Wednesday, November 07, 2018

David Drake's THE SPARK is and Entertaining Re-Imagining of Arthurian Tales



The Spark by David Drake

RATING: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Though David Drake is probably best known for his Military Science fiction, with the exception of REDLINERS, I'm of the opinion that it is his Fantasy writing that truly highlights his literary talents. This is because David often writes against existing trends in the genre. While other writers of Epic Fantasy were mining the Nibelungenleid, Tolkien, and European history to form the foundations of their tales, David used Sumerian mythology as the foundation of his Lord of the Isle series.

With THE SPARK, David breaks even further from the current trends in Fantasy writing. The current market is filled with a wonderful collection of door stopper thick Epic Fantasies, picaresque tales, and urban fantasy. It's a golden age for each of these genre. The Game of Thrones series, The Licanius Trilogy, and the Kingkiller Chronicles are but three wonderful Epic Fantasies in the current market. The Greatcoats and Gentlemen Bastard books are exciting tales of swordsmen and rogues. The list of popular urban fantasy is too long to even consider, though The Dresden Files, Iron Druid Chronicles, and Monster Hunter Incorporated would all be among the most fun. None of this even considers the mountain of Steampunk books out there. These are well walked trails in the modern fantasy market and it takes a talented writer to find what is overlooked. David Drake is that writer and the overlooked source he found is one that is surprising.

It's surprising because one wouldn't think that a story based on the tales of King Arthur could be considered overlooked. The sheer volume of fiction inspired by Arthurian tales includes over 11,000 works (https://www.amazon.com/Arthurian-Anna...). But it is overlooked in the modern market. Not because bildungsroman about boys who would be king are rare. Those are still common. What is lacking, or rare, are tales based on the storytelling techniques of Arthurian Legends. The Romances, rather than the Cycle, are where the rich untapped vein of stories lays. This is where David Drake found his inspiration for THE SPARK.

THE SPARK was inspired by both the PROSE LANCELOT and THE IDYLLS OF THE KING, the first for the narratives and the hopeful tone from Tennyson. The resulting book is a delight, but one that might take some getting used to for modern readers. The Romance is an interesting genre. Yes, it is filled with "romance" in the modern understanding, but literary romances are tales of heroes. They are often disjointed tales of heroes where a Knight goes from one quest to another with no transition or overarching narrative. There is just the heroic theme and the tales. There is also very little world building as these tales expect you to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the time and place. This is the kind of tale David tells in THE SPARK.

THE SPARK focuses on several of the adventures of the heroic character Pal and his faithful dog Buck as he transitions from Aspirant to Knight Arrant. The world(s) in which Pal lives had some major cataclysm centuries ago that led to humankind becoming fractured and in a state of technological decline. It's similar to what happens to some places in Asimov's FOUNDATION series, or at least what was feared would happen. These fractured and scattered human communities are connected by The Road. What The Road is in actuality is never revealed. It could be an actual road between scattered cities or it could be walkable wormholes between scattered communities on distant planets. What it is though is the means by which one makes it from one to another of the communities located in what is called Here. As with The Road, we are never told exactly what Here, only that Here is what is not Not Here. We also know that The Road is surrounded by The Wastes, a place of danger and chaos, that may or may not be Not Here. Our protagonist doesn't know, so neither do we. One can travel through The Wastes either using an animal to see within them (not recommended and likely lethal) or using a Boat, a vehicle of some sort that can travel through The Wastes.

In my version of THE SPARK, and one of the wonderful things about THE SPARK is that different readers will experience different worlds, Here is comprised of communities on distant planets where the collective consciousness of mankind has enforced stability on the locale. The Wastes are unexplored, ill understood, areas where that collective consciousness has not taken root. My Not Here is comprised of areas where the collective consciousness of "beasts" (David's truly inhuman version of Faerie) has taken root. In my version, unoccupied places are as unknown and unstable as the empty space on a map. David leaves all of these details up to MY imagination to fill, and I deeply appreciate that.

