Some day I’m going to find a way of running a game with one of these as a character sheet:
I’ve written a couple of posts about RPGs with martial aspects recently. And I was struggling to find the words as to why most, if not all rpgs fail to simulate combat by going into detail. More detail ought to mean a better simulation, right?
I’m assuming most gamers don’t know much about martial arts. They may know how to run a great game and narrate a combat, but that’s not the same.
But even a GM who does know a martial art has a problem. I’ll admit that I have this problem. I’m consciously aware of it, and I can compensate for it, but I have no idea of how to translate it to a game.
The problem is this. For effective fighting, the principle attribute must be mindset, or preparedness to fight. After that comes tactics, then technique, and finally equipment.
However, as both gamers and martial artists we are fixated on technique. Technique is what you train in the gym; it’s what looks cool. And it’s what is easy for an instructor to teach.
Teaching mindset is not cool. Some people find it repellent; it’s basically training yourself to visualise harming someone else. The people who have the right mindset will always have advantage over people who don’t, even if those people are black belts at whatever. A master once said to me “black belts often get beaten up by drunken idiots with no skill”.
Now for games design, some designers fixate on technique. I am always skeptical of a game that goes into detail over techniques, because techniques function in a very narrow field. Sometimes that’s OK. If you’re designing a metagame to simulate a specific style of fighting (e.g. Lace and Steel‘s fencing) then it can work. But otherwise games like TROS or BW that over-analyse the process of fighting risk getting it wrong.
I’ve been peripherally aware of The Burning Wheel from occasional jaunts into London where I would swing by Orc’s Nest. I never gave it a lot of thought other than to appreciate its fairly austere covers and paperback size.
It looks kind of… grown up. It feels grown up. And I can tell you, it has grown up pretensions.
I’ll say this first off: it feels complete. It feels like a finished product outside and in, which is nice. Luke Crane hasn’t just slapped the first two BW books into a hardback cover, he’s apparently reorganised the content for clarity. Good for him, I appreciate his efforts. The index is excellent, the writing is concise and clear, the text layout is legible.
It’s also good value – it cost me 17 quid for a hardback book with nice paper. And I really like the small book format. Summerland, Spirit of the Century, Savage Worlds and Baron Munchausen are similar size, as are the Everway rulebooks (even if the box has to go on the oversize shelf). Feels much nicer in the hand, easier to read in bed.
I’d heard a few things about the system before. “Fight for what you believe!” is a core idea – putting character motivation and roleplaying at the heart of the game. There’s allegedly a lifepath system that’s been compared to WFRP‘s career system (best thing about that game). The back cover promises “dramatic systems for… trials of belief… tests of nerve… brutal, gut-wrenching combat…” and finishes with the bold statement:
If you’re not careful, Burning Wheel will change the way you play roleplaying games.
I had no idea I was skating the fringes of a cult. Looks like this guy wasn’t careful.
OK, I don’t want to be mean. But for me, for more than 20 years, it’s been “all about the roleplaying”.
But I’m open-minded enough to accept this system, which has committed following and a designer who clearly gives a damn about his product, could show me something new that will completely rock my world.
Now, I don’t really write reviews, and if I did this wouldn’t be one of them because I’ve barely skimmed the text. So what I write from hereon is just first impressions. There’s some stuff I really, really like, and some stuff I really, really don’t. But I do intent to play through character creation, a few sample fights and a few other mechanics with an experienced GM when I’m on holiday in a couple of weeks.
The Hub and the Spokes
The system starts with letting me know that you roll a few d6 and look for successes, and that penalties and bonuses are applied as additional dice. Really? The great gaming revolution of the Burning Wheel (pun intended) is a dice pool system? Of course not. I get why we start with mechanics, how to test against skills, and how to advance them – you need these to frame the rest of the system. But it’s terribly dry for the first few chapters. It only really shows its potential when it starts talking in detail about Beliefs, Instincts and Traits.
The BIT system is fantastic. It made me stop skimming and start reading. No game that I’ve played has such an elegant mechanic to inspire the player to start thinking about their character. Not only are these Beliefs qualitative, they have a mechanical effect on how the player is rewarded in game. From the Artha Wheel:
Setting out BITs for his character, a player states to the GM and the group what his goals in play are for this character. He lets everyone know how and when he wants to be rewarded for playing his character.
