Saturday, 3 March 2018

Cthulhu Dark: Annihilation

Yeah, this is the first post for about three months. Short version is I took a break from social media to fix real life stuff, get well, re-evaluate what I want to do creatively, and make some resolutions.

One of those resolutions is to actually design and run some of the games we’ve talked about over on Fictoplasm; and one of those games is Annihilation/Southern Reach, using Cthulhu Dark.

One: Cthulhu Dark

The standalone Cthulhu Dark is a massive expansion on the original seven page appendix in Stealing Cthulhu. Not much has changed mechanically, but there’s a lot of added value in the Keeper’s section on writing and refining mysteries, how to play, and the new settings that make the bulk of the book.

Cthulhu Dark is a thoughtful product for a post-CoC RPG market. A lot of CoC successors colour the “trad” CoC experience via mechanics (Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Hack, Savage Worlds versions, even Tremulus). Inevitably they also retread much of CoC’s content. Cthulhu Dark assumes the reader’s prior experience of Call of Cthulhu, the mystery RPG genre and the Cthulhu mythos. It’s a very self-aware product in that sense: it knows its audience, an audience that understands and runs free-form mysteries without the need for dictatorial mechanics. Here are the bits I particularly like:

  1. Very simple mechanics (one die automatically, one die for expertise plus the Insight die if you risk your sanity). This is good; I don’t need the full gamut of CoC’s attributes and skills to run a one-shot horror game.
  2. A very focused and concise Keeper’s section covering the essential elements of the mystery (Hook, Theme, who has the Power, what is the Final Horror)
  3. Well considered tools on how to make the mystery the best you can make it. Some of these are iterative (for example, refining the Final Horror) and others are lenses through which to analyse your module by clarifying the key elements and asking whether they in isolation are enough (are the locations special? Do you telegraph the approach of the monster? Does the plot hold together logically? Can anything circumvent it?)
  4. The notion of “creeping horrors”, recurrant motifs that underscore the horror
  5. And finally, the section on Mythos threats with a couple of themes, creeping horrors, and locations for each. Unsurprisingly this feels a lot like a stripped-back Stealing Cthulhu (and that’s a good thing).

Two: Annihilation

I’ve been keen to cover Annihilation since we talked about it in S2E4 of Fictoplasm. Rather than recap here in detail I’d say listen to the podcast or better still read it first (it’s only a couple of hundred pages long). Also Alex Garland’s film of the same name will be out on Netflix this month, apparently.

I reckon Annihilation has a lot to offer Mythos fans, and more to the point it’s a great fit for Cthulhu Dark which in many ways is a successful return to the fundamentals source material of Lovecraft when the Call of Cthulhu RPG surpasses Lovecraft as its own, distinct genre.

The other nice thing about Area X is its ambiguity; it has a few loose principles expressed subjectively to the characters in the books, enough to work with in a game without choking the plot with canon.

I’m currently writing my notes for a one-shot that I hope to offer at Concrete Cow. When they’re done I’ll stick them up here as a pdf. For now, here’s a blurb:

This is the Southern Reach’s ninth expedition into Area X. You don’t know each other’s names, only vocations. Your equipment is outdated and careworn. Your memories are unreliable, and paper journals tell you where you have been. Some of you are studying the landscape, others are studying your team-mates. All of you are looking for answers in the wild coastline, and hoping you can get back without losing too much of yourself here.

Oh, and check out the Spanish translation’s cover of Aniquilación, from this article.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

RPG Backwards Look: Daytrippers Core

I’m posting this today for a couple of reasons.

First, today’s #RPGaDay 2017 question is “Where do you go for RPG reviews?”.

Second and more important AsIf Productions the author and publisher of DayTrippers whose primary job is in web development has been struggling to get new clients and sent out a general message to the RPG community about the kind of services they can provide, and I want to boost the signal.

So, if you’re looking to hire a web developer they do small business sites as well as solutions for larger business, and they’re available for freelance writing and editing. Have a look at their website.

If you like the sound of the game you can support them by buying their books, or via Patreon donations for their ongoing content. Go to the DayTrippers RPG site for more information. They sell their content on a range of platforms including DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, where you can also order print copies.

Having read the core rules I’m going to pick up Golden Age Adventures which includes not only 16 adventures, but the fiction that inspired them (Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick and others) and sounds like a great deal.

Now, onto the post.


