Sunday, September 25, 2022

Recovery in or of Star Smuggler

In my last post, I hypothesized that the player could recover from the loss of their Antelope spaceship by pulling together a small team of pilots, medics, and engineers to scavenge in the Ruins found on so many planets. 

While this is basically true, it takes a very long time. I used's dice generator to rapidly roll hundreds of dice. The primary limiting factor is loading a hopper (25 CU) or using an orbital shuttle (50 cu) to move goods around. The problem with this method is it takes a lot of time and money to do so. You can cache items to speed the process but the scenario becomes a little ridiculous and tedious. 

If you are down with embracing the ridiculous you can reduce the tedium by purchasing items like repair units, fuel units, or GM bots right in the Spaceport. Once you have spent every penny on these items all you have to do is sit on them until you receive a good sales result. Picture Duke sitting on a pile of craters right in a hanger waiting for someone to happen by in need of item x, which he has cornered the market on. On Regari, a roll of 6 sales results in a 1.5 base price modifier. You are converting 1 secs. spent into 1.5 secs. per cycle. In a month or two, you should have enough to purchase a new Antelope. 

If only you get over the fact that Duke is sitting on a pile of thousands of repair units or fuel units...

The reason this isn't an obvious solution is you cache a tremendous amount of items inside the Spaceport for a very short period of time. Like thousands of CU worth of goods. The rules don't place a limit on the number of items you can have only a limit on items you can move.  

It is a very unsatisfying solution because it kills the game engine's balance. In fact, using this method breaks the economic restrictions that the game places on you. So long as you do not engage in any other activities such as RRR, there is zero risk due to a lack of opportunities to make contacts or otherwise experience negative effects. 

Now I have further expansion possibilities because there must be a mechanic to offset the easy solution of not engaging in play to win. In solo play, this is not as dangerous as the solo player is playing for exploration not cheating their way through the money problem. It's just easier to fudge the rolls or be a bad timekeeper. 

If you want to adapt Star Smuggler to an actual multiplayer game, then you need a solution to this possibility. 

I think that creating a table of random events that can occur when you do not move or engage in activities would work to resolve this unique issue. The Star Smuggler system has many different built-in; scenarios that range from flavoring to pushing events that can speed world build while not obviously punishing a lack of activity. A party of characters will need some downtime to stay centered on tasks, but a random table of events can spark new plans and ideas. Think of it as exposure without railroading like a solo game has to do. 

Another cool idea for multiplayer options is to use randomly generated systems to express change. As time goes on a Spaceport could morph into a colony, city, or slum. This wouldn't happen overnight, but a referee could present the changes over the natural weeks and months which are hardcoded into the game system. The referee could even change the star charts as exploration opens new routes or even open up completely new systems. 

This solo game system is remarkably robust for such a simple thing. A necessary limit in the system is how scattered the rules are within the events. For example, there exist psionics, grenades, and combat droids however, if haven't read every event you wouldn't even know. Also, combat is super tight. There are relatively few ways you can make changes without upsetting the game balance. 

However, in using this as an actual RPG ruleset, the referee knows exactly what to expect. Change can come in other ways, such as the expansion of planetary systems, new events created by the players' choices, and the referee's goals for the game. 

Most of my amazement and fascination with this game is how tightly integrated and edited it is. I spent a few days going through every event and rule, mapping out where each went to find loops or mistakes. There are a few loops, but as near as I can tell no actual mistakes which is a testament to how well thought out it is. 

There are a few relics and oddities in the rules and events. For example, events are sequential from e001 to e199 but then hop to e400 before ending at e341. That leads me to believe that the game might have meant to have 200 more events. The rules do the same thing, flowing from r201 to r242 before hopping to r300+. Maybe there are 60 or so missing rules entries. Were that true, someone painstakingly edited them away without the benefit of a computer. 

There is another option. Two people could have been working on the set at the same time and divided the entries between them which explains the gap. One person finished before the other but in order to maintain the document refused to reference unnecessary numbers or renumber what they had. Not surprising if you are using pen and paper or worse, a typewriter.  

Personally, I believe this second option to be the more possible one. There is a subtle hint in e005. It is the only event that straight-up duplicates events: 

"If you disable the controller and capture it, the event takes 1 hour and roll 1d6: 1-e117, 2-e017, 3-e059, 4-e117, 5-e017, 6-no effect." 

This does not occur any place else in the rules. Omitting tension-building choices which hop through an intervening event before directing the reader/player back to make a different choice at the initial branch. This is a common trope in "choose your own adventure" books. It is different than a duplication.  

I believe in this case one of the e117 and e017 events were supposed to lead elsewhere but do not because those events were either edited away or simply not written. 

A similar thing happens in the rules section for combat. The events and rules call out "sidearms" and "heavy sidearms" while a few areas mention "explosive weapons" and "armor piercing" weapons. I personally believe that this is the result of two authors being on the same page, but not the same word. Or perhaps they intended for there to be a couple of classes of weapons that were discovered to be unbalanced, like a machine gun or blaster rifle. Or maybe "too much like game, movie or TV show x." 

It is pretty clear that the author used their personal experience at the game table to create a solo game. I find it kind of satisfying to reverse the process and use the ruleset for a multiplayer game. 

What do you think? 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Perfect Pairings, Episode One The Rain

In this post series, I will be selecting TV shows and movies that pair nicely with different rulesets. I won’t be picking big-budget, well-known series that probably have dedicated rulesets, like Star Wars, Firefly/Serenity, Farscape, or anything in the MCU.

I wanted to start off with an easy one, a TV show is adaptable to many sets of rules.

The Rain is an amazing Danish TV series running 3 seasons. It is available on Netflix and it’s a very quick binge. The Rain’s story is covered in just 20 episodes, which is great for gaming. Once establishing the scenario, the tight episode schedule allows for a great amount of deviation for role play.

The main characters are Rasmus and Simone Andersen, two children who live through an apocalyptic plague carried by the titular Rain by escaping into a secret bunker. Cut off from the world, they live in isolation for 6 years. They are forced out of the bunker by an alarm and are taken captive by Martin, Patrick, Lea, Beatrice, and creepy Jean. Simone turns the tables on the raiders by revealing that there is a network of bunkers full of food and supplies the gang desperately needs.

