BPRD: The Celestial Legion

Printouts of the character sheet and biography for Sparky, Nikola Tesla's electrical golem.

Sifting through more stuff in the wake of purging empty boxes, I came across a trove of materials from convention games I’ve run over the years: several Ghostbusters scenarios from Carnages past, Unknown Armies‘ archetypal Jailbreak, and this particular gem, The Celestial Legion. It’s a Hellboy/B.P.R.D. adventure I wrote back when I was getting around to more conventions in New England than Carnage. Forgive me, purists, because it was written using mainly Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy film as inspiration, because that was my first real experience with the character. Only in the case of my conception of the B.P.R.D, most of the team members are weirdos like Sparky here — the Russian werebear assassin, the psychic supermodel — plus the much put-upon token normal agent, whose most-used piece of gear was the clicker gadget on his belt to track the collateral damage tally.

The sharp-eyed may note that the player materials I make are heavily patterned after the sample characters in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel role-playing games: short bio, some notes to guide how the character might act and look at things, and a full character sheet on another page. In this case, it was because I ran the game using Cinematic Unisystem and may have borrowed more than a few pieces of art from the sample character spreads for character portraits. (Sparky’s particular portrait is a work called Creacion del golem by Gabos on DeviantArt.com.)

I still feel proud of The Celestial Legion for being one of the more robustly documented adventures I’ve written, but I think the second and third acts need work. As is my bad habit, I came up with a great concept, detailed how it all kicks off and then the detailing and robustness of what might happen trails off as the narrative progresses. The more I think about it now, the more I realize I can’t tell you what the climax of the adventure is, or how it pays off the prior scenes.

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#RPGaDay2015 25: Favorite Revolutionary Game Mechanic

RPG-a-day-2015I’m not sure I can answer this one. Any mechanic I like that one would call revolutionary is probably old enough that it’s been outdone in terms of radical innovation several times over by newer games. Instead, I’ll talk about a mechanic that I really like. It probably wasn’t the first, it certainly wasn’t the like, but it’s the example that I know and like.

Cover of the Angel RPG. Main characters of the TV show gaze out broodingly from an LA cityscape.Angel included a system for designing an organization for which the characters would work — or own; as you’ll see, the system was designed to be flexible. The GM grants an amount of points, to which the players can contribute some of their own character build points, and the players distribute points into their organization’s spheres of influence and their place within it. The two extreme examples are Angel Investigations and Wolfram & Hart. The first is a group whose players put their points into being in charge. Angel Investigations has minimal clout in Los Angeles and runs lean, without many resources to call on. But the characters are in charge, damnit: they answer to no one but each other and set the direction for the company.

Alternately, Wolfram & Hart’s players clearly dumped all their points into contacts, resources and clout. The firm exerts influence on multiple planes of existence, its facilities seem limitless and people generally quake in their boots when J.Q. Cheatem from Wolfram & Hart shows up with a sheaf of papers in hand. On the other hand, to get their law firm to that level of status, the players have put themselves at the very bottom of a very tall pyramid which is capped off by three or more demigods of uncertain though certainly worrying levels of power.

So there’s a wide spectrum to work within when designing your organization with Angel‘s mechanic. I really dug that, and regret not having had the chance to put it into play yet. Giving the players that level of control over the campaign framing device should really get them engaged with not only their character’s development, but the course that organization takes over the span of the game.

#RPGaDAY 12: Old RPG You Still Play/Read

#RPGaDAY prompts.

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

Cover art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer role-playing game.I don’t especially want to think of Eden Studios’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an old role-playing game, but the game is more than ten years old now, it’s out of print — though not circulation, by some miracle of licensing — and the Buffy property seems to have become passé with the young peoples. But my loyalty for the game as a workhorse for whatever I want to run is indefatigable. I used it for a BPRD scenario when I first began running games at conventions, layered in elements for Scions of Time, and then recently switched over to using Buffy for my Ghostbusters games at Carnage. And during the playtest of Post-Diluvian Predators of Rochester, certain players snickered at the informal style of the writing, and its apparent lack of tables, so that’s where my sense that the game’s line into the gaming culture zeitgeist sunset some time ago.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its siblings Angel and Army of Darkness, has a few key qualities that keep me coming back to it as the engine to run my scenarios. First is ease of play. Like its classic Unisystem cousins, Buffy uses a single d10 plus skill and ability for most questions of resolution. On the GM’s side, it gets even easier: most non-player characters are rendered as a series of target numbers for the players to roll against. If you’re juggling multiple creatures with weird abilities, and trying to keep in mind the state of everyone else in the fray, not having to worry about rolling dice or adding up numbers correctly is huge. Cinematic Unisystem delegates that work to the players, and really, they were going to roll dice anyway. Why make the GM roll too, when you can get mostly the same result with a pre-calculated target number?

