Mountain Lion

I’m going to sound like a dreadful fanboy now, but I just got Mountain Lion, and I really like it.

Screen Shot 2012 07 31 at 17 40 10

Since my rant on Windows 8 I’ve been eager to see Apple’s effort, hopeful that 10.8 will be the evolutionary, rather than revolutionary release that is expected of the even numbers. Evolutionary because there was a lot I liked when I tried out Lion – I don’t want those features to change.

I’ve also been expecting my macbook to turn into a smouldering slag-heap where Windows 8 pixies dance and point and laugh at me. So far, this has not happened.

Briefest of rundowns on the new system:

  • Really great multi-touch
  • Better, more precise and responsive bluetooth trackpad
  • Mission Control replaces Spaces – after a bit of practice, I vastly prefer the new desktop
  • Full-screen apps dynamically taking their own Space on the virtual desktop
  • Lauchpad – iOS-like way to select apps, seamlessly integrated with the rest of the desktop

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p>Downsides? It does seem some of my apps take longer to load now. I don’t know if that’s because the new system is optimised for SSD, or if some core apps are cached for fast loading but the majority of my apps aren’t. Time Machine seems to take a bit longer to start.

The rest of it I can take or leave – the new versions of Mail et al look good and it’s nice that they operate in the way I’d expect to find them on the iPad.

I’m waiting for something bad to happen but so far all my writing apps work and the desktop seems stable. If I were using the mac for more complex creative stuff (like music) I would probably be a bit cautious with the upgrade. My reckless upgrade cost me £13.99.

Straight with Chaser

Always amused when I can enter 1902 as my DOB on an alcohol website.

Today I am mostly drinking Chase Distillery gin. I’ve been avoiding grain spirits since the gluten free thing started – even though the chances that gliadin will find its way through the distillation process are vanishingly small.

Chase vodka is made entirely from potatoes, and it’s very nice indeed – although the marketing blurb on the label likening it to buttery mashed potatoes is laying it on a bit thick.

Chase gin is made from apples. I’ve got a G&T right now. Unlike the Gordons or Bombay Sapphires that grab you by the collar and scream I AM GIN at you, the Chase gin is more like a polite cough. Very English. I’m mixing it with full-fat tonic from Waitrose which doesn’t have any artificial sweetener.

Gnt

That green stuff is a couple of sprigs of lemon thyme. Break it into little bits and crush between the teeth at each sip. Lovely.

(Fripp and Eno on the turntable.)

Windows 8 Release Preview

I downloaded and installed the Win8 preview alongside XP on my old PC (which I only really keep around for playing Thief).

Now I was probably expecting a bit much when I asked it to run some games, since most of my content is from XP-era and earlier. Steam installed fine but none of the content I downloaded would work. Valve are particularly negative about Windows 8, so maybe this is a symptom of what’s to come.

Good – Clean Interface

There are some good things about the new system, and a couple of annoying things. The windows look cleaner all round, like they’ve taken the best aspects of Aero Glass and the Classic borders. I like the start page too:

Windows 8 Start Menu

OK, it’s clear that their primary market is tablets but that’s probably a good thing. The combination of colours and icons is very visible.

The other good thing from a usability POV is that apps tend to be in fullscreen by default (at lease IE is, and I assume Office will be). Not having borders, toolbars and other distractions is a big bonus.

Bad – Cognitive Dissonance

The lack of a start button is questionable (despite arguments that it’s irrelevant) and it’s not hard to work out how to launch applications – however, you need to click between screens to get from the desktop to the Start screen where you can find all of your apps.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview Desktop Mode Windows Explorer 2

It took me a while to work out why this bugged me so much. Then I realised – in order to open an app in the Desktop Mode, I had to go back to the Start screen by moving the mouse pointer into a corner, waiting for a toolbar to unhide, then clicking on it. So, more clicks.

But it’s the act of transitioning between the start screen and the desktop that’s jarring. Maybe in time the user is supposed to learn to work in one mode or the other all the time. But I suspect the majority of users won’t, and it’s going to piss them off.

OSX managed to implement iOS features (mainly screens of icons) pretty much seamlessly with their core interface, and yet retained both types of program launch options. Win8 doesn’t appear to do either. It seems the Win8 uberOS is trying very hard to look different from iOS and Android, and shooting itself in the foot in the process.

