You Know About the Suppressed Transmission, Of Course

Or do you? In addition to “proving” the USA had been on the moon since the 1950s in the film Slacker, Suppressed Transmission was an on-going column by Kenneth Hite in Pyramid that veritably romped through the fields of conspiracy theory, occultism, alternate history and any other bit of general weirdness that caught the author’s eye. Every column was literally jam-packed with plot seeds, campaign frameworks and non-player character ideas. They’re a GM’s delight, as the content is all eminently usable in any number of role-playing genres. Any time your game has a call for secrets, curious artifacts of unknown provenance and inexplicable happenings, you’ll find something interesting. I drew on Suppressed Transmission for my Mage: The Ascension campaign, going so far as to name the game after it. I still flip through columns regularly for adventure hooks and inspiration.

In addition to their utility as role-playing inspiration, the Suppressed Transmission columns make fascinating reading in their own right. Hite freely mixes and matches science fiction with history, conjuring up conspiracies and secret origins of the oddities of history: the mystical significance of Coca-Cola, the meaning of the Voynich Manuscript and six alternate time lines of the Roswell UFO incident, to name a few. Suppressed Transmission tickles the “what if?” spot of the brain of anyone into general purpose weirdness. The columns are free of role-playing rules or numbers. It’s all prose that you can read for sheer entertainment even if you’re not a role-player.

Why am I shilling so hard for someone else’s product? While there are two collections of Suppressed Transmission, wonderfully annotated and cross-referenced, currently available in print and PDF, there are many more columns’ worth of material not available. Pyramid volume 2 is no longer available as it once was. When the topic of the unavailable columns came up in a discussion forum, the answer from Steve Jackson Games came down to: there needs to be a significant increase in sales of the Suppressed Transmission material available for sale to prove spending the time on the Pyramid archives is worthwhile.

In a world where people are willing to pledge money to Nathan Fillion to buy Firefly, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to raise some grassroots awareness about something as awesomely entertaining as Kenneth Hite’s work on Suppressed Transmission. I love the two collections I currently own. I would dearly like to be able to read the rest. The PDF version of volume one is eight bucks. That’s less than a quarter per column, plus a bibliography!

Check it out, won’t you? And if you need more of a taste than the preview PDFs offer, check out Jürgen Hubert’s “Where I Read” thread on

What are other people saying about Suppressed Transmission?

Read RPGs in Public Week, February 27th through March 5th

Read an RPG Book in Public WeekToday kicks off another week observing The Escapist‘s Read an RPG Book in Public Week. As W. J. Walton explains:

The point is to make the roleplaying hobby more visible, to get it “out of the basement” and into public areas where more people can see it. This will make others more aware of the hobby – some may ask you what your book is about, giving you the opportunity to explain the hobby to them. A few of those may be interested enough to try it themselves. Former gamers may see what you’re reading and think about the great times they used to have with roleplaying, and possibly even try it again.

I’m uptight about revealing my hobby to the world at large, but not as much as I was last year, when I barely let The Unexplained peek over the table at Muddy Waters. Since then, I’ve learned several people in my office role-play; one was even trying to track down an extra player the other week. I’m still not crazy about it, but I’m going to make a more solid effort to do so this year.

No idea what to read, though. I have so much unread stuff, I can’t get on board with rereading something just because it looks cool. And so much of what I have on the unread pile is GURPS stuff, I think I’m overloading on it. Maybe now’s the time to do a thorough revisiting of Conspiracy X 2.0, since that’s what I’m using these days.

I can’t see myself snapping a self-portrait while I’m out, but maybe I can finagle an “over the book” shot of the venue.

[Scions of Time] Eye of the Needle

Photo by Josh Burker.

While the others are off gallivanting around New Mexico, Trey the game show host discovers the rain room, an open field where it’s raining, on the verge of doing so or has just finished. He meets a lady in a green dress who makes some cryptic comments about being concerned “he wouldn’t be lonely,” concluding that Trey must not tell him she was here. He readily obliges — in that it probably slips his mind immediately.