As for Pal's tales, they are inspired by the tales of Percival, Galahad, Gawain, and Bors. He's a delightfully GOOD and forthright character. His forthrightness is a virtue, but it does lead to complications and challenges. He is a capable warrior who has talents most warriors lack, but he is not "the greatest" at any of the things he does. Like the knights who inspired his creation, he is heroic without being a Larry Stu. Okay, Galahad is a Larry Stu, but the others aren't and that's why their stories are so appealing.

What was most striking to me was how well David wrote a character who could be strongly morally forthright without being preachy or judgemental. He leads by moral example and exemplifies the ability to forgive and through that forgiveness potentially redeem others. Not everyone is redeemed by him, because not everyone wants to be redeemed, but he provides inspiration for those who want to become better people. To use D&D terms for a minute, if you wanted to read a perfect example of why I think Paladins should always be Lawful Good and how that isn't limiting, then you should read THE SPARK.

Heck, if you want to read a wonderful work of Science Fantasy that trusts its readers ability to fill in the gaps and be co creators with the author, then this is your book.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Look at the First Flash Gordon Role Playing Game



I recently received my copy of the Flash Gordon Role Playing Game for the Savage Worlds system. I cannot be more excited to crack it open and try to convince my players to game in this wonderful setting. Like Shane Hensley (the creator of the Savage Worlds rpg), I am a huge Flash Gordon fan from serials to comics to 80s cult-classic, and am eager to see the setting emulated in a game system designed with this setting (among others) in mind.

Before I review the new game though, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on the first Flash Gordon role playing game, a game that was among the first licensed role playing games ever published.

In the nascent days of role playing game yore -- 1977 to be exact -- Fantasy Games Unlimited published one of the first Science Fiction role playing games to hit the market with Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo. The first two science fiction role playing games were TSR's Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) and Ken St. Andre's Starfaring (1976). Flash Gordon was one of a couple of games Fantasy Games Unlimited published that was co-written by Lin Carter -- yes that Lin Carter, the one who is responsible for most of Appendix N being in print -- with another being Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age.

Where Royal Armies was a set of miniature warfare rules set in the Hyborian Age, the Flash Gordon role playing game was an attempt to create an entirely self contained role playing game complete with campaign setting and campaign in one 48 page volume. That's quite a thing to attempt and I have been surprised at how well Flash Gordon accomplishes its goal -- especially given the low esteem in which the RPG.net review holds the game.

The book has its flaws, but it also has its brilliance. The flaws lie within the underlying rules for the conflict resolution system. The brilliance lies within the freeform campaign implementation system, a system remarkably similar to the Plot Point and Encounter Generation system mastered by Pinnacle Entertainment Group in their Savage Worlds series of games. More on this later. It's time to look at Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo.

System Mechanics

In a brief note at the beginning of the book Lin Carter sets out his chief objective in the drafting of Flash Gordon. "My own personal debt to Alex Raymond, and my enduring fondness and admiration for Flash Gordon made this set of rules a labor of love. I was dead set against Scott's [Scott Bizar] first idea of doing a book of wargame rules and held out for adventure-scenarios, instead."

Carter wanted a game that was able to capture the excitement of the old Flash Gordon serial through the use of a collection of adventure-scenarios bound by a single rules set. Rules that were intended to "provide a simple and schematic system for recreating the adventures of Flash Gordon on the planet Mongo." With regard to their goals, Carter and Bizar both succeeded extremely well and failed monumentally.

The system is simple...and confusing...at the same time.

Characters roll three "average" dice for the following four statistics -- Physical Skill & Stamina, Combat Skill, Charisma/Attractiveness, and Scientific Aptitude. It's an interesting grouping of statistics that demonstrated FGU's willingness to look beyond the "obligatory 6" statistics created by TSR. The inclusion of Combat Skill as a rated statistic is in and of itself an interesting choice.

At no point is it explained what an "average" die is. Is an "average" die a typical six-sided die that you can find in almost every board game ever published, or is it one of those obscure and hard to find "averaging" mentioned in the Dungeon Master's Guide? The rules aren't clear regarding this, but the fact that "rolls of over 12 indicate an extremely high ability in the specific category" [emphasis mine] hints that it is the "averaging" die to which they are referring -- later difficulty numbers hint that it might be the regular dice that are used. The new gamer would have only this clue, but wargamers of the era would know that an "average" die was a sis-sided die with the numbers 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5 printed on it instead of 1 through 6. This die was used to reduce the influence of uncertainty on outcomes in wargames at the time. More recent games, like Warhammer, rely on regression to the mean and buckets of dice to reduce uncertainty. It may seem counter intuitive, but the more often you roll the less uncertainty influences outcomes because the likelihood that the total distribution of the rolls is normal increases.

