Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Tactical Hyperdrive

While reflecting on Full Thrust, CBF's Raiders, and BattleShift today, I came the realization that the reason tactical hyperdrives, warp-gates, and cloaking devies are interesting to me is that they are some of the few mechanics in starship wargaming that really serve to differentiate it from naval (or for the 3d freaks, aerial) wargames.  The other main ones I can think of / see in practice are momentum-driven movement (doesn't work so well in high-friction fluids) and something like CBF's regenerating / faceted shields (no current technological analog), but those both bear much higher mechanical overhead than warp tech.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Return to Wargaming?

Jimdad suggested on the recent organizational resources post that it would make sense for me to do some test runs of all the tech before trying to run a full-blown campaign with it.  This is sensible, but one-shots are unsatisfying as a rule.  Unrelatedly, I've had VBAM and space wargaming on the brain recently for no apparent reason.  But they do suggest an alternative means for tech-testing, in that wargames are primarily one-off affairs (at least in our group) which work well with a small and irregular player pool.  Playing one-off wargame scenarios also leads nicely into campaigns, which might beget universe generation and lead to workable RPG settings.

I'm sort of looking back at the Starmada Summer of 2011 as a model, but hopefully with a less flexi-fragile system (or a gentleman's agreement that if something is broken, you use it to win once and then can it).  I think Full Thrust in one of its several incarnations would probably serve us well, as it is a very simple core game with lots of optional things to experiment with (I for one would be curious to try Colonial Battlefleet's initiative system on top of FT's general mechanics; I'm just not a huge fan of pre-plotted movement).  Full Thrust is also old enough and well-enough vetted that its exploitable flaws are known (documented and discussed in the expansion books) and can hopefully be avoided.  It also has a nice-looking sample campaign in the back of the FT2E manual.

Other options:
  • Starmada: Nova - we never really gave this one a fair shake, and the seeker rules are pretty neat.  On the minus side, forum reports that stacking up weapon traits is still pretty broken.
  • Colonial Battlefleet - sort of hampered by lack of good shipyard spreadsheet.  I have one half-thrown together, but got bored.  Good stealth and initiative rules, and the Raider type from the expansion book looks like fun.  On the minus side, fairly heavy bookkeeping for shields.
  • Battleshift - Fleet engagements with some cool tactical warp mechanics.  If I recall correctly, though, it needs a pretty big playing area, and I've seen roll20 lag out under less. 
  • Space Hulk.  The problem with Space Hulk is that it's unusually stressful, because there is some serious "oh god oh god we're all going to die" going on continuously  (...  holy cow, this must be what it's like to play in my ACKS games.  No wonder they keep disintegrating!  On the other hand, if you play ACKS well, it's less of a problem than if you play Space Hulk well, because the DM is slightly less actively malicious than the 'stealer player).  Also the maps are deceptively expansive.
  • BattleTech Lite - light to medium mechs from the earliest time period only, and perhaps no melee.  Could be fun as long as you keep the total number of armor / structure points low.
  • Domains at War: Battles - Our experiences so far suggest that DaW:B is too heavy unless there's some significant investment in the outcome (ie, a PC realm at stake). On the other hand, two games between inexperienced players is not a whole lot to go by.  I've been meaning to write some scenarios for this - the system could definitely use one highlighting the fortification rules, and everybody loves Helm's Deep.
  • Hell, a sample DaW:C campaign would be fun too, and if the battles were resolved using the Campaigns rules, it might work alright for one-off afternoon games (though I sort of expect a lot of overhead from the recon rules - TODO automate recon).  I could steal something from Crusader Kings and keep the magic-and-wyvern-cavalry level historically low for ease of use.
  • Anything in the 15-25mm infantry sphere - I have my doubts about how well roll20 would handle these, and Vassal suffers from limited plugins.  Options include Stargrunt, Gruntz, WH40k, and many many others.
  • Dirtside or other 6mm microarmor games - Again, I don't think this one would do well on roll20.  Also chit-based damage.
So if anybody from the old Starmada crew is reading this, hit me up via the usual channels if something here's interesting.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Bundle of Holding - Classic Traveller

By way of Tenkar, a Bundle of Holding that might be of interest to some folks in these parts.  I think I'm going to pass on this, since I picked up the CT Core on RPGnow and have little use for adventures in general, but if there's interest in a Classic Traveller Revival, this is a great way to start it off.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

GTalk Working

It appears that I had made two mistakes in my previous attempts at gtalk setup.  The first was installing it on a machine with less-than-functional input hardware.  The second was thinking that it failed to recognize my microphone, which it still has marked as a speaker device but now appears to be reading from without error.