Ugly – We Want Your Details

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p>To install Win8 I had to set up a Microsoft Live account. Well, OK, I had to set up an iTunes account to use my iPad. But I didn’t have to do that for my Macbook – there, the app store is optional.

Fair enough, MS didn’t ask me for my credit card details. But it did ask for email address, password, and personal information with me having to opt out of newsletters.

But the worst thing was that I realised that to log onto my computer, I needed to use my MS live account id and password. I know this because when I forgot my account password (I’d entered it with a fairly random password, thinking it was just registration information) I couldn’t log on. Then, when I asked MS to reset my password, I could log on again.

In other words, my PC has become intrinsically tied to my MS Live account. I guess if an internet connection is available, it phones home on boot. I’m kind of creeped out.

So far there’s a lot of bad and not much good. Like all other versions of the OS I may learn it eventually through necessity. But I never, ever used any version of Windows by choice. I always chose to use something else – and I only came back to Windows for games. Seeing as MS no longer have a monopoly on gaming, Windows really doesn’t have much to offer.

The final straw? The new bootloader doesn’t boot NTLDR based OS directly – it requires the machine to be restarted to boot into a legacy OS. Frankly I don’t see the Win8 partition surviving the next 24 hours.

Open Up

These days, I prefer a Mac to a PC, and I prefer to write in my office at home – with music if I’m inclined, with a cat if she’s inclined, and usually with a nice cup of tea.

I have fewer options at work unfortunately – there’s a kettle for tea and I have headphones. The key difference is at home, music is optional – at work, headphones are required.

For some time I’ve been struggling with the open plan office and its incumbent distractions. The number one problem is sound. No surprises there: we have a completely open layout with very low partions that provide almost zero sound barrier, and coupled with a low ambient noise this means voices carry loud and clear for long distances.

It’s very difficult to articulate why it’s a problem, when everyone around you seems to be coping. Except they’re not coping – I’ve had colleauges admit that they don’t do productive reading work in the office, and have to take reports home. That’s since been raised at my manager’s level – with the consensus that employees shouldn’t have to do that, and the company should provide an environment where quiet work is possible.

Aside from the fact that one of the worst culprits for loud conversations is one of those managers, I don’t expect anything useful to be done anyway. Asking people to shut up modifies behaviour for a few weeks – during which time the complainant is likely to be just as uncomfortable for creating a confrontational atmosphere. There is no money and no energy to redesign the office workspace.

Aside from unwelcome conversations, we have sudden loud noises like a weekly fire alarm test, and dryers in the toilets that can generate a sound pressure of 100 dBA. As Julian Treasure points out, a sudden loud noise is disruptive not only because it disrupts thought and speech, but it actually triggers hormonal release and causes stress.

The video is useful for explaining exactly why unwanted sound is disruptive. I used to listen to music to block out background noise, but I found that counterproductive (when I really have to think, such as when blogging, I prefer silence). Birdsong does indeed work better.

But now I mainly use simplynoise.comBrownian Noise even at low volume can mask speech enough to make it unintelligible, and thus much easier to tune out. Laughter and other loud voices still get through, but the impact is greatly reduced because I stop trying to process recognisable speech.1

As the issue of open plan is gaining visibility there are some designs that seek to increase the level of ambient noise through pink noise generation at workstations.

After noise the next offender is lack of privacy, and particularly the habit of others coming up to your desk to have a quick chat. Open plan is often cited as enabling teamwork, communication and creativity. The problem is creativity as part of an interacting team is not the same as individual creativity which is the prevalent mode of solitary working at a computer.

Of course, complaining about being interrupted will brand you as a misanthrope and not a team player. If you encounter this, you could throw it back – if they claim to be a team player then why not recognise other team member’s needs for privacy?

Last on the list of distractions is the computer screen itself. Being overloaded with email alerts, popups stealing focus, and a desktop or toolbar cluttered with colourful icons is distracting. But that’s all fixable. If I can shut Outlook down I will do so (not easy since it’s got my meeting alerts on it). Lync – which is always on in our intranet – can be set to do not disturb. Hide the taskbar and the desktop icons, and set the wallpaper to something non-threatening. And for writing I prefer to use markdown via Writemonkey (which can run as portable, so I don’t need admin rights) rather than MSWord.

