Friday, February 5, 2016

Gaming White Whales: Campaigns I Really Want to Run Someday

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him. I'll chase him round the Moons of Nibia and round the Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition's flames before I give him up! 
- Star Trek II Channeling Moby Dick

I've been gaming since the early 1980's so I've run and played in a lot of games. But there's a few games I've never really gotten the chance to run or play in much more than a few standalone games here and there.

I've mentioned Traveller a few times in this blog. I remember seeing those little black books at my gaming store in the 1980's but never got into it. Over the years I've picked up a number of the books for it and have a pretty complete digital collection of the original game. It does have a few challenges. The first of which is having a bit of trouble selling it - it does have a reputation of being "the game where you can die in character creation". There's also the challenge of the Imperium, a massive setting which has become synonymous with the game. Truthfully I'd be inclined to toss out the Imperium beyond what was implied by the earliest books and go with a Firefly-inspired game. You're out in the boonies, you're in a massive Empire, though one which exerts minimal control over planetary governments, to the point where one world can go to war with another - so long as Imperial revenue doesn't suffer. Good opportunities for mercenaries, exploration, trade, and general adventure.

Some day I'm gonna get a Hero System campaign going. It might be in the gamers' retirement home, but it will be done. It's not a surprise I've not gotten much more than a one-off here and there with Champions and other Hero games - it is a powerful system, but it can be very intimidating with all its options. My recollection is that once you've got a character it plays rather easily. Reading the backer in-development copy of Aaron Allston's Strike Force I'm intrigued how Allston ran his Strike Force campaign, using ancient prehistory of the setting as an excuse to use Fantasy Hero, using Champions for his modern day games and trashing the planet with a World War 3 which unleashed many science fiction elements. It seems an interesting way to link various games together. Were I to run a game I'd be inclined to use a low-power game like Justice Inc. as a way to ease into it. You've got your pre-superhero setting which, should the game go well, you can make as the next stage of the campaign. Or further out at the beginning of the superhero age - starting out with low-powered superheroes.

There's hope - I'd gone years without ever running a Call of Cthulhu game only to find myself playing it more than any other game over an extended period. Though I've gone about a year without a Cthulhu game. I'm ready for that.

This is what happens when I have an extended break between game sessions - I get to think of ideas I want to try out...

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Thin vs. Doorstopper RPGs

Currently I'm GM-ing a Star Wars Edge of the Empire campaign. It's rulebook clocks in at 448 pages. The first RPG I owned was the D&D Basic Set which was 64 pages long. Now admittedly it only covered three levels but with another 64 pages in the Expert Set you get up to 14 levels. TSR published a number of RPGs that ranged in the 32 to 64 page length - off the top of my head I can think of Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Gangbusters, Marvel Superheroes, Metamorphosis Alpha, D&D Basic/Expert, Top Secret. Sometimes there was a brief 16 page book which would have very basic rules with it or be full of tables. And sometimes there would be a second set that would supplement the first - for example Star Frontiers had Knight Hawks and D&D had Basic and Expert.

From today's perspective, those were some pretty light games. Though at the time it didn't seem like that. I especially played a ton of Marvel Superheroes and Star Frontiers back in middle school.

What's better, the mammoth games of today or those briefer games of the 1970's and 80's? Unsurprisingly, I think the answer is "it depends". Edge of the Empire, for example, provides a ton of options and guidelines. You can make a very customized character with experience set developing very special options for your character - a demolitionist who can shield himself from explosions, a Force-user who excels a disarming foes, etc.

On the other hand, a game like Gangbusters left a lot to player and GM-judgement. For example, while there are the basic details of criminal activity, if a player wanted to build his or her own syndicate then there will be a number of judgement calls to make. If your character becomes known for a certain weapon it's more a function of role play - there typically is no mechanical bonus your character would get.

