Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Walk Through Character Generation in Magic World

While I tend to take it for granted that everyone has played or is familiar with the D100 system that powers Basic Role Playing, Magic World, Runequest, Legend, Call of Cthulhu and many other game systems, the truth is that’s not really the case. Even if you are, there are lots of little differences between various versions of the system, so a walk-through on how character generation works could be beneficial to many.

Magic World is BRP-powered but hangs off of the skeleton of the older Elric//Stormbringer 5th edition mechanical assumptions. This makes it a bit more streamlined than Runequest, and since its focus is fantasy only it has fewer extraneous chunks than its parent game, BRP. Magic World deviates from Runequest in a few specific ways: no hit-location system, a core HP mechanic, a single unified magic system, and a reliance on the resistance table of BRP instead of two skill-based saving rolls.

All good characters begin with an idea or a core conceit. I’m going to roll some stats up first and then think about who it is I want to create. MW uses strength, constitution, size, intelligence, power, dexterity, and appearance. Humans roll 3D6 for all stats except for intelligence and size, which are 2D6+6. I’m going to roll these straight across and see what I get:

STR 8, CON 4, SIZ 17, INT 16, POW 11, DEX 8, APP 13

Holy cow….this guy is frail, sickly, enormously tall (around 6’7” and maybe as skinny as 150 lbs), very smart, a bit clumsy and despite all that he’s either fairly congenial or decent looking. Nice. With stats like that I think I shall call him Asterius Crane. I see a fellow who is excessively bookish, and who’s exotic height contrasts with his weak frame, so he overcompensates by being friendly and affable.

There are a variety of derived stats in MW. The derived “rolls” are percentile approximations of the core stats that can be used to resolve various situations that skills alone don’t cover. Each derived stat is a default of the main attribute multiplied by 5. SIZ is the only stat that doesn’t get a derived roll. When I calculate these we get:

Effort 40%, Stamina 20%, Idea 80%, Luck 55%, Agility 40%, Charisma 65%.    

So by percentage Asterius’s strength is in being an idea man and fairly charismatic.

There are several other derived stats as well:

Damage modifiers are based on strength and size. Despite being physically underwhelming, Asterius has reach and leverage due to size, so he actually qualifies for a +1D4 damage modifier to melee attacks.  He has okay hit points thanks to his size (but with a better constitution it could have been so much more); his HPs are 11 and his major wound score is 6 (the number of HPs below which bad things can happen). If I were to use the optional heroic hit point system he would have 21 hit points, instead (the total of size and constitution instead of the average) and a major wound threshold of 11. Alas, Asterius is probably destined for the world of Sarvaelen and there are no robust heroes in that land.

With a POW of 11 Asterius has 11 magic points, so he’s no hard-hitting spellcaster. If he had 16 or better in POW then he would gain 3 levels in magic just for being awesome…but he is not awesome.

Having a variable appearance provides distinctive features, which you can choose or roll for. With an APP 13, he gets 2 features on the good side. I roll and get “torso” and “bearing” options. I choose “tall” because it’s a no-brainer; because he has a good appearance score this means his height is an asset; he towers over people and maybe that’s somewhat intimidating or impressive. For bearing I choose “casual” because I am thinking Asterious is a bit laconic, and comes off with a “always in control” vibe….he doesn’t seem to panic, so this inspires those around him a bit.

I roll for his age and it turns out he is 23 years old.

Next up is culture. There are four default cultures in MW, with the option for campaign-specific cultural packages.  A culture provides guidance on choosing a profession as well as a 10% bonus to three cultural skills. The choices are band, tribe, chiefdom and state. Each culture includes a description and extensive list of real-world samples of what it is talking about, as well. As I am imagining Asterius I could see him coming from any of these, although his hope of being a bookish giant rests heavily on a more advanced culture so I pick “state.”  Specifically, since I’m putting Asterius in Sarvaelen I will assume he comes from  Aeronost, a feudal coastal culture with a handful of prominent cities.  I pick oratory, world lore and  scribe for his three cultural skills.

