Saturday, August 31, 2013

Queen - A Kind of Magic

Here we are, Born to be kings,
We're the princes of the universe,
Here we belong, Fighting to survive,
In a world with the darkest powers,

"Princes of the Universe" from the Queen album A Kind of Magic

Initially I was going to write about the 1986 film Highlander, for which A Kind of Magic is essentially the soundtrack. But my thoughts kept focusing on the music and thus, here we are.

One of my musical regrets is I never got to see Queen live in concert. I have some memories of seeing them perform on television from the 1985 Live Aid concert with my uncle. But my young musical tastes at the time shifted to more trendy/pop music, something that shifted when I started college in 1989. The early 1990s had me discovering Queen for myself, sadly months prior to Freddie Mercury's death.

Anyways.... A Kind of Magic is an album that just screams fantasy. Epic, ass-kicking fantasy with tracks like "Princes of the Universe" and "Gimme the Prize". A touch of goofiness in a heavy song like "One Vision" - like you'll find from your typical gaming group:
One man, one man,
One bar, one night,
One day, hey, hey.
Just gimme gimme, gimme, gimme
Fried chicken.
For me, when I'm looking for inspirational music for prepping for a game - or just inspirational music in general - A Kind of Magic is one of the first albums I'll reach for.

Friday, August 30, 2013

RPG Mini-Review - FATE Core

FATE is one of those games in my collection that I really, really want to play some day but haven't had the chance to.

FATE is the game engine that powers games like Spirit of the CenturyThe Dresden Files, and Diaspora. Relics like me remember the original FUDGE RPG from the 1990s from which FATE spun off of.

Mechanically, FATE isn't too complicated - there is an Accelerated Edition of it which is a rather tiny book. The idea is you role 4DF (FUGE/FATE dice). These are six side dice with 2 pluses, 2 minuses, and 2 blank sides, You add the total together (-4 to 4), add your appropriate skill and other modifiers, and compare to a difficulty number.

The other modifiers I mentioned above is where FATE gets interesting. FATE uses a mechanic known as "aspects". Anything can have an aspect - a location, a person, a PC, a scene, a city. They are basically an interesting description that can drive the action. "Last son of Krypton" would make for a good aspect. So would "with great power comes great responsibility" or "I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father".. As would "fraying ladder" or "precariously balanced candle". The best aspects for PCs are both positive and negative. When positive you can spend a FATE point (one of the main resources of the game) to use that aspect and gain a bonus to your die roll. You can create an aspect - like taking an action to knock over that candle and set the room on fire - creating a "room on fire" aspect that can be used by anyone and has an initial free use. And those negative aspects can be used to drive PCs - the player is offered a FATE point to take some negative consequence. For example, Peter Parker might be compelled to abandon his date to rescue someone from a fire as he is haunted by the memory of failing his Uncle Ben. To avoid giving into the compel he might have to spend a FATE point, though these sorts of things tend to involve negotiation between player and GM. Essentially, as a player you want these compels as they give you FATE points which come in super-handy when facing a big-bad..

Another neat thing about FATE is when players suffer damage (whether social, physical, economic, or whatever), to prevent their main resistance from being overwhelmed they can agree to take consequences. If your main resistance is overwhelmed you are pretty much at the mercy of whomever you are facing. A good example of taking a consequence would be Luke Skywalker losing his hand at the end of The Empire Strikes Back - essentially, when losing, the player is encouraged to describe how they lose. 

What I like about FATE is it is geared to tell interesting stories but it has tons of mechanisms to make the players be at the center of those stories - it avoids the dreaded problem of players getting to watch the GM tell an interesting story. 

FATE Core is available from RPGNow for free - or whatever you want to pay. I'd encourage you to check it out for free and if you find it worth it - and I think you will - go back and pay what you think it is worth.

RPG Mini-Review - Stars Without Number

One thing I've liked about Sine Nomine Publishing is they take the adage that old school RPGs should be all about the "sandbox" (i.e. players go wherever they'd like on the map with no predefined plot) and make games and supplements that actually help you do that. As I've built up a modest collection of 1970s and early 80s RPG products I have seen there were a ton of products designed to help GMs do just that.