I think I always knew that. But it’s quite exciting to see it written down. Now I think a few of my friends will be less impressed with, or possibly even object to the idea of a “social contract” between the gaming group and the GM. But I like the idea.
Artha is like experience points – however it’s separate from advancement, which follows a Runequest like model.
Artha is how the player gets rewarded for roleplaying. The basic idea is, if you roleplay to your beliefs you get Artha points which can be spent later on for boons to your rolls in perilous situations.
I like the way Crane gives specific advice for what to award points for – up to a point. Much of the reward is geared towards “moving the story forward”. Some of the awards involve the whole group voting on Most Valuable Player, which I care less for.
Frankly it sounds a bit like a mutual wanking session. Specifically, it sounds like the wanking we did at uni in the early 90’s with Vampire, before we realised we were all just psychopathic supers with fangs and piercings.
Wanking’s OK. More power to the wankers. And I shouldn’t let my mild dislike of the presentation take away from the strength of the concept. The interaction between Belief and Artha, mechanically rewarding the players for playing to character, is truly exciting.
Lifepath and the Character Burner
Here it gets excessive. Maybe it’s just lack of familiarity, but I kind of resent any system with over 400 skills, especially when I can’t find the skill or career (sorry, lifepath) list online in a handout. Is everyone supposed to buy a copy?
The lifepath idea is just as strong as WFRP‘s careers. Lifepaths are segments of one’s life that provide experience, and have certain lifepaths a PC can progress on to. The book recommends three lifepaths (2 career changes) for starting characters, and increasing the number of lifepaths for more experienced PCs. So much more organic and vivid than allotting points.
You have paths offered for four races (men, elves, orcs and dwarves) and that’s it. Yes, it limits the usefulness if you object to a Tolkein-esque world, but frankly there’s enough variety provided by humans alone to make for an interesting group of PCs.
One interesting feature is characteristics that apply to one race, or one section of society, and not others. Priests, for example, may have Faith while no-one else has. Again I like this feature a lot.
Overall there’s an awful lot of crunch for what I expected to be a freeform, choice centred character generation based on the BIT system. And from hereon it just gets worse.
Duel of Wits and Fighting
Here’s where the “brutal, gut-wrenching combat” comes in. I heartily approve of using the same system for social and physical combat, although my initial reaction to it all was “ugh!” However this guy really liked the Duel of Wits system. (counterpoint: this guy didn’t like the Mouse Guard system, which I assume is the same. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve played it)
I like breaking combat out into a mini game. I like the concept of “volleys” of three segments of actions.
What repulses me is the sheer amount of crunch that comes along with it. Basically both sides (let’s call it GM and player) write down their actions in secret; then as each volley is played out, one side’s actions are cross-referenced with the other side to derive a skill test that may or may not be modified. I think there are options to change actions during each volley, but I’m not sure. I believe it’s supposed to be quick to resolve, which will be a big plus. But I’m at a loss to explain the process myself, let alone to my players.
The number one question is, does being better at the mini game confer an advantage in combat for otherwise unskilled characters? Since the Fight! rules say “it’s a game where the unskilled can outwit the trained and win”, I’d say maybe yes.
If the game is supposed to represent real combat, then I have serious reservations. It works on the basis that one can plan and not know what the opponent is going to do.
The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to.
-Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
p>Twain has a point, although I can tell you that it’s a specific subset of ignorant (using Hope’s terminology) that poses the most threat; otherwise the actions of the unskilled are fairly predictable. This is why no model will ever be a better simulation than a single die roll weighted for physical attributes and circumstance.
The Fight! system goes into excessive detail on combat manoeuvres. From what I read I don’t think there are any omissions (assuming a Counterstrike is synonymous with a Stop Hit). I need to playtest it to see if it works. I’ve got no objection to the mini-game as a way of playing through combat, especially if it’s quick and entertaining. But I fear that it will be neither – I will have to see.