It’s not perfect, and I’d rather not have to have a headset glued to my ears all day (though it does cut down on interruptions if everyone think’s your in a call). The choice then comes down to dealing with crass behaviour. I have to say, my patience is wearing thin.

I guess if I communicate my displeasure with a cricket bat I’ll be accused of not being a team player again. Sigh. At least I can avoid the noisy hand dryers in the toilets – there’s a perfectly good pot plant next to my desk.


[1] A case in point – speech in a foreign language doesn’t disturb me nearly as much. 

 

Divinity and Trickery

Fludd triangle

It’s easy to discuss realism in systems when it’s about a property you understand. I can go on ad nauseum about realism in rpg combat. A doctor will know a lot more about injury. An equestrian will know all manner of details about horse riding and a physicist will know about quantum mechanics. We (hopefully) then decide how useful it is to go into depth on each of those subjects. But overall we’re representing something we know and understand.

For most of us, we neither know nor understand magic. Of course we’ve read our Crowley or Dee or Agrippa; we’re interested in the Tarot and comparative religeon and folklore and the Tree of Life. But these are not trivial to translate to a game (and in doing so, they can be trivialised).

When we think of magic as it applies to our escapist fantasy, we think of defying nature with super powers. We also think of being able to do something that others – PCs and NPCs – cannot. And the gamer in us thinks of it as a means to an end; a trump card.

Axes of Magic

I’m going to analyse several game magic systems. To do so, I’ve taken the approach Greg Stolze uses for his superheroic histories, and considered four axes of expression for powers, spells and magic:

1. Exoteric vs Esoteric

My day job is chemistry. A lot of people don’t know what that entails, but at least they know what chemists do all day. We make chemicals. In the context of 21st century earth, it’s  exoteric knowledge. But go back several hundred years and I’d be an alchemist, a magician capable of preparing all manner of enchantments and potions, and likely to end up suspended head first in a vat of warm marmalade for being a witch.

On this scale a 1 would mean a completely exoteric setting where magic is used as we use technology; it’s relied upon, and mages are service providers to those who don’t understand the science. A 5 would mean magic is not known or believed as a science, deemed impossible, and probably feared.

2. Constrained vs Unconstrained

This question is all about lists of spells. It’s really a mechanical property, and for a lot of games it’s one of convenience. Do you rigidly restrict what your PCs can do with a list of spells – possibly organised into tiers – or do you give them skills and let them cast spells from first principles?

A 1 on this scale means Vancian magic, memorising each spell daily. Going up the scale things become more flexible – say, using essence points for casting, varying power of spells, and beginning to draft your own spells. By 5 it’s completely freeform and based around a few loose principles. 

3. Public Access or Members Only

This is a slightly different question to Exoteric vs Esoteric; it’s about access. Can anyone learn a bit of magic, or does it require years of training/special favours/raw talent?

At 1 it’s completely public; any run-down schmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can invoke the almighty and expect results. At 5 it takes rare talent, dragon blood or a scion of the goddess to work miracles.

4. Continuous or Discontinuous

This I feel is the most important question. Does your magic operate in isolation, or is it part of a continuous system of principles? At 1, there is one single system that all abide by, regardless of paradigm; at 5, powers are evolutionary divergent and any reseblence to one another is superficial.

Crucially at level 5 powers do not interoperate. There is no way to use Power X to counter Power Y. Sounds dumb? Well, it rarely happens by design – usually it’s a loophole in a system that was overlooked in playtesting. Psionics – especially telepathy and telempathy – have this problem.

Take it down a level to 4, and powers still don’t operate as part of a continuum – but countermagic does exist. So you design powers specifically to counter other powers.

A subset of this question is Secular vs Contextual: are all magics viewed as part of a universal pattern, or are they self-contained within their own paradigm? I don’t want to dwell on this one too much because I think it’s generally flavour rather than mechanics, but it’s important for some games (e.g. Mage).

Snowflakes

One of the many great things about Garth Nix’ Sabriel is the way the protagonists interact with the dead through their magic. But regardless of how they’re used Sabriel’s bandolier of seven bells is nothing more than a few very handy anti-necromancer spells.

What makes Sabriel an interesting mage is the focus of her magic. If you want your players to be Sabriels then you have to empower them to focus their character into magic.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that as long as your axes rest on or near 1, you will never have a magician who is a special and unique snowflake. At least, not as a magician (as a character, sure). It all depends on what you want to run and play.

