Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game (1992)

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The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game. What is there to say about this game that you can't already glean from the title? I am convinced that if there is an RPG Hell for bad DMs and players, this is the book that Roleplaying Game Satan hands the poor, damned souls upon their arrival to that cursed shore.

Twenty-four years ago, NASA JPL engineers Barry Nakazono and David McKenzie decided that the world needed a game which combined the excitement of near future sci-fi with the ease and simplicity of aeronautic propulsion engineering. The result was the Phoenix Command rule system, which saw some success in the giant robot combat game Living Steel. It also birthed The Lawnmower Man into the world.

For the uninitiated, The Lawnmower Man is a 1992 sci-fi/late cyberpunk/maybe transhumanist movie based on the title of a Stephen King story and the content of those weird Mind's Eye experimental early CGI stoner tapes. The film is widely known for its incredibly accurate portrayal of virtual reality, computer hacking, and cyber-warfare.

The roleplaying game is no less detail-oriented, in fact this may be the most minutia-obsessed game I have ever read. Everything starts with a fairly solid core concept, then veers down a rabbit hole of endless complexity, a fractal pattern of d% tables and cross references leading to the least obvious mechanical choices. It truly feels as though the designers started playing AD&D, but decided it was not complex or "real" enough for their tastes. In fact, initial character generation follows the same 3d6 method of old-school D&D editions, and even uses the same thresholds for ability score improvement, but with a needlessly complex twist.

Ability scores, or "characteristics" as the game calls them, are broken down into two sections:

Primary Characteristics represent objectively measurable and quantifiable aspects of the character, and consist of Strength, Intelligence, Will, Health, and Agility. Each characteristic is generated by rolling 3d6, noting the total, then rolling 3d6 again and taking the higher of the two totals for each ability. 
Secondary Characteristics represent abstract elements of the character, and are composed of Charisma, Leadership, Perception, and Motivation. Secondary Characteristics use a straight 3d6 down the line, no re-rolls. My rolls for both sets of characteristics follow below.

STR: 14
INT:  15
WIL: 14 
HLT: 10 
AGI: 12 

CHA: 14
LDR: 16
PER: 13
MTV: 7

For both Primary and Secondary Characteristics, 10 is considered "average" (much like D&D), while higher scores are increasingly better, and lower scores progressively worse. The threshold of improvement is the same as in D&D. Based on these numbers, I've got a rather strong, smart, and likeable character who is a natural born leader, but who doesn't give a fuck about getting anything done. With these scores, I can also determine my Learning Roll to earn skills, by adding Intelligence and Motivation to get a 22. In order to learn a skill, I will have to roll below a 22 on a d%.
In order to determine a class, I randomly roll on yet another d% table (the game loves these) and hit an 89 to land on Scientist. This gives me a number of chances to learn science and VR related skills - note, my class does not give me skills, it just gives me the chance to learn skills. Unfortunately, I rolled high on solidly half my skill attempts, giving me a -4 penalty to Awareness, Virtual Reality, Computer Systems, and Diplomacy. I managed to roll low on Computer Programming and Project Management, as well as VR Interfacing skills, giving me a +0 (neither penalty nor bonus) to each of those. I also rolled super high on Computer Hardware and Bio-Tech, however I used a class feature to take those at a +0 level instead of -4. In other words, Biff Slackjaw, MCS is strictly okay at building computers, but borderline incompetent at using them.

I can find no reference for generating starting cash in the game in order to purchase equipment, however the authors do state that players pick whatever starting armor they want (which in turn determines how much they can carry into combat), and get one or more pieces of starting gear. As a Scientist, Biff's starting equipment is a desktop computer, and nothing else. I decided to nab him a Kevlar vest and a small pistol out of the back, though he's likely more a danger to himself than to others.

With character creation basically completed at this point, I would like to take a look at those combat mechanics. Despite knowing how to use VR interfaces, Biff is totally unskilled at VR combat - a detriment in a game focused on interacting with virtual worlds. Instead, I'm going to explore physical combat first. Biff has four combat actions he can use each turn. These actions may be spent on movement (1 Action per six feet), aiming (1 action for -4 to hit, 2 actions for -1, 3 actions for +0), shooting or attacking (1 action), or several combinations thereof. If, for example, Biff wanted to take a shot at a thug about 30 feet away in the open, he could: drop to one knee (one action), aim for two actions, and then fire. To hit the target, I'd have to roll under a 67 on a d%. Managing a 47, I score a hit on the target. I then roll a d% for hit location, getting 36, which corresponds to a shot to the abdomen. I then would make a Glancing roll on 1d10 to determine if the bullet penetrated the thug's armor. In this case, we'll say the thug is unarmored, giving me a total Glance value of 1d10+24 - this exceeds the damage threshold of Biff's pistol (21+), causing him to deal a "heavy" wound for 35 points of damage. If Biff had a weapon capable of fully automatic firing, this would be resolved for each bullet. Of course, he has a lot of weapons to choose from - the game contains no less than 86 real-world firearms, multiple cars, armored vehicles, aircraft, and explosives, each one with slightly different statlines.