Both types have challenges - making rapid judgment calls can sometimes backfire on you or go "wrong". But a rules-heavy game can lead to a sort of paralysis while you try to figure out the "right" way to do something.

One thing which did surprise me was when I flipped through Gangbusters there was an awful lot condensed in that 64-page book. You absolutely could run a long campaign with it. Which isn't surprising, considering the number of campaigns run from games like Original D&D or Traveller with just the first three books.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Could Cruz have said "Allahu Ackbar"? Acceptable Expressions of Religious Faith in the United States

"Let me first of all say, to god be the glory."
- From Ted Cruz's victory speech in Iowa

"I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth. I’ll tell ya, there are a whole lot of people in this country that feel exactly the same way."
- Ted Cruz while campaigning for Iowa

I keep on reflecting on the fact that not only was what Cruz said acceptable but was said with the expectation that it would garner him votes. And he's almost certainly right.

I want to be clear that I don't think an American should have to hide his or her faith. Or lack of faith. But I'm picturing if would have been acceptable for a Muslim candidate to have said "Allahu Ackbar" under similar circumstances. Would it have been ok to have said "all glory to Satan"? We know the answer. The mere suggestion that then-Senator Obama was a Muslim was something that had to be refuted. I think former Secretary of State Colin Powell had the best response I'd ever heard to such an accusation:
I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian.  He's always been a Christian.  But the really right answer is, what if he is?  Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.  Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?  Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America. 
I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine.  It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave.  And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone.  And it gave his awards--Purple Heart, Bronze Star--showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death.  He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.  And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey.  He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.  Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way.  And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know.  But I'm troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.
 Meet the Press, October 19, 2008

I'm thinking about the Kareem Rashad Sultan Khans of the United States. Had he lived he'd be 29 at the time of the 2016 election, more than old enough to run for Congress. In 2024 he'd have been old enough to run for president. He died for his country and so he can't. But he was also a Muslim. And in the America of 2016 he couldn't because of the mere fact he was a Muslim. Not by the Constitution, which explicitly forbids a religious test. In today's American we would not elect a Muslim. His policies would not matter I assure you. I hope in 2024 that will no longer be the case.

Again, is it illegal for Ted Cruz to praise God? No. But it is embarrassing that a public Christian declaration is beneficial while a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu declaration would be disqualifying for the presidency. To say nothing of having no religious beliefs. And every State of the Union the president, when saying "God bless the United States of America", is excluding many Americans. A Hindu cleric was greeted with protests when he came before the United States Senate as a guest chaplain. Representative Bill Sali of Idaho later suggested that having such a prayer would cause God to stop protecting the United States. A Representative.

To be honest I don't think there should have been a Hindu prayer in the Senate. Nor a Christian prayer. Nor a Muslim prayer. Nor a Satanic prayer. The easy solution would be to not have official prayer in the Senate. But if you do have one, then all really need to be welcome.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

State of the Game January 2016: What's Distracting Me Now?

There's a player in my gaming group who gets maximum amusement out of my ability to be distracted by shininess. He's compared it to the reaction of a kid to jingling keys...

So what are we playing now? Right now we are continuing our Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game. We are on our 7th adventure, though given most adventures tend to be multi-session, I'm guessing we've clocked in about 14 sessions, though the first session was actually a standalone D6 Star Wars session that we ended up promoting to an Edge of the Empire game. We're had a brief D&D 5th edition game in the middle but have been having a pretty nice run. The characters are starting to show competence and we're getting better mastery of the rules. It's definitely a more narrative-based game than one would have initially guessed from a flip through the rules - I'd consider it a fairly crunchy narrative game. One thing I did which was probably a good move was introducing certain concepts like Destiny slowly.