There are several areas I haven’t touched on. It’s not that they’re not useful, or interesting, it’s just that they’re not big features of the game for me. Steel for example is to do with coping with pain, shock and so forth; but there are several horror games that already deal with this well, if not in quite such an immediate way (hesitation is measured in heartbeats).
Burning Wheel is uncompromising. Well, good, that seems to work for some people. I doubt that I will ever have the patience myself to devote enough time to running this game, much less find a group of players with the same patience.
But I could be wrong. Maybe everything will fall into place when I try out some of the mechanics. I’ll report back.
The first Eternal Champion game was Stormbringer, based on Moorcock’s Elric and named after his demonic sword.
The content didn’t change much between the first 3 editions. 3e was the one that caught my attention – UK gaming in the 80s meant White Dwarf magazine, and Games Workshop.
The game might not be totally faithful to the books but it’s a really good game. Rather than conjuring generic demons, there were categories (demons of protection, knowledge, desire, etc). Next to D&D’s bland four-colour superhero magic users and clerics, Stormbringer has real flavour and connects the players to the forces of Chaos. There’s also a whiff of Cthulhu’s nihilism.
4e changed the demon summoning rules for the worse IMO. But otherwise it kept the feel of 4e Cthulhu which was no bad thing. It has a gorgeous cover by Michael Whelan.
5e was briefly renamed Elric!, which was an awful name that let down a great product. The system was streamlined and spells added – making it a hybrid between Stormbringer and Runequest. The original name returned for the last time in 2001. I belive that edition is pretty much a tidied-up Elric!. 5e Stormbringer is stll fan-supported, though the last news on that site was in August 2011.
Corum was produced as a supplement for Elric!.
This is a really good supplement. A completely new magic system that felt more in touch with the books and as characterful as the original Stormbringer and an approach that contrasted nicely. It felt like a brand new game.
Is Darcsyde still alive? Wikipedia thinks so. It’s a shame that they aren’t going to produce their Hawkmoon supplement.
I read Hawkmoon first. Dorian Hawkmoon is a whining self-absorbed ninny; he’d fit right into a Vampire campaign. Aside from that the far future Europe under the fascist mask-wearing Granbretan is a magnificent setting, and pitting the players as guerillas against the totalitarian machine makes for huge potential. Compared with Elric, Hawkmoon’s rpg releases have been low key. Allegedly the first edition (a supplement for Stormbringer) didn’t capture the books well (I haven’t read it). It faded into obscurity in English, but it has a cult following in France.
How I would love to read Oriflam’s french-only 2nd edition.
Somehow that cover manages to get Hawkmoon right – his armour is a futuristic ceramic material, crafted in a way that steel couldn’t be – but the attitude is medieval. Although Mongoose’s version gets the “arcane science” bit of the Tragic Millennium, the art does not do the setting justice.
Having started wearing glasses in the last couple of years, I appreciate readability in books. I love my iPad for reading (though it’s a poor cousin to the Kindle). I can’t be the only aging RPG geek with failing eyesight. And I have to wonder what the hell Mongoose were thinking, printing the Elric and Hawkmoon books on grey paper.
Not only did they print them on a mottled grey background, they printed in tiny text with huge margins, with too many weird fonts. Hawkmoon is just about readable because they’ve kept the conventional chapter headings at the top of the page. Elric is a disaster, with chapter headers on the side of each page, in a weird font.
Chapter headers are not just a cosmetic afterthought, they help the reader orient herself in the text. The way all the Elric supplements are written causes the text from one chapter to run into the next. Magic of the Young Kingdoms is particularly bad, because distinct flavours of magic are rendered down to a uniform grey pulp. When I compare it to the Bronze Grimoire, it’s an embarrassment.
I hear these criticisms of Mongoose that their products look unfinished or badly thought out, and in the case of Elric this is 100% true. For Hawkmoon it’s a little better, but neither inspire me to read them. I’ve just ordered an old stock copy of RQII to have a look at the updated system (Elric and Hawkmoon use their flawed first reboot of RQ) and I don’t have high hopes, but perhaps the thing will at least be printed on white paper.
