#RPGaDAY 18: Favorite Game System

#RPGaDAY prompts.

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

Adventure! cover art.When it comes to running role-playing games, I like a fairly low complexity. I’ve got enough going on talking to everyone at the table in turn that addressing as many different questions and decision points that something as complex as Pathfinder raises is way more than I want to take on.

The Storyteller system’s always been wonderfully easy to run. There are attributes and skills, you can mix and match those to address whatever a character is trying to achieve, and then you roll some dice and check for how many made the target number.

Adventure!, and its cousins in the Aeon Continuum, Aberrant and Trinity, uses a variant on the Storyteller rules. There’s a constant target number of 7 now, and additional difficulty is represented by requiring more than one success, or gaining more successes than whomever the character is working against in a contested task.

So it’s really easy to adjudicate Adventure! and it’s crammed with flavorful pulp action abilities and is one of my first encounters with a meta resource for players to ameliorate dice results, Inspiration and Dramatic Editing. Player characters have a small pool of points to temporarily boost their abilities, and nudge the narrative. Depending on the GM, “Of course there are enough parachutes in this crashing plane for all of us” might just be the way things go even without Inspiration, but digging yourself out of a narrative dead end on your own abilities is almost always preferable to the GM handwaving it at the last minute because the players didn’t catch on to what they originally envisioned.

Tales from the Fallen Empire on Carnagecast

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art.

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art.

As promised, the Tales from the Fallen Empire episode of Carnagecast posted earlier this week. Check it out to hear about an awesome sword and sorcery setting for old school sandbox role-playing.

The Kickstarter for Tales from the Fallen Empire has already funded. Now it’s all gravy and stretch goals.

Tales from the Fallen Empire Kickstarter

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art.

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art, used with permission.

James Carpio, proprietor of Chapter 13 Press, just launched a kickstarter campaign for Tales from the Fallen Empire, a sword and sorcery campaign setting for Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics role-playing game.

As James tells us:

Join the struggle for survival in a war-torn land where new empires arise to impose their will upon the masses. Vicious warlords fight to control territories carved out of fallen kingdoms. Imposing magicians emerge claiming the legacy of the Sorcerer Kings. High Priests of long forgotten gods and goddesses amass wealth in the name of divine right while Warrior-priests, devoted to a banished god, patrol the lands bringing justice to people abandoned by their rulers.

In addition to providing a gazetteer to the sundered lands of the Sorcerer Kings of old, Tales from the Fallen Empires modifies some of Dungeon Crawl Classics‘ core classes, as well as adds a bevy of its own: Barbarian, Witch, Draki, Wanderer, Man-Ape and Pirate. Carpio cites Lieber, Howard, Lovecraft, Corman and Moorcock as his sources, so you know it’s going to be a flavorful melange of elements and tropes.

The kickstarter campaign concludes on July 18th, 2012 and is well on its way to funding. There are many backing levels, but the two key levels are $15 for a PDF of the book and $30 for the print edition ($45 for international shipping).

I recently interviewed James about Tales of the Fallen Empire for Carnagecast. Once that episode posts, I’ll pass the word along so you can hear direct from the designer about his inspiration and goals for the world of Leviathan.

6/8/2012: As promised, here’s the Carnagecast episode link. James talks about his inspirations for the setting, what makes Leviathan unique and some of the interesting elements of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Uncovering Dusty Tomes

In pursuit of perfecting my home’s feng shui last night, I stumbled across a number of folios holding printed PDFs I accrued in the dawning days of role-playing’s adoption of the medium. Highlights include:

  • Issue 1 of Franklyn’s Almanack, the rapidly discontinued supplement series to Northern Crown. I liked the setting a lot, but never got to reading the first issue, let alone printing the second — which I did purchase, mind.
  • A host of Hero Games’ quickie Pulp Hero PDFs. My favorite remains Inner-Earth, a mini-setting describing a hollow Earth set-up with Aztecs, dinosaurs, Nazis and more. I got good use out of that setting for an Adventure! one-shot.
  • Executive Decision and …In Spaaace!, a pair of freebie — early subjects of the ransom funding model, perhaps? — games by Greg Stolze.
  • A pair of Trinity supplements, Terra Verde and Asia Ascendant; the latter only made it to manuscript stage, as the line was discontinued.
  • Many of Ronin Arts’ Mutants & Masterminds Archetype Archives. These were great: tons of archetypal starting characters to help games get underway. Only the one time I got to break them out, the players were insistent nothing there suited their individual visions. So it goes.
  • Kithbook: Pooka, my first-ever PDF purchase, and really, emblematic of my experiences with the species: buy PDF, print PDF, read print-out, forget about it. And I even slipped it in a super-fancy folio, with frosted transparent cover.