Not that it matters much, as you will soon see.

After rolling statistics, players choose from one of the following roles -- Warrior, Leader, and the Scientist. This leads one to wonder which group Dale Arden fits, but that is another conversation entirely. The primary effect of choosing a particular roll is to add one point to the statistic most related to the profession.

These attributes are later used to determine success based on a very simple mechanic. Stat + d6 > TN. For example, if the players are in the Domain of the Cliff Dwellers it is possible that they will encounter the deadly Dactyl-Bats.



If the players decide that they want to fight off the Dactyl-Bats the success or failure of the action will "depend upon the military skill of the most skilled member of your group. Roll one die and add the result to your military skill. A final total of fourteen or greater is needed to drive off the Dactyl-Bats." Failure indicates the character is wounded and that the party must rest. It's a simple resolution, but one that lacks any significant cinematic quality. It feels awkward, and other mechanical resolutions in the game are similarly weak. Typical punishment for failure on an action is a loss of a certain number of turns. These turns are valuable as players need to recruit enough allies to defeat Ming before he has time to become powerful enough to squash any rebellion. While the statistics of the game are firmly rooted in roleplaying concepts, the resolution and consequence system still echoes board game resolutions. This is a weakness in this game, as is the inconsistency of resolution techniques. Fighting a Snow Dragon is resolved in a different manner than the encounter just discussed.

I imagine one could build a good game conflict resolution system built around the statistics highlighted in Flash Gordon, but this book lacks that system. I think it might be interesting to try to use a modified version of the Dragon Age pen and paper rpg system as a substitute for the mechanics in the Flash Gordon rpg. They are simple enough that it wouldn't require a lot of work. One could also use the OctaNe system if one wants to stick to the "narrative" feel that Bizar and Carter seem to have been attempting here. OctaNe succeeds where this game fails mechanically -- and OctaNe's system is ridiculously easy to learn and use.

Game Campaign System

This is where Flash Gordon really shines. The game's basic structure is that of a "recruitment" campaign where the players must journey from land to land -- based on how they are connected on an abstract schematic and not based on actual geography though the schematic takes those into account -- where they encounter various challenges and face various foes. For example, let's say our stalwart heroes find themselves in the Fiery Desert of Mongo. If they are mounted on Gryphs he journey will be easier than if they are not. It is possible, though not guaranteed, that the players will encounter Gundar's Gandits who will attempt to capture the players and sell them into slavery. The players may also encounter a Tropican Desert Patrol made up of troops loyal to Ming. The end goal of the area is for the group to recruit Gundar and his men, but that requires role playing and/or defeating the Tropican Desert Patrol. The description of the Desert and the possible encounters are abstract enough that they could easily inspire several sessions of roleplaying -- with a robust system like Savage Worlds -- all it lacks is a nice random encounter generator like the one found in The Day After Ragnarok to fill in the holes.

In essence, the Flash Gordon role playing game includes one or more major encounters for each geographical region of Mongo. As they players wander from place to place, they can/will face these challenges. What is inspired, and ahead of its time, about this structure is that the encounters are "story plot points" that must be achieved but can be achieved in the order of the player's choosing. There is room for exploration of the world at the same time that the players are succeeding at mandatory plot points. It is a narrative campaign without the railroading. Pinnacle Entertainment Group uses a similar structure in their Rippers, Slipstream, and Necessary Evil campaigns. It is a system that allows for narratively meaningful and fun play without the need for extraordinary planning on the part of the Game Master. All it lacks is a method, like the random encounter generator I mentioned above that is used by most plot point campaign systems, to fill in the scenes between the set pieces. Though it should be noted that there is sufficient information within the Flash Gordon rpg to easily construct a set of encounter generators with very little work.