The covers of the Mongoose offerings vary a lot in quality. The main rulebook and the companion are a joke, but I quite like the Melnibonean Battle Barge on the cover of Bright Shadows – though the uniform green-brown washes out the detail with lack of contrast. Also, battle barges shouldn’t have sails… the Melniboneans have drugged up human slaves to pull the oars.
The edition I like most is probably the 4e Stormbringer, but for content and playability of system, Elric! is hard to beat. For maximum flavour I’d pick the 1e Stormbringer demon system, which is brutal but highly coherent. It may be nostalgia, but I also feel that the quality of supplements for the Chaosium products – particularly the likes of Sorcerors of Pan Tang for 4e – is much higher than later offerings. Luckily for us, pdfs are available.
The copy of Naked Lunch that I read bore the strapline “The Book That Blew ‘Literature’ Apart”. That was kind of how I felt when I watched the film, although compared to the book the film is relatively linear. It has mind altering substances, telepathy, typewriter fetishism, implied spy-vs-spy wars between unknown agencies, and Julian Sands as a big gay centipede. It also awakened my interest in Howard Shore’s film music, and has coloured my approach to running games forever.
OTE is the Naked Lunch as a game. It’s what happens to Fred Madison at the end of the Lost Highway when you’re not sure if he’s alive, dead or dreaming.
I have the second edition, but the one I wanted was 1e with the two figures standing on the edge of the abyss. They could easily be Edith and Freddie from The Invisibles. The 2e art is much less coherent, although the interior layout is probably better.
Now here’s the confession: I haven’t actually read the book all the way through. It’s been sitting on the shelf as one of my aspirant games that I will run one day, some day. If you want a proper review complete with Burroughs quotes, look here (and another blog post here). But before you go there please read the Plea to Reviewers, quoted from page 6:
Much of the enjoyment in playing OTE comes from not knowing what you are up against. To the extent that the bizarre secrets and plots in the GM’s chapters become common knowledge among games, the players’ ability to enjoy the game will be diminished. Please, for the sake of gamers everywhere, keep these secrets to yourself as much as feasible.
This goes for the rest of you gamers as well.
p>I can tell you as a single volume, it’s great value for money. Tweet’s system is minimalist (a trend he continued with Everway) and the whole player’s chapter comes in under 30 pages. Chapter Two is for players of experienced characters, and covers the island of Al Amarja in another 7 pages. After that it’s all for the GM. You get people, places, the city, power groups, a selection of plots and game hooks. Oh, chapter 9 features some handouts for players (a business directory, a local newspaper – the sort of things you can give them when they arrive on the island).
In fact, there’s so much in the core book that I wonder if I would ever have time to run it all. OTE is a fantastic product. To celebrate its 20th anniversary there’s a deluxe copy coming out that I’m seriously tempted by. Hmm, deja vu.
I have the second edition, which is actually quite nice – a matte hardback cover, an introductory booklet in its own pocket inside the back cover, some nice glossy full colour pages in the middle with a map of the world showing places of interest, and distinctive art by Joe DeVelasco who also did the cover art for a number of supplements. The art reminds me of Duncan Fegredo’s Kid Eternity.
Chill doesn’t waste time getting to the system, unlike some games I could mention. That’s not necessarily a good thing, though.
Given how promenent the system is at the front of the main book, I wonder if they were consciously trying to differentiate themselves from CoC’s BRP system. I don’t know what the 1st edition was like (I have a feeling it was much more Hammer Horror) but Chill 2e used a couple of very interesting skill mechanics. Firstly skills came in 3 levels – Student, Teacher and Master – which just provided bonuses on top of their base score which was derived from attributes.
Secondly, success levels were derived by comparing the Target Number (lower equals harder) with a line on a table, and a percentile result then tells you whether you have a critical, high, medium, or low success, or a failure. These could be worked out with a simple formula. A very nice system that I’ve adapted to BRP, with only one drawback – whenever the GM applies a bonus or penalty to the roll, you have to work out the C/H/M/L/F thresholds, so the table was kind of essential.
