Sunday, October 2, 2011

Shadowrun, First Edition

The 1980s were a strange decade.  For those who don't remember, or tried to forget, it was an era of electronic music, strange makeup, and unfortunate hairstyles.  It was the era of Reagan and Gorbachev.  It was the era when the depths of corporate greed and influence were not only laid bare but even lauded and glorified, and when authors and directors started to predict that multinational conglomerates could become laws unto themselves, their readers and viewers could believe it.  Blade Runner and RoboCop were in theaters, Neuromancer was on the bookshelves, Max Headroom was on TV, and ShadowRun sunk its mechanized appendage into the hearts and minds of pen-and-paper gamers and never let go.  This was the era of the cyberpunk, when the Information Age seemed to hold unlimited potential to both unite, and alienate.

ShadowRun may not have been the first cyberpunk-themed RPG on the market - R. Talsorian Games' first edition of Cyberpunk (2013) came out shortly ahead, and Iron Crown Entertainment's Cyberspace shipped around the same time as FASA's entry - but it's the game that has been most successful in cross-marketing itself.  In addition to four published rules editions, the world has seen at least 40 ShadowRun novels, four video games, and a line of action figures with optional miniature wargame rules.  What makes ShadowRun so unique, what makes it stand out from all the other neon-bathed, robot-armed, rock & roll hacker games, is its overt inclusion of supernatural, Tolkienist fantasy elements.  Alongside souless company men and marginalized gangers with New Wave haircuts, one finds a cavalcade of orcs, trolls, elves, and dwarves, with magicians hucking fireballs and Native American shamans performing world-altering spirit dances.  The result is a little bit like that old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial, with two disparate genres colliding into one, hopefully delicious morsel.
For those requiring visual aids, this is what "normal" cyberpunk looks like:

This is what ShadowRun looks like:

According to the ShadowRun backstory, the Earth's magical energies ebb and flow across five-thousand year periods, roughly corresponding to the Mayan sun cycles.  For the last few millennia, magic has been weak across the globe, resulting a dependance on technology, culminating in the Industrial and Information ages. When the current cycle came to an end in 2011 (an error on the part of the author and editor which later editions decided to run with. They meant 2012), humans began spontaneously mutating into fantasy races and the Native American tribes (and other practitioners of "old" religions) kicked off a magical revolutionary war against plutocratic governments and mega-corporations.  Reading between the lines, you'll see that this is the exact same concept - indeed, the exact same setting - as Earthdawn, with the clock advanced around 10,000 years.  Earthdawn, as noted in a previous post, is laced with phenomenally atmospheric prose and descriptions, and an imaginative take on high fantasy that makes it unique in both tone and mechanics.  ShadowRun, being an earlier effort, lacks most of this development.  Magic works roughly like every other skill, the fantasy races could easily be replaced by mutants or genetically engineered humans, and the entire backstory of Native Americans organizing an enormous Ghost Dance to devastate the technological world feels both a little bit racist and a little contrived, as though the writers flipped a coin between it and a 'nuclear war' storyline.

Just a little bit racist.
Aside from their setting, SR and ED have nothing mechanically in common.  While Earthdawn requires a full set of polyhedral dice and a working knowledge of algebra, ShadowRun makes all of its rolls on the lowly d6.  Lots and lots of d6 to be precise.  Using a roll-over, dice-pool system, you'll be throwing handfuls of these venerable cubes around, which is probably why the designers went with a die than be acquired cheaply from basically anywhere, rather than specialized gaming stores.  Every dice-test in ShadowRun is given a difficulty or target number from 2-6, with the player selecting a number of dice from his associated pool to roll for the test.  If he hits or exceeds the target with at least one die from the pool, the test is a success; more successful die rolls improve the quality of his success, from skin-of-the-teeth to critical.  The number of failed dice is usually not an issue, unless the player both fails a test, and more than half of his dice come up 1's.  This results in a "glitch," a sort of critical-failure where the GM gets full discretion on determining just how badly the character's life has been ruined.
Character creation in ShadowRun is an odd duck.  The game comes with a number of pregenerated characters, called Archetypes, which it recommends players use, with provisions to swap certain attribute and skill values around to suit your needs.  The bulk of character customization comes from purchasing gear and equipment; generally speaking, one Decker (hacker) will be statted out just like any other, every Merc will be approximately the same, etc.  Options exist to modify each pregenerated Archetype to change its race (for example, switching from a human Wage Mage to an Elvish one, or creating a Dwarf private detective), and there is a brief paragraph and table for designing your own archetype from scratch, however.  For a custom archetype, the player must first jot down the following broad categories: Attributes, Skills, Tech, Magic, and Race.  Each category will be ranked by importance, from 0 to 4; the number of points a player can spend on Attributes and Skills is directly dependant on how each respective category is ranked, while the character's Tech ranking determines how much cash he has to spend on Cyberware, Contacts, and other starting equipment.  Race is Human unless the player gives it a rank of 4, in which event he can choose one of the Meta races (Ork, Elf, etc).  A Magic rating of 3 provides a Meta with magical power, while 4 provides a Human with magic.  0-2 provide no benefit.  It isn't that different from the Storyteller system, all told, though it works on a much lower end scale than the average Vampire or Exalted character.