“That’s a very nice dress. Would you like to take it off?
— Trey Bingham, game show host, to the Green Lady, enigma

On returning to the ship, Airfor disappears into its depths with dismantling the Tzun saucers on her mind — her player, Jon, was out sick this week. As Lionel the cardsharp takes in the impossible scale of the TARDIS’ central cloister, Victor attempts to pilot the ship forward to Lt. Gorman’s time. He overshoots a bit. It’s only through Gorman’s swift application of what he surmises to be the brake that the ship doesn’t go hurtling off into the cosmos to come, instead coming to a rest on the Needle, a massive cylindrical object a light year in length.

Victor goes into a dramatic funk, dismayed by his inability to pilot the ship with any accuracy, bemoaning his profession, abilities and lack of general intelligence. Lionel introduces Victor to his horse, Trip Jacks, then grazing in the rain room. Rather than soothing Victor with the creature’s natural elegance and grace, Trip Jacks inspires the Time Lord to improve it with horns, poison sacs and more. His furious planning is interrupted by Adam calling the others to investigate a planet hopper craft he sees landing in a nearby valley.

Exploring the Needle’s misshapen, Dali-esque landscape, the group discovers an archaeological expedition landing. Initially, the leader of the expedition, Professor Summerfield, takes a defensive stance, fearing the travelers are impinging on her survey zone. Then they offer to be porters, and she’s much more amenable to that. The travelers also learn about the oddities of the Needle: its impervious exterior, that it radiates heat and maintains an atmosphere for oxygen breathers. Victor attempts to probe the Needle with his sonic screwdriver; the surface reacts peculiarly, moving away from the screwdriver’s area of effect. On hearing a grinding noise rising and falling beneath the surface, Victor becomes convinced the Needle is alive.

“I hate when primitive races discover science. It ruins the effect.”
— Victor laments Professor Summerfield’s lack of reaction to a sonic screwdriver

Continue reading

The Fear of Having Done Something Before

Speaking of Kenneth Hite and horror role-playing, Hero Games announced their 2011 and 2012 release schedules this past weekend at Dundracon. Third on the list for 2012 is Horror Hero, co-written by none other then Mr. Hite. And later in the year is Cthulhu Hero, also with Hite contributing. Talk about cornering the horror genre role-playing supplement market.

I’m a fan of Hite and his disparate works — Suppressed Transmission, The Day After Ragnarok, and GURPS Cabal, to name three — but how many times can you write horror genre supplements before they start sounding alike?

Spring Meltdown Game Day in Middlebury, Vermont

March 19th in Middlebury, Vermont.

I can’t believe it’s already less than a month until Spring Meltdown, the Green Mountain Gamers’ spring game day. We only started talking about seasonal traveling game days about a year ago at Langdon Street Cafe. Since then, we’ve put on three successful game days, each larger than the last, in Burlington, Lyndonville and Barre, Vermont.

On March 19th, we’re coming to Middlebury to round out a year of tabletop games, good people and a lot of laughs. It’s bound to be a great time with the awesome folks who have been in attendance so far. Most of what happens at these days has been open board game play. We wind up with tables groaning under the weight of games everyone’s brought to share. People divvy themselves up, either because  there’s a game that’s caught their eye or they’d like to learn, or they brought some in particular they’re eager to have the opportunity to teach and play. I know the new Lovecraftian board game Mansions of Madness is going to be one of those; Carlo participated in the preview event this past weekend at his local game store in Quebec and is bringing it down to Spring Meltdown.

On the role-playing side, we’re working on growing that. We’ve got some old school first edition Dungeons & Dragons in both Middle-earth and a classic TSR published module. I’ll have the goods for GURPS Ghostbusters: Pumpkin Jack and something for Fiasco, either my still untested science fiction playset or one that caught my eye, like Toil and Trouble.

It’s gonna be a fun day! I hope to meet some new faces there.

