#RPGThursday or a delayed #Wargame Wednesday? – Alien: The Roleplaying Game (@freeleaguepub, 2020) – as in “You’re all gonna die. Only question is how you check out.”

In a somewhat radical change of pace, I actually picked up a full deadtree version of a new roleplaying game. I was in my FLGS and ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game from Free League Publishing (2020) caught my eye and I purchased it.

Science fiction is my favorite genre for RPGs, but space horror isn’t exactly my thing, making this purchase of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game a bit bewildering to me. Regardless, I am a bit of an RPG-mechanic explorer so I like to play RPGs almost as much for exploring the core mechanic as the setting. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses Free League’s “Year Zero Engine” (YZE). This is my first exposure to the YZE, and actually my first deep-dive into ALIEN lore as I haven’t watched all the movies faithfully.

ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game tries to sell itself as a somewhat low-complexity, moderately narrative game that focuses on the Xenomorphs as much as, if not more than, characters. The reality, as I see it, is that ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game would be better sold as ALIEN: The Roleplaying Skirmish Wargame.

“First assembly’s in fifteen, people. Shag it!” – Apone

ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a 394-page tome. The space-black background pages would be very expensive (and draining) to print on your own. The book doesn’t need to be this big; there are some pages where the art takes as much space as the text.

ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses customized dice. Well, sorta. There are two die types required, both d6. A Base Die is a d6 with a special symbol in place of the 6. A Stress Die is differently colored from the Base Die and has that same special-use symbol in the 6 position as well as “Stress” on the 1 side. Honestly, you don’t need to buy the special dice (~$15 per set)—just use two different colors of d6 and remember which color is which die type.

“…Well, I can drive that loader. I have a Class-2 rating.” – Ripley

Character creation in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is actually simple. You start by choosing one of nine archetypes. Sure, they’re called Careers in the book but they’re treated as archetypes. Using a limited point-buy system, you assign Attributes (Strength/Agility/Wits/Empathy), Skills (there are only 12), and acquire Talents (pick one).

Player Characters in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game also need a Personal Agenda as well as Buddies and Rivals. Well, that is unless you are playing a Cinematic mode game (more on that later) where the Agenda is “predetermined by the scenario” (p. 31). If you are playing a Campaign mode game, there are “suggested” Personal Agendas listed with your career.

The end result of character generation in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a (barely) two-dimensional character. The real RPG elements of a character, Talents and Personal Agenda, are either so flimsy or pre-defined as to be near-useless to a player. The only real advantage of the character generation system is that it is quick and uncomplicated—for reasons I think will soon become apparent.

Two can be found in chargen…

“My mommy always said there were no monsters – no real ones – but there are.” – Newt

ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game revolves around three simple Themes: Space Horror, Sci-Fi Action, and a Sense of Wonder (p. 20). Take note of the order in which they are presented—it’s important.

Space Horror

To me, the movie ALIEN defines space horror in cinema. The movie captures the essence of a hopeless, helpless, unknown situation. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game depends heavily on the lore of the ALIEN stories to create the game universe. You can physically see it in the book; dark pages, lots of Xenomorphs, plenty of death. Even the fiction is pitch-perfect. This is both a blessing and a curse; it is quite possible to have players that come to the table steeped in the lore, making it a challenge to the Game Mother to create a story as character knowledge and player metaknowledge may not be aligned.

Sci-Fi Action

ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game can be played in one of two game modes. The primary mode is Cinematic. For this one really needs to think of each adventure like a sci-fi action movie, especially ALIENS. Here, the Year Zero Engine works well as it is light on skill checks but more detailed on combat and panic. The Game Mother guide advises that in this mode the Xenomorphs need to be front and center.

Cinematic play is the game mode used to simulate such stories, creating short, focused, and intense movie-like experiences that the PCs will be lucky to survive.

“Cinematic Play”, p. 215

Taken as a whole, the rules for ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game are very much akin to a set of skirmish wargame rules. The “Combat and Panic” chapter—the rules for combat—covers concepts like Stealth Mode (hidden movement), initiative, Slow & Fast Actions (all of which are combat related), ambushes, close combat, ranged combat, and damage. Combat is very deadly—player death is a very, very strong possibility (certainty?). Look no further than the d66 Critical Injuries table which not only has multiple ways to die (“Impaled Heart – FATAL – Your heart beats for the last time”) to healing time measured in days (assuming, of course, you can even get first aid).

A key element of the combat system in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is Stress & Panic. There are nine conditions that raise a Player Character’s Stress Level, as defined on p. 103:

  • You push a skill roll.
  • You fire a burst of full auto fire.
  • You suffer one or more points of damage.
  • You go without sleep, food, or water.
  • You perform a coup de grace.
  • A Scientist in your team fails to use the Analysis talent.
  • A member of your own crew attacks you.
  • A person nearby is revealed to be an android.
  • You encounter certain creatures or locations, as determined by the scenario or the GM.

In ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Stress can lead to Panic. Many times a Panic Action is mandated by the rules. This lack of player agency and forced narrative goes far towards creating a helpless, ultimately hopeless feeling.

Ship combat in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses a “bridge crew” approach to battles where the PCs are usually part of the action. It is interesting to note that in addition to all the ways a ship can be damaged, combat comes down again to the individual and their Stress Level and Panic. It’s quite possible that your PC could “Run to Safety” abandoning their bridge post.