The middle of the book has a timeline of the SAVE organisation as well as the aforementioned maps, giving the game a global feel that contrasts with the isolation of CoC. This game pre-dates The X-Files by a few years, but that’s the sort of vibe I get – a Monster of the Week game where the characters investigate the supernatural in a world that denies or ignores evidence at the behest of a secret organisation.
And it’s monsters where the game really shines (much like CoC). The main book has a selection of interesting creatures. All have a link to the Unknown, hinting at some kind of supernatural organisation that is absent from CoC. But even better are the focused sourcebooks that cover vampires, lycanthropes and Apparitions:
I only have this sourcebook to comment on, but I’m impressed. If I wanted to run a campaign focussed on ghost hunting, this has everything – a list of different ghosts and spectres with case notes and “medium’s comments” for each type of apparition. I don’t know if the other “creature supplements” are as good but this one sets the bar high.
I also scored a copy of the Chill Companion in a charity shop. While I don’t care much for rules expansions – they tend to add complexity or take away game balance – there are a few nice bits like the discussion of horror subgenres, and when to mix and match in your campaign.
I think Chill offers a lot, but is hampered by a rather arcane system which is over-emphasised in the main book. The real value is in the supplements, which can probably be made to work on their own.
The best thing about Chill is its obscurity. It doesn’t have the baggage of CoC or the WoD or the obsessive focus of Kult. The SAVE organisation is a bit corny but as a platform for supernatural investigation it works better than the alternatives – at least for party motivation and cohesion.
A 3rd edition of Chill was planned for a while, but it looks like that will not be. A shame, because it’s probably run by devoted fans. The 3e cover looks like a Cthulhu me-too, though.
I must admit the first thing that drew me to Summerland was the gorgeous cover art.
The game is a post-apocalyptic rpg set after the appearence overnight of a vast forest covering the world. PCs are Drifters, traumatised people who, because of their traumas are able to resist the Call that summons normal humans into the deep woods (never to be seen again) but at the same time prevents them from integrating into human society.
The setting leaves a lot to the imagination, and I personally like that. I rarely use written supplements, but I really like games that present single strong ideas that I don’t have to carefully mine the text for. Yes, there isn’t really any given reason for the sudden apocalypse, and I’m fine with that. The game has a clear objective which is to plunge the players into a vivid world that’s completely believable – and the spirit of the game just leaps off the page, unlike some games I’ve bought.
The game system treats stress and trauma in very interesting ways. But what I mainly want to talk about is dice. The mechanic is for the player to make a case for using Qualities (aka stats) and Tags (aka skills or advantages) to give a Score for a particular task – the higher the better. But then the GM sets the difficulty, and tells the player to roll a number of d6 – the harder the task, the more d6 the player rolls. If they roll under they achieve their Intent, and if they don’t – there are Consequences.
This does two interesting things:
Firstly, it makes the difficulty of a task very tactile. If a player is told to roll 2 dice she knows it’s going to be fairly routine; but if she has to roll four dice, she can feel it’s going to be a slim chance.
Secondly, the dice are both added and individual successes counted. For example characters can invoke their personal Trauma; when they do, if any 1s are rolled they can be applied to the Trauma score.
Summerland is the kind of RPG that will polarise opinion; for me it’s kind of like Everway – a very focused an minimal system with a very open world. That’s my kind of game.
This year is the tenth anniversary of me losing my hair.
It went like this: a coin-sized bald patch appeared on my scalp. I went to the doctor and he took some blood, and gave me steroid ointment which did nothing. More of my hair fell out and I started to feel pretty awful all the time with fatigue and ‘flu symptoms. Eventually when all of my hair had dropped out I went back to the doctor who said “we wrote to you, didn’t you get the letter?”
For a while I thought that was the end of it – it should have been the end of it.
A link between Alopecia and Thyroid disease is suspected, but isn’t fully understood.
Most doctors shrug their shoulders and mutter something about the relationship between different autoimmune diseases.
My hair hasn’t come back – it still grows, but it’s usually so brittle that the follicles snap off as soon as they get outside the skin, so I’m completely bald. (On the upside I shave about twice a year).
About a year ago my nails also began dropping out. That prompted more trips to specialists.