Analysis

I’m going to finish with a few examples.

Mage

Esoteric (5); mostly Unconstrained (4); Members Only (5); moderately Continuous (3).

Mage

Here’s the rub with Mage: it’s supposed to be a paradigm-based game, but the actual paradigms presented don’t really affect overall magic other than making foci different depending on your flavour of magic. Otherwise it revolves around the same 9 spheres. Its unconstrained as it allows for free-form magic, which is nice – but I found it difficult to use in practice.

Ghosts of Albion

moderately Esoteric (3); moderately Constrained (3); moderately Accessible (3); mostly Discontinuous (4)

 

Occupying the middle ground this game exists in a world where magic is common to all players but not necessarily to the world. Individual spells are designed, so it’s fairly constrained. The discrete spells make it discontinuous.

Basic D&D

Exoteric (1); Constrained (1); variable Access (1-5); Continuous (1)

D D basic

Access is variable in D&D – on the one hand you have to be a Magic User or a Cleric, but on the other hand there are swords +1 and potions of healing scattered all over the place. It’s almost completely Continuous in that there’s no thought to differentiating between magical philosphy (though I believe this changes in later editions of AD&D).

Runequest et al.

Exoteric (1); mostly Constrained (2); Public Access (1); moderately Continuous (3).

 

Sharing the same roots as D&D magic is mostly constrained to spell lists, but unlike D&D it’s available to all. RQ attempted to draw together magic under one underlying system that enables spells to be resisted and uses a common currency – POW and Magic Points. Differentiating between Shamans, Priests and Sorcerers is its strength, otherwise the system feels a bit clinical.

Wild Talents

mostly Esoteric (4); variable Constraint (3); Public Access (1); mostly Discontinuous (4)

Wt2 cover

Because Wild Talents covers such a range of superhero genres it’s difficult to tie it down to a point on the axes. But considering the system, it’s generally a world where anyone can be a superhero (access 1), but superpowers aren’t generally known or understood (esoteric 4). Constraints vary because the system is very flexible but requires a detailed point build. Most importantly the powers are almost completely Discontinuous making opposing one power with another labour intensive.

Everway

mostly Exoteric (2); mostly Unconstrained (4); variable Access (3); mostly Discontinuous (4)

 

In Everway magic is expected, although it’s a mystery to many. Designing your powers is only loosly covered by the rules, and any character can be a mage – but only at character generation. However all magic is treated in isolation – interoperation is entirely at GM’s call. Some fans have expanded on the system to give guidelines for resistance, which makes it playable.

I resisted doing more – but you could apply the same analysis to Nephilim, Continuum or Amber.

Last Word

<

p>Of course the gaming relativists and the old school anti-Forge reactionaries will say “who cares? As long as the players are having fun!” And I couldn’t agree more. But I believe that system does matter, and there’s no place it matters more than the powers used to express the fantastic elements of character.

Unisystem Round-Up

Ghosts of Albion finally turned up, along with a cheap copy of Terra Primate.

Uni

Now, what turned me on to the whole Unisystem line was the modular nature of the systems, which fit together well enough for a range of options for low powered, urban or science-fantasy games.

Going over the new aquisitions first:

Just as AFMBE serves the zombie genre way beyond Night of the Living Dead, Terra Primate goes beyond Planet of the Apes. It gives a grounding for any kind of enlightened ape scenario – genetic enhancement, natural selection, mutation; humans as equals, as superiors, as slaves, as aliens. The product is impressively focused on what’s important in the setting – namely how humans and intelligent apes would react to one another. Gamegeeks review here, Gentleman Gamer review here.

Ghosts of Albion promises a Victorian Buffy-esque romp and delivers. The magic system is comprehensive and clean, and it presents faeries and ghosts as well as a completely different type of vampire to the Buffyverse kind. Gamegeeks review here.

Following my rant on generic systems, the main purpose of this post is to catalogue the different features of the games and supplements I own. I’ll try to be brief:

  1. Angel Corebook

  • A “demon creation system” to build your own demon race
  • A point-based system for developing factions, agencies and so forth
  • A load of qualities and drawbacks that are well suited to urban fantasy

2. Buffy Monster Smackdown

  • Basically, more monsters. Qualities for monsters and monstrous characters that complement the demon creation system in Angel.
  • A lot of Buffyverse specific monsters.

