Monday, April 17, 2017

RPGs in Space, RPGs and space

What is the allure of gaming in space? For me, it boils down to two things:

1) You can go anywhere. Plans go awry? Just jump to another system and keep going.

2) You have the tech to do anything. Primitives think you're a god, and your wits are what keeps you above technological equals or superior beings.

This is also the allure of good spacefaring fiction. Look at Larry Niven's Known World stories, or Asimov's best tales. Although there are many veins of scifi, endless space is a rich and rewarding one.

Space is not the final frontier, unless you're gaming in the early days of space travel and are limited to one system. Space with a capital S is the endless frontier, the lack of frontier. This is the promise of spacefaring RPGs, yet they all too often hobble the freedom that space gaming should support.

Let's look at the first adventure module for the venerable Star Frontiers. The text starts,

"Welcome to the universe of the STAR FRONTIERS game! You are now a star-rover, one of the lucky few who spend their lives traversing the black void of deep space" (1).

This promise is quickly taken away by a railroad pirate attack with a staged result:

"Instead of landing in a choice site in a fully equipped shuttle, they are crash-landing in the middle of a hostile desert. They are light years from their home planets, with no hope of rescue in the foreseeable future." (7)

 Yes, the game promises, you can go anywhere and do anything. Then the GM is instructed to say but don't do either.

This is a load of bollocks. But Star Frontiers isn't alone.

The first adventure included with Traveler, Mission on Mithril, starts thus:

"Scout Service Starship CentralAxis, on detached duty, stutters out of jump space from Olympia three days late. That sort of delay spells almost deadly disaster to the jump drives of the tiny scout; without repairs, the ship will never jump again." (Mithril, 2)

This despite the text:

"Traveller is an entire universe to be explored" (Core Rules, 7)

Yet again the promise of Space is empty when access to space is denied.

I understand why this was so common. Science based gaming in an endless universe is daunting for the GM, so why not limit it to one locale? This kneejerk reaction is only natural given the dungeon crawling origin of the hobby.

Here's how to avoid this misstep:

1) Always allow access to space. The only times PCs shouldn't have access is when their decisions lead to this. They want to dangerously tinker with engines or start a fight that could take out their jump capability? So be it. But don't foist those constraints on them to further YOUR story. Space tales are about their story in your universe.

2) Always allow access to tech, if PC finances support it. This requires the GM to have a decent grasp of tech and its use and limitations. But remember that the GM has endless resources to throw at PCs (if they ask for it), and that turnabout is fairplay. If PCs use a device in an asymmetrical or novel way to get an advantage from technology, be sure that others in the same universe have as well, and the next NPC can draw from the same bag of tricks. Take note of any unique idea players have and add it to your arsenal.

3) Always remember there are consequences for PC actions. Yes, PCs can jump away from any shitstorm their adventures cause, far from local authorities. Yet science fiction gives us the proper response to this - the bounty hunter. From Star Wars to Cowboy Bebop, bounty hunters are called in when law enforcement fails, and can use any means or measures to bring in fugitives. Enough high-tech hunters on their trail and PCs might prefer surrendering to authorities.

So don't be cowed by the size of space. Read good fiction, get inspired, read the rules, take note of player ingenuity, and follow the PCs wherever they take you. The open minded GM will discover new things about his or her universe that will surprise them and make their job as rewarding as that of the players.


Acres, Marc et al. (1982). SF-0: Crash On Volturnus. 
 Lake Geneva: TSR.

Miller, Marc et al. (1983). "Mission On Mithril." Traveler CT Book Three: Adventures. Bloomington: Game Designer's Workshop.

Miller, Marc et al. (1983). "Mission On Mithril." Traveler CT Book Three: Adventures. Bloomington: Game Designer's Workshop.Core Rules

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hooked on Harmon Quest

So I am hooked on THIS.