What’s the Use of Certámen?

When I first read about Mage: The Ascension in the early 2000s, I didn’t get certámen at all. In a game that, on an initial surface-reading, is about modern wizards struggling against an oppressive world order, an ancient rite of dueling made no sense to me at all. Why would someone do that? How does it make sense to resolve disputes through magical prowess when the complaint has nothing to do with that?

The answer on both the in and out of game levels is historical influences. In the game world of Mage: The Ascension, certámen dates from the medieval days of the Order of Hermes. Dueling has been going on for a long time in some form or another. It’s not surprising that wizards would develop their own system, particularly the Order of Hermes, a bunch of politicking back-stabbers if ever there were. It’s a testament to the influence of the Hermetics that they could finagle the rite of certámen into the structure of the Traditions Council. They also browbeat the other traditions into accepting their sphere-based view of magic as the lingua franca of mages, so they clearly had the chops — or everyone else felt sufficient pressure from the Daedaleans that they accepted all sorts of Hermetic demands and nonsense to throw in with the group that had the most sound power base in Europe. Certámen as a valid means of dispute resolution among the traditions must have done a lot to shore up the dominance of the Order of Hermes, given they invented it.

Out of game, certámen was in Mage: The Ascension because it was in Ars Magica, the original home of the Order of Hermes. The basic idea of the Order, if not the entirety of their magical worldview — or I theorize, having read only the most recent edition of that game’s corebook — was ported from one to the other.

Additionally, certámen plays a role in the punk aspect of Mage: The Ascension. Yes, I said “punk.” In particular, the part of punk that centers around fighting against the establishment. In the first edition of the game, mages everywhere are hunted by the seemingly omnipresent Technocracy. Within their own ranks, the older, sedentary mages of the traditions use certámen to keep the young generation in line. It also served as an example of how one of the Traditions’ greatest enemies was their own hidebound practices, unable to keep up with the times.

Until I read Dark Ages: Mage, I didn’t really get or even think very critically about certámen. Up to that point, I ignored it outright. Dark Ages: Mage provided actual rules for a wizard’s duel and even gave it some historical context, in that the techniques came from Roman mages, with the forms named gladius and such. For whatever reason, understanding that the rite had a history that could be traced, both across game lines and within the history of the game world, made me think about it and connect its presence in the Mage universe with comments other people have made about the punk aspects of the original World of Darkness game lines, namely stephenls on the forums over at

So now I get certámen. I still wouldn’t want to use it in a game of Mage. It’s too much a stick for the GM to push players around. “The Hermetic master conquered you at the ancient rite of certámen. Go do what he wants.”

Has certámen ever come up in one of your Mage games? What happened?

Superheroes of Vermont

I don’t know where he got the idea, but Andrew (@GeekMtnState) started a Twitter game of Vermont-based superheroes this morning. So, for reasons of back-patting if nothing else, here are my contributions:

  • Catamount The Man-Cat, a former hunter possessed by the spirit of the last of the catamounts.
  • Monstrous Mudder, a mud elemental.
  • Skisassin, who specializes is skiing-based murder for hire.
  • Silent Cal-prit, the stealthiest burglar in the world.
  • Dairyman and his neighbor across the way the Incredible Wook foil Flatlander’s dastardly development deals — The Flatlander is @el_timbo‘s invention.
  • Meteora, superheroine by night, meteorologist at the Fairbanks Museum by day.

These and the rest can be found under the #comicbookvermont hashtag, for as long as that lasts on Twitter.

Illuminati: Mutual Assured Distraction

A couple months back now, Steve Jackson Games quietly released Mutual Assured Distraction, a mini-expansion to their conspiracy card game Illuminati. It imports the New World Order mechanic from the old Illuminati: New World Order collectible card game to the original, non-collectible version. The expansion consists of eighteen New World Order cards, which are, essentially, global alignment modifiers, plus four special cards, which do the usual things special cards do in Illuminati.