Sense of Wonder

The third theme in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a “Sense of Wonder.” To be frank, my “sense of wonder” when playing ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is, “I wonder how anything survives.” One would think that the second mode of play, Campaign Play, would be where the Sense of Wonder comes from. I started reading the rules for ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game expecting that this is where elements of the story in ALIENS: Prometheus would shine. The Game Mother guide advises in this mode to save the Xenos for something special, but the game system as a whole doesn’t really support that. I mean, the game doesn’t really hide this fact as even the fiction in the chapters usually start with a party and ends up with…nobody alive. Instead of Prometheus the rules give us something that is more Firefly meets ALIENS. i.e. instead of finding stories that can explore discovering alien and human origins we get space truckers and death.

The lack rules support for a true campaign of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game may actually not be as big a loss as it sounds since there is little to be discovered in the game universe thanks to the extensive lore presented. This seems like a conscious decision by the writers, unlike Battlestar Galactica: The Role Playing Game (Maragret Weis Publishing, 2004) or The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) and many other large franchise-based IP games that pick a starting point in the lore and let the players and GM build their player universe from there. Sure, you can do the same in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, but given the extent of lore presented it’s much harder to exclude the metaknowledge.

“…and they’re gonna come in here AND THEY’RE GONNA GET US!” – Hudson

The problems of character survival in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game can be traced all the way back to character generation with those, frankly, shallow characters. It’s as though the writers knew that character lives are cheap and to invest too much time in creating them is a waste. Then there is the game engine, and the Stress rules which can be used to ensure success…but at the risk near-certainty of being helpless as a player.

Given the rate of deaths in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, I searched the Game Mother guide for advice on what to do when a player character dies in the middle of an adventure. I think it’s telling that when talking about the Epilogue to a scenario part of the advice reads, “EPILOGUE: A suggested sign-off message by one of the PCs, assuming anyone is still alive” [my emphasis]. Indeed, I can’t find anything in the Game Mother section talking about mid-scenario player death beyond in-your-face hints that it WILL happen.

Helpless, hopeless, loss of control. If those are the ALIEN franchise themes you enjoy the most then ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is certainly for you.

“That’s it, man. Game over, man.” – Hudson

At the end of the day I think ALIEN: THE Roleplaying Game is best suited for those one-shot adventures where player character backgrounds are less important. Oh heck, ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is really nothing more than a set of skirmish wargame rules with some roleplaying elements. The rate of death in this game is not quite like Paranoia (West End Games, 1982)…but if the Game Mother is not in a nice mood it certainly can be.


ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is TM & © 2020 20th Century Fox Studios and Free League Publishing. All rights reserved.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

#RPGThursday – Cepheus Journal #5 -or- #TTRPG at it’s finest

Bad on me for not pointing out earlier that Cepheus Journal #5 is now available. This is the first issue without a spaceship on the cover but that doesn’t mean it has any less worthy content. Indeed, though Cepheus Engine started out as an updated instance of the Classic Traveller RPG, as this issue shows it can support a myriad of tabletop role playing game settings from Fantasy to Modern to Sci-Fi.

Cepheus Journal #5

“High Tech Clothing” takes the everyday mundane and shows one how to make it a useful part of the game setting.

“Making Hell” is another excellent example of how to “read the dice” in the world generation sub-game.

“Jump Setting” explains that handwavium science in terms meant to enhance the player’s (and Referee’s) interaction with the setting.

“Fighting Undead” is useful for incorporating sci-fi beings fantasy monsters.

“Exotic Chemicals” is a bit more scientific than some may desire but there are some great ideas in here for adventurers.

“Abstract Wealth Rules” is another alternative means of tracking money; maybe a bit too abstract for some but quite useful for settings that want to emphasize play effect over finite tracking of resources.

“The Hidden Temple” is a nice adventure map for a 2d6 dungeon adventure – or a hidden room on a lower-tech world.

“Epsilon Indi” is another ready-made world that can be dropped into an adventure.

“The Sche” is a race of aquatic beings that may look something like shrimp but are so much more.

“British Cold War Tanks” is an example of Cepheus Engine in a modern setting. Needs more exploration from me.

“Old School Rethink” is a new column and it should be the first article in this issue as it really captures the power of the Cepheus Engine. As author Paul Drye explains:

One of the basic premises of the OSR movement is to reproduce the free­ wheeling feel of early roleplaying and running counter to that are many decisions that were made in those early days which have become set in stone. Players and referees don’t think to challenge them because they’ve been “just the way it’s done” for decades and in doing so miss an opportunity for some fun.

What Paul Drye explains is actually the real reason I love Cepheus Engine; it gives me control over my setting without burdensome IP rights or canonical influences.

Best of all, Cepheus Journal is free!


Feature image courtesy projectnerd.it

#RPGThursday – The Expanse RPG (@GreenRoninPublishing, 2019) Fermenting Juice?

I have a soft spot in my heart for science-fiction tabletop roleplaying games. My first RPG ever was the Little Black Books of (Classic) Traveller back in 1979. More recently, Green Ronin Publishing kickstarted The Expanse Roleplaying Game: Sci-Fi Roleplaying at Humanity’s Edge in 2018 that delivered in 2019. At that time I passed on it but recently I acquired a physical copy of the hardback edition.

During the Kickstarter campaign for The Expanse RPG I looked at, and was turned off by, the artwork. I also was not sure of the core mechanic (Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine – AGE). Now that I have the product in hand, what do I think?