Next up is occupation. There are twenty core professions to chose from, and many more that could be introduced (or borrowed from other BRP books).  MW offers skill points to the skill package of each occupation, although it does so a bit differently than BRP, by allotting +60 to one occupational skill of choice, +40 to three more skills, and +20 to four others. After that you get 40 points to add to one non-occupational skill and three more non-occupational skills that get +20 each. Aside from occupational and cultural skill points characters get some points by skill category based on half of the derived attribute.

Finally, if you want to make an experienced adventurer rules and numbers are provided to start a veteran, heroic or legendary adventurer.

After looking at the occupations available, I think Asterius Crane would make a great physician, apocethary or scribe. Each occupation is presented from the context of a “you learned to be this, but now, for various reasons, you are adventuring” sort of approach. Kinda cool. I think I’ll go with scribe.

As a scribe Asterius can pick from several skills. I choose the following: Scribe (+60), World Lore (+40), Evaluate (+20), Insight (+40), Nature (+20), and I’ll pick another language (Emoniae, from Sarvaelen) at +20 as well. He can have a skill as a personal specialty, so I pick Potions with +40. Asterius is something of an exotic brewer and apothecary on the side, it seems. Finally, his occupation awards him 200 bronzes to spend.

Aside from his occupational skills Asterius can allot extra points into “other” as well. Those points end up in Dodge (+40), Navigate (+20), Listen (+20), and…because this is a guy who will face danger, lets put the last +20 into short sword, with which he’s had some minor training. Being experienced with the short sword means Asterius’s practice with the weapon will also improve familiarity with everything in weapon class 2 (broadswords, cutlasses, falchions, rapiers, scimitars, and short swords). One thing I could not find clarification on (yet) was if weapon skills received the physical skill modifier. I am assuming they do here.

Finally we come to Allegiance. Old fans of Elric/Stormbringer will recognize this as derived from the old order/chaos system of allegiance. It is now a division between light, shadow and balance. Adventurers start play with 25 allegiance points in one, 15 in a second and 5 in a third. I think Asterius is fairly neutral, so I split it like this:

Light 15, Balance 25, Shadow 5

Being aligned with balance grants some perks (as do the others). For those aligned with balance they can attempt to call on inner reserves of strength, which can grant 1/5 of their HP total in recovery. Allegiance can be strained when calling upon abilities, as well as when acting contrary to one’s aligned nature. Neat stuff, lots of role-play potential.

After a bit of spending to equip Asterius with some leather armor and a short sword (he started with a grand total of 401 bronzes), the poor fellow is ready to get killed adventuring. So what does Asterius Crane look like right now? Here he is:

Asterius Crane
Human male, 6’7” tall, 150 lbs., Age 23
Occupation: scholar; Culture: State; Distinctive Features: tall and casual
STR 8, CON 4, SIZ 17, INT 16, POW 11, DEX 8, APP 13; Hit Points 11, MW 6, Magic Points 11
Effort 40%, Stamina 20%, Idea 80%, Luck 55%, Agility 40%, Charisma 65%.    
Skill Category Modifiers: Physical +4, Communication +6, Knowledge +8, Manipulation +4, Perception +2
Damage Modifier +1D4
Allegiance: Light 15, Balance 25, Shadow 5
Occupational Skills: Scribe 74%, World Lore 73%, Evaluate 43%, Insight 57%, Nature 53%, Language (Aeronistic, native) 88%, Language (Emoniae) 28%, Potions 48%, Oratory 21%
Additional Skills: Dodge 60%, Navigate 53%, Listen 37%, Shortsword 43%
Weapon: Shortsword:  Attack 43%, Damage 1D6+1+1D4, weapon class 2
Armor: soft leather: 1D4-1 APs, light burden
Remaining Bronzes: 101

Asterius is now ready to go adventuring!

A few more notes:

Character generation is pretty quick the way MW does it because it gives the player a set number of discrete skill point packages to apply instead of a lump total number of skill points. MW does insure that a starting character has a decent set of starting skills in this fashion.

For those not familiar with BRP, note that a character can attempt any skill pretty much that has a starting base value of 1 or better…so a skill like oratory, which has a base chance of 5%, can be tried by pretty much anyone even if the chance of success is tiny. The skills above only reflect those in which Asterius got training, however.

