Lost in the Role – or – Why so Little RPG Talk?

If you look back on my blog, you will see that up until this year I had a heavy focus on roleplaying games, especially science-fiction RPGs. This year I have turned hard into boardgames with a mix of tabletop family games and wargames landing on the table. RPGs have definitely fallen off to the side.

I recently took a look at DriveThruRPGs Black Friday to Cyber Monday Sale and made a few purchases, but at the same time I asked myself why I lost my RPG mojo. Last year I really tried to like Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius Entertainment. I participated in part of the Living Playtest and offered (few, very few) comments. In the end, instead of liking Star Trek Adventures, I was turned off to RPGs and only now am (sorta) giving them a chance again.

I have talked elsewhere about the art in Star Trek Adventures and how I find it totally opposite what I imagine. I also talked about how the now-decanonized Klingons Sourcebook for the FASA Star Trek RPG was more inspirational. But the part that turned me off the most was this:

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Courtesy Modiphius Entertainment

This is the Star Trek Adventures Borg Cube Collector’s Edition Box Set. To me, this is not an RPG.

I cannot fully explain why I have such a visceral reaction to this offering. I understand that I don’t need the extra maps, and dice, and miniatures, and tokens, and other baubles to play an RPG. I know that all you need to play is a simple set of rules and imagination. I know because that is what I did with Classic Traveller for many years.

I think when I saw Star Trek Adventures I saw the continuation of a trend towards bigger RPG rulebooks and more IP-related gaming. To a point I had bought into that market with Serenity and Battlestar Galactica and Traveller 5 and Mindjammer and Atomic Robo and Firefly and Star Wars Roleplaying Game finding cherished places on my shelf.

But then something changed.

The first was that Mongoose Publishing brought out Traveller Second Edition and repackaged it in a way that makes it totally a price grab. This was just after they changed the rules for third-party publishers and stifled creativity (no…that’s not fair…they monetized it in an unfair manner). This was followed not long after by Star Trek Adventures and the Borg Cube trying to assimilate my wallet.

I rejected them…and walked away from the RPG hobby for a bit.

I am slowly finding my way back, thanks to small publishers like Gypsy Knights Games and Zozer Games and Stellagama Publishing. For a while that’s where I think I am going to stay for RPGs, on the smaller side of the spectrum with publishers who offer material that stimulate my creativity in a more rules-lite, non-restrictive campaign setting.

220791-thumb140I have found my RPG mojo…it never left and it is actually little changed from the late 1970’s. It just doesn’t need a large box and multiple rulebooks and maps and tokens and minis and hardcover expansions. It needs nothing more than the PWYW Cepheus Engine and a setting like The Clement Sector. What I need is like what Zozer Games is offering; the very simple 1970s 2d6 Retro Rules. With these simple tools I can make grand adventures; I don’t need a huge Kickstarter box or endless hardcovers or miniatures or tokens to do have fun.

#RPGaDay 2017 – What is an RPG you would like to see published?

#RPGaDay August 2, 2017

B5_TitleHands down I have to say Babylon 5. I have two previous versions, the Chameleon Eclectic Babylon Project from the 1990’s and the disastrous Mongoose Traveller translation. I also have several of the d20 sourcebooks (again from Mongoose, yuk) and have recently been rewatching the series online. If there was ever a setting that is rich for adventure this is it.

But what system? I can easily see a FATE Core version but some may find that too challenging. FATE Accelerated? Dresden Files Accelerated may show the way. Magic Vacuum Publishing’s forthcoming CORTEX Prime or even Fantasy Flight Games’ Genesys could work once available. Just keep the license away from Mongoose Publishing (previous owners) and Modiphius (I can’t see their 2d20 mechanic working) as I think Babylon 5 deserves a more narrative and less mechanical game engine.

#StarTrekAdventures – Playtest loss of comms

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Courtesy the-gadgeteer.com

In late 2016 I signed up and participated in the Modiphius playtest of their new 2d20 System Star Trek Adventures RPG. I even expressed some of my earliest thoughts here. When given the chance, I submitted feedback through the online survey since that appeared to be a condition of continued playtesting (a condition I agree with…give feedback to keep the privilege of continued access to playtest materials).

Having not seen anything for a while, I went poking around the Modiphius forums to see what was new. Apparently the v1.3 playtest rules were released on-or-about January 16. I don’t recall seeing it, so I checked my email junk and trash folders to make sure it didn’t get routed to the wrong place.

Nothing found.

Did I accidentally get left off? I admit my feedback was not totally positive, but I was still interested in trying more.