Expanse-ive Expectations

When I look at The Expanse, I see a space opera-like story with some hard-ish science-fiction behind it. My expectation from an RPG using The Expanse as a setting is that is should enable the players and GM to create drama but not in a manner that is too disconnected with reality. Where handwavium is used, it must be plausible given the conditions of the setting.

My first introduction to The Expanse was via the TV series. During Season 1 I picked up the books and started catching up by “reading ahead.” Although I like the TV series, I am a book reader at heart and will always take the book version of a setting over a TV interpretation any day. Therefore, I was very excited to see that the authors of The Expanse were part of the making of this RPG. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (together known as James S.A. Corey) are credited with “Development and Story Consultation.” They also contributed the short story that opens the RPG book. In terms of spoilers, the default setting for The Expanse Roleplaying Game is the period between the first and second novels of the series.

[Interestingly, in all the references to The Expanse Fiction in the RPG there is no mention of the TV series. Looks like a separate licensing agreement? This doesn’t bother me as I am personally a fan of the earlier books in the series but I can see how some rabid fans of the TV series may be upset.]

The Look

The Expanse Roleplaying Game book is a hefty 256-page hardcover in full color. There is lots of material here and the format is very busy. I’m glad I got this as a deadtree product because looking at the pages and thumbing through an ebook would be very challenging for me unless it is very well bookmarked.

I previously complained about the artwork in The Expanse Roleplaying Game. My opinion has not changed but I better understand my reaction now. It’s the people. I just cannot connect with the characters shown in the book. Maybe I’m letting the TV series actors influence my expectations too much but even when I recognize that bias and try to look at the character art with that consideration in mind they just don’t work. At the end of the day the character images used in the book are so different are just not The Expanse-like to me.

Setting the Scene

I’ll just go ahead and stipulate that, given the intimate involvement of the series authors in this project, The Expanse Roleplaying Game has all the juicy world-building details a GM needs (and the players want?) to create a story set in The Expanse universe – of the books. A reminder that the default setting is the time between the first and second books (Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War).

The MEchanics behind the story

Given that The Expanse Roleplaying Game has all the needed settings material, my real test of the game is how well the core mechanics and supporting rules create a play experience that I feel fits the setting.

Coming of AGE

The core mechanic in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is Green Ronin Publishing’s Modern Adventure Game Engine (AGE). AGE is built around a basic Ability Test resolved by a 3d6 die roll:

TEST RESULT = 3D6 + ABILITY SCORE + 2 FOR ABILITY FOCUS (IF ANY) vs. [(Target Number (TN)) or (Opposed Test)]

The number to beat in the Ability Test is usually set by a difficulty ladder. The TN of an Average test is 11. This quite literally means that a test with the usual “hero” character +1 Ability level will PASS the test 50% of the time. When rolling your 3d6, one die must be different from the others. This is the Drama Die which helps measure degrees of success and can activate Stunt Points (SP) – but only on successes.

When making an Ability Test in The Expanse Roleplaying Game, if the test roll includes doubles the player gains Stunt Points (SP) equal to the Drama Die. Each different encounter type (Action/Exploration/Social) in The Expanse Roleplaying Game has its own suggested set of Stunts which is the “flair” of your actions. There are many different classes of Stunts for each encounter type and more than a few stunts for each class. There are so many here that the GM will be challenged to keep track of it all; for the player’s it may be all-but-impossible. The extensive listings also seemingly encourage a “menu selection” approach to play. I would much rather see some guidance to the GM and players and general costs (or ideas) and let character roleplaying define a stunt instead of giving a pick ‘n choose menu that in my mind diminishes narrative agency.

The other major character resource in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is Fortune. Luck is expressed in the game by that Fortune score; the more Fortune the more luck the PC has to change or influence the outcome of events. Fortune can be used to change the results of a die roll or even avoid damage. Fortune regenerates (slowly) between encounters and needs an Interlude (longer downtime between game sessions) to reset completely. Indeed, Fortune is probably the most powerful narrative-altering device in the player’s kit bag.

Buried way back in Chapter 12: Game Mastering of The Expanse Roleplaying Game is an optional rule called The Churn. It’s really sad that this concept is buried deep in the book and then presented as an optional rule because The Churn goes a long way towards making an adventure in The Expanse Roleplaying Game more thematic. The Churn is a track the GM keeps to show when the fickle hand of fate intervenes. At the beginning of an adventure The Churn pool is ‘0’. As events happen The Churn builds until it boils over into a game effect. Some might say The Churn robs the GM of plot control but I see it as a guide (and challenge) to the GM to move story along, sometimes in an epic change of direction.

Interestingly, although The Churn is described as an optional rule, the associated tables are prominently placed on the GM Screen. It’s as if Green Ronin is telling us we should be using The Churn although the rules seemingly tell us not.

In terms of “crunch,” I would call AGE “medium-heavy” for me. It is far cruchier than my beloved Cepheus Engine and relatively comparable to the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game (GENESYS) or Cortex Prime (especially as used in Firefly Roleplaying Game) although with less narrative control by the player than either of those two systems.

Who Are You?

Character generation in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is done using a ten-step outline. This is a concept-driven design process; you decide at the beginning what you want and then tailor your character to get the desired result. At first I was worried that this process was going to be too player-directed and subject to min/maxing of characters. In reality, I discovered the system strikes a good balance between player desire and random chance.