The flavor text in MW is rife. It’s aimed at helping the player to imagine who his or her character is as they roll the PC up, so you can start blind with char gen (as I did) and end up with a character that you can “see.”

There are no point-buy rules provided in MW (BRP does offer this however in its core). The game is focused on a starting core of random char gen.

I may roll up a mage next so you can see what the sorcery looks like. Until next time….!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

And then Blood & Treasure Ruined Everything!

I was trying to quit retroclones. I almost caved with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea....and I may yet get the boxed set, but to do so requires copious free cash that I haven't already spent on other stuff. I mean, I already have Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry Complete, OSRIC, Castles & Crusades, and many more. And I recently felt the call to buy Adventurer, Conqueror King System (but was saved by the fact that its currently out of stock).

Then Blood & Treasure came along and beat them all up.

I'd been promising myself I would buy Blood & Treasure for a while now, as I am a big fan of John Stater's work. I have Pars Fortuna (the "Jorune" of the OSR crowd), Mystery Men, and various issues of Land of Nod. Stater is a guy to admire; he really gets what it is that made RPGs  in, before video games ruled the entertainment universe, a time when literature and myth was more relevant to the creative process than whether or not you could cast a destructive spell once every six seconds into perpetuity. In other words....a time before video game fantasy rose to power and ate its parent, tabletop RPGs, then spat out the corpulent remains to seed an era of gaming dominated by balance, power gaming and spectacularly bad video game logic masquerading as rules mechanics in the name of a "good play experience."

John also gets that RPGs and D&D are bigger than their creator...that what made Gary Gygax so significant was that he gave everyone the tools to make the game their own, and so John's stuff is his Own Thing....he doesn't place undue reverence on the replication of the same content from forty years ago, instead showing what that legacy can look and feel like today.

I'm still reading and  absorbing my copy of Blood & Treasure Complete but I decided to provide a "ten reasons this game just smoked all the other contenders" my playbook B&T has trumped my two former contenders for the position of best retro D&D: Castles & Crusades and Swords & Wizardry Complete. B&T manages to do  it all just a bit better, a bit more right, than either S&W or C&C (for me, at least). I didn't think I'd ever actually see a retro-styled game with modern content and classic aesthetics pull this off, but here it is. So, the list! YMMV on the list, this is very much a "why Camazotz loves this game" sort of deal:

UNRELATED NOTE: I am already going to destroy this new GE wireless keyboard I bought, which is displaying a bizarre, inexplicable lag between typing time and appearance of characters. The problem comes and goes at random. WTF

The Top 10 Reasons Camazotz now thinks Blood & Treasure is the Best Damn Retro-Fitted Modern Fantasy System on the Market:

#10. It has a short and sweet system of combat feats. No muss, no fuss, just all the cool essential feats to make characters a bit more defined. 

#9. Saving throws are retooled to "roll this target number" ala AD&D. This means saves have lower and upper  limits/absolutes, which fixes the open-ended problem that classic 3rd edition D20 suffers from. 

#8. It comes ready-to-go with player-character ready stat options for lizard men, tieflings, aasimar, drow, and....minotaurs!!! Anyone who has delved into the Realms of Chirak knows how important this is to my game world. This means, effectively, that I can run my campaign using B&T straight out of the book

#7. B&T has a skill system. The base mechanic is a list of "things adventurers can do," either unskilled, skilled, or if they have a “knack” for it. Then there is an option for a skill point mechanic. 

#6. The monster  list is huge. It has practically all of the principle OGL monsters out there and then some....there aren't as many illustrations as one might like, but the illos at hand are by and large great, with some fantastic interpretations of various fiends. I love the....thing...on page 166, and the aboleth on the following page. Others that stand out for me include the barbed devil, the grick, the mohrg (one of my favorites, as my Wednesday group will attest), the awesome neh-thagglu (another Wednesday mainstay), ratling, tarrasque (love the block-print black on white style), and troll. The troll is a great example of # 5...