Some of this stuff is going away. I’ll keep the Almanack, Pulp Hero stuff and Stolze games, as they could still come in handy. The Trinity stuff I’m going to recycle. The Pooka book I will pass on to the fine fellow who cleaned out my Changeling: the Dreaming collection last month.

Castlevania: The Something of Something

Barghest of RPG.net posted some typed-up notes for a Castlevania supplement to Adventure! I’m always delighted to see more material for my favorite pulp action system.

It also gives some insight into the Castlevania mythos, which has always interested me, but I’ve never been willing to commit the time to digging it out of the games myself. The many Belmont family bloodlines display how farspread and varied the members of the monster-hunting tradition are.

In adapting the material to the system, Barghest makes two interesting choices. The Adventure! character types are renamed to suit the premodern era of Castlevania. That’s interesting in that most people claim to disregard the divisions of stalwart, mesmerist and daredevil.

Secondly, Barghest brings a video game mechanic, sub-weapons, over to Adventure!, right down to the rigors of using them: most are destroyed upon use and using them expends internal resources, Willpower in this case.

I am curious to see if Barghest explains the rationale for hewing so closely to the rules of the video game in that respect.

The Atlantropa Project

There, I Fixed It brings us an account of Atlantropa, an engineering project phenomenal in its scope: build a landmass by — partially — draining the Mediterranean Sea. This would have exposed a whole section of seabed, linking Europe and Africa and opening up new land for use. As the blog explains:

The idea was to create a sort of Utopia that bridges the gap (both literally and figuratively) between Europe and Africa. Sörgel and his followers were growing sick of recent European and Cosmopolitan trends of racism, post-colonialism, division and violence. Expanding the borders of multiple countries while enticing millions towards a common goal would bring together an unprecedented unity between hundreds of differing cultures.

To achieve the goal of creating Atlantropa — which included damming up the Straits of Gibraltar to lower the sea level and power hydroelectric stations — the project would required millions of laborers and over a century of effort. It also would have wrought havoc with the existing ecosystem, nearly draining the Adriatic Sea and turning beachfront property all around the Mediterranean into suddenly much less desirable real estate.

Next time your mad genius needs a scheme to not only shock the heroes, but make them say, “Actually, some good could come of this,” you could borrow a page from Herman Sörgel and his dreams of Atlantropa.

It reminds me more than a bit of Adventure!‘s Baron von Zorbo and his belief that the future of the human race lay in leaving the earth to recover from their depredations, living over it in flying cities. He had not only the mad, radical idea, but the resources to bring it to life. Antagonists need to have passion to make their goal reality.

Savage World of Solomon Kane: The Church Job

Honestly, I don’t know if there’s anything to be gained by writing about this game. It was lots of fun, but in retrospect, it seems even more like one of those “you just had to be there” experiences than most role-playing games. With players and GM alike fueled by robust Russian fare, vodka and other fine boozes, we went for a howlingly ridiculous romp in early 17th century peasant Russia. Our motley assortment of adventurers — I played the aged last of the Aztec priests — while maundering around the Eurasian landmass, found themselves in a village beset by uncharacteristically ferocious animals. It transpired they were driven to retrieve the scattered remains of a dark monk that once terrorized the village long ago, when Christianity first came to the region.

Highlights included:

  • Two completely wilderness unsavvy travelers, one of whom was an alcoholic samurai, not only getting lost in the woods, but finding Baba Yaga‘s hut, traipsing past the skull-topped fence posts and banging on the wall — Baba Yaga’s hut, of course, always faces away from you until commanded appropriately.
  • My Aztec priest getting into an increasingly goofy, vodka-fueled debate with a laconic, gravel-voiced black bear: “Now suppose, and I say ‘suppose’ because I know animals understand if-then clauses, someone took the skull out of the church. What would happen then?”
  • One player breaking out his time-honored ” . . . and then we’re on fire!” plan; no matter what the initial steps of the plan are, it invariably, albeit accidentally, ends with one or more of the player characters on fire.