Secondly, it’s super easy to adapt material to fit a preexisting idea, or come up with something new. Buffy and Angel both have guidelines for roughing out new monsters for players to beat up. If that’s not enough, I can flip through WitchCraft books for more concepts already rendered in Unisystem terms. I did that with Post-Diluvian Predators, as well, actually, pulling some “Vampyre” abilities from Mystery Codex to simulate a variant I found in Night’s Black Agents that I wanted to be the default vampire type in my Ghostbusters world.

Thirdly, Buffy‘s Drama Points are something I wish more games offered. I get that the whole point of the dice is to introduce change and risk. But there should be room to stretch when a character is exceptionally motivated to succeed. Drama Points provide that stretch. I think maybe they’re too plentiful in a convention game — everyone could probably do with a fifth of what a starting character gets for Drama Points — but as long as they’re in short supply, players will value them as a resource to ensure that what they want to happen, will.

If you’re curious about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Cinematic Unisystem, check out the original quickstart, which is still available courtesy the BBC.

Cthunisystem

An investigator confronts a Dark Young.

Send more Drama Points.

The Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, or Cthunisystem for short, brings some of the classic elements of Call of Cthulhu role-playing to Cinematic Unisystem. Compiled by Salvatore Cucinotta and Jason Vey, it’s a great resource for adding mythos monsters and a different flavor of spell to your Unisystem games.

By default, it’s written for Cinematic Unisystem games like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but it’s super easy to use the monster quicksheets with classic Unisystem rules, or extrapolate backward to a full stat block. Shave off any Drama Points the creature may have and call it good.

The Next Step for Hermetic Realm Magic

I just had a terribly awesome idea: bring the Hermetic Realm system I assembled last year over from GURPS to Unisystem.

It is terrible because I spent too much time on that project last year. Redoing it for another, marginally different system seems like a poor use of time.

It is awesome because that marginally different system has much easier character creation. New pregenerated characters would be a snap and importing the existing set from GURPS would be even snappier. Also, I generally find Unisystem a hell of lot easier to teach on the fly.

But would it make the magic system any simpler to use? That’s the key point that finally came to me in the last month or so. A free-form magic system based on the Cabal’s Hermetic cosmology has to be really stripped down to work in a four hour convention time slot with a table of total newcomers.

So I find myself debating whether I should stick with GURPS and do the stripdown there, or move on to the relatively fresher ground of Unisystem, import the basics and actually make sure it’s simple this time.

I have to do something because I want to run another Cabal game for Carnage. Would my time be better spent making a more robust, flavorful world and scenario? I think it would. But I continue to think longingly about the simplicity of Unisystem when I ought to be focusing on content.

Conspiracy X Extraterrestrials Sourcebook is on Kickstarter

The Extraterrestrials Sourcebook for Eden StudiosConspiracy X game line may see the light of the material world after all. Yesterday afternoon, George Vasilakos opened the Kickstarter page to put out the hard copy version of the book.

I jumped right on board, pledging enough money to get the printed edition. (I think I may have been one of the first two backers, actually . . . ) Of course, this being a Kickstarter project, Eden needs to raise the whole $5,000 by the November 30th deadline in order to collect the funds and send the book to the printer.

Conspiracy X has served me well as the engine for our Doctor Who campaign. I would love for crowd-funding to revive the series, which gets undue short shrift in the ever-balkanizing role-playing hobby. In addition to the Conspiracy X universe, which blends together the modern mythologies of Men in Black, grey aliens and other weirdness, the game is a solid platform on which to base any game in the modern era. Plus it’s cross-compatible with the other classic Unisystem games, and pretty equally compatible with Cinematic Unisystem material as well.