The AGE system defines characters through nine abilities. The score for each ability ranges from -2 (quite poor) to 4 (truly outstanding). The book goes out of its way to say that a score of 1 is “average” for characters but everyday individuals are 0. As a long-time Traveller RPG player where characters are often “ordinary sophonts thrown into extraordinary situations” I’m not sure how I really feel about “special” characters.

For my first character in The Expanse Roleplaying Game I decided I wanted to generate a captain of a small subsidized freighter that moves about the Belt. Here I step through the 10-step process:

  1. Concept (Player choice) – Subsidized Freighter Captain
  2. Abilities (Rolled) – Accuracy 0 / Communications 4 / Constitution 3 4 / Dexterity 3 / Fighting 0 / Intelligence 3 / Perception 0 / Strength 2 / Willpower 2
  3. Origin (Player Choice) – Earther
  4. Background (Rolled, some choice) – Outsider/Exile (formerly Middle Class/Academic); Constitution +1, Focus: Willpower (Self Discipline), Talent: Fringer (Novice) plus Focus: Communication (Bargaining)
  5. Profession (Rolled, some choice) – Fixer gaining Focus: Intelligence (Evaluation) and Talent: Improvisation (Novice)
  6. Drive (Rolled, some choice) – Networker. Membership: Rank 1 Recruit (new Captain?), Quality: Gregarious, Downfall: Overwraught, Talent: Contacts (Novice)
  7. Income (Defined by rules) – 0 (Equipment buy will be later)
  8. Secondary Abilities and Fortune (Defined by rules) – Defense = 13 / Speed = 13 / Toughness = 4 / Fortune = 15
  9. Goals and Ties (Player driven) – Short Term > Move to better ship, Long Term > own ship. Ties – ??
  10. Name & Description (Player choice) – Chester “Chessy” Smith

Generally speaking, I am pleased with the result. I certainly generated my Subsidized Merchant Captain, but the process also created more than a few hooks that I as a player (or the GM) can build on. What makes a middle-class academic turn outsider?

One aspect of character generation in The Expanse Roleplaying Game I find very interesting is Step 7: Income and Equipment. Characters do not track money in credits, but instead use an Income Score that shows a relative financial condition. When combined with the rules for income and lifestyle it is possible to put the “cost of living” into the game and make it a contributing narrative element of the story.

Although the character generation process in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is not super complicated, I would have liked to see a beginning-to-end example. I also am very interested in how the iconic characters were created because as an AGE system neophyte I easily see how the stats presented came to be. It would be very insightful for the authors/designers to show their work here.

Spaceships

What is The Expanse without Rochinante? Ships are just as important as any character in The Expanse, and The Expanse Roleplaying Game gives spaceships its own chapter. The chapter starts out with a science lesson on space travel in The Expanse.

Note I said science lesson, not rules.

I know, even Classic Traveller used a few formulas, but in The Expanse Roleplaying Game at this point we learn all about motion and velocity and the handwavium science of the Epstein Drive. There is also a discussion of Hohmann Transfer orbits and Brachistochrone Trajectories and….

STOP!

When I said I was looking for a “hard-ish sci-fi” setting I did NOT mean to give me a course in astrophysics. It is not until we get six (dense) pages into the chapter that we get information useful for PLAY. Table 2: “Average Communication Time Between Locations (In Minutes)” and Tables 3A-3D: “Average Travel Time Between Locations (At XXG) (In Hours)” is finally something that has real relevance (and use) to the players and GM.

The next section of the chapter describes space ships. The Expanse Roleplaying Game uses the tried and true “ships as characters” approach to ship descriptions. There are no ship construction rules in the book; that’s coming in a future expansion. What surprised me the most is there is no Rochinante described here. I’m guessing the Frigate on page 126 could stand in for the Roci, but given the Roci is part of the book could Green Ronin not have included some sort of Roci ship referenced as such? Sigh….

The adventure included in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is a good example for the GM in the how Parts, Scenes, Encounters and Interludes all come together to make a story. Too bad it’s nothing more creative than a dungeon crawl in space.

My Story vs. Canon

One worry I always have about licensed IP games is the inevitable canon wars. I’m very happy to see The Expanse Roleplaying Game address this head-on in Chapter 15. This chapter provides many different ideas for running a multitude of different types of stories. It even encourages the GM and players to go “beyond canon” where they see fit. Not that I was not going to make any game my own; it’s just good to see the authors encouraging creativity beyond the bounds of the published IP.

Game Gravity

The Expanse Roleplaying Game is clearly aimed at Detailed Role Players – those who want to deeply explore the motivations of their characters. The rules are far too heavy for Social Role Players to pick up (or even play with no familiarity). There is little-to-no rules that support a Systems Engineer Role Player – the world building here is basically done for you.

The problem I have with the rules in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is that, after playing around a bit and running some shadow adventures, the core mechanic just doesn’t seem dramatic enough. The Ability Tests seem too formulamatic (and far from dramatic). The menu of Stunts encourage PBM (Play-By-Menu) and actually reduces the narrative drama of play. Being able to call upon Stunts only when successful also seems to take away the “narrative of loss” by which I mean being able to narrate failure is just as dramatically powerful as narrating success. This is why I believe the narrative dice in Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying (aka GENESYS) are so awesome; rolling Despair is just as narratively powerful as rolling a Triumph. I also feel the Fortune pool is just too big. In other systems the economy of Fate Points or Plot Points or Lightside/Darkside Points is tight and their use has a palatable value. Calling upon them is a major dramatic moment. In The Expanse Roleplaying Game when even Thugs have over a dozen Fortune points it just feels so non-dramatic. Is this simply a symptom of low level characters or is the core mechanic truly that sad?