I am a terrible RPG reader, for the following reasons:

  1. Signal to noise. I have so many pdfs (impulse purchases, Bundles of Holding, etc.) that they all blur into one.
  2. Heuristics and bias. I’ve read a lot of RPGs and when I scan a book and mentally sort the sections into fluff, system, examples, adventures; then I’ll scan each section looking for familiar frameworks. This means I don’t read in detail, and instead make assumptions about the content of the bits I haven’t read yet.

I think my first read-through of DayTrippers core went like this:

“OK, a fluff section. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, a point-buy character generation bit. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, the combat section. Yeah yeah, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, bits on taking damage, vehicular combat, etc.”

“Oooh! Vector slipping. I’ll definitely come back to that later.”

“Dream worlds… survival suits… slipships… right. I’ll need to come back to those later.”

“Oh! And a mission section. That’s probably going to be useful. I’ll come back to that later, after I’ve read all the other bits I said I would come back to later. After I make dinner.”

The second time I read through I took a leaf out of Baz’s book and started reading from the back, which is a great technique because the first place you hit (skipping over appendices) will usually be a scenario or mission, and barring an actual demo play session that’s the place where you get the best first impression of how a game should play.

(this way you also get a good look at the character sheets first. They’re the windows into the soul of an RPG; a bad sheet won’t necessarily kill your enthusiasm but a good one certainly whets the appetite. Take a look at the sheet for Lacuna Part 1, or the toe-tag sheet for Hollowpoint)

DayTrippers, back to front

Here’s what we know from the website:

The time is shortly after the year 2100, the location is the first world. Massive megacorporations dominate the economic landscape and incredible advances in technology make the most miraculous things possible, from genetic modification to medical nanotechnology and microfusion power generators. But the most earth-shaking development of the 21st century is one we’re just beginning to see the ramifications of: As the 22nd century enters its second decade, the inner and outer realities of SlipSpace are opening up to human exploration. The Slip Capacitor, based on the groundbreaking work of Zayim Diaspora, is an amazing device that allows travel to other dimensions in vehicles known as Slipships. The bold explorers who pilot these vehicles face a multiverse of physical and psychological dangers to bring back priceless knowledge and powerful artifacts from far-flung dimensions and other realities. They’re called DayTrippers, and you’re one of them.

Now, content.

Mission Types (p37-39)

First, a taxonomy of mission types. From this we know that the characters will be taken out of their base, home or comfort zone and participate in an adventure: exploration, rescue, fact-finding, making diplomatic contact, etc.

Next, we find out that each mission type has a clearance level and the PC’s SlipShip (whether their own or borrowed) must be up to the mission. This is a nice way of gatekeeping or power-capping the adventure, or signposting the clearence level (Paranoia-style).

More tables and bullet points follow for different choices: the Node type, the Opposition, any Perks they get before the mission, Rewards, and Complications. Several of these are rolled beforehand. This looks like something right out of Sine Nomine’s offerings with a breadth of choice and random results, so I’m already loving it. Round that off with a sequence of scenes, from downtime accepting the mission, challenges, climax and return home.

Overall impression: this is a game with a strong format of mission, promise of reward, excursion and return. I already want to play it. Next!

Slipship construction (p32-35)

OK, we know that Slipships are important for getting about. They have a capacity, components, amenities, tonnage… I don’t feel the need to go into this now but I am interested that the ship is being created like a PC (it has its own character sheet). Possibly there’s shared ownership in mind — something I really liked in the point-buy base of operations in the Conspiracy X 2.0 (Unisystem) game.

I have one gripe with the ship sheet. Since I peeked ahead and know that the survival suit consumes kilowatts, does the Slipship really only consume milliwatts? I assume it should be MW not mW on the sheet. Unless of course there’s some Grant Morrison / In The Night Garden trickery with micro and macro-scale universes. In which case, having the power consumption of your encounter suit be one million times that of your Slipship is an interesting technical point.

Experience Points (p30-31)

A workmanlike section but very clear on what you get XP for and what you can spend them on (stats, skills, drama tokens if you use them, inventions, luxuries, fame, etc.). The most interesting part is the tracking of Total Character Value, XP Spent and XP Available. Why track both XP Total and XP Available? I’m hoping the answer is interesting.

Your Automated Survival Suit (p29)

Here’s what we know about the game from this section:

  • DayTripping is dangerous enough to need a suit
  • The suit has limited power: you get 100 kW from a full charge, and expend 1 kW doing certain tasks.

The scale is interesting because with 100 points to play with, people are less likely to quibble over spending a point here and there at the start — but the steady tick tick tick of the power meter going down will likely force some harder resource choices later into the game as the climax approaches.