It soon becomes clear that the raiders are atypical survivors who avoid as much trouble as they can. They live by their wits and their ability to hide. It is rather anticlimactic when the plot reveals a dangerous organization called Apollon that hunts survivors for unknown purposes, making Martin and Patrick’s gang far less dangerous than they seemed in the prior episode. Even Jean who starts off creepy is far, far less threatening than one would imagine.

The technology stays about 5-minutes in the future, with the highest tech items being either drones or one-off 3d printed affairs with little purpose other than to build suspense. The vast majority of the technology revolves around detecting various things and horror-style virology experiments gone wrong.

The series is weapons-lite, where the primary purpose is either defense or mayhem. This is kind of understandable given the possibility that the sky could open up and kill everyone. Marin has a semi-automatic rifle, but no one else bothers to pick up a piece. The scenario puts the rule of 3 in full effect: water, shelter, and food, in that order. Many of the other survivors have weapons but not the skill to use them effectively nor the ability to maintain them. Apollon is a paramilitary group that uses Humvees, body armor, and automatic weapons but is not terribly inclined to use them. The story is more of a cat and mouse game than a post-apocalyptic shoot ‘em up.

In adapting this universe for gameplay, the referee or gamemaster will be crossing off more items than they add to pretty much any ruleset. That makes for quick set-up and low maintenance.

I did notice some odd items that were missing in this series. Of course, cell phones are a thing of the past given that electrical power is not generally available. The same goes for private vehicles due to the total societal collapse. Some characters have bows and arrows. I found it odd that almost no one has a knife, axe, or hatchet. Nothing could be more useful in a survival situation.

This universe would be perfect for a low-tech introduction to any version of Traveller. Personally, I enjoy the Cepheus Light edition but literally, any edition will do. The lack of gunplay will increase the character’s survival rate because guns in Traveller are rather… ah, final. Traveller’s skill collection and mechanics are perfect for this sort of cat and mouse thriller but would require some careful choices in character generation. 

On the plus side, most of the characters in The Rain are under 30, so straight character generation might not be too off kilter. Simply replace certain items from the tables with more mundane goods. I would urge a referee to modify the tables in advance with goods and resources from the world of The Rain preloaded so players don’t feel cheated.

More than a few of Traveller’s skills are not made for a 5-minute in the future story but by performing the same preplanned swap for other skills is easy. Logistical and basic education skills are king in this sort of world. It is important to let the players know you aren’t taking things from them but substituting a skill that is more appropriate.

Another old ruleset that could work is Top Secret. That game has a good set of skills baked right at character generation. Going light on starting skills mirrors the feel of The Rain’s characters. Many of the main characters have no college education while a handful are “Super Asmodeus” types when it comes to knowledge. Depending on the player’s style and desired characters, you could make a “team level” pool of skill points where the party chooses who to dump points on. Top Secret isn’t set too far in the past, so it’s almost perfect for this TV show’s era. Again, the lack of weapons in the show will merely enhance character survival.   

My last pick of rule sets is After the Bomb by Palladium. The reason I place it last is The Megaversal system is so well integrated, it is easier to expand the possibilities than reduce them. Megaversal is a great system but the referee would need to cull a ton of bits to fit with The Rain. While After the Bomb seems a little off-beat for a bunch of plain Jane humans, I have not revealed details of the TV show which make this a sensible choice. 

The skill system is robust and sound. There is a total lack of MDC weapons used in The Rain but that doesn’t mean the heroes won’t encounter MDC tough items in the form of vehicles and bunkers and such. I like the hand-to-hand combat system for this sort of survival scenario. Lots of dodging and parrying and pushing, as opposed to city leveling MDC combat. 

What I haven’t mentioned in some mysterious events and people in The Rain, so as to avoid spoilers. After the Bomb and Traveller have the best rules to support these things while to my knowledge, Top Secret has none. A savvy referee could probably adapt these issues away while using the strengths of the Top Secret to keep things together. 

Now, you may wonder why I haven't suggested other rulesets. The reason for this is simple, three is reasonable AND this is a series where I'll make future pairings of movies and TV shows to game sets. Stay tuned, your favorite game may show up eventually. 

Friday, September 16, 2022

Changing the Scenario - Star Smuggler

One of the nice things about Star Smuggler is the designer thought to make the game extendable. If you have played the generic game too many times, you can add in r208 Random Star System Connections and r209 Random Star System Design. This totally changes the dynamics of the game by presenting opportunities you ordinarily wouldn't have in the vanilla version. 

In using these two systems, I rolled up a new version of the whole star chart.  

Regari, the starting system, now has two planets and asteroids with a space station. This is a total game changer because the second planet has twice the destinations. I also pulled out my cutting mat to use the grid to help mark out distances. 

This is so handy and I wish I had thought of it before. 

It also gave me a rule-busting start scenario. In Star Smuggler, there are multiple series of events that lead to Duke losing his ship. The rules don't indicate a loss, but the question is, can you survive long enough to get another ship? 

I suspect the answer is "yes" because, with the loss of the ship, you lose the weekly clock of payments and the associated money drain. If this happens late in the game, you have a nest egg to work from. You only need a few things to make stuff happen:

A Hopper, 
An Engineer, 
A Medic, 
Repair Units, Life Support Units, and Fuel Units. 

The total cost of these items, assuming you have none to start is between 940 and 1240 secs. Once you have these base items, your goal is to get to the Ruins. There you can pick up Bots, Skimmers, RU, and maybe another Hopper. The primary goal is to get that Hopper for free. 

Once you have a second Hopper, you need to hire another Pilot and a pair of Gunners at a base cost of 50 a week. Utilize the cache rules to preserve your finds in the Ruins. Don't forget about the Orbital Shuttle event that allows you to move 50 cu of goods in a single hour. It's a great way to clean out that cache. 

At this point, your crew cost is 65 a week. If you go whole hog, that is 65 per owned Hopper. That's a pilot, medic, engineer, and gunner per ship. You'll be making bank in no time, especially if you utilize the game-breaking scenario of multiple Hoppers with guns. You can actually become a pirate, using the Hoppers to strafe ground targets. Sure, you're wanted but the major drawback to being wanted is losing your ship at random... and you don't have one of those. It's entirely possible that your fleet of Hoppers could gun down even full size spaceships. 

