Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Destiny Disrupted

As usual when reading historical works, I find my thoughts turning to gaming.  The current source of inspiration of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansari.  Some notes so far:
  • Ansari argues that "the Western World" is civilization as arose around Mediterranean trade, while "the Middle World" (Arabia to India, Persia, and the 'stans) grew up primarily around land trade routes, with the intersection on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean being a perennial area of cultural exchange and conflict.  This is interesting from the ACKS perspective, where the prototypical Auran campaign world (and a number of other campaign worlds, like my own Shieldlands and Omer's Barbarian Conqueror King) are built around the Mediterranean model.  It might be worthwhile to roll an ACKS setting along more Middle-World land-trade lines.
  • Lots of good place-names to steal that my players have probably never heard of.
  • It's sort of sad how quickly Islam went downhill (in terms of charitable / egalitarian social virtue and unity of the umma) after the first two caliphs.  Power corrupts, so it goes.
  • The manner in which Medina and the bedouin tribes were united under Muhammed and Abu Bakr is interesting - there existed political factions, and the early leaders of Islam unified them.  These coalitions were then threatened by the death of Muhammed and the resulting Wars of Apostasy.  This ties into some thoughts on poltical deficiencies in the ACKS domain game I've had recently - I think I want a system where the resources present in a domain are more-or-less static, and there exist factions with some form of power (military, economic, moral authority over the masses, whatever) who contend for the resources in that domain.  Players then attempt to either gain influence over existing factions (befriending their leaders or membership, doing favors) to gain their resources and allegiance, or destroy them through intrigue or fire and sword and replace them with personal factions (extended henchtrees) of their own construction.  Uniting existing factions is a quick and convenient way to streamline your domain, make management less of a hassle, and extend your capabilities out onto larger scales (ie, a coalition of county-grade factions might be able to operate as a duchy-scale faction if unified).  But, as is apparent, I have yet to flesh out a system for this.
  • The divide between the Mu'tazili rationalists and the conservative ulama (religious scholars responsible for generating, verifying, and clarifying religious law) during the Abassid caliphate is fairly interesting, particularly the way the Abassids allied with the Mu'tazili first (seeking to escape the power of the ulama) and then ended up yielding to the ulama's moral authority over the general populace.  Not unlike the attempts by Western monarchy to break the power of the church, but less effective.  Another good example of the Factional Domain Game in historical action.
  • There's an interesting note in the section on the Crusades: "Usamah idn Muqidh described the Franks as being like 'beasts, superior in courage and fighting ardor, but in nothing else, just as animals are superior in strength and aggression.'"  Combine with reports of Crusader cannibalism (it turns out that supplying your sieges in deserts is hard) and the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and an amusing inversion comes to mind; what if one were to cast the orcs not as the Germanic barbarians invading Rome, but as the Frankish (or "Franj") barbarians invading the Middle East?
  • Looking back at the original assassins, we see an organization much more interested in causing political strife / preventing unification / propagating fear than in making money.  I would like to see ACKS' assassin guilds operate similarly.
  • As bad as the assassins and the Crusaders were, the Mongols did a very effective job of Chaotic/Evil.  Particularly notable were the utter destruction of a city whose original name is lost and which is now known only as Shahr-i-Gholghola ("the city of screams"), the breaking of the assassins after an attempt was made against Hulagu Khan, pretty much everything Tamerlane ever did, and this aside regarding the sack of Baghdad in 1258:
The Mongols had a proscription against shedding royal blood; it ran against their traditions...  So they wrapped the [Abassid] khalifa and members of his family in carpets and kicked them to death.
Anyway, good inspiration, and I'm still less than halfway through (though I expect things will get a bit more modern, hence less useful for RPGs and more useful for wargaming, shortly).

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: Sufficiently Advanced

I was on rpgnow the other day to pick up a copy of Petty Gods at Tenkar's suggestion (free, incidentally) when I stumbled across Sufficiently Advanced (which also has an SRD).

This game is way, way outside my normal fare (and hence may not be interesting to my typical audience) and yet it seems plausibly awesome.

I guess I would characterize it as a hardish-science transhumanist diceless strategic story game driven primarily by ideological conflicts.  That's a mouthful, so let's break it down.

Hardish-science: Written by a physicist, and generally everything here falls under plausiblish.  Direct conversion of matter to energy is postulated, and with abundant energy come atomic transmutation (through nuclear processes) and plausible FTL through bent spacetime (both Alcubierre-style warpdrives and wormholes).  With FTL comes the possibility of time travel (which is used primarily to explain prescient AIs).  It's a bit softer than the sort of grungy, one-system near-future SF I've had on my mind since Schismatrix, but it's within the realm of "plausible given sufficiently-advanced technology".  Notably absent are violations of thermodynamics and conservation laws (many of the entries in the Technology chapter include a description of their waste heat) and psionics, though extensive cognitive enhancement and weaponized memetics are present.  Full marks from me for averting the Jedi Problem in favor of mentats and cognitae.

Transhumanist: A medium-powered character in SA2 is functionally immortal (immune to aging, capable of regenerating lost limbs), has a neural computer capable of backing up their memories, dermal nanites which provide extensive sensory capabilities, implanted energy weapons comparable to modern antitank artillery, and subdermal armor to match.  Massive enhancements are the norm, with characters at the top of the scale capable of generating wormholes, mentally simulating a small city (which does raise the question - can an intellect capable of simulating a city simulate a city containing itself simulating a city containing itself simulating a city containing... ?  What about simulating a city containing multiple adversarial intelligence of similar strength?), and surviving reentry naked.  Uploaded intelligences and groupminds are supported during character creation.  The limits of the flesh are no longer binding.