Vector Slipping (p26-28)

This is the method of travelling to all different “Slip Nodes” in the multidimensional maestrom of the “Multiversal Chao”. OK. What we really have is a set of difficulties for travelling to different kinds of nodes (alt. Earth, Time Travel, Dream Worlds, etc.). There are consequences for failure, for missing the “Slip Window” and so on. There’s a whole page on Dream Worlds.

What this bit tells me is that this game is about travelling from a society that has somehow broken the barriers between many different levels of alternate existence; and that they probably lump different concepts of other times, other Earths, dreams, other planets all into one single category; as far as the DayTripping society of the 22nd century is concerned all of these can be written onto the same topological map provided the sheet of paper is big enough.

It’s also clear that the easiest jumps are the ones closest to home — alt Earths, time travel and known planets.

This gave me a few ideas already. All slips are conceptually the same but depending on classification, some may be locked down — depending on how the game world is run (corporations? A multiversal hegemony?). This also reminded me of the hyperspace navigation in Delany’s Babel 17 and the multiple gated realities of Ian McDonald’s Everness series.

Actions, Combat, Helping, Healing, Vehicles (p18-25)

This bit is the standard middle chunk of a RPG — a mix of rules for different circumstances, starting with taking actions. All you need to know is there are difficulty levels, you roll a bunch of dice and pick the highest, and there are a range of results depending on whether you make or miss the result. For example it matters if you hit your number exactly, miss or hit by 1 or more than 1. This granularity feels a lot like the results in FATE or Unisystem BUT I think I like the dice rolling here a lot more since it’s regular D6.

I particularly like the opposed rolling in theory with the “Yes, BUT”, “NO, and” style of results, and because the numbers are low the cognitive overhead shouldn’t be too bad. Everything else seems to work just like any other trad RPG — setting stakes before rolling the dice, interpreting afterwards. I’d need to play through it to see how smooth or crunchy it is.

Character Development (p14-17)

This is the bit that comes directly after Character Building but it’s frankly way more interesting; character generation is a hump that players just go through and this one, while simple, is still point-buy with options. More on that in a moment.

This bit looks very interesting because it talks about what happens to your PC during play. “Progressive Character Generation” is used to let the players “wear” their PC and defer actual backstory until later, by holding back Character Points to retroactively spend.

“LifeShaping” is a mechanism to mark dramatic character development, including motivations, personal problems, relationships, etc. I like the concept although I’m not entirely clear on the in-game process; nor am I clear on how (if) these relate to the once-per-session Character Development Scenes.

I guess this is partly where the claimed OSR-Narrative hybridisation comes in, and for me it provides opportunities for narrative expression of the PCs without stepping into the narrative-shaping role of the GM.

Character Building (p8-13)

This is another workmanlike section of point-buy setup, and it’s necessary but to be honest, this is an overhead I have to pay both to learn and play the game, rather than a bit I actually enjoy. I’m glad I read the book backwards. All I can say is there are lots of options for flexible skills, packages of skills and experience (“class advances”) etc. It’s not too crunchy.

I do like the way that skills are written on the same line as the Stat they apply to — this helps parsing the character sheet a lot.

The World of DayTrippers (p6-7)

Here we learn that the big movers and shakers of the 22nd century are corporate (rather than national/political) and the one thing they have in common is the disruptive technology that allows people to the Nodes. This is an important SF conceit — an extrapolated future based on a single scientific advance. The world is otherwise a blank canvas — there’s a half-page devoted to bullet points of technologies which might be available, but it’s up to you. The best description we get is the overview:

The world of DayTrippers is kinda dull, stupid and ridiculous, punctuated by spectacle, festooned with advertising and dripping with irony. It’s a place of technological progress and rampant global capitalism, complete with continuous media charades and enormous social inequity, somewhere between “2001” and “Idiocracy”.

This is followed by a laundry list of corporations. It doesn’t really matter who or what they are; as we’ve learned (by reading later sections) all that matters is you go on missions in slipships, those ships may be party- or corporate-owned, and the missions have classifications, and the people paying you to travel are mercenary capitalists.

The Introduction (p2-5)

Finally, the fiction which tells you how the world came to be the way it was. It serves its purpose; the most interesting bit is at the end where we read about SlipSpace and the five different kinds of slips (Cartesian, Paraterran, Temporal, Subjective and Compound) which map onto five kinds of Vector Slipping.