I'll be exploring the game's relatively deepest character generation option here, building an Archetype from the ground up using the game's ranking point buy system.  Here are the ranks:

Attributes 1 = 17 points
Skills 3 = 30 points
Tech 2 = 20,000Y
Magic 0
Race 4 = Elf, +1 Quickness, +2 Charisma
For my purposes here, I've decided to try to make an Elf rock star.  We'll see how this goes.  As a Metahuman character, I have to roll up a magical allergy (like Vampires with sunlight, or Werewolves with silver).  Rolling 2d6 on the appropriate allergy table, and I find my character is sensative to Iron, which is highly inconvenient as this extends to all ferrous materials, including steel.  Rolling on the severity table, I luck out and hit Mild.  My character should be fine as long as he remembers to wear gloves.
For starting cash, all characters roll 3d6 x 1000.  I wind up with 9,000 nuyen to start with, in addition to the 20,000 from my Tech score; the 9k is used to determine the character's income level (lower class), and can be used to be stock items, but cannot be used to purchase any custom gear; no contacts, no cyberware.  Just about every other attribute and skill from here on out is a point-buy, with a handful of exceptions: the character's Reaction is determined by adding Quickness and Intelligence, dividing by 2, and rounding down to the nearest whole number, while the character's Essence starts at 6, and is reduced by Cyberware installation.

So there you have it.  ShadowRun.  One part Gibson, one part Tolkien, two parts this:

ShadowRun, First Edition can be purchased at RPGNow.  All images are sourced from the First Edition (except for Labyrinth's David Bowie).
ShadowRun is currently published by Catalyst Game Labs, and is now in its fourth edition.
The current, 20th Anniversary Edition of ShadowRun's 4th Edition rules is available as a PDF from RPGNow, or as a hardcopy from BattleCorps.
Non-Playable Characters is raising money for the Children's Miracle Network!  If you've been enjoying this blog, please consider a donation.  Every single penny goes straight to helping sick kids at East Tennessee Children's Hospital.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

RuneQuest, Second Edition

In the mid 70's, a small games company called Chaosium Inc was founded, for the sole purpose of publishing a fantasy-warfare boardgame called White Bear and Red Moon, set in the fictional world of Glorantha.  Unlike miniature wargames, such as the phenomenally popular Warhammer franchises, White Bear and Red Moon was essentially a self-contained box set.  There were no miniatures to buy or paint or convert, no terrain to build, no additional rulebooks to buy; all the rules, a playable map of the entire known world, and a pile of cardboard unit counters all came in the box.  Like Warhammer, the game was complex, unbalanced, and missing a sizeable portion of the rules at its first printing.  From this humble beginning, however, Chaosium would expand its interest and eventually gain hold of some of the biggest licenses in the roleplaying game industry, including Call of Cthulhu, a game based on the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, along with Stormbringer, based on the dark fantasy works of Michael Moorecock.  Most of Chaosium's RPG titles are powered by a roll-under percentile system known as Basic Role Playing, or BRP, which has its origins in 1978, with a black-and-white sourcebook that revisits the low-fantasy, wartorn world of Glorantha.

With RuneQuest, Chaosium attempted to expand upon the history and mythology of Glorantha, detailing a long and storied path in which empires rose and fell, and wars were waged on which the fate of entire civilizations hinged.  Unfortunately, most of this history unfolds in a very distinct "tell, but don't show" fashion.  Events like the Dragonkill War ("named," the book says, "for what the dragons did.") and concepts such as the Lunar Empire's need to extend something called the Glowline are mentioned for a few brief sentences, but never explored or explained in any detail.  1600 years of Gloranthan history is crammed into three pages, with the first thousand or so taking up just about a half page.  The result resembles a modern Wikipedia stub, with almost no time spend developing an atmosphere or tone for the world, except for a brief mention that Glorantha is a Bronze Age society, similar to Robert Howard's Hyboria or Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar (which are both, technically, Iron or even Dark Age societies).

What RuneQuest does bring to the table, however, is the Basic Role Playing system, which Chaosium claimed was the most flexible, adaptable, and universal system of the time.  According to the book, BRP can be easily adapted to any setting or time period.  Players were invited, indeed encouraged, to create their own expansions, monsters, and spells for use with the system, and even to submit their creations to Chaosium for publication, in exchange for free copies of whatever splat books were produced from their submissions.  This open and accepting attitude towards fan submissions and fan-developed material crops up very rarely in pen-and-paper gaming, and I don't believe it ever took off on any sort of appreciable scale until Wizards of the Coast published OGL D20 in 2000.  In this respect, at least, Chaosium was ahead of its time with BRP.

"Have fun," it says.  We'll see about that.

Player-characters in RuneQuest have seven primary Characteristics, and nine derrived Abilities.  The Characteristics are randomly rolled, and include RPG mainstays like Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Dexterity, and Charisma, while also adding in two new stats: Size and Power.  Size is exactly what it sounds like, indicating the character's height, weight, and/or physical mass.  Characters with high Size can take more damage, while characters with low Size are stealthier and harder to hit.  Power, meanwhile, determines the character's magical ability and his or her in-tuned-ness with the mystical world.  Each of RuneQuest's characteristics advance in slightly different ways: Strength and/or Constitution can be raised up to match the highest rolled value assigned to either Strength, Constitution, or Size.  If either Strength or Constitution has the highest rating of the three, then that Characteristic cannot be raised at all, except by magic.  Similiary, Size can never be increased through non-magical or non-divine means, as a character is assumed to have finished growing by the time he begins adventuring.  Dexterity can be increased as the campaign goes along, up to a predefined, racial maximum.  Intelligence, like Size, can never be altered through non-magical means, while Charisma can rise and fall based on the character's success or failure in adventures.  Finally, a character's Power score is spent whenever he casts spells, while also influencing his starting hit points, as well as modifying various derrived combat abilities.  As all of these scores are randomly generated, it is possible to create characters who are multitalented and versatile, though it's just as easy to wind up with a character who is mild to moderately incompetent across the board.

