#RPGaDay 2017 – What is a good #RPG to play for sessions of 2 hrs or less?

#RPGaDay August 8, 2017

Tough one here. I have seen many “lighter” RPGs and have heard/watched one-shots that can run as little as two hours but I actually own very few.

I am going to assume that the traditional “Session 0” character generation and the like is either done before hand or pregens are used.

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Courtesy Pinnacle Entertainment Group

Of the RPGs in my collection, FATE Accelerated(Evil Hat Games) is my go-to although I admit that I have found Savage Worlds (Pinnacle Entertainment Group) to also be useful for a quick pick-up game (I have the slightly older Explorer’s Edition).

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Courtesy FFG

Of course, any of the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG Beginner Games also work. I have all four (Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, Force and Destiny, and The Force Awakens) and I have to say that Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game is my favorite.

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Courtesy RPGGeek

Then again, I cannot pass on mentioning Classic Traveller or its latest incarnation, Cepheus Engine. There are many “sub-games” within this RPG that make great play sessions. Like character generation and the famous “you can die during chargen” game. Or gearheads designing ships. These days I even play solo using, what other than, SOLO!.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Manufacturer Settings (2009-2010)

At the end of the 2000-aughts my roleplaying collection again took a different turn. For a few years, I turned away from new game systems and instead invested in campaign settings. At the time, the seemingly most popular settings were published courtesy of major publishers, or what I term “manufacturer settings.” I realize the term is not totally fair; in more than a few cases the setting was a labor of love from a small-time or alternative author that teamed with the larger publishing house because they had the experience and marketing prowess to bring the product to market.

pic544013_mdUniverse of Babylon 5 used Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller (1E) game engine. This campaign setting was translated from an earlier D20 series. UoB5 suffers from poor editing and sloppy game system translation as well as poor production quality. Given how rich a setting the B5 Universe is, to have the game version be so poorly done is a travesty. A major disappointment.

pic651616_mdReign of Discordia (Mongoose/Gun Metal Games) was another campaign setting using the Traveller 1E-engine. Another system translation (originally True20) it suffered from many of the the same issues as U0B5. Another disappointment.

pic760617_mdWhen I saw Hammer’s Slammers (Mongoose) I just had to get it. Here was going to be the RPG version of my favorite military science-fiction series! Even better, it used the Traveller 1E-game engine that I was so familiar with!

What a let-down.

The fact that it was Mongoose should of been a warning. That and the cover art – that soldier is nothing like I imagined Hammer’s Slammers to be. Opening up the book, the maps were so amateur and very un-military-like. The rules were an expansion of the basic game engine, and links to future products were promised (and never delivered).

In my disgust with Mongoose – they had obviously tried to cash in on the Hammer’s Slammers name and ended up doing a great disservice to the IP – I turned to another recognized gaming name. pic797297_mdSpace 1889: Red Sands (Pinnacle Entertainment Group – PEG) was the campaign setting book for Space 1889 using the Savage Worlds game engine. This was by far the best of the setting books I tried as it was a good match of setting (steampunk) and game engine (Savage Worlds – “Fast, Furious, Fun”). The campaign setting also works well with the

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Courtesy Wessex Games
Aeronef  (Wessex Games) miniature rules I had recently found. Indeed, long ago I used Red Sands to create Aeronef characters.

By the end of 2010 my flirtation with campaign settings died out. Looking back, each of these settings I tried was backed by a major publishing house and closely tied to their game engine. In the case of Mongoose the poor production values reflected to me a cash-grab attitude the turned me off then like it does today. The second part of the problem was that there was little “new” in these settings; in each case the setting was a translation of an older IP or license into a newer game engine. Red Sands was the best done of my lot, but I was looking for more.

In retrospect, this era – 2009 thru 2010 – was a major disappointment. Interestingly to me, I purchased each of these settings in a dead-tree form. This was among the last times I did that. The rise of online publishing and the availability of content through sites like RPGNow or DriveThruRPG (and more recently the Open Gaming Store) were starting to dramatically change not only how, but what content was being delivered to RPG customers like myself.

All images courtesy RPGGeek except where noted.

#RPGThursday #StarTrek Adventures Alpha Playtest Initial Thoughts

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Courtesy Modiphius Entertainment

I am participating in Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Adventures (STA) living playtest campaign. Over the Thanksgiving Weekend they released the first playtest package, Alpha v1.2. According to their email:

Attention Crew! You have a short journey ahead of you to Narendra Station where you’ll be assigned to one of several ships…
This email includes a link to download the very first Alpha test of the Star Trek Adventures Living Playtest. For this adventure player characters are newly deployed cadets heading toward Narendra Station on a shuttle for assignment to their various vessels. During the trip, they receive a distress call from a science outpost on a planet that’s been struck by a highly irradiated ion storm. The shuttle crash-landed on the surface and the crew was attacked by primitive hostile humanoid creatures wielding clubs and rocks.
This first adventure is set in the 24th century (TNG era) and is for all crews regardless of which ship they picked. You are assigned cadets as characters for this very first mission but in subsequent missions you will be playing aboard your chosen ship with a wide choice of bridge crew. This first mission is to introduce you to basics of the rules however the results will affect the on-going Living Campaign plot. Additional rules will be introduced with each new playtest pack.
The Rescue at Xerxes 4 (by Shawn Merwin) is the first adventure in the Star Trek Adventures Living Campaign playtest series. This adventure is meant to be played by a Gamemaster (GM) and 3-7 player characters, using the pre-generated characters provided.
We will be asking for feedback in December so get testing as soon as you can!

