT - "Cure for Cancer discovered - Why This Is Bad for Biden" plus REAL headlines that sound like the Pitchbot made them up) If they go away, I will probably go elsewhere as well. No, I would never pay for a blue check, and have so far been spared the whackos.

I do pay attention to Facebook, and do my part to train the algorithm. I've been liking every Edward Hopper painting I see, so as a result I'm getting more Edward Hopper (and other art) links. And every so often there are a raft of promoted right-wing links pushing books of dubious nature ("Slavery - think of it as a long-term internship") - they all get reported. I put this down at the level of weeding a lawn - mildly irritating but necessary.

I am paying attention to Reddit more as well. Their /news subreddit gives me different versions of the same story of the day. And I pay attention to subreddits about flags, maps, and leopards eating people's faces. There are two Seattle subreddits - /Seattle if you live in Seattle and like it, and /SeattleWa if you live in Bellevue and want to tell everyone that Seattle is dying. 

Will I join the new kids like Mastadon, Post, and BlueSky? No idea. They may join the roster of Dead Media like MeWe and Tapatalk or not. Haven't gotten a Bluesky invite yet. And I would still use it to post links back to this blog. 

In general, though, it feels like the environment of the Internet has gotten worse. The web pages are laced with pop-ups (which are a relic of the 80s) and adverts, crowding out real content. Useful content moves behind paywalls. Wikipedia and Internet Archives have survived, but seem to be under constant threat. Library access has gone up as a result. 

And lest you think I am just bagging on the newer tech, "traditional" television has pretty much died as well. I haven't been a "sit down and veg in front of the tube" guy for years, but when I do get on, there always seems to be SOME cable station that is running Harry Potter, LotR, or the Pirates movies. Those channels which used to have some sort of theme are all doing the same thing, and those that remain are just doing blocks of old content. I don't remember when the last time there was music on MTV or heres-how-you-cook shows on Food Network.  I still pay attention to television for sports, but even that has diminished with Apple+ taking the rights to Major League Soccer.

And when they split the cable feeds to create new channels, those feeds filled up with cheap reruns of old shows from the last century. Yeah, that's where the H&I, Retro, and ME TV stations came from. Cheap content. But, on the good side, Son of Svengoolie is back, who I haven't seen since WGN stopped broadcasting out here. 

I know, I'm sounding like the new age version of the old guy shooing kids off the lawn. So be it.

The blogroll has shrunk over the years. Colleagues and friends have slowly drifted off from media, but I keep them there only because they may sometime come back to life. I keep most of the other links available since I check on them semi-regularly. A lot of the local news links have soft gates - after visiting a certain number of times they cut you off and hit you up for a subscription. And the comics section is still there, though webcomics can be sporadic as well, since they're mostly run by the creatives. 

Does this environment have a future for me? I dunno. I'll probably keep going. I have a couple books in the till that need to be review. I do plays, book, and game reviews. I cannot avoid continuing my look at collectable quarter designs, which is something that I just can't seem to break the habit. Politics I tend to deal with in election season, and then keep it to stuff I can actually vote on. There are still SO many political blogs out there, so I don't think you need one more, and watching the GOP fall down the stairs yet again is SO EXHAUSTING after a while

And that's about it. I think I'm in this until they shut down the service, and doing this primarily for my own amusement. You're more than welcome to tag along.

More later, 

Thursday, August 03, 2023

The Political Desk : Summer Rush Results

 I usually wait a day or three for things to settle before posting election results. Washington State has mail-in ballots, and requires postmark by election day, so things will filter in over the next few days, final numbers change, and often there is a late surge or position that is "hanging fire" - too close to call. Usually for this end of the state, all this means that late voters who trend younger and more progressive.

Over in Seattle proper, every candidate for city council that made it into the top-two November election was endorsed either by The Stranger or The Seattle Times. In fact, the Stranger's candidates received the most votes in five of the seven positions (for those keeping score). So the general election over there will be between a progressive-ish candidate and a central-ish candidate. So there's that.

And 22.5% of registered voters in the County voted. Which is ... not horrible for an off-season election, but still kinda sucky.

So, for the stuff that I am paying attention to, here's what I have:

King County Preposition No. 1 Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy -   APPROVED at 70%. Not bad for a popular levy already approved a number of times already that had no opposition. Of course, that means that 30% will vote against a levy on general principles.

Port of Seattle Commissioner Position No. 5 -  Incumbent FRED FELLEMAN (55%) versus JESSE TAM (27%)

City of Kent Council Position No. 3 -  JOHN BOYD (36%) versus KELLY WIGANS-CRAWFORD (23%)

Kent School District No. 415 District No. 415, Director District No. 3 -  LESLIE KAE HAMADA (49%) versus DONALD COOK (24%). Got a late mailer from Hamada's campaign which had a big globby typo on it ("Oustanding" instead of "Outstanding"), but that the only news there.

And with that The Political Desk is retiring to the back deck with a rum & cola. Be back in October.

More later,

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Life in the Time of the Virus: Long Hot Summer

 So, how are we doing?

People in the Sun, Hopper, 1960

Not that bad, actually. The last time we talked about these things was back in March, and now we live at the start of August. The world has adapted and moved on - we're now worried about the fact that the planet is baking itself, the Atlantic Conveyor is about to fail, and the Mariners have moved from "This is the Year" to being happy that we're playing .500 ball. 

But, of course, COVID is still out there. Globally (per the World Health Organization) there have been 800,000 new cases and 4800 deaths over the past month, which is bad but not too bad (globally speaking). Official numbers so far are 6.9 Million deaths globally, which is horrible (globally speaking). In King County, reported COVID deaths have dropped below that of Flu deaths, and only about 2% of hospital beds are being used for COVID patients. The NYTimes is still tracking things nation-wide here. The numbers have been going down, with the note that we have fewer reported cases in part because a lot of people have stopped testing and, worse yet, stopped reporting. Further, as I dug through the numbers on this, different sites authorities report the numbers slightly differently. But by any metric, the numbers are going down.

But it is still with us, and probably will take a jot upwards as we move out of this particularly hot summer and into the fall, particularly in my age cadre (Senior Discount at the AMC Category). Facebook still reports people coming down with it. Every major convention I have heard of ends with a report of people hit with the virus. Numbers are small, the damage is miserable but lessened, but it is still present.

Media coverage has also moved on. I'm no longer seeing as much of the "I don't believe in masks"/"The person who wrote this has been intubated" duality on the 'net. I am seeing a tic upwards of the nutbar "COVID is a hoax"/It's the vaccines that are dangerous"/"My brother's dentist got vacced and died the next day"/"He was hit by a bus"/"But the BUS DRIVER had been vaccinated, which proves my point" discussions on the Internet. Oh yeah, and there have been sporadic reports of "Number of folk who don't believe in COVID are on the decline because a lot of them have died of COVID". But a lot of the COVID-deniers have swapped back to being climate-deniers, with similar results as their electric grid fails and they start slow-baking.

Personally? I'm doing masks rarely now, primarily because theatre season is over, but even there there people have returned to normal. I tend to be unmasked when shopping except when picking up prescriptions, but that's more of a solidarity thing with the people working the pharmacy (and the likelihood that someone picking up prescriptions will be, you know, sick).

We shuffle, now as the seasons change, towards flu season and the probable uptick of numbers. Get your flu vac and keep yourselves safe.

More later,