[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] GURPS Egypt

After a long trip into fiction and other casual reading, I came back to the role-playing stack with GURPS Egypt, yanked almost at random from the shelf. I think I was motivated by the desire for some crunchy history combined with some campaign frames, which tends to be the formula of the GURPS history worldbooks.

As a condensed history of ancient Egypt and summary of the culture, GURPS Egyptdoes its job. The culture section briefly covers the details of daily life in “ancient Egypt,” a period which covers about 5,000 years, so there’s got to be a lot of glossing over here, particularly for those elements of life that weren’t recorded or whose records didn’t survive.

The history section runs the span of the old, middle and new kingdoms, right into the common era and the last of the Ptolemaic pharaohs. It covers the aforementioned five thousand or more years in thirty-seven pages, which is not a task I imagine any writer would relish. As it is, the history section reads like a litany of pharaonic rules and the reasons they were deposed, with some breaks to focus on especially interesting figures — like Hatshepsut, the former pharaoh’s half-sister, who became regent on his death and took on a male aspect in matters of state.

The remainder of the book covers character types in a straight historical GURPS Egyptgame, some magical elements, supernatural creatures, the Egyptian pantheon of gods and some pages on role-playing scenarios and seeds. And this is where I was let down — maybe because I wrongfully expected more than one typically gets in a historical worldbook — in that nothing in the latter half of the book leapt out at me as especially “gameable.” Gameable meaning campaign or scenario frames that allow for the usual expectations of role-playing: a group of characters with a common tie or reason to work together, extraordinary action or storylines, and so on. Everything was just sort of enh. I thought for sure GURPS Cabal would get some kind of sidebar coverage, but no, not even that — though certainly the sidebars had some of the most interesting content, including paragraphs suggesting crossover with various other worldbooks. Just not the one I wanted, which is my own selfish desire.

While GURPS Egypt is a perfectly laudable effort in giving an overview of ancient Egypt, such as one can compress all those dynasties and thousands of years into one hundred twenty eight pages, I didn’t find anything in it that said, “Yes, this is a one-shot or campaign framework that brings it together.” So that was disappointing.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] The Unexplained

I’ve awaited The Unexplained for years now, since I first heard about it at OGC in 2006. Back then, Brad Younie called it Strange World. He pitched it as a paranormal investigation game, for running games along the lines of television shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State. This past February, I had the chance to not only play two Unexplained adventures run by Brad, but pick up my own copy of the book at TotalCon.

My primary interest in The Unexplained was as a go-to source for paranormal phenomena and their packaging for use in role-playing games. Powered as it is by FUDGE, I knew it would be easy to ignore the mechanical material while harvesting the ideas and information for use in my own campaigns and adventures. Paranormal investigation is something I’ve followed for a while, mostly in the form of podcasts like The Paracast and EERIE Radio, so the idea of a one-stop shop for role-play ready material really appealed to me. I was also interested in what ways The Unexplained would recommend running paranormal investigation games, as one of the hallmarks of the field in real life is the ever-hanging question of whether or not there’s any validity to the phenomena people experience.

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[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] Pathfinder Core Rulebook

Pursuant to my twin goals of getting some regular play time in with the local Pathfinder Society chapter and putting a Barnes & Noble gift certificate to use, I ordered the Pathfinder RPG’s core rulebook. It arrived this week and, since I spent the day bundled up on the couch recovering from a cold, I opted to spend it looking the game over.

I was pleased when I first read Paizo’s announcement they would publish an OGL successor to Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. Given the usual clamour and lamentation that accompanies an edition change, plus the news that the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons wouldn’t be OGL, it seemed likely to me someone would pick up the 3.5 torch. I also treasured the notion of the RPGA population jumping ship to continue their Living Greyhawk campaign in the same nebulous space all we other roleplayers occupy, but that didn’t really come about. Though I would be fascinated by a comparison of the RPGA’s member roster pre-fourth edition with Pathfinder Society‘s current rolls.

So the Pathfinder core rulebook is, as I surmised from my play session a couple months back, pretty much Dungeons & Dragons in all the significant ways that I can identify. The changes I have noticed from my read-through today I like quite a bit, such as giving bards a sorcerer-like spellcasting ability and what seemed to be the removal of experience points as a cost for creating magic items. In fact, from what I remember of them, Pathfinder‘s core rulebook is all the important stuff from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition’s Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, minus even a cursory assortment of monsters to fight. That’s my only complaint about the book: it’s missing a smattering of critters for player characters to kill. Then it would, in my estimation, a ready-to-go package out of the box. But I guess that wasn’t part of Paizo’s design remit. Aside from their certain plans to publish any number of bestiary supplements — which they have done since launching the line — I imagine the creatures in the d20 SRD could be used with a minimum of fuss.

Not being very big on the system crunching and lacking the long term play experience with Dungeons & Dragons that others boast, I can’t say much about what Pathfinder did to “fix” the 3.5 revision. I admit I glossed over stuff like feat minutiae and the Spells chapter. I’ll never have a head for it, so I try not to worry about it too much. My general impression, though, is of a positive change that focuses on and enhances the play style and entertainment goals that people expect from the archetypal roleplaying game.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] The Day After Ragnarok

For once, the crazy Nazi mystics pulled off one of the innumerable rites they’ve staged during countless World War IIs in the annals of fiction. Unfortunately for most people living on Earth in 1945 in Ken Hite’s The Day After Ragnarok, this particular rite summoned Jörmungandr, the serpent of Norse mythology that circles Midgard. The colossal serpent had already spanned Africa and continued to stretch across Europe when an American bomber, carrying the Trinity device, crashed straight into its eye, killing it. Things got worse after that as the serpent’s venom seeped into the sea and the air, and from there drinking water and foodstuffs. Nations crumbled, millions died under the serpent or from the harsh years without summer that followed. It’s a whole new world for everyone who survived.