Notice the word “was.”

Modiphius probably just made an innocent mistake, but by doing so they forced me to reconsider my involvement in the playtest program. Do I reach out to Modiphius and ask (pretty please) to be put back on distro? Or do I let it go?

Upon further consideration, I am fine that I got dropped off. The new Star Trek Adventures was not capturing my imagination to any great degree. Indeed, recent releases from Stellagama and Gypsy Knights Games supporting play using the Cepheus Engine/Classic 2d6 Sci-Fi is much more interesting to me. I also have my ongoing occasional Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Edge of the Empire RPG campaign to consider. I could make some excuse about having “limited bandwidth” to play RPGs but the reality is the 2d20 System just doesn’t draw me in.

Bottom Line: It actually doesn’t bother me that I dropped from the playtest because I ain’t gonna miss Star Trek Adventures. I wish Modiphius the best of luck because the hobby needs quality publishers.

#RPGThursday – Passing on Mindjammer Traveller

If you look at this blog, it should be apparent that the Traveller RPG is one of my favorite game systems. It should also be apparent that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Mongoose Publishing. Unfortunately, they are the current banner-carriers of the Traveller RPG system in the form of their Traveller Core Rulebook for Mongoose Traveller Second Edition.

To be clear, I don’t like it. Basically, I don’t see it as any real improvement over the original version and, when coupled with a more restrictive license that limits – even harms – third-party publishers, I am loathe to support it.

I also own Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game (Second Edition) by Modiphius/Mindjammer Press. Mindjammer 2E uses the FATE Core rules. I am not a real fan of Transhuman adventure but I saw much good press about the game and tried it. I even liked it.

pic3340140_mdThis month, Modiphius released Mindjammer: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space using the Mongoose Traveller 2E rules. So I was challenged; I like Mindjammer but dislike Mongoose. What do I do? Do I invest in the Mindjammer: Traveller Edition for $22.49 (pdf) or not?

So I picked up the Dominion Quickstart for Mindjammer Traveller from DriveThruRPG. This is a free 48 page intro game with a few pages of rules changes from Mongoose Traveller 2E and then an adventure.

What I found was very few rules changes from Mongoose Traveller 2E and a lot of background. Background I already have in the FATE Core Mindjammer version. After careful consideration, I concluded that there is not enough new or attractive in the Mongoose Traveller 2E version of Mindjammer to purchase it.

So I’ll pass, and pause to ponder. Why do I find Mindjammer Traveller unattractive? It is the rules or setting? In this case, I don’t see a good marriage of rules to setting here. Maybe my experience with the FATE Mindjammer version has biased me, but I just don’t  feel the Mindjammer setting is best served by the Mongoose Traveller 2E rules. Indeed, I feel the story-telling or narrative basis of FATE is much better for Transhuman Adventure than the very mechanical Traveller engine. The possible results are much more wondrous – like a Transhuman setting should be.

Furthermore, I realize that my unbounded desire for anything Traveller has ended. These days, I appreciate a bounty of different RPG systems from the Cepheus Engine to Traveller 5 to FFG Star Wars to FATE games like Mindjammer or Atomic Robo to CORTEX Plus games like Firefly. Each of these games captures or compliments a setting in unique and positive ways – Mindjammer Traveller just doesn’t give me that same feeling.

 

#RPGThursday Further Thoughts on “Star Trek Adventures” RPG Alpha Rules

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Vanguard Station courtesy artstation.com
I have been playing around in the Alpha rules version of Star Trek Adventures (STA) from Modiphius Entertainment. Being the Alpha rules, the playtest focus at this point is obviously the Core Mechanics of the 2d20 System as adjusted for the setting. After my last blog post, the lead designer, Nathan Dowdell (@N01H3r3 on twitter), reached out and welcomed me to provide direct feedback. I appreciate the offer, and have submitted feedback through the Playtest Survey sent on Dec 14.

Although the playtest requires one to sign up, there is no non-disclosure agreement to date, and given the forums are publicly accessible I “guess” public comments on the game system are also acceptable. Even so, I am going to be a bit cagey with my comments to avoid going beyond a line that I am not so sure even exists.

This is not the first setting to use the 2d20 System. I have not played the other Modiphius 2d20 games, and I understand that Modiphius modifies the game engine for each setting. That said, I am of mixed emotions as to balance between simulationism and narrativism in the core engine and the ability to create adventures evocative of the Star Trek Universe. I am not quite as negative as JP Chapleau (and it almost sounds like his group doesn’t fully grok the rules) but…he has got many good points.

Setting Evocative?