As noted earlier, each Characteristic is determined by a random dice roll.  For humans, we roll 3d6 on every Characteristic, resulting in a starting score from 3 - 18.  As RuneQuest is a percentile based game, these values are largely meaningless for making tests.  In order to generate useful target numbers, the system relies on nine Abilities, whose scores are determined by a series of tables converting Characteristic ranges into percentages.  Each Ability is modified by several characteristics, with Intelligence and Power showing up in almost everything.  As an example, a character's Attack Ability is based on Strength (his ability to swing a weapon), Dexterity (his ability to aim the swing), Intelligence (his knowledge of fighting techniques), and Power ("A Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.").  In this case, higher Characteristic scores provide a 5 to 10 percent increase to the target number, while lower scores lower the target number.  Remember, because we're using a roll-under system, higher targets are better.  Now, let's start rolling some numbers so we can see this in action.

STR: 14

CON: 16

SIZ: 8

INT: 12

POW: 7

DEX: 11

CHA: 12

Constitution is my top score, and will provide a handy little bonus to several Abilities.  Strength comes up next, also higher than average, and will help out with damage dealing. Strength can also be raised up to a maximum of 16 if I have the money for training.  Power comes in pretty low at 7, but not low enough to penalize me.  The Size score of 8 will penalize my damage output and hit points, while providing a bonus to stealth.  These Abilities will be shown in more detail below.

Attack: +0%

Parry: +0%

Defense: +0%

HP: 15

Damage: +1d4

Perception: +0%

Stealth: +05%

Manipulation: +0%

Knowledge: +0%

In other words, this character gets +5 to any Stealth target number, and deals an additional 1d4 damage when successfully hitting with any weapon.  He suffered a -1 penalty to HP but still came out higher than average, and everything else is squarely average.  At this point, the character is roughly mechanically complete, though depending on starting cash there's still room to improve certain Characteristics through training, as well as altering abilities through Equipment.  Starting cash is determined by the character's background, which like everything else in this creation process, is randomly rolled, this time on a d%.

Background: 54: Townsman

2d100 Starting Cash: 32 Lunas

32 L is not enough for training, unfortunately.  However, I do get the following generic starting equipment:

GENERIC CLOTHING: Tunic, breeches, boots, underwear, cloak, hat.

GENERIC EQUIPMENT: Belt knife, and tinderbox.

TOWNSMAN EQUIPMENT: Flasks, torches, lamps, rope, trade/craftsman tools.

Now, in order to survive a life of adventure, I'm going to need some weapons and protective gear.  32L isn't a whole lot of money, but it's enough for a pair of Leather Pants (10L, absorbs 1 damage), a Leather Vest (10L, absorbs 1 damage), and a Quarterstaff (1d8 Damage, 20% hit rate, 15HP).  You might notice that my staff has 15HP; that's the amount of damage the staff can parry before it breaks.  At this point, the character is ready to go out and adventure, and likely get himself killed.  To help improve his chances, RuneQuest offers a set of optional rules to allow for a certain amount of "pre-game" experience.  I've decided to have him join a mercenary company in order to get a leg up in life, allowing me to roll percentage for a chance to improve his STR, CON, DEX, POW, and CHA.  My results are listed below.

STR: 61: +0

CON: 64: +0

DEX: 72: +0

POW: 12: +1

CHA: 71: +0

So after some time on the march with a band of disparate mercenaries, our Townsman has increased his Power level by one point.  Not that impressive, but he does get other benefits.  Working with mercenaries provides access to better armor, weapons, and training, as well as a shot at looting some cash from sacked villages and such.  Rolling another d%, I wind up with a score of 91, putting him in the company's Light Cavalry.  This automatically gives him an 80% riding skill, 50% to another cavalry skill of his choice, and 30% to all other cavalry skills.  He also gets 2500L worth of spells, along with access to a level two "xenohealing" spell automatically.  For spells, I've purchased Healing at 2 points, Detect Enemies, one point of Bladesharp (+5% to hit, +1 damage), and Speedart (adding +15% to-hit and +3 damage to non-enchanted arrows).  Rolling a d6 for equipment, I find he gets access to a bow, a one-handed sword, and a small shield.  He also gets some additional armor: cuirboilli cuirass, greaves, and vambraces, leather skirt, and an open helm.  He also scores another 756L in spoils and pay.  Things are looking up!

For this week's sheet, I've actually left out a few things.  The character wound up with enough cash on hand to purchase some additional skill training, but to be entirely honest, I've written most of this with a bit of a hangover, and find the system to be too fiddly to deal with at the moment.  I've also left out a few places where I'm supposed to fill in equipment properties more than once.

A "Player's Edition" (excising the monsters and encounters) of RuneQuest Second Edition can be downloaded for free at this fansite. The cover of this edition is NSFW

Moon Design Publications publishes HeroQuest, a successor to RuneQuest using the same Glorantha setting, but with a new system.  HeroQuest can be purchased at the publisher's site, or at RPGNow.

Chaosium Inc, the original publishers of RuneQuest, have since released the Basic Role Playing system as a stand-alone, generic product, also available from RPGNow.

If you're just interested in seeing the NSFW RuneQuest cover, click here.

Now, it's time to call it a night.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Doctor Who Role Playing Game: Adventures Through Time & Space

This week, one of my favorite television shows returned to the air for the second half of its sixth season, after what felt like an eternity on hiatus.  I am referring, of course, to the 21st century revival of the BBC's long-standing Doctor Who franchise, with which I've been perhaps unhealthily obsessed since I was a small child, staying up far too late with my eyes glued to PBS.  In honor of this particular, cultural phenomon, let's step into Non-Playable's own gaming time machine and vwoorp back about 26 years.

It is 1985, and FASA is riding high on the success of Battletech, their giant-robot miniatures-based wargame.  In a few short years, they will publish Shadowrun and Earthdawn, forever cementing them as the go-to gaming company for people bored with AD&D.  In the meantime, they came up with this.