These modifier cards go into the deck. On drawing a New World Order, it goes into the middle of the table, where it takes effect. Typically, these cards modify the power and resistance of various alignments. Peace In Our Time, for instance, makes groups with the Peaceful alignment more powerful while making Violent groups less so and more susceptible to takeover. The player who drew the card gets another draw — depending on how many expansions are in one’s Illuminati set, this can lead to drawing multiple New World Orders in a row.

It’s an easy thing to integrate into an Illuminati set. The trick is tracking all the modifiers. There are three colors of New World Order: red, blue and yellow. Since one of each color can be on the table at the same time, the way they interact can become complex. An alignment’s modifiers may turn out to be a wash, depending on which New World Orders are on the table. While Mutual Assured Distraction‘s cards don’t radically alter the way in which Illuminati plays, they do make things more interesting in the narrative players cobble together from acquiring and squabbling over groups: “Because of the Economic Stimulus, the L-4 Society finally has the funds to influence the Supreme Court!” And so on in that fashion.

I had the opportunity to participate in the playtest for Mutual Assured Distraction, which shows up the differences between rough and refined game concepts. At that stage in the expansion’s development, there were five colors of New World Orders. Keeping track of that many modifiers at once was, frankly, ridiculous. I’m inclined to think that even three is too many for my poor brain, but it’s certainly much more manageable.1

In the rounds of Illuminati we’ve played at Quarterstaff Games on Tuesday nights, it consisted of the basic set and the Mutual Assured Distraction cards because I wanted to see their maximum effect. My intention for the next time I bring Illuminati along is to add in the expansions’ cards. If the frequency of New World Orders appearing drops drastically, I think their influence could become much more pronounced when it does occur. A long-lasting boost to Weird groups could change things more if that boost lasted for a long time and might tempt players into trying to destroy New World Orders, since they can’t rely on the cards switching out on their own nearly as much.

I hope the mini-expansion model takes off. Mutual Assured Distraction seemingly got through the production remarkably fast. The cost ratio isn’t bad, either — 21 cents per card in a $4.95 pack of 24 compared to 17 cents per card in a $17.95 tuckbox of 110. The only difference is volume and frankly, the only way Illuminati needs more cards would be if the basic set were updated with groups and jokes from the 2000s, rather than the 1980s.

1 Additionally, the modifiers in Mutual Assured Distraction make me wonder how many, if any, people who bought the Brainwash expansion enjoyed it. That one has an alignment wheel to track modifiers. I have yet to try it, but it seemed a complicated addition, as it also added new steps to the turn order.

Looking Forward to GURPS Horror

In the designer’s notes of GURPS Horror, Third Edition, author Kenneth Hite concludes with ” . . . I think that I successfully updated what I’ve always thought of as ‘my first GURPS book’ for the new era of GURPS, and added some stuff that whoever writes GURPS Horror, Fourth Edition in ten years will keep around. Enjoy it until then, and pleasant screams.” Conveniently, Hite wrote the fourth edition of the book as well. Seems probable he retained one or two things for this latest printing.

The GURPS line developer Sean Punch keeps a blog over at Livejournal. I keep an eye on it for the “this week in GURPS” updates. Aside from sly hints about unannounced releases, he updates the status of higher profile projects. In the most recent post, for instance, GURPS Horror is now waiting on the art.

It seems like this book has been in the pipeline forever now, although it’s probably only been two years or so. The received wisdom is that rule and mechanics-heavy books sell better than the sort focused on setting and genre content, so while I can understand why certain projects get priority over others, like GURPS Low-Tech.

Of course, it’s always just my luck that the specific supplements I want to buy get lodged in the pipeline. The same thing happened with Eden Studios back when their output still measured in multiple books per year. They’d crank out the All Flesh Must Be Eaten supplements when all I wanted was The Book of Hod and The Book of Geburah — the former made it out; the latter languishes in the Hell of All But Done.

