Monday, June 30, 2014

Mecha Games: Are The Mainstays Really Complicated?

So, something came up recently where someone called Mekton Zeta overly complicated. The word "crunchy" was used, as well as a bunch of hyperbole about having to calculate gigawatts to drive generators and such.

It might very well be experience with the system- over twenty years worth - tinting my glasses, but I don't get it. To me, it sounds like someone flipped through Mekton Zeta Plus, saw some numbers and some systems that they didn't yet know how to use, and decided that it was GURPS Vehicles or something. Yeah, there are a reasonable number of moving parts to have to keep track of. A good spreadsheet helps; not because there's complex calculations, but just to help keep things straight. All of the math is straight arithmetic, and most of it is tallying values. But it took me about an hour to create a cybertank over the weekend, and that was without touching the build system in a few years. Sure, there are some things that I do that aren't standard procedure. For example, I don't try to reduce individual systems to fit within the space available. I tally up the total available spaces in the design, subtract the amount of space that's being used by the systems, and then just buy space efficiency if needed because it's so damn cheap.

I have the same reaction when someone talks about the Silhouette construction system - specifically, the one in Jovian Chronicles or Silhouette Core - being complicated or requiring a lot of math. While it's true that there are some exponents and cube roots and formulas in the construction system - it's also entirely optional. You only do it if you want to generate Threat Values (for balancing, although they're kind of useless for that) or some other fluff values like price. Other than that, the build system is less complicated than MZ by an order of magnitude - you pick the size rating, choose the armor rating, give it some propulsion, stat out a few weapons, add some perks and flaws and you're done.

In systems like Mekton Zeta or Silhouette there's going to be some domain knowledge or system mastery involved in making the right decisions - how much armor to put on, how much damage a weapon should do, what's a good range or movement speed, etc. That's a given - a potential GM or player just needs to design a few mecha and face them off against each other to get a feel for it. But the construction systems themselves? They're really not that complex. GURPS Vehicles? That's complex. MegaTraveller? That was complex. Mekton Zeta has more in common with Car Wars than the former two.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why Do People Want To Stick Non-Humans In Everything?

So recently on the Dream Pod 9 forum I saw a thread titled "HG Needs Aliens."

The reasoning for this is, apparently, that when you want to add something into a game the answer is:

You knew that was coming...right?
Now, I like games with the non-humans as much as the next guy. I get that people like things that are novel or different or have a "kewl" factor. I think they have their place. But for the love of Crom, they don't need to be in everything. Some settings, particularly science fiction settings (but this is just as true for fantasy or anything else), do just fine without them. Humanity already has such a huge range of variety and uniqueness. A well-realized setting - like Terra Nova - is missing aliens because it was a conscious design choice. They were a color that wasn't used when Terra Nova was painted (metaphorically speaking). Unless you were some post-modern artist, you wouldn't just go splashing fuchsia paint all over the Mona Lesa would you?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Giving Mekton Zero & Heavy Gear Universe Some Love

I came to the realization recently that two of my most nostalgia-inducing games are coming out with new editions and I haven't recently given them a lot of love.

To me, R. Talsorian Games and Dream Pod 9 exist in a continuum. Mekton was my go to for any mecha game for a number of years, spanning the mid '80s until well after Mekton Zeta was released in 1994. Heavy Gear followed about a year later, and Terra Nova quickly became one of my favorite settings. The release of the Silhouette version of Jovian Chronicles completed the circle, as the Mekton II edition (as well as the magazine Mecha Press and various CP2020 supplements) were what put DP9 on my radar in the first place.

Nearly 20 years later we're getting new editions of both Mekton and Heavy Gear. Mike Pondsmith is joined by his son Cody, along with others, in taking us back to Algol in Mekton Zero. Right now the Kickstarter is a few months behind (it was supposed to deliver in March), but we are getting fairly regular updates. So far, the art is exactly what I'd expect from a top-notch RTal product (although I admit I'm not fond of the layout previews). I've reached out to them about getting some kind of sneak peek of the rules, but haven't heard back yet. Above and beyond getting the PDF from the Kickstarter, I'm also in the process of lining up replacement copies of my much tattered and worn copies of Mekton II and Zeta.