Dan Harmon's celebrity-studded roleplaying sessions. Complete with faux 80's style animations.
Besides being great entertainment (episode 4 made me laugh so hard my wife turned up her TV and scowled), it has some great tips for gaming. Although not everyone may like how the games are run or played, here is what I'd steal:

For DMs

Plot the adventure between points on a map
Allow one shot guests to shine
Value gear over gold
Only roll dice when absolutely necessary
Let players try anything
Keep your tongue in your cheek

For players

Contribute to either the game, the atmosphere, or both
Stay in character so long as it adds to the entertainment
Try anything but don't break the game
Roll with the punches

Anyway, off to Canada tomorrow! Hip hip hooray!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

HPL's Racism & Adding Moral Complexity to Call of Cthulhu

1 Racism & Call of Cthulhu

Howard Philips Lovecraft was a racist.

Even a cursory reading of his stories will produce evidence of his phobia of racial impurity and belief in white superiority. There is the infamous start of Call of Cthulhu:

The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street.

Lovecraft scholar TS Joshi has commented on this bigotry many times, and HPL's bust was removed from the World Fantasy Awards because of this. A Google search of racism + lovecraft spools out innumetable articles and blogposts such as THIS.

So, point taken and cased closed, right? This doesn't mean we should stop reading his stories, which have morphed into a cultural property that has outlived their creator and his bigotry. For this same reason, Call of Cthulhu is still highly playable, with the prewar setting offering the complex moral dilemnas of the pre-Civil Rights struggle era.

Except that many games of CoC I've played in or run have been set in a pasturized past, an idyllic 1930s where color matters not, and the Good Guys band together to Save the World.

Not only is this the antithesis of the Mythos stories, it is a lost roleplaying opportunity.

2 Race, Class, & the Mythos

Roleplayers, due to the hobby's origin in the black & white moral alignments of D&D, naturally adhere to the polarity of good society versus evil monsters. In Call of Cthulhu, however, things should not be so cut and dried.

Logically, mythos creatures don't care or can't see human difference. Black, white, upper class, labourer, all taste the same to Cthulhu's idiot maw. Some creatures are merely entities stranded on an alien world, only dangerous when people rile them.

Looked at another way, cults are the ultimate Equal Opportunity Bureau. They employ any race or colour, especially those marginalized by White Society. They promulgate freedom of assembly and speech, and are free from the Victorian or Puritan sexual mores that constrain American society.

Conversely, it is the authority figures of White Society who put gay people and independent-minded women into mental institutions. They are the ones sending police into break up assemblies of people based on colour or ethnicity.

In CoC games, this complex moral landscape is too often 'flattened' to focus on the investigators vs monsters element. This reduces gameplay to a monster-of-the-week format, ironically at odds with the advice of Sandy Peterson and other CoC creators, and closer to the dynsmic of D&D in practice.

Here's how to reinject moral complexity into Call of Cthulhu.

3 Adding Moral Complexity to CoC

I suggest that flipping the 'good guys' or 'calvary' hiring or otherwise offering to aid the investigators is the quickest and surest way of recomplicating the moral landscape of CoC. Roll on the following table when PCs interact with authority. Note that there is a 50/50 chance of authority figures either openly show or hide their true nature, but even hidden allegiences should be easily uncovered by determined investigators.

1 National Socialists - In other words, these guys are American Nazi Partyers, intent on promoting American values by limiting immigration to the 'right types'. This movement was accepted by many Americans until Hitler gave it a bad name. This means that in prewar games, any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to Berlin.
2 Virulent anti-semites - not as political as Nazis, but equally vile. They will downright refuse to listen to, hire, or aid Jewish investigators. As above, any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to Berlin. Ironically have a ten percent chance of having Jewish ancestors.
3 Slavery apologists - deluded and dangerous believers that enslaving one's fellow man is a god given right. They will hire black people who keep quiet and work, but will refuse to listen to or treat them as equals, and abandon them if things go sour. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to KKK headquarters. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being racially mixed with black ancestors.
4 Misogynists - These people believe the Women's Right Movement is destroying America, and that women are better off at home. They will downright refuse to listen to, hire, or aid female investigators. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way into the hands of suffragette breakers, domestic abusers or pimps. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being women policing their own sex.
5 Homophobes - They will downright refuse to listen to, hire, or aid openly gay or lesbian investigators. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to  leaders of churches or public morals committees for use in anti-gay pogroms leading to incarceration or the mental hospital. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being closeted by social or family pressure.
6 Unforgivingly classist - These guys insist people should 'know their place' in society. They can trace their own bloodline to nobility, and only fraternize with people of the same class, of equal or higher EDU or occupational status. PCs with lower EDU or working class occupations will be ordered about and abandoned if things go sour. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will be used behind the scenes to maintain the status quo and stymy democratic reform or equality measures. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being from the lowest clasd of society.
7 Condescending imperialists - military or political types who go on about the civilizing nature of white culture and the barbarity of all others. See non-Eoropean peoples as inferior and treat as servants. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to the army unit or trading company at the head of a current imperialist adventure in Asia, Africa, South America, or Oceania. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being closeted by social or family pressure.
8 Nothing! These people are refreshingly unburdened by prejudices or hang ups. Expect them to be killed, transferred, or be replaced with one of the bigoted types above.

