AS OF THIS MORNING (15 MARCH), my local county health department is reporting 10 ‘presumptive positive’ cases of COVID-19. The school district has already shut down thru 10 April and many events are cancelled to encourage ‘social distancing.’
In the RockyMountainNavy household, we have dealt with COVID-19 since Mrs. RMN returned from Korea right as the epidemic was breaking out there. She laid low for 14 days not because of self-isolation but because others avoided her (the worst ‘racists’ are often from one’s own race). Now there is panic in the wider community (why are people hoarding toilet paper?) and much is being cancelled. One aspect of social distancing we are practicing is to distance ourselves from social media. Frankly, its all doom and gloom with lots of disinformation. In a practical response this means that wargames and boardgames are hitting the gaming table more often.
Like I said, the RMN Boys (Youngest RMN in particular) had been hounding me for a Traveller RPG session so this week I printed out the latest free version of Cepheus Engine: Faster than Light. This is a free, uber-lightweight set of rules that has the bare essentials to play.
Quick to learn – quick to play. And oh-boy was it fun!
While dinner was on the BBQ we started rolling up characters. I stepped the Boys through the tables and each quickly had three characters (of course, each one had one that died – welcome to Traveller). After dinner we rolled up three planets and we started adventuring.
Middle RMN Boy had an ex-Marine with Heavy Weapons and Demolitions skills. During chargen I joked that the guy was probably near-deaf. Middle RMN adopted this thought and ran with it. Youngest RMN Boy was an ex-Navy type that was socially inept, low Strength, but with high Dexterity and skilled with Tactics-3. We started the session in media res with the adventurers on a mission to covertly plant explosives in a mining colony ripe for revolution.
Unlike other RPGs I played with the RMN Boys, we did this game almost entirely in The Theater of the Mind; no maps or minis or tokens or the like. The Boys had their character sheets, I had some notes on the planets, the rule book, and some scratch paper. Oh yeah, and some dice.
I randomly determined it would take two beats to get to the area to plant the charges. The Boys had to get past a Goon Squad, which they did, but also drew a bit of suspicion to themselves. As they were planting the explosives the Goon Squad showed up and interrupted them.
I ruled that the demolitions were not set so they would have to hold off the goons and finish the task. As the goons tried to pile through the door Youngest RMN held them off. Although there were four goons, three had Stun Batons and one a shotgun (and he was last in line – again randomly determined). First round saw one goon go down and the others hesitate…but Middle RMN fumbled his roll for the final setting of the explosives and needed more time! Youngest RMN was able to roll well and take down another goon who just happened to fall backwards into the shotgun goon messing up his entry. By now the demo charges were set and Middle RMN was able to assist in dispatching the last of the goons. Getting out past alerted security was a bit of a challenge but the Boys were innovative. When running into a crowd that they were not sure was friendly, Youngest RMN used his Leadership skill to shout at them in his best parade ground manner to “make way!” It worked and the crowd parted to let the adventurers march through untouched.
The entire adventure took about 90 minutes to play and I have to admit it has been a long time since we laughed so hard together. Even RockyMountainNavy Mom showed up to see what all the commotion was about. Youngest RMN declared it his best RPG session-ever and Middle RMN heartily agreed.
After we finished, I found one of my favorite scenes from the original Italian Job movie that I thought captured the characters of the two Boys.
I gave the Boys the Faster than Light rule book and they are going to work up a wider selection of characters. For myself, I think I am going to step up to Cepheus Lightfor the ruleset. It certainly looks like an RPG session will have to enter into the weekly Game Night rotation for the summer.
You see, I really wanted to use the Narrative Dice System and make my own setting. I like the whole idea of using the dice to tell a story where there is triumph or despair and shades of success, or failure, in between. Or maybe use it to create a conversion of a setting. Genesys seems perfect for those needs; and that’s the problem.
Genesys is a wonderful toolbox. Everything one needs is in the book to make a setting of your own. At least a generic version. Want to create a character? The rules for creating a character are here; the bare bones so to speak, but none of the flesh. That you have to provide yourself. The same goes for Skills and Talents. Using generic skills is perfectly acceptable but to really make a setting your own one needs to invest a great deal of effort into creating evocative Talents. Again, the generic is here, but more is needed.
Part II of the Genesyscore rulebook is Settings. Note the plural, for in the book you get ideas for fantasy, steampunk, modern day, science fiction, and space opera. These ideas are more like advertisements for settings that FFG might eventually release. It’s all fluff with little to actually use.
Part III: Game Master’s Toolkit tries to be more helpful. There is design advice in here for creating a skill or archtype or species or an item or an adversary. Design advice that digs deeper into the Narrative Dice System and how to “pull the levers” of the game engine. That is, if you’re a system engineer.
