#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.

Mage 20th Anniversary’s PDF Materializes

Given the lack of substantive news on the development of Mage‘s 20th anniversary edition — “It’s in yet another round in editing!” was the refrain that I picked out from most of the backer updates — and that I don’t follow news from Onyx Path, I will cop to being downright astonished yesterday afternoon when the email came through with a link to the PDF version of the core book. The Mage anniversary project was something I backed almost out of thoughtless reflex. I don’t know that I ever expected it to truly be done, and certainly not within the time frame they estimated.

And while the project certainly isn’t done, the PDF release is a significant, publicly visible milestone to reach. As in, “Oh yeah, this thing is going to be real! Some day, there will be a new, big, fat purple book on my shelf.”

I only skimmed a few pages last night, but wow. Talk about diving right back into the thick of 1990s White Wolf role-playing material. All that defiant, first-person writing in italicized capital letters, occasionally with lots of exclamation points, really stirs up memories. (And gets the eyes rolling, but Mage as written is what it is, until I make it suit my preferences.)

#RPGaDAY 22: Best Secondhand RPG Purchase

#RPGaDAY prompts.

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

Changeling: the Dreaming cover art. A heraldic griffin holds a sword, rendered in stained glass.The same used section at Barnes & Noble that introduced me to Feng Shui also held a battered, heavily dog-eared copy of the first edition of Changeling: the Dreaming. Someone used or read that book a lot, and then decided it wasn’t for them anymore — or maybe they moved up to the second edition.

Changeling was a super muddled game. Science was generally evil, except when nockers abused it to build stupendous gadgets. Changelings were parasites who commandeered human bodies, except it was okay. And changelings were really fae muses, anyway, inspiring humans to dream big. Growing up was awful and a kind of small death — the first edition of Changeling has an amazing opening story/art piece about a changeling progressing through the stages of childing, wilder and grump — but no, it was really about losing the ability to dream and be creative, rather than simple age.

But anyway, I loved the game because it mashed together fantasy and the modern world, and did it in a relatively lighter tone than the rest of the World of Darkness, which I had been studiously avoiding prior to finding this rough gem. The reason it’s my best second hand purchase is because it drove me to find more books in the game line. Quarterstaff Games had an impressive selection of Changeling titles, which slowly became mine over time. Unlike many of my role-playing purchases in that era, I got to use a fair bit of Changeling material in a short-lived game, too.

And once I was visiting Quarterstaff regularly, it was a short hop to getting to know more people, trying more role-playing games and branching out into board games. I never stood a chance. And it was all because someone didn’t want that beat up core book anymore.

Honorable Mention

One day, I found three or four Planescape box sets for sale used at Quarterstaff Games. I forget what the prices were, but trying to be clever, I figured I could buy all of them, sell those I didn’t want on eBay — Planes of Law, Planes of Chaos and maybe a third one — and come out ahead, if not break even and basically have a free Planescape core box. In the end, after eBay fees, estimated shipping versus actual and the hassle of getting to the post office, I would have loved to say I broke even. At the most, it worked out to a heavily discounted core box, and one that I still have not gotten around to reading.

#RPGaDAY 19: Favorite Published Adventure

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

A fast food restaurant worker floats cross-legged over the counter. Glowing french fries are piled in her open palms.

Mak Attax serves it up right.

The adventure I would most like to have run or played in has got to be To Go, an Unknown Armies campaign book in which the main characters are caught up in the creation of a mystical creature from the unconscious mind of the American population. Surprisingly or not, the creation of this entity begins in a meat-packing plant with a sacrificial beast. From there, frozen beef patties are delivered all over the country by a single trucker. The players embroil themselves in catching up with those deliveries, trying to shape the way the creature forms, while other interested factions do the same.

It’s been a while since I read the book — and I since sold off, so I have the double whammy of having spoiled myself and am unable to run it — but I recall a Tim Powers-style poker game where characters can wager intangibles like their memories and abilities, but an encounter with a modern avatar of Dionysus and the bacchae (all referred to as “Becky”).