Conclusion

Criticisms regarding the underlying conflict mechanical system, or lack thereof, are spot on when it comes to Flash Gordon. Character generation and conflict resolution lack any feeling of consequence or depth. BUT...If you want a campaign road map to use with another game system, preferably a fast-furious-and-fun one or a "narrativist" one, then this product is a deep resource. It will save you from having to read pages and pages of the old Alex Raymond strip in order to get an understanding of all of the minor details necessary for the creation of a campaign. You should certainly read the Alex Raymond strips, they are wonderful, but reading them should never be made to feel anything remotely like work. Bizar and Carter have done the work in presenting the campaign setting, all you have to do is adapt it to your favorite quick and dirty rpg mechanical set.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Coming to Kickstarter Next Week: Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid



Renegade Game Studios (CLANK!, Kids on Bikes, Overlight) has teamed up with Hasbro and will be launching a new Power Rangers board game on August 14th. The release comes just in time for Power Morphicon, which takes place in Anaheim the week after the game launches. Renegade will be attending the con and there will be playable demos there

The game, Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid, is a co-operative board game designed by Jonathan Ying (Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Doom: The Boardgame) that challenges 2-5 players to save Angel Grove from Rita Repulsa’s evil army of monsters. The game features the classic line up of Rangers and like many games launched on Kickstarter features over-sized plastic miniatures.



The preliminary digital renderings of the miniatures look fantastic, so this game is following the trend set by Cool Mini or Not, IDW, and other publishers who use the platform. The game is scheduled for release in the Spring of 2019 and is designed to play in 45 minutes to an hour.

I look forward to watching the Kickstarter proceed and seeing the full array of miniatures and expansions that Renegade Game Studios will be offering.


Friday, July 27, 2018

Is it Explosively Good? A Review of Brian McClellan's POWDER MAGE Role Playing Game.


Readers of my posts here at Advanced Dungeons and Parenting know that I am a big fan of the Savage Worlds role playing game. It's an easy to learn and simple to play game that is remarkably flexible. This flexibility allows the Savage Worlds rules set to be used as the basis of games set in a wide range of genres. The system can handle everything from gritty low magic fantasy to cosmic powered super heroes without missing a beat. The characters from each campaign may not fit well in the other campaign due to scaling issues, but the mechanics work seemlessly in each setting.

I am also a fan of Brian McClellan's Powder Mage trilogy and was hooked from the first few pages of The Promise of Blood (link goes to the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore, one of the best independent book stores out there). McClellan manages in the trilogy, and later books in the setting, to achieve something rare in fantasy fiction. He is able to tell stories of "regular folk" in addition to the epic heroes at the center of the tale. From a role playing game point of view The Powder Mage trilogy alternates point of view characters between characters at vastly different power levels, but the lower powered characters are as important to the resolution of the conflict as the most powerful characters. It is one of the most impressive things about this inventive series, and it is something that makes it perfect for the Savage Worlds system.





The Powder Mage's Challenge to Game Design

Before I get too deep into a review of Brian McClellan's role playing game adaptation, I'd like to take a moment to discuss the particular challenge anyone adapting The Powder Mage trilogy into a game faces due to the varying power levels in the tales. As I mentioned above, McClellan has characters in his book that operate on at least three levels of power. I would classify these tiers in the following way.

1) "Normal" Skilled Characters.
2) Experienced Characters with Minor Boon/Ability.
3) Characters with Extraordinary Powers.
4) Characters with Extraordinary Powers at Super Heroic Levels.
5) Gods.

With the exception of the God tier, more on that later, there are characters of deep narrative importance at every tier. In other words, there are characters I would classify as Player Character worthy at each of these tiers and McClellan does a great job of balancing them narratively. Interestingly, this dilemma is one of the things that makes Savage Worlds the perfect system for the game.

At the first tier of power are characters like SouSmith and Ricard Tumblar. SouSmith is a boxer who gets hired as a bodyguard for someone at tier 2 and Tumblar is one of the most politically powerful characters in the world. These would be standard characters in a picaresque low-magic fantasy campaign. Adamat and Sergeant (later higher rank) Olem are paragons of the tier two characters. Experience wise, and skill wise, these characters are similar to tier 1, but they have something that sets them apart called a knack. For Adamat it's a perfect memory and for Olem it's the fact that he doesn't need to sleep. These characters can also use their "third eye" to see magic. Most of the "knacked" of the books are at tier 2, but there are some who are higher.