For folks not familiar with Doctor Who, it is perhaps the world's longest running science fiction television program, running for 26 seasons between 1963 and 1989, two theatrical spinoff films starring Peter Cushing, a television movie on FOX in 1996, and the aforementioned revived series running from 2005 onwards.  Wikipedia claims a total of 777 episodes for the series as of August 2011, which is pretty impressive in its own right.  The program - and the adventures for this game - run the gamut from adventure, to horror, to mystery, typically with a science-fiction bend (such as the vampire inhabiting the gothic mansion high in the mountains turning out to be an alien, etc), while de-emphasizing the direct application of violence as a solution to problems.  The heroes typically triumph by out-thinking and out-manuevering their opponents, using creativity and ingenuity to turn the villain's plot back against him in some way, rather than simply overwhelming him with force.  This is a stark contrast to the dungeon crawls and other, combat-heavy, "GM vs. Players" style of gaming that once dominated the market, and it's an idea that we don't see much more of until the cooperative storytelling games from White Wolf come into their own.

Although time travel is a central idea to the Doctor Who RPG, it features only sparsely into the mechanics.  The time machine is simply a way for the party to arrive at the adventure, and leave upon its completion, and maintaining causality is typically not something the players or characters need to worry about.  For the purposes of this game universe, time is recorded objectively by a mindblowingly advanced and extremely pompous race of Time Lords, and history is effectively immutable, although the recorded outcome of events hinges on the player-characters' involvement.  For example, William Shakespeare was obviously not murdered by ancient aliens on the eve of the performance of his lost play, Love's Labour's Won.  However, this outcome was only due to the intervention of two resourceful time travellers, who happened to be in the right place at the right moment.  For the few times where time travel may be required as part of the game's plot, the characters make a skill roll to pilot their time machine to the correct spacial and temporal locations, and the results are compared against a difficulty table; successes place the characters when and where they want or need to be, failures can put them off by degrees from "a few feet" to "somewhere on the same planet," or "within a few hours" to "within a few decades."  The same interaction table is used for roughly every skill usage or saving throw.

This same success/failure table is used for all dice-related tests in the game.  All of the player's attributes (strength, endurance, dexterity, charisma, mentality, and intuition) are recorded with a Performance Rating, and all of their skills are recorded with a Proficiency Rating, both of which are leveled from I to VII.  Each rating costs a certain number of Attribute or Skill points, from 1 - 30, and both skills and attributes scale at the same rate.  Each character begins play with a score of 6 points in each Attribute, and 36 + 2d6 Attribute points to distribute in order to raise those scores.  To purchase Skills, the character begins with a Skill Point pool equal to the total number of Attribute Points (including the 6 "free" points in each Attribute), plus a number of Bonus Skill Points for skills based around Attributes, depending on that Attribute's score.  For example, if the character has a total of 15 points in Dexterity, they'd have Performance Level V, and get a bonus of 5 skill points to spend on DEX-related skills (like shooting a rifle, picking a pocket, etc).

In addition to Attribute and Skill levels, players will randomly roll for a Special Ability for their character.  Most results (except for 10 & 11) result in some additional ability, ranging from an enhanced Attribute (confering additional skill points and mastery), to supernatural psychic powers.  Appearance, age, and number of Regenerations used (if playing a Time Lord) are also randomly generated, though with the exception of Regenerations, these don't have any direct impact on gameplay.

Doctor Who uses a roll-under system, in which the player rolls 2d6 for all skill and attribute tests, with the goal of either meeting a target number, or scoring below the target number.  The lower the player's result is from the target, the better the success; if the target is 7 and the player rolls a 2, it's a massive critical.  On the other side of things, the higher the player's result is from the target, the worse the failure; rolling 12 with a target of seven is a massive fumble, with serious consequences.  Target numbers are determined by comparing the proficiency or performance rating of a character's skill or attribute, located along the Y-axis of a difficulty table, with the task's difficulty rating on the X-axis, modified for various penalties or bonuses.  The target number is at the intersection of the two axes. I would normally reproduce this table below, but as it takes up at least half a landscape page, and forms at least 50% of the game's core mechanic, I've decided to cut it for space concerns.  Instead, have some Daleks


The list of factors that modify a skill challenge is extensive, to say the least.  In addition to the usual concealment and range modifiers one expects out of a game, penalties are enacted if the attacker is moving, if the target is moving, or if the attacker is using a weapon other than the exact one he is skilled in; for example, if a UNIT commando from the 1960s is trained to Professional proficiency in submachineguns (as such soldiers are frequently seen using in the TV series), but has to attack with a laser rifle captured from an evil, invading Cyberman, he can't use his entire Level V proficiency, though may get to use half of his rating due to the weapon being similar.  In addition to these modifiers, further crunch comes into play when determining the number of actions a character can take during a turn.  Each action available to the character costs Action Points (AP), with different actions having different values.  The total number of AP available to the character is determined by his DEX value, divided by 3, rounded down, plus 4.  Are you still following along?  Using our earlier example of someone with a DEX of 15, we get:

(15/3) + 4 = 9 AP.

My current attempt at a mechanically complete character sheet is below.  I am relatively certain that the character is playable, per the rules of the blog, however due to organizational issues in the book (the rules for the game are spread across three different volumes within a single box set, with most but not all character mechanics discussed in the Player's Manual, while other's are described in the GM's Operation Manual), I'm not entirely confident that I haven't missed something. 

My eternally-supportive future-wife also attempted a sheet this week, apparently having a high tolerance for pain and unpleasantness.

Okay, maybe not that high.

A new Doctor Who: Adventures in Time & Space game based on the new series is available on RPGNow.  I believe it uses an entirely new rule system, rather than a revised edition of the game reviewed here.

The BBC's official Doctor Who website contains more information about both the current television series, and the original version.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Earthdawn, 1st Edition

First released by FASA in 1993, Earthdawn was the game for several of my internet acquaintences back in the day.  My friend Joe was such a fan that he formed his own gaming company, Living Room Games, and acquired a license to produce splats, and later an entire Second Edition.  As I don't have a habit of being nice to the games I review, I will not be touching LRG's Second Edition out of deference to my old pals, and the Third Edition from Red Bricks LLC is too new for the purposes of this blog, so we'll be examining good ol' First Edition today.