At the end of the day, I am going to give The Expanse Roleplaying Game a hesitant, if not very reluctant, thumbs up. I think the game does a good job of creating a setting and rules that players who love The Expanse can play around in and feel “at home.” I’m a bit hesitant to go all-in because the rules seem a bit too heavy in places and more complex than they maybe need be. I also worry about the balance between narrative and “menu-driven” play the rules are built upon. Maybe as I play around with the rules more they will ferment a bit and become better with age.

Threat Tuesday / #Wargame Wednesday / #RPG Thursday (a few days early) – Underground Missile Base to Weaponeer and Perfect Villains Lair

This week Iran unveiled on YouTube their ‘underground barrage missile base:”

As if one video isn’t enough inspiration here is a second (minus the vertical missiles). Obviously filmed pre-COVID. I really like the ones wearing sunglasses deep inside a tunnel!

One missile wonk on Twitter even made a helpful graphic:

For Threat Tuesday this is an interesting way way to deploy missiles. The US certainly learned the danger of storing a liquid-fuel missile in an underground silo forty years ago when a Titan-II ICBM blew up in Arkansas.

For Wargame Wednesday (a day early) this is an interesting target to weaponeer. In the wargame Persian Incursion from Clash of Arms/Admiralty Trilogy Group players can use the rules from Harpoon 4.X to strike underground bunkers. These look much deeper and more difficult. Shades of Star Wars here – deliver that torpedo into the shaft!

For you roleplaying game players looking for RPG Thursday (2 days early) this looks to be a perfect villain’s lair for use in your James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game (Victory Games, 1982) or any modern espionage RPG setting.


Feature image courtesy popularmechanics.com

#RPG Thursday – The “History” of Twilight 2000 (GDW, 1984) -or- What plausible are YOU looking for?

Twilight: 2000 is one of my oldest, most beloved roleplaying systems in my collection. I still have my original boxed First Edition (1984). I also bought both the complete collections for Twilight: 2000 v1 and Twilight: 2000 v2 on the CD-ROM several years ago from Far Future Enterprises. I took a look at Twilight: 2013 or what some refer to as Twilight: 2000 v3 using the Reflex System in the late 2010’s but didn’t buy into it. Most recently I considered the Free League Kickstarter campaign for a new Twilight: 2000 but didn’t buy into it. What I love about Twilight: 2000 (T2K) is that it is a modern military roleplaying game.

In the past few days I came across this video from the Complex Game Apologist on YouTube and watched.

Now, generally I like CGA mostly because he talks about the Traveller RPG. I say ‘generally’ because he focuses more on the recent versions of Traveller (especially Mongoose Traveller 2.0). I don’t always agree with him but I often give him the benefit of the doubt.

Not this time.

I’m going to try to ignore the obvious problem of having a self-named millennial (note the right spelling) in a BLM t-shirt tell me about what it was like growing up in the Cold War. Instead I will focus on what I think CGA misses – Twilight: 2000 is a ‘plausible’ concept for a modern military roleplaying game; the timeline serves the purpose of getting to that concept, any historical accuracy or ‘plausibility’ of the setting is secondary to the need to get at that core concept.

The core of CGA’s argument is found starting at the 19:57 minute mark in this 27:48 minute video. Here is my transcription of his words:

The game is married to this version of a four year war. We can see the troops really entrench, bond with each other. We can see see millions of Americans kidnapped or “drafted” [air quotes used] off the street to fight in Central Europe. And to my eyes in the year 2020 it feels like it wants that more than it wants to be plausible. At least I need a reason why the war goes on that long.

In 2006 Far Future Enterprises published for free online the Player’s Guide to Twilight: 2000 (version 1.0). I think an extensive quote from that document is key to understanding what the designer’s wanted the game to be.

Serious role-playing games are built around drama, and there is no situation more dramatic than that of a soldier in wartime, so you might think the military is a natural setting for role- playing. However, RPGs work best in anarchic situations— where the player characters are their own bosses— and, in the army, discipline and coordinated group action are the keys to success. To get around this, the most successful military RPGs have settings where small groups can act with a large degree of autonomy, on commando raids, during guerilla warfare, or (most popular of all) after civilization has broken down due to holocaust or invasion.

What I think CGA misses is that the setting of T2K is actually very similar to many classic Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. The initial T2K setting in effect is medieval Europe except instead of wandering knights you have a band of US military personnel trying to escape home. This is where I think CGA runs off the rails in his video. CGA clearly wants a Twilight: 2000 that he defines as “more plausible.” so he redefines the alternate history scenario. What I think CGA misses is that the T2K setting is NOT designed to be ‘realistic’, it simply serves as a vehicle to get us to a dramatic modern military setting for a roleplaying game.

Here is the concept for T2K as presented in the Players Guide:

Five years ago, the nations of the world began their war for global supremacy.

Three years ago, a massive nuclear exchange failed to give any side the decisive advantage they sought.

One year ago, the US Fifth Infantry Division launched a drive into enemy-held Poland, part of an offensive to knock the Soviets back to their homeland.

It failed. Now the Red Diamond is deep in enemy territory, reduced to small units without support, supply, or reinforcement. The war for Europe has turned into the war for survival.