In order to cut down on the rogue pirate theme, you could make orbital shuttles available. They are basically double-sized Hoppers. I have designed a small layout of one: 

The cargo area is a bit smaller than what the rules say, but I tacked on 10 cu for passengers, 6 cu for the crew in pilotage and tons of fuel. I would price this thing out at 3 times the cost of a Hopper, available when a Hopper is. This ends up being 2700 or 3600 secs., base price. An orbital shuttle is big enough to generate it's own life support like a full sized ship, but the trade off is there is no good place for guns or turrets. This gimmick is there to prevent that guns blazing trope. 

My final modification is to jump right to the shipless gameplay. For whatever reason, Duke doesn't start with a ship. Maybe the financial market tanked, or the ship he was offered looked nothing like the Serenity, or it was purple, or whatever you want. In this scenario, Duke never had a ship or the associated costs. So let's give him a Sidearm, the U-suit and 4d6x100+150 secs. Let us also change secs. into dollars, so I don't have to keep typing that annoying abbreviation. 

Duke starts out at the Spaceport with a maximum of $3650. He does not have a ship, Hopper or anything but the U-suit and Sidearm. Now, he needs to make 32 times what he has to buy an Antelope outright. This should be completely different. 

I haven't done a commercial in a while, so I figured I try something different. Over at Redbubble, I have a collection of Sci-Fi themed goodies. I have notebooks, pins, stickers, clocks, mugs and more. 

Check out my shop front there

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Down for the Count - Stunners

It's finally happened, I got nailed with Covid. It's perhaps a mild case, as there are times when I feel ok and other times when I can't even stay awake. 

So what to do with all of this enforced time off? 

Star Smuggler, of course. The game is free from the link, just don't redistribute. 

I want characters to have a stunner. It works like a sidearm, except if you hit the target they are stunned for one round. If they have already moved or shot in the round, there is no effect. They can move and fight in the next round automatically. 

Continuing with the sidearms rules, if you roll a 6 on your to hit roll, it is critical and requires one more 1d6 to be rolled. If you get a 1 or 6, the target is knocked out for the rest of the fight. Shooting into melee is possible, but just like sidearms, you can hit your friends with the same stun effects. 

A stunner does no damage to non-living things, which makes it U-suit, robot, and vehicle safe. 

There is a heavy version of a stunner, the only difference is it can pass through U-suits. Not damage them, but pass through as if they don't exist. The heavy stunner is operated exactly like the previous entry. If a heavy stunner (and only heavy stunners) is fired at or through a personal force shield, both the force shield and the stunner must roll for breakdown. Heavy stunners don't work on armored targets, this is the upper limit of the technology. They don't blow holes in things, which is their advantage. 

Stunners cannot hit people inside a vehicle UNLESS the target is shooting out of the said vehicle. I suppose you could make some fun rules for if that person topples out the window, but I would leave that alone. In a solo game that's too much detail. 

Stunners are available when you make a roll that indicates sidearms or heavy sidearms are available. They cost the same as their lethal equivalents. They have the same range of tech levels. Anyone can use a stunner, but only Duke, Gunners and Bodyguards can use heavy stunner. This means you can have armed Drivers and Medics. 

There is an electronic version of a stunner called a scrambler in e18. It forces a breakdown if it hits a vehicle, robot, etc. Normally, this device cannot be purchased. 

I have not figured out a reasonable modification for a hand-held melee stunner. Hand-to-hand is a different mechanic, where every odd-numbered positive number is a hit. Rolls of 7, 9, and 11 do something special such as KO a target or disarm them. Hand-to-hand is an odd beast because you hit on odd results, but the character can have even or odd skills and modifiers. My COVID-addled brain can't handle the math.

"The sum of two odd numbers is always even",
"The sum of two even numbers is always even"

It's simple enough to be confusing. I guess you could flavor hand-to-hand combat by simply assuming that people have access to hand head stunners, which accounts for all of the knockouts in melee. I'll think I'll leave good enough alone. 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Hex Redux

I have less than 2 months to get ready for my next campaign. That is judging by the countdown to the upper right. I cannot wait for these OSE books to come in. I am kind of at the whim of shipping. 

Thankfully, I have a bunch of set pieces ready to go. My main issue is organization. I pulled my hex tiles from of a pair of giant cardboard boxes, set them up, and then packed them away in a handful of clear plastic totes. 

As you can see to the right, they weren't very organized. Some of the smaller parts don't lend themselves to orderly packing. I haven't solved that problem yet but I will get to that someday, hopefully soon. 

I moved an extra table to the middle of the room so we have enough space to use them. Now in this demonstration, I set up as many tiles as I wanted. It was overkill and I wouldn't actually do that for gameplay. 

I have a nice wooden table with two leaves in it. The leaves allow my players some elbow room. I will have to get more chairs and maybe a rolling storage bin to help clear the clutter. 

One of the nice things about this set of tiles is the quick set up. Each piece has a slot for a biscuit cut into the edge. When wargaming, this feature is a must. Pushing figures and rulers around invariably shifts the tiles. 

Roleplaying games, not so much. A 2x2 or 3x3 section can be set up rapidly, usually while I am talking. The rough look makes the players to visualize the scenario from a homely display, with flaws and gaps filled in with imagination. Sometimes, when the players ask about certain flaws, I will pick their brains for what it could mean. 

My intention in using this sort of setup is to facilitate play, not create a complete world or map. I use some odd bits and pieces to display data. Blue paper is water, green cotton balls are trees, rocks... well, are rocks. 

I use a cord to mark out roads and paths. I can use a different color of cord for the path the players intend to take. This makes the situation interactive as the party can all work together to create the best plan. As more features become evident, I drop colored pieces of paper with notes. I have some colored plastic bits to highlight areas of note. We have cups of colored beads and blocks so players can drop things on the play surface for their own purposes. 

And of course, I can add in figures. 

Check out these images from around the table. 

At the end of the day, pack up easy. Before I clear up, I make sure to photograph the set up for my notes. 

As you can see a ridiculous amount of tiles fit in one small area of my basement, always ready to go. 

Once I start this campaign, I will keep you guys in the loop. 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Nostalgia '87 - The Character Sheet

Back in the day, there was no concept of "editions" for D&D. There was D&D and AD&D. The differences between Advanced and the B/X books are very noticeable. There are whole websites dedicated to the differences between these products and it is a massive rabbit-hole universe. I won't be covering that here. 