Earthdawn, in all its incarnations, can be described as a sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy.  Hundreds of years ago, the background goes, the world's magical aura peaked, allowing mindnumbing Horrors from the astral plane to cross over into the material world and wreak all manner of chaos and destruction.  This was the time of the Scourge, and during it, most life on the surface of the world was erradicated.  However, the "Name-giving" (sentient) races of the world (humans, elves, orcs, trolls, dwarves, etc) were warned of this impending disaster by various wizards and shamans and prophecies, and constructed elaborate, underground cities called "kaers" in which to hide and wait out the destruction.  The kaers were sealed shut for centuries while the Horrors plagued the earth; some cities survived unharmed, others were breached by rampaging monsters or natural disasters.  The setting's "present day" is about four centuries after the start of the Scourge, when the magical aura has started to subside, and most Horrors have been forced to retreat back to the astral plane.  The majority of the surviving kaers have opened and civilization has returned to the surface, though some vast, underground cities remain closed, their populations unaware of the changes taking place over their heads.  For those playing along at home, you may have noticed that you can replace "kaer" with "vault" and "Horror" with "atomic bomb," and suddenly you're playing Fallout, four years earlier.

All of this is detailed in the book's extensive background fluff, primarily written "in character," as anecdotes, histories and oral traditions recorded by denizens of the fictional world, and punctuated with beautiful art, ranging from fully realized paintings to atmospheric pen-and-ink drawings.  Beyond its postapocalyptic tone, however, Earthdawn sets itself apart from most other fantasy RPGs by largely doing away with linear character progression.  Rather than levels, character advancement is measured in "Circles," with each Circle containing a new set of talents and abilities that the character can access.  However, acquiring a certain about of experience does not automatically advance a character to the next circle.  Rather than the usual XP systems, Earthdawn awards players "Legend Points," which can be used to purchase Karma (which can be spent to improve dice rolls, similar in some ways to Action Points and Action Dice in various d20 flavors), or used to improve Skills, Talents, and other class-related abilities, or finally to gain a new circle alltogether.  Furthermore, in the Earthdawn system, dice rolls increase in magnitude by "Steps," representing increasingly potent combinations of dice.  The number of dice rolled when a character, for example, swings a broadsword, would be determined by adding their appropriate, governing attribute (Strength) to the Damage Step of the sword.  In other words, while most games would assign a static dice value to that big, two handed greatsword, Earthdawn simply assigns it a modifier that improves your overall attack and damage rolls. The degree of improvement corresponds to a combination of dice, noted on the Step/Action table, a portion of which is reproduced below.

Unlike the previous games reviewed here, Earthdawn uses a point-buy system for generating attributes, allowing players a customizable, yet objectively measurable way to design their characters.  All characters begin with 66 attribute points to spend.  A score of 5 costs 0 points, scores below 5 grant additional points, scores above 5 cost points.  My initial attribute array, before adding in racial modifiers, appears below.

Attribute Points: 66


Dex: 11

Str: 9

Tough: 11

Per: 17

Will: 18

Cha: 11


I've buffed up Perception and Willpower, having decided to create a Nethermancer (a magic-user focusing on spirits and other planes of existence), whose spells rely heavily on those two attributes.  I've decided to build a T'skrang, part of a race of flamboyant lizard-people.  While not entirely optimized for spellcasting, my gaming group has a tradition of off-type lizards, and I felt like joining in.  Now, the T'skrang gets a +1 to Dex, Toughness, and Charisma, making my racially modified stats look more like: 


Dex: 12

Str: 9

Tough: 12

Per: 17

Will: 18

Cha: 12

With that sort of array, he's strictly a back-row character, but we'll see just what he can do shortly.  Before we get to skills and spells and talents, we need to derrive our character's Death Rating (hitpoints), Wound Threshold (amount of damage he can take before suffering an injury), and Unconsciousness Rating (amount of damage he can take before being knocked cold), along with his carrying capacity, movement speed, initiative, and other secondary attributes.  Fortunately, there are no complex calculations here; everything is based on the Attribute scores above, converted via a massive table on page 52 of the book.

With that out of the way, now we can get to skills and talents.  At start, an Earthdawn character gets one Rank 1 "Artisan Skill," and two ranks worth of "Knowledge Skills."  Magic users get one Artisan Skill, Robe Embroidery, so there you have it.  Artisan skills are more or less mechanically useless and under normal circumstances, an Earthdawn character will never actually have to make an Artisan skill check; according to the background fluff, individuals who are corrupted by Horrors are unable to concentrate long enough to perform artisan tasks (such as sculpting, weaving, etc), so having an Artisan skill proves the character is uncorrupted.  Now, because Nethermancers deal with weird magic from other realities, I'm going to go ahead and spend two ranks on Knowledge: Horrors.

With skills assigned, we get into the real mechanical meat of the character, Talents.  Talents are where each discipline becomes mechanically distinct from one another; an archer will have talents for aiming and evasion, a cavalryman will have talents for riding and melee combat, etc.  In the case of my Nethermancer, he starts with access to the following First Circle talents: Karma Ritual, Read & Write Language, Read & Write Magic, Spellcasting, Spell Matrix, Spell Matrix, and Thread Weaving (Nethermancy).  The character has 8 rank points to distribute among these talents, which affect the rate at which he regains Karma points, his ability to learn new languages and spells, and the difficulty he has casting those same spells.  I'm pouring two points into Nethermancy,one into each Spell Matrix, two into Spellcasting and one each into R&W Magic and Karma. This allows me to store one First Circle spell in each Matrix, regain one Karma point each time I use my ritual, and increase my steps for casting a spell by 2, my steps for weaving a complex spell by 2, and my steps for learning a spell by 1.  For the spells themselves, I have access to 7 "Spell Points," (equal to the Perception step), which can be used to purchase spells from any circle.  First Circle spells cost 1, Second Circle cost 2, etc; since this little lizard can only cast First Circle spells, I'm focusing on those, though you can purchase from any circle; you just can't access those spells to your character advances to the required Circle himself.