Now what?

GDW presents a new concept in role-playing. World War III began five years ago. It’s still going on, but that’s the least of your problems. A few days ago, you were soldiers in the U.S. 5th Division. Now you’re just fighting to survive while the world falls apart around you.

Welcome to 2000 AD. Your equipment was brand new in 1995; now it’s wearing out. Gasoline is rare, so your vehicles run on alcohol you distill yourself. And 5th Division’s cavalry—when there was a 5th Division—rode horses. There’s not much government left in central Europe, just warlords, marauders, and free cities. Even the major powers are collapsing; some units, even whole divisions, are refusing orders and heading home.

Your division is gone, and you’re hundreds of kilometers inside enemy territory; fortunately, the Soviets aren’t in much better shape than you are.

Your job is to stay alive, find enough fuel and spare parts to keep moving, get home (wherever that is), and maybe even strike at the enemy.

The real trick in designing a role-playing game is to produce detailed, accurate effects with simple systems. That takes inspiration and a lot of work, and that’s what we did. Twilight: 2000’s comprehensive rules cover combat, skills, survival, encounters, and more with easy-to- use and flexible but well-defined systems.

I actually find it a bit sad that CGA is so hard-over on the need to redefine the alternate history in order to enjoy this game. Instead of embracing a plausible setting concept he seems intent on redefining the setting history to make that timeline ‘plausible’ to him. I feel that, in the end, his political blinders will prevent him from enjoying any version of Twilight: 2000. It’s not the setting that is the plausible focus but the potential drama derived from the concept of modern military roleplaying that makes Twilight: 2000 enjoyable. That is what made Twilight: 2000 enjoyable in 1984 and that is what can make Twilight: 2000 enjoyable in 2020.

Cold War Boomer, out!

#RPG Thursday – Past it’s Prime? Cortex Prime Game Handbook (@CortexRPG, 2020)

Way back in May 2017 I was somewhat serious into role playing games. I was buying up many rule sets including Traveller 5 (Far Future Enterprises), Genysys (Fantasy Flight Games), and The Clement Sector setting using the Cepheus Engine (Independence Games). At that time I eagerly backed the new Cortex Prime: Game Handbook by Cam Banks on Kickstarter.

Today is October 2020. The Game Handbook delivered to me this week. Basically three years behind schedule. What now?

You see, I like the Cortex System, even as it has gone through many iterations. I absolutely love Cortex Classic in the Serenity Role Playing Game and Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (btw, BSG has the second best Example of Play behind James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game by Victory Games). I even stuck with the system as it developed into Cortex Plus and its Cortex-Drama version (Smallville Roleplaying Game) and Cortex Heroic (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) before ending up in the most excellent Firefly Role-Playing Game.

But that was three years ago.

I’m not going to go into the stupidity of the Kickstarter campaign. Suffice it to say that I will never trust designer Cam Banks again. However, I will try to put my hatred for Cam Banks and the sour aftertaste of the campaign aside and look at the Game Handbook in a neutral manner.

…Aw, H-E-Double Toothpicks – Who am I kidding?

If there is one thing about the RPG industry I hate is that many companies have seemingly bought into the SJW narrative of the world. The fact they chose to do so doesn’t bother me; that’s their decision. But when you try to foist your ideology off on me I have a different reaction.

Take for example the Cortex Primer on pages 5 and 6 of the Game Handbook. It describes the Core of Cortex with three example situations. Mind you, this is the first example of what types of characters you can play with Cortex. These examples are supposed to fire your imagination and show you the endless possibilities of the system. So what are you? A Barbarian, Maybe a Bard? How about a Sorcerer? A small-time independent operator ‘out in the black?” The last of mankind escaping the robotic holocaust? Iron Man? Maybe a down-on-your-luck ex-rebel standing up to the ‘man?’

Nope, you’re a reporter. Re-port-er. And not even CNN or Fox.

In the first situation the reporter needs to finish a report by the morning. It’s an Easy task for a Seasoned Journalist. The scene ends with the reporter slamming the paper on their bosses’ desk. OK, I guess you can feel good playing it this way because in the Real WorldTM you’d get your butt handed to you, and rightly so.

The second situation is the reporter trying to get into a biker bar (aka ‘see the strong female character stand up to the misogynistic stereotypes‘) to meet a source. Of course she gets bounced into the mud but luckily she still meets her contact (Oh yes, all the heroes in the Cortex Prime Game Handbook are female; the lone male character is used to show what failure looks like in the rules).

The third scene is nail-biting. The now muddy reporter/college student must sneak into an office to get some files, which she acquires and escapes with. The scene ends there; no Woodward & Bernstein moment, just grab the files and escaping the office.

Wow, I am so motivated! Now I really want to play a CNN reporter on the campaign trail asking hard-hitting questions of the candidates (as you can tell, I really like fantasy settings).

Calming down for a moment, I’ll admit I like the Cortex System. I like the step dice mechanic and Plot Points. I like what happens when you roll a 1 (a hitch). I like how you can create Assets and Complications on the fly.

I just need to get through the rule book without choking on all the SJW goodness.

Sigh….

#RPGThursday -Finding Earth in The Clement Sector from @IndependenceGa6

What is it about the Original Traveller RPG that keeps me coming back? I mean, I don’t play in a session that often although the RockyMountainNavy Boys have repeatedly expressed an interest. This last week, Independence Games, the new name for Gypsy Knight Games, had a sale and I couldn’t resist picking up several items in their The Clement Sector collection.

