The Gygax Rule for GMs – All you need is good rules and good books

gary-gygax
Courtesy http://rpglabyrinth.blogspot.com

In my gaming pantheon, I clearly play wargames first, other boardgames second, and role playing games (RPGs) a distant third. Spending-wise, I have bought very few RPG products since April. In the past month I came close to buying two new RPGs but didn’t. Along the way I learned a valuable lesson taught to me by no other than the Godfather of RPGs, Gary Gygax. Gary reminded me that RPGs are inherently a personal creation; if a product is “not quite right” there are tools available to “do it my way.”

The big RPG splash of the month was the Kickstarter launch of The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin Publishing. The project currently (as I write) has over 3,330 backers pledging upwards of $239,000 against goal of $30,000 – and 24 days to go.

I initially pledged to support at the Ship’s Boat-level which is $20 for the pdf version. I then downloaded the free Quickstart pdf and took a look. I am no hard-core The Expanse fan but I generally like the universe. I initially missed the books and became acquainted with the setting through the TV series. After looking at the Quickstart I mulled it over for a few days and then cancelled my pledge.

First, the Quickstarter did not appeal to me; indeed, it actually turned me off. My initial negative reaction was to the artwork. I think my expectations are biased from the TV series and the artwork in the Quickstarter just feels too different. More importantly, it is not what I see as evocative of the setting. It almost seems too cartoonish to me whereas I imagine The Expanse though a more hard sci-fi lens.

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Courtesy The Expanse RPG Kickstarter

Secondly, the RPG core mechanic (based on Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine – AGE) just didn’t capture what I think feels like The Expanse to me. I admit I was a bit confused at first because I was expecting to see the Chronicle System used in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game which is my only other exposure to Green Ronin. I really like the Intrigue Mechanic in Chronicle and it perfectly captures (is evocative of) the Game of Thrones setting.

Looking at the Quickstarter pdf, I weighed my pledge and thought about what I was getting. I decided that I actually already have a version of The Expanse RPG. I actually have two of them, both from Zozer Games, and both using a system I am comfortable with (Cepheus Engine):

  • Orbital: 2100 – “Realistic spacecraft, using reaction drives and rotating hab modules for gravity. Orbital is set in our own Solar System and has a real hard-science feel to it.”
  • HOSTILE – “A gritty near future setting inspired by those late-70s and early 80’s movies like Alien, Bladerunner and Outland.”

I seriously weighed getting The Expanse RPG if not for the system then for the setting material. Then I (fortuitously?) came across this article by Gary Gygax himself and published in 2001 where he talks about author Jack Vance and the Dying Earth books. In particular, Mr. Gygax writes:

There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion. (Emphasis mine)

 

In my mind, I already own The Expanse RPG. My version uses a core mechanic that I feel is evocative of the setting (Cepheus Engine). I have the sourcebooks in the form of several TV seasons and multiple books and short stories. I don’t need somebody else’s vision that doesn’t strike me as evocative of the stories or setting.

The second RPG I nearly bought was another Kickstarter campaign. Tachyon Squadron from Evil Hat Productions is basically Battlestar Galactica with the serial numbers filed off rendered using the Fate Core system:

Tachyon Squadron is a Fate Core supplement that blends space opera and military sci-fi. It’s Evil Hat’s take on popular stories about interstellar battles, like the ones that have ships with wings named after letters and the one where robots chase the human race through space. If you’re interested in deep space dogfights, friendly—well, usually—rivalries with fellow pilots, and playing scrappy underdogs with the deck stacked against you, this game is for you.

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Courtesy Evil Hat

The project funded with 1,401 backers pledging $25,295 against a $7,500 goal. Like The Expanse RPG Kickstarter, Evil Hat was very generous and offers a free download Quickstarter version. It is pretty much as I expected as Evil Hat has previously sold a smaller, similar setting found in Fate Worlds Volume One: Worlds on Fire. In Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie the PCs are pilots aboard a giant War Zeppelin taking on “a horde of WWI mechanical monstrosities.” For Tachyon Squadron I actually was more interested in Stretch Goal 7:

STRETCH GOAL 7 (UNLOCKS AT $26,000): The Battle of Britain: At $26,000, we’ll start work on The Battle of Britain, a 5,000 word electronic supplement that applies Tachyon Squadron’s dogfighting rules to a WWII squadron of Spitfire pilots defending Britain. This supplement will include plane stats and mechanics to help you take to the skies with the Allied forces.