First Circle:

Bone Dance (one point)

Command Night Flyer (one point)

Spirit Grip (one point)

Undead Struggle (one point)

Insect Repellent (one point)

Shield Mist (two points)

Of these, I can't cast Shield Mist yet, but it never hurts to be prepared for later.  Spirit Grip and Insect Repellent go into the Matrices for immediate access.  Now, for actually casting these spells, the rulebook suffers from a serious case of vagueness.  Spirit Grip requires no threads, and can be cast by a Spellcasting test, rolling dice for the character's Perception step + his Spellcasting rank.  In this case, that would be Step 9, or 1d8+1d6.  Insect Repellent, however, requires a Thread to be Woven first; so, the character spends one round Weaving the spell, and then makes his Spellcasting check once he's done Weaving.  In order to Weave a Thread, the character must pass a Thread Weaving test. The book, however, does not say what to roll for a Thread Weaving test, in any section that I could find detailing the magic rules.  Presumably, one rolls the appropriate Attribute (probably Perception) + the Thread Weaving rank, as with Spellcasting, but it could also be designed so that I just roll on the Thread Weaving rank.  If Rank + Attribute, then I'd be rolling 1d8 + 1d6 again and casting fairly consistently, but if I'm supposed to just roll on the Thread Weaving rank, that's 1d4 - 1, which produces fairly unfavorable casting results.

 My inability to locate the Thread Weaving Test information is indicative of a larger problem with first edition Earthdawn, that being the complete lack of organization in the rulebook.  The book is heavy on fluff - beautiful, well written, incredibly atmospheric fluff - which lays out a world that is, quite frankly, one of the most exciting that I've ever seen in a stock pen-and-paper campaign.  However, while the writers and editors have an amazing talent for creating fiction, they were pretty bad at laying out mechanical information in a way that makes it easily accessable.  The book discusses the same features, such as Thread Weaving, in multiple sections (Talents, The Working of Magic, and Spellcasting), each section referring back to the other sections for more information, no single section providing all of the needed information to use the mechanic.  Hopefully, later editions resolved these organizational and editorialerrors.  Certainly, if I were going to actually play the game, I would grab the more recent Third Edition.  

My ever-supportive fiancee will not be joining in the character creation this week, as her new, absurdly early work schedule is kicking her ass at the moment.  Hopefully, her sheets will return next week, as things settle down around the office.

All images above are sourced from the now out-of-print Earthdawn First Edition, published by FASA.

RPGNow offers both Earthdawn Classic Edition, an edited and revised version of First Edition, and the fully updated Earthdawn Third Edition for sale, both published by Red Brick LLC.

Earthdawn Second Edition, from the largely defunct Living Room Games, is also available at RPGNow.

This ancient, Earthdawn fansite from the 1997 Internet contains a good portion of the First Edition rules.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness

It is 1985. One year ago, two guys named Kevin and Peter started publishing a comic book about martial-arts enabled terrapins out of their kitchen. In two more years, you won't be able to turn on a TV or look at a small child without seeing little plastic green shells and multicolored bandannas, turtles all the way down. In the meantime, though, there was only really one licensee for Eastman & Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and that was Palladium Books. This is their product.

Written over the course of three and a half weeks by Eric Wujcik, and illustrated throughout by Turtles creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, TMNT&OS was the second Palladium-published book I owned as a child, and the only one in my collection not written and illustrated by the Kevin Siembieda and Kevin Long. The artwork is a significant departure from the typical Palladium style, consisting primarily of repurposed panels from early issues of the black-and-white Ninja Turtles comic book.

There are a few examples of new and original artwork, in the form of character portraits for cases where the original comic does not provide an example of a particular critter.

The book also includes two brief comics. The first is a short, original strip titled Don't Judge A Book..., involving the Turtles, in Halloween costumes, fending off burglars in the Second Time Around antique shop. The second reprints the Ninja Turtles' origin story, excerpted from the first issue of the comic book.

Character creation follows the same random generation system that we all know and love/hate from Rifts. There are eight Attributes: IQ, Mental Endurance, Mental Affinity, Physical Strength, Physical Prowess, Physical Endurance, Physical Beauty, and Speed. A score for each is generated by rolling 3d6, so starting values should range from 3 - 18, with 10 being considered "normal" or "average." Scoring 16 or higher provides a bonus, which is sometimes incremental, other times exponential, depending on the Attribute. These bonuses do not advance at the same rate for every stat, nor does each stat necessarily follow a linear progression.

With its Attributes assigned, your mutant-to-be is just a few d% rolls away from completion. Random rolls determine your Animal Type (Urban/Rural/Wild/Wild Bird/Zoo), and each type has a second chart to determine your specific animal species, each with its own unique traits, strengths, and weaknesses. Species also determines your character's initial size class and Bio Energy Points (BIO-E), which provide certain bonuses and penalties to physical and mental stats (based on size), as well as the ability to improve certain characteristics and buy additional traits. This sort of mostly-randomized generation is pretty standard fair after something like V&V, but TMNT&OS takes it once step further, giving you a third d% chart to roll for the cause of your character's mutation. This may not sound like a big deal, except that it also involves randomly rolling your character's background and history. A quick roll of the dice determines whether your little critter was accidentally exposed to a leaking Mutagen container, or was deliberately engineered in a lab, as well as how he was raised from young mutant to teenager (trained in a secret government facility, raised as a human child by James Franco, etc), and determines his reactions and attitudes towards humanity. That's a lot of fluff to hinge on two ten sided dice.