I would like to talk about a product I made and put up on DriveThruRPG. 

My friends and I had a mishmash world, where D&D and AD&D were treated as the same thing. Plus we had Unearthed Arcana in our set of shared books. Yes, we all shared books among our group of players which could number as many as 14 people on a given night. 

It wasn't easy to combine all these dissimilar products but one of the aids we had was our own computerized character sheet that we could print at will. It was created on my Mac 512 in Mac Draw. 

It was excellent (click to order).

From the title panel, you can probably guess that we had a ton of multi-classed characters and a lot of wacky rules to combine everything from D&D, AD&D, and UA. We actually learned a lot from this process of creation. 

First, no one liked Cavilliers or Theif-Acrobats. We like to use a homebrew method of character attribute generation, 4d6 with the lowest die discarded and order as you see fit. Humans received a plus one to a single stat as desired. Half-elves received either human or elf attribute bonuses. 

We tried to implement weapon adjustments, but it was very cumbersome. We did like weapon proficiencies. 

As an oddity of all of our shared worlds, no one invoked raise dead or reincarnation spells, the only thing that was used was wish or alter reality spells. And infrequently at that. 

It was often enough to cause problems in unexpected places. Encumbrance was a problem as characters willed a bunch of stuff from one to another. So our rule was all items had to fit on the character sheet, despite the actual size. A full 1/3 of our character sheet was dedicated to just equipment. 

I cannot tell you how many times one of our DMs would have to deal with "my character reaches in his pocket and pull out a ring of X", only for that player to discover that the thief now knows exactly what he stole 3 sessions ago. 


Anyway, a few years ago I found a copy of this sheet. I scanned and uploaded it to DriveThruRPG to share with others. It is one of my more popular items, probably because you can download it for free. If you really like it, you can actually pay for it. It is PWYW, but I suggest 99¢. 

In uploading this document, I realized there were flaws, such as missing all of the Theif-Acrobat skills. The layout could be improved and so on. I created a newer sheet that had some of the old-school style captured in the first. However, it is sharper and cleaner as it is a wholly digital product rather than a scan. It too comes with the original character sheet. 

Good things come in threes, so I created a third variation of a character sheet. One that no one asked for: The 20-page character sheet! It's actually a single sheet of paper folded into a flip book. I used them for a B2 campaign. My kids and their friends enjoyed them so much that they kept them. 

So if you like old school goodness, please give my 3 character sheets a try. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Tips to the New DM - Part 1, the Campaign

I saw the trailer for the new D&D movie, Honor Among Thieves. 

I love the idea that it's titled "Honor Among Thieves" and presents a series of characters who don't seem to be thieves. This is typically problem #1 at the game table, exactly what happens when a DM proposes a game and the players don't have the same idea in mind because they aren't mindreaders. 

It reminds me of the first D&D movie, you know the one where everything was ridiculous and over the top. It was like someone asked: "What if all of our fine actors rolled a 1 for each and every aspect of this production?" Since this actually happens at the table, I thought it was an excellent adaptation of the game. You can read my five-star review right here

This highlights the second thing that can go horribly wrong at the table, an overreliance on dice or chance for outcomes for things that don't really matter. If you let dice overrule sensible choices and the agency of your players, everyone gets screwed by chance. Things that shouldn't really matter suddenly are all important. Don't let it happen to you, only roll for the things that need to be resolved by chance. Let the kiddos have agency. 

Anyway, I have been talking to my kids about a new campaign I'm planning. They are all hung up on the basic concept of a "campaign". It's a big word that has never really been presented very well in the core books. The core books of any RPG series, not just D&D. I would define a campaign as both the world where the action takes place and a list of rules and assumptions about the world. This is the highest level meaning of the word "campaign". 

When starting out, the campaign should be vanilla flavored. Zero restrictions on character class and races, no modification to the rules, etc. The players, if you and they are lucky only have the core rules. Don't yank the carpet out from under them by making restrictions or changes on the basics that they do know.  

The second part of the "campaign" is the setting. What type of story is being told? It is a pirate tale, a ghost story, a land grab, an exploration, a quest.  Technically, these are limitations of scope. A pirate tale is very different than a good ghost story. You should not find paranormal events in a pirate story, you won't find vampires in an exploration campaign. It makes sense, so the players don't think it's all a free for all. They don't need stakes and garlic to get on a boat. 

But remember there is always the ability to fuse stories. Dracula starts on a ship, the Flying Dutchman is a tale of pirate ghosts, and so on. You can either have these ideas from the outset or morph things as needed. Just because you start in one place, it doesn't mean you can't land somewhere else. 

Where your first few games go bonkers is when the players hit the outline of what you have created. You'll get the weirdo things like a bard with an electric guitar in a fantasy world, the thief with a skateboard that goes by the name "Zoomer-boomer", and a kleptomaniac cleric in a hair-lined football jersey. Don't worry, just roll with your players, to the extent that you can. Let them have fun at first and after a while, they'll eventually come around to meet you halfway. Or better. 

One good thing to have in mind is a character swap. When starting out, you'll have problems like this where no one wants to play the character they have, and killing off characters is either unreasonable or impracticable. It's really not worth anyone's time to kill off a disliked character. My suggestion is to swap former player characters as NPCs and once you have these wild ones under your thumb, cool them out. Don't kill 'em. Don't make them disappear. Just place them in a more natural and sedate setting for your world and let them be. Maybe they'll grow into something else. This will depend on your player's outlook on their past silliness. To be honest, these wild and wacky characters probably will fade into the background of the setting. 

No harm, no foul. 

Now we are to the setting. What is happening in your world? 

I find the smoothest way to create a campaign is to write a story. Not a huge story or a polished story but one with a set of boundaries that has a clear beginning and a clear end. The DM isn't reading a book to a party of players, you are all working together on a set of tasks that will eventually tell the legends of heroes. 

Maybe, they are heroes. Maybe not. Anywho... 

The DM should prepare their campaign as a set of chapters or waypoints where the goal is to get the players and the characters from A to B to C. Keep to the basics. How do they meet, where do they go, when do things get exciting? 

Simple. Except it really isn't.  