The download package includes Alpha Rules v1.2, 12 playtest pregens, Playtest Summary sheets, the above referenced adventure, and a short background document.

I was a bit disappointed with the Alpha package because I specifically signed up for a Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)-era playtest campaign. After reading the Modiphius Forums I understand the intent to use a single Alpha playtest package to introduce the basic rules before getting into era-specific adventures, but it still was disappointing to not start off like I expected.

Exploring the (Warp) Core

STA uses Modiphius’ 2d20 system. This is a core mechanic I am not previously familiar with so I am really entering the playtest as a newbie to the system. To put my Bottom Line Up Front, I feel the 2d20 mechanic generates limited narrative opportunities at the cost of somewhat cumbersome mechanical implementation.

Starting off, the Alpha Playtest document is hard to read. I know this is the Alpha version and not supposed to be fancy, but the layout/format is not friendly to a flow of reading that helps to understand the game. To get a better understanding I got the free Modiphius Robert E. Howards CONAN Roleplaying Game Quickstart from DriveThruRPG which I found explained the 2d20 system better. The Conan Quickstart and STA Alpha are not identical, but the game concepts are similar enough to assist in understanding the system.

Mechanically, in the 2d20 System, each Task is given a difficulty rating from 0 to 5. The player adds the character’s Attribute and Skill to get a Target Number. When rolling 2d20, each roll under the TN is a success. The number of successes needed is the difficulty. Skills can also have a Focus, and rolling either a 1 or the Focus or less equals two successes. Damage is expressed in terms of Challenge Dice [CD] which is a d6 read with 1 and 2 equalling that number of successes, 3 and 4 meaning nothing, and 5 and 6 meaning a single success and an Effect.

Narratively, the players have Momentum (extra successes beyond the difficulty level) and Determination to spend. The GM has Threat. To mechanically or narratively effect a Task or the outcome the PCs use Momentum, Determination, Teamwork, or pay Threat. The GM has NPC Momentum, Teamwork, and Threat. Values can also be used by the players or challenged by the GM to influence the action.

Send in the Redshirts

All this sounds straight-forward; that is, until I actually tried playing it out. To resolve a task the player may be rolling up to 5d20 (2d20 baseline plus up to 3 additional when Improving the Odds) to determine success with options to narratively/mechanically intervene both before an after the Task Roll. Then, a pool of Challenge Dice are rolled (often to determine damage).

One of the Playtest Pregens – an obvious combat build – has a Control Attribute of 10 and a Security Skill of 4 with a Ranged Attack Focus of 4. Shooting a Type 2 Phaser, the basic attack  for this character has a Target Number of 14, meaning each d20 that rolls 14 or under (70% chance) scores a success, and any one rolling 4 or under (20% chance) scores  two successes. Remember too that a natural 20 (5% chance) is a Complication (and even that can grow up to a 25% chance given the right conditions). Assuming success against the basic Difficulty 2, this character now rolls 7x Challenge Dice (Basic Weapon Factor of 3 plus Security Skill 4) to determine damage. Any attack scoring five or more in a single attack (or when the Stress Track is depleted ) can cause an Injury. Characters look to have from 8 to 14 Stress. Note also that any successes beyond the basic needed (in the case of here beyond the 2 Difficulty) generates Momentum, and each character has between 3-4 Determination at the start of a session.

My gut reaction is that there are too many “fiddly bits” going on here. When reading the d20 one has to look for three factors; success (TN or less), Complication (natural 20), and extra success (natural 1 or Focus or less). The Challenge Dice also require careful reading too (1 = 1x success, 2= 2x success, 3 and 4 are nothing, 5 and 6 = 1x success plus Effect). I feel that assembling the dice pool will slow the game down.

GM: It’s getting dark, but as you look across the clearing, you see a team of Jem Hadar troopers leading the prisoners away. A reminder; the Momentum Pool is now 2.

PC: Might lose them the dark; gotta act now. [Head nods from other players] I shoot the squad leader.

GM: You both are in the same Zone, so you can make the shot, but given the poor lighting I think it will add to the Difficulty. Make it a Difficulty 3 shot. What is your TN [Control Attribute + Security Skill] and do you have a relevant Focus?

PC (Consulting Character Sheet): Uh…I have Control 8 plus Security 2 for a TN of 10 and I have no Focus I can use. That’s not too good. [Pause for thinking] I need to improve my odds, so I am going to pay one Determination [player puts a d20 on the table with the 1 face-up] which gives me two successes, and I will roll my other 2d20.

GM (Interrupting) Is your attack Stun or Kill? How many Charges are you using?

PC: Uh….They’re Jem Hadar but my Value “Mr. Nice Guy” means I use Stun. Do I get anything for that?

GM: You get one point of Momentum.

PC: OK…I think I am going to only use two charges for the Vicious setting because I really want to take this guy down quickly. [Rolling – 18 and 7]. Whew! The 18 is nothing but the 7 gives me a third success! I don’t get any more Momentum and I don’t think I will use my one earned now to improve the quality or scope of the success.