Diceless: This one's straightforward at least.  Character generation is deterministic; you just pick your stats.  Conflict resolution is also deterministic, based on the relative stats of the opponents.

Strategic: One trouble with deterministic conflict resolution is that if you go up against a superior force, you will lose.  Strategic, then, refers to maneuvering the situation into one which favors your strengths and forces an opponent to rely on their weaknesses.  This requires intel about an opponent's abilities, which is fortunately readily available through nanotech, cold-reading social abilities, and some mentat-y story mechanics.

Story Game: Narrative mechanics abound, and the main tradeoff during character creation is that the higher your raw mechanical, technological stat-power, the less of the narrative control currency you'll be able to use.   Conflict is also resolved in a very story-game fashion, with each side inflicting complications on the other and then describing the action that resulted in those consequences.  I also really like the inclusion of Plots and Projects, which are long-term ways to influence the setting (with potential results including scientific discoveries, building a city, or shifting the beliefs of a population).

Driven by ideological conflicts: In the absence of natural threats on scales smaller than supernovae, conflict (in the narrative sense) must come primarily from interaction with one's fellow posthumans and with oneself. One of the main sets of stats each character has is Core Values, ie beliefs, which contribute substantially to his abilities.  Some Core Values are chosen, while others are inherited from a character's home culture.  A plethora of sample cultures are presented, ranging from the Cognitive Union (a society of people conditioned through their brain-computers to borglike cooperation; core values Obedience and Order) and Nanori (so full of nanites that most other cultures classify individual Nanori as weapons of mass destruction; CVs Emergence and Evolution) to Oldworlders (space-amish; CVs Tradition and Simplicity).  I really, really like a lot of these cultures (and also some of the more minor, cross-culture ideological factions); very Schismatrix, and there are some of these that part of me can point to and say "Forget wizards, I want to be that when I grow up."  These cultures are driven into conflict by their differing value-systems, and so too are PCs likely to be motivated against their opponents (and each other) by their value systems.  The rules note at one point that PCs are sufficiently powerful that often the question isn't "can we do X?" so much as "how can we do X in a manner in accordance with (all of) our beliefs?"

Overall, I'm pretty impressed.  Like Sine Nomine's Stars Without Number, this is definitely a science fiction game written by a well-read fan of the genre for other fans of the genre.  Unlike SWN, though, SE2 is essentially optimistic on every level, breaking with both gaming tradition and common science fiction tropes to celebrate a mostly-bright future that feels foreign enough to be plausible.

Other things: as noted on the rpgnow page, this is sort of a beta; the art's not done.  There were some typos but nothing Mongoose-grade.  The organization wasn't great; I'm not sure starting with character generation was the right choice for a game so off the beaten path, mechanically.  I had a lot of questions while building a sample character for the first time which were eventually answered by reading the rest of the book, but which were not immediately obvious.  Could use a sort of conceptual glossary up front maybe?  The five universes (sort of starting conditions in terms of inter-civilization relations) are pretty good; I really liked The Divide (bit of a spy-thriller milieu) and Sublight.  I'm conflicted about the organization of universes vs cultures; universes came first, which meant that I had to infer / gradually pick up data about the civilizations mentioned.  This is either a triumph of "show instead of tell" or a failure of organization, and I can't decide which.  A number of pieces of very short (almost all <1 page) fiction are present in the universes and civilization descriptions; I enjoyed most of the ones I read, and they contributed to the "showing" of civilizations, but they definitely increased the pagecount by a bit in a book that was already not short for the degree of mechanical complexity in the system.  The last 10% of the book is designer's notes, including a chart of "if you alter this subsystem, you should expect changes to cascade to these other subsystems", which is glorious.

Review conclusion: It's been a long time since I gamed, but I kinda want to run this.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Board Games V: Pathfinder Adventures Card Game, Alchemists, Pandemic

And lo, there were games!

Pathfinder Adventures Card Game (hereafter PACG): Jared picked this up recently and was very excited to play it.  It was interesting and fairly fun if not what he expected (something closer to Sentinels).  Six locations, four PCs.  Each location and each character has a deck; a PC's deck represents their available HP, and their hand provides them resources for exploring locations.  Each location deck contains monsters, obstacles, loot, and either a henchman or the adventure's villain.  Defeating a henchman closes the location where it was found, which means that no further exploration there is possible and the villain cannot flee there if he is defeated.  If you defeat the villain without closing all the locations, he gets shuffled into a random one, along with divine blessings in the remaining locations.  It's possible to temporarily close a location when the villain is defeated if you have a party member there, which encourages the party to spread out; our D&D mentality and some of the mechanics (bard's support ability, ability to pass cards to other players at same location) encouraged us to bunch up, two players at each of two locations.  We fought the villain twice before we ran out of time (there's a turn limit), and because we were concentrated we were unable to close many locations to him.  As a result, we lost.

There is a campaign mode, where you alter your character's deck over iterated games (and also alter your character's limits on certain types of cards in your deck; ie, I had a ranger, and with sufficient experience I could gain access to spell cards).  I think there's some promise in the deckbuilding aspect of the game, but I'm not sure I'd want to play a proper campaign; there's a lot missing compared to the RPG experience.  Fun, but not the same sort of fun.

Alchemists: Took a benadryl before this and was pretty fuzzy; came in last by a fair margin.  Oh well.  It seems the meta has developed since last I played, with lots of turn-3 debunks where the debunker didn't actually know if they were correct, and used it to gain information.  There was some discussion of playing Master Mode next time, where this is not feasible.

Pandemic: An unforeseen chain outbreak in Asia got us.  So it goes.