I've always loved the Mauler (the green one) 
Arkrite Press has taken up the standard of developing Heavy Gear Universe. They've actually released a novella, Rumble in the Jungle, with updated art and maps. I'm currently reading it (I rarely read game-fiction), and the writing so far is solid, if workman-like. The graphics, including the updated maps, are really nice. The artists captures the feel of Ghislaine Barbe's include Ghislain Barbe, the original artists for Heavy Gear, but the pieces have slightly different personality. If the art and graphic design is indication, the RPG is going to look amazing. I came this close to picking up a copy of the Heavy Gear 2e hardback - again, replacing a much tattered copy - at Comic Quest in Lake Forest this weekend, but decided to hold off.

Miranda Petite has come a long way

So, with that I'm excited for both of them. It's always nice to see new life breathed into old favorites - especially since it happens relatively rarely with the games that I'm interested in.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Twitter Circle Jerks and Social Marketing in RPGs

This is going to be relatively short and sweet.

I don't pay a lot of attention to social media marketing or what's expected to be "best practice." But from some forays on Twitter and whatnot I've gathered the pattern for guaranteed success is:

1) Follow/retweet/like people.
2) Ask them to reciprocate.
3) ???
4) Profit!

It's the ??? part in these cases that kind of stumps me. For resharing of blog posts, news, Kickstarter announcements, that kind of thing I can see the value. The more eyes you get on something like that, the more people might find it interesting or useful. I can see that to a degree when marketing a product - but from I've seen, the follows/refollows/likes/relikes might be in the same general area of interest (say, science fiction) but aren't targeted toward gamers. I'm having trouble seeing how it could lead to meaningful conversion to sales used in this manner.

For example, say you've gotten a few thousand people to follow you on Twitter. But it's only because you've followed them back. None of the them are actually interested in the game - only getting a follow or like back in order to boost their own numbers. There's no way in hell even a small fraction of them are going to give anything more than moral support to it - there's just not enough time in the day or money (for most people).And for something like Twitter or Facebook, a few thousand somewhat disinterested followers doesn't seem much better than having 50 actual fans.

Maybe it's just me being a crotchety old man - I'm sure that all of this social media marketing wouldn't exist if it didn't have any effect at all. I just can't help thinking that in the case of rpgs, it's just a big social media circle jerk/communal back-patting. Apparently, I'm not the only person who feels this way:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Using Supers Games When You're Not A Supers Fan

I grew up surrounded by friends who loved comic books, and I've picked up a lot of knowledge about them through osmosis. When a friend of mine in junior high school wanted to play Marvel Superheroes, I was the only one remotely capable of running it. So I buckled down with a bunch of copies of his Marvel character encyclopedias (I forgot what they were called) and cooked up a game. It went pretty well, and everyone had fun - it actually spurred me to buy Villains and Vigilantes, Heroes Unlimited (although I used that more for TMNT), and even Champions. Up until the point where I unloaded a lot of my rpgs in the late '90s, I probably had at least one superhero rules set in my collection even though I don't play strictly superhero games. Likewise, a very good friend of mine was a huge comic collector. I used to go with him to the comic shop all the time when he picked up his issues. A few people I know used to work in comic stores. On top of that, there have been a number of comic stores that also stocked rpgs where I used to go.

Still, I never quite developed the taste for comic books that others did (surprisingly, I totally dig the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although I'm not crazy about X-Men, Spiderman, Batman, etc.), and since high school I've never really explored super hero rpgs in any depth. The last I can remember was a Champions game when I was 18 or 19. It took me a few days to create my character. Unsurprising to anyone who knows my interest in powered armor, mecha, etc. it was a battlesuit with some kind of wacky liquid-crystal armor.

This got me thinking: what are some possible alternate uses for superhero rules sets? What are some of the lessons that can be learned in terms of power levels and handling edge cases that can be gleaned from them?

Off the top of my head, I think they tend to be flexible enough to handle crazy stuff. There are obvious parallels between some games and super hero games in terms of power level, even if the game itself isn't a "superhero" game. Exalted is fantasy supers, they just trade in the tights for an anima banner. When I was running GURPs, I used GURPs Supers to round out powers, spells, etc. for fantasy games. The same with Heroes Unlimited and Ninjas & Superspies for my Palladium games. It's nice to keep the toolbox stocked with a variety of tools, even if it's that funny shaped one that I only ever use once in a blue moon.