Having worked out your Attributes, spent BIO-E to purchase humanoid characteristics (as desired), and figured out your background, it's time to look at skills and equipment. The number of skills your character can select, any free skills he qualifies for, any starting training, equipment, and cash, are all informed by his randomly rolled background. The skills list is absurdly detailed, easily on par with V&V's super power list. Skills are broken down by category and program, though several seem redundant to the modern gamer (Detect Ambush and Detect Concealment being separate, Disguise and Impersonation being separate, for example). Fortunately, you get to select a lot of skills, so it's fairly easy to build a competent character without having to sacrifice something obvious.

For this week's sheet, I warmed up my d6's d% and rolled up the following stats:

Attributes: 3d6 per stat

IQ: 7

ME: 14

MA: 9

PS: 9

PP: 10

PE: 16

PB: 11

Spd: 8

Animal type: 9: Urban

Specific Animal: 60: Pet Rodent (hamster)

Cause of Mutation: 91: Deliberately engineered & raised as assassin.

Starting cash (from mutation cause) 1d6 x $20,000

Cash roll: 6: $120,000.

Hamster Special Attributes:

BIO-E: 80

Growth Level 1

IQ: +2

ME: +1

PP: +1

Growth Level modifiers:

IQ: -8

PS: -12

PE: -4

Spd: +7

SDC: 5

So, before using BIO-E to physically alter my character, I get the following Attributes:

IQ: 1

ME: 15

MA: 9

PS: -3

PP: 11

PE: 16

PB: 11

Spd: 15

I have never, ever thought that I would ever blog the phrase "hamster special attributes." Also, this is the world's dumbest, fastest, weakest, and most durable assassin. Granted, there's a reason my little hamster is so dumb. As I mentioned earlier, growth and size are extremely important in character creation; right now, my little mutant is an entirely average sized hamster, with a whole mess of BIO-E points to spend. Breaking out the BIO-E worksheet, it's time to burn through those points to bring him up to human size, and purchase things like hands, walking on two legs, and speech. Bringing my critter up to size 8, gets rid of the IQ, PS, and PE penalties, but also costs me my speed bonus.

IQ: 9

ME: 15

MA: 9

PS: 11

PP: 11

PE: 20

PB: 11

Spd: 8

Skill selection is where the game starts to break down. Apparently, earlier editions of TMNT&OS had different rules for skills and firearms than the eighth printing being used here; the skills in this edition were lifted from Palladium's Robotech and Revised Heroes Unlimited games, and pasted in without much editing to make them fit. The result is a somewhat haphazard explanation of the skill system. The game at one point explicitly states that no skill can be taken more than once to accumulate more than one bonus, however some skills DO provide bonuses if taken more than once; the combat example given in the book explicitly mentions that a level 1 character has taken the Fencing skill three times, contradicting the earlier writeup on skills. In other words, don't take any skills more than once, unless the skill comes from a different edition of the game where it was designed to be taken more than once.

Furthermore, due to the mix-and-match firearm rules, a .45 automatic pistol does the same damage as a 12 gauge shotgun, while a 9mm pistol does half as much, and a katana falls right in the middle. On the plus side, the game does not add in Palladium's Occupational Character Class system; I suppose the author decided that the ten thousand different animal writeups was enough.

Here is my attempt to put together my final character sheet for TMNT&OS. I think it's playable, but honestly, I'm not sure. I feel about as confident with this sheet as I do with my Form 1040 every year, and it was exactly as much fun to fill out, while taking five or six times longer.

The character portrait was drawn by my eternally patient fiancee, who decided she also wanted to create a character sheet. After a brief explanation of the creation, growth step, and BIO-E rules, she generated the following:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness is long out of print, and will likely never see the light of day again, as Palladium Books no longer has the license. All images have been sourced from the 1989 Revised Edition.

After The Bomb is Palladium's spiritual successor to TMNT&OS, and is available at RPGNow.

The official Palladium Books website obviously contains additional information about the Palladium Megaverse products, particularly Rifts.

The official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles website is strangely devoid of all information about the game, and the Mirage comic series it was based on.

In conclusion,

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Villains & Vigilantes: Second Edition

I've been rather neglectful of this space for quite a while now, and I feel it's high time I rectified this. This summer, I somehow successfully completed another orbit around the sun, achieving the age of 29. To commemorate, I feel it's time to tackle a similarly aged game system, the venerable and somehow still readily available Villains & Vigilantes, 2nd Edition, first printed by Fantasy Games Unlimited way back in 1982. The purpose here will be a brief review of the system, and hopefully, the generation of a playable character sheet.

V&V, for the uninitiated, is the original super hero pen-and-paper roleplaying game, its first edition dropping in 1979, two years ahead of the immensely popular Champions. In my initial reading of the V&V rulebook and marketing materials, one mechanic stands out to set the game apart from Champs, Heroes Unlimited, and any other competitor: players are encouraged and expected to design heroes based on themselves. While D&D, Rifts, and basically every other roleplaying game I ever encountered during my impressionable youth set itself clearly in a world of imaginative fantasy with no connection to your real life, here is a game that gives you, the player, a secret super-identity. The appeal to a teenage, outsider nerd should be immediately apparent.

Beyond just being fluff, however, the players' identities are an intrinsic part of the character creation mechanics. Stat generation in V&V is highly subjective, and appears to be the one and only time the game allows you to play fast and loose with its mechanics. The game includes five stats: Strength, Endurance, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma. These stats are generated and assigned to each player-character in the game by the GM, rather than by the players themselves. These scores are not generated by random die rolls or carefully designed point purchases, but rather by the GM's subjective observation and questioning of each player involved in the game. If a player is on the school football team and lifts a lot of weights, his character would then be assigned a numerically higher Strength score, while if a player suffers from asthma, he would receive a lower Endurance score. Scores should normally range from a low of 3 to a high of 18, with 10 being considered a baseline human average. In a pinch, scores can also be randomly generated by rolling 3d6, though this is recommended only for NPCs.