Man, now I really want to rustle up a copy of To Go and Unknown Armies to break up the Pathfinder marathon going on these days in my circles. To Go was the companion work to Break Today, which detailed Mak Attax, a mystical conspiracy embedded in a fast food restaurant chain. I hadn’t paid them much mind until I read the book, and then the reach of their organization and their potential for positive change amazed me. Often Mak Attax gets written off as uninformed losers, but then they pulled off the safe and happy new year in 1999, and no one blinked.

Welcome to Sunnydale Preview

Welcome to Sunnydale cover. A collage of actors from the show gaze moodily in promotional photographs.As follow-up to yesterday’s #RPGaDAY post, here’s a melancholy visitor from the past: the preview PDF of Welcome to Sunnydale, courtesy the Wayback Machine. Welcome to Sunnydale was the next Buffy the Vampire Slayer supplement in Eden Studios’ pipeline when they lost the license from Fox. There were more books written and various stages of development as well, like a Watcher’s handbook, and books for Angel paralleling the players and beasties books for Buffy, but apparently none were so far along as Welcome to Sunnydale was. So well developed, in fact, that Amazon lists it as “out of print.” If only we’d had that brief, shining window of market release.

Thanks to urbwar of RPG.net for digging up the Wayback Machine link.

#RPGaDAY 6: Favorite RPG Never Get to Play

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

The cheap answer is “all of them.” Yes, I get to play often enough and yes, I enjoy playing those games with my friends. But I don’t think it will surprise anyone that Pathfinder is not my favorite role-playing game.

Mage: the Ascension's cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

Mage: the Ascension’s cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

It is, of course, Mage: the Ascension. The odd sibling out of White Wolf’s core three role-playing games, Mage benefited from having such a broad scope — “You play wizards who can do things by wanting it really hard!” — that an amazing breadth and depth of points of view clustered under the eaves of its luditorium to play. So unlike Vampire and Werewolfin the original World of Darkness, Mage could be about street punk mages sticking it to the man of the wizardly establishment, science heroes duking it out over the moons of Jupiter or the archetypal struggle against the monolithic Technocracy. When your players’ characters can do anything within the scope of their mystical paradigms, the prospect of engaging all of them at once is more than a little daunting.

I ran Mage for a while, in Quarterstaff Games’ play area as an open game. You can read the session notes, if you like. As it was only the second campaign I’d ever run — after a brief, wildly uneven Mutants & Mastermindsgame — you can’t fault my audacity. But that was running, not playing. The only time I’ve ever gotten to play Mage was in college, and that was such a wash-out on my part as a player and a person, we will never speak of it again.

Maybe someday, though. I just need to meet an industrious GMing type who loves Mage, but cannot abide crossovers. They must be out there.

July 20th, 1969: The Magic Came Back

Greyhawk Grognard reminded us of the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16th. In turn, I am reminded that Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon on July 20th, 1969 — though my memory is fuzzy whether it was Neil’s first step, or the landing of the lunar module itself, as apparently there was a six hour difference between the two — that generated enough Glamour from the millions watching to allow a gate from Arcadia to open and let the exiled sidhe stream through, kicking off the modern era of Changeling: the Dreaming.

Prior to that, the kith living on Earth eked out an existence, surviving primarily by dint of developing the changeling way ritual, which allowed a fae spirit to graft itself onto a mortal form. No one asked the mortal form if they cared to partake in this. The inspiration of seeing humans land on the moon generated enough creative energy, in comparison to the drought of the centuries since the Sundering, to allow a gate from Arcade to open. And out poured streams of sidhe, exiled from Arcadia and thoroughly expecting to be in charge of whatever common rabble was left.

Whatever I always wondered was: what were the circumstances behind that gate opening? Was it pure coincidence? Destiny? Did the rulers of Arcadia kick those sidhe out, and the far end of the gate automatically latched on to an energy source strong enough to sustain it?

We’ll never know, because that iteration of Changeling was discontinued by virtue of not publishing anymore books long ago, and heaven knows if there will be a 20th anniversary edition of White Wolf’s wayward step child of a supplemental game line. At the very least, there ought to have been a story line where the “common” kith decide to have words with the faceless individuals who keep dumping houses of entitled sidhe on their doorstep.