Remember, at each step of the way many things can happen.  Most of which can't be controlled by anyone, players and DM alike. Don't expect sessions one, two, or 27 to end where you decided they would. 

The players should succeed at the end of each chapter, but they can also fail. Failure doesn't have to be death. In fact, if you plan it right, getting killed should be hard. In all likelihood, they won't fail and die. It could be something so simple as running out of health or something as annoying and show-stopping as losing the tools they needed to move forward. They could be captured, they could get drunk or homesick and take a break. Any number of things could and will happen to them and your story, which really isn't the story you wrote down. Don't sweat it. 

The moment the players don't have success, you need to change what you are doing with the players so they can continue. Usually, this results in a quick side story before continuing on to the main event. Hopefully, your players will enjoy this tangent while also wanting to continue on to the main event. Sometimes the tangent will become the main story. That's cool, too. 

There is a variant on party success. I call it the Uber-Win. You created a scenario and presented it to a dozen people. One of those players will figure out something very logical and sensible that you didn't think of and they hop right to the end of the material you created. Instant Win. It happens. Be ready for the strange wine the players serve up at your table. It's really good, albeit surprising. 

There are two other possibilities besides win and lose. A stalemate or a no-sell. A stalemate occurs when the players don't win or lose and is often a variant of failure. These events are easier to adapt to than an actual failure, there is merely a pause in the action while the party prepares to continue. The nice part a stalemate means the players are interested in your campaign, wish to continue, and are invested. They just can't do what you expected right now. Roll with it. 

Mastering picking up stuff after
a mistake. It is the first step to
mastering anything. 

A no-sell is the worst outcome. There is something happening that the players do not like, dig or understand. They simply want no part of your campaign as it exists. That totally sucks because give a table of 4 or more players, the odds are there will be something one or more people won't be interested in. This is more than a simple adaptation. It can mean a change in theme and style of presentation. Or even a total change of story or theme. 

In one of my campaigns, I had a dungeon entirely populated with insects and spiders. After one room of combat, I discovered that one of my players had a visceral reaction to bugs. I had props and everything. Rattles, scrapers for eerie sounds, a bag with something furry inside, plastic toys, and so on. And she would not be having any of it. 

How could I possibly ditch all of that fun for one player's enjoyment or lack thereof? 

Well, since that player was getting ready to pack up and leave, the choice was easy. The next room had rats. She seemed indifferent. Me too because The Dungeon of the Rat was really dumb. 

In the third room, I tried snakes. 

She asked, "Do they look friendly?"  

"Well. No," I answered. 

But it was a lifeline. It wasn't that the players disliked the idea of a dungeon crawl or playing D&D yet again on Saturday night. Just one feature, bugs were not for them. It turned out my props could be used in different ways. They were still effective. And everyone enjoyed The Temple of Serpents more than "the unnamed dungeon of spiders and ick" I planned. 

Sometimes, rephrasing or reskinning a setting is all that is required. 

Other times, you have to completely change course, mid-stride to engage the players. This is an absolute abandonment of everything for something else. It sucks, but it is preferable to the players being forced into certain scenarios against their will.  

This brings us to another concept DMs should avoid, railroading. The above example with the conversion from bugs to snakes is not railroading because the players wanted a dungeon crawl but didn't want to deal with spiders and centipedes. Everyone was on board, a tactic choice to play was actual buy-in, only without spiders. It's a reskinning of an acceptable idea. 

Railroading is a different beast to be avoided. 

Suppose I had created "The Dungeon Crawl to Save Not Just The Universe, but ALL of the Known Universes", and the players wanted and expected a game of courtly political intrigue? Forcing them into my dungeon is a railroad. Don't do it. 

Given that you created a specific scenario that absolutely must be resolved for the world to continue to exist, you, the DM created a massive problem. You are going to have to get very creative to get out of it. In a perfect world, you shouldn't have made the basic premise so all-consuming. If the players aren't going in that hole you made, the main question is who is going in that massive suck hole you made? 

Not the players. They don't want it. However, the players gave you your escape. The Royal Court that hired the players in the first place is your answer. Flesh it out. 

The King wants the Dungeon problem solved immediately before his kingdom is destroyed, but the Queen is looking ahead and wants her son to marry. The Prince wants to marry the Princess of the neighboring kingdom, who is the arch-enemy of his Kingdom. Queen Mom is not enthusiastic about this turn of events but will go along. In secret, of course. The Princess's half-brother happens to be an Uber-Mage that can resolve any issue down in the dungeon with a snap of his fingers if only he was predisposed to do such a thing. Too bad he is only interested in Matilda, the young and attractive spy sent by the Prince's father to neutralize the Uber-Mage before he can take to the field of battle. 

Gee, that has all of the courtly political intrigues the players could desire, and no one but the Uber-Mage has to go down into that trap of a dungeon that you created. Problem solved. 

Sort of. Except you lost all of the hours spent on creating that dungeon. This is the way of D&D campaigns. As mentioned before, there is even a movie about it.  

A railroad would be if the players met the Prince like they wanted to, but then the Prince forces them to go into the Dungeon of Death you created. Or the Queen was kidnapped and the party had to go into the dungeon to get her back. If the Uber-Mage couldn't actually solve the problem, forcing the players into the mucky dungeon. If the King appointed the party to be the Keepers of Honor, leading peasants on a tour of the now safe dungeon, recounting the Heroic Deeds of the Uber-Mage, every weekday morning and twice on Wednesdays... 

Personally, I'd totally use the last one if my players were jerks about the whole thing. But I use a lot of meta humor at the table. It just works for me. It probably wouldn't work all the time or for everyone, but I'm sure I could make it funny. 

Remember, your players aren't antagonists they are your co-conspirators. Read the room and use their ideas to drive the fun. 

So on your first good campaign, you need to know a couple things and master them: 
  • Start small, 
  • Know what you mean to do, 
  • Know where good, bad, and indifferent can happen. 
    • Hint: at every party choice. 
  • Don't let the dice make choices, 
    • only use dice to resolve choices made by the players,
    • and never force a choice by dice either for you the DM, or the party. 
  • Plan to adapt from there.
The first and the last are just as important as the middle two. Pick anyone to start and you will naturally expand your skills at DMing. You can't possibly sprint to success, so focus on one or two and grow from there. 