Flipping the allegience of anti-mythos authorities should provide lots of dilemnas and roleplaying fodder. Investigators should hesitate to get assistance from Nazis for fear of the McGuffin falling into the wrong hands; players of female characters will be frustrated by patriarchal benefactors who refuse to let them participate fully in the investigation; and players should feel the judgmental glare of NPCs on their character's social standing, race, and sexual identity.

Optionally, you could also re-interpret the motives of the cultists to avoid the evil cult kliche, where 'cultist' is shorthand for 'killable without remorse' .

1 Hereditary - Brought up in the Old Faith, these people do what they do out of ritual and habit. Showing them the consequences of their faith may persuade them to give it up.
2 Misguided - Like the above, but mistakenly believe their faith does good. Maybe they see Nyarlothep as Space Jesus, or Cthulhu as the biblical Kraken. Either way, there is a chance that revealing the true form of their deity will cause them to renounce it.
3 Secret protectors - These people know about the mythos and collect its totems to keep them from returning to the world. Their policy of working in secret makes them easy to misunderstand, and they often work in direct opposition to the authority of White Society introduced above.
4 Fakers - They don't believe in any of the rituals or tenets of the faith, but are just in it for kicks. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it.
5 Occultists - Seances and mesmerism were their 'gateway drug', but now they year for magic that truly works. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it.
6 Academics - After decades collecting and studying mythos tomes, these searchers of knowledge have graduated to applying the scientific method to invocations and summonings of things best left unknown. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it.
7 Impoverished underclass - Dominated historically because of racial struggle, these people have been relegated to the precarious edges of society and seek mythos power and aid to redress their plight. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it, or may embolden them to gain more knowledge or power to overthrow their oppressors.
8 Stereotypical cartoonishly evil - Mad megalomaniacs without rhyme or reason. Fire away!

4 Why Bother?

You might well ask why bother adding this layer of moral complexity to your games. If you really don't see any value in this, if you really are satisfied with men-vs-monsters, then carry on. There is nothing wrong with your preferred style of gaming.

However, if you find CoC often devolving into cartoonish Scooby Doo style adventures, you might want to give this a try. The promise of roleplaying is to immerse us in life experiences that are usually closed to us. By setting these in a morally complex universe, we exercise our empathy and understanding of other people.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

GURPS Ring Dream & Manga Part Two - Piledrivers and Money Shots

Welcome back to ringside!

Whereas the extensive manga seen in the first post on GURPS Ringdream set the scene for roleplaying with its wonderful fluff, the rest of the book's manga is put to use for the system's love of crunch. And oh what glorious crunch it is! Each wrestling move gets its own illustration, from Kick and Headbutt...

... to Elbow and Stomping...

...onto Double Foot Stamp and Lariat...

... don't forget Dropkick and Knee Drop...

...lest we omit Guillotine Drop and Hip Attack...

... Water Level Kick and Kneel Kick...

... Palm Strike and Rolling Sobat (?)...

... Spinning Elbow and Backfist (yawn)...

... Flying Meya (?) and Body Slam...

... Arm Whip and Waterwheel Drop...

Seriously, there's another ten pages like this, with art getting progressively porny. It could be manga fan service for fellows who like comic femdom, but it is equally plausible the creators were rabid wrestling otaku, considering the intricate descriptions of each move and its skill mods, damage, conditions of use, etc. I can imagine a group of rpg and wrestling otaku in the early 90s, visiting Tokyo pro-wrestling dojos and watching videos in preparation while taking copious notes.

But just when us laymen can take no more, they change the art style to suck us back in. There's the Can Burner (?) and Hanging Ceiling Lock...