Final Remarks

DayTrippers feels weird and goofy, and not at all serious, and I’m not sure why that is — maybe it’s the New Wave SF surrealist sensibilities or the apparently disposable mission-based approach. Once I’m over that I can see a lot of depth and potential to be both superficial and lighthearted, or serious and deep. It could be a comedic franchised exploration company, contracting out to corporate clients a la Ghostbusters or InSpectres. It could be a serious, military SF style game if you replace the corporations with a military chain of command; it could take a conspiratorial tone if certain Nodes were classified or forbidden. I could see a mission focused game, or a sandbox where the PCs hire themselves to the highest bidder. I could see a game where the downtime drama scenes become as important as the missions.

By limiting the kinds of nodes you can tune the conceptual boundaries to make a game that’s only about alternate Earths, or space travel, or time travel, etc. And by tuning the power levels of the characters you could expand the scope further — I might fancy playing a superhero game like Planetary or Zenith (Phase III), sending supers to fictional universes using a fiction suit, or the Omnihedron’s alternate earths via. an Einstein-Rosen bridge. You can probably tell this is right up my street.

I can’t say what the system will be like yet, but it deserves a fair shout; the scale of results, the use of d6, the attrition of resources and the yes/and/no/but approach all sound like a really nice balance of “narrative” and “trad” — but then that’s exactly how we’ve played for years. But if you really don’t fancy it there are conversion rules for d20, PbtA and percentile.

So in summary: this is a smart and interesting game with an intriguing system and a very strong, yet adaptable premise. It’s not too long, and it’s good value for money.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

RPG First Look: Perdition vs. Crypts & Things

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The Black Hack may have all the OSR (and indie) cred right now, but I’ve just been reading two other 2016 OSR releases.

The first is Perdition from Hack and Slash publishing. It’s self-consciously a third wave OSR game:

It is a third wave clone because it is not a game designed to emulate or provide an improved version of the “Fantasy Adventure Role-Playing Game”. It is not a game designed to allow you to create your own fantasy realm and have whatever type of adventures you wish. It is a game designed to allow you to explore the world of Perdition. It crosses a line of setting books that work with whatever ruleset you are using and provides the setting information via mechanics, classes, equipment, spells and monsters, instead of through large blocks of flavour text and fiction writing.

I said before that the third wave of the OSR will be defined by those who claim it. I also said that these definitions will diverge; and Perdition is clearly diverging from earlier hand-waving claims of simply “innovation of setting”.

The other is Crypts and Things from D101 games, a very British “Sword and Sorcery RPG” with nods to White Dwarf and Fighting Fantasy, and with no elves or dwarves. Speaking of which the Encyclopaedia of SF has this to say about the genre:

Tolkien’s long, richly imagined work is as important to modern sword and sorcery as Howard’s, the two representing the two ends of the genre’s spectrum: Howard all amoral vigour, Tolkien all deeply moral clarity of imagination. (Also, Howard’s heroes were very big, Tolkien’s very small.) Common to both – although the two writers could not have had the remotest influence on each other – is a powerful commitment to the idea of worlds where magic works, and where heroism can be pitted against Evil.

C&T’s influences are Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Moorcock’s Elric, placing the game at the “amoral vigour” end of the spectrum. I always felt D&D was like that anyway, and perhaps that’s why the fantasy races felt so out of place in BECMI D&D. C&T’s core classes and focus on human cultures feel like a clean but necessary break.

(of course it’s not the only humanocentric Hyborian/Hyperborean S&S OSR game, and North Wind’s Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea was also a contender for my wallet — but getting the HC of either the 1st or 2nd ed. in Kickstarter would have been punitive to a non-US customer)

Reading through both books reveals interesting differences that point at fundamental design decisions, and I’m going to consider these in a bit. First, the lowdown on each book.

Perdition

Perdition is about playing in a world (Prime Material Plane) overrun by devils and demons. The latter are Chaotic and would tear creation asunder if it were not for the actions of the former who represent law and stability. They are at war and power their infernal war machine by corrupting human souls. The Vile Court oversees everything.

Perdition’s cover of a weirdly inverted city and a three-quarters view of a corpulent devil’s buttocks is by Matthew Adams, and will look familiar to fans of Yoon Suin. The other artists are Russ Nicholson, Heather Gwinn, Marcin S., and Michael Ralston. Nicholson’s art (a main attraction for me) is mainly found in the Monsters section detailing the major devils or lords. Interior book sections are graced by full-page illustrations, which are anything but traditional and have a spooky, dark fairytale and folk-art feel that would fit in with an occult anthropology book.