Tier's 1 and 2 are the low fantasy tiers and tier 3 is where you really begin to see people separate in power. All "privileged" mages and many Powder Mages fall into this group. There are some Powder Mages at tier 2 and some at tier 4 to 5, but most are in the mid-tier 3 range. These are characters who have the same number of skills as other characters, but who also possess magic abilities that allow them to destroy buildings with the wave of a hand. I initially wondered whether Savage Worlds' basic magic system could emulate "privileged" mages, but after comparing the dice of damage from a cannon blast (3d6+1 HW on pg 65 of the Deluxe Explorer's Edition) with that of Burst (2d10 HW) and Blast (2d6 or 3d6 HW), those concerns went away. The Burst spell has destructive power slightly less than a modern 20mm cannon and Blast has slightly less power than a medieval cannon. While neither is going to tear apart a modern Abrams tank, they both will make quick work of a Jeep or medieval building. There are a number of characters at this level of power in the book.

Tier 4 characters are like tier 3 characters on steroids. Where a standard "privileged" mage can make short work of the facade of a house, a "predeii" can lay waste to the entire building and bullets bounce of their skin without the aid of a magic shield. Similarly, the Powder Mage Taniel can withstand the assaults of a predeii and amplify his strength and agility to levels beyond that of mere mortals.

The Gods themselves come in at tier 5. I won't go into detail about the Gods of The Powder Mage trilogy, but I will say that they are a key focus of the conflicts in the books and that they are not so far removed from tier 4 as to make them uninteresting. Whether some other characters fall in at tier 5 I'll leave for you to discover.



The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game as Sourcebook

One of the things that becomes immediately clear as one reads Brian McClellan's Powder Mage Roleplaying Game is that the author himself has written much of the content. As a sourcebook discussing the history of the world and giving you a rich sense of place in order to set your games, this book is invaluable. Based on this content alone, I would recommend this book as a purchase for gamers and non-gamers who are fans of the series. McClellan's presentation of the setting is as readable as the fiction and the team has selected some excellent artists to capture The Powder Mage setting. If you want to know the state of the world after The Powder Mage trilogy, then this is the place for you.


But How is It as a Game

If there is any place where Powder Mage fails, it is as a role playing game book. While the lore is all there to inspire play, there aren't enough mechanics to make this book as useful as it could be. Alan Bahr, who is a very good designer and who is on an absolute tear when it comes to putting out good books lately, dropped the ball a little bit here. While he does provide some of the new rules one expects in a Savage Worlds rpg setting, new Background Edges for example, there are some weaknesses in these examples and some major holes in the book.
After a very strong beginning, a discussion of the goals of good gaming and how to use the X-card in your games, the character creation session begins to peter out in the background edges section as it tries to adapt the Powder Mage archetype to the Savage Worlds rules. In doing so it attempted to create a new subsystem rather than fit the archetype within the existing subsystems Savage Worlds had to offer. In this particular case, the character reads more like the Gunslinger from Pathfinder/Critical Role and less like a Powder Mage. Bahr and McClellan might have been better served to use the Super Powers Companion or see how the standard magic system fit with the archetype. Given the power tiers above, I think that most Powder Mages are easily represented by the standard magic system and that outliers like Taniel are better represented using the Super Powers Companion. The same would be said of predeii and the Gods.

That is a mere disagreement of design, and is a minor one at that. Bahr and McClellan's point system for Powder Mages does work, and well, even if it's not how I would do it. If that was the largest failing of the book, I wouldn't have mentioned it in the first place. Since it is actually the smallest flaw, I did choose to point it out.

If that's the smallest flaw, then what is the biggest one? The biggest flaw is that as useful as the book is for players and book fans, having rules for character creation and a detailed gazetteer, it isn't as useful as it needs to be for game masters. One of the things that Savage Worlds game masters have been spoiled by is how the game's Fast, Furious, and Fun mantra has influenced how useful the books are to GMs with only small windows of prep time. Pick up any official Savage Worlds world book and you'll find quick and dirty adventure generators, a short adventure made of linked events, and enough NPCs to make a short campaign. This is what Brian McClellan's Powder Mage Roleplaying Game lacks entirely.

