#RPGaDay2015 30: Favorite RPG Playing Celebrity

RPG-a-day-2015Day 30 of #RPGaDAY2015, or “We’re nearly there!” Dave over at Autocratik lobs us a softball today, presumably because he’s acutely aware of how draining 31 posts in 31 days can be — and he’s been vlogging the whole endeavor, editing in guest vloggers, too.

My current favorite celebrity role-player has to be Thomas Middleditch. He openly declared his allegiance to nerdery when he talked about being a GURPS GM on Late Night with Seth Meyers. In the full clip of the interview, Middleditch shares a bit about his campaign “We the People,” in which the signatories of the Declaration of Independence are asaulted by a werewolf. Also, he calls GURPS “exquisite.”

More recently, Thomas Middleditch has appeared on Nerd Poker, taking on the swing character Winter the mage. And that, too, has been spectacular, as he incorporates the detritus three-four other swing players have left in Winter’s history and made the character his own brand of creepy “why do we keep him around?”

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#RPGaDay2015 21: Favorite RPG Setting

RPG-a-day-2015The cover of GURPS Cabal. Four supernatural creatures gaze out menacingly.This is another of those topics where I can hardly choose a single favorite. Not least because I feel like I don’t have enough exposure to settings in play, as opposed to having read the book and shelved it. So with the caveat that it’s one of my favorites mostly because it’s a fun read, I nominate GURPS Cabal.

The Cabal began as a mini-setting in the second edition of GURPS Horror, but it was Ken Hite’s expansion of the original material into a full supplement of its own, along with the usual GURPS rules expansion, that made reading about the Cabal so amazing. Hite took the basic framework of a mutual aid society for sorcerers, monsters, faeries, reptoids and so many others from the depths of classic and modern supernatural stories and blended it with real world history and occult traditions, with an especial focus on the Hermetic worldview.

There’s a dizzying secret history of the world, varied cast of characters to run up against and a cosmology straight out of the kabbalah. In short, it’s an intimidating setting to consider using in a game — I dabbled a couple times in different ways and didn’t feel very successful, relative to the bar of imagination and creativity that I felt the book set[1] — but it’s a damn fine read, and always an excellent source of ideas. But then the hard work — and I maintain it’s hard work, even as other people like to throw “Well, if you can’t figure it out, you’re just not trying” with this kind of high detail, low hand-holding material — of turning it into decisions and characters that will engage the players is still left to be done.

That said, I wish there had been more follow-up material to GURPS Cabal to read, at least. The Cabal gets a mention now and again in fourth edition GURPS material, as they became a new player in the Infinite Earths landscape and figure in the scant setting material in GURPS Thaumatology, but that’s about it, unless it’s all showing up in issues of Pyramid.


[1] I borrowed heavily for Mage: The Suppressed Transmission, and developed the Broken Spokes framework for a campaign that didn’t get past the first session and then a convention one-shot that I still feel embarrassed about.

The Game With No Name Math Trade

Matt Golec of the Penny Press design team has hosted a no-ship math trade at Carnage for some years now, coming up with thematic names to make us grin as we figure out what games we don’t want to own anymore. This year, it’s the Game With No Name math trade.

A math trade is a method of swapping whereby people list what they don’t want, list what they would like to get in return from other swappers and a computer figures out the details. The “no ship” part means no one ships anything. Show up to Carnage, drop off what you’re swapping, pick up what you’re getting. Done!

This year, I staked claim to the entirety of the third page of the geek list. You will find a bevy of light, popcorn games like Chez Cthulhu and the Cheapass family. You will find thematic bundles of HERO and GURPS sourcebooks. You will find Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Spelljammer books because I’m acknowledging that I’m not going to get around to running games in most of these settings.

You will also find lots of good stuff for which to trade with other folks posting to the list. Check it out, and offer up what you’re not interested in playing anymore!

#RPGaDAY 30: Rarest RPG Owned

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

US soldiers on a flying carpet fight a dragon and lightning-throwing mage.GURPS Technomancer might be one of the rarest role-playing books I own. At the time I was interested in reading it, I certainly recall the general consensus was “This book is out of print, not common in the second hand market and tends to be marked up when it appears.” If that was true then, it’s even funnier that I got a copy through Paperbackswap for the low, low cost of sending someone else a novel. I didn’t expect to get the book. I just put in an automated request and some way down the line, someone granted it. Easy, right?

