#RPGaDay2015 18: Favorite SF RPG

RPG-a-day-2015Extraterrestrials Sourcebook cover art for Conspiracy X 2.0.Conspiracy X isn’t your typical science fiction. It combines the weird pre-millennial “is there an apocalypse coming?” zeitgeist of the 1990s with the UFO lore of the 20th century and paranoia about government overreach, packaging it all in a familiar but legally distinct wrapper of federal agents investigating weird phenomena.

The game enjoyed a brief renaissance thanks to Kickstarter, as Eden Studios pushed out a number of supplements stuck in the pipeline after publishing a second edition of the core book, but it seems to have petered out in the years since. One of the stretch goals of the final fundraising campaign was to publish a long-rumored sequel game, Extinction, advancing the timeline one hundred years to an era when the various races are locked in all-out war for their own survival. No word on that front, and Eden’s efforts seem to be going into All Flesh Must Be Eaten and a new kid-friendly game, Adventure Maximus.

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A Fistful of Carnage Recap

” . . . and it has tomatoes.”
“Tomatoes. Are those the soy or the lent in soylent?”

The grim reaper rides a pale horse, wearing a tall cowboy hat and a rifle in each hand.Another Carnage has come and gone. I spent most of the weekend working in the Snowshed, where the role-playing and card games were based, but I did manage to play some games:

  • Stetsons Are Cool was Robin Lea‘s Doctor Who-based adventure, in which we Time Agents tracked down a highly dangerous zygma beam device in ancient American west. I may have gone a little goofier with team leader Kip Brannigan than was appropriate, but I think he and medic Hanso had a good back and forth repartee going.
  • Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game was a nice mid-slot game to play while working the information desk with Rod. He’s picked up the core set and Sleeper Below, so he played cultists and Cthulhu against the Syndicate’s tricks, and then Yog-Sothoth’s discard effects.
  • The Great Snowball Battle is a cute card game of little kids slinging snowballs at each other until everyone gets called inside for losing their hats, boots and gloves.
  • Ticket to Ride‘s Switzerland map is annoying.
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse was played with another old hand and two newcomers who originally thought we would play Citadels because I mumble; one of them dug it and the other one I probably ought to have handed a deck other than Bunker’s.
  • Gygax Magazine Pub Quiz, Saturday night in the bar, was a hoot. Our chief heckler of the last two years became the fill-in host, so the tables turned in a way. Next year, though, I look forward to James and Mary slipping back into the hosting duties.

The Game with No Name math trade netted me some great stuff, too. I turned HERO books, Gamma World and Revolution! into Netrunner cards — hello, Grimoire playset! — and a classic copy of Wiz-War, which I’ve wanted to try more of. Plus, after the trade concluded, I got to help a lady rebuild part of her Cheapass Games collection, after a tragic loss to fire. So this year’s trade was a win on multiple levels.

Our second year at Killington was good. We had a better idea of what to expect and how to do things. There were unanticipated questions, of course, with the resort and our attendees, but nothing outside the usual stretch. In the end, we had a great convention, and folks had fun. Mission accomplished!

#RPGaDAY 29: Most Memorable Encounter

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Wake of the Watcher cover.In the midst of Carrion Crown‘s Wake of the Watcher chapter, beset by nightgaunts and mi-go, we happened across a creature sufficiently bizarre to put all the Lovecraftian beasties to shame. It hopped. It squawked demanding, nonsensical questions. It projected images between antennae. It was . . . the riddling turnip. Or really, it was a cerebric fungus. But the WTF factor of the encounter stuck with us for weeks after, past the mi-go’s Mr. Chunder blender, Gea the inside-out mockery of an eidolon from beyond the Dark Tapestry and even the incarnation of Shub-Niggurath herself.

“They must have ordered it late one night off the electric radish.”
— Geoff on Mr. Chunder

Honorary Mention

Way back in the day, there was the Stargate SG-4 campaign. This team of four tromps through the gate to a shiny new world, discover it’s the middle of the night in a museum and they immediately panic. Run! Hide! Don’t let the aliens find us! Never mind that this is the Stargate universe, where a simple “hi” works wonders. No, some primal groupthink instinct kicked in and the team members were all seized by an utter dread of actually encountering any inhabitants of this world they’d come to explore.

#RPGaDAY 17: Funniest Game You’ve Played

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Paranoia cover.Hands down, the funniest game I ever played was John Terra running Paranoia at OGC in New Hampshire. Which session of Paranoia, I cannot say, because I made it a point to play in his adventures year after year and they have run together in a glorious mish-mash of secret agendas, poorly understood prototype weaponry and keeping one worried eye on the number of clones remaining.

I was highly suspicious of Paranoia when I first played in one of John’s games. It seemed like a recipe for a miserable time of backstabbing and “ha ha, I win.” I forget how I got past that initial perception, but I did. The backstabbing still happened, but the community spirit at the table was persuasive, and John’s an amazing GM who does an amazing job of making player choices matter while including everyone who puts themselves forward to participate. And the adventures are littered with themed puns. I was puzzled by the year all the player characters were thinly veiled Red Sox team members, though.