While the game does include a couple of very fun, and easy to start a campaign, short adventures, it completely lacks a bestiary or the quick and dirty adventure generators one would find in The Goon, Necessary Evil, 50 Fathoms, etc. Worst of all, the book entirely lacks statistics for "Wardens" of either the standard or "black powder" variety. Given how ubiquitous Wardens are as opponents in the books, and the fact that there is a Warden on the cover of the role playing game, this is a pretty large drop of the ball. I had high hopes for this game, and backed it at the $65 level, but it did not live up to those expectations.
Final Assessment

Does this mean that it's not worth a purchase? Not at all. For the setting material alone, this book is well worth the price of at least the pdf. What this book needs is a couple of pdf supplements written just for GMs. They don't have to be long and could be limited to a bestiary and adventure generator, but they would really fill out the holes in the initial release. It's 85% of were it needs to be as a game and 110% of where it needs to be as a sourcebook.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Remembering RPG Campaigns Past -- Meet The Crusaders

When I was and undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno I ran a DC Heroes campaign that lasted for a couple of years. It is the most successful superhero campaign I've ever run. I had the luck to have a great group of gamers who were willing to cut loose and have a great time with the genre and who felt free to push the limits of the DC Heroes game system. This campaign is one of the reasons that I think DC Heroes is the best set of rules to play a superhero game, though Marvel Saga System comes in a close second.

The premise of the campaign was pretty simple. I wanted to run a game where the characters were on the same power level as the Justice League, minus Superman and Wonder Woman, and I wanted the game play to have a touch of the feel generated by the Giffen/Maguire/DeMatteis run in the Justice League books. I wanted a mix of action and comedy. To be honest, based on my experience in running RPGs, I knew the comedy would come whether I wanted it or not. It's is the DM's Lament to want to run a game that captures the epic tales of the Eddas and Beowulf only to end up with Monte Python's Holy Grail. Instead of fighting that tendency, I decided to roll with it. The title of the campaign was Justice League: Auxiliary. The premise being that the characters were members of the Justice League, as then managed by Maxwell Lord, but where the second string of the team.

What a team it was too. The membership included an interesting mix of characters about whom my wife (girlfriend at the time) drew a couple of cartoon strips that ran in the school paper The Sagebrush. That brief strip was called "Meet the Crusaders" for obvious copyright reasons.  Over the next few days, I'll be presenting the Crusaders to you and will be including statistics for them for a number of role playing games. The primary games I'll be using to emulate the characters are Wizards of the Coast's excellent 4e based Gamma World game and Pinnacle Entertainment Group's Savage Worlds.

First, let me introduced the team to you.

GABRIEL: ARCH-ANGEL

Gabriel was character who believed himself to be the Archangel Gabriel and who exacted swift justice on any he viewed to be in violation of his very strict code of morality. During a battle with the god Ares, he attempted to use his Aura of Fear power and ended up not only succeeding at cowing Ares but in causing the entire continent of Europe to quiver in fear as his pushing of the power extended the aura over the entire geographic area. The character was played by my good friend, and best man at my wedding, Matt.


AQUARIUS

One of the great things about the DC Heroes system was it's ability to make almost any superhero and my friend Robert's character Aquarius was one that really demonstrated the strength of the rules. Robert wanted to play a super strong character who was a living water elemental and who could transform his hands into any weapon he imagined. In this particular case, the powers were called Omni-Arm, Density Increase, Dispersal, and Water Control powers. Robert was a relatively new gamer at the time, and had never played a superhero game before, so in the early sessions he tended to limit his use of Omni-Arm to turning his hands into sledge hammers. That changed soon enough.


This is just a glimpse at two of the members of the team. I want to save the other strips for when I present each member's statistics, so you will be seeing these strips again as well as those for Jynx, Vanguard, Spirit, and perhaps the most bizarre superhero ever made...Jody's beloved "Less" who was a character inspired by John Carpenter's THE THING and Larry Cohen's THE STUFF. Who is Less? Why is Less called Less? You'll have to wait for his entry.