So, with that in mind, I decided to take a look at Venture City Stories for Fate Core, to see what I might be able to use for a non-supers game.  As I've come to expect from most good Fate products, the meat of the system-related portions is only a couple of pages. There's not a laundry list of powers or a complex power creation system. It's distilled down to a couple very simple principles: one, that a "power" is a collection of related stunts. They have a drawback and a special effect. So far, that's pretty super-powery, but I supposed it could be used for other types of powers, magic, etc. The gem in there is the collateral damage effect - basically something that you can invoke that gives a big bang, but also has other big, unintended effects.

I could see using something similar to this for the weapons package for a mech. Instead of building out each weapon individually, it's an ordnance package with a couple of stunts for each weapon system, a special effect, the drawback (like reloading or heat) and the collateral damage effect.

So, there we have it - that's why I like to at least look at supers games even though I'm not really interested in playing them. And, honestly, Venture City Stories looks like a decent spin on the genre that I probably would give it a try.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Homebrew of Doom

Most roleplayers I know like to see how things tick, meaning that a sizable portion of them have tried their hands at homebrewing their own system. It's like a rite of passage for gamers. I started pretty young. Prior to discovering RPGs I used to make little board games out of poster board and construction paper. In junior high school I tried to flesh out the system used in Steve Jackson's Battlesuit into a full-fledged roleplaying game. This was before I discovered Mekton, or GURPS had been released. It was contained in a binder with pages of hand-written notes and charts. It used some elements of Traveller and retained the dot-based movement system from Battlesuit. It even had a point-buy suit design system. I wish I still had that binder, if only to see what kind of accidental genius ideas I had come up with.

But the homebrew I remember best was dubbed Virtual. I started on it sometime in the mid-90s - well before Fuzion made its debut - and it was an unholy mish-mash of Heavy Gear's Silhouette system, Cyberpunk 2020's and Mekton Zeta's Interlock, Dream Park, and some Storyteller thrown in for good measure. Like its Battlesuit predecessor, it was contained in a binder but this time the pages were printed on a laser printer and laid out in Microsoft Works.

That system is also lost to time, but I remember a few things about it:
  • d10 based with a dice pool.
  • Zero was average, and the attributes went from 0-5 for unaugmented characters. There was something funky about the Merits and Flaws system that accounted for negative attributes.
  • There were, if I recall, 16 attributes. I don't remember if they were all independent or if some were derived, but I think they were roughly in groups of 4 (Physical, Mental, Social and Spiritual IIRC).
  • It was meant to be a universal system
  • Skills were from 1-10. I want to say that it was a die pool using attribute, with the skill level being the target number to roll under. Multiple successes could be required for some complex tasks. 1s did something special (might have been two successes instead of one).
  • The concept of Roles were there, gutted from CP2020/Mekton Zeta. They were a lot more generic, and more like skill packages. Curiously I think I kept the Special Abilities from CP2020.
  • It used a wound system with penalties, with a soak system reminiscent of CP2020's wound boxes.
  • I did something with mashing Merits and Flaws together, but I'll be damned if I can remember exactly how it worked. I seem to recall that Flaws in particular did something funky with regards to the attributes and skills - they weren't straight penalties. For sure you could still have, for example, Perception greater than 0 if you were Blind, but something happened to the results. Regardless, most of them were lifted from Storyteller.
  • I never completely got around to it, but the mecha design system was based off of Mekton Zeta's, with the inclusion of a number of concepts from Silhouette. This system - or one like it - has been my white whale for a long time. I never seem to get enough traction in trying to design it before I say, "I already have Mekton Zeta...WTF do I need this for?"
In the end, it's probably best that the system never saw the light of day, because I'm sure I would have turned it into a netbook and somebody would be mocking me for it. To that end, I'm going to stick with the upcoming Mekton Zero and Heavy Gear Universe instead of trying to superglue a new system together (as much as I'm tempted).

So share your best, most embarrassing, most under appreciated, or just plain bad homebrew. We all have one hiding in our closet somewhere.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Character Death

I've decided that I have missed out on the fun of the archived RPGBA Blog Carnival topics, so I'm going back in time and tackling each one. Having a defined topic helps keep my writing wheels turning, provided that I feed the hamsters.

I've never been really big on player characters dying in my games. I think it can be one of the weakest forms of failure and often times - depending on the system - the death can be meaningless, if not completely random.

Typically, the response I see to the notion that death isn't interesting is along one or two lines - notably, that if there's no chance of a character dying it is actually taking away player agency to some degree, and can break suspension of disbelief. The game becomes like a FPS where you can just reload and keep going.