... Flying Dropkick and Bodypress (see why I said porny)...

... Face Crusher and Flying Body Attack...

... and more but that's enough for me.

Then there's this little hex diagram of pre and post flying move positioning. Talk about excessive!

I turn to the character sheet, which has also been manga-ed up. Since many Japanese prefer playing with pregens, this statting of the introductory manga characters could let play progress right away.

What is interesting from a mechanics standpoint is the unique calculation of hit points visible on the sheet. Hit points are broken up into four limbs, head, and torso, which EACH part getting hit points equivalent to Health, except the torso, which gets HT x 2!! This would allow the massive give-n-take of damage of the genre. I dunno GURPS well enough to know if such rules exist in English versions, but they are intriguing.

Well, that's it for Ring Dream! I may post more manga rpg stuff, but expect some of my regular pop sociology and gaming over the next few weeks.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Flesh Interfaces RPG

Wish I had time to rpgify all this for Unknown Armies, Mage, or CoC.

Have at er

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dragon Half RPG swap

OK, so as you can see I have two copies of the Dragonhalf RPG:

Some readers have expressed desire for a copy. Well, here's your chance.

I'll be accepting PMs to Google or tedankhamen at hot mail.
If you know this blog and my interests (Stormbringer, Unknown Armies, other old funky stuff) and want to trade, make me an offer.

Remember, this book is only in Japanese, not English. If what you offer seems a higher value, I'll throw in something to even things out. Feel free to do the same.

Anyone interested?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

GURPS Ring Dream & Manga - Part One, Comic Life (UPDATED)

Here is another installment in my Dungeons & Manga series. However, this time I'll be going as far from D&D as you possibly can, both in terms of system and use of manga-style art.

Today I'll be looking at GURPS' Ring Dream: Women's Pro-Wrestling RPG.

Funnily enough, in my old bookstore scavenging, I have come across a fair amount of GURPS material. On the one hand are translations of books like GURPS Magic or Martial Arts, all with manga art boiled down into the pocket size versions that are still popular here. On the other are 'Japan-only' games created for the home audience. The same phenomenon happens for video games, where dating games or JRPGs might sell on the PS in Tokyo, but are never intended to go beyond Japan's borders, for both gaming niche and cultural unintelligbility reasons.

GURPS Ring Dream is one such Japan-only GURPS product. It would be interesting to see how the license was obtained...

Anyway, GURPS Ring Dream is described as a Women's Pro-Wrestling RPG, a genre represented in video games by Rumble Roses. Whereas English RPGs usually start with a blurb of fiction to set the scene, from the first page Ring Dream uses manga as the fictional underpinning to the game. The manga introduces us to Chika, the orange-haired girl who dreams of being a pro-wrestler. Allow me to translate:

Chika: (carrying two ice creams) Here I am older sister!
Sister: Look, it's starting! Hurry up! Did you get my coffee-flavored ice?
Chika: And my brown rice, green tea, and strawberry-avocado ice. It's delicious!
Sister: Chika, watch out!

(A lady pro-wrestler falls onto Chika) KER-SMASH!
Sister: Watch out! (guffaws at Chika smeared in ice cream)
Chika: (notices ice cream is all gone from her cone) Hunh?
Ring Announcer: Kumano has grabbed Ajihara's hair and thrown her to the center of the ring. Here comes the starting gong!

Downed wrestler: (groans)
Ring Announcer: Uh oh, Ajihara is completely pinned! Sonic is still outside the ring!
Chika: (spies the ice cream on top of Sonic's head) If I can just grab the scoop on top... it's do or die!
Ring Announcer: Ajihara is in a pinch!
Sonic: (jumps to her feet) Hiya!
Sister: Chika. what are you doing?
(sounds of battle as Sonic jumps in the ring and throws around her opponents)

Ring Announcer: With a Plasma Sonic Bomb and a Lobster Hold, Sonic and Ajihara win the match!
Chika: (outside of wrestler's dressing room) Thanks for your time!
Wrestler: No problem, sorry about what happened.
Sister: I was surprised that you went to Sonic's dressing room, Chika!
Chika: I've decided!
Sister: On what?
Chika: I'm going to become a pro-wrestler!
Ajihara: Sonia, who was that girl eating that load of ice cream?
Sonic: No idea...