Overall I'm finding myself a bit less distracted than I usually am after a game has been running for a while. As readers of this blog will recall, we're in the Minos Cluster, as introduced in the old West End Games incarnation of Star Wars, but I've been freely altering it as needed or desired. I'm beginning to get a real feel for a sector that is far, far away from any bright center to the universe. There's not been much of an Imperial presence which is why I had some fun prepping our current adventure which actually does deal with the Evil Galactic Empire - it's definitely a less is more sort of thing and it's also allowed other players in the sector to develop.

However, since I recently had some keys jingled in front of me, what is distracting me? The newest thing is there's apparently a move afoot to release a new version, albeit unofficial, version of TSR's old Gangbusters RPG. I wasn't a huge fan of the game when it first came out but I've come to absolutely love the genre of crime during Prohibition. I've seen some adding of the supernatural but to be honest I'd love to just set up a fictional city and go all Boardwalk Empire.

Of course if I were to add the supernatural to the 1920's it'd need to be with Call of Cthulhu. It's been over a year since my last Cthulhu game and I'm always up for Cthulhu.

If I ever were to want to create my own science fiction setting away from Star Wars I'd really love to give Traveller a try. It's one of those classic RPGs I've never gotten a chance to really try out. I'd probably go with original rules, minimal use of supplements, and not worry about Solomani, Vagr, and the like.

I could also go for another spin of Fate. I miss Atomic Robo but I'm really really really looking forward to Dresden Accelerated. I'm a little bit intimidated by the full implementation of the Dresden Files RPG and am hoping to give the new game when it comes out a try.

I'm sure I'll want some fantasy gaming at some point. The original D&D is again available in PDF and I've grown to appreciate the simplicity of the older versions of the game.

But maybe, just maybe, we'll be playing Star Wars this time next year...

Friday, January 29, 2016

I Seem to Have Entered the 1960's: First Impressions of Music on Vinyl

I'm a techie. For my grad school classes at Brandeis I tend to take notes on my Microsoft Surface Book. I use a Nexus 6P phone for that "pure Android experience". I very rarely buy DVDs or Blu-Ray discs anymore, streaming most of my video watching. My comic book reading is electronic, as is my reading. Which is probably why the surprise expressed by family and friends was understandable when I picked up a TEAC Vinyl Turntable and purchased the first vinyl records since picking up the 45 single for Debbie Gibson's "Lost in Your Eyes" back in late 1988/early 1989 - my musical tastes have hardened rather considerably since then and I seem to have misplaced that single and everything else from my rather small vinyl collection of high school. As I recall, most of my music in high school was on cassette tape, with the occasional 45 or 33 record for singles/remixes. And then in 1988 I got my first CD player for Christmas. No one I knew in college had a record player - there were a few CD players in 1989 and by the time I graduated in 1994 most people had CD players in their room but portable music was still almost always a Walkman or similar device.

Over the past several months I'd been reading quite a bit about what I've seen described as a Vinyl Revival, with vinyl record sales increasing every year since 2006. There's been a variety of explanations - hipsters buying albums they never listen to, superior sound quality, preference for the tactile experience of spinning a record. Having saved some pennies over the past few months I took the plunge myself to try it out. I've started off with a TEAC TN-300, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Miles Davis' A Kind of Blue, and the mono editions of the Beatles Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Bands. I wound up getting the mono Beatles' recordings after reading how the bulk of their albums were recorded with mono in mind.

What's the early verdict? Well I of course assumed I'd enjoy it or I wouldn't have laid out the money for the experience. But I' surprised how much I enjoy it. First off, I will state the sound quality is amazingly good - far more than I'd expected. My brother, who is a bit of an audiophile, tells me a large part of that is likely due to having listened primarily to MP3 music over the past several years and I'd likely get an even superior audio quality from a modern CD or other lossless audio such as a FLAC recording. I also suspect escaping from headphones (even good quality headphones such as the ones I usually use) has something to do with it - though it's not the whole story, as I did some experimenting in streaming audio out the same speakers. I've heard people refer to the "warmth" of vinyl and it always sounded like an odd choice of words but it actually fits rather well.