One of the feedback questions concerned Attribute names. More directly, the question was if the Attribute names are evocative of the setting. I find the names evocative, but the application of each Attribute is a bit confusing. I think this is because each Attribute seemingly has a physical and mental aspect. Whereas in Classic 2d6 Sci-Fi (like Classic Traveller or the more recent Cepheus Engine) attributes such as Strength and Intelligence are distinctive and obviously different in application, in STA you get Resilience (“…physical and mental strength…resisting hardship…employing direct methods such as brute force”) and Reason (“…applies to the rational mind…applying theoretical knowledge…making observations and deductions”). Once players are more familiar with the system nomenclature this may may more sense but at the start it’s a bit confusing.

When attempting a task, one must use a combination of Attribute+Skill. The rules state that this combination can be defined by either the GM or players (a rare nod to narrativism). This is a positive thing and I believe rules for “sharing the narrative” should be encouraged. That said, the flow of my games at this point suffers because players are unsure what each Attribute fully means.

Without character generation rules I can only see Focus and Talents as mechanical effects. I look forward to seeing how CharGen uses (hopefully) Focus and Talents to assist in further defining a character and not just enhancing a stat block.

I find Momentum in the core engine useful for creating mechanical effects. Momentum can create a cascade of successful outcomes. It is also VERY powerful; a single Momentum usage can reroll an entire task! I find Threat a useful counterbalance, although I note that – once again – the effects are usually more mechanical than narrative. I see how Values can introduce some narrative-flavor, although in the Alpha rules – with no character generation given – they act (once again) in a more mechanic vice narrative manner.

Extended Tasks are also mechanically clumsy. Having to track three factors (Progress/Magnitude/Resistance) seems a bit much and at this point the challenge seems purely mechanical.

I do not like the Difficulty 0 Task. Using the rules as written, one can attempt a Difficulty 0 Task for the simple reason of creating Momentum. I find this too gamey; a character could perform a simple – and possibly unrelated – task check just to gain advantage for themselves or the group. I can foresee an Engineer running a systems diagnostic check just to roll some dice with any successes automatically becoming Momentum. Unless somebody can show me how this is Really A Good Thing I hope Difficulty 0 Tasks go away.

I am also somewhat doubtful of the Challenge Dice [CD] mechanic (or is it Combat Dice…that’s what the playtest survey asked). In the Alpha rules, the main use of [CD] is determining damage. To determine damage, one adds the damage rating of the weapon AND the Security Skill of the character and arrives at the number of [CD] to be rolled. Although this captures the flavor of how a more skilled character can get more out of a weapon I fear this “narrative advantage” (i.e. a better trained character is far more effective) may be too powerful. Oh yeah, the [CD] is really Fate Dice where the “minus” is read as a “1,”, the blank sides don’t count, and the “plus” sign indicates success and Effect.

The Alpha rules are very lean and give little insight into how flexible – or not – the rules are going to be in making a Star Trek adventure setting of interest to me. Even the playtest adventure is railroading the GM and players to showcase the rules and ensure they get exercised. I really didn’t like the adventure premise – newly minted cadets on their way to a first assignment – because it evokes too many nightmares of Whinny Wesley Crusher. So when I first read the rules heading, So Crazy It Might Work, I had hope. Alas, the section is not any sort of rules, just advice to the GM to encourage the trope but mostly to beware about letting the PCs get carried away and derail the story. Extremely disappointing, especially when there are rules like Brainstorming in the Atomic Robo RPG that are a wonderful example of how those crazy technobabble solutions can be made to work within a game system (and the Fate SRD for Brainstorming is available online).

Indeed, the main problem I have with the rules is that they almost, but not quite, capture the Star Trek feeling for me. For example, the three classes of NPCs are Troopers, Elites, and Nemeses. Elites and Nemeses I can see, but Troopers? Almost, but not quite Star Trek to my ears.

Vanguard to Adventure

I purposely signed up to playtest in TOS era not because I love the adventures of Kirk and the Enterprise, but because I really enjoyed the Vanguard-series of Trek books. Frankly, part of my evaluation of the game will be if I can even come close to recreating a Vanguard-like adventure with smaller starships (like the Archer-class USS Sagittarius NCC-1894) or the civilian Rocinante (no, not the Rocinante from The Expanse). For that matter, I wonder if the game will even support non-Starfleet characters like Cervantes Quinn. I guess I have to wait until at least early next year; upon submitting my playtest survey there was a note that the first wave of ship adventures will be released then.

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USS Sagittarius (NCC-1894) courtesy masazaki.deviant.art
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