Overall, The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game may be the least playable game I have ever encountered, which is especially damning considering that I have a few games which never got past pre-release playtesting (here's looking at you, Narcissist v0.7, you beautiful, weird butterfly). All the more perplexing is that Leading Edge Games managed to fit this system not just into their own in-house Living Steel game, but also at least two additional film-licensed RPGs: Bram Stoker's Dracula and Aliens. The lifespan of the company was brief, however, and both authors have since gone back to working full time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Normally, I'd end this post with a link to where you can purchase the game, however The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game is mercifully out-of-print.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Dragon Warriors: A Game In Six Parts

Alright, so it’s 1985 and Dungeons & Dragons is the word in fantasy roleplaying. Basic D&D has just launched its second edition (Mentzer’s BECMI line), and AD&D is about to drop a second edition of its own. Riding the coattails of the D&D craze are the Fighting Fantasy line of “game books,” choose-your-own adventure style stories offering a “single player” RPG experience. UK publisher Corgi books decided to cash in on both the popularity of "regular" roleplaying games and single-player game books, releasing Dragon Warriors, a complete fantasy RPG system and campaign setting spread across a series of six mass market paperbacks
Okay, so, "the ultimate roleplaying game" might be a bit of an ambitious tagline for this thing, but after cracking the hood I've found that it isn't bad at all. The system is very clearly “inspired” by Original and Basic D&D, though considerably simpler: 3d6 character creation remains, but combat is handled by a multi-stage dice rolling process rather than a matrix, character progression is fairly linear, and most "advanced" style rules are modular and totally optional. The game is, as noted above, organized into six volumes: the first contains rules for character creation, game mastering, and two martial fighting classes (Knight and Barbarian), the second contains two magic using classes (Sorcerer and Mystic) and explains the spellcasting system, book three includes an adventure campaign, four includes the Assassin class, rules for lockpicking, stealth, and perception, and five and six contain additional campaign and setting information.

The books are illustrated throughout in pen-and-ink drawings, and contain some of the most delightfully old school Fantasy RPG art I have ever seen.

Dragon Warriors uses a set of five stats to define player-characters: Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Psychic Talent, and Looks. The first three are fairly self explanatory, and map onto the D&D characteristics of Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. Psychic Talent is a stat used entirely for magic - martial characters rely on their Psychic Talent to resist spells, casting classes rely on it to use spells. Looks has no mechanical use at all, and is simply a guideline for how NPCs will react to the character at first sight.

Because character generation is little more than a few quick 3d6 rolls for stats, class selection, and a handful of very small charts, let’s get to it!

STR: 10

REF: 9

INT: 8

PST: 12

LKS: 7

Based on the penalty/bonus charts the game uses, this character has dead average Strength and Psychic Talent, subpar Reflexes and Intelligence, and is one kinda meatfaced looking goon. With stats generated, it’s time to choose a Profession for this guy; the magic using classes are out of the question (both spellcasters require a minimum of 9 in both Intelligence and Psychic Talent), so that will leave me with Knight or Barbarian. Given that the Reflexes penalty will make light and unarmored combat a bit more harrowing here, I’ll opt for a Knight, with a tin can to keep him sealed for freshness.

Hit Point generation is based entirely on class, and in the case of the Knight that’s a 1d6+7, giving me a grand total of...8. This equates to being able to sustain two blows from most weapons. Perhaps Sir Meatface should rethink his chosen career path?

Attack and Defense scores are also governed entirely by Profession (unless you roll above a 12 or below a 10 on Strength and Reflexes), so our Knight will get the standard Attack rating of 13, and a penalized Defense rating of 6. Characters also have separate Magical Attack and Magical Defense scores; since Meatface is a Knight, he has no ability to attack with magic, and his below average Intelligence roll is not bad enough to penalize him in this case, so he gets the standard Magical Defense score of 3.