The experience of listening certainly is neat. It made me really appreciate more what goes into an album - how good albums have a certain flow that needs to take into account reaching the end of a side and flipping over. It also makes me appreciate an album on its own, without jumping around or including a song on a playlist. And there's the fact that changing position is a bit of an ordeal. Yes, I could emulate that aspect of it by streaming and being disciplined... But I know I won't.

The tactile experience is interesting - taking the record out of its sleeve, putting it on the turntable, starting the turntable, positioning and lowering the needle. And the artwork of the albums - I've seen Revolver as a small icon for so long that I'd forgotten just how... odd it is. Must be a sixties thing...

Long-term... No I'm not going to cancel my Google Music account. Tomorrow I'll be going to the public library to work on my grad school classwork and I'll be armed with a well-stocked Android phone carrying thousands of songs. And I'm not going to be getting everything on vinyl. I might try digitizing the records I picked up - my turntable does include a USB output. It's definitely something I'll continue experimenting with - I'm thinking it might be time for some Led Zeppelin. But I think it'll be a bit of a luxury.

Oh - regarding the title of the post - I know vinyl records predate the 1960's But all the music I picke up, aside from A Kind of Blue, is from the 1960's. And even that is from 1959.

Image Credit
Vinyl is too Mainstream image from Get It On Vinyl: Debunking the Myths of the Vinyl Resurgence

Saturday, January 23, 2016

You Don't Believe in the Force, Do You? Religion in Star Wars

Luke Skywalker is a quick convert. In one scene he is asking Obi-Wan Kenobi what the Force is. A few scenes later he is looking down on Han Solo's lack of belief in the Force. This got me wondering as to the state of religion in the Star Wars universe.

Let's take a look at the films. We'll go in order of release. I'll be quoting scripts from the Internet Movie Script Database.

Episode IV - A New Hope

In A New Hope I believe there are three references to religion/gods/etc. plus a fourth colloquial reference.

In the first, Admiral Motti is mocking Darth Vader's belief in the Force and refers to it as a religion:

                         Don't be too proud of this 
                         technological terror you've 
                         constructed. The ability to destroy 
                         a planet is insignificant next to 
                         the power of the Force.

                         Don't try to frighten us with your 
                         sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your 
                         sad devotion to that ancient religion 
                         has not helped you conjure up the 
                         stolen data tapes, or given you 
                         clairvoyance enough to find the 
                         Rebel's hidden fort...

               Suddenly Motti chokes and starts to turn blue under Vader's 

                         I find your lack of faith disturbing.

In the second, Luke and Han discuss the Force, with Han referring to it as "an ancient religion":

                         Hokey religions and ancient weapons 
                         are no match for a good blaster at 
                         your side, kid.

                         You don't believe in the Force, do 

                         Kid, I've flown from one side of 
                         this galaxy to the other. I've seen 
                         a lot of strange stuff, but I've 
                         never seen anything to make me believe 
                         there's one all-powerful force 
                         controlling everything. There's no 
                         mystical energy field that controls 
                         my destiny.

               Ben smiles quietly.

                         It's all a lot of simple tricks and 

Finally, Vader and Tarkin are discussing the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi aboard the Death Star, with Vader claiming to sense him through the Force. Again, the Force is referred to as a religion.

                         A tremor in the Force. The last time 
                         I felt it was in the presence of my 
                         old master.

                         Surely he must be dead by now.

                         Don't underestimate the power of the 

                         The Jedi are extinct, their fire has 
                         gone out of the universe. You, my 
                         friend, are all that's left of their 

There is a minor reference to hell in this film as well, one that appears in other films as well:

               The princess grabs Luke's gun and fires at a small grate in 
               the wall next to Han, almost frying him.

                         What the hell are you doing?

Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

Unlike A New Hope, we don't have any references to the Force as a religion. However, we do have another reference to hell - this one less of an expletive and more in reference to a place:

                                    DECK OFFICER
                        Your Tauntaun'll freeze before you 
                        reach the first marker.

