Thursday, August 25, 2016

My Gen Con: Fears, Fails, and Five Sessions

So I went to Gen Con. And having had a good time there before, I wanted to really pitch in for Games on Demand. While Gene had offered us space if he went down as a guest, Gen Con opted to trim the comic track after last year’s fiasco. That meant Sherri wouldn’t be able to come. I’d seen that a couple of regulars wouldn’t be helping out (including the redoubtable Jeremy Friesen). So prior to the convention I worked on the map, helped out with the menu images, did contacting, and designed & printed cool table tents (at my cost, but with unobtrusive ads). I’d be sharing a hotel room and I’d laid in a supply of Soylent for the con. Steve Sigety gave me a ride down and up since he ran for Pelgrane. That saved me a ton of hassle.

That’s the big picture: now on to the details. I’ve broken this up into two parts. The latter talks about what I ran and how that went. You can jump down to that. The former covers the oddities of my experience and clearer realizations about how bad I am at socializing. This is feelings stuff. I don’t usually talk about that on the blog;  I just mention my shyness and anxiety in passing. I don’t write about it because I’m not comfortable with how much it runs and ruins my interactions. I don’t like talking about it. In fact I usually skip these kinds of posts in other people’s threads because a) I’m a hypocrite and b) I honestly don’t want to think too much about it.

WHAT I RAN AWAY FROM 
But Gen Con really highlighted my limitations. So anyway…

As background, I got sick the Friday before Gen Con. My assumed allergy attack turned into a full-blown head cold. Often a cold drains you, but you can still get things done. Not this one. I had to park my disgusting, nose-running self on the couch all the way through Monday. Until Tuesday I didn’t know if I’d be strong and non-contagious enough to go. I pulled it together, but I napped/rested every opportunity I got on Wednesday and Thursday.

That then provided a convenient excuse to avoid seriously interacting with anyone. Mind you, the Games on Demand group contained many people I’d met or interacted with online. Did I go and introduce myself or even just say hello? Nope. My brain fiction told me I didn’t want to intrude, to impose, to be that guy who wedges himself into someone else’s personal space. Sherri says that for introverts, we realize how much work other people can be and don’t want to be that burden on another person.  So I did my work, ran my games, wandered the dealer hall, and went back to my room. I watched alot of Law & Order. So dumb.

But I ran five sessions: four two-hour and one four-hour. Two other four-hour sessions didn’t fill. That’s always disconcerting and disappointing. In both cases several other tables went empty, which you think would be some solace. But there’s no real bonding among cut GMs at that point; we’re all trying to figure out what we did wrong with the presentation.

Despite good sessions, my specific stupid sticks with me though:
  • I skipped the Wednesday evening Indie gamers gathering. People I knew went, but I couldn’t kick my head into gear to walk over there. 
  • We had an all-hands meeting for Games on Demand Thursday evening. At one point Steve Segedy asked all the organizers to stand up. My brain said “You didn’t do that much, you just assisted others…”. So I didn’t stand up. I’d done real work and helped set things up, but my stupid anxiety brain told me others would think “jeez, who does he think he is…” or something. I don’t know.
  • After the all-hands meeting split up groups did small board games. I love these kinds of things. James Stuart offered A Fake Artist Goes to New York. I went to that table because there no one else had sat there yet. After a few rounds we were supposed to swap and perhaps go to other tables to play with other people. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to intrude into an existing group, so I left. Despite there being people I knew at the other tables.
  • I had an interaction with one of the GoD hosts where I’d misheard something. They seemed absolutely frustrated and pissed at me, or at least that’s how my brain read it. I’m sure they weren’t, I’m sure they had no idea who I was, I’m sure it was their reaction to the challenge of getting the games up and running. But dumb brain got super tense. I ended up not going back to play any more GoD sessions during the gaps in my schedule. I used that as an excuse to avoid actually doing something fun.
  • Along with a couple of other GMs, my Friday night game didn’t fill. Renee Knipe, who’d I’d helped with the menus and who’d run my amazing Warren session last year, was running a Conan game. A couple of the other GMs joined that, one of them even said “hey, you come join us” but I didn’t go. I didn’t want to impose. Plus James Stuart was playing and I’d inserted myself at the board game table with him and I didn’t want to seem like I was creepily following him. Instead I went back to my room and watched TV.

…and that’s the one that really made me go “WTF is going on with your brain?”. You’re a grown-ass adult, where does that shit come from?

Here’s the thing: once I’m in a social transaction with someone, I’m good. If I’m running a game and you sit down at my table, I’ll engage with you. If we sit at the same table for a meal, I’ll start peppering you with questions about how your convention’s going. I honestly want to know. I like listening to people talk about their enthusiasms and projects. When I sit down to play, I’m good: I work hard to be generous and supportive. Get me into that mode and I’m usually solid. But getting to there, breaking the ice, whatever, that’s my block.

I find it super frustrating when I can’t quite break through to say hi and engage, especially with GMs and designers I’ve met before. I saw several that I couldn’t bring myself to start even the briefest convo with. There’s a gamer who moved into our area several months ago. At Origins and Gen Con I avoided even going up and introducing myself face to face.

It’s not all bad: I did had a great time talking with the people I managed to actually interact with, especially my two roomies Bill White and Nick Wedig. But again that’s an established transaction. I got to have dinner with Melissa Gay and Brian Cooksey. I walked around for a couple of hours with my sister, Cat Rambo. I made myself go and play in a game run by Anna Kreider. I ran for Phil Vecchione.

So why go on at length about this? I’m not sure. I don’t talk about it much and maybe that’s not a good thing. I take anti-anxiety meds and they’re otherwise great (confirmed by my wife). But while I had a good time at Gen Con, I could have had an awesome time. I need to find some strategies to get to that point. The obvious one is to have Sherri with me all the time, but that’s not entirely practical. I’m going to go again next year. I’m going to help out with organizing GoD if they’ll let me. I’m going to wrestle with my anxiety. And maybe this time I’ll stand up when they call out organizers for special mention.

/end feels

WHAT I RAN
I should explain how Games on Demand Gen Con works for those who don’t know it or have only seen it at other conventions (like Origins). GoDGC has to manage a ton of players while keeping the through-traffic space clear. It offers both 2 and 4 hours session, so games start every two hours. If you’d want to play, you come by before that slot and get a boarding pass (like “D for Dragon”). Then, about ten minutes before the session starts, the hosts call out letters (after handling anyone with special needs or mobility limitations). When they call your pass, you come forward and look at the choices on display.

You’ll see a gallery of menus, illustrated with an images and a quick blurbs. Generally each GM submits two options for what they can run. The first person to choose that GM selects which game they want. The hosts then cross out the other one. So if I get up there and Everyone’s a Suspect’s crossed out, I have a choice of Dog Eat Dog instead or another GM. Each slot has has plenty of choices, with some GMs running four-hour and some two-hour. Plus GoD offers LARPs. I helped type up the GoD stats recent and noticed a trend. While a significant number of the four-hour games didn’t make, all but one of the two-hour games did. The one that didn’t was a LARP and they may have simply folded the two on offer together. If you sign up for a game that doesn’t get the minimum # of players, the hosts will quickly reseat you where there’s space or offer a pass for a future session.

A couple of years ago I ran two-hour sessions for Games on Demand GC, but not from choice. One of the hosts split my four-hour session into two two-hours by mistake. Both ran fine, with complete arcs. I’m good at keeping tempo and speed at the table. I congratulated myself on my skill. On a recent Gauntlet episode I spoke about the limitations of the two-hour format. I thought it’d be too tight. But having run several sessions, I realize I’m wrong.