Ham-Fisted Bun Vendors of the Occult

Carl Kolchak fends off a vampire with two crossed pieces of metal.

Kolchak does the best with what he has.

Carl Kolchak’s solutions were so haphazard. Manufactured, non-canonical examples include:

  • A mallet he cadged from the janitor and a splintered chair leg to fight a vampire.
  • Herbs that a book he bought at the five and dime claimed would protect from witchcraft.
  • Tinfoil folded in proportions cited in sacred architecture as defending against psychic intrusion.

In short, there must have been any number of times that Kolchak’s spit and baling wire efforts didn’t pan out. But the man in the seersucker suit lived to report another day, so there must have been some resolution to the supernatural threats that didn’t include a hibernation or migratory component.

Reminds me of the set-up for Eternal Lies, the Trail of Cthulhu campaign where the player characters are drawn into the consequences of a ritual that another group of investigators failed to prevent some years prior.

N.B. I would be remiss in not acknowledging “ham-fisted bun vendor” as first being uttered by Jon Pertwee in the Doctor Who serial “Terror of the Autons.” So possibly Robert Holmes’ creation, Terrence Dicks’, or Pertwee’s own.


Linear Sorcerers in Mage’s Traditions

Mage: the Ascension's cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

Mage: the Ascension’s cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

For years, I was never really clear why the revised edition of Mage: the Ascension kept bringing up practitioners of linear magic, which is magic that is not the kind of dynamic will-working that your average mage-type starts off with, but the typical “five dots and five specific powers” of White Wolf’s other games. Sure, it’s inexplicably paradox-free, but it’s limited. You get the five or so powers in a path and that’s it. There’s none of the flexibility of will-working. Some traditions are depicted as holding linear magicians in rather less esteem than their True Magick counterparts. While the Traditions aren’t in a sufficiently plush position on the occult stage to be so snooty about the dynamic-linear divide that they don’t allow those sorcerers membership, it still seems odd that

Then, in a thread discussing the disconnect within Tradition Book: Order of Hermes Revised, I find the comment that makes everything click, “Moreover, many (most?) of the Sleepers who undertake study with real Hermetics will become Hedge Wizards/Sorcerers of varying quality, not unlike the millions of Sleepers who work for/with the Technocracy as engineers, programmers, and the like. Some few will Awaken, but a bunch of allies (consors?) who share your Paradigm enough to not count as “witnesses” are valuable in and of themselves, to say nothing of whatever minor (or not so minor) magic-lite techniques that may be able to enact.”

Aside from the practical advantages listed above, it’s that Traditions and Crafts with a “knowledge is the key to mystical power” paradigm educate everyone the same. All the recruits go through the same education of sympathetic correspondences and Enochian chants. It’s that some of those students awaken, becoming capable of dynamic will-working, while others master the linear arts taught within the curriculum. It’s the difference between Harry and Ron, who slog through Hogwarts as average students, getting better at the required work with practice, and Hermione, who masters everything and turns out to be such a gifted student that she composes her own spells and modifies standard formulae to her needs.

Looking at it that way helps me make a lot more sense of linear sorcerers’ place in the world of Mage.

Wardens of the Rosy Cross

Through a sufficiently skewed lens, the Rosicrucians of WitchCraft can be the jailers of Creation, locked in with the inmates. Think about it. They’re one of the major adherents of the belief system that there is a single Creator responsible for the nine sephiroth. Only the Creator’s gone off somewhere, leaving Kether vacant.

At the same time, the Rosicrucians are very concerned with protecting Malkuth from the depredations of the Mad Gods, beings from outside Creation entirely. Sure, the Mad Gods look like appalling transgressions of fleshcrafted nightmare and what they do to their mortal worshipers is no less pleasant, but in a well-built prison of the mind, wouldn’t it be sensible to turn the imprisoned’s very senses against them?

With such a decisive command of the laws behind the universe, particularly any number of angels and other spirits, it doesn’t take too much to start wondering just how in charge the Rosicrucians really are — and whom they truly serve.