Technomancer lives in that weird intersection of the modern world and magic, as Oppenheimer’s reported remark “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” uttered at the detonation of the Trinity device, concluded an unconscious magical ritual that unleashed a hellacious manastorm on the American southwest, and raised the world’s ambient magic levels enough that it became a going concern again. And it being the 20th century, the great scientific minds of corporate R&D offices turn their attention to systematizing and codifying magic so it can become part of modern manufacturing.

Technomancer put me off in two regards. One, the complexity of magic interfacing with technology, such as calculating the number of joules a spell generates, or are required for a magical industrial process. Two, the depth of changes in the world, as Technomancer posits that the modern age embraces magic and combines it ingeniously with existing technology and society, so much so that it’s really hard to envision what that world would look like. The world chapter of your typical 128 page GURPS book just isn’t long enough to paint a picture detailed enough for my druthers. Add on the 15 years of change since Technomancer published, and who knows what that world would look like now.

Honorary Mention

Continuum RPG cover art.Continuum is another game I get the sense is hard for some people to find — even harder since it’s not likely to get a PDF release, unlike ongoing companies who are bringing their back catalogs into the digital marketplace. At least, I occasionally see posters lamenting their inability to find the book for sale on forums. They never take me up on buying mine, though. It really does belong in the hands of someone who would get some use out of it.

#RPGaDAY 24: Most Complicated RPG Owned

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

A long row of GURPS books receding into the distance.GURPS. The generic universal role-playing system. How it tasks me! The core of GURPS is simple: roll 3d6, compare the sum of the dice to a relevant ability score or skill rating. Low is good, high is bad. You may, if the mood strikes you, shout — before or after determining your success or failure.

And yet, with as simple a core as that, the complexity of GURPS boggles me. There are many, many optional modifiers, sub-systems, especially complex advantages, specific skills with rules of their own and more to consider when setting parameters for a campaign or figuring out how to create the character you envision. GURPS enthusiasts will remind you all that complexity is optional. You can pick and choose whether to bring in social engineering, or range modifiers.

And that is perfectly true. The challenge is determining what to include in your particular game, and knowing when to say “enough.” For instance, when I ran GURPS Ghostbusters, I went in with the initial intention of using only the barest of bones of the rules. Characters would have their attributes, some interesting advantages, and skills. But once I began building one character with a particularly interesting hook, it spiraled out of control. “Oh, clearly they would have this complementary ability, too!” So spending points became an ongoing struggle.

And then figuring out how proton packs worked mechanically drew in more complexity. As written, they’re beam weapons, but they have a kind of kick to firing, so there’s a base penalty just to shoot the thing, and there’s a malfunction roll, and firing to blast a ghost is different from restraining it, and then you must do X, Y and Z to get it in the trap.

And that’s just for a game where there’s one piece of wonder-technology. I cringe at the thought of managing a campaign where the players have ready access to the kind of stuff you find in GURPS Ultra-Tech, or even express interest in using deeper combat options. That’s never happened to me, but the thought would give me the heebie jeebies, if I thought I’d ever find myself running the game again.

Honorable Mention

A special shout-out to HERO, which easily would have taken this plaudit if I still owned the core rule book. Somehow, for some reason, I’ve hung on a dozen plus source and settings books for a game whose core rules I don’t own and whose world books are notoriously “one with everything, so there’s something for everyone!”

#RPGaDAY 4: Most Recent RPG Purchase

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

My role-playing purchases have dwindled precipitously in the past few years. I recognized that I was buying far more books than I had energy even to read, let alone put to use in role-playing campaigns. Additionally, I noticed I was buying books covering basically the same topics and rules niches: mechanically light, historical or modern fantasy, etc. How many times did I need to buy a book telling me how to run a game about wizards and vampires in a variation of our world? So I shifted from “that sounds interesting, I’ll buy it” to watching a few particular writers’ output for items of note. So up until now, the last role-playing purchase I made was probably nearly two years ago, when Night’s Black Agents came out.

GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier cover.Bearing that in mind, how surprising is it that my most recent acquisition was the recently released standalone edition of Kenneth Hite’s The Madness Dossier? It’s an analogue of the real world, in which the survivors of a temporal cataclysm try to wrest history as we know back to the way they know it, where humanity is ground under the heel of godlike beings who control the very means of thought and perception with hard-coded neurolinguistic programming, a la Snow Crash. So naturally humanity fights back, using the enemy’s own weapons against them, while searching for more information about the lost history and how to ensure it stays lost.

Madness Dossier started out as a mini-setting in the third edition of GURPS Horror, with a handful of pages of text, some lightly sketched antagonists and plot seeds. I dug it a lot — albeit knowing all the time I’d never run it as dark as it was written. Instead, I seized on the idea of crossing the setting with GURPS Cabal. The reality quake and slumbering deities of History B made their way into the Broken Spokes campaign I wrote up notes for, where the Annunaku of Madness Dossier become the fallen archangels of the First Creation, and the reality quake took the form of the biblical deluge that flushed them out of the cosmos.

The campaign frame never really took off, even as one-shot scenarios, in part because I never felt inventive enough to expand Madness Dossier or Cabal sufficiently to run a game. Now the expanded edition has far more content about what neurolinguistic programming looks like mechanically, the antagonists that members of Project SANDMAN might encounter and what it is they do, to call back the old quandary about Mage: the Ascension. And because I can’t let life be simple, of course, I’m mentally making notes about how to port the setting over to Conspiracy X 2.0, to reach that trifecta of modern fantasy in a low crunch rules structure.

The Madness Dossier Opens

GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier cover.I think we can all agree that the arrival of The Madness Dossier revised and expanded is simultaneously bone-chilling in its cosmological implications and a joy for anyone who’s been hoping for this since it first appeared as a mini-setting in GURPS Horror for third edition.

The Games of 2012

What did I play in 2012? Well, according to my log over at Boardgamegeek/RPGGeek.com, in 2012 I played:

  • Role-Playing Games
    • 36 sessions of Carrion Crown
    • 11 sessions of Skull & Shackles
    • 1 session of Fiasco
    • 2 session of Call of Cthulhu
    • 1 session of Qalidar / True 20
    • GMed 1 session of GURPS Ghostbusters
  • Board Games
    • 9 rounds of Betrayal at House on the Hill
    • 6 rounds of Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game
    • 9 rounds of Dominion — with attendant expansions I will not list
    • 4 rounds of Android: Netrunner
    • 4 rounds of Give Me the Brain!
    • 3 rounds of Pandemic
    • 2 rounds of 7 Wonders
    • 2 rounds of Arkham Horror — with attendant expansions I will not list
    • 2 rounds of Carcassonne
    • 2 rounds of Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers
    • 1 round of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer
    • 1 round of Castellan
    • 1 round of Chrononauts
    • 1 round of Chupacabra: Survive the Night
    • 1 round of Clue: Harry Potter Edition
    • 1 round of Cthulhu Fluxx
    • 1 round of Dungeon Petz
    • 1 round of Fealty
    • 1 round of Frag
    • 1 round of Guillotine
    • 1 round of IceDice
    • 1 round of Jungle Speed
    • 1 round of King of Tokyo
    • 1 round of Ligretto
    • 1 round of The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game
    • 1 round of Lords of Waterdeep
    • 1 round of Monty Python Fluxx
    • 1 round of Nefarious
    • 1 round of Small World Underground
    • 1 round of Smash Up
    • 1 round of Star Trek Deck Building Game: The Next Generation – The Next Phase
    • 1 round of Tales of the Arabian Nights
    • 1 round of Talisman
    • 1 round of Tobago

Terms for the ‘Fiters and Lurkers

Terms for the ‘Fiters and Lurkers is an interesting glossary I ran across searching for “Corvae Hermanubis” — still not sure what that actually means — of a mash-up role-playing setting including elements of GURPS Cabal, Ars Magica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I wonder if the author, Jeb, has written any more for this mash-up, which even manages to namecheck Trinity. I could drop a line to find out, couldn’t I?