The thing is, I've never taken death off of the table in any of my games - I just tend to try to set up situations where fights to the death, or sudden random death, just aren't the best or only option. It, of course, hasn't prevented character deaths completely. One of the most intense PVPs I've ever witnessed was in one of my old Tribe 8 games, where one PC was slaughtered by another PC who fell under the influence of a Z'bri's Atmosphere, who himself was killed by a third. The entire situation was in control of the players, and at no time was death guaranteed even if it was the only logical conclusion from their actions.

It  also looked a lot like this
Part of it might be my choices in games don't necessarily lead to easy resurrection (or, more often, any chance of it at all). Cyberpunk 2020, Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles, Tribe 8, Blue Planet...even Exalted doesn't have resurrection. Likewise, the assumption has always been that PCs are competent and aware enough of their own mortality to not do completely idiotic or stupid things. Death still happens, often enough to be memorable but not so often as to be a chore. I think +Jim Sandoval or +James Forest might remember a Mekton or Heavy Gear character (I forget which) who's mech got shot out from under him and escaped on foot, only to get splatted by a stray shot from a mecha-scale weapon. Likewise, the same player who lost a Tribe 8 character to a Mexican stand-off likewise lost another one to a choice that left no room for living through the experience (although he was able to continue playing as a spirit, at least until we could get some closure on his story).

As for breaking suspension of disbelief - most of the means that are used in systems to damage, hurt, or kill characters aren't exactly bastions of realism. At the best they're highly abstracted and overall subject to a lot of gray area, and at worst they're not really tied to anything remotely realistic (falling damage is often a huge violator here). I'd argue that more often than not, game systems result in lethal injuries far more often than would happen in reality, or have unrealistic break points that go from "not-lethal" to "lethal".

In the face of trying to balance odd-ball damage results with suspension of disbelief, I'd rather have some means that makes character death an option and a conscious call (by GM, player, table, it doesn't matter) than a stringent case baked into imperfect rules. Sure, going down to zero hit points or not being able to soak incoming stress or whatever should remove a character from a conflict and result in generally complicating their life a lot. But the only choice shouldn't be, "You die", and that's the way I've played for quite a long time. As far as I know, my attitude about character death hasn't garnered any complaints from my players.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The People of Well

Vast portions of inland Nartham are largely unexplored. While it's known that the native Sia once inhabited a large portion of the continent, near the Albreni colonies on the west coast there is very little surviving evidence of this once-great civilization. This hasn't stopped explorers and adventurers from mounting expeditions into the continent's interior in the hope of finding the remains of Sia settlements or cities. As is their wont, some of the adventurers who return do so with fantastic tales of what they supposedly found.

The tale of the People of Well, or the Siwamo in the Sia tongue, is one of the most persistent on the streets of Dixton. It tells of the last and greatest Sia city, nestled in the badlands on the south-eastern flank of Nartham's central mountain range. Accessed only after a rigorous journey through arid, barren land followed by miles of winding, treacherous cliff paths, the city is built into a hidden mesa.

Those who tell of Siwamo insist that the city's magnificence doesn't stop with the elaborate bridges, statues, and dwellings built into the outer cliffs. The massive cliffs only serve to flank the entrance to the city proper, which is built within an enormous cenote. The circular cave is open to the sky, but descends an unknown distance into the mesa's heart. Accounts differ regarding the exact layout - some say the dwellings and buildings are all built into the walls, while others claim there streets and buildings built on massive stone platforms jutting from the walls - but all agree that there is a large pool or lake at the bottom of the cave, filled with water that is always clean, clear, and cool. The most detailed account - claims the water is held sacred by the Sia who still inhabit the the city. They allow no one to touch the surface of the water save for members of a dedicated priesthood. What, if anything, is inside the water depends on the teller - in some versions it is bottomless, while in others the bottom can be seen filled with riches or even more buildings (tying into persistent legends from sailors about aquatic Sia). Sometimes the waters can heal or have other effects, or else they kill any non-Sia who touch it.

The Sia of Dixton themselves have no stories of Siwamo itself in their oral tradition, although they do tell of similar - if far less grandiose - cities to the east. Most scholars dismiss the tale as an exaggeration, since crumbling, abandoned Sia cliff dwellings are not unknown to the east of Dixton. But the lure of Sia artefacts and technology is enough for adventurers, explorers, and scholars to overlook these details and try to find the city anyway. So far, no organized expedition has returned from the journey inland with anything corroborating the stories about Siwamo - in fact, a great number of them haven't returned at all.