I love digest format books; but for once, I wonder if this one shouldn’t have been in a larger format. It’s a dense book and (as indicated by layout issues) there’s not a lot of white space.

(Actually there was some trouble with the PoD for Perdition, where page numbers, flags and some full plates were truncated (vertically and horizontally). This was fixed in my replacement copy (mostly) although the borders of some of Russ Nicholson’s full plates are slightly cut off)

Perdition divides up 326 pages roughly like this:

  • character generation including class, race and other bits (around 80 pages)
  • the usual miscellaneous rules for encumbrance, hirelings, languages, skills etc. (30 pages or so)
  • equipment (12 pages)
  • encounters (20 pages)
  • magic (90 pages)
  • monsters (40 pages)
  • finally GM’s section (“Agonarch”) that runs to the end (30 pages)

The contents page is great and the order is (mostly) logical. I had no trouble jumping to the sections I wanted to read. The book also provides a “Change Quick Reference List” on page 10 that tells us exactly where the system diverges from the SRD template. The authors know who their audience is.

Remarks

First, the Character Class and Magic sections — which are effectively player-facing — dominate the book with more than 50% of the page count. There are a lot of options for what you can play, and the game is the AD&D race-plus-class style with over 80 combinations (if you have the right stats). The classes are thoughtfully arranged into four groups based on Tarot suits (although I can’t see much Tarot symbolism elsewhere, but maybe I’m being thick) and the way you like your characters to get things done — fighting, skills, social and magical.

The magic section is extensive and that’s partly because there are many branches, some of which are specifically for certain classes. This means if you want to cast magic you’ve got to absorb both the class options and the magic section to make your decision on what to play. I like the way magic is handled with all the different schools, the Minor/Major/Grand distinctions (as opposed to levels) and the spell surges and so forth. But it’s a significant undertaking for starting players (and taxing if you’ve only got one book between you).

The monsters are the next largest section (and note that there are several fiends in the Summoning and Druidic magic sections also) and the Devil Lords get Russ Nicholson’s lovely art. If the goal is to communicate the setting through rules then I guess class, magic and monsters should be the dominant sections.

But actually the part of the rules I expect the whole game to revolve around is relatively short. The section on dealing with Devils and Demons (including summons, contracts and communication via the Vile Court) is appended to the general rules for equipment and skills and is maybe around 10-12 pages long. This sub-system together with some comments on the Wickedness stat in the Agonarch’s section is possibly the most important in the whole book. That I feel is the game’s real USP.

What else? Experience is treated as Prestige, an in-game currency that is used to claim levels, and also pay for petitions via the Vile Court (an idea I love, as it’s something I have in mind for Black Mantle). There’s a bit on Titan-sized monsters which can be both antagonists and locations (as in Shadow of the Colossus, island fish, etc.). There’s social and mental conflict (and hit points & armour class). The Encounter process causes PCs to suffer stress with successive encounters.

In summary, a lot to like, but also a lot to digest. I expect most OSR games to be nicely modular with a simple core — and Perdition is probably the same, but it’s different enough that you need to absorb it properly — it’s medium rather than low crunch and demands investment to play.

Crypts & Things

Crypts & Things is much more mainstream in terms of fantasy, though as said above it’s at the Howard and Leiber end of low fantasy as opposed to Tolkien’s high fantasy and great clomping feet. Comparisons with Conan and Hyboria (or Hyperborea) are inevitable — a ruined world besieged by “Others” via a mountaintop gate, pre-human civilisations, and a Barbarian character class.

I thought publishers steered clear of green book covers (when I was putting this image together for Fictoplasm it was a real struggle not to make the image as single wall of blue). Whether that’s true or not the lambent green cover is all you need to tell you that everyone on Zarth is fucked like a chronic case of Martian syphilis. Singing maggots aside it’s a very pretty cover (by David Michael Wright, who also did the interior art) with a male barbarian and female sorcerer squaring off against horned undead, a huge snake and a skull shaped portal in the background. The interior B&W art is consistent and sharp and on the whole very nice if a little safe with a procession of PC in a pose, snake person, ziggurat, snake person, temple, PC in a pose again. The best art (IMHO) is in the monster section (the place where it’s needed most).