I’d forgotten that most of my online sessions are two hours, less if you exclude the BSing. Even with longer sessions, you lose time to technical stuff, waiting on everyone, and goofing around. At the table I do that fast: set up and cc should take at most 30 minutes. That time should ease everyone into the premise before you kick the throttle. You can even cut that with easier systems and completely pre-gen’d characters. I saw folks running games I’d never considered doing in such a short span (Hollowpoint for example). Next year I may only run two-hour sessions with an alternate menu sub-in menu if I get burned out.

Of course all of this may be my way of compensating for not getting picked for the four-hour team twice. Maybe I have to look at what I’m running and how I’ve written up my blurbs. I also didn’t do something I’d meant to: go out and sell my games to the hosts so they could sell them to others, so that’s a problem.

In any case I brought four games with me to run. In particular I wanted to make sure I offered some games written by women. I had a ton of awesome choices across the board, making narrowing it down tough. For my four-hour I took my Neo Shinobi Vendetta scenario, the one I’d run at Origins. I wanted to offer my Action Cards game for at least one session. I paired that with Before the Storm, Joanna Piancastelli’s game from Seven Wonders. For my two-hour sessions, I put together a Fate Core version of Magic, INC and took the demo kit for Threadbare by Stephanie Bryant.

As I said, only one of my four-hour slots went off, with the group picking Before the Storm. We had four players (including myself) for this collaborative story game. Before the con I’d played it once f2f. That revealed some facets I wanted to emphasize when I taught it at Gen Con. Before the Storm can jump around in time which had gotten us lost a couple of times in our home game. So for the con I asked everyone to be clear about location and era when they narrated. I also made clearer how the end battle would work rather than springing it on them. But the choice with the greatest impact was making clear you could dictate your character’s flashbacks to reveal truths. In the game you can play out scenes- drawing in other PCs as themselves or NPCs—or dictate. In our home game, we’d almost exclusively done scenes and it had been a tangle with some of them locking up.

My emphasis swung things the other way. We ended up doing dictated scenes for most of our exchanges. That’s isn’t a bad thing, but it does change the tempo of the game. Joanna suggests a mechanism to speed up con games: putting two event cards down in front of everyone. These mark round and adding them here cuts down the play length. Because we moved quickly, we didn’t need that. We ended up doing an extra cycle, disregarding the impact of those additional cards.

James Stuart asked me about how Before the Storm ran at the table. He had it on offer as a LARP. I suspect, at least the way I did it, is that the tabletop version offers more storytelling time and control for the players. At a LARP I’d feel compelled to play out the scenes, rather than dictating.

Anyway, I had a good time and learned a lot in play. I had a good group with interesting character picks.

My two-hour games ended up being one session of Fate Core and three of Threadbare. I’d converted Magic, INC over from Action Cards for the Fate game, trimming the character creation choices. I might need to cut even further. The session went well, with a completely different approach from the other three times I’d run it. They took a fairly straightforward approach, but did a nice job of indulging in their characters’ appetites and drawbacks. I like Fate, but I’m not entirely certain it’s the right approach for Magic, INC. Still thinking about that.

Threadbare ended up being crazy fun. I’ll admit I hesitated about the semi-post-apocalyptic toy concept when I first heard it. But between Sherri’s enthusiasm for it and Bryant’s appearance on +1 Forward, I backed it. It’s goofy fun with a slightly dark edge to it, which you can more or less emphasize. That fits with my style. You only have three playbooks with quick choices so it’s easy to pick up and play. That meant we had more time to do some Q&A at the table.

The demo scenario—“Furry Road”—has an incredibly open premise. On a mission to travel from point A to point B the PCs have gotten off course. As a group they make up their vehicle, who seeks them, what they’re transporting, etc. Then I improvise completely off of those answers. I’d done up a list of concepts and details as a reference page, but once we got going I hardly looked at it. The first group found themselves pursued by a group of monster trucks and ended with a Godzilla PC knocking down a Playmobil castle defended by Decepticons. The second began navigating the darkness to an inn run by wrestler figures and ending with them escaping Baby Nazghul. The third had to outrun a storm and ended up Spartacusing a Barbie-chariot arena and deposing Emperor Eeyore.

So good times. I dug all of the sessions, with some standout moments from the enthusiastic Xmas sock to the self-sacrificing homemade doll to the voodoo softie determined to make Troll Dolls hip again. All that plus a Ninja Turtle Pizza Van, Refugee “Barrel of Monkeys,” the sock dance-off, and more stick with me. The interactions between the voodoo doll character and the naïve teddy bear may be my favorite moments from among all the games.

WHAT I PLAYED
I only played in two games. The first, Swords without Master, was interesting. We had a couple of players- solid and fun-- I wish I could have gamed with more over the weekend. But we also had one player who was a little off. The game clearly did click for them. At  one point I wished we’d had the X-Card in play because I would have used it. So overall I’m not sure this was the best demonstration of Swords. The flow of play stopped and started abruptly. I couldn’t tell how much of that was the game and how much the table. I’ll have to try it again, given the love I hear about it.

The other game was the Shab al Hiri Roach at Hogwarts. I’d skimmed the SaHR rules but never played it. Anna Krieder created and ran this great hack. She’s a solid convention GM: setting up the premise, establishing boundaries, giving us tools for feedback, and explaining the rules. She kept the pace up and helped shift things so we ended up with a complete story. I really, really enjoyed this session. One of the best games I’ve played at any convention.

WHAT I BOUGHT
RPG-wise I picked up Velvet Glove, Headspace, and the Fate Codex Anthology from the Magpie (IGDN) booth. That’s it. I’d already bought the electronic versions of the latter two items, but in the case of Headspace I wanted to support the designer because he’d had such a terrible run with the printer. Much of the other stuff I would have bought, I’d purchased through KS. For board games I picked up Legendary Big Trouble in Little China and the Marvel Legendary Civil War expansion. I got those Sunday and really only bought them because I was surprised they still had them in stock. Finally I bought some accessories: specialized meeples for Imperial Settlers (one of my favorite bgs), some Totoro meeples, and some writable fantasy maps from Arc Knight. That’s it.

NEXT YEAR
1. Get all my games to run.
2. Talk to people.
3. Get Sherri to go.
4. No, really actually introduce myself to people.
5. Play more games.
6. Actually check my email during the con.
7. Game with Renee Knipe and Hans Messersmith (my two big missed-them regrets)
8. Not watch Law & Order

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Far Station Eschaton: A Kingdom Seed

Robert Rodger asked if anyone had done a seed for Kingdom (a top five rpg for me) based on DS9. That's a cool idea so I did up a rough version. Others may have additional approaches or suggestions. 

FAR STATION ESCHATON
Once this station stood at the far ends of known space, a jump point for the desperate, established as a watch post for the Confederation. But now things have changed. The formation of a wormhole, reaching into new areas of space has made Eschaton the gateway to a new gold rush and the epicenter of old vendettas.