System-wide, Stars Without Number is pretty similar to early D&D incarnations. It has three classes - Expert, Psychic, and Warrior. It has a simple, yet effective, skill system of which, not surprisingly, the Expert is the best at.

Where it really shines is a default setting which is really made for adventure. The idea is there were two waves of human expansion. The first of which made use of spike drives which allowed faster than light travel in bursts - basically you had to start it from the edge of a solar system and had to turn it off at the edge of another - and if you can't reach a destination in about six days or so - well, that would be bad as the protective field around your ship breaks down. The second wave involved psychics - basically over time humanity began understanding psychic powers and were able to channel psychic ability so it didn't drive its practitioners insane or dead. Eventually these abilities were used to create and maintain jump gates which allowed far easier travel. Who wouldn't want to use a jump gate? Spike drives became obsolete and were relegated to the far frontier. (Anyone who has seen the Doctor Who serial The Seeds of Death has an idea this was probably not the best decision.)

All was well in this golden age (aside from suggestions in the game that it had its own problems what with Terra futilely trying to maintain control) until one day some psychic wave came across all of known space and every psychic was either killed or driven insane. Say goodbye to your jump gates. That is bad news for most planets, with the small number of spike drive ships unable to supply  important planets like Earth. Civilization pretty much breaks down for a few centuries.

The game takes place at the end of this dark age, with civilization becoming re-established - but not united. This is a perfect time for adventurers - whether they are explorers, traders, conquerors, peacekeepers, or whatever. It clearly has a lot of debt to the classic Traveller RPG as well as the Rebellion-era of MegaTraveller and the aftermath of the fall of civilization in Traveller: The New Era. The game really shines with its random tables, something I usually ignore in most games. Instead of just generating pure stats its designed to also give you tons of adventure ideas. And the civilizations feel real. Why yes, this planet is a theocracy. But wait, let us also roll for what sort of heresies and splinter groups the religion has to deal with. 

After my ACKS game this is a super-strong candidate for a follow-up game.

RPG Mini-Review - 13th Age

This is a game I preordered but didn't really look at much as I received the preliminary materials. It's a bit of a hybrid of D&D 3.x and 4th editions as well as taking a lot of elements from more narrative based games.

13th Age takes a nod from 4e D&D by giving each class its own set of neat powers but it avoids 4e's tendency to make everything balance out perfectly. It also makes the classes more distinctive from one another, evoking much of their feel from 3.x D&D.

While it has a nice set of customization options for your characters it avoids the tendency of D&D 3.x to punish those who do not have every detail of their character planned and avoids the need to hyper-optimize your character.

It also avoids the dreaded "grind" I experienced when I played 4e, as the game has an "escalation die" which gives bonuses to characters as combats last longer. It also has a number of mechanical tweaks to allow failures to be interesting. Perhaps best from my perspective is the removal of a full grid-based combat while at the same time having rules that nevertheless encourage motion and variety in combat.

13th Age is clearly not an "old school" game - beyond taking much of D&D 3.x and 4e it is clearly influenced by games like FATE and Sorcerer. It is also a far less cruel world to PCs than one would find in old school games - in my ACKS campaign 1st level characters are very fragile. 

Saving Throw vs. GMADD - Some Mini-Reviews

Right now I've got an ACKS campaign that is beginning to pick up some steam. So I'm trying hard not to give into my GM ADD - that urge to switch to a shiny new system.

Nevertheless I have checked out a few new systems, some of which I can definitely see wanting to try out at some point. Well all of them really, if I ever had the time... And truthfully they're not really all particularly new, though they are to me. What follows are a series of min-review posts that I may later expand into a more fleshed out review, especially if I get to play or run one or more of them..

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Elves and Geology

Niagara Gorge Whirlpool, Downstream of Niagara Falls
I used to think it would take six-hundred years to tunnel under the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved Geology, I guess it appealed to his meticulous nature. An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That's all it takes really, pressure, and time. 
- Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redepmption

I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains, and then find somewhere where I can rest.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

White Mountains of New Hampshire
I'm with Bilbo Baggins. I love mountains. Before we had kids my wife and I would often spend summer weekends hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It's certainly had an impact of the campaign settings I've used and created - forested mountains of moderate height, settlements in the notches between them. Lots of rivers and lakes. I look at pictures of the Basin and Range terrain that can be found at west and it is a very alien landscape to my New Englander's eyes.