3. Buffy Magic Box

  • A spell creation system.
  • All of the spells from the series. Hey, it’s useful to have lists.
  • How to bring Witchcraft spells into your game.

4. Ghosts of Albion

  • More supernaturals.
  • Another spell creation system. I’ve yet to play with it, but it looks as good or even better than the Magic Box.
  • Victoriana, if you like that sort of thing.

5. Terra Primate

  • Psionics.
  • Considerations for intelligent apes. With thought, could be turned to any intelligent race evolved from an animal. Dinosaurs, anyone?
  • Qualities for humans in an ape world (assumed the same for all Classic Unisystem).
  • Ideas for Apeworlds.

6. All Flesh Must Be Eaten

  • Zombie Creation. Basically, even more monster qualities. The key here are the qualities around spreading the zombie plague, and how fast/strong/aware the zombies are.
  • Qualities for apocalypse survivors.

7. One of the Living (AFMBE)

  • More qualities for survivors.
  • A load of ideas for deadworlds.

8. Atlas of the Walking Dead (AFMBE)

  • A load more qualities for zombies.
  • Undead from around the globe. The same depth and quality as I’ve seen in Chill supplements.

9. Witchcraft

  • All the different magic systems you could want. I generally find them harder to use and less flavourful than any of the equivalents in other games (including psionics, which is identical to Terra Primate).

<

p>That’s it. There’s a ton of other settings – especially for AFMBE. Most importantly all of the differnt options hang together very nicely.

RPG Spotlight: Nephilim

Around the start of the 90s, we all went apeshit for modern fantasy-horror where YOU are the monster.

Nephilim

We all know Vampire, the painfully cool game exploring the angst of an immortal superbeing in a gothic-punk1 milieu. Shortly thereafter the me-toos like Nephilim (1992) and Immortal: The Invisible War (1993) crawled out of the woodwork, and towards the end of the decade we have what might be called the “second generation” of such games: Witchcraft, In Nomine, Nobilis – with less emphasis on personal horror and more on urban fantasy. Now we have a diverse and refined third generation with games like the Dresden Files, Sorcerer, and the New WoD titles like Scion (with White Wolf now having to differentiate itself in the market it helped create).

Continuing a theme of nearly unplayable games, Nephilim’s problem is one of occupying time. Sure, it’s great that you’re a reincarnated spirit who has possessed and corrupted borrowed a mortal for your simulacrum and is slowly turning them into a mythological creature in your image. You have all of these past lives, and frankly you’re not bothered about dying, or ageing, and probably not fussed about the lives of the ants scurrying around you. You probably have this spirit-quest for Golconda Agartha going on, so good luck with that. But at the end of it, when characters are fantastically long lived and death has no meaning, why act now? Why not just hang about in your castle or antique shop or wherever pouring over ancient texts for decades on end?

GMC

Actually, the Gamesmaster’s Companion has a section entitled “What Do You Do With Eternity?”. Of all of the supplements this offers the biggest bang-for-buck. The Campaign Design chapter is applicable not just to this game but any game in the genre – like the Superheroic Histories chapter in Wild Talents it’s a systemless commentary that’s probably useful to anyone – so if you see a battered copy going for cheap, I recommend it.

Incentive to act will usually come from antagonists – which for this genre2 broadly falls into two camps:

  • greedy, paranoid, vengeful or otherwise frightened humans
  • the supernatural’s own kind, participating in an occult Great Game

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p>Secret Societies fill in the first camp, and seem to be universally composed of conspiracy theorists who are certain the nephilim are up to no good and want to rule humanity – never mind that the nephilim are so passive that it’s a wonder they can run an antique business, let alone pull the strings of world governments.

The second is covered by the Major Arcana – the 22 tribes of the Nephilim. These are barely sketched out in the first book, although they get their own supplement. Tribes is possibly the wrong word since they’re more like the nWoD Vampire Covenants. There’s quite a bit on how the Arcana interact but any real antagonism is understated. Overall it’s interesting and detailed, but it side-steps a number of questions it should be answering – namely what the Arcana look like in motion.

Major Arcana

Sadly I don’t own Secret Societies to compare it with the core book content or Major Arcana. However it does look like the core Nephilim book deliberately withholds content for later publication. That’s actually rather unusual for a Chaosium property, but note that this game was licensed from Multisim who have since released much more content in French that will probably never get an English translation.