Customize (pick one answer for each)
  • The Confederation is [ a distant and faceless bureaucracy | a society dedicated to expansion and peace-keeping | an expansionist military force | the failing shell of a once-proud society | a puppet state at the beck and call of corporate interests]
  • Eschaton was established by [ the Confederation’s military originally | the scientific arm of the empire | as a far-edge drydock and repair station | a pleasure and rec facility for patrolling vessels of the fleet | a diplomatic outpost | the HQ for a peacekeeping mission]
  • The closest planet [ is under military occupation by the Confederation | is in the midst of civil war | is united in their resentment of the confederation | is a hodge-podge industrial settlement | is a backwater hive of scum, villainy and licentiousness]
  • Eschaton has [ absolute control over the gateway | limited access it can dole out | control through the threat of being able to destroy the gateway | no ability to stop anyone going in or out.]
  • The wormhole [ leads to a system spoken of in old records and legends | goes to a location in another galaxy completely unknown before | opens onto the hub of an alien empire | varies in its final destination]

Threats
  • Corporate interests want control of the wormhole.
  • The Confederation wants to militarize the sector.
  • The system is being overwhelmed by the sheer number of new arrivals rushing to be the first through.
  • Tensions with the closest planet have increased as they’ve made new demands.
  • The field of the wormhole creates strange and unpredictable effects on the local space-time.
  • The Confederation’s rival(s) claim the wormhole as their own.
  • Alien forces have begun to emerge into the Eschaton’s system from the other side.
  • Underground forces on the station look to seize control.
  • Supplies and/or supply chains have been tightened and reduced.
  • Bizarre events, psychic episodes, and reality warping caused by the wormhole’s energies.

Locations
  • Bridge of the Eschaton, central point for command and control
  • Docking ring, the connecting point for new arrivals and those wishing to board
  • The loading bays where cargo arrives (and sometimes falls off into other peoples’ hands)
  • Security core. Where personnel monitor security and attempt to keep track of threats
  • Prison (brig) for the Eschaton. Most often used for the drunk and derelict, now has a larger variety of strange and dangerous criminals.
  • Overflow housing for the new arrivals. Connected to a black areas where refugees attempt to hide and survive.
  • Medical Bay. Smaller than it ought to be. Unequipped to handle the volume of new arrivals.
  • Diplomatic station dedicated to the culture and needs of the populace from the local planet
  • The Promenade. A crossroads of stores, suppliers, corporate offices, bars, and other diversions.
  • The Bar. While there may be several locations where station personnel and visitors go to unwind, the Bar is the largest and most important of these.
  • The Holo-Lounge. A place of education for some. Of obsession for others.
  • Bay 8. Location of the special runner ship or shuttlecraft for the main crew of the Eschaton.
  • Station Core. The tightly controlled center for ship operation and power.
  • The Menagerie. Facilities set up for various alien ambassadors and their needs.
  • Jeffries Tubes. Engineering access points used for repairs as well as clandestine travel by some.

Character Concepts
  • Commander of the Eschaton
  • Commander’s resentful but precocious teen child
  • An exiled Psychic
  • A bizarre living hologram
  • A doctor exiled to this miserable posting
  • The excitable security chief
  • Official liaison from the local planet
  • Corporate station representative
  • Washed up former Captain turned con man
  • Avaricious merchant
  • Station Supply Officer
  • Dedicated engineer
  • Former spy turned religious mentor
  • Space Workers Union Rep
  • Confederation Military Observor
  • First Contact Specialist
  • Diplomat turned native
  • Splintered Refuge from a Hive Mind

Names
Issac Tyrrell, Erich Strachan, Anton Phillips, Kalyn Wynter, Gema Alessandro, Maddie Avison, Shani ch'Shuni, Thara ch'Kerria, Ortal zh'Giiazn, Hjalmar sh'Nortre, Enak Vorle, Aarmar Telle, Ular Turra, Makbar Tajar, Mar'Ta, K'Kori, G'Lora, Vekma, Veirre, Khaesar, Cura, N'Freleya

Crossroads
  • Do we impose absolute control over who passes through the wormhole?
  • Return criminals/rebels/spies from the local planet to their home?
  • Send our own missions through the wormhole to seek new discoveries
  • Permit the Rival Enemy Empire to establish a formal presence aboard the station?
  • Expend resources searching for the station shuttle we lost contact with?
  • Crack down on the rising tide of smuggling?
  • Turn to black market sources to support the station?
  • Declare independence from the Confederation?
  • Ration supplies to civilian interests so that the military wing of the station can maintain maximum readiness?
  • Divert power and effort to establish protections from the strange space-time anomalies?
  • Establish a system of democratic representation?
  • Recognize the independence of the local planet?
  • Rearm the station for a possible military stand off?
  • Make an alliance with former enemies?

Notes
Inspired by Star Trek DS9 and Babylon Five.

Kingdom notes that when you play “with physically-separated locations…make sure it’s easy for characters to interact in person. There has to be easy transport…or you risk all your scenes turning into boring phone calls.” You’ll probably have most scenes on the station, but I can imagine jaunts out to survey the wormhole, interact with arriving captains around their ships, or visit with officials on the local planet.


You should also discuss and think about the tech level you want to have with this setting. The easiest way is to set the default at Star Trek level, but allow for players to suggest things to add or reduce to that.

ADDITIONAL SUGGESTIONS AND MODIFICATIONS WELCOME! 

Other Kingdom Stuff:

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Gaming Pipeline: The Campaigns Must Flow

(Who has two thumbs and still hasn’t been able to finish writing up his feelings about Gen Con? This Guy.) I’m in a gaming transition trough, with several just wrapped campaigns and others kicking off. That’s always a crazy but satisfying time. That hit simultaneously with the lead up work to (and post con drop from) Gen Con. Here’s my docket.

MUTANT: YEAR ZERO
Just before Gen Con we wrapped up Guards of Abashan, a 2+ year fantasy city-guards campaign. So last Friday I solicited feedback and reactions to the campaign and the iteration of Action Cards we’d used. Everyone had positive comments, but zeroed in on a few problem areas. 

1) Overall the revised magic system worked. But I need to tweak effects with multiple targets. In this version I restricted those too much in the name of parity with normal actions. As a result taking the casting risks for AoEs lacked a payoff. As well the magical chart system I used, trying to emulate Mutant City Blues’ Quade Diagram, didn’t work or add anything to the game. 2) I needed better visualization throughout the campaign: collaborative maps of the city and their neighborhood would have helped. Simple, rough drawings would have been huge. On a related when we did the collaborative city-building at the start we had a couple of players who weren’t there. That put them a step off. In the future if we’re using that tool, everyone who is going to play has to be there or we delay. 3) At points in the campaign I should have reincorporated material rather than adding new elements. The players lost track of which incidents to follow up on. I’ve working on managing that as a GM, but it got away from me in spots. We ended up with several dangling plots.4) The players would have liked more emphasis on and concrete results for building up their neighborhood.

After that I presented three options for the next campaign. I set the ground rule that this would be 6-12 sessions long, with the option to re-up if all the players want. Any campaign options not chosen would be on the table for the future (unless they clearly weren’t of interest). I offered The Sprawl, Urban Shadows, and Mutant:Year Zero, either in the basic form or using Genlab Alpha. The group decided to do a ranked, secret vote. In the end standard MYZ won with 17 points, but weirdly all the others tied with 14 points apiece. That’s cool and I know we’ll get to one of the others in the future.

I haven’t written much about Mutant: Year Zero on the blog. I picked it up late last year and fell in love with it. Originally I’d hoped to run it for a new f2f group, but that fell through. Through the miracle of poor impulse control I ended up with the core book, supplemental cards, multiple sets of dice, maps, and two copies of GenLab Alpha. MYZ looks crunchy on the surface. It has d6s in three colors with funny symbols, resource tracking for survival, and lengthy ‘stuff’ lists. But it’s actually simple. The designers mashed up classic simple trad with lessons from Apocalypse World. It has clean playbooks, questions for building character relations, easy social mechanics, improv threat generation, and a system for community building. But it also has random mutations, checks for using equipment, several damage tracks, and a serious system for ‘hex-crawling’ the Zone.