#RPGaDAY 16: Game You Wish You Owned

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Most of the games I wish I owned are theoretical. The perfect mashup of Mage: the Ascension, GURPS Cabal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance. Someone toyed with that idea. A game set in John Bellairs‘ Capharnum County, with Lewis Barnavelt, Uncle Jonathan, Mrs Zimmerman and Rose Rita is beyond hope. Although my ears pricked up when I hear Ken Hite say that Bubblegumshoe would emulate, in part, Bellairs’ work. But it’s been a while since that news dropped, so who knows how that project has progressed or changed since then.

Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space coverAs for games in the real world, the one that I want that I haven’t picked up is — shock! — Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.

Right? I love Doctor Who, have run a game in the universe, but never got around to owning any of the Cubicle 7 materials. And that’s mostly because I have enough game materials that can emulate Doctor Who without buying the licensed version. I know, I’m a terrible fan.

#RPGaDAY 7: Most “Intellectual” RPG Owned

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Continuum RPG cover art.The most intellectual role-playing game I own has to be Continuum. It’s a game in which all the player characters, and most non-player characters, can travel through time at will. The game boasts one of the most thought-out, consistent models of time travel I’ve encountered. A spanner — slang for someone who spans time at will — has what is called her Yet, elements of her personal future that are known to her, usually because she encountered a future self, also known as an elder gemini, or someone who looked like her future self. The twist about the Yet is that the spanner is bound only by what she sees. If she spans ahead to next week, and sees herself going into the theatre carrying a silver bucket and knows she hasn’t already experienced that, that is an action in her Yet. Eventually, she will do so, otherwise experiencing frag, or an injurious dissonance as she is in a state of Is/Is Not.

Think of the Yet as a to do list. Failing to complete items on the list generate a state of frag, the spanner’s state of being not lining up with what she knew she was expected to do. Smart spanners will scratch items off their Yet list as efficiently as they can. So long as the spanner’s younger self sees what she saw, the universe is satisfied. That could mean staging entire scenarios to be witnessed by a younger gemini. Spanner society includes an entire Thespians fraternity, who specialize in providing the actors and props to fulfill the expectations of the Yet without necessarily suffering the drastic consequences that one’s elder might seem to have experienced.

A good recent example of this was season 6 of Doctor Who, which I will strive not to spoil. Early in the season, the characters witness a future event that seemed absolutely, positively incontrovertible. As their personal chronologies progress, the characters become increasingly aware of the impending seemingly incontrovertible event. And then the realization strikes that the event can happen as witnessed without necessarily having the presumed consequences.[1]

That’s a fraction of what you’ll find in Continuum, and the part I remember best. If you ever made sense of the game’s temporal combat, by all means, write in.


[1] The question arises: how could someone from a civilization of time travelers not have hit on the solution earlier? All I can suppose is that staid Time Lord civilization is founded wholly, start to finish, no exceptions, on preservation of “true history,” free of extratemporal manipulation — except for those that made them the sole chrononautical power, if you go by the New Adventures. The regrettable benefits of a bygone age, to be sure.

Gesture-Based Nanite Magic

After the apocalypse, when the nanite swarm blankets the world, only a few of the gestures capable of activating its various functions survive, passed down as jealously guarded secrets in mystery cults and esoteric orders. They are not dissimilar to mudras as Mage: the Awakening used the word.

Depending on the mudras one knows, experimentation could be the equivalent of issuing all sorts of system-rending commands, without necessarily knowing if the manipulator has authorized themselves as a super-user yet. The nanite equivalent of rm -rf could be utterly catastrophic, depending on what it considers files and directories.

The Extraterrestrials Sourcebook for Conspiracy X 2.0

Extraterrestrials Sourcebook cover art for Conspiracy X 2.0.The Extraterrestrials Sourcebook collects previously published information about the alien races at large in the Conspiracy X role-playing game, and then brings their activities up to date with the new oughties timeframe. That said, the book is very rooted in the past. Each of the three chapters goes deep into the history of its species. “Way back, before you were born”-deep,[1] to the origins of each species. Which is great for the long view. Midway through the Saurians chapter, I started asking myself, “Is this all we’re going to know about what they’re doing now on Earth?” Atlanteans, Greys and Saurians do all have a section on what they’re up to at the moment, but it’s so tantalizingly brief and vague compared to the full, detailed histories of the three species.

A lot of that must come from the original remit of The Extraterrestrials Sourcebook: condense material written for supplements of the first edition of Conspiracy X into one volume for the current line and move the timeline up by fifteen years. In light of that, each chapter does a remarkable job covering history and culture of three distinct species.