The withholding of additional setting content is forgivable; but some of the other choices are questionable. Not one but two supplements actually change core mechanics, so I wonder why they weren’t in the book to start with. Firstly there’s the Chronicle of the Awakenings which mainly expands on past lives – including some detail on what some of the secret societies were up to during history – but also completely re-writes the rules for nephilim metamorphoses (changes in outward appearance from human to supernatural). The new rules base the metamorphosis not on a simple power increase but on changes in emotional personality traits – great for roleplaying but I’m not convinced it adds value. It’s just different.

Liber ka

But the most radical change comes in the form of Liber Ka. In the main book each kind of magic is given three tiers or circles, and covers Sorcery, Summoning and Alchemy. In Liber Ka there’s just three tiers full stop (Casual, Ritual and High magic). Possibly these simulate occult practice more effectively but I don’t think they really add anything to the game because, in the end, they’re just a different list of spells – and of limited compatibility with the core book. And my reservations about a game’s ability to simulate combat apply equally to magic. It’s only going to matter to a handful of people whether magic is truly representative of real-world practice. For everyone else magic should be intriguing, resonant, but ultimately a means to an end. It’s the results and how they affect the narrative that matters.

I think this is at the heart of the problem. Nephilim calls itself an “occult roleplaying game”, and it’s pretty uncompromising. I applaud that, I’m just not sure the way it’s been presented is workable. It’s too concerned with occult science and not enough with how humans respond to occult science.

As for the system, it’s Chaosium’s BRP tweaked for a rather complex magic system. All I can say is it differentiates itself strongly from the buckets-of-dice settings. The French 3rd edition has a different system.

Emily Dresner is doing a FATE conversion, although the latest blog post is 6 months old at time of writing. But I hope she sticks with it. Personally I can see a lot of the Unisystem stuff I bought recently being highly applicable – use the Ghosts of Albion or Buffy Magic Box magic spell building, all the ritual magic and rules for supernatural organisations and even the demon-building rules from Angel, or you could use the more authentic occult systems in Witchcraft.

For me the most compelling content is not the occult stuff, it’s the past lives. The book has a load of time periods with a breakdown of careers and skills for each. Handled well, that could make for a mesmerising beginning, planning where the collected PCs’ past lives intersect. But it also makes for a slow start to the campaign; longer than the interminable wanking that is the Vampire prelude. And in the end you’re encouraging a player to add screeds of backplot. If you’ve got the energy for that, and if you subscribe to the Burning Wheel tenets of player belief and instinct driving the whole game, it could be a sublime experience. If you just want to take names and kick ass, possibly not.


  1. As in, despised by both goths and punks.

  2. Well, really any genre. Either an external agency who opposes your organisation, or an antagonistic subset of your own organisation. That’s it.

The Gentleman Gamer

One of the other rpg video review blogs I like is the Gentleman’s Guide to Gaming. Here he is talking about Wraith: the Oblivion:

Nice to see a smartly-dressed young man, don’t you think? I think his review is pretty much spot on – covering how different and estranged the game is from its Storyteller stable-mates, and crucially the problem of how the hell do I play this game?

I own quite a few games where that’s a non-trivial question. For some it’s a question of mechanics (e.g. Continuum), but for Wraith it’s a problem common to a lot of supernatural modern fantasy games that veer towards style over substance. When you have a character who’s immortal and can simply wait for their enemies to die of old age, where’s the pressure to act? And when the absolute best outcome you can achieve for your PC is to stop playing, what motivates players to start? These aren’t negative questions, in fact being able to answer these for any game is a very positive, empowering thing.

I may spotlight my Wraith collection at some time, but for now I’ll just say that it is a fantastic game, and I am not surprised one bit that it’s the one of the original 5 (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, Changeling) that didn’t get a reboot (not counting Orpheus or Geist, which are at best distant cousins). It’s an almost impossible act to follow.

WraithOblivion2ndLogo

One Rule To Roll The Role

Timothy Brannan – of the Ghosts of Albion rpg – has a thing for Victorian games. I was surprised not to see the Kerberos Club in his list.

Kerberos Front Cover

This game pisses me off a bit. Mostly I’m bitter because I bought the Wild Talents version, which is a game I have come to loathe. That doesn’t mean it’s bad – on the contrary, it’s very very good. It’s by Ben Baugh who wrote MAOCT. But the WT version came out first, and then Arc Dream released other versions in simpler, better systems – Savage Worlds, and now FATE.