And I didn't even have to muck with my bootloader or change distributions!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Organizational Resources I Had Forgotten

Stumbling around dusty parts of the blogosphere this evening, I happened upon two posts that I am fairly certain I read once upon a distant year.

The first and more important, I think, is Ars Ludi's plot grid, whereby a game with an irregular player base might have a plot rather than going full-episodic.  Also comes with the neat feature that less-frequent players are more likely to have the sessions that they attend center on their subplots.  This is a thing I would have been well-served by in either of both ACKS games, and in retrospect bears a lot of similarity to how I managed my notes for Traveller back when.  Also interesting that even with a player pool of 30, he was pulling 3.4 players per session on average.

The second is Justin Alexander's post on the open game table, which I realize now was almost certainly an influence on my gaming development over the last few years.  The pair of interesting take-away points from this most recent reading, however, were that the pick-up style is not the end-all-be-all of the RPG form, and that when he does scheduling, it's in one-month chunks, as opposed to the one-week chunks we were using for ACKS.  I think that's an important administrative insight, as one of the things which was tricky with Scaled Continent was planning for a particular group mix with just a few days of lead-time.  There was no way I was going to be able to tailor anything to anybody due to lack of data on my part plus short timescales.

With per-player plotting and month-lead scheduling in mind, my willingness to run a campaign for irregulars over the 'net is somewhat increased again.  Still need to fix technical issues with voice/vid for it to be really workable, though.  Somewhat concerned that I may have blown my credibility in that arena, but hey, the first couple runs of any new setup rarely go smoothly.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

RQ6: Firearms

So it turns out one advantage of d% games being 'dead' is that the supplements are quite inexpensive, and sometimes free.  For example, I realized after finishing RuneQuest, for example, that I happen to have a Chaosium BRP sourcebook (Treasures of Middle Earth) that I picked up for a couple books at a used bookstore once.  Looks pretty compatible to me, despite being separated by 20 years.  Also picked up a pile of supplements from rpgnow at a dollar a piece the other day, which is quite a reasonable price.

Likewise, the publishers of RQ6 have put out a free supplement on the topic of firearms, ranging from muskets to lasers.  Overall it's pretty well-done.  Dodging bullets is impossible, getting hit with them is bad for your health, suppressing the enemy is good, and cover is your friend.  Before I go into my concerns, I'd like to emphasize that on the whole, this thing looks very usable, and I suspect that RuneQuest With Guns would do WH40k tabletop better than Dark Heresy, despite both being percentile systems.

So, points of contention:
  • I'm under the impression that bleeding to death is one of the more common ways to die of a gunshot wound if the initial shock doesn't kill you, which makes the removal of the Bleed special effect from firearms somewhat curious.  I guess that's just rolled into inflicting major / serious wounds? 
  • Drop Foe special effect seems really ridiculously good.  I'm not all that familiar with the psychological effects of getting shot, though, so might be that that's how it actually works.
  • I'd've built burst fire differently,.  The first shot in a burst is no less accurate than a single shot of semi-automatic fire; recoil only affects the later ones (unless you flinch preemptively, which you shouldn't!  Do as I say, not as I do, though I'm getting better).  As a result, assigning a difficulty mod to hit with the burst as a whole seems curious.  Since RQ already has the elegant Special Effects system, I'd rather see "burst hit" as a special effect, usable only when firing on burst, that lets you hit with an extra bullet to a random hit location (stackable, to a max of number of bullets fired in the burst).  So if you pull a critical hit with a three-round burst, you can hit with all three bullets and still have one effect left over to make one of them a headshot or something.  If you fire a three-round burst and only get one special effect, maybe you choose something other than the extra hit.
  • It also irks me that the current burst / auto mechanics mention that suppression is one of the purposes of those fire-modes, and yet suppression (in the form of Pin Down effects) is harder to achieve with them than it is with single-shots because of their difficulty modifiers!  Fix: make Burst Hit a special effect and provide a penalty to Willpower rolls against Pinning caused by burst or auto.  This also has the advantage of providing something to do with a low-effect burst other than hit with a second bullet.
  • Any time you go assigning damage numbers by pistol calibre, you're going to spark holy wars.  I don't have a strong opinion here, but I don't think I would've gone into that level of detail.
  • No modern armor to go along with the weapons?