The book is your traditional, large format and 2-column layout, plenty of white space. Hardly exciting by modern standards, but — and this is a big plus for me — printer friendly. The content is broken down into books — the Scrolls of Wonder (Player’s Guide) and the Book of Doom (for the GM). The former runs to just over 100 pages:

  • Creating a character, character classes and Life Events (approx. 40 pages)
  • Spell lists (20 pages)
  • How to play (20 pages)
  • The Continent of Terror (5 pages)
  • What the Elder told me (10 pages)

Then the Book of Doom’s approx 130 pages is divided like this:

  • The Secrets of the Continent (15 pages)
  • The Others (8 pages)
  • Antagonists including Snake People (4 pages) other bad guys (5 pages) and a bestiary (60 pages)
  • Treasure (5 pages), Adventures (20 pages) and author’s notes on play (10 pages)

The contents page is brief, the index longer but it’s all functional — I certainly wouldn’t have any trouble finding the section I needed.

Remarks

Let’s say retro-clones diverge in two directions: either greater diversity and choice, mixing and matching racial and class options (the AD&D way) or a reduction in the number of options (the Basic D&D way). Perdition is a great example of the former, while C&T does the latter.

Reducing options means reducing the number of decisions players have to make before kick-off. With four core classes and one homogeneous magic system C&T has a much lower cognitive overhead than Perdition. In fact C&T has an immediacy to it — thanks to the life-paths, the gazeteer and the “What the Elder Told Me” section (eight sets of culturally-biased answers to common questions like “who are we?” and “what is magic?”) I expect it would be quick to get up and running — which matters to me as I’m most likely to run OSR games as casual one-shots.

Downsides? C&T is a bit cartoonish; the classes are templates to be filled in, as is the landscape. That’s not a downside for me — I like my games painted with a broad brush and I don’t care for overly detailed settings. I feel C&T hits a sweet spot with just enough of a sketch to make the world a jumping off point rather than a straightjacket.

What else do I like? I like Skill and I like Luck. I also like the one kind of Sorcerer (as opposed to MU and Cleric) and three colours of magic, each with their own costs. Although based on earlier reviews (e.g. here and here) I had certain expectations and there have clearly been a few changes in the “remastering”. It seems previously White magic cost nothing, Grey cost HP and Black cost Sanity. Now White attracts “Others”, Black gains you Corruption and Grey has no cost.

Let’s talk briefly about Corruption and Sanity. I honestly can’t see the value of having both and in general I can’t see the point of CoC-style Sanity in a fantasy game — it made no sense when it was tacked onto Stormbringer and it’s not a great choice here. Corruption, now that makes sense. If only there had been more than one page devoted to it. The rules seem punitive; if it really goes up for every spell level cast then a 5th level sorcerer could see a bump of 9 points in a day’s adventuring. The rules for other classes being corrupted are hand-waving, as are the ones for reducing. The real problem is this isn’t a currency the players can manage except by not going near Black magic in the first place. A fair strategy and maybe the designer’s intent, but boring.

Final Words

Crypts & Things is formulaic, safe, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I’d call that a strength, because the people I play with are only likely to engage with OSR games on a casual basis. The game has just enough flavour. It could be my go-to system for clearing up those LotFP modules cluttering my hard drive.

Perdition is uncompromising, detailed and unique. I don’t think I’d get the time to play it to the depth it deserves. But even so, I’m very glad I read it because it’s remarkable both in concept and execution.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Primary Sources

At about 0:40 into Episode 70 of the Gauntlet there’s this quote concerning The Black Hack:

it seems to have taken a few things from other games… I saw a little bit of D&D 5e in there, I thought there was a touch of Torchbearer and Dungeon World in there as well…

It’s a throwaway remark and as such not really fair to second-guess the thought process behind it. At face value it suggests that TBH is maybe derivative of Dungeon World and Torchbearer; it makes more sense that all three are derivative of the same perceived root (namely the cartoon image of zero-to-hero dungeon exploration that continues to dog the OSR). Besides, what kind of masochist would write a game that’s derivative of Torchbearer?

These assumptions are made because

  1. Oral tradition and playing the game is and always will be the primary way the game is communicated
  2. The idea of only oral tradition isn’t really challenged, thanks to cultural inertia and confirmation bias.

Some hobbies are actively hostile to anyone who deviates from oral tradition. Western Martial Arts had this problem in the early years where to prove yourself you needed a credible line of succession — anyone who claimed to learn their art from a treatise alone was at best a poor cousin to those who’d paid their dues doing 3-weapon sport fencing (or if they were lucky, some living tradition like singlestick or classical foil). And no, it wasn’t enough that you’d spent two decades doing Wing Chun and used that to inform your style of 19th century boxing — if the living line from master to student was broken, you had to start over.