Eh, face it. I probably wouldn’t use those systems either.

The entertainment industries have a history of getting us to pay for things twice, although getting a Kerberos Club fan to pay for the WT version once and then the FATE version a few months later (after they’d done the conversion to FATE themselves, no doubt) is taking the piss a bit.

Why couldn’t they release a systemless sourcebook and then offer condensed rules that weren’t scattered throughout the book as an add-on? We know the answer – it’s because those extra rules add perceived value to a product where margins are only slightly impacted by a 10% increase in book size.

This is not at all new – we’ve been buying generic games for years.

Generally Speaking

The first games I played were Basic D&D and Traveller). I only played them infrequently though; by the time I was participating in a regular gaming group, generic systems were in vogue.

That felt like an exciting time in gaming history – where the industry said “go ahead, run any game you can think of – we’ll give you the tools”. Well, almost.

There are two approaches to making a generic system. One, you sell a skeleton system and then genre books on any topic you like. This covers GURPS, Amazing Engine and more recent games like Savage Worlds.

The other option is to sell complete RPGs based on a core system (or engine if you’re pretentious). Since there are only so many ways you can roll dice it’s not surprising that many modern games are franchised systems.

(That makes independent games a rare and precious thing – and at their very best, such games express the game world through their mechanics. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now).

What all of these games offer is vendor lock-in. Buy our game with its cool setting, then you can buy a companion game which is compatible with the first. Pretty soon you’ll be our fanboy.

Top Down

Vampire  The Masquerade 2nd Edition

In a lot of cases other “top down” generic systems are playing catch-up with Storyteller for visibility. It wasn’t the first by a long shot, and it’s not very good, but it represented a leap forward in RPG awareness (mainly by joining two geek nations of gaming and music together as one). Today it’s one of many – ORE, Unisystem, d6, and even d20 (Wizards of the Coast finally realising the marketing power of a familiar engine a decade after White Wolf). And let’s not forget Chaosium’s BRP system – which may be the first system to be designed as generic, rather than have the title applied retroactively.

With few exceptions, each game is a round hole and has to be massaged to accept the square peg that is a generic system. And the success rate is variable. The vendors would like you to think that their games are comparable in terms of power levels, and more critically worldview – they aren’t.

I don’t believe the original WoD games were ever conceived as cross-genre. I think they were supposed to be played as isolated bubbles, alternate perspectives on the same universe and not to be mixed together. At least, that’s how 1e Vampire reads. To vampires, lupines are horrific monsters whose sole aim is their destruction. They are the reason that travel between cities is hard and dangerous – they can just smell the vampire from miles off, they can’t be reasoned with, and they will come – and when they do, they get their stats doubled and a bunch of disciplines on top.

1e Werewolf is a dramatically different game, all about spirits and whatnot. Combat plays differently. But crucially garou just don’t care about vampires much. Sure, vampires stink of the Wyrm but so do a lot of things. There’s so much that the garou are cross about that vampires get lost in the noise. Kindred and Garou were never intended to team up and fight crime, and the two books aren’t needed to present each other as antagonists.

But that’s not how the consumer – well, most consumers – will see it. Once you get a bigger and bigger World of Darkness there’s the temptation to stuff as much of the other worlds and systems in as possible. And with a game that revolves around secret conspiracies, it gets awfully crowded.

Also, the GM can only mitigate so much OOC knowledge the players have. I remember one particularly grating incident when a vampire PC walked around a live action game asking if anyone had made contact with the local mages or garou – as if there were part of some supernatural rotary club.

Part of this ranting is my bitterness from years of trying to get the various Palladium systems to work together. In retrospect I think the best of Palladium came from Erick Wujcik (TMNT, Ninjas and Superspies) and the mediocre stuff came from Kevin Siembieda (Rifts), Robotech)).

You live and learn, eh? I finally learned that a good setting is what you leave out as much as what you keep. (I still have ambitions to run Vampire again, but if I do it will be using ORE as a disruptive technique – to use the system to distance the players from the familiar game and thereby ditch the WoD baggage. I don’t have much care for d20 but I applaud Monte Cook for turning the World of Darkness upside down in his version.)