I like The Clement Sector setting. It’s a small-ship universe that tops out around TL12 or 13. It’s fun to adventure around in mostly because Gypsy Knight Independence Games gives plenty of seed material but little restrictions on where you can take your adventure.

Earth_Sector_Cover_540x
Courtesy Independence Games

The first item I picked up was Earth Sector: A Clement Sector Setting. As author and publisher John Watts puts describes it:

Earth Sector is an extension of Independence Games (formerly Gypsy Knights Games) Clement Sector setting. For those familiar with the Clement Sector setting, Earth Sector is set in Earth Sector after the Conduit Collapse of 2350. Earth Sector, while it can be played without knowledge or familiarity with the Clement Sector setting, is best experienced if you are conversant with the full Clement Sector story.

It is our intention with Earth Sector to branch off from Clement Sector, much as the Conduit Collapse forced the seperate evolution of both sectors. Earth Sector will be its own setting united by the past background before 2331 and then branching off in a new direction afterward. This is the first book in that adventure, and it is our sincere hope that you enjoy where this goes.

Earth Sector is a 300 page product with lots of background. All the major nations of the Earth are detailed, along with the obligatory sector maps and data. New characters from among the various subsectors are introduced as each is unique in some way. There are also multiple career paths detailed, again tailored for this sector and time in space.

As much as I like The Clement Sector and how Independence Games generally approaches the setting, there are two parts of Earth Sector I don’t enjoy. First, like John Watts says, you need familiarity with the background of Clement Sector to fully use this book. There is no timeline in Earth Sector, for that you need to get something like Introduction to Clement Sector or the Clement Sector: Core Setting Book to see the history. Come on! A simple timeline to help orient oneself is not to much of an ask, eh? Second is the aliens in Earth Sector. This is all a matter of taste and to each their own. For my aliens I tend more towards a hard sci-fi or a Space Opera approach. In Earth Sector, the Monikarans, semiaquatic carnivores similar to Earth’s otters, beavers, or weasels, pushes too far into Space Pulp for me. In no way it this a showstopper for me; the Independence Games setting doesn’t hinge on this race so it can be ignored or something else substituted in easily.

Tech_Update_2350_Front_Cover_Promo_540x
Courtesy Independence Games

The second book I picked up was Tech Update: 2350. The cover clearly identifies this as both a Clement Sector and Earth Sector product. The book details updates to technology, on both sides of the Conduit Collapse, in the twenty years since the incident. If there is a part I really like, it is the updated Computer rules. If there was one area the designers of Original Traveller missed it was computer technology. Even Mongoose Traveller and early Clement Sector retain much of the old or outright ignore the original version. In Tech Update: 2350, Independence Games lays down a marker on new Computer rules that are a believable reworking of the original version.

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Courtesy Independence Games

The third book I purchased is Knox-Class Frigate, another is a long line of ship sourcebooks from Independence Games. Like Tech Update: 2350, this book is branded for both Clement and Earth Sector. These are 1,000 dTon ships with a 4G maneuver drive and a Zimm Drive (interstellar FTL) of 2 parsec range. The ships are very heavily armed with a 2x 50 ton Meson Bays and 2x 50 ton Particle Beam Bays.

Unmerciful Frontier
Courtesy Independence Games

The last item I picked up is another ship book. Lance-Class Gunboat details an older design from the days before gravitic drives. In many ways, a Lance-class looks like Independence Games version of the Rochinante from The Expanse. The Lance is a 300 dTons boat with a Fusion Plasma Reaction Drive delivering 12 hours of 3G thrust. It is armed with a 50 ton Spinal Particle Beam Mount, a Railgun Barbette, a Triple Turret. It is a ‘tower’ design with decks perpendicular to the main thruster. I like these older boats and looking at their designs as it helps me explore the full depth of world-building the rules offer.

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Lance-class Gunboat from Independence Games

#RPGThursday – A Dicey Situation: A #TravellerRPG adventure using Cepheus Light (@StellagamaPub) and @TravellerNews dice

THE ROCKYMOUNTAINNAVY BOYS ARE ALL IN on the Traveller role playing game. This past weekend, we played another adventure. Unlike the previous session where I relied upon Gypsy Knights Games 21 Plots for inspiration, this time we riffed off our character and world generation time. We used Cepheus Light (Stellagama Publishing, 2018) as our rules set.

The adventure party, in a Scout ship, was engaged by their enigmatic contact to smuggle high-end luxury goods (handbags in a nod to RMN Mom) to a rich, but vastly overcrowded, planet ruled with an iron fist by a religious dictatorship. Along the way they were approached by the Space Patrol and surreptitiously engaged in espionage, they were double-crossed by a smuggler, they double-crossed the smuggler back, were harassed by the police, had to disarm an improvised explosive device on their ship, knocked heads with smugglers, ran from system defense boats, and dodged fighters.

After the session, both RMN Boys expressed relief that the adventure was over as it was stressful (in a good way). When I asked what part they liked most the answer was the dice. Several times during the game, I took one of my chunky Traveller dice and used it as a countdown timer. For instance, as they went to disarm the bomb, I placed the die heavily on the table.

CLICK!

As they discussed their plan – at some length – I picked up the die, rotated it to the next lower number, and placed it down hard on the table.

CLICK!