I don't know about you, but this set up goes far beyond the pale of my GURPS experience. How would you GM this?? It sounds more like a storygame, or a Japanese storygame like Yuyake-Koyake than GURPS.

The manga fiction does not end there. After these 2 splash color pages, an entire manga chapter details life in the women's pro-wrestling dojo. Let's see what Chika goes through:

Chika: (carrying a bucket of water) I've brought back the water.
Girl 1: OK, let's clean this place up and go for breakfast!
Chika: Today's breakfast is dark seaweed broth with cucumber pickles and rice with a raw egg on top! (slobber slobber)

Chika: (notices the bucket she has spilled) Hunh?
Girl 1: Ack! We haven't gotten anything done!
Chika: I'm sorry!
Girl 1: Nothing! (smacks Chika in the ribs) Do you really wanna be a pro-wrestler or not? Unbelievable.
Girl 2: Hold it! Just because you like eating doesn't mean you don't have to hurry up and do things...

(sounds of girls scrubbing floor)
Chika: (gets slapped by both girls) Ouch!
Girl 1 & 2: Too late, we missed it! I don't want to get another convenience store meal...

Older Woman: (puts a tray laden with food down) Tah-dah!
Chika: Thank you ma'am!
Older Woman: I put aside enough for you three.
(girls hug her)
Older Woman: Cut it out you three.
Girls: I could marry you!

Girl 2: (grabbed from behind by Ms Yamaguchi) Ms Yamaguchi?
Yamaguchi: You're so slow! Eating is a part of your work, you three! OK, once you've finished let's go to the practice mat. Take your time but hurry up, chew slowly, and only have two refills or else you'll barf.
Girls: We understand!
Girl 1: (looking at Chika gobble down her food) I don't care either way, but you ever seen this girl puke?
Girl 2: She's already on her 3rd plate.

Yamaguchi: Hey! You there, do a proper breakfall! A breakfall!
Girls: (seeing Chika flop on the mat) Wow!

Girl 1: Chika did a true breakfall!
Girl 2: That's a first.
Yamaguchi: (grabs a girl from behind) Beginners shouldn't laugh at other beginners, or they'll learn a painful lesson! (throws the girl on the mat) You try a breakfall too! Who's next?

Yamaguchi: Next is neck muscle training!
Chika: (has girl pushing down on her head) Ack ack ack!
(sounds of heavy breathing, running)

Yamaguchi: (breathing heavily) Ok, let's do some light stretches and end MORNING practice!
Girl 1: Chika seems to be keeping up with practice recently, even though she's still the slowest.

Girl 2: So what?
Girl 1: That girl, when she came here, she couldn't do nothing. She still can't do much even now. I thought of the ten who joined here she'd be first to quit. The only thing she is good at is running.
Girl 2: And Chika...
Girl 1: What?
Chika: (thought balloon) I feel sick but it'll be a waste if I puke...
Girl 2: She was a long distance runner in junior high.

Girl 1: Long distance runner? That is no help in pro-wrestling.
Girl: Yes, but it means she's tough.
Girl 3: It means she's had a more normal existence than us tough fighter-types.
Yamaguchi: Shall we put Chika under Eriko for training?
Manager:  Don't be stupid! It's only been a few years since Eriko debuted as a pro.

Manager. (speechless for a second) If you say that, it means you have something up your sleeve. Tell me what.
Yamaguchi: Just seems interesting.
Manager: We've decided to put Chika under you for training today.
Eriko: But...
Manager: It's decided!
Chika: (bowing) Looking forward to learning from you!

This manga is a snapshot of the Japanese apprentice system used to educate craftsmen and martial artists. Shit rolls down hill, but with a reason - to toughen you up. Unlike western RPG fiction, this manga concentrates on what would normally be downtime training to set the scene for play. Still, as nice as it is, it leaves me scratching my head on how to use this in a game.

The manga doesn't end there, but continues in set piece spreads throughout the book. I'll skip over these, however, to take a look at something far more interesting - the mangatized descriptions of pro-wrestling moves and GURPS character sheets.

But that is a tale for another time...

Next up - Ring Dream Part Two: Piledrivers and Money Shots!