To bide you over until the next entry, and I promise it will be soon, here is a glimpse at what the Gamma World statistics sheet (page 1) will look like.





Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Planning a Real Play Podcast


Those of you who have been reading/following Advanced Dungeons and Parenting ever since the Cinerati days know that I used to host a podcast called Geekerati with Shawna Benson, Bill Cunningham, Eric Lytle, and Wes Kobernick. We had a great run for a couple of years and were able to book guests like Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (DRAGONLANCE), Tim Minear (FIREFLY, ANGEL, AMERICAN HORROR STORY), Rob Long (CHEERS, KEVIN CAN WAIT), David Goetsch (BIG BANG THEORY), Brandon Sanderson (MISTBORN, ALCATRAZ Vs., STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE), Susan Palwick (FLYING IN PLACE), Matt Forbeck (BRAVE NEW WORLD, ENDLESS QUEST, BLOOD BOWL), Shane Hensley (SAVAGE WORLDS), and many more. It was hard work, and we were never able to catch the fire we hoped, but it was an experience I wouldn't trade for the world.

Recently, I've gotten the podcasting bug again. After chatting with friends with similar interests, we decided that instead of trying to relaunch Geekerati that it would be fun to create a real play podcast of a 5th edition D&D campaign. Our group won't be the first to do this, there are several excellent podcasts and streamers out there, but it's something that we think will be a great experience for a number of reasons. First, it might just catch on and we might be able to connect with people who have similar groups to our own. Second, we think that it will make our own role playing skills better. After all, knowing that someone might be listening might get you to focus on how much role playing your are doing. Finally, we are noticing that it is forcing us to thing about world building since we all agree that it might be more fun to create our own setting and share that with the world.

I've got a great group lined up, but we are still in the planning and logistics phase. We don't even have a name for our podcast yet. We do, however, already have a number of ideas for our setting and I will be sharing those over the summer as it gets flushed out more. I'll also be introducing you to some of our players and their characters. First here, then on a website for the podcast.

Speaking of websites...it's about time I started moving the Geekerati episodes over to my personal website at www.christianlindke.com instead of having them only on the Blog Talk Radio site.

For those of you interested, here is a quick glimpse of a VERY rough draft of the country where our campaign will take place.



Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Look Back at CHAMPIONS 1st Edition.

With the recent announcement that Ron Edwards was teaming up with Hero Games to produce CHAMPIONS NOW, a game that hearkens back to the first three editions of the game, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at those older editions.

The CHAMPIONS super hero role playing game is one of the best super hero role playing games ever designed, and the game to which all super hero rpgs are compared.  CHAMPIONS wasn't the first role playing game in the super hero genre, that honor goes to the game SUPERHERO 2044 which I discussed in an earlier blog post.  CHAMPIONS even builds upon some of the ideas in SUPERHERO 2044.  CHAMPIONS used the vague point based character generation system of SUPERHERO 2044 -- combined with house rules by Wayne Shaw that were published in issue 8 of the Lords of Chaos Fanzine-- as a jumping off point for a new detailed and easy to understand point based system.  CHAMPIONS was also likely influenced by the melee combat system in SUPERHERO 2044 in the use of the 3d6 bell curve to determine "to-hit" rolls in combat.



While CHAMPIONS wasn't the first super hero rpg, it was the first that presented a coherent system that allowed a player to design the superheroes they read about in comic books.  The first edition of VILLAINS & VIGILANTES, which predates CHAMPIONS, did a good job of emulating many aspects of comic book action but the ability to model a character in character design wasn't one of them.  CHAMPIONS was released at the Origins convention in the summer of 1981, and it immediately captured the interest of Aaron Allston of Steve Jackson Games.  Allston gave CHAMPIONS a positive review in issue #43 of the Space Gamer magazine, wrote many CHAMPIONS articles for that publication, and became one of the major contributors to the early days of CHAMPIONS lore.

Reading through the first edition of the game, can have that kind of effect upon a person.  The writing is clear -- if uneven in places -- and the rules mechanics inspire a desire to play around in the sandbox provided by the rules.  George MacDonald and Steve Peterson did more than create a great role playing game when they created CHAMPIONS, they created a great character generation game as well.  Hours can be taken up just playing around with character concepts and seeing how they look in the CHAMPIONS system.