Monday, February 10, 2014

On the Unlanded Nobleman

Unlanded noblemen make lots of sense as PCs, and here are some reasons why:
  • Provides an end goal more tied into the world than "amass wealth, follow DM's railroaded plot", while also granting more focus than a completely aimless sandbox game and maintaining some degree of autonomy.
  • Combines well with themes of good vs evil if the PC's title was usurped by a tyrant.
  • Rather than meeting in a tavern, you meet in the court of a lord sympathetic to your plight (or who just wants to press your claims, revoke your title for treason, and then claim your land for himself...  This post brought to you by Crusader Kings, where I am occasionally That Guy)
  • Nobility makes sense for the adventuring professions - traditionally the clergy and knightly classes were common places for noble scions.  Rebranding thief / bard as courtier could work in a late Medieval setting, or they could just be minions, while I expect wizards might work much like knights, in that it's expensive and childhood-consuming to be trained as one, and so the vast majority of wizards are from noble backgrounds.
  • Supports play as the "Band of Misfits".  I've never met a group where everyone could get on board with a theme, like "we're all dwarves", or "everyone's a linguist".  If you're all foreign nobles and exiles in someone's court, it's less straining of credulity to have a Scot, a Russian, an Arab, and a Norseman all operating together (particularly if they're the only foreign nobles in the court; outsider flocking and accompanying party cohesion ensues).
  • Noble status provides some degree of protection from the consequences of the usual abuses of commoners, henchmen, and hirelings by PCs.  Eccentricity may still result in ostracism among the nobility, but noble status provides some measure of protection from being stoned or burned for heresy and public indecency.
  • Abundant reasons for travel,including:
    •  "You are beginning to strain this lord's hospitality; perhaps it's time to hit the road again"
    • "The lord three counties over had gone to war against [orcs | rebels | heathens | infidels]!  Perhaps if you can be of service in this, he will support your claim to the throne."
    • "Your spies tell you that a powerful vassal of the unrightful lord of your land has fallen out of favor and is on the run.  He might be induced to join your cause if you can keep him from being captured."
    • "A distant lord is holding a tournament, and to the victor goes a boon and the glory of minstrel's songs."
    • Similarly, "The Grand Moot of the Northmen is in a few months.  Their warriors will gladly follow any leader they think will lead them to conquest and glory, but any sign of weakness could see you dead or enslaved instead of fêted.  Also beware of polar bears and frostbite."
  • The essential theme here is that instead of adventuring solely for the acquisition of personal power, one adventures in order to gather allies to support their claim.  Public support becomes as precious a resource as gold, and good works can be undertaken for the sake of the allies they might bring (rather than confining one's activities to amoral money-motivated dungeon-raiding).
  • Whenever things get boring, you can send assassins without breaking verisimilitude at all.  Maybe they're working for the Usurper, maybe for a cousin who also has ambitions on your throne, and maybe for someone you've irritated during the course of the campaign, but assassins should never be in short supply in a courtly setting.
  • Precedent in fiction: Thorin and the dwarves in the Hobbit are out to reclaim their inheritance of land and treasure.
  • Precedent in history: Many of the Spanish Conquistadors were unlanded (hence expendable) sons of minor nobility
 In sum - unlanded noble PCs (either due to being 2nd or 3rd in line, or because their rightful titles have been usurped) provide a very good combination of resources, training, and liberty.  So why don't we see them more?  In all the time I have gamed, I think I've only seen one case where PCs were from minor noble families (there was another where a PC was revealed by the DM to be from a ruling house late in the campaign, but that's a different matter).  I think that lack of system support contributes significantly.  If a DM has no guidelines for what to do with realm-holding characters, it becomes likely that characters will only receive kingdoms in the very endgame, as credits roll, Aragorn-style.  Players know this (particularly as a result of the implicit social contract that if you're no longer adventuring, you're no longer a PC), and so avoid creating characters who have realm acquisition as a goal.  I have also seen DMs push players away from rolling noble characters, possibly due to perceived gaining of advantage at no cost, and possibly due to a pessimistic expectation that such PCs are unlikely to fit into the world.  I know I have done so for both of those reasons, and in retrospect this was a poor stance to take.

So: next time I decide to run ACKS at 5th level, unlanded nobility will be on the menu (doing so at lower levels seems liable to completely depopulate some of the smaller noble houses before anyone gets anywhere).

Saturday, February 8, 2014

RuneQuest 6 - Reviewish

For those unaware, the current Bundle of Holding is for Runequest 6 and some supporting material.  This is somewhat fortuitous, as I was just looking into RQ last weekend, and lo!  Opportunity knocked.