The name of the podcast escapes me, but I remember hearing the designer of Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, Chad Underkoffler — I think? It’s been a long time since I heard the episode in question — describe his realization that long histories of how Sir Buffington defeated Lord Nemesis, and so on, can and ought to be elided into “Epic stuff happened leading us to this tipping point. Now you guys need to do something.” I’ve taken that to heart, and any time I run across supplemental material that is basically a long timeline of events that sound very cool, but are of limited utility to informing the present situation — unless you decide all those points on the timeline are covert plot seeds to bring forward to your game’s time frame — I do look askance, and wonder if this space could have been given to something a little more relevant to the contemporary status quo, and how it’s about to fall apart.

That said, I did appreciate the look into the culture and mentality of the extraterrestrials, different and varied as they may be. The Greys are the closest to monolithic, since they’re so deeply interconnected by telepathy. But even they have differences and internal division — especially, interestingly, between those on Earth and those on Greyworld. Greys on Earth are quarantined from the rest of the species because of concern about psychic contamination. The Saurians, it turns out, are divided into many factions, unlike their representation in the corebook, which is really just one faction that is most visible to AEGIS. And the Atlanteans wind up a race of radical individualists, as everyone strikes out on their own.

The Extraterrestrials Sourcebook is an interesting peek into the alien races interested in Earth. I’m dubious, though, how much use the information is here to 80% of the Conspiracy X games out there, as it seems unlikely most of them are going to go that deep into interaction with any one species, let alone all three. I’d rather have much more information about what they’re doing on Earth right now, and examples of how AEGIS cells and Black Book agents interact with them.[2]


[1] “Do you know how you got that dent, in your top lip? Way back, before you were born, I told you a secret, then I put my finger there and I said ‘Shhhhh!'”

[2] Acknowledging that any throwaway mention of what an AEGIS cell did or reported is really a coded plot seed for the GM’s own campaign, either to kick it off or provide a template of what the players might get embroiled in.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] Android: Netrunner

Android: Netrunner box cover.Dropping into Tuesday night board games at Quarterstaff Games last night, I finally got to try my hand at Android: Netrunner, the latest of Fantasy Flight Games’ living card games, and the next iteration of a beloved collectible card game, Netrunner, designed by Richard Garfield himself. I’m honestly not sure what about Android: Netrunner caught my attention — probably the same thing as Dominion: the galaxy of possibilities in playing the game without necessarily the same level of investment as a traditional CCG; plus the extension of the Android universe, which we local fans think is one of the original game’s greatest assets — but I’ve been following the discussions on Boardgamegeek.com since the first announcement. And while I’ve stopped following those discussions because they invariably looped back to the pros and cons of the living card game format and whether X card or faction is wicked broken, I maintained my interest.

With only one play under my belt as the criminal runner Gabriel Santiago against Haas Bioroid, it’s hard to say a lot that’s helpful or likely to be terribly accurate. But that never stopped anyone before, did it?

Part of what drew me to Android: Netrunner was that it was supposed to be playable out of the box, particularly in the wake of having been interested in the Call of Cthulhu card game until I let those arguments about the “need” to own multiple core sets to play it properly dissuade me from exploring further. Android: Netrunner, however, absolutely is playable out of the box. Pick a faction, add the neutral cards to those and you’ve got a deck. While I lost against Haas, it didn’t feel like an unmatched loss, if you know what I mean. There were cards that worked together and I was able to see some of those match ups from the very beginning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing for the first half of the game, so maybe I dawdled or didn’t generate enough cash regularly enough — there were more than a couple turns where all I did was drum up credits, especially once I figured out that Sneakdoor Beta is a persistent effect letting Gabriel use his ability against a second of the corporation’s core servers — but I started to get the sense of recognizing when the corporation’s resources are low as part of dancing around its intrusion countermeasures.

It was a first brush with a new game. I liked it for the most part. The prospect of having multiple first brushes with Android: Netrunner is a little intimidating, owing to the number of factions with unique cards to learn how to use, but it’s also a promise of lots of variability in play. It’s kind of like opening a new Dominion expansion, only the entire game is different and there are cyborgs.

There was also the slow process of “All right, so I spend a click to go on a run, then the ICE requires this strength hacking, which means this program needs this many clicks . . . ” but you’ll have that with any game. I repeatedly found myself in the position of discovering halfway through a run that I didn’t have enough credits to bypass all the subroutines. In retrospect, I wonder if I was playing too cautiously, being unwilling to take the consequences. Particularly with regard to the final, make or break run. I can’t remember now if the credits I spent on the layers of ICE were something I could have saved by taking the penalties of the subroutines.

And as game jargon goes, it’s pretty easy to find the analogies between clicks and actions, stacks and decks and so forth for anyone who’s suffered through the innumerable variations on “victory point.”

Best of all, it was fun to play without worrying about deckbuilding at all. I’m looking forward to trying out all the factions, on both the runner and corporate sides of the board.