GM: OK…how many Challenge Dice do you roll?

PC (Again consulting Character Sheet) I’m carrying a Type 2 Phaser so that’s 3[CD] plus my Security of 2 for a total of 5[CD]. [Rolling – 1, 2, 3, 6, 6]. Uh…that’s 5 damage plus two Effect. The Vicious effect means I add 2 damage for a total of 7. That should be enough for an Injury…Stun means a knockout, right?

GM: Given that you surprised the Jem Hadar squad they don’t evade your attack nor will the Squad Leader resist the injury. They also aren’t wearing armor so there is no Soak. The 7 damage is enough to injure the squad leader…stunned he falls over unconscious. There still is that other guard though…and he turns your direction and raises his rifle….

PC: Well, I’ve taken my Major Action for this round. I am going to add my earned Momentum to the pool making it three, but [looking at fellow players] I think we need to spend 2 Momentum here to keep the initiative and take down the other guard, right guys?

Need more narrative, Scotty!

Having played Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPGs with their unique dice mechanic and Destiny Points, or even Savage Worlds or Cortex Plus with Bennies and Plot Points, this reading of multiple dice and managing a game economy should not be a problem. But it bothers me. I think the difference is that those other systems use a single dice throw to determine success and impact. The Modiphius 2d20 system uses at least two throws for each attack. A small difference to be sure. There are also three game economies to be managed (Momentum – both individual and group, Determination by individual, and Threat). I am also not convinced that Momentum or Determination and Threat are powerful enough narratively; indeed they really come across as more mechanical in effect than narrative in nature.

Another part that bothers me is terminology. In parts the system has a very Star Trek vibe to it (like Skills named after departments) but in other places the language seems forced (like the “Vicious” setting for a phaser – never thought of a phaser as vicious). The ned result is that  I’m just not getting that Star Trek adventure feeling yet.

Maybe after the running through the first adventure I will have a different perspective.

#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.

#RPGThursday Retrospective -#ThousandSuns #Traveller

While stationed overseas in 2008, I was experimenting with new RPGs in search of a good science fiction game. I was in the middle of my Star Wars Roleplaying Game – Saga Edition experience but was not “feeling the love.” I wanted a sci-fi RPG more like the old Classic Traveller RPG. I didn’t want swords in space.

Thousand Suns Rising

I think it was through some gaming websites that I came across Thousand Suns by James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II. The first thing that caught my attention was the liberal use of quotes from Golden age science fiction stories like Alfred Bester’s The Stars, My Destination. I also was attracted to the intent of Thousand Suns, as laid out in Chapter 1: Basics, The Game:

Science fiction, it’s been said, is really about the present, not the future. Consequently, a lot of older science fiction – including the works that inspired Thousand Suns – feels somewhat dated because the concerns of the time when they were written don’t always translate well across decades. Yet, older science fiction often joined a wide-eyed sense of wonder with an appreciation for classical archetypes that’s generally lacking in either the jaded cynicism of cyberpunk or naive optimism of transhumanist SF of the present day. Thousand Suns is an attempt to marry the best of the past to the best of the present to create exciting space opera roleplaying adventures in the imperial SF tradition.

Imperial science fiction – whether classical or contemporary – is a vast genre, both in terms of its literal scope and its diversity. Of necessity, it takes place over a large canvas, with hundreds, even thousands, of worlds as potential sites for adventures. Having such a large canvas allows it to encompass almost any kind of science fiction story, big or small. (p. 9)

While the setting potential initially drew me in, the game engine kept me interested. The core mechanic is called 12º. It is a very simple system:

Roll 2d12 and if the result is equal to or less than your Target Number (TN), the action succeeds. It’s as simple as that.

Your TN is a number based on two associated Abilities or skills plus or minus any modifiers. (p. 12)

Tests, or checks, come in three forms; Ability Tests, Skill Tests, and Opposed Tests. There is a narrative play element introduced with the possibility of Dramatic Failure or Dramatic Success. There are also Degrees of success to consider. There was also a difficulty ladder of modifiers to the TN.

Further reinforcing a narrative play element was the concept of Hooks and Action Points. Hooks were described as:

…roleplaying tools that describe some aspect of your character’s past history, personality, or connections to other characters, among other things….Each of these hooks is suggestive about your character and possibly about his relationship to the wider universe – both of which make them invaluable to the GM as he plans engaging adventures among the Thousand Suns.

Besides suggesting interesting things about your character to the GM, hooks have another more immediate benefit: Action Points. Action Points are a kind of dramatic “currency” you acquire by creating hooks. They can be traded for situational boons, such as bonuses to your Target Number, free re-rolls, and other benefits. (p. 16)

I found the idea of Hooks and Action Points fascinating. Hooks were a non-mechanical character aspect that gave the GM ideas for adventures. Action Points were a very mechanical element for the player to use to affect the luck of the dice, or even being able to go as far as “edit” a scene (p. 58).

Outside of a different core mechanic, and the use of Hooks and Action Points, the rest of Thousand Suns had a very Classic Traveller RPG feel to it. Character generation was not Traveller’s career, but instead a mix of point buy and “packages.” Vehicles/Spacecraft was very abstract combat process and design harkened back to a Classic Traveller Book 2 simple process. Even the World creation was – if not a near-direct copy of Classic Traveller – a close spiritual successor.