Alas, this stretch goal didn’t unlock. My potential Pilot-in-Training pledge of $12 would not have made a big difference.

What really turned me off about Tachyon Squadron was the over-the-top SJW proselytizing. It is so in-your-face I think it overwhelms the game setting. Even if I am able to put the SJW part aside I see the the game offering me little new. The major rule of difference, dogfighting, is likely not far from that found in Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie which I already own. Much like The Expanse, I have a Battlestar Galactica RPG in the form of the officially licensed Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis Productions, 2007). This game uses the CORTEX Classic system which I generally like (indeed, I am still awaiting my CORTEX Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game Kickstarter to deliver – only 3 months overdue…so far). If I want to do Battlestar Galactica using Fate Core I already own all the setting and rules material; why should I invest more money into a near-version that alleges to be ruleset but comes across more like a SJW propaganda tract?

Passing on The Expanse RPG (Green Ronin’s AGE System) and Tachyon Squadron (Evil Hat’s Fate Core System) got me thinking about the games and systems I do have. Last June I listed Star Wars The Edge of the Empire RPG (Fantasy Flight Games) as one of my Top 3 RPGs. I like the Narrative Dice System and want to play more with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. Thinking about expanding beyond Star Wars I picked up GENESYS: The Roleplaying Game for All Settings.

Genesys is a role playing system designed for flexibility and adaptability, specifically tooled to work with any setting imaginable. The Genesys Core Rulebook not only contains an overview of the rules and how the innovative narrative dice system works, but everything a GM and players need to run adventures in five completely different settings. Everything from equipment to adversaries, character abilities to an overview of narrative tropes, all is provided in the core rulebook for Genesys. With a system so adaptable and expansive you can explore every popular roleplaying genre, from classic fantasy style campaigns, to modern day detective thrillers, and even to a far off sci-fi future, Genesys doesn’t fit into any one genre of roleplaying, and instead invites players to craft their own stories with unparalleled freedom.

Taking GENESYS and combining it with Gary Gygax’s Dying Earth GM approach, I can likely make a version of The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica – or any other setting I chose to explore – for myself.

The most important RPG lesson I learned this month is that I don’t need Kickstarter to make an RPG for me that “isn’t quite right”; I just need good books and a good ruleset.

#RPGThursday Retrospective -Cortex Worlds (Serenity, 2005; Battlestar Galactica, 2007; Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, 2008)

I spent 2007-2009 stationed overseas, and my access to gaming materials was limited. Upon my return stateside in 2009, I quickly searched the local game stores and found a game that changed my RPG life. The game was an RPG based on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series. Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (BSG) represents to my a major turning point in my RPG gaming history.

It’s in Color!

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Courtesy Battlestarwiki

BSG was a very different game that I had seen in the past few years. First off, the Corebook was a hardcover that was lavishly illustrated with pictures from the TV series. It did not have the desktop publishing feel that I had become accustomed to in the past few years (see the 1990’s and my Second RPG Interregnum).

Cortex at the Core

BSG used the Cortex System (these days the BSG version is known as Cortex Classic). In Cortex, character attributes are not numbers, but a die type ranging from d4 to d12+d4. Skills were also described by die types, and each character also had Assets or Complications that also were rated by a die type. The core mechanic was a simple Skill Die + Attribute Die vs. a Difficulty number.

Assets and Complications were very interesting to me. BSG was the first time I really saw a mechanical impact of role playing characteristics of a player character. But the part that really excited me was Plot Points. Although I had played with Hero Points in James Bond 007 RPG, it was the Plot Points mechanic in BSG where I first started understanding a “game economy.” I also have to say that BSG has my second-favorite ever Combat Example (second only to James Bond 007 RPG) which replays a scene recognizable from the series.

The other very interesting part of BSG were vehicles. Unlike vehicles and spacecraft in the Traveller RPG games, BSG described vehicles in the same way characters were presented; attributes and traits. I actually embraced this approach because it was more “narrative” and fit with the Assets/Complications and Plot Points in supporting more narrative play.