The community building’s especially appealing given that the players had wanted to see more of that in Guards of Abashan. Mutant: Year Zero rates your community, called an Ark, in four Development areas: Food, Culture, Technology, and Warfare. At the start of each session players select a Project. These offer new buildings, services, or structures. They require work points which players at the Ark generate by making relevant skill checks. When you complete a project you roll Xd6 and add that value to the area’s DEV value. For example a new Pig Pen generates 2d6 towards Food. Better projects require certain development levels, offer better returns, and even affect multiple areas. You can set up an expedition into the Zone as a project. Technology and relics play into this. When players find artifacts in the Zone, they can use them easily if their Ark’s has a high enough Tech Dev. As well they can turn in each artifact to the “Dawn Vault” of the Ark. If a player gives up their loot, they add to the Ark’s ratings. It’s a nice, hard choice.

We did character creation, ending up with a nice mix of roles and mutations. Players liked the mechanic for assigning relationships and choosing a “buddy” for you emotional support. The group chose a lake-filled region from among the six MYZ maps I had. They marked a spot on it and decided that their Ark would be an old camping grounds. We used the white board on the wall to draw out the camp’s layout and features. I’ll looking forward to the first session of play.

MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS
I’ve posted a couple of times about this campaign which runs every Wednesday on Roll20. I last ran 13th Age for this group a year ago and M&M 2e before that. I shifted us over to Mutants & Masterminds 3e this time. Four weeks in, I’m still trying to get my feet under me. The complete shift over to effects-based definitions in this edition takes some getting used to. I’m a Champions vet, so I’m familiar with those kinds of mechanics, but it’s been awhile. I’d forgotten how that can skew player approaches. It opens the door to “what effects do I want for my character” over “who is my character?” In the previous campaign I did all the initial builds so I could offer niche protection. Here we’ve hit some bumps with players duplicating roles and strengths. Hopefully we’ll get that sorted out.

I used to be an old hand at M&M 2e; I could run it without the book. I haven’t gotten to that point at all with M&M 3e. Green Ronin’s done some great system standardizations, but that comes with a massive list of conditions. Conditions have definite effects and serve as a cornerstone for many powers. But even my reduced cheat sheet for these clocks in at two pages: one for basic conditions and the other for compound ones. I’m also weirdly having a hard time keeping straight all the new stat names. I know I’ll get the hang of it eventually but right now it’s frustrating to have that eat up my attention when running.

There’s the added wrinkle of using Roll20 to play. I like the program, but it does mean I end up burning more time than I’d like finding cool maps and getting tokens put together. Eventually I’ll hit a critical mass and I can coast, but I’m still wasting a couple of hours a week on this. Also Roll20’s being really weird with my camera. We played Tuesday and it broadcast fine. We played Wednesday and it wouldn’t show my video feed. I wish they’d get their audio/video component in better shape. It’s been a constant source of complaints since the beginning. Finally I’ve been looking at how I handle movement and distance on those maps. I’d steered away from grids & hexes. Instead I’d used a modified zone system. But that meant drawing in the zones and weirdness with area effects. I’m thinking about biting the bullet and just using hexes despite how crunchy that feels. Am I trad phobic?

Beyond the mechanical side I’ve been trying to incorporate more story game elements. I mentioned using Microscope to build the recent campaign history. For the character creation session, I used the “How Did Your Team Come Together?” questions from Masks to build their “origin story” narrative. I also mentally matched each PCs to one of the Masks archetypes. I used backstory questions from those playbooks to find out more about the characters. In the first session I followed up with an hour of more character questions what’s one weird thing tied to your origin you’ve seen recently? how do you live day to day? who is the most recent villain you’ve taken down solo? I used some of those answers to build the first session fight. I’m also using all of those answers to build the “threats” for the campaign. Urban Shadows has a great structure for defining and shaping threats and countdown clocks. The PCs are trying to bring order to their city, so I’m lifting from that urban conspiracy PbtA game to craft the fronts they have to deal with.

LEGACY
In a couple of weeks I’m running three sessions of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins for The Gauntlet. It’s a post-apocalyptic PbtA game with fantastic elements. It’s closer in tone to Numenera or early Gamma World. The lost world had some form of advanced “technology” which shattered civilization. Strange things and relics pepper the landscape.

Players have two playbooks: one for family (5 choices) and one for character (8 choices). Legacy feels a level removed from the characters from other PbtA games. They still drive the action, but their choices revolve around solving community problems more than wrestling with their own demons. PCs have a position of influence and command within their family. That gives access to special moves. Legacy has a system for bonds at the family level, called Treaty. But there’s no character-level mechanic for that. It also has some modest resource management in the system (tracking surplus and tech). 

I’ve been putting together the online character spreadsheet and trying to get a feel for the playbooks. For the first session we’ll do some world-building. That involves figuring out the nature of the fall, describing our territory, and coming up with some details about settlements. We’ll draw a shared map to establish a sense of geography. That should help give the game some shape.

This will be a learning experience for me. I’m curious about Legacy’s play. It has a generational mechanic, but I doubt we’ll hit that in three sessions. I’m particularly interested in getting a feel for the MC’s role in Legacy. I can’t quite tell if it’s more or less directed than other like systems. One oddness is the lack of any real discussion of the PvP aspects of this kind of game. There’s more about how to hack Legacy to other purposes than a consideration of how to handle PC conflicts.

WORLD WIDE WRESTLING
A few months ago I’d never watched any real wrestling beside luche libre movies from when we lived in Mexico. That’s changed now. I’ve watched Lucha Underground, NXT, Cruiserweight Classic, Monday Night RAW, Smackdown Live, and several New Japan Wrestling G1 events. I’ve hunted around YouTube for commentaries and listened to podcasts. Last night I found myself watching and writing down the set ups, storylines, and theatrics I saw. I’ve even read a couple of books on the pro-wrestling: all because I enjoy the World Wide Wrestling game so much.

So far I’ve run four sessions of it, three online and one f2f. I set both groups in the same promotion, so I’ve been able to use characters from one to populate the other. WWW remains super fun and I’m crazy excited about the release of the expansion book International Incident this week. I’m still a rank amateur, but I don’t care. I’m having a great time with it. I’m going to keep running infrequent sessions of this promotion; maybe I’ll try to rope in new groups or at the very least get sit-in guest stars. If I get the ambition together I’d like to run an actual 5-10 session season online.

OTHER GAMES
I’m GMing two other campaigns. We’re about halfway through a one-year Middle Earth game using Action Cards. They’re just moving into another story arc. In Ocean City Interface we’re about halfway through the Assassins of the Golden Age portal. We’ll finish that in 3-4 sessions, shift back to the Alpha world, and start cycling through the previous portals.

I mentioned WWW above as something I want to run online. Beyond that, if the Gauntlet sessions go well, I’d like to try more there. I might run Fellowship or Worlds in Peril (as part of my “PbtA Games I’m Unsure About” series). I’d also like to run more 13th Age online, hopefully with some of the players from the campaign I ran earlier this year. I want do several sessions of Kingdom, a great and overlooked game. Plus I have two games I need to get to the table for feedback.

I’d hoped to go to Metatopia again this year, but it isn’t going to work. The continuing awful job search, house repairs, and obligations in October means we can’t swing it. Not great.
I’m only playing two ongoing games. Rolemaster continues despite scheduling hiccups. We should be hitting a major turning-point there. Rich Rogers just started a short Monster of the Week campaign for Mondays. I think he has something else he want to run after that to finish out his Ladder of Insanity rankings.