Looking at the book today for this retrospective, I now also realize that most of the book is rules, not setting. This is all the more surprising to me because I it was the implied setting – Imperial Science Fiction – that drew me in. In Thousand Suns there is a Meta-Setting, but even here (Chapter 7) it still offers options like:

  • The State – or Concordium – could be the “Second Federation” or “Empire of the Thousand Suns.”
  • The Head of State may be “The First Citizen,” “The Puppet,” “The Corrupt Politico,” “The Man of Vision,” The Zealot,” “The Emperor,” “The Doddering Fool,” “The Naif,” “The Once and Future Emperor,” or “The Tyrant.”

Even when Thousand Suns offered up a setting, it still gave options for the user to pick and chose from.

Lastly, Thousand Suns included a Bibliography which is really list of inspiration sources. This collection of books and stories are essential Imperial Science Fiction reading.

So much did I like Thousand Suns that I wrote a review on DriveThruRPG that proclaimed Thousand Suns was the spiritual successor to Classic Traveller.

That is, until I found Mongoose Traveller (MgT).

I am not sure how I acquired my first Mongoose Traveller book. I have two copies of the Pocket Rulebook. Like so many other long time Traveller players, I was immediately drawn in by the simple black cover with the red line crossing underneath the Traveller title. Inside I found a game system that I was very familiar, and comfortable, with.

Familiar, yet not identical. Character generation was more refined, with items such as Characteristic Modifiers, Background Skills, Connections, and different tables to add Mishaps, Events, and even Life Events. The core mechanic remained roll 8+ on 2d6, but now there was an expressly defined difficulty ladder. Personal combat was more abstracted, with actions and range bands and armor reducing damage. Space combat was even more abstracted, doing away with Classic Traveller’s vector movement and becoming more like an extension of personal combat. Other parts, like starship construction, animal encounters, worlds and trade were very similar to the LBBs.

Like Thousand Suns, MgT is mostly rules with little setting. There were no aliens in the Classic Traveller LBB, but they are present in MgT. My searchable pdf of the Main Rulebook only returns seven (7) instances of “Third Imperium,” the setting that has become synonymous with Traveller. Like I had so many times before, I missed the part which said, “While the Traveller rules can be used for almost any science fiction novel, movie or setting, the traditional setting for games is the Third Imperium of Mankind….”(p. 2). In some fashion, MgT achieved the goals set out by Marc Miller in Traveller 4 to be a universal science fiction rules system.

So Mongoose Traveller became my new RPG of choice. Over the next few years I would invest heavily in the system. But what MgT lacks is narrative play. Like its predecessor Classic Traveller, the GM is king. Looking back, as much as I love Traveller, I also think it was this time that I started wanted a system that had more narrative. I looked back fondly at James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game, and even Thousand Suns had narrative Hooks and Action PointsMgT lacked any nod to narrative elements and had no game economy.

My next purchases were a major step in the narrative direction, and opened up a who new gaming frontier to me.


Thousand Suns, Copyright 2008, Rogue Games, Authors James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II.

Traveller ©2008 Mongoose Publishing. Traveller is a trademark of Far Future Enterprises and is used under license.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2016 Far Future Enterprises.”

 

#FourRPGs of Influence

Reading the #FourRPGs hashtag on Twitter is a great nostalgia trip, as well a thinking challenge. Here are the four RPGs that most influenced me.

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From tasteofsoundsfiles.wordpress.com

#1 – Classic Traveller (Published 1977 – discovered 1979)

Anybody remember the game store Fascination Corner in Arapahoe Mall in the Southeast suburbs of Denver? It was there I bought my first war-game, Panzer, by Yaquinto Games in 1979. Soon after that, I found a little black box with a very simple logo. The game was Traveller, and it was a role-playing game. Being a huge Star Wars fan, I just had to have the game. This was my gateway into RPGs. Although I had friends who played Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t (fantasy didn’t catch my attention then, and to this day still doesn’t). I have never looked back since.

I actively played RPGs until the mid-late 1980’s. After college, my job and family didn’t really give me the time to play. Instead, I became a bit of a collector. I tried to keep up with Traveller (buying Marc Miller’s T4 and later the Mongoose Traveller versions). I tried other Somewhere in the mid-2000’s, I discovered DriveThruRPG, and started building an electronic collection of games that I had missed. Being a huge Traveller RPG fan, I stayed with GDW RPGs for the longest time. Sure, I dabbled in other systems (like the James Bond 007 RPG), but I really tried to stay away from Dungeons & Dragons. I had tried my hand at D20 Modern, invested heavily in the Star Wars: Saga Edition, and even looked at Savage Worlds, but none of then really captured my interest.

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From en.battlestarwiki.org

#2 – Battlestar Galactica (Published and discovered 2007)

Being a huge fan of the show, I just had to have Margret Weis’ Battlestar Galactica RPG. I was immediately sold on what is now known as the Cortex Classic System (which, in retrospect, is not so different from Savage Worlds). The Battlestar Galactica RPG was a major turning point for me because it was with this game that I truly embraced designs beyond the Classic Traveller system. The Plot Points system, i.e. a tangible game currency for the players to influence the story, was a major break from my previous gaming philosophy. I realized that I was too fixated on systems like Classic Traveller, with its many sub-games, which is very wargame-like and not actually a great storytelling engine. I continued to follow the Cortex system, and these days really enjoy the Firefly RPG using the Cortex Plus system.