In the end, I believe Genesyssucceeds even as it fails. It definitely is a generic toolkit for making an RPG setting. Problem is, it’s too generic. In the end, I find myself going back to Edge of the Empire and using that because it ends up being what I want in my science fiction RPG. Genesys has shown me just how good that setting is, and how it’s going to be too difficult to make my own that will probably end up being 90% what Edge of the Empire already is. If I want to be an RPG system engineer then Genesys is the basic toolbox. Be warned though, to make it your own will be a much deeper investment.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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 GENESYSand 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.
Was challenged on Twitter to name my Top 3 Tabletop Role Playing Games. Here was my response:
Top 3 #TTRPG 1. Classic Traveller/ Cepheus Engine. My original RPG in 1979, favorite since. 2. James Bond 007 RPG. Awesome match of mechanics to theme. 3. #StarWars Edge of the Empire. Connected my boys to #TTRPG.
Each of these titles is starkly different from the other. One is old/new, one very old school, and the third a modern narrative system. How did I arrive at this list?
Starting in 2004 and continuing through the mid 20-teens, I focused my hobby hours more heavily into RPGs than wargaming and boardgaming. In part this was because I was in the military and on the move with most of my gaming collection stored away. The electronic revolution in RPGs was just starting so instead of buying physical books I could get a whole library on my computer! I also had younger kids who were not ready to game yet. In those years, I dabbled in a lot of RPG systems, especially newer ones such as CORTEX Classic (Serenity Role Playing Game, Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game) that evolved into CORTEX Plus (Smallville Roleplaying Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game, and Firefly Roleplaying Game). I dug deeply into FATE with great games like the encyclopedic Starblazer Adventures or Diaspora. There were many other games too. Looking back, I had become a “mechanics nut” and explored different RPG systems to study their mechanics, or how they modeled the world. I didn’t really play many of these games as much as I studied them.
In 2013 my gaming took an unexpected turn. That year, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the Star Wars license and produced their excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook. The RockyMountainNavy Boys were now older and I had done a good job of indoctrinating them into the Cult of Star Wars. So we started playing together. This was a major change for me since I now started playing games instead of mostly studying them.
So that is how I arrived at my Top 3. The first is a classic of my youth, updated and recreated into the modern day. The second is a design I admire. The third is loved because it connects me to my Boys.
Speaking of Kickstarter – In April I backed No Motherland Without, a 2-player card game about North Korea since 1953. It really looked interesting. I had really high hopes. It was cancelled – for all the right reasons I am sure. I hope they come back and try again, maybe with a stronger publicity campaign. Personally I watched The Players Aid review and was sold:
Veterans in The Expanse (very mild spoilers for S3E4) – I like The Expanse TV series but one line got me going last week. Alex states he has done his time and is an honorably discharged veteran. His implication is that he is special. As an honorably discharged veteran myself I resent this attitude. Unfortunately, I see it everyday – too many veterans who believe that since they served they have a special privilege above “mere” civilians. They grouse when a place does not offer a veterans discount or the like. Being a veteran does not make you a special citizen. This is not the world of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the book, not the horrible movie) where only veterans are citizens. Veterans get many privileges; be humble not an entitlement baby!
#TravellerRPG, nee Cepheus Engine. No surprise if you have been following my #RPGaDay for 2017. But, not just any version or style of Traveller, but what Tales to Astound calls “Out-of-the-Box” Traveller. This version of Traveller depends on using Encounters as they were originally laid out in the 1977 Little Black Books – as tools for creating the setting, situation, and play. It wasn’t laid out for you in an adventure or campaign arc; the GM created it on-the-fly.
It’s true that such an approach is not exclusive to one game; indeed, I use this approach in my Edge of the Empire campaigns. More narrative-driven games, like FATE Core and FATE Accelerated actually use game mechanics to encourage this kind of on-the-fly creation. But no game does it as well as Classic Traveller does.
When I first started GMing RPGs with the RockyMountainNavy Boys, I looked at gaming with kids as a teaching tool. In one of our early sessions, when one kid (kiddingly) said he was going to backstab the other, I took control of their character and took the event out to its gruesome conclusion. All against their wishes. I took away all player agency and ran away in the wrong direction.
I have found that sharing the narrative is the most important part of learning. With a shared narrative, the RMN Boys are challenged to create more themselves. Game sessions become more me responding to their creativity than me prepping in advance and laying out the adventure. This often means the adventure goes places I never expected, but never does it go in a direction that isn’t enjoyed by all.
Although I have been playing RPGs for nearly 40 years, the most impactful session happened not too long ago. It was the day I introduced the RockyMountainNavy boys to RPGs.
I had the new FATE Accelerated rules in hand and it looked to be easy and fun – a great lite RPG and a gateway game. I found a small western RPG scenario online (basically the PCs ride into town and things start happening). The big bad was a Hutt; his minions droids.
I GM’d the game in a very loose fashion. After all, it was also my first really serious run of FATE Accelerated.