Some REALLY atypical RPG settings

A post over at Topless Robot listed some good “atypical” RPG settings. You know, like Paranoia, Toon, and . . . Traveller? Pendragon? Wait, those are supposed to be weird?

Weak sauce, gentlemen. Weak sauce.

Traveller is a bog-standard hard science fiction with the addition of FTL travel. Pendragon is about Arthurian Britain, one of the longest-lived settings of adventure in our whole freakin’ culture. You want some unusual RPG settings? How about . . .

1. Bunnies and Burrows

You’re rabbits. Not magic, super-powered rabbits, just rabbits going through their everyday lagomorph lives. One of the yummiest things in God’s creation, cursed to a life of frantic fucking HOPING that enough of your kids survive red-tailed hawks to continue your family line. My college gaming buddies and I had a running joke for RPG nights when time was running short: Bunnies and Burrows vs. Cthulhu in the Old West.
GM: Uh, OK, you see an elder god.
PCs (in chorus): We wiggle our widdle noses at it!
GM: OK, you’re dead. There’s no medicine to heal you. 2 pts. for your next character.

2. GURPS Fantasy 2: Mad Lands

What were they smoking? Steve Jackson Games marketed this as their next big fantasy line. You kinda have to applaud them for such a gutsy move, but this game is all edgy and weird and Burroughs-esque without being much fun. The Mad Lands are home to a band of primitives subject to the whims of mad, chaotic gods. “Lobsters hung from her ear lobes; her body was covered with armor made of live, writhing sea urchins.” That’s a DIRECT quote from a story in Roleplayer. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a line from The Naked Lunch.

3. Broncosaurus Rex

The U.S. Civil War continues hundreds of years in the future. With dinosaurs. The Confederacy freed their slaves ages ago, so there’s no worrying about petty morality when your character flies the Stars and Bars. From the back of a triceratops. On another planet.

4. Little Fears

Children face down monsters in the closet. SCARY ones. The kind who want to slice your parents up for Sunday dinner or lock kids down in Uncle Touchy’s Naked Puzzle Basement. The book is beautifully done and there’s actually a good, albeit inconsistent, game in here. Fair warning—only very mature roleplayers should play this game.

5. Over the Edge

An absurdist conspiracy game on a fictional Mediterranean island. There’s lots of corruption, violence, drug use, and gambling. The whole shebang’s run by Monique, an aging President-for-Life who used to bang Mussolini. The one time we played Over the Edge the players got obsessed with the pizza delivery drivers who could travel through time. Lots of fun, with light and adaptable rules.

6. GURPS Goblins

Greedy, despicable, disgusting characters in Georgian London. At least they have an excuse: they’re goblins. This is an RPG within a Hogarth cartoon where greed, lechery, and base ambition make for a darkly comic, one of a kind experience.

7. Singing Cowboys (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

RIghteous, root-beer drinking, God-fearing singing cowboys fighting zombies. I seriously have to wonder if anyone’s ever played this. I love All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a survival horror RPG with an elegant, versatile rules set that’s right in my sweet spot. But the Fistful o’ Zombies supplement was designed to integrate zombies with Western films, and someone noticed that a lot of old Westerns were low-budget flicks about singing cowboys. Even in-game the zombies are deliberately tacked on—the premise here is that a B-movie director is shoehorning monsters into his failing films, and the PCs are the clueless characters in the serials. The other settings in the book Fistful o’ Zombies are actually quite good; Singing Cowboys just comes off as pointless and odd.

8. Psychosis: Ship of Fools

PCs have to unravel multiple layers of reality with a tarot deck. I think the authors were going for an Illuminatus meets Dark City feel that doesn’t pan out. I never played this one, but I have read the book. You’ve gotta be a crackerjack writer to pull off a premise that ambitious and, well . . . that didn’t happen. It’s just overly twisty and boring, like talking to a hippie while the two of you are on different highs.

9. Human-Occupied Landfill (H.o.L.)

The grand champion of bizzarro roleplaying games.  The PCs live as prisoners on a giant landfill planet at the ass end of the galaxy. There’s bug-eyed aliens and orcs and toxic mutants and a sodomite biker gang. The whole damn book was handwritten for press. The game feels like being trapped in the gross-out drawings of an angry, disturbed, skilled 13-year-old.