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From en.wikipedia.org

#3 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Published and discovered 2013)

While Battlestar Galactica started me on the path to narrative RPG play, I didn’t truly arrive until Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I had got the core rule book and the Beginner’s Game and tried to play with my boys. But at first I just didn’t “get it.” What do all those funny dice really mean? One day I discovered the Order 66 podcast, and listened to their advice on Triumph and Despair. At that moment it all clicked. From then, I was sold on the the system and strongly believe that this game is the best marriage of theme and gameplay. That said, I have to say that the later volumes of this game system, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny don’t hold my interest as much as Edge of the Empire does.

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From evilhat.com

#4 –Atomic Robo (Published and discovered 2014)

After Edge of the Empire, I started looking for other narrative RPGs. Somehow, I happened across a copy of Atomic Robo. I picked up the game (mostly on a whim) but after reading it was so intrigued by the gaming possibilities. As fortune would have it, I also discovered a Bundle of Holding that had many FATE products. I discovered I had been missing out on a great game system. Now, in addition to Atomic Robo, I enjoy Diaspora (FATE 3.0) and Mindjammer (FATE Core). I have even played a few games using FATE Accelerated with the boys, much to their (and my) enjoyment.

Truth be told, these days I pay much more attention to the “game engine” than the actual game. I admit that my favorite “game engine” these days is FATE Core. That said, I still enjoy Traveller (and even the much-maligned Traveller 5) although the newest Mongoose Traveller Second Edition is not impressing me.

#TravellerRPG Boon & Bane (MgT 2nd Edition)

One of the major rules changes in the new Mongoose Traveller Second Edition (MgT2.0) Core Rulebook is called “Boon and Bane.” As the Core Rulebook states:

“…there will likely be situations that arise that will make things either easier or harder for the Travellers. This is where Boons and Banes come in.” (Core Rulebook, p. 59)

When a Boon is invoked, the player will roll 3d6 and keep the two best die. Bane calls for a roll of 3d6 keeping the low two dice. To see the impact on the chances of success/failure, I recommend you look at Traveller GM and 2nd Edition playtester Shawn Driscoll’s video which graphically lays it all out.

Back in September, I was already confused about the Boon/Bane mechanic. As I wrote then:

I’m sorry – I just don’t get how task difficulty and Boon/Bane work together. Nor do I see a clear difference between task difficulty and exterior factors. Don’t get me wrong; I like the intent of the Boon/Bane mechanic (the 3D6 High/Low 2D roll makes for interesting odds and results) but the RAW are unclear as to when, or even how, Boon/Bane is applied. I would like to think it’s a narrative (role-playing) tool for the players and referee. Regrettably, the rules are silent on that issue.

As the Beta playtest continued, the use of Boon/Bane was reduced and in many cases replaced by a simple die modifier (DM). In this final version, the usage is greatly reduced compared to the early Beta. However, the rule remains. Looking at the few places Boon/Bane is used, it is finally making a bit more sense to me – but only if I make the jump in understanding that MgT2.0 is a more “narrative RPG” than I previously thought.

The eureka moment for me finally came after I read Chapter Three: Combat, Leadership (p. 72). In combat, a Traveller can make a Leadership check. The Effect of the check (if positive) is the number of Boons the leader can give to any skill checks on the same side. Conversely, if the Effect is negative, the opposing side gets that many Banes available to influence skill checks. In the FATE system, this would be called an Aspect:

“Aspects are short phrases or sentences which describe something important about your character, object or situation. You can use an aspect to gain a mechanical or narrative advantage during play….Mindjammer uses several types of aspects: game aspects, character aspects, cultural aspects, situation aspects, consequences, flaws, and boosts.” (Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game p. 67)

I think that Boon/Bane are trying to be the MgT2.0 version of FATE aspects. The first problem is that the MgT2.0 Core Rulebook is very weak on when a Boon/Bane is applied. The closest one gets is the sidebar in Chapter Two: Skills and Tasks on p. 61:

“In the vast majority of cases, a referee simply need set a Task Difficulty and then decide whether a Boon or Bane need be applied. Any necessary Dice Modifiers will be suggested by the rules.”

In FATE Accelerated (FAE), the simplified version of FATE which I often reference to understand the core mechanic, one can invoke an aspect to give themselves a bonus (Boon?) or make things harder for their opponents (Bane?). Players can also compel an aspect; use it against themselves or others making life more complicated (Bane?) (Fate Accelerated (FAE), p. 27-29). The major difference here is the use of Fate Points. While the FATE system uses Fate Points, a similar game mechanic can be found in Savage Worlds (Bennies), or Cortex Plus (Plot Points). The lack of a similar mechanic – the Fate Point/Bennies/Plot Point economy – in Traveller is the second problem with the Boon/Bane mechanic. Without a Fate Point or similar economy, too much power potentially ends up in the referees hand.

I am now more comfortable with the Boon/Bane mechanic in MgT2.0.It will be interesting to see how it works in play, but at least now i have a better understanding, and acceptance, of the intent and usage.