                        Then I'll see you in hell!

Episode VI - Return of the Jedi

Return of the Jedi doesn't have any references to the Force as a religion but it does have the Ewoks mistaking C-3PO as a god:

                         What are you telling them?

                         Hello, I think... I could be mistaken. They're using a very primitive 
                         dialect.  But
                         I do believe they think I am some sort of god.

               Chewbacca and Artoo think that's very funny. Han and Luke exchange                
               "what next?" looks.

                        Well, why don't you use your divine influence and get us out of this?

                        I beg your pardon, General Solo, but that just wouldn't be proper.


                        It's against my programming to impersonate a deity.

Episode I - The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace has a pair of references to gods, in reference to Jar Jar feeling he owes Qui-Gon a life debt.

                             JAR JAR
              ! Mesa stay...Mesa yous humble servaunt.

                        That wont be necessary.

                             JAR JAR
                        Oh boot tis! Tis demunded byda guds. Tis a live debett, tis. Mesa
                        culled Jaja Binkss.

Later, Qui-Gon makes reference to this debt:

                       We need a navigator to get us through the planet's core. I have
                       saved Jar Jar Binks' life. He owes me what you call a "life.debt."

                            BOSS NASS 
                       Binks. Yousa havena liveplay with thisen hisen?

            JAR JAR nods and joins the JEDI. QUI-GON waves his hand.

                       Your gods demand that his life belongs to me now.

                            BOSS NASS
                       Hisen live tis yos, outlauder. Begone wit him.

                            JAR JAR 
                       Count mesa outta dis! Better dead here, den deader in da
                       core...Yee guds, whata mesa sayin?!

Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones is about as sparse with religious references. It does have Anakin referring to his soul being tormented by Padme and Dexter referring to the Kaminoans being damn good cloners...

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Again, we are sparse on the religious references aside from some colloquial usages. However, we do get some insight as to the Jedi view on death:

                      Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for 
                      those around you who transform into the Force. 
                      Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. 
                      Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of 
                      greed, that is. 

From The Clone Wars animated series we learn that the Jedi do not believe one keeps his or her individuality upon death but rather becomes one with the Force. Qui-Gon's spirit says to Yoda near the end of the series: "You will learn to preserve your Life Force, and so, manifest a consciousness which will allow you to commune with the living after death."

Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Obviously with the film still in theaters at the time of this writing means I am going by memory that there is no explicit reference to the Force as a religion. However, we do meet Maz who, while not a Jedi, is familiar with the Force (it is unclear if she is a Force wielder or not). The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary does indicate Lor San Tekka is a member of "The Church of the Force". Wookieepedia describes it as follows:

The Church of the Force was an underground faith that believed in the ideals of the Jedi Order. It existed during the time of the Galactic Empire, when such spiritual beliefs were strictly forbidden. Despite the threat of Imperial rule, and the destruction of the Jedi Order at the end of the Clone Wars, the Church of the Force believed that the light of the Jedi would one day return to the galaxy.

Similarly the Visual Dictionary states:
In the time of the Empire, with the Sith secretly in command of the galaxy, any displays of organized worship or belief in the supernatual were against Imperial law. Underground religions spread across the galaxy, to finally emerge from the shadows with the defeat of Emperor Palpatine. Tuanul village on Jakku houses a collective of worshipers who praise the virtue of the Force without being graced by the ability to wield it.


So what is the state of religion in the Star Wars universe? Like I've said in relation to fantasy religions, being a believer is a lot easier when there is demonstrable evidence for your supernatural beliefs. However, it's unclear how much of this evidence is actually known across the galaxy - and it is also clear that even the Jedi Knights' understanding of the Force was incomplete, even at their peak.