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Counting the Days... New OSE Character Class for a New Campaign

The counter says 86 days until the OSE books I backed are shipped. I have no special knowledge of the workings of this Kickstarter, I simply set the countdown to October 31st. I hope they start shipping October first, but that is just whistling in the wind. Kickerstarter merely lists an October date as a due date. They could ship on November 1st for all I know and it would still be close enough for me.  

Anyway, I am targeting Thanksgiving weekend for the kick-off of a new wacky campaign. This one uses several new character classes I have in mind: Unicorn, Veteran, Hood or Hoodlum, Kobolds of three kinds, and Monomachus. Of these half dozen or so classes, the most brain power and testing have gone into the Veteran. 

I visualize this character as a Vietnam-era U.S. soldier. The reason I picked this archetype is their depiction in the media is a rather well-documented reality breaker. This type of character often appears with standard-non-standard equipment, anything from WWII to the Aliens franchise, all based on what the prop department had at the time. Oddly, there are records of soldiers of all kinds using anything from spears to Thompson machine guns and everything in between. What is uniformly absent is the host of high-tech gizmos that modern troops need batteries and electricity to operate. 

Then there are the magic numbers. While researching soldiers, I got two numbers: 70 lbs and 210 bullets. This is the number of things soldiers can have. The gist of these two numbers is, that soldiers have to weigh protection vs. lethality vs. mobility. Soldiers pick underwear or bullets or food. It's really simple and apparently, soldiers have been doing it for more than 2000 years. So, while I am picturing a U.S. soldier, it could apply anywhere. That's actually nice. 

I have already posted about guns and bullets. I'll talk about what playtesting showed me about guns another day. 

In this post, I'll share what I noticed about soldiers in general, which allows me to set some standards for abilities and capabilities. Since I know soldiers can carry a lot of stuff, their prime requisite is Consitution. Not only do soldiers use it every day they also are immunized against all manner of things. They start their career through a vetting process which means they are on the higher end of the stamina scale. 

Next, soldiers are trained for combat. They receive both a small historical curriculum of knowledge paired with modern tactics. They are adaptable and wily. For this reason, I can pair physical equipment with knowledge to give them a bonus of 2 on their AC without getting tied up in actual equipment and what stats they should have. A modern soldier has better protection and training to avoid or capitalize on specific historical styles of combat. At least better than any pseudo-medieval type character. This is everything from physical protection like a helmet and body armor to situations one should avoid. Plus 2 sounds reasonable.  

Soldiers have a lot of physical training so they are amenable to using virtually any weapon. They have proficiency but do not have any bonuses for their training. Where they do get a bonus of 1 is in the case of avoiding surprise, which is a combat-non-combat skill. They are always on the lookout for ambushes. 

The other part of their training is time management. This skill allows the soldier and his party to move 5% to 20% faster than typical over a day. They aren't running or moving faster, they are simply making sure everything moves more efficiently. I.E. a five-minute rest stop doesn't turn into a 15 or 30-minute break. This bonus only applies to walking movement. If animals or wagons are thrown into the mix, the physical limits of those things take precedence. Another piece of this ability is soldiers have watches and compasses which are helpful for travel.  

I had considered a number of other skills but decided against them. In particular, I thought about tracking, detecting, and healing. Not every soldier can perform these tasks beyond what an average person already. If I wanted to do that, I wrote a whole book on that subject - Zero to Hero: Uncommon Commoners. This book provides professional character types like a healer, a scout, etc. which either extend the normal character classes with some new professional skills or allows the creation of a fully formed non-combat orientated professional character. The other advantage of this is this Veteran class doesn't steal any function from any other class such as tracking from rangers or trap detection from thieves.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Ah... August

For some reason, everything slows down on the blog in summer. I have a ton of things going on apparently. The garden is rocking, there are five family birthdays and an anniversary in July and August. 

We worked in a concert or two and wine tasting. 

In the next few weeks, big gaming things are happening. Looking at the countdown, there are only 90 days until my OSE books are shipped. After that, I plan on launching a campaign for the kids. They have never played old-school D&D and OSE is kind of my go-to set to play. 

I've already started writing the scenario. I'm hoping to have 7-12 players for a couple of months as a playtest. There will be at least 6 non-standard classes for them to use plus all of the regular ones available in the OSE books. I can't wait. 

I hope to develop this campaign into a module or three.  

Recently, I decided to open a new social media channel on Locals. I call it The Map Bag, but there is little to nothing about gaming there. It's actually named after the bag I carry around for art supplies and computer junk. It will be a good place for many non-gaming posts, like this one. It's a tip jar of sorts. I don't play on paywalling any posts, but the built-in pay feature is there. 

I do poorly marketing myself and it has been a very long time since I have introduced a new product. I hope that changes because I have some ideas kicking around. I just won't have time for a while. 

So, here are some links to the products I do have. 

Swashbuckler Character
Class for D&D and AD&D

Swashbucklers for D&D and AD&D
Zero to Hero:
Uncommon Heroes

Zero to Hero
Zero to Hero
Character Sheet
for AD&D

Character Sheet
Character Sheet for AD&D

Kobold’s Folly
Mini Setting

Kobold’s Folly
Kobold’s Folly
Compass Rose
Inn Mini Setting

Compass Rose Inn
Compass Rose Inn
The Hex Pack
The Hex Pack
The Hex Pack

I'll see you around at the end of summer. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Return to Brookmere by Rose Estes

Today, I'd like to look at a bit of nostalgia. The title is Return to Brookmere by Rose Estes. This whole series of books was one of my favorites. 

Title: Return to Brookmere
Author: Rose Estes
Year: July 1982
Pages: 153
Rating: ★★★★ 

In this title, you take the role of an Elf named Brion. The story starts with a multi-page character sheet, the description begins with your height, weight, and appearance before moving on to clothing, weapons, armor, and gear. Of note, you seem to be wearing elven chainmail and have a magic necklace. Your mission is to scout your former home of Castle Brookmere. 

Back in 1982, I would have been 10. This style of storytelling made quite an impression on me. It was a merger of Choose Your Own Adventure and classic D&D. Each entry usually ends with 3 choices to pick from to progress the story. It wasn't at all like the open-end D&D sessions but it was pretty close. Often you hit the "The End... go back to the beginning," which usually meant you did something careless. 