GAME PROJECTS ON MY DESK: REAL AND VAPORWARE
  • Finishing out my Base Raiders 13th Age conversion
  • Seeing if Magic, Inc works better with a PbtA approach
  • Revising Right of Succession rules
  • Finish Atelier World rules
  • Superhero board game build on the model of Robinson Crusoe or Castaways
  • Another serious pass at the Action Cards book
  • Revise Crowsmantle into some kind of publishable state
  • Another pass at the Wuxia PbtA hack
  • Nights Black Agents co-op boardgame
  • Doing Scion with another system
  • Monster Hunter Style boardgame
  • Harvest Moon Stories ala Golden Sky Stories
  • Adding to Ghostlines
  • Doing DUXS with PbtA
  • A Rotted Capes frame for Masks
  • Handling modern, more serious Spy rping with something like PbtA
  • Alternate Advancement and Milestones for Fate
  • Card mechanics for Action Cards in Roll20
  • A Rune Factory style monsters & farming game
  • Fate Accelerated Jet Set Radio
  • Changeling the Lost using Urban Shadows
  • Revision of earlier History of RPG genre series into consolidated ebooks
  • Random cards for generating events on journeys
  • Right of Succession dice
  • My mob board game with heat and gift currency
  • More Play on Target recording, getting more cool and diverse sit-in guest hosts


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Second Wave: The Supers News Cycle

A couple of weeks ago I posted the Microscope timeline my players created for our new M&M 3e campaign. They went darker than I expected and I've been thinking about how to handle that. The game's a pastiche: using and riffing on existing superhero properties. I don't usually do that, so I've bought in fully (i.e kitchen sink-ing it). You'll see lots of classic references; that's the kind of thing which would make me roll my eyes in other peoples' session reports. 

We've done a character creation session plus two actual play sessions. We're using Roll20 and I recorded those (Session 1 and Session 2). I want to get a few more nights under my belt before I write up my impressions of 3e vs. 2e.

For the previous campaign (First Wave) I did a lot of world building: NPCs, organizations, and news reports. Since we have all the material of that 50+ session campaign to draw on, I want to do less of that this time. I still like news reports so I wrote up a few items for this week. The setting's a gritty at the outset; I hope the players will make a difference over time. They integrated analogues for real world issues I want to handle carefully (immigration and refugees for example). We haven't played that long, so I'm still trying to get a feel for the team.

News for Session Three (8/17/16)
NEW FIRST WAVE: In a short news conference held at the White House Secure Site, President von Doom announced the re-formation of First Wave, quickly dubbed “Ultimate First Wave” in online comments. The veteran superhero team has been missing for eight weeks.

“As you know, I worked closely with Vice-President Frieze, founder of First Wave. He saw the importance of his team as a symbol of American hope. Victor realized they served a vital role in the current war effort against the Neo-Soviet metahuman empire. He prepared a contingency plan: a carefully recruited replacement team should anything happen to them.”

The new roster includes Meteorite, Steel Patriot, Yes Man, Thundra, and Nocturne. New team leader The Black Knight spoke briefly to reporters “I worked with First Wave and was honored when VP Frieze first spoke to me about this plan. I only hope I can live up to their legacy.” He indicated that the new First Wave would be headquartered closer to the capitol and work closely with federal authorities to prevent Neo-Soviet metahuman infiltration and aggression in the US.

ATLANTA OUTBREAK: The CDC confirmed today that the closure and quarantine of major sections of Atlanta would have to be expanded. Aided by the National Guard, CDC agents and medical volunteers have been processing victims and attempting to deal with what has been dubbed Helstromm Syndrome. So far the outbreak of this new virus has resulted in 92 deaths and 312 comatose victims. The government has been carefully tracking travel and possible outbreaks in other regions of the country, but have reported no other incidents outside Georgia.

While the CDC and the Army Medical Corps have ruled out a bioterrorist attack, they have refused further comment. However a series of internal emails leaked by Anonymous confirms ongoing rumors surrounding the incident. In the emails, authorities claim to have traced the disease to a set of dimensional refugees smuggled out of New York City. This has added fuel to the fears of anti-“Dimmie” cohorts. So far all involved agencies have refused to confirm the report.

HONG KONG AFLAME: Explosions rocked Hong Kong for a third night as Chinese officials continued their “containments” following the one year anniversary of the Iron Tiger Crackdowns. Those operation targeted metahumans throughout the countryside last year. At the same time Chinese agencies have moved to high alert following the revelation of Neo-Soviet operatives throughout the region. As a result tensions have escalated between the two superpowers. In particular activities in Mongolia and former Tibet have drawn attention and ire in the highest circles. The remaining Soviet delegation in the United Nations has met formal protests with non-responses and mechanical vetoes. Some experts fear the global economy could degrade even further if open hostilities break out between the two. Others suggest such a conflict might ease pressure on the US, Europe, and the remaining non-Soviet occupied Middle Eastern states.

RAGNAROK IRAQ: Observers emerging from the Iraqi devastation zones have reported a wasteland, now lost to "monsters and mythic beasts." A Neo-Soviet paranormal event created the areas a few months ago. “It is clear that the blood and fluids of the 'Ragnarok Serpent' has acted as a powerful mutagen, transforming both the trapped citizenry and local ecosystem into something dangerous, toxic, and inhuman.” Doctor Patricia Mnoyoko confirmed reports that the Ragnarok Zone has continued to expand, moving further into Turkey and creating even larger waves of Kurdish refugees. Other recent reports have acknowledged Ragnarok beast attacks on shipping and aircraft in the area.

LUTHOR SPEAKS: On Good Morning America, Lex Luthor finally spoke about the thwarted attack against him last week. Unknown metahumans ambushed the industrialist and accused Cabal mastermind as he toured sites in NYC scheduled for renovation. Unidentified supers stopped the attack, leaving behind a tag associated with pro-Cabal sentiments. “I’m a businessman and a visionary.” Luthor said in the one-on-one interview. “Yes, I was part of a group of like-minded thinkers and scientists who operated behind the scenes for many years. But I was also the victim of an unprecedented terrorist attack which kidnapped a whole generation of philanthropists and experts.”

Later he spoke more directly about the Cabal’s effects, “We helped to keep the world safe and stable. Look around today, with metahuman superwars and parahuman shape-changing dimensional refugees. Do you feel safer now?” On the subject of First Wave he spoke only briefly. “I’ve had disagreements with members of First Wave, but I have to thank them. It was only due to their intervention that I was rescued from the so-called 'Phantom Zone.' Mister Miracle clearly believed we had been unjustly imprisoned, so I leave that to your viewers’ consideration.”

NYC MAYORAL RACE: The latest polls of NYC voters show incumbent Richard Grayson falling behind Wilson Fisk in the upcoming mayoral election. Grayson has come under increasing pressure to tighten restrictions on metahuman citizens and dimensional refugees. Additionally clashes between local SATF agents handling super-powered cases and federal S.W.O.R.D. officers have brought Grayson’s moderate policies under increasing scrutiny. On Friday he finally moved to shift the combined Raft/Ellis Island containment facilities over to federal authority. meanwhile Fisk has continued to focus his campaign on rebuilding and stability, appealing to local business-owners. He pointed to the dangers and destruction which have accompanied the rise of metahumans within new York. In a recent speech he alluded to the rise of metahuman gangs, made up of Dimmie refugees seizing control of criminal operations in many sections of the city. Many have accused Fisk of using “dog-whistle” politics with his “New York for New Yorkers” campaign slogan.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

History of Universal RPGs (Part Three: 1998-2004)

AGE OF ADAPTATION
I started gaming in early 1976, when my sister finally digested the D&D box set and taught me. In those days we had unlicensed, knock-off Lord of the Rings miniatures. I still remember what they look like, even the weird set of hobbits nearly indistinguishable from one another. They look like vaguely-shaped lumps of metal to the modern eye. I was young enough that LotR and The Hobbit were my only real fantasy references outside of mythology books. But I knew D&D wasn’t Tolkien exactly. Surely they’d release a version of D&D that was.