They spotted the horribly itchy rash I had. Since the hair, nail and skin clinic only opened once a month the repeat visits went over the course of 4 months, and on each visit I had to describe my symptoms again, strip and be prodded by a different doctor.
Unsurprisingly, that consultation ended shrug of the shoulders and muttering about it being all part of the same, nondescript autoimmune condition affecting my hair and nails.
The rash became unbearable, responding to changes in temperature, and could not be managed by emollient cream. So I started researching links between dermatitis and thyroid condition.
Secondly, DH is treated by a lifelong gluten-free diet.
Finally, there may be a gluten-thyroid link.
The dermatology clinic had tested for celiac disease – something that both worried and angered me. Was I going to need a gut biopsy? And if thyroid patients could be at risk from developing other autoimmune diseases, why hadn’t I been screened years ago?
The tests came back negative. But as Kresser mentions the celiac tests aren’t reliable. Furthermore, DH sufferers may present with less intestinal damage than celiacs, though I appear to have no real symptoms there anyway.
But a gluten free diet wasn’t going to kill me, and if it made a difference to my skin it would be worth it.
I’ve been off gluten for a week, and all I can say is I feel different. Most certainly better than I have been, though breaking it down isn’t easy.
I have to be careful that I’m not mistaking the sensation for something else. Last weekend I came back from a 2 week business trip in the US where I travelled through 11 states, so I have been under a fair amount of stress. There is a link between thyroid function and cortisol (and also insulin, which may explain my difficulty to lose weight despite an active lifestyle and calorie control).
But there are specific symptoms that have improved. My skin has cleared up a lot. My digestion has changed, mostly improved. But the two I notice the most are that the insomnia has suddenly gone, and that I am pain free.
Being pain free is a weird sensation, but I know what it feels like because I felt it the first day I took thyroxine. The pain was such a low level I could never describe it as a symptom to the doctor. It’s sort of like recognising an absence of car noise in the country.
The insomnia was something I thought unrelated – just due to over-indulging in booze. But there are other factors that present, like not regularly getting up for a pee, and losing the acid reflux. But insomnia is supposedly a symptom of over-active thyroid.
And according to science I shouldn’t be feeling these changes in one week. Antibodies can persist in the body for up to six months, giving rise to the processes that lead to symptoms. But ten years ago my doctor told me that it might take a few weeks for me to feel different on thyroxine – and that was instantaneous.
When I was in the states I dropped in on friends in Baltimore. I slept on their sofa bed which was a good deal less comfy than the hotels I’d stayed in previously, but I slept the best I had all week. They eat gluten free, so I ate gluten free. Was my better quality sleep influenced by that, or was it just because I’d managed to unwind after a week of travel?
I want to be charitable to my doctors. The GPs I can sort of forgive – their job is to spot something they can’t explain immediately and send the patient off to a specialist. But I know enough of experimental method that most of the doctors I have seen lack rigour. The stock response is to wait and see, and come back if it gets worse. Which is fine if the patient is self-aware to realise that their symptoms aren’t getting better, or if they have clear indicators (such as the level 2 rupture in my calf muscle that the doctor said was probably just a strain, and would get better in a week – that took 4 months to heal). You feel a fool going back to the doctor repeatedly for nondescript symptoms.
I’ve also been arrogantly told that my metabolism has no part to play in my being overweight, since my TSH levels are normal. I should be able to shift my fat, and therefore I’m probably lying about my calorie intake or the amount of exercise I do. Never mind the food diary, the 100 miles of riding per week and the failure to shift more than a kilo over two months.
If celiac disease is a potential feature in thyroid patients, why was I not screened in 2002? And if Dermatitis Herpeteformis is symptom of gluten intolerance, why wasn’t I biopsied?
So much of my treatment has been focused on managing the condition rather than treating the root cause, like anti-fungal shampoo where no evidence of fungal infection presented.
I don’t think I will ever get a definitive root cause to my condition, and if gluten is the cause then I’d have to start eating it again to provoke the symptoms so they can be observed. I’ll settle for feeling better than I have in years.
It’s 3 weeks until the next ‘con holiday and I’m looking forward to running The Villa again.
Last time I used a lite homebrew system, this time I may try to adapt the Summerland system.