I have mapped out whole adventure games like Star Smuggler. It is rather unnecessary for this title as it's so brief. There are 12 endings, good or bad. There are 24 choice pages and 15 or so jump pages that ask the reader to move to a new page without a choice. I like to call these tension pages as the reader will flip through several pages of text before having to hop to another page for a choice. It's a neat trick. 

Jousting Tourney - An Unusual Game

I am tearing through reviews this month, figured I take a break and talk about something else I enjoy. The first game book that I have extensive experience with was Chainmail. My dad was a huge fan of wargaming and back then it was all WRG. It's a 'tich hard to teach a 3 or 4-year-old the ins and outs of morale, light vs. heavy troops, average dice, army point systems, and the like. 

So on the weekends, Chainmail was our go-to game. My personal favorite section is the Jousting Table. If you don't have a lot of time, The Jousting Table is always there. It's a diceless system made up of a simple pair of tables and a shield schematic. Pick a position and target, compare and there are your results. 

Being my dad, we had 25 mm figures for every entrant in the Tourney. Even better, my dad cribbed lines from books and movies like Ivanhoe, The Lone Ranger, and an amazing number of Errol Flynn movies. The results were not simply "kill", "unseated", etcetera. It was a full-on color commentary on the action. More akin to hockey than jousting. 

Every once in a while, I like to throw a wildly different mechanic at my players. The more complex the rule system, the harder it is to integrate a completely new mechanic. I have simply written ruleset for sprinting, I call it the Movement Game. It is less than one page long, has a picture or two to help, and is largely based on AD&D's regular movement system. It is also remarkably non-lethal and covers a range of scenarios. The danger of it is players will try to invoke it when things go to hell in combat. It's relatively harmless when player-invoked. 

I probably came up with it while thinking about the Jousting Table from Chainmail. Instead of a table, every character has a figure or chit and can move an inch, one right after the other. Dirt simple. 

For my next session in November, I am brainstorming a mechanic called "Evil Eye". A character who has the center position on a gameboard can impose a status effect like "freeze", "fall" or "flee" on enemies. The central player can only affect a 30-degree arc of the playing area, so keeping enemies away is difficult because the players are surrounded. Exactly who is giving the orders really depends on the party, who realizes the center of the board is important, etc. So it could be the Super Amadeus Arch-Machiavellian... or the cook he hired. 

It's so much fun to bring something simple to the table. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Thieves World Short Story Review - Sentences of Death By John Brunner

Title: Sentences of Death
Author: John Brunner
Year: 1978
Pages: 23
Rating: ★★★★

Ah, John Brunner. Between 1970 and 1975, Brummer penned 9 novels. Some of the finest works of SF.  In 1978, his short fiction work, Sentences of Death was the first short story of the first book in the Thieves World collection. And what an open piece it is. 

We meet Sanctuary's gritty streets and self-made fortunes through the eyes of scribe Melilot and his young protege Jarveena. Using forgery, blackmail, and mistranslation, Melilot fits right into Thieves World with his stable of scribes for hire. Through Melilot's exploits, the reader is introduced to what makes Sanctuary tick and what those ticks do to the people in the city, young, old, and in the middle. The children are the core of commerce in Sanctuary, much of which is exactly what one with think of trade in children. Jarveena is dragged right along with her master's plots. 

It's grim. 

Jarveena, Melilot's latest scribe has business and vengeance on the mind. A chance encounter pits her against the captain of the guard, Aye-Gophlan and his men who took everything from her. Jarveena craves vengeance and boy, does it work. As if having the criminal mastermind of Melilot at her back wasn't enough, she encounters the mage Enas Yorl who simply seals the deal for her.  

The story revolves around a magic scroll that none can read. This little monkey paw of a device winds a tortured path through the story, running from a street urchin scribe all the way to the Prince of the city. 

As per the typical fare for Thieves World, winning isn't always a good option as Jarveena and Enas Yorl discover. Sentences of Death is artfully crafted and while grim, is an excellent primer for Thieves World. 

In the review of these stories, I'd like to link them back to classic D&D. While scribes don't exactly fit as a class of D&D character, the function could be fulfilled by Magic-Users, Clerics, and of course, Thieves. Enas Yorl is accursed, which is an interesting take on a magic-user. Some of the other magic in the story hints at Dimension Door and Polymorph (large writ) while Aye-Gophlan's behavior and beliefs tend to model closely to poor characters just trying to get a leg up while being deluded as to their station in the story. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

GURPS Uplift

Title: GURPS Uplift, Second Edition
Author: Stefan Jones and David Brin
Year: 1990
Rule set: GURPS
Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Pages: 128
Rating: ★★★★★

Ok, I am taking a break from novels and switching to games to review. This one is a trick review. I don't play GURPS, I've never played GURPS. It's not that I don't like it or anything, it is merely outside of my experience. 

Having said all that, I'll point to that 5-star rating right now. 

Here is what I know: GURPS or the Generic Universal RolePlaying System is one of the most, if not the most successful RPG using a common rule set for a variety of settings. To get the most out of this book, you'll need The GURPS Basic Set, and players will find a lot of help from GURPS Space and Ultra-Tech. All of these are available through the links at DriveThruRPG. 

Hopefully, from my reviews of Sundiver, Startide Rising, and The Uplift War, you have gotten a sense of the types of stories David Brin weaves in his Uplift double trilogy.  From David Brin's forward, Brin is an avid gamer and was interested in doing a series where players' actions were complicated and nuanced. This was written in 1990, but as I flipped through this work, I see that there is information that would not have been available to those reading the novels at the time. It's not a huge amount, but it is interesting. Gene raiders, Jopher, and E-space come to mind. 

The author, Stephan Jones breaks the book into 8 sections, starting with The Uplift Universe and moving to more and more detail with characters, which include some pre-generated characters from the novels. From there, we dive into the culture in the chapter Family, Friends, and Foes, before digging into the concepts of Uplift. The last four chapters cover the various forms of technology and travel plus two chapters about campaigning and adventures. 

The entire book has dozens and dozens of pictures, all of them pretty standard for the 1990s. The main advantage of these images is it depicts what Brin described in the book. I don't foresee a series of movies based on these works, but Xandar in the Marvel films is kind of close. 