Cut to 2016, forty years later. Cubicle 7 has announced a fourth Middle Earth RPG, the first one to actually use D&D.

I don’t know what to think. They’ve done an interesting job with The One Ring, the rpg about walking and meeting people. What will this new one look like? Will it fit? There’s not the best track record on this. I mean I love ICE’s Middle Earth Role-Playing but the actual game really doesn’t scream Tolkien. The sourcebooks, yes. The system no.

It comes back to the big question: can a generic engine be tuned to do a good job with a distinct genre? I’m not sure about the answer, and I’m a goofball who keeps trying to shoehorn and rework engines into other settings. My latest attempt, to create a generic/pick up version of PbtA had mixed success. I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but I don’t think I hit the mark this time.

As you’ll see from this list, many designers remain optimistic about the possibility of universal adaptability. Some here surprised me, some made me nod off, some made me cringe. Enjoy.

I have a Patreon for this project. If you like it, consider becoming a backer or resharing these lists to spread the word.

WORLD WEAKLY NEWS
I only include core books here. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. This is a fertile time for Universal rpgs; the rate of publication drops off after this. If you spot something Universal which came out from 1994 to 1997, leave a note in the comments. 


1. 3D&T (1998)
A Brazilian "anime universal" rpg like MAGIUS or BESM. It appeared first in a slightly different form as "Tokyo Defenders," a game poking fun at Japanese Sentai stories. That received enough attention to warrant a new edition and then a retooling which broadened the premise. Marcelo Cassaro's revised edition arrived as an insert in the Brazilian edition of Dragon Magazine. Another full version appeared Issue 60 of the magazine as a special bonus. After that came numerous new editions and splits in development. The most recent version appeared in 2015.

3D&T itself is a simple, point-buy game. The designer originally intended it as a Toon add-on, but then decided to use his own system. He wanted a game accessible to new players. It uses d6s with a margin of success to determine results. You can see more aboutit at Wikipedia.

2. Story Engine (1999)
Story Engine's one of the earliest game I identified as "Indie." At the store we used to get small press rpgs with a particular feel: clearly short run, often with off-color paper, and ready to sit on the shelves for a long time. Eventually you’d only find them in discount bins or bundled with other non-sellers for a distributor's "store starter" set. I'm listing this as 1999 based on the RPGGeek listing, but I suspect it's a couple years earlier. The indicia has a 1996, but the intro says '99, so I'm not sure.

Story Engine came out of Maelstrom Storytelling, a game of a "a science-fantasy world of supernatural powers and ancient civilizations." Christopher Helton has a nice overview of that at Dorkland. Story Engine focuses on narrative elements and descriptors as major mechanics, so it has a little PDQ and OTE feel. Play is collaborative with a GM. Players call scenes and pass control within them. Characters have adjectives and phrases to define them. For contested actions, players add up their number of appropriate descriptors to create a dice pool. They roll that pool with each odd number being a success and total successes compared against a target number. It reminds me of Lady Blackbird, which also uses trait choice to generate dice with a 50/50 success chance (4+ on a d6).

PIG revised the rules in 2006, expanding them by about 50%. The game got a “Most Innovative Game” nomination for the 2011 Indie RPG Award. I'm not certain if they released another edition that year or if the award back dates.

Another manga-generic rpg also known as GRUM. This one comes from Italy. Artist Shinichi Hiromoto (Star Wars manga, Manga of the Dead, Fortified School) provided original illustrations. I've had a hard time finding out more about this one. One Italian gamer's recollection mentions "twists" or weird events which interrupt play and change the situation. I'm unsure if these intrusions come from the GM or player's side. Apparently more was planned for the line, including official 3x3 Eyes, Saint Seiya and One Piece sourcebooks, but those don't seem to have happened.

4. Action! System (2001)
Gold Rush Games worked with Fuzion for a time, but in 2001 shifted attention over to another in-house system: Action! System. Co-designer Mark Arsenault had worked on their earlier Fuzion games, Sengoku and The Legacy of Zorro. You can see that DNA here, notably in the emphasis on figured characteristics. Action! takes the approach to attributes of WoD and DC Heroes, with two groups (Body & Mind) each of which have a Power, Aptitude, and Resistance stat. Resolution is generally stat+skill+3d6 versus a target number. It's classic and if you've played something like Unisystem or Savage Worlds you'll pick it up.

Action! presents a default level, with some discussion of options and dials. Both bolt-on modules and tone shape the offered campaign levels (Realistic, Cinematic, and Extreme) rather than significant mechanical changes. It’s a clean system with large skill and trait (aka advantage) lists. It has a decent "hero point" system called Action Points. These can be used for strictly mechanical effects but come from role-play. Overall there’s decent game skeleton if you want something easy to grok, but with granularity. If you want lots and lots of skills, tons of combat modifiers, multiple maneuver actions, and several damage types, it may be for you. It isn't ambitious, but Action! finishes the job it sets out to do. GRG supported the system with several supplements, including a The War of the Worlds setting book.

5. Pocket Universe (2001)
Another tiny little universal system from the designer of TWERPS, Jeff Dee. This one packs quite a bit into 30 pages. Characters have four stats: Physique, Deftness, Intellect, and Willpower. These begin at 8 and players then divide 10 points among them. They can then pick from a list of 15 disadvantages and 15 advantages, provided they balance costs between the two. There's some figured stats (HP, Unarmed Damage) and a list of 32 skills. Pocket Universe has that weird mechanic of skill points being based on the Intellect you bought. So Int pays off double. Resolution is based on 2d10 versus stat plus skill, trying to roll below. There's some surprising crunch in here like critical hit and miss tables. Overall it’s basic but playable. One of the few novel mechanics offered is the way it handles damage. Attacks have a three number damage rating, like 2/3/4. You roll a d10 when you hit. On a 1-2 you use the first number, 3-8 the second, and 9-10 the third. Armor is compared against that roll, with it stopping the damage completely if the armor value is double the roll, subtracting from the final damage if less than half of the roll, and halving the damage otherwise. It’s a little wonky. Pocket Universe is pretty standard, but has enough rules you'll have to go back to the book in play.

QAGS first appeared in physical form in '01, with a second edition two years later in '03. The latter edition adds material and makes small revisions, rather than offering a complete overhaul. QAGS, frankly, looks goofy. I never looked at it seriously because of that, despite some flavors of it popping up on my other lists. I'd assumed- based on name and cover design- it would be a less clever version of the TWERPS joke: poking fun at systems and offering the most elemental approach. It's not that, but it is still goofy, just not in the way I thought.

Some of that comes from the overall art, a mix of cartoony, manga-esque, and deliberately amateurish. Some of it from the comic asides and pokes at gaming self-importance (i.e. the "What is a Sidebar?" sidebar). Then there's the term for game points, "Yum Yums." QAGS doubles down on that, admitting players have found the term silly, but they're sticking with it. Players build characters with a trinity of stats: Body, Brain, and Nerve. They then come up with a Job, a nebulous container for all the skills and trappings of a particular background. That's given a value at a cost of twice that in Yum Yums. Players can then take Gimmicks (advantages), Weaknesses (disads), and Skills. Any Yum Yums a player has left they can use during play like Fate Points. The difference is that candy should be used for Yum Yums at the table.