There are sites galore about CHAMPIONS and many reviews about how great the game is, and it truly is, so the remainder of the post won't be either of these.  Rather, I would like to point out some interesting tidbits about the first edition of the game.  Most of these will be critical in nature, but not all.  Before going further I will say that though CHAMPIONS is now in its 6th edition and is a very different game today in some ways, the 1st edition of the game is highly playable and well worth exploring and I'm glad that Ron Edwards has picked up that torch with CHAMPIONS NOW.

  • One of the first things that struck me reading the book was how obviously playtested the character design system was.  This is best illustrated in the section under basic characteristics.  In CHAMPIONS there are primary and secondary characteristics.  The primary characteristics include things like Strength and Dexterity.  The secondary statistics are all based on fractions of the primary statistics and represent things like the ability to resist damage.  Where the playtesting shows here is in how players may buy down all of their primary statistics, but only one of their secondary statistics.  A quick analysis of the secondary statistics demonstrates that if this were not the case a "buy strength then buy down all the secondary stats related to strength" infinite loop would occur.  
  • It's striking how few skills there are in 1st edition CHAMPIONS.  There are 14 in total, and some of them are things like Luck and Lack of Weakness.  There are no "profession" skills in 1st edition.  To be honest, I kind of like the lack of profession skills.  Professions in superhero adventures seem more flavor than something one should have to pay points for, but this is something that will change in future editions.  
  • There are a lot of powers in CHAMPIONS, but the examples are filled with phrases like "a character" or "a villain" instead of an evocative hero/villain name.  It would have been more engaging for the folks at Hero Games to create some Iconic characters that are used throughout the book as examples of each power.  The game does include 3 examples of character generation (Crusader, Ogre, and Starburst), but these characters aren't mentioned in the Powers section.  An example using Starburst in the Energy Blast power would have been nice.
  • The art inside the book is less than ideal.  Mark "the hack" Williams has been the target of some criticism for his illustrations, but his work is the best of what is offered in the 1st edition book.  It is clear why they decided to use his work in the 2nd edition of the game.  Williams art is evocative and fun -- if not perfect -- while the work Vic Dal Chele and Diana Navarro is more amateurish.
  • The game provides three examples of character generation, but the designs given are less than point efficient and one outclasses the others.  The three sample characters are built on 200 points.  Crusader can barely hurt Ogre if he decides to punch him (his punch is only 6 dice), and his Dex is bought at one point below where he would receive a rounding benefit.  Ogre has a Physical Defense of 23.  This is the amount of damage he subtracts from each physical attack that hits and it is very high.  Assuming an average of 3.5 points of damage per die, Ogre can resist an average of 6.5 dice of damage per attack.  Yes, that's an average but the most damage 6 dice could do to him would be 13.  That would be fine, except Crusader has that 6d6 punch, and Starburst...oh, Starburst.  All of Starburst's major powers are in a multipower which means that as he uses one power he can use less of the other powers in the multipower.  The most damage he can do is 8d6, but only if he isn't flying and doesn't have his forcefield up.  Not efficient at all.  One might hope that character examples demonstrate the appropriate ranges of damage and defense, these don't quite achieve that goal.
  • The combat example is good, if implausible.  Crusader and Starburst defeating Ogre?  Sure.
  • The supervillain stats at the end of the book -- there are stats for 8 villains and 2 agents -- lack any accompanying art.  The only exception is Shrinker.  
  • Speaking of artwork and iconics.  Take that cover.
  • Who are these people?!  I want to know.  The only one who is mentioned in the book is Gargoyle.  It's pretty clear which character he is, but I only know his name because of a copyright notice.  Who are the other characters?  Is that "Flare"?  The villain is named Holocaust, but that cannot be discerned from reading this rule book.  If you know, please let me know.  I'd love to see the stats for that guy punching "Holocaust" with his energy fist.
CHAMPIONS is a great game, and the first edition is a joy.  If you can, try to hunt down a copy and play some old school super hero rpg.

This is an update of a post from 2012.