I’m not usually one for post-apocalyptic settings in RPGs. I’m not really into the Road Warrior aesthetic, nor do I find adventures centered around scrounging bullets and gas all that interesting to play. So it took me a while to realize that Day After Ragnarok, Hite fan that I am, was something that would appeal to me. I’m still not sure what pushed me to pick it up — it could have been an interview I heard with Hite on some podcast or other; maybe Master Plan, but I can’t find a likely-looking episode in the archive — but I’m glad I took the leap.

In this post-Serpentfall world, civilization still hangs on in places, trying to get a handle on things, or at least hang on. And that’s what appeals to me about the setting: there’s enough of the modern world still in place that life as we know it can go on, even though the Poison Lands are just across the Rockies. Heroes working for institutions like Rhodes University, bastion of Western knowledge since Cambridge and Oxford both were crushed, or the great state of Texas, can get useful gear without having to root through department stores and abandoned bunkers.

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[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] Technocracy: Iteration X

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.

Technocracy: Iteration X is a howlingly bad example of how amazingly silly and discombobulated Mage: The Ascension could be. It’s rife with the kind of cheesy terminology one associates with a gonzo, unrealistic world, even beyond Technocratic methodologies, constructs and amalgams. Iteration X is manned by ciphers, armatures, programmers and comptrollers.

The “Do technocrats know they’re working magic or not?” quandary stands front and center as well. Characters continuously refer to what they do as magic, or use sphere terminology, and yet still treat what they do as science, calling it rational and logical. It may be unfair of me, coming from a post-Mage Revised perspective where Technocrats are scientists and only the highest echelons of the Union realize their hyper-technology only works because the operators believe it does, but it’s hard to see the point in this deliberate two-faced attitude of the Technocracy in first edition Mage. Things cleaned up later in the line when the Technocracy was more uninformed, unintentionally hypocritical.

But anyway, there’s so little substantive content here — and what is present is generally laughable, flimsy or suitable for only the most gonzo, over the top games — that someone looking for material for a game would be better off utilizing Guide to the Technocracy or Convention Book: Iteration X, going by the reports of the latter I’ve read. One of the advantages of coming to a game at the end of its publishing life is that one gets the benefit of everyone else’s hindsight when it comes to the best and worst supplements. In 1993, books like Technocracy: Iteration X were all Mage players had.

After reading through all five books in the Technocracy splatbook series over the last few months, I’m really starting to understand all the criticisms to the splatbook approach. They’re so amazingly formulaic, particularly the last two chapters of each, that it’s easy to skim over them without really absorbing any information, because you think you’ve read it before.

[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.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] GURPS Loadouts: Monster Hunters

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.

It’s my own fault. The notion of equipment suggestions for the monster hunting set tickled my imagination so that I didn’t realize GURPS Loadouts: Monster Hunters was drawing directly from GURPS High-Tech; i.e., modern, real technologies. So there are no proton packs or electric pentacles in this PDF, unfortunately.

Monster Hunters is very well done, with thorough equipment lists that should satisfy anyone’s need to detail just they’re carrying into battle against the horrors of the night. It’s just not what I would have liked, personally.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] GURPS Fantasy II

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.

Adventures in the Mad Lands is a fitting subtitle for Robin Laws‘ bizarro campaign setting, published way back in the day. A Stone Age subsistence culture struggles to get by in the Mad Lands, which are also populated by a pantheon of lunatic gods who at best can’t control their divine abilities and at worst will either turn hapless folk into terrible monsters or just outright kill them. Add in a civilization of immortal sorcerers drowning in ennui, the various abominations touched by divinity and neighboring people who just don’t get the mindset of the Madlander culture and it makes an interesting read, going into a substantively different cultural mindset, built on certain assumptions and necessities.

One of the overarching themes of the setting is definitions of humanity. Madlanders define a monster as something lacking an element of humanity; thus, beings like the skinless and heightless are inhuman because they lack one or more of those characteristics that Madlanders, humans, possess. In contrast, the soulless, those immortal sorcerers, think of pretty much anything that isn’t one of their own to be an animal. It ties back to that idea of cultural preconceptions.

I really liked this world. I think it would be a hard sell for a lot of players — thus leading to the common remark that the Mad Lands are an ungameable setting — because the default setup is everyone plays members of a Madlander village, struggling to subsist and avoid the attention of the gods. The fact of possessing strange powers, often one of the attractions of playing in any RPG, moves that person away from the Madlander definition of human. It’s a huge sea change from the mindset implicit in many roleplaying games that having powers or unearthly abilities is a desirable state.

GURPS Fantasy II: Adventures in the Mad Lands is out of print, but it can be purchased in PDF form from Steve Jackson Games’ e23 site.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] GURPS Bio-Tech

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 a hard time reading equipment books. They’re not meant for linear, first page to last page reading, but that’s how I tend to go at things. So in most of these cases, I do a lot of scanning pages for interesting-looking headings and sidebars. With GURPS Bio-Tech, I lucked out in that it contains two mini-settings in the last or second to last chapter: Alexander Athanatos and Draconis.

Alexander Athanatos describes an alternate history where medical science progressed much more quickly, allowing, among other things, physicians to create clones of Alexander the Great, which filled the power vacuum after his death. That’s pretty neat, stuff. On the other hand, Draconis is a less catchy, more straightforward sandbox premise, where a fleet of colony ships have arrived in a solar system and are poised to begin building a new world, if they can resolve which way to do so.