QAGS uses a simple "roll under" mechanic with a d20. It has some interesting add ons and details for resolution and combat, but it’s pretty simple. The Yum Yum economy helps support player competency. That's about it. Character creation, combat, and resolution take up less than half the book and even those sections have large swathes given over to art and extensive examples of play. These examples are solid and consistent throughout.

QAGS reads well, and I didn't think it would. Once I got past the initial goofy tone, I began to enjoy the game. It’s very much a basic engine intended to sketchily model your worlds. The core books offers no skill, gimmick, job, or other lists. The closest you get is a brief equipment section for benchmarks. There's a solid GM section, discussing the challenges of running such a loose game, convention scenario design, genre outlines, and much more.

Hex Games has used QAGS as the basis for several setting books: Aces & Apes (WW1 Anthropomorphic), All-Stars (low budget superheroes), Edison Force, Dynateens, Fratboys VS., the amazingly titled Funkadelic Frankenstein on the Mean Streets of Monstertown, and many more. They have rich library of ideas worth exploring. I appreciate QAGS because it seems to share my desires. I want to be able to adapt cool campaigns and worlds. Generic rpgs and easy base systems make that possible. QAGS lets you do that and do it quickly. I went in ready to dismiss QAGS, but it’s a strong and often overlooked rpg.

BRP inaugurated these lists and 2002 finally saw a more polished and independent release of the system. In the intervening years the BRP booklet had appeared in numerous Chaosium sets and served as the basis for many games, especially in Europe. However this release isn't a great shift forward. Saddle-stapled, it clocked in at a brief sixteen pages. This edition has some of the art and elements from the earlier versions, but lacks some of the charm. lt’s a weird product. Why finally release an independent version after so many years without actually developing and deepening it? We wouldn't see a real "new" BRP until 2008. In that sense this version of BRP probably belongs with the "revision" entry below. But Basic Role-Playing's such a cornerstone I wanted to highlight its stuttered development.

8. EABA (2002)
Another case where a company produced one generic rpg and then shifted focus to a different one. EABA is BTRC's successor to CORPS. EABA takes a slightly different approach to resolution. CORPS has a "roll under" Task Difficulty/ Stat combination mechanic. In EABA attributes generate a die value (so Strength of 7 gives you 2d6+1). Die values shift at +3, so the steps are xd6+0, xd6+1, xd6+2. Skills give additional dice. PCs roll that pool and take the best three die results, plus any modifiers. That's compared to a difficulty. While EABA steps back in granularity and difficulty from CORPS, it still has a simulationist approach to things like combat. The game has a lot of numbers. As a result the hex-based character sheet looks intimidating.

EABA stands for "End All Be All" rpg. BTRC has supported the game with many settings including Age of Ruin, Code: Black, Dark Millennium, EABA Warp World & Timelords, Fires of Heaven, Verne and more. In 2013 they released EABA 2.0, as a tablet-friendly rpg. That includes semi-automated character sheets, a die roller, full hyperlinking, and more. BTRC may be the first rpg company to present an rpg as a modern app.

9. Universalis (2002)
I'm not well versed in the history of The Forge. I know it had a game design community generating striking and new rpgs, many of them story games. I also know it’s been a lightning rod in game design discussions. That controversy's made me wary of digging in too much further. But over the course of these lists I've seen a few games citing the Forge as their test bed. Universalis is one of those and I'd guess among the earliest published ones.

Universalis is a collaborative, GM-less, universal rpg. It isn't like Microscope in that still has a conventional play frame. You tell a story in a way familiar to narrative games. It's a universal game that doesn't require new mechanics, modules, or bolt-ons for different genres. Since everything's defined by the shared fiction you don't need that. The mechanics of control offer the difference.  Despite that apparent looseness, Universalis has a strong central mechanic: an economy of story control and power represented by coins.

Everything is purchased via those coins: theme and genre, the social contract, on-the-fly rules, scene-framing, players actions, control of story components, and so on. There's a fairly deep set of rules covering this and its bidding mechanism. This isn't a loosey-goosey game. Instead the players have to constantly engage with a ton of mechanics. It almost feels like the story elements break the flow of the bidding game. I admire the ideas here and the desire to create fairness and power balance, but it seems overelaborate. Universalis is Interesting from a design perspective, but it feels like modern games have found ways to smooth out these edges without resorting to complex economic systema.

10. Savage Worlds (2003)
I suspect you’ve heard of Savage Worlds. SW grew out of Deadlands, with a rethinking and refining of that system. It came to the table with several strong and smart design goals. First it positioned itself as a system for both miniatures and rpgs. While you could use HERO System for open combats or GURPS to run things like samurai skirmishes (as I did back at 20th Century Gen Con), they didn't really position themselves for that market. Great White* had dipped their toes in those waters with Deadlands:The Great Rail Wars. The company wouldn't make that a major focus, but serving that side of the hobby would remain strong part of the line. That signaled to gamers who liked simulationist play that SW could work for them.

But that didn't come at the expense of Savage Worlds’ second design goal and tagline: fast, furious fun. It focused on a relatively simple mechanic: skill + stat against a task number. But it used a die-type continuum, making it easy to grok and letting everyone use all their dice. You could easily resolve a combat, which could be pretty lethal depending on the scale. Players had access to a decent set of cool stuff in the form of Edges and Hindrances. Like Unisystem or GURPS those had relatively arbitrary costs (which would get tweaked over editions) that didn't require too much calculation. A card mechanic also brought another layer of tactile fun.

Finally Great White also came out of the gate with a number of striking setting books. Unlike the settings presented by Amazing Engine or Masterbook, these offered full "plot point campaigns." They had some options and revelations, but with a tight structure and through-line for the set story. That meant GMs could pick them up and get running a full campaign with relative ease. Evernight, 50 Fathoms, Tour of Darkness, and Necessary Evil showed how diverse SW could be. They backed that up by offering Player's Guides for each of these: essentially the book with all of the GM material cut.

Savage Worlds won the Origins Award in 2003. But they didn't leave the system alone after that. Pinnacle revised the game several times, faster than many other publishers. A revised second edition landed in 2004, then a repackaged Explorer's Edition in 2007, then a Deluxe Edition in 2011 with an accompanying Explorer's Edition of that in 2012. They've also supported it with many other products, notably genres books such as Supers Powers Companion, Fantasy Companion and Horror Companion.

*Of course they were called Pinnacle Entertainment then. But Great White published this edition of SW. Then shifted back to Pinnacle in '05.

The Silhouette engine in one form or another powers most of Dream Pod 9's games (Gear Krieg, Jovian Chronicles, Tribe 8). It had many versions and adaptations, developing out of DP9's original rpg/miniatures hybrid 1995’s Heavy Gear. This book saw them finally draw out the core elements to create a stand-alone set of universal rules. It's a weird beast, on the one hand simple seeming, on the other weirdly crunchy.

Let me give an example. Skills only have six ranks, 0-5. You could go above five but that's already legendary. So that's an easy to track range. Except skill ranks also have skill complexity. "While the Skill level shows how good the character is, the Cpx rating represents how much general knowledge the character has in that particular field." So it’s like tech level built into each skill.