Once stats have been assigned, the players take up their dice and roll to generate their super powers. The number of powers each character gets is randomly determined by a roll of 1d6+2, resulting in anywhere from 3 to 8 initial powers. Once the number has been determined, each player picks a category for each power (Psionic, Devices, Magic, generic "Powers," etc), and rolls 1d% on the associated table. Players can freely mix and match categories, but are encouraged to keep a theme in mind. Once all the powers have been filled in, each player rolls a final d% on the Weakness table to determine an inherent flaw in their powers or abilities, and then chooses a single super power to discard (with the goal of keeping powers that thematically fit together).

Get used to tables, by the way. V&V relies heavily on meticulously crafted tables to flesh out its powers, combat, movement, and just about every other mechanic you can think of. Calling the game "thorough" or "rigorous" may be an understatement. The word "exhaustive" comes to mind, but even that doesn't encompass the scope of V&V's table-fu, which borders on obsessive compulsive. In combat, the game tracks damage from gunfire for each individual bullet, every slug receiving its own die roll and accuracy modifier. Accuracy penalties are incurred for fighting at range, with distances measured in inches, from 30" to 983,040". Super powered combat involves a rock-paper-scissors-like interplay of attack and defense powers, with penalties and bonuses based on the interactions of seventeen attack categories with twenty-six defense categories. Essentially, every opposed action a character can take is governed or modified in some way by a quarter-page table.

Lacking a current group to run V&V with, I can't comment further on how effective and fun the combat and challenge mechanics are. Having said that, onward to chargen!

First, I filled in my weight on the sheet, and assigned some ability scores based on my best guesses about myself. After a little fumbling with 3AM mathematics, I worked out Hit Mods and Basic Hits, and finally my actual, in-game Hit Points. Rolling 1d6+2 for powers, I got lucky and scored an 8. Playing into what I believe to be my best state, Intelligence, I decided on Magic/Psionics for my first power table, and made my first 1d% roll and hit 34, Magical Spells. Per the Magical Spells description in the rulebook, the player and GM cooperatively discuss the nature of the first spell the character will learn, along with its costs and ranges, etc. I came up with the spell "lock opening touch," ganked mercilessly from D&D, and assigned it a PR of 4, the same as one hour of intangibility. Further powers will be shown below.

Roll 1: Magic/Psionics: 34: Magical Spells: Lock Opening Touch, PR 4
Roll 2: Magic/Psionics: 38: Magical Spells: Force Field as described in rulebook, pg 12
Roll 3: Magic/Psionics: 96: Willpower: Type A, 1 PR/turn, described on pg 19.
Roll 4: Magic/Psionics: 42: Magic Spells: Arcane Bolt: Range: 2 x XP, dmg: 2d8, PR 4
Roll 5: Magic/Psionic Items: 66: Psionics: Psychometric Ring: When worn, allows user to absorb knowledge and memories from residual psychic energy associated with inanimate objects.
Roll 6: Magic/Psionic Items: 58: Natural Weaponry (roll 1d6 for attack bonus): 4: +3 to hit and +6 to damage during unarmed HTH combat
Roll 7: Magic/Psionics: 98: Willpower: Type B, permanent +1 increase to Intelligence
Roll 8: Magic/Psionics: 39: Magical Spells: Summon Spirit: Summons a noncorporeal ghostly companion with the following statistics: Weight (178), Agility 18, Ferocity 18, Hits 20, Accuracy +3, Damage 2d8, Power 56, Move 100.

With those decided, I make a final d% roll on the weakness table and come up with 8, Diminished Senses. Surprisingly, the rulebook does not include a secondary table to roll on to determine exactly which sense is diminished, but provides a few guidelines to work out the exact nature of the weakness with the GM. I decide on the following:

Weakness: 8: Diminished Sense: Extreme Photosensitivity: Reduced vision under normal lighting conditions due to squinting and perceived glare, must wear prescription, tinted glasses at all times.

Under the rules I must now delete one super power, or can chose to delete my weakness and two super powers. I opt to delete Roll 7, Willpower Type B. So, no boost to intelligence. For the rest of V&V's fiddly mathematics, I decided to use a spreadsheet found on a fan's website, which handled most of the relevant calculations for me, and then scribbled the numbers onto my photocopied sheet.

Going along with me on this magical journey through character creation, my long-suffering bride-to-be asked for a sheet and attempted to follow along. After scoring some pretty impressive weather manipulation and energy blasting powers, she rolled for her weakness and scored Lowered Intelligence. 3d6 later, she wound up with an Intelligence score of 1.

"I don't like this game," she told me.

Despite the cludgey system, self-insertion-promoting character design, and occasionally, incongruously vague super power rules, V&V proved remarkably popular. Dozens of adventure modules were produced, along with a supporting comic book line which included additional character sheets for inclusion in players' own adventures. The idea that your character is, indeed you - only better - probably helped boost its appeal as an escapist fantasy back in the day, and has allowed it to keep enough momentum to warrant a re-release in the 21st century.

Cover image, blank character sheets, and spreadsheets used in this post were sourced from The V&V Emporium.

Animal/Plant Power Table was sourced from the Villains & Vigilantes 2nd Edition rulebook.

Fantasy Games Unlimited, the original publisher for V&V 1st and 2nd editions, still has several modules and support materials for the games 2nd Edition available for sale.

Cubicle 7 has print editions of the current, 2.1 edition of V&V, published by Monkey House Games. PDF editions can be purchased at RPGNow.