Finding Serenity

So much did I like BSG that I went in search of another Cortex System game; Serenity. Published by Margret Weis in 2005, it was the 2005 Origins Awards Gamer’s Choice Best Role Playing Game of the Year Winner. I had missed this one but now caught up. Serenity uses a earlier (and slightly less refined) version of Cortex Classic but was similar enough that I caught on easily.

A Savage Exploration

Having caught the “attribute as dice” bug, in 2008 I picked up the then-new Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition. Described as “Fast! Furious! and Fun!” I quickly discovered that this rulebook was another set of rules sans setting. It also had a near-miniatures rules feel to it (see Figures and Battle Mats, p. 4). That said, I really was intrigued by:

  • Character attributes described by dice
  • Edges/Hinderances
  • Wild Cards and Extras (maybe the first time I recognized “Minion” rules)
  • Bennies (Game Economy)
  • Initiative using playing cards

The part that confused me was Arcane Backgrounds. I had a difficult time grasping this at first, and really didn’t understand what Arcane Background could do until seeing it used in a later setting book.

Discovering a New Narrative

The major impact BSG/Serenity and Savage Worlds had on my RPG gaming experience was the introduction of a more narrative style of play. The use of Assets/Complications or Edges/Hinderances along with the game economy tools of Plot Points/Bennies totally changed how I viewed playing RPGs. My games became less simulationist and more narrative. Now, I had seen (and played) some more narrative games (like James Bond 007 RPG or even Babylon Project) but I did not fully recognize what was happening. With Cortex System and Savage Worlds I recognized this change in gaming style and embraced it. It also helped that at this time I moved away from a preference for hard(ish) sci-fi settings and went to settings influenced by pulp (in no small part due to my discovery of the Wold Newton Universe through Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan Alive and The Other Log of Phileas Fog and Win Scott Eckert’s Myths for the Modern Age

The move to narrative also explains my next purchase.


Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game, Copyright (c) 2007 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. 

Serenity Role Playing Game, Copyright (C) 2005 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP.

Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, Copyright (C) 2008 Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Produced under license by Studio 2 Publishing, Inc.

RPG Thursday – It’s a Shiny Day Again

Courtesy MWP

Recent news from Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) tells of the return of an RPG based on Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly/Serenity TV series and movie.

A couple of thoughts come to mind here. First, from the subtitle of the press release, what does MWP mean when they say “Pick-Up-And-Play Games?” This line is repeated in the body text where MWP states, “MWP’s own crew of seasoned designers and creators of licensed role-playing games, stand ready to develop an all-new series of pick-up-and-play games and game supplements.” Second – and closely related to my first question – will this new RPG use the latest version of Cortex or an older or newer system?

MWP previously produced the Serenity RPG. This was the first game to use their Cortex System (named after the Cortex in Firefly/Serenity and now known as Cortex Classic). As an early effort, the game had much further development done through later releases, especially items like the Big Damn Heroes Handbook which was as much a Cortex System update as a sourcebook. It also apparently had a limited license – MWP was able to use only the movie.

Later MWP RPG games took Cortex through several upgrades and outright system changes. Changes to the point that the early versions of Cortex are almost not recognizable when placed next to the later versions, now known as Cortex Plus. Cortex started out as a dice pool mechanic that also used Plot Points to create a cinematic effect. As Cortex developed over the years, it has become much more narrative in approach. To see what I mean take a look at the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Example of Play from the MWP website. The battle scene presented uses no figures, no map, but only pools of dice and some sticky notes yet it moves along rapidly in a good representation of an action-packed comic book superhero confrontation. This is much different than Cortex Classic. Look at this Example of Play taken from the Battlestar Galactica Quickstart Guide which certainly captures the cinematic aspects of the source material but in a much different, more recognizable (classic RPG?) way.

Karl “Helo” Agathon (played in this example by Sean) has been trapped on Cylon-occupied Caprica for weeks with his co-pilot, Sharon “Boomer” Valerii. They have fled one hiding place after another and have recently discovered a shelter beneath a restaurant. They are planning to rest and re-supply. Helo has ventured upstairs to make a hot breakfast, while Boomer catches some extra sleep.