At the same time it has an easy actual resolution mechanic. Roll a pool of d6s and take the highest, adding plus one for each additional "6" rolled after the first. After adding modifiers, compare that to a difficulty. But that assumes you've figured out which of the ten stats and 44 skills apply. It isn't bad, just detailed. Of course given the source that detail extends to the system's treatment of equipment and technology. You get 60+ pages discussing mechanicals and how characters interact with those. That's before you get to the Advanced Rules.

It's smartly laid out and presented, but you have to know going in what you're getting. If you want a universal rpg where you spend a significant amount of time building weapons, battle suits, and vehicles, Silhouette has you covered. It seems to do that job well. And though I'm not a person who digs this kind of tech construction, it has one appeal to me: it looks easier than GURPS.

A German RPG, as you might guess from the title. It aims at detail and simulation, with mechanics drawn from Basic Roleplaying's percentile approach. TRAUMA uses fifteen attributes with associated skills on top of those. There's a complex damage and injury system. One detail I'm curious about is the social interaction system. One blogger wrote (translated via Google): "...relationships between characters (have) an objective measure, in contrast, for example, to offer "A Song of Ice and Fire" role-playing game, the "socially tactical maneuvers". When trauma can be "charged" with specific actions the relationship to another character with points and the one who has more points on the "Bank Account", the opposite may thus even force them to favor." The quoted article has a full overview of the revised edition from 2012.

13. Tri-Stat dX (2003)
Tri-Stat dX builds on Guardians of Order’s Big Eyes, Small Mouth-originated mechanics. It came out the same year they made a big push with Silver Age Sentinels, stingy gamer editions, and d20 versions of their most popular stuff. They would use Tri-Stat dX to back their setting books (Ex Machina, Dreaming Cities) and adaptations (The Authority, Tekumel, A Game of Thrones). Over-extension and problematic management would kill the company within a couple of years.

There’s an interesting idea at the core of dX: you select one die type for a particular campaign or setting. BESM used d6 and SAS d10, so this split the different. The intent is to have the dice demonstrate the power of the characters. So you’d have smaller dice for games with a lower benchmark. Tri Stat dX follows the standard model: point-buy and base stats, in this case Body, Mind, and Soul. Players can then buy skills, attributes (aka advantages, feats), and defects (flaws, disads). For a small book there’s a ton of stuff (80+ advantages with many sub-powers for example). The large skill list has several pages with cost listings for each one depending on the game genre (Modern Day Animal Adventures, Historical Ancient Egypt, Futuristic Soft Scifi, and so on).

That’s probably the biggest takeaway from the book: a ton of detail and a wealth of options. The resolution system isn’t that difficult, but character creation is a bear. It reminds me of high-point level GURPS or Mutants & Masterminds 3e. The game has granularity, so if you’re looking for something quick and abstract, this isn’t it. TriStat dX has multiple small-print pages of weapons, equipment, and vehicles, often a good benchmark for mechanics. There’s little in the way of campaign type discussion beyond the cost variations. The core book’s interspersed with GOO adverts (including weird stock art-looking photos). It also mentions an optimistic “Magnum Opus” creator-owned publishing imprint to release your own d20 and Tri-Stat games. Given how the company ended up, I wonder if anyone got burned by that?

14. Fastlane (2004)
At first I planned to tuck this in with "Universal Adjacent" rpgs: games which can be used across genres but have a framework for setting or story type. For example, I love Microscope and Aria but they have a lens to their universality. Fastlane's a game about characters living fast, risking everything, and indulging for all they're worth. The game positions itself as universal, and I don't necessary want to use tone as a test to exclude games. Look at the number of anime/manga colored universal games on the list. Fastlane broke the tie by allowing me to add a new entry to my big list of names for GM's "Croupier."

They're called that because the game uses a roulette wheel for resolution, though it includes mechanics for using dice instead. It also uses poker chips as a narrative currency. Fastlane's squarely in the story game camp. Characters have five facets: People, Assets, Nerve, Guile, and Sobriety (PANGS). These have a value along with player- assigned descriptors. After setting and character determination, play moves through several stages: Life, Appraisal, Favors & Factions. With those decided, the GM sets up scenes and plays out conflicts. All parties in a conflict commit chips, limited by their relevant facet. Everyone places their chips on various roulette bets to show their risk (Straights, Splits, Columns, etc.). Their winnings determines success. Fastlane's an interesting universal rpg, tuned to one-shot play. It has a surprising depth and offers an interesting option for adding stakes and tension to stories.

15. OPERA RPG (2004)
A Brazilian RPG, OPERA stands for Observadores Perdidos Em Realidades Alternativa. Google translates that to "Lost Observers in Alternate Realities." The designer previously worked on a FUDGE adaptation, which influenced OPERA. It uses a point-buy system with 2d6 for resolution. The base rules included options for magic and psionics, and super-powers, with the usual shopping list for each. OPREA did well for a time. The designer supported it with several settings: Conspiracy Dawn, 1887 - Under the Sun of New Mexico, The Longest Day and Elemental Ring: The New Age.

16. RandomAnime (2004)
Another anime-universal rpg, but one I hadn't heard of. In hunting around I saw that reaction on various rpg forums: gamers know BESM and OAV, but not this. The character sheet looks fairly simple: eight stats, a skill list, and space for "gimmicks" (aka powers and feats). It uses d6s for resolution along with point-buy character builds. Players select from templates to help with those builds (Idol, Princess, Scoundrel). It doesn't have example settings beyond some discussion of mecha. RandomAnime got generally decent reviews, but doesn't seem to have gained a large audience.

The publisher, Infernal Funhouse has a website and storefront, but dated to 2012. I'm not sure if it’s actually functional: there's a vague goodbye note on the landing page. I'm a little surprised they didn't add it to DriveThru, just to get some revenue stream. They did release a GM screen as well as Minionomicon and Collectemon in '05. There's a vehicle and mecha sourcebook promised but not published.

17. On Electronic Releases
Focusing on printed/published games meant skipping a metric shit ton of electronic-only generic games in this period. These range from online compilations to heartbreaker pdfs to more substantial releases. Microtactix “The original downloadable adventure game company” published the sharp looking Simply Roleplaying. JAGS-2, “Just Another Game System,” took a Runner Up in the 2004 Indie RPG Awards. FATE and PDQ Core first appeared as pdfs in these years. There are many more: Impresa Modular Roleplaying System and genreDiversion from Precis Intermedia, POW! Core from aethereal FORGE, Action Spectra from Arrogant Game Design, and beyond.

18. New Editions
I mentioned Savage Worlds’ multiple editions in this period. HERO Games also revised HERO System with 5th Edition in 2002, the “Black Book” edition. But two years later they revised it as HERO System Revised Fifth Edition. That added over 200 pages to the book. HERO Games staffers legendarily tested and confirmed that the book could stop a bullet. Steve Jackson also retooled GURPS, a game which had developed in piecemeal. That had necessitated the release of two Companions to keep track of new options and mechanics. GURPS Fourth Edition kept most of the structure, tweaking a few key elements like character creation cost formulas and the handling of defenses.

19. Universal Adjacent
  • Multiverser: Players play dead versions of themselves. The GM kills them at the start of the game and they gain the ability to take on new lives in other realms. You get to go to a new world every time your character dies.
  • Power Kill: An rpg meta-game bolt on. Intended to be a lens to look at the actions of your in-game characters in any genre.
  • Primetime Adventures: Play out any genre as a TV series. You play actresses & actors within your show. It has rules for commercial breaks, fan mail, and season arcs.
  • Władcy losu: A Polish hybrid rpg-strategy game for any genre. You play Weavers of destiny with powerful psychic powers and using those to manipulate society.