Furthermore, I would also love for this venture to show Eden Studios that crowd-funding can work for their other unreleased works, especially the WitchCraft supplements caught in their pipeline, so I have more than one reason to throw down for The Extraterrestrials Handbook. Not only could I get that book, but WitchCraft fans might have the opportunity to front for The Book of Geburah.

Ghostbusters: Pumpkin Jack

After struggling with a non-starter of a plot seed for some time now — slasher movie characters coming to life during a horror film convention, I think I finally got something I can work with for Carnage, thanks to a poster at RPG.net who shared his own idea for a one-shot Ghostbusters game. My take’s already going in a different direction because I’m still trying to accomplish some of the things that I wanted to do with the slasher concept, but there are some core elements that will carry over. Not that knowing that will save any potential players who scour that thread for clues. Bwa ha ha.

Story

So I went to Muddy Waters tonight for a writing session. I hadn’t necessarily planned on making it a Ghostbusters session, but I think I got more done in that Open Office document than I did filling out the Broken Spokes wiki. Some story elements and characters popped into my head that I never could have expected. This might be what fiction writers refer to as their characters telling them what happens next.

As it stands, I have a much better grasp of what to shape this into, but it’s not quite there yet. Material I wrote tonight doesn’t line up with my goals. I could ditch the goals and follow the material as it inspires me, but it’s leading me in a direction I’ve already gone. I want to do something different this year.

Right now, there’s an element linking back to one of the original ghost hunters of modern fiction. The Wikipedia article teaches me it really makes no sense as such in the context I want to use it, so I think I’m going to end up inventing my own substitute, who can be modified to fit appropriately. But the inspiration’s still there. I’ll tell you all about it after the convention in November.

System

I’m not sure if I want to stick with GURPS for this and future Ghostbusters games. Having had time to think about it, I wasn’t taken away the representation of proton packs and ghost traps. Basically it’s more fiddly math on my part than I necessarily want to do. I also don’t think it’s necessarily fun for the players. They basically spend turns maintaining their streams until the ghost is contained.

So the choices seem to be make everything else so entertaining that busting ghosts is a dreary, but necessary part of a ridiculous job, or mechanically spice up the zap ‘n trap part of things. I’m struck by the thought there should be an option for going “full stream,” whatever that might be — probably extra damage or an instant containment field with a risk of catastrophic malfunction or power burn-out. But are those interesting problems? They essentially take away the player’s single really useful tool for a random period of time.

Looking back at Lurker in the Limelight, most of the fun at the table came not from busting ghosts, but character interaction and riffing on the absurdities of entrepreneurial spectral extermination. The system I would most likely switch to, Cinematic Unisystem, wouldn’t really make a difference in that regard, as both it and GURPS are pretty traditional in what their mechanics represent in the game world.

I’ll think about it more. I have a month or so before I have to submit anything for the convention book.

Retooling Mage: The Ascension

Something about role-playing inspires a do-it-yourself attitude in many hobbyists. If they don’t like something, they’ll often modify to it their needs, or roll their own. So it’s no surprise that Mage: The Ascension, a game about independent individuals all proclaiming they understand the true secrets of the universe — and perhaps later learning that it’s all an illusion of sorts — should accumulate more than a few projects to do it right, better or to taste, depending on the author. Sometimes I think it’s a right of passage, whereat the burgeoning role-player decides that in the end it’s all made up and hell, they should do it the way they prefer.[1]

At any rate, yet another discussion on RPG.net of where Mage: The Ascension went wrong — or right, depending on one’s perspective — or whose fault or genius it was got me thinking about the Mage conversions that proliferated over the years. I mean, this is a game whose last supplement was published in 2004 and people are still not only casting blame and gnashing teeth, but trying to do it their way. So here’s a quick rundown of the Mage conversions I’ve run across on the web:

  • Mage! was a conversion document by an RPG.net poster by the name of Redfox Whiteruff for running a Mage game using the Aeon variant of the Storyteller system, particularly the version in Adventure! The PDF doesn’t seem to be in circulation on the web, or I’d link to it.
  • Unisystem Mage was my own modest attempt at a Mage conversion. I’ve yet to playtest the thing, so all I can say is it exists and is freely downloadable.
  • World of Darkness HERO, by Robert Harrison, encompasses much of the original World of Darkness as it stood in the second edition era, written for the HERO role-playing system.
  • Malcolm Sheppard released notes almost immediately upon publication of Mage: The Awakening in 2005 to use the new ruleset to run traditional Ascension games. They’re quick and dirty, but really that’s all one needs.
  • Mage: The Dirty Version, also by Malcolm Sheppard, is a more drastic retooling of the core premises of Mage, altering content to fit the new view.
  • Ascension Nova, on the other hand, is a currently on-going effort to perform a more robust marriage of the Storytelling system and the Mage: The Ascension setting material.
  • GURPS Mage: The Ascension and GURPS Thaumatology get honorable mentions; the former for being an official conversion of then-contemporary Mage to GURPS third edition and the latter for providing a ready made structure to rebuild the Sphere magic system in the fourth edition.

05/28/2010 9:38 AM: Shame on me for failing to include Malcolm Sheppard’s “dirty Mage” reinvention.


[1] Which is not to say “it” is necessarily inconsistent or arbitrary; just arranged to suit one’s own preferences.

Carnage the 13th Goes (Un)Live

Last week, Carnage‘s new website went live, unofficially marking off the countdown to the convention’s thirteenth gathering in November. That can seem like a long way off in April, but I appreciate the head’s up. I’m a poky writer at the best of times; combining that with the desire to playtest adventures beforehand can get hairy.

But I’ve already given some thought to what I want to run, including adventure particulars. In keeping with the horror theme, I plan to run a GURPS game using Kenneth Hite’s Cabal universe, as well as a return to the Boston franchise of Ghostbusters International, which went so well last year — still up in the air whether I want to go GURPS again or switch to Cinematic Unisystem.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to run, as I’ve climbed on board the good ship Carnage as staff. There will still be lots of running around this year, except now it will be with purpose. Working as staff is fun and something I tend towards naturally, but it does put a crimp in one’s ability to run games.

I hope to squeeze in at least a game of Arkham Horror somewhere along the way. Last year’s session was sparsely attended, but I’m not sure if that was the Saturday night time slot or the myriad viruses that flew thick and heavy. If last year’s convention “flu by,” then 2010 will be the Year of the Antibacterial Wipe, I think.

An Extended Ghostbusters Ludography

Over on Examiner.com, Michael Tresca, himself author of Who Ya Gonna Call?, posted a rundown of Ghostbusters‘ influence on gaming through years. It directly spawned two editions of an RPG itself and a number of homages and imitators, including miniatures sets and InSpectres. There are, however, a few takes on the concept Michael left out of his article, some of which I found helpful in preparing The Lurker in the Limelight for Carnage.

Spook Stoppers

David Goodner wrote up an entire PDF on catching ghosts in Cinematic Unisystem by the name of Spook Stoppers. It’s got all the essential widgets a ghostbuster could want, some sample characters and outlines on creating ghosts, with still more samples to use. It’s a great starting point for anyone for whom Cinematic Unisystem is their system of choice.

You’ll find another take on busting heads in a spiritual sense with the Cinematic Unisystem over at Morgan’s Unisystem page.

Ghost-breaking

In the anthology supplement GURPS All-Star Jam 2004, Ken Hite’s contribution was the article Ghost-breaking. It takes a more antiquated approach to spook hunting, with electric pentacles and other wondrous ghostbusting artifacts, but it’s got a widget you haul around on your back to zap and trap ghosts, so that counts in my book.

ExorSystems, Inc

Ranging further afield, we have Octavirate Games’ take on spook and monster hunting, ExorSystems, Inc. It’s a d20 Modern supplement that sounds like it plays up the humorous side of exterminating supernatural pests while working for a major corporation. I say “sounds like” because I opted not to buy this one on the grounds I already have too many PDFs I have yet to read.

Ecto Hunters

This one never made it to market, sadly. as Daring Entertainment announced in early September 2009 it was ceasing publishing on account of the current economy. Ecto Hunters was pitched as part of the Daring Action Block, a series of PDFs for Savage Worlds describing the series in a cartoon programming block, alongside “shows” with strong similarities to nostalgia properties like G.I. Joe and Transformers. However, at least one of Daring Entertainment’s properties, Hard Boiled, may still see publication, which leaves a glimmer of hope for Ecto Hunters as well.