GM: Helo, you find that the perishable food has all spoiled. You do discover plenty of canned and boxed food in the pantry, including oatmeal and toaster pastries.

Sean: The pastries should be fine. I heat them up in the toaster and look for a couple of clean plates.

GM: While you’re scrounging around the cupboards, you hear a loud crash and the sound of broken glass coming from up front, near the door.

Sean: Frak! I look for someplace where I can hide and see what’s going on.

GM: Okay, roll your Alertness + Covert. Sean rolls the dice for a total of 11. The GM rolls Alertness + Perception for the Cylon Centurion who is entering the front door. The Cylon gets an 8.

GM: You are pressed up against the wall. From here, you can see tall shadows moving in through the door. You hear heavy footsteps.

Sean: I pull out my pistol, trying to stay as quiet and stealthy as possible. Any way I can get a better view from my vantage point?

GM: You look around and see a stainless steel dishwarmer off to one side. In its reflection you can make at two Cylon Centurions. They slowly walk around the room.

Sean: I remain quiet and perfectly still in my hiding place. Maybe they’ll go away.

GM: They continue to look around the room, but something’s up. The Centurion closest to you readies its arm-mounted rifle, though neither of them are looking your way. The Game Master rolls again for the Cylon’s chance to spot Helo, and again the Centurion fails.

GM: You smell something baking.

Sean: Uh oh. Is breakfast still toasting?

GM: Yes, and it looks ready to pop up.

Sean: How far away is the toaster?

GM: Do you mean the Cylon, or—

Sean: The one holding my breakfast!

GM: It’s about fifteen feet away. The first Cylon Centurion is only a few feet away, partially separated from you by a frosted glass wall.

Sean: I make sure the safety is off of my gun.

GM: Sure enough, the pastries pop up, and the sound alerts the Cylons. Both Centurions spin toward the source of the sound. At the same moment, Sharon walks through the door from the stairs.They turn away from you, focus on her.

Sean: I fire at the closest toaster—er, Cylon! I yell for Sharon to run!

GM: Since the Cylons were not aware of you, you have the Initiative and can go ahead and roll the attack: Agility + Guns. Sean rolls, scoring a 17. Shouting a short phrase does not count as an action in combat.

Sean: Good roll! Did I hit? The GM determines that the Cylon was standing still, facing Sharon. As an Easy target, the Cylon’s defense was 3. He calculates base damage as 14. He also adds 3 more points for the weapon damage of the pistol—a total of 17!

GM: Your armor-piercing rounds hit. The first shell tears through the back of the Cylon’s head, and the second goes through its torso. The Centurion looks as if it’s about to drop. Now we have to take a look at Initiative. The GM checks everyone’s Initiative ratings. The surviving Cylon Centurion goes first, then Sharon, then Helo. Checking the Cylon’s game information, the GM rolls an attack on Helo. The result is a 9.

GM: The remaining Cylon shoves its way past its comrade and begins firing at you in a wide arc. Sharon stumbles to get out of the line of fire. Are you going to be attacking this turn or defending?

Sean: These things have automatic weapons. I’m dodging, and I’m going to dive for cover when my action comes up.

GM: Roll Agility + Dodge.

Sean: I’m spending two Plot Points on my dodge action! Sean rolls the Attribute and Skill dice, and adds a d4 for the Plot Points. All together, he rolls an 11.

GM: You barely dive out of the way as bullets tear the room to shreds. You duck behind the bar, even as light fixtures and other debris fall down on you from the ceiling.

(For the record, I do think that MWP has some of the best Examples of Play since old Victory Games and their James Bond 007 game. Go to this link and read the two-column example of play starting on page 12 of the pdf which has a classic set of scenes from Goldfinger and an in-game version side-by-side.)

I for one welcome the narrative approach to gaming. I dare say that narrative RPG play is gaining popularity and will get a huge shot-in-the-arm when Fantasy Flight Games releases the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook in the second quarter of 2013. This narrative surge is in stark contrast to what Wizards of the Coast (WotC) appears to be trying to do by releasing Dungeons & Dragon classics. Although I have no personal interest in DnD 5e, it will be interesting to see just how many narrative elements WotC does – or does not – bring into their new edition.