Anyway, here is a review of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s Rise and Fall:

This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

Of course I have my own bias here, but I was still a bit surprised by this bit… because I’d been aware of Liz’s design process not only for Rise and Fall but the traditional (i.e. GM-led) games that preceded it, and also her primary sources (e.g. Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). All of which are literary, none are games.

In fact, when we were at the Nine Worlds con I picked up a copy of Ben Robbins’ Kingdom and waved it under her nose saying “I think this is a lot like that idea you had for your dystopian game! We should play it for research!” We still haven’t played it.

(also I believe the PDF release of Downfall was 30th November 2015 to Kickstarter backers, while Seven Wonders was launched at Dragonmeet in December 2015)

Does this matter?

It’s definitely useful to have someone enthusiastically say “like X? Try Y!”. The benefits of comparing The Black Hack to Dungeon World are both games acting as gateway experiences for two overlapping cultures.

But only focusing inward is a pernicious habit, meaning your genre expectations are set by secondary rather than primary sources. Say you only assume D&D is only about violent dungeon exploration and then you create derivative works that reinforce that stereotype. This further influences the third generation, and so on.

Not that you should be blindly worshipping at the altar of Appendix N, either. Appendix N has become shorthand for a similarly reductive kind of “D&D experience” (which I have opinions about here) and pigeonholes the whole gamut of OSR titles — when titles such as Beyond the Wall are open about their literary roots, roots which lie outside Appendix N (though interestingly lie within the broader reading list recommended by Moldvay D&D).

The assumptions of derivation rather than common literary root will continue to be a hazard of those games on the fringe. Take Silent Legions — a game which I feel represents the peak of Sine Nomine’s offerings, and is a masterful deconstruction of different kinds of horror. Even though it offers much more than Call of Cthulhu, it will always stand in CoC’s shadow — mainly for the assumption that it’s nothing more than “the OSR does Cthulhu”.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

RPG Retrospective: Hawkmoon

Just recently I found this site cataloging the Premier and Nouvelle Editions of the French Hawkmoon RPG. The links to Oriflam and other places are long dead, and it’s a shame that the graphics aren’t bigger but you can see that the French line was extensive — while not much became of the English language RPG until Hawkmoon was picked up by Mongoose around 2008 (whose translation constitutes the French 3rd edition, I think).

Hawkmoon-252520resized

It took the French to keep Hawkmoon alive with its European heroes and Granbretan as the big bad. If only the Cornish nationalists had pulled their finger out we might have a line of Corum games somewhere. Although I can’t read Cornish.

1986’s Hawkmoon

Hawkmoon probably doesn’t qualify as Dying Earth although it has many of the trappings in common with Vance (and Wolfe, and Harrison) — a weird fantasy landscape, ancient technology as sorcery, regression to medievalism and feudalism, etc. I think this is important to bear in mind for this kind of setting where nods to a past Earth are dotted around like Easter eggs. Without it the whole thing degenerates into a weak sub-Tolkien fantasy of warring medieval nations.

In the mid-80s the genre wasn’t particularly well exploited in RPGs — there was enough post-apocalyptic stuff with Gamma World, After the Bomb and arguably Paranoia, but the only explicitly future earth settings that come to mind came much later, e.g. GURPS New Sun (1999) and Chronicles of Future Earth (2010). Is Kerie L. Campbell-Robson’s Hawkmoon RPG the first of its type?

brunner_hawkmoon

Chaosium’s Hawkmoon came in a box set with 3 books — one for players, one for GM and the Science book. There are maps, and a lovely cover by Frank Brunner.

Much like Stormbringer, Hawkmoon’s treatment of Tragic Europe’s locations is terse and mostly confined to the Character Generation chapter of the Player’s guide. Aside from the map the rest of that booklet is skills, combat, injuries and other fairly generic stuff. Likewise the GM’s booklet is just two scenarios plus a beastiary. The Science booklet is the most interesting with a fictional timeline — which I think is wholly created by the RPG authors — that places the end of the Runestaff chronicles around 5304 CE. There’s a section on technology and artifacts, one on animal and plant mutations, and a final piece on interdimensional travel. Actual “magic” or science that the players can manipulate is conspicuous by its absence. Even the sorcerer-scientists, Granbretan’s Order of the Serpent, only get the briefest mention.

System-wise this is pretty much identical to Stormbringer first edition — but without magic, demons, or any system for tracking affiliation to Law and Chaos. It’s definitely my favourite iteration of BRP, particularly with the grouping of skills.