How could people in the Star Wars galaxy not believe in a supernatural Force? After all, the Jedi were right there for all to see. But, we have Han Solo, a man who was born in the last days of the Republic who didn't believe in the Force. And Rey, a generation later, wasn't even sure Luke Skywalker was a real person. How can this be?

Let's start with Rey, as she is a bit easier to explain. With the Jedi gone for over fifty years at the time of A Force Awakens, it is becoming much easier for her not to believe. Luke Skywalker being a myth is also fairly easy to believe. First, it is uncertain that Star Wars has the same instantaneous access to information that we do - I doubt one could stream a YouTube video of Luke destroying the Death Star, facing Vader twice, pulling deflecting blaster bolts with his lightsaber, etc. And even if you could, would it be believed. "That image is clearly holoshopped,"

That idea can extend to the era of the classic trilogy as well. It is unlikely that very many people actually saw a Jedi in action. The Episode I Visual Dictionary (no longer canon, but probably reasonable for a baseline) indicated there were around 10,000 Jedi Knights at that time. To give an idea of numbers, there are around 414,000 Catholic priests on our planet and a priest's job is to be seen, unlike that of a Jedi. So there's 2.5% as many Jedi in the galaxy as there are Catholic priests on Earth. In a galaxy with a few thousand sectors, each with many, many systems, some far more populated than our Earth, it is very easy to believe that actually seeing a Jedi is incredibly rare.

And we also see the Empire denounced the Jedi as traitors and forbade organized worship. I would imagine the Empire also portrayed the Jedi as frauds, very much in keeping with Han Solo's line of "It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense". One can easily imagine how the Empire would have propaganda to explain away the abilities of the Jedi as being gadget and drug based. "They were a sinister cult which abducted children and plotted to overthrow the Republic."

That said, if there were to be organized religion in the Old Republic, I would imagine it would be based around the Force, much like the Church of the Force from The Force Awakens. I can picture something with elements of Taoism (such as seeking balance - the Dark Side being the Force out of balance). I'd also suspect that it would not be a major cultural force - something akin to the religious apathy one can find in Europe.

Beyond the Church of the Force, many cultures likely had their own religions, such as the gods of the Gungans or the Ewoks. However, such traditions appear to be more localized things.

Under the Empire, we see religious worship in general was forbidden, a state much like that of communist states. However, the worship of the Force is definitely still remembered, going by Han Solo, Admiral Motti, and Grand Moff Tarkin - and Vader is known to still follow a forbidden religion - though him being the Emperor's right hand man, would you tell him no? It is interesting to note that the Emperor and Vader believe in the very thing that is forbidden. Which is a good way to reduce the number of Force-sensitive threats.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Religious Sects in RPGs

One advantage to your typical RPG religion is there isn't a whole lot of doubt. When you have priests who can heal injuries and turn away vampires, agnosticism and atheism are positions that make absolutely zero sense.

In our own world, despite the claims of various prophets, saints, and the like, we've no conclusive proof of the existence of any supernatural being or beings, much less knowledge of what they might want or expect of lowly mortals. Moreover, even within a given religion, there is a lot of disagreement. You can find the greatest disagreement among people who are essentially in agreement - consider the great controversy in the news as I write this with the Anglican leadership censuring the Episcopal church for its permitting same-sex marriages. Watch the debates between liberal and conservative Catholics on matters like economic policy, immigration, birth control, etc. The Thirty Years War devastated Europe, a war with religious differences between Catholics and Protestants at its very center.

This is something that is rarely explored outside of historical RPGs (for example, Clockwork and Chivalry puts the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants as a major component). You don't, for example, see great disagreement among priests of St. Cuthbert or Mystra. In the established D&D settings I'd suggest that Eberron offers the greatest possibility for this sort of conflict - while clerics get spells, no one quite knows how they do nor does anyone really know if the deities actually exist. Such ambiguity opens all sorts of possibilities, possibilities where your greatest foe worships the same deity.