#TravellerRPG 2nd Edition Core Rulebook Release

This week Mongoose Publishing dropped the release version of their Mongoose Traveller RPG 2nd Edition Core Rulebook. This is the final edition of the Beta that came out last September that I previously blogged about here, here and here. Of my many concerns with this new edition, today I will only talk about the pricing strategy.

Mongoose offered the Beta rules for $20. For this price one got the Core Rulebook, High Guard (starship construction rules in a .doc draft), Central Supply Catalogue (equipment in a.doc draft), some deck plans , a character sheet, and an adventure. The purchase price of the Beta was good towards the purchase of the final release edition. When the final release dropped this week it retailed for $29.99; so after the voucher one had to pony-up an additional $9.99 to buy the book (electronic version only). As I said before, I expected to pay an additional cost since Mongoose always seems to be on the expensive side of publishers.

Using DriveThruRPG, I looked to compare prices of other similar genre corebooks. I found that Mongoose is indeed priced very high. The Traveller Core Rulebook is 241 pages meaning it has a per-page cost of 12.4 cents. The Firefly RPG Corebook (Cortex Plus system) is 364 pages selling for $19.99 or 5.5 cents per page. Mindjammer (Fate Core system now but after its Kickstarter campaign will get at Mongoose Traveller version) sells 500 pages for $26.99 or 5.4 cents per page. A personal favorite of mine is Diaspora (Fate Core system) which sells 270 pages for $12.99 or 4.7 cents per page. Even the Traveller 5 (T5 system) tome of 759 pages selling at a whooping $34.95 (!) works out to “only” 4.6 cents per page. The price disparity is just as bad even if one looks at “generic” corebooks like Cortex Plus Hackers Guide ($19.99 for 264 pages – or 7.5 cents per page), Savage Worlds Deluxe ($9.99 for 160 pages or 6.2 cents per page) or worse yet Fate Core (“Pay What You Want” or around $5.00 for 308 pages – a measly 1.6 cents per page)!

So what does the $29.99 for the Traveller Core Rulebook get you? The download contains the Core Rulebook (both full color and B&W printer-friendly), deck plans (not labeled as nice as the Beta set), a subsection map (blank but with a legend that is not useful if you are non-Imperium), and a character sheet (no color and again not as nice as the Beta set).

Unlike Firefly, Diaspora, Traveller 5, or Mindjammer, Mongoose Traveller 2.0 is not fully playable with the core rulebook only. Judging from the text on p. 4 of the Core Rulebook, in the future one will have to purchase High Guard to get the ship construction rules, Tour of the Imperium if one wants the setting of the Third Imperium, the Central Supply Catalogue for ironmongery and various equipment, and The Vehicle Handbook for vehicles. Adventure modules will also be sold separately. So while one could play “with the corebook only” in reality it will be necessary to purchase High Guard to even come close to having a functional core set of rules. It will be interesting to the price point of these future products. In Mongoose Traveller First Edition, Book 2: High Guard currently costs 9.7 cents per page. The far superior (IMHO) third-party publisher Gypsy Knight Games sells The Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture (a High Guard-like book used in their Clement Sector setting) for 8.7 cents per page.

I am sure some will cry foul and say my comparison purely on the basis of per-page cost is unfair. The new Traveller Core Rulebook is in full color similar to Firefly but unlike Diaspora or Traveller 5 or Mindjammer. It certainly has more art than Diaspora or maybe even Traveller 5. After listening to many podcasts I have had it drilled into me that the most expensive part of an RPG publication is the art. I find it difficult to imagine that the art in the new book is of such quality or quantity that it raised the price that much higher than its competition.

At the end of the day I am reminded that I had previously sworn off buying Mongoose Traveller products. On the basis of cost alone, I am not sure I got a great bargain. In future posts, I will look closer at the game mechanics and the content of the Traveller Core Rulebook to help me judge if I got a really good bargain or not.

RPG Thursday – On the Fringe of Star Wars

The Fringe (Wookiepedia)

One can’t go anywhere on the Geeky InterWebs this week without seeing the news that JJ Abrams has signed on to direct Star Wars: Episode VII. I have little to add to that discussion beyond a hope that the new Star Wars films will be more like the Original Trilogy and less like the Prequels or Clone Wars.

Star Wars is a very tightly controlled commercial media empire. From movies to books to TV to toys, every item released to the public is carefully selected to meet certain standards – even going as far as making changes to canon (Han shot first!). It seems to me that empire has aimed its marketing squarely at pre-teen boys – like my youngest. For evidence I will direct you to the entire Clone Wars series and the toys and other paraphernalia associated with it. I admit I actively promote Star Wars in my house, for I too love the toys and models and games. I also think RPGs are a valuable form of gaming and I want my kids to play and enjoy them. One way to get them to play an RPG is to use a familiar universe, like Star Wars.

Courtesy RPG Geek

Which makes the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Roleplaying Game (SW: EotE) from Fantasy Flight Games puzzling to me. FFG certainly has a challenge;  for success they need to show how their version is different – and better – than the West End Games (1987-1999) and Wizards of the Coast (2000-2010) versions. To do so, FFG appears to have tapped into a recent trend of the Star Wars commercial juggernaut – going bad. Other elements of the Star Wars media empire are trying to tap into this same vibe. Look at the upcoming video game Star Wars 1313 or Timothy Zahn’s newest Star Wars novel, Scoundrels. Both take place in “grim and gritty” places where the “morality is gray.”  This is what is known in Star Wars as the “fringe;” the shady underbelly of society in which smugglers, bounty hunters, pirates, black marketeers, thieves, and assorted criminals operate.