Bottom Up

Gurpscyberpunk

I never got into GURPS unlike some of my friends. When I played it, it was never more than just OK. Sure, I was tempted. It’s flexible and neat to think you can mash up genres just by picking and choosing your supplements. But the system is just peculiar and kind of arbitrary. Rolling 3d6 feels strange. The character sheets are bland.

Weirdly what spoils GURPS for me is the same thing that spoils WoD for me – knowledge that there’s other stuff out there. Example: if I’m playing a low-tech character I objectively know that it’s a broad scope system that’s simulating a low tech level. I don’t feel like I’m immersed in the system.

I have a couple of GURPS books, including Cyberpunk and New Sun. They’re really high quality items, I just can’t get past the fact that GURPS as a whole is genre-by-numbers. That’s not to say I haven’t had a lot of fun with GURPS – I’ve played in several memorable games including a Legend game, an Eternal Champion game and a Warriors game. But they all worked in spite of the system, not because of it.

Last Word

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p>Mostly I’m writing about this because I’m thinking about Unisystem a lot. It presents the same issues – a massive temptation to incorporate anything and everything into your setting. But there are a few things that set the Unisystem line apart from others.

Firstly, the power level doesn’t creep up and up, with the focus on normal or slightly superior characters rather than exceptional superhumans. That’s not to say you can’t have stupidly overpowered zombie pirate ninja dragon apes, but it’s not default behaviour.

Secondly, although the product lines are mainly “top down” i.e. sell a setting and include the same system, most of the games are presented as toolkits for running in different genres. Even in the Cinematic lines which are licensed properties, there’s a refreshing absence of baggage holding the GM back. At the same time each game has enough flavour in isolation to really excite.

I’m cautious about hitching my wagon to the Unisystem star. But it does look like it will do a particular kind of low-powered, urban or historical fantasy well. I don’t mind the system being bland as long as it’s functional (unlike Storyteller) and not clinical (like GURPS). In those respects I think the Unisystem designers really have learned from the past.

Just waiting for the Unisystem version of Kerberos, I guess.

Cycle of Time

The Times is reporting about a solicitor who was knocked down by a cyclist and left brain damaged while the cyclist walked away with a measley £850 fine.

Susan Hyer (wife of Clive, the unfortunate victim) said

“It’s about time people stopped worrying about cyclists being killed by lorries if they do not conduct themselves in the right manner. He nearly killed my husband.”

Now OK, it’s an emotive subject. Clearly it appears that justice has not been done. Although the cyclist was prosecuted within the law and hopefully the Hyers will be able to pursue a civil claim (though this is another round of stress for them).

But now the Times has followed up with a story about the need for tougher penalties for law-breaking riders. Sneakily they’ve name-dropped Mark Cavendish at the end, making it appear as if he endorses the penalties. What he actually says is

“I believe I am the first to stand up and say cyclists have to be more responsible as well. Cutting a red light might just aggravate someone who will just take it out on a general cyclist”

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p>When you ride a bike, don’t be a dick.

I kind of expected better of The Times after their extensive campaign for safer cities. Was it just fashionable reporting? They also published Matthew Parris’ ill-judged call for cyclists to be garrotted with piano wire.

Now, back to the subject: the law needs to protect and punish justly. But to suggest that cyclists are getting away with murder is ludicrous.

Firstly, a bit of perspective: in 2010 there were 40 fatalities involving trips, slips and falls in the workplace. I don’t want to sound callous but had Mr Hyer fallen over at work and knocked his head, he’d be another statistic.

How many victims of violent crime suffer head injuries?

OK, perhaps a better, traffic related example: if a cyclist is doored by a negligent car passenger, that motorist can be fined up to £1000. The same order of magnitude as the fine in Hyer’s case. The fine is irrespective of injury to the cyclist – and if the cyclist were to pursue compensation it would probably come out of the motorist’s insurance.

The Dangerous Cycling Bill failed to achieve a second reading in the commons in 2011. The CTC provides a good commentary including links to various cases where motorists have been prosecuted for killing cyclists only to receive suspended sentences or small fines.

Now Ms Hyer says “It’s about time people stopped worrying about cyclists being killed by lorries if they do not conduct themselves in the right manner.” Which supposes a burden of guilt for every cyclist killed by a left-turning lorry, and paints us as plainly irresponsible and architects of our own misfortune.

So in the spirit of that statement, I have to ask if Mr Hyer was looking where he was going, and why he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Doored 1