While I already mentioned that I am probably unqualified to rate the rules in this set, I do want to focus on some of them because of the setting. In Brin's Uplift series, the sophonts are living on the bleeding edge of technology and biology. 

The cover depicts a dolphin in space, after all. 

In some ways, there is little to differentiate technology from biology and dolphins are a prime example. They have walker shells and manipulator arms that they wear on land or in space. They suffer very little from their environment, although they can't climb trees. The rules make sure that some of these odd cases are outright disallowed but in some edge cases are perfectly plausible. For example, Chimpanzees are rotten swimmers in real life, therefore Chims in the Uplift world don't swim at all. 

Brin stuck to the basics of reality when coming up with these limitations and they are all well thought out in this book and the novels, even the fantastic ones. Jones continues that in fin fashion. Dolphins were known to use tools back in the 80s, so robotic arms are not so fantastic. Chimpanzees were once thought not to swim, but it appears that they may not be the strongest swimmer but can if they desire. They also possess an ability that humans don't have, they can sink to the bottom so they can walk and hop through deep water, like a human in a wave pool. It is unclear if Uplifted Chimpanzees can or can't swim, the ones depicted in the novels don't like to get wet and usually take to trees rather than going down into major water obstacles. What is interesting in the books is, so Chims are mortified if they startle and jump in a tree or other perch for safety while others view it as a tried and true escape tactic. 

These approaches to games are great. I've almost sold myself on a set of GURPS books. I hope I sold you, too. 

Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Uplift War by David Brin Review

Title: The Uplift War
Author: David Brin
Year: 1987
Pages: 462
Rating: ★★★★★ 

"Sometimes I wish I could boldly go where no man has gone before... but I'll probably stay in Aurora." Garth. 

Sorry, wrong Garth. 

Garth is the next world we visit in the Uplift Trilogy. As the hunt for the Snark Class Streaker expanded, the war cut off Earth from its colonies. Garth was one of those colonies. Predominantly populated by Chimps or uplifted Chimpanzees, the planet must fend off the invading Gubru, a vicious avian clan of galactics. While Garth had a large population of Chims, many other clans were represented. The story uses the word Chims collectively, so I will stick to that moniker for the rest of the review. 

In order to secure their hold, the Gubru indiscriminately used hostage gas on the planet. Any humans who breathe the poison were forced to turn themselves in for an antidote. The client Chimpanzees find themselves without their patrons and allies. 

Of course, no plan is perfect and a handful of heroes escape the planet-wide gassing. Fiban, a Chimpanzee officer loses his spacecraft in the brief battle for the planet, crashlanding in the wilderness. Robert, a human child of the planetary council members escapes with Athaclena, the daughter of Uthacalthing, the Tymbrimi ambassador to the planet. Uthacalthing himself was shot down fleeing the main city with Thennanin ambassador, Kault. 

These unlikely compatriots engage in a certain type of warfare which shall not be named, using ambushes and diplomacy to wear down their Gubru invaders. As the story plays out, Athaclena and Robert work with the Chimpanzee irregulars while Fiban's team performs recon for the ah... guerrilla force. Uthacalthing ran the Gubru and Kault through the countryside on a wild goose chase for a legendary pre-sapient species never before seen on the planet. 

Garth is a sad backwater planet granted to Earthclan for ecological recovery. Humans have a talent for ecology having pulled themselves back from the brink of planet-wide pre-contact disaster. Poor Garth's previous tenant devastated the planet by hunting most species to extinction. Rumors of the pre-sentient species in the wild are a type of improbable, magical thinking that seems to attract all who wish for order and better outcomes for Garth. 

Whoever restores the ecological balance to the planet takes not only the planet but also gains a client species for their clan, a great honor to all of galactic society. Unfortunately, Bururalli, the last tenants of the planet destroyed any hope of restoration with planet-wide slaughter. There was no way any large, pre-sapient species could have survived the holocaust. 

Where Sundiver gave the reader a host of alien species and Startide Rising expounded on their way of thinking and beliefs, The Uplift War really digs deep into the ways and minds of Humans, Chims, Gubru, Timbrimi, and Thennanin. 

The reader will be surprised as to what Humans have become in the face of these threats and delighted by the charm of the Chimpanzee heroes. Through Robert and Athaclena's leadership and love, the reader is given yet another study of both the humanity and alienness of the world he describes. The prank-loving Tymbrimi possess almost superpowers with their powers of adaption and a nearly biological form of empathy or weak telepathy, which is distinct from actual psi powers in this series. Both the Gubru and Thennanin are conservative, dour enemies of Earthclan. 

In the Startide Rising, the antagonists are portrayed as ruthless and bloodthirsty. In The Uplift War, the Gubru and Thennanin are revealed to have passions that drive them. While the Gubru are honor driven, the Thennanin are impassioned by service and preservation of all life forms, great and small. At least in theory. As these plays of honor and love of all play out, the aliens seem more frightening for all of their similarities to Earthlings rather than their differences.  

In my past few readings, I cannot help but notice how unfixed certain tropes are in time. If I wanted to pin the idea of jaded, sarcastic, carelessness on a time period, it would be the 1990s. This trilogy has that in spades in the middle of the 1980s. The Thieves World books show some of the same from the late 70s. Clearly, ideas take time to foment. 

I only mention this because this novel appears to have a serious moral/values dissonance depending on the reader's outlook when reading it. The Gubru strip the Chimpanzee's patron and allies from the picture in the hopes that a young client species will relent and surrender to an obviously powerful patron class invader. The author, David Brin takes an extreme form of "show, don't tell" which can leave the moral of the story very ambiguous. If you read too much into a single plot line, it will appear that the Gubru are correct that chims are a lesser species ripe for domination without their patrons, however, there are several other plotlines and details which lead to the other opposite conclusion. 

I've read this book several times and often wonder which group is snider: humans, chimps, or alien zealots. It's hard to tell some days. It's odd when the author embroils a reader so deeply into the universe that the whole meaning and moral of the story is really in the eye of the beholder. 

Of all of the Uplift books, I like this one best as it contains a coming-of-age story similar to any of H. M. Hoover's works. The best part of my childhood was taking a rank of some real-life skill, and most often these rank takings were most memorable when I was young and coming of age myself. I love that sense of self-discovery. 

Again, if you can't find this title at a local book store, you can find The Uplift War at AbeBooks.