At any rate, GURPS Horror slogs ahead. I’m particularly looking forward to the PDF companion Worlds of Horror, which I guess contains the updated mini-settings from the third edition of the book. Of those, I think The Madness Dossier is the one I really, really want to read; you know, that thing I cribbed content from for Broken Spokes last summer. And I really, really hope there’s more content in this one, because the original version was so amazing — and amazingly brief on examples.

Are there any more fans of The Madness Dossier out there? Speak up! (And I really would like to get back to filling out that TenFootWiki I began as a campaign source document too.)

Cheapass Games Goes Print and Play

Back when I got into hobby games, roundabout early 2002, Cheapass Games in particular caught my eye because a number of the company’s titles were on the shelf of games I encountered in the student lounge and their business model at the time. Cheapass made a selling point out of being just that; not only were the components printed on low cost cardstock, but they were the absolute bare minimum: boards, cards and rule sheets. It was on the owner to supply the generic bits: pawns, dice, cubes or whatever might be needed. I thought it was rather clever — and still do; I’d rather haul one tackle box and an assortment of games with a slim form factor than two or three of the typical mid-sized Eurogame boxes. Unfortunately, that benefit all depends on multiple publishers buying into the design model, which I don’t think really happened, beyond a few labels like Placebo Press.1

Anyway, Cheapass Games has been on hiatus for a few years now. Until a few weeks ago, when a revised website launched with one of their Hip Pocket titles, Agora, available for free download under a Creative Commons license, specifically the Attribution – Non Commercial – NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. This means the work can be freely distributed, so long as attribution is given to the creator, it’s not sold and the contents not remixed — so one couldn’t take the artwork and reuse it elsewhere.

I’ve written about Agora before. It’s a fun, deceptively light game that I don’t think gets enough credit because it doesn’t have a snazzy graphic design to catch the eye. So not only is this new version free to download, it’s also more visually stimulating, with color art that resembles elements of a marketplace, in contrast to the austere walls and pillars of the Hip Pocket edition. As with many things released for free, there’s also a section encouraging people who enjoy it to donate some amount of money in recognition of the entertainment they received.

This got me to thinking. I like Agora a lot and I want Cheapass Games to know that. I showed that by buying it originally, but it’s a very indirect form of doing so, as the store I bought it from had it on the shelf so long, they were probably more glad to see the back of it than interested in restocking. Given that I already had already bought the original printed version, how much more should I give them?

Happily, last week Cheapass published two more things. They ransomed2 a chess variant called Tishai that — which I feel like I’ve seen before somewhere in their catalogs and other publications — and a matrix showing suggested amounts to donate based on the intersection of a person’s economic means and enjoyment of a game. So an astronaut who thinks Agora is so-so and a student who loves it can feel okay about donating different amounts.

I will be interested to see where Cheapass goes with the print and play model. If they’re republishing old titles, I’m going to keep facing the question “Should I donate, having already bought the print version?” And typically, the answer will be “no.” Overall, I would much rather dig around and buy the old print editions, purely out of laziness of not wanting to deal with printing, gluing, cutting and so forth. Something like Agora‘s the exception, where I like it so much, I’d like to give the company a bit more than I did in the first place.

For the games well-spoken of that I can’t easily find in print, them showing up in this new download and donate model would be quite nice. I’ve always wanted to give Starbase Jeff a try.

1 I have read criticisms of the system suggesting that it’s a case of selling a playtest copy of the game, then using feedback to create a fully marketable version. Aside from the fact that there are role-playing designers doing that with their ashcan editions, I can see the logic, particularly since Kill Doctor Lucky got the fancy-pants treatment around 2006. On the other hand, that was almost ten years after that game first hit the stores, so that’s quite a long playtest cycle, if the supposition is true.

2 “Ransom” as in the sense a monetary goal is stated and people pledge various amounts. Once the pledges meet or exceed the goal, the item becomes available to everyone — typically; I imagine there must be a ransom variant where only pledgers get the content.