Richard Shaver’s Underworld

If you’re not sure what to do with the dero and tero referenced in The Dyatlov Incident, check this post at The Gralien Report out. Micah Hanks covers a quartet of books about the forms of the underworld and its inhabitants through human history, as well as the particular expression that Richard Shaver brought to the public’s attention through the Amazing Stories magazine.

Little or elusive people, extensive realms beneath the surface of Earth and problematic relations between the overworlders and underworlders are long-running tropes in role playing games. Just look at the Dungeons & Dragons‘ recurring setting element, the Underdark, one of the highest profile examples. The Shaver underworld, with its detrimental robots — or “dero” — and the fallen remains of a by-gone civilization that left Earth for a planet with a less harmful sun gives the whole thing a delightful pulp flavor.

The Shaver Mystery has an ancient, lost world to explore beneath the ground, antagonists in the dero, who delight in kidnapping and tormenting surface dwellers and potential allies in the tero, the remnants of the original race below. It’s everything a role playing game needs. From Hanks’ write-up, it sounds like the key books for someone wanting to add them to their arsenal of material would be Caverns, Cauldrons and Concealed Creatures and This Tragic Earth are the best suited as idea vaults. The other two, Pulp Winds and The Pulsifer Saga, are examples of how other authors took Shaver’s ideas and ran with them in their own fictional works.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] GURPS Thaumatology: Age of Gold

The Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em series charts my attempt to read all the books in my gaming library that crept in over the years and went overlooked for too long.

I have to confess to a certain deficiency. When it comes to some campaign concepts and settings, I really need my hand held as I go through the mental process of figuring out what to do with it. I need, for lack of a better term, worked examples.

So texts like Phil Masters’ Age of Gold, a companion setting to the magic system toolkit GURPS Thaumatology, drive me nuts. As a setting, it’s an mystical take on the pulp adventure genre and the mystery men like the Shadow who preceded full-on super heroes, as magic undergoes a resurgence in the 1930s and alchemy literally transmutes people into something more. Age of Gold has amazing brain-tickling passages like this:

India also can be used as an avenue for supernaturally themed pulp adventures, including any number of temples of doom and resurgent thuggee cults, as well as attempts by Nazi occult researchers to infiltrate the Himalayas, or efforts by mad scientist Theosophists to “salvage ancient Lemurian devices” from the treasure vaults of maharajahs.

It sounds totally awesome and I have no idea what to do with it. Even with sample characters like the Secret Pharaoh and Madame Jasmine to guide me on what sort of happenings go on in this world, my reaction is, “These are great. I wish there were more material here to really walk me through the steps.”

While Age of Gold is a mini-setting, I wish there were more to it in terms of showing what PCs could get up to, even with the opening vignettes that kick off every chapter, rather than talking about it, as in the above quoted passage. Leave them wanting more is a good way to go out, I guess.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] Masterminds & Madmen

The Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em series charts my attempt to read all the books in my gaming library that crept in over the years and went overlooked for too long.

For a surprisingly long time, for reasons I have never been clear on myself, I was infatuated with the HERO System. Or at least, I spent a lot of money and time accumulating and reading supplements written for it. I have since shaken the compulsion, realizing that most of the setting material for the various eras and lands of the Hero Universe just wasn’t doing it for me. There are, however, some exceptions.

Take Masterminds & Madmen, for example. It’s a catalog of villains for adventures in the pulp action genre; not just Indiana Jones-style, but also The Shadow and Doc Savage. On the whole, it’s a traditional Hero Games supplement in that a lot of ground is covered and lots of homages made without any particular sparkle or pizzazz.

But what I like about this book is it’s a one-shot factory. Even ignoring the customary plot seed sidebars attending every character, they all want something. Some times it’s a specific thing, other times it’s a kind of thing or to achieve an idea or whatever. But this themed, one-note blackguards and megalomaniacs all want something; and that’s the key to any good one-shot adventure. Once you know what the antagonist wants, the challenges and obstacles with which to beset the doughty PCs suggest themselves.

So that’s why I’m hanging on to Masterminds & Madmen, even though my flirtation with the HERO System is long over and I’m looking to offload most of the books I accumulated. It’s a great pulp adventure generation resource.