The Boys looked up in horror as they realized they really were working against a clock. They tried to disarm the bomb, but failed.

CLICK! The die rotated again.

They eventually disarmed the bomb, but the countdown die would come back again during space combat. They were jumped by a system defense boat during their escape. To show how long they needed before they could safely jump away the countdown die came back out.

CLICK!

“Let’s duke it out! Oh…my little beam laser ain’t so hot….”

CLICK!

“Let’s run away!”

CLICK!

“Uh, we need to do something more. Let’s get the Engineer to goose the engines and try some fancy flying and use Tactics.”

CLICK!

“OK, we got away. That was easy!”

CLICK!

“Where did those fighters come from? Hey, that hurts!”

CLICK!

“JUMP NOW!”

We are having lots of fun and I am sure there are many more adventures ahead. I just hope I can keep up with the RMN Boys and deliver good games.

#RPGThursday – Odds and Ends for the summer with #TravellerRPG and #T2K

I AM REENGAGING ON PLAYING RPGS after a long hiatus. The RockyMountainNavy Boys have fully embraced Cepheus Engine and we are mixing a RPG session into our normal weekend family game night. With that change I have started stalking publishers on DriveThruRPG again and making a few purchases.

The first book I picked up is Shipbook: Type S Scout Courier from Moon Toad Publishing. I belatedly realized this book is intended for Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition. That’s OK, Cepheus Engine grew out of MgT 1st Edition so it’s usable. My intent is to pass this along to the RockyMountainNavy Boys to use as inspiration. It’s such a classic Traveller RPG ship they deserve to see it in all it’s glory. Update – Yup, they definitely have latched onto this one for inspiration.

The second book I picked up is Moon Toad Publishing’s Shipbook: Type A Free Trader. Like the Scout, this is another “classic” Traveller RPG ship. Again, my intent is to pass this along to the RMN Boys for their inspiration.

Another item I picked up is a throwback to a much older game. I have impatiently awaited a Korean sourcebook for Twilight: 2000 and now the T2000 v1 Korean Peninsula Sourcebook is available. Having been stationed in Korea the first time in 1992, I must say that the data feels authentic to me. I have not played T2K in a long time but I may just have to set up an adventure.

One part of the Traveller RPG system I have always liked is that there are several min-games in the game. Like character generation. I really enjoy taking a collection of stats and skills and a bit of die rolling and making it into a living character. After the other night, the RMN Boys now understand my joy.

The RMN Boys and I sat down after dinner to roll up a few characters. Middle RMN Boy ended up with a character with low Education and low Social Status. He tried to get into the Marines, failed, and became a Drifter. He eventually did enlist in the Marines, but failed to reenlist and went back to being a Drifter. After three terms the character mustered out. Middle RMN was a bit frustrated. Younger RMN Boy had rolled up a Scout with a ship. This really wasn’t fair! I asked Middle RMN what skills the character had.

“Nothing. Just Driving-1.”

“Sounds like an Uber driver to me,” Youngest RMN said.

“Yeah, an Uber with Streetwise and a bit of Recon skill. Sounds like a good contact,” I said.

“Well, he was in the Marines. Maybe he was a friend of Little John,” said Middle RMN [Little John is another character Middle RMN rolled up before].

Before we knew it, we had fleshed out an entire backstory for our Uber driver. He is a Uber driver on “Planet Kool-Aid,” the Religious Dictatorship planet in the sector. By the time we were finished, Youngest RMN declared, “This is the coolest character ever!”

That’s the power of Traveller.


Feature image imgur.com

#RPGThursday – Why #TravellerRPG is not #GameofThrones (and that’s a really good thing)

MUCH IS BEING WRITTEN ABOUT the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. One of the more interesting articles I read comes from Scientific America in their Observations blog online. Zeynep Tufekci writes, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones – It’s not just bad storytelling — it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.”

As Tufekci writes:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

This got me thinking. Why is it that I like the Classic Traveller RPG? I think it’s because Traveller is at it’s root sociological, unlike other games like Dungeons & Dragons which are psychological.

Bear with me here.

The connection hit me in part because I introduced the RockyMountainNavy Boys to the Cepheus Engine System recently. Like Classic Traveller, character generation in Cepheus Engine is a series of die rolls. There is some player agency in the process but for the most part the output of the character generation process is a very everyday character. The character is not a hero. There is little chance to min-max character stats – the player starts with the hand they are dealt (or restarts in the event of character death). In play the player must then respond “to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.”

In many other RPG systems character generation is much more personal (psychological). Start with a character concept, then build the character using the right tables. The result is often a heroic character – and that’s by design. After all, who wants to play an everyday drone in the world? They have to live, level up, get more spells, and become more powerful.

Let’s look at how Tufekci describes the best of GOT – character death:

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

The same applies to many RPGs and its why there is often a major reluctance to kill off characters in a campaign. Unless, of course, there is a “heroic” reason to do so.

Tufekci continues:

The appeal of a show that routinely kills major characters signals a different kind of storytelling, where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics, doesn’t carry the whole narrative and explanatory burden. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.

Personal stories and agency…hallmarks of a good RPG. But how many GMs use institution and events – external forces – to shape player characters?

I now see that Traveller and Cepheus Engine have sociological storytelling baked-in at their core. This is what makes these systems so interesting to me. Like other RPG players, I want to be a hero but I derive more pleasure at achieving without a heroic character being given to me.