The new FFG Star Wars RPG aims to land squarely in the fringe. As FFG says on their own website description for the game:

Participate in grim and gritty adventures in places where morality is gray and nothing is certain. Ply your trade as a smuggler in the Outer Rim, collect bounties on the scum that live in the shadows of Coruscant, or try to establish a new colony on a planet beneath the Empire’s notice.

My recently purchased Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner’s Game illustrates this theme quite clearly. The four characters – a Bounty Hunter, Hired Gun, Smuggler and Colonist (what? – should be a Slave) – are fleeing gangster Teemo the Hutt who has an evil plan to take control of some illegal spice trade. The characters are morally challenged; a bounty hunter who is protecting her sister, the Wookie fighting for his people but was enslaved and forced to fight, a pilot who ran afoul of politically connected enemies, and a droid who just wants to be doctor. SW: EotE also takes place in the time period just after the Battle of Yavin from the original Star Wars (Episode IV – A  New Hope for you hopeless young ones) – just like Scoundrels. In this time, the Galactic Civil War is heating up and there are very few Force users.

Personally, I like the setting. It reminds me of my old Classic Traveller adventures where all our characters were not heroes and lived on the edge of the Imperium trying to eek out an existence by staying one step ahead of the starship repo man or law enforcement authorities. We were mercenaries, pirates, and bounty hunters. We took the dirty jobs. We started bar fights for the fun of it. We didn’t use psionics since Han Solo had it right when he said, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” (Star Wars, 1977)

Which all taken together is exactly why I may not introduce my own kids to the FFG version of Star Wars roleplaying for a while. At least not the setting the game is using. As a parent bringing my kids into the world of RPGs, SW: EotE is not the setting I want them to play in. As much as I personally detest the Clone Wars, for kids it is a more straight-forward, good versus evil, Jedi versus Sith, world.

Part of my problem here is that I like the Core Mechanic and semi-narrative approach of SW: EotE better than other versions or hacks I have seen out there. I have the complete Saga Edition, but never liked the class approach to characters (not to mention having the game spread out over 14 books!). I have seen homebrew Savage Worlds or Cortex hacks…but all feel unfinished.

So in the end I am torn and will likely wait on the fence before investing further into SW: EotE until I see just how edgy this fringe really is.

RPG Thursday – A Retrospective Look at The Babylon Project

Courtesy RPG Geek

Not long ago, I was in a (sometimes) FLGS and saw a whole slew of Mongoose D20 Babylon 5 RPGbooks. Having seen this sit on the shelf for over a year, I approached the staff and was able to make a deal to get a nice discount on a bulk buy. All the books I purchased were source books covering races or campaigns; I don’t have the Mongoose Babylon 5 D20 rules nor do I want them given they were based on Dungeons & Dragon Third Edition. What I do have is Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5 and the much older Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment, Inc. The Babylon Project.

I actually didn’t remember much of The Babylon Project and never actually played it with a group.  I do remember thinking the combat system was “complicated.”  I recently took the time to reread the rules. In doing so, I now have to reconsider the game and give it more credit than I had previously.

In terms of production values, the book was ahead of its times. Full-color pages make it rich looking, even if some of the art is of marginal quality (a mix of photos from the series and artwork inspired by the same). Today people would scream for a low-ink version for print-at-home.

I remember not liking character generation. Of course, I had grown up on Classic Traveller  making many of the concepts in The Babylon Project seem foreign. Character generation in The Babylon Project uses a combination storytelling and point-buy approach and is done in three phases. In the first phase, the player uses storytelling aspects to create a character concept and basic history. This in turn leads to adjusting the 13 attributes that define your character. Attributes are rated 1-9 with each race having a typical attribute value. Players can adjust the typical attributes based on the concept and background but for every attribute raised another has to be lowered. The second phase – childhood – has the player answer another set of questions which guide picking Learned Skills and Characteristics (an early version of the Savage Worlds or Cortex System advantages/hindrances). This same process is repeated in a third phase – adulthood – which again gains Learned Skills and more (or changed) Characteristics. This system was very much NOT what I had grown up with in Traveller or my other RPGs of this time like FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game or the first edition of Prime Directive. At the time, I think it was just too different for me to be comfortable; now I see it for what it is – a well thought out, guided, lifepath character generation system.

The adventure and campaign system focuses less on episodic events than on creation of a story arc. The Babylon Project certainly tries to match the grand, sweeping, epic feel of the series. The mechanic used is the Story Chart which the Gamemaster uses to loosely chart out the path of the campaign. The Story Chart uses four basic symbols to lay out an adventure:

  • Non-exclusive Chapters: Events which do not directly relate to other events in the story; can be worked into story almost any point to uncover key pieces of information, encounter non-critical NPCs, or experience important scenes.
  • Exclusive Chapters: Events which the characters must experience and can only happen once; these change the nature of the story and cannot be revisited or reversed.
  • Independent Chapters: Not critical to the overall puzzle, but may help.
  • Information: The flow between chapters that lead from one to another.