There are, of course, situations that can’t be defended against by a strong mind or martial skills, like Indiana Jones boulders and dragon's breath. For those dangers, we’ll need to determine an Evasion score; given Sir Meatface’s inherent clumsiness, he takes a penalized Evasion of 3 based on the chart in Book One. The last score to generate here will be an Armour Factor, but for that, we’ll have to get his starting equipment out of the way. The standard Knight kit includes a suit of plate armour, a sword, shield, dagger, lantern, a backpack, and 25 silver pieces. Plate gives an Armour Factor of 5, which we’ll need when working out the somewhat esoteric combat system.

Okay, so, making an attack in Dragon Warrior first involves a roll-under attempt on a d20, with a target of the attacking character’s Attack score, minus the defending character's Defense score, then on a success, roll the attacking weapon’s armor penetration die against the target’s Armour Factor, then subtract the damage rating of the weapon from the target’s HP. So let’s say Sir Meatface wants to stab J. Random Orc in the face: First, we generate the to-hit target number by subtracting the Orc’s Defense of 5 from Meaty’s Attack of 13, giving us an 8 to roll under. On 1d20, that means Sir Meatface will miss more than half the time. 

If the brave and noble Knight somehow manages to land a hit, he must then roll 1d8 (the armor penetration die for a sword), and attempt to score higher than the Armour rating of the Orc’s ringmail (AF 3). In this example, though Sir Meatface’s odds of striking the enemy are poor, the odds of hurting the enemy on a successful blow are pretty good. Damage is not randomly rolled - all weapons have a set, static damage rating, so Meatface would deal a flat 4 damage to the Orc if he succeeded both combat rolls.  At low levels, the combat system slightly favors the players over the monsters - both sides are fairly hard to hit, but monsters tend to have lower Attack scores than player characters. Level progression brings up pretty rapid improvements, with both Attack and Defense increasing by +1 for martial classes (much slower for caster classes). 

Overall, the system seems shockingly playable, especially as a first effort for author Dave Morris, who would go on to pen the excellent Knightmare gamebook series. If not for the unstoppable juggernaut that is D&D, Dragon Warriors could have easily been my go-to Fantasy RPG.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Extra Life is Coming - Game Selection Round 2!

Okay folks, the next batch of Dungeonthon potential games is ready to roll. The first games to make it to our Final Three bracket for Extra Life were Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, Narcissist, and Hellcats & Hockey Sticks!

Please vote for your favorite games of the new batch at this link here!

And remember, the Dungeonthon benefits sick children in Nashville, TN! Donate at Extra Life and watch us on in November for 24 hours of nonstop tabletop!

Donate here!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Extra Life is Coming - YOU CAN HELP

Attention PCs and NPCs, the time has come once again to prepare for the Great 24 Hour Dungeonthon supporting the Extra Life charity and the Monroe J. Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. Last year's run through the Temple of Elemental Evil raised $720.00 to help sick kids, and this year we're hoping to do even better! Before fundraising begins in earnest, though, your friendly neighborhood Dungeon Master needs your help!
This year, rather than a single 24 hour mega-module, I'll be running the intrepid Dungeoneers through three, 8 hour adventures in three different genres and systems, over the period of November 5 through November 6. In order to pare down my dozens of potential game systems down to only three, I'm going to need your input!
If there's a game you want to add to the running, or if you want to cheat the system and vote more than once, please make a nominal donation to the Extra Life campaign, with a comment including the system you want to see us run - every dollar helps sick kids!

Monday, February 29, 2016

Friendship & Fukus: The First NONPLAYABLE Game

This is not a review, nor a character creation walk through. This is, in fact, semi-original content!

Sometime in November, my gaming group started expressing some interest in a "magical girl" themed game, akin to something like the shoujo anime staple Sailor Moon. I've turned the idea over in my head several times the last few months, but most of the generic systems I've looked at have felt unsuitable, and my general dislike of "anime themed" game systems warded me away from things like Big Eyes, Small Mouth and its ilk.

Then I remembered the brilliant, single page Lasers & Feelings from One Seven Design. L&F is a simple, quick playing system using only a single stat, a handful of dice, and a success-counting pool mechanic based on rolling either over or under your target stat. It runs fast, relies on lots of narration, and takes only a minute or three to learn and get started, making it perfect for a social-and-adventure-based one-shot shoujo anime game.

I spent a few hours bashing hacking together some genre-appropriate attributes and scenarios, hung them more-or-less appropriately on the L&F framework, slapped it into a PDF and called it


Like Lasers & Feelings, Friendship & Fukus should be considered available under a Creative Commons / Open Gaming license. Feel free to download, play, hack, modify, and comment with your feedback.

It's entirely possible that other original or semi-original content will come down the Nonplayable pipe in the near future. I don't know. But for now, I hope you enjoy this.