Mongoose Hawkmoon RPG

mongoosehawkmoon

If Campbell-Robson’s Hawkmoon was sparse, Gareth Hanrahan’s offering for Mongoose goes in the opposite direction. At nearly 30 pages the gazeteer of Tragic Europe is thorough but a lot of it is dull, plodding stuff. Here and there the writing threatens to inject some colour, such as the boxed-text description of “wormwoods”:

That is not to say, of course, that wormwoods are empty – quite the opposite. They writhe with unnatural, twisted life. Trees drip bulbous green-glowing maggots and scream at the dawn;three-headed wolves hunt through the undergrowth, pushing through strange poisonous plants that shiver a thousand colours down their leaves and spit venom when disturbed. Mutant barbarians and mechanical things lurk in the shadow of the wormwoods; they are not good places to go.
The eldest wormwood is said to be in Muscovia, where they call it by its native name of Kernobul.

Yeah! That sounds great, let’s go wonder around some wormwoods, fight three-headed wolves and plunder the ancient tombs of mechanoids. Except… wormwoods are hardly mentioned again throughout the supplements (there’s three instances in passing in Hanrahan and Steele’s Granbretan, nothing in the linked adventures in Secrets of Tragic Europe).

Obviously Hanrahan appropriated and injected a few extra bits here and there; the wilds of Tragic Europe sounds more like the toxic marshes of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, and I like that — but if Hanrahan’s Tragic Europe is going to be toxic and dangerous, where is that content in the Adventuring chapter? Where are my rules for toxic environments and ancient mechanical traps?

My second gripe about the core book is Science and Sorcery. This system has been lifted almost wholesale from the Sorcery rules from RQIII (and I presume MRQ1) so include all the effects like Intensity, Duration, etc. So far, OK. I can even forgive the generic spell descriptions like Damage Boosting, Cast Back, and so forth, which have been lifted directly from RuneQuest. What spoils things is the “requirements” for the spells which include workbenches and laboratories — a perfect fit for sorcerer-science, but totally incongruous with the point-and-click of RuneQuest magic spells. Casting a spell like Acid requires a workbench — a restriction which would seem to make the other restrictions (range Touch, casting time 5 minutes) totally irrelevant. It’s an incoherent union of system and setting.

The rest of the book is about skills, adventuring sub-systems (falling, sneaking, etc.), combat, and some statted-up Moorcock personalities, and a brief synopsis of the fiction; and since I own a lot of BRP material and a lot of Moorcock, I don’t really need either. And system-wise this is the iteration of RQ/BRP I like least.

Mongoose Hawkmoon is a plodding mess that completely drops the ball — in representing the source material, in presenting a compelling setting to play in, and in presenting a coherent system. Its one saving grace are the 2 pages at the beginning which discuss several kinds of parties and adventures (a Lord and Retinue, Mercenaries, Agents at Court, etc.).

Now the supplements are much, much better — Granbretan is both more useful and more fun to read, with spells that actually make sense, biological weapons, and a summary of Granbretan’s campaign in Europe. But then a company which releases a weak and incomplete core rulebook doesn’t deserve loyalty from customers for the rest of the game line. All of this is moot of course since there will be no more EC products from Mongoose. Still if you’re buying secondhand I’d say the core book is for completists only.

Closing

What a disappointment. Chaosium’s product is too sparse, Mongoose’s is too long-winded, and both understate the most important aspects of the setting — Granbretan as the villain, mad science-sorcery, weird yet familiar landscapes. Mongoose’s version does have some quality writing in the supplements — and I’m guessing that Hanrahan did much better when he wasn’t obliged to incorporate the MRQ1 SRD in the middle of his book.

Given that neither system is complete as far as doing the sorcery-science, these are the alternatives for running Hawkmoon:

  1. Use Stormbringer, and re-interpret demons as sorcerous devices, elementals and beast lords as lost technology, and so forth. Of course this magic is now devised rather than summoned, but it could still work. Was this what Chaosium intended? If Hawkmoon had caught on, might we have seen supplements? I’d love to know how the Nouvelle Edition of Oriflam’s product handles science.
  2. The CYD system in Mournblade could be made to work, and is way more coherent. Also it has a built in allegiance system.
  3. Whitehack would be a totally different but probably workable solution (given the flexibility of Wise characters re: magic).
  4. Last but not least, how about a game like Omnihedron’s Duty and Honour? It would only suit a certain kind of campaign, i.e. military action by the Kamarg forces against the advancing Granbretan army. Also it would need some hacking — reputations, social class and so on would need to fit into the Tragic Europe setting.