Like character generation, I think at the time I viewed this (again) as too different to understand. Today, I can see the designer’s intent and zeal to get closer to the grand, sweeping, epic feel of Babylon 5. Unfortunately, even today I don’t often see a similar approach in other games that could use it like Star Wars Saga Edition or even Battlestar Galactica.

The core Game Mechanic is actually very simple. Players compare Attribute+Skill and Specialty+/- Modifiers +/- a Random Modifier against a Task Difficulty set by the GM. To use the examples from the book:

Jessica is attempting to bypass the reactor control circuitry. The bypass isn’t particularly difficult, but Jessica is working by flashlight in zero-G. Dana specifies that Jessica will take the necessary time to make sure the job is done right. Taking all of those factors into consideration, the GM decides that the task is Difficult, which gives it a Difficulty Number of 11. Jessica’s Intelligence is 5; her skill in Engineering: Electrical is 3; and her Specialty in Electrical Applications adds another 2 – all totaling to an Ability of 10. Her GM decides that no additional penalties or bonuses apply. (The Babylon Project, p. 90)

The Random Modifier is created by taking two die (a green positive and red negative) and rolling. Look at the lowest number. That die is now the modifier – positive if the green die and negative if the red. This makes the Random Modified range from +5 to -5.  To continue using the example from the rule book:

Dana rolls the dice. Her Negative Die result is 5, with a Positive Die result of 2. Thus, her Random Modifier is +2. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

The degree of success or failure is also a consideration. As the example continues:

Jessica’s Ability in her attempt to bypass the reactor control circuitry is 10. Adding the Random Modifier of +2 just rolled by Dana gets a total Result of 12. That’s 1 over the Difficulty of 11 set by the GM – a Marginal Success. The GM tells Dana that Jessica’s bypass has fixed the problem, but that it won’t hold up for long, and not at all if the reactor is run at over half its rated power output. Thus, her success in the task resolution fixes the problem, but the GM interprets its marginal nature as a limitation on engine power and fortitude. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

Given my close acquaintance with Classic Traveller and the definite lack of a clearly defined task system – much less an emphasis on degrees of success – it is not surprising I didn’t immediately embrace the simple task mechanic in The Babylon Project.

Combat comes in two forms, Close and Ranged, and is played in phases of two-seconds each meaning the player character gets a single action. Players make an attacker roll versus a defender roll. An important combat consideration is aim point; there is a default aim point and if the attacker wants to (or must) aim elsewhere there is a modifier. The degree of success determines how close to the aim point the hit occurs and the level of damage. Combat then moves to Immediate Effects. This table determines if the hit results in immediate death, stun, or impairment. Given the Damage Ratings of the weapons and not-so-great armor this means combat in The Babylon Project is very dangerous! Once combat is over, then Final Effects are dealt with, to include the extent of injuries and wounds. Like all of The Babylon Project, there is a heavy emphasis on the storytelling effect of the injury. Again this is nothing like Classic Traveller yet today I can see the design effect the designer was reaching for – speedy combat using the simple core mechanic with detailed wounds and healing latter. I think the designer achieved what he was trying to do with combat.

The Babylon Project also uses Fortune Points, this games version of Bennies or Plot Points. Each player starts a session with five Fortune Points. Fortune Points can be used to improve a task roll, save  your life in combat, and attempt a task that the player normally could not attempt. This game mechanism is not found in Classic Traveller and a the time I think I saw it as too cinematic or “space opera” for my hard sci-fi taste. Today, I take for granted the use of Plot Points or Bennies or like mechanisms as a useful tool for players to exercise narrative control on the game instead of leaving it in the sole hands of the GM. I have also grown to appreciate the cinematic benefits of Plot Points as I have moved (a bit) away from hard sci-fi rules mechanics.

Courtesy RPG Geek

The last page of The Babylon Project rulebook is a one-page GM Reference Sheet. Literally everything needed to run the game is on this one page. Really…everything! How did they ever expect to sell a GM screen? In fact they did – it was one of the items I also picked up in my bulk buy – and used three panels. The left panel has Attributes and Skills (a useful reminder of the entire list available) as well as Martial Arts Maneuvers (rules added in the Earthforce Sourcebook supplement). The right panel is a Weapons and Armor table – again useful but not absolutely essential. The center panel is a colorful, slightly reformatted version of the original GM Reference Guide.

Courtesy RPG Geek

It would also be negligent of me not to mention that one of the reasons I originally got The Babylon Project was for the space combat system. Introduced in Earthforce Sourcebook, the space combat system was developed by Jon Tuffley and based on his successful Full Thrust miniatures system. This approach to incorporating popular, known, miniatures space combat rules and an RPG was later repeated by the Traveller community with the publication of Power Projection: Fleet.

Rereading The Babylon Project has opened my eyes to just how much of a gem this game really is. Compared to the more recent Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5, which I reviewed in 2011, the earlier The Babylon Project is more appropriate to the source and setting. Since the 1997 publication of the game, I have also matured as an RPG player and am more comfortable with the narrative/storytelling  and cinematic aspects of the rules. I can now see where The Babylon Project is much like the early Cortex System (Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPGs) or Savage Worlds – game systems I really love and enjoy playing.  I think I will work on a story arc for The Babylon Project and see what happens….