So far I've only read the core book, and it's interesting.  It is very clearly from a lineage of games which I have not met before.  Chargen is classless, with culture and profession determining starting skills but not determining the path of further advancement.  There's also quite a bit in chargen on family and passions (basically allegiances; I dislike the word passion, but that's me).  No feats to speak of really, except for one special ability per fighting style, and skills are on d%, with a base value determined as the sum of two ability scores (ex: your base value in Athletics is your Str plus your Dex, each of which was rolled on 3d6 during chargen), and improving incrementally from there (so ability scores give you a higher starting point, but that's it).  Difficulty modifiers to skills are handled as a multiplication of the skill value (so an extremely easy task with a skill where you're rated 50% is doubled to 100%, or a difficult task might multiply your skill by 2/3, for an effective rating of 34%), though a straight subtraction / addition system is also presented for those less mathematically-inclined.  Critical success and failure is a thing for all skills, and honestly a fair chunk of the skills chapter goes into describing the sort of results expected from crits on each skill.

The fatigue rules look sort of important but also a pain in the ass.  Their economic numbers look sort of suspect after playing ACKS, but that's to be expected I suppose.  Combat is a peculiar mix of gritty realism and cinematism.  On the gritty side, you have hit locations with their own (low) HP and armor values, maiming, bleeding to death, parrying / defender gets to roll for defense, and high-power characters dying to headshots from lowly orcs with taken by surprise or surrounded (protip: wear a helmet).  On the cinematic side, there's this notion of special effects in combat, which cover everything from throwing sand in their eyes to Boromir-grade arrow impalement, and which are generated by beating your target's (or attacker's) opposed roll to hit or defend by certain margins.  This is sort of neat, because it removes the necessity of specialist one-trick maneuver fighters that appears in D&D.  Since you get to choose your effects during combat, though, I could see this causing a significant performance hit.  A cheatsheet or quickref card is probably out there for these, and seems vital for rapid play.  I like their action point system (resembled Codex Martialis', but not as steep of a slope) and their fighting style rules, though.

There are five distinct magic systems in the core rulebook, and they each work slightly differently.  Folk magic is low-power utility stuff that hedge wizards might have access to.  Animism deals with binding and making deals with spirits and adventuring in the spirit world.  Mysticism is entirely personal enhancement via focus; very good for the eastern "monks and ninja and samurai" sort of game.  Sorcery is sort of traditional high-magic arcana, though it does some simplified True Sorcery-esque things that I like.  Finally, theism is magic drawn from deities; it produces more powerful effects than the other schools, but has its own more limited magic point pool that can only be recharged by worship in a consecrated place.  None of these systems resemble Vancian casting in the slightest, and I expect they'd provide some interesting contrast within a setting; elven animism vs Izradorian theism in Midnight, for example.

There's a significant focus (and a whole chapter) on building magical traditions and the cults and brotherhoods surrounding them.  Most traditions only get access to a handful of strongly-themed spells, and learning them requires significant effort to earn access to the organization's secrets.  Not at all a "well I levelled, now I learn two spells of my choice from the whole list" sort of deal.  As players from my Shieldlands game well know, I love me some cults as adversaries for PCs, so this is fine by me.  It also provides a lot of room for differentiation between schools within one flavor of magic; going back to the kung-fu movie game, one could easily cook up a bunch of different unarmed fighting styles, each practiced by a monastic order with accompanying philosophies and traditions.

Finally, there's a critters chapter that I skimmed and a gamemastering chapter that I read very late at night some days ago.  It was standard DMing stuff.  Not at all simulationist / no worldbuilding advice present.  No challenge rating-equivalent mechanism, but DMs are provided some loose / common-sense advice on how to construct balanced / challenging combats for their players.

The book is not well-edited, and some of their word choice is objectionable (they appear to use "whilst" about six times as often as "while", for example).  Semicolons are frequently used in place of commas.  At one point they refer to the city of Meeros as Meereen instead (Meeros is their creation; Meereen figures significantly in A Song of Ice and Fire).  The art's in a black-and-white pencil style vaguely reminiscent of Iron Heroes, but without the themes of grotesquery and savagery that pervaded IH's artwork.  I find the name "Runequest" somewhat ridiculous, as I do most proper names containing "quest", especially given that the runes don't appear to be all that significant (in this version at least).  The font they used is not great, having lots of extra little bits and whatnots, which are slightly distracting.

In some ways it's a lot like the homebrew classless skill-driven systems I worked on in high school, but given an extra couple of decades to mature.  It feels sort of reactionary to D&D in a lot of ways, particularly in how it addresses a number of complaints I've heard from first-time D&D players (charging should make your attacks less accurate, ablative hit points are a terrible abstraction, Vancian magic resembles no magic system they've ever met, why can't I dabble in a bunch of unrelated skills, why can't I parry, why is skill X based solely on stat Y, and so forth).  I dunno.  Might be something to fiddle with solo for a while and see what I think of it after that.  Some work has been done on an Elder Scrolls conversion, which the system seems like it would be a great fit for.