Geological time is slow time. The Rocky Mountains are a young mountain range, over well over fifty million years old, though shaped into their current appearance by glaciers.The Appalachian Mountains, of which my beloved White Mountains are a part of, are, by comparison, elder statesmen of mountains - close to 500 million years in age.

My family recently returned from a vacation in Niagara Falls, Canada. It is hard not to look at the Falls and not come away awestruck. Geologically, the water of the Niagara River is carving its gorge in lightning speed: according to Wikipedia, Niagara Falls were formed only 10,000 years ago and erosion has carved out the Niagara Gorge and moved the Falls 6.8 miles southward from their starting position. A film at the Falls discussed how quickly the Falls were formed - likely over a span of days or even hours.

There are other notable features of our world that happened within the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. For example the Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis posits that around 5600 BC the Mediterranean flooded over the Bosporus, connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and possibly accounting for numerous flood myths. Though further back in time, Zanclean Flood Hypothesis posits that the Mediterranean itself was filled rather quickly as the Gibraltar Strait was flooded.

Returning from our trip I reflected on how in many fantasy settings there are beings whose lifespan is a noticeable fraction of that or could even potentially exceed that - various forms of intelligent undead, elves, and dragons being the obvious candidates. This has me considering the possibility that such beings might shape their world certain ways - diverting a river to create a deep gorge to create a natural border, linking a lake to the oceans, etc. It could also lead to some interesting ruins like coastal cities where the sea has receded several miles away (or gone on to cover it), And at the very least it presents a reminder as to how different the perception of a long-lived race would be.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Biblical Roleplaying

"Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses."

- 1 Samuel 13:3, New American Bible

To be honest, it sounds a lot like the behavior of your typical gaming groups mechanism of dealing with a goblin lair. However, that passage comes straight out of the Bible.

I recently finished Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In it Aslan examines what we know and what we can surmise about the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. It's a fascinating work, something I will be reviewing in its own right, either here or in my political blog (or in both places, from different perspectives). I'm pretty certain I'd not want to live in  Judea within fifty years of 1 AD. But as a time for adventure, it is an absolutely fascinating period. It is a period of numerous Messiahs who rose up against the Romans in attempts to bring about the Earthly Kingdom of God. It was a time when the people most definitely believed in magic - Aslan pointed out that Jesus the miracle-worker is not something that people of the era would find all that surprising - the shocking thing was he performed these miracles free of charge. The people of the period most certainly believed there were people who could perform miracles.

It is a period of intense resistance to Roman rule, but to replace it with what? Aslan points to the Zealots who would go so far as to assassinate the high priest of the Temple in Jerusalem - a man who was dependent on the approval of the hated Romans for his power.

Green Ronin published a D&D 3.0 supplement entitled Testament, detailing the cultures and beliefs of the people of the Old Testament. Though obviously it had the Israelites as its focus it also covered the other cultures of the area. It took a decidedly agnostic approach as far as gods and magic went - the people of the time believed in magic and therefore the supplement covered magic existing as they believed it did. It gave a great overview of various time periods of the Bible and the types of adventures possible. It also covered the differences in equipment to be found in earlier time periods, giving a nice appreciation of the advantages an iron age culture might have over a bronze age one. Testament is still available in pdf form, albeit in the rarely used 3.0-incarnation of the D&D rules - though I'd imagine upgrading would not present much of a problem.

From my own gaming experience introducing these types of concepts would need to be done with a delicate hand. Not surprisingly, religion is a touchy subject, with people having a variety of beliefs. I'm a so-liberal-are-you-sure-you're-a-Catholic Catholic. An agnostic player in my gaming group was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of this sort of game, one of the reasons I never used Testament. Were I to try such an undertaking today, I think I'd take one of two approaches. If I wanted to strongly emphasize the religious aspects I think I'd actually make my own religions and cultures, albeit ones clearly inspired by real ones in the manner that Robert E. Howard did in his Conan stories. The other way I'd go, one I think more likely, would be to use a more historic view of religions. The people might believe in the power of healing magic but that doesn't make it real beyond a placebo effect. To my mind this seems a good option to use Cthulhu Invictus and take inspiration from Richard Tierney's Simon Magus tales.