#5. The art style of B&T is a varied mix, but the majority of it consists of what either are...or what look like...old style wood block prints, illustrations in the creative commons realm from old tomes of a bygone era, and all tinged with a baroque, classical style that evokes a sense of the ancient. Some of this is public domain art, sure....but a much bigger chunk of it, most of it in fact, is stylistically designed to evoke the look and feel of that style, while depicting modern D&D monster and themes. Check out the troll illustration, for example...of my favorite on page 166 (if that's from some old public domain book please let me know which one, I must read it). The old magi on page 122....the planar realms on page 156....this is great stuff, I love it.

#4. All the classes we expect and multi-classing to boot. 'Nuff said. The core character mechanics, when combined with skills and feats, give me enough stuff here that I think I could reasonably keep my modern-game adjusted players interested with plenty of options.

#3. Great sections on dungeon design. Every D&D edition or D&D-like should have a section devoted just to dungeons full of useful charts and lists. 

#2. The core conceit of the mechanics toward old school (aside from vastly simplifying the game at every step) is the move toward a "closed" number system instead of an open system. D20 was innovative, in some ways, for the open system....but it was a system where there is no cap or limit, where a character can just keep on accruing until ridiculously improbable skills, hit points and other numbers make a mockery of the system (see 3rd edition's Epic Level Handbook for an example of this phenomenon in action). This the time....seen to be a smart departure from the closed (or capped) mechanics of 1st and 2nd edition, where hit dice stopped after nine or ten levels (to be replaced by slow and steady HP gain), skills were at upper values...where roll low ruled. I like roll low because it reflects a "closed" system, one where there are upper levels of probability beyond which not even Gilgamesh or Conan could succeed. B&T pulls this off, using a roll high mechanic, effectively (with a possible loop hole in the optional skill point system). Other OSR systems do this, sure....but B&T turns the D20 mechanic into a closed/capped system, which makes it distinct.  

#1. It's well written and engaging. Don't ask me why, I just love reading John Stater's stuff. His writing style makes me want to play the game, which is damned impressive. I have several other RPGs I purchased recently languishing away while I work up the energy to try and plow through their banal prose. B&T is not in that stack.*

I'll be writing more on this one for sure. Maybe do a character walkthrough, some scenarios. 

Sigh, between B&T, Magic World and Amazing Adventures....not enough time in the month to write about all the awesome and cool in these books!

Meet the, Xaoc.

*Nor is Magic World, which also is written in a great "Read me! Play me! Feel the fun, FEEL IT!!!!" sorta way. Great games, both of them, excellent representations of their respective lineages.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Horror Review: Pontypool (2008)

Pontypool (2008)

I really love it when I find a movie like this on Netflix: a fascinating, weird, disturbing and utterly captivating movie of the most unusual kind. Pontypool does all of this on what is clearly a modest budget, relying on the strength of its actors (chiefly Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle) to carry the tension, plot, pacing...all of it, and masterfully.

Pontypool is a small town somewhere in Canada, presumably not too terribly far from (or inside of) Quebec. It's recently acquired a new radio host DJ, Mr. Grant Mazzy, who's an old fashioned baritone smooth-talker, with an interest in spicing up the town's otherwise dreary local radio. He arrives on day one, ready to go, despite a disturbing encounter with an odd woman in the middle of the night who runs up to his car, acting very odd before disappearing in the night.

Working with Sydney Briar and her new assistant, former Iraq-vet Laurel-Anne, Grant finds out quickly that his style of radio might be a bit excessive for the small town needs of Pontypool, when things start to get weird. A report of some sort of incident by ice fishers, followed by rumors of a riot near Dr. Mendez's office of psychiatry escalate rapidly to report of random mob violence by people acting violent and nonsensical. As the stories pour in, and "traffic reporter" Keny Loney calls in descriptions of a town that seems to be going mad, as people move like herds, mouthing nonsense words and assaulting everyone they encounter. His reports get increasingly strange and charnel, forcing Grant and Sydney realize that something has gone horribly wrong in the town, and they may be the only ones who can get the word out.

Pontypool offers up some great twists, but it does so with a minimum of fuss. The tale is told specifically from the perspective of Grant and his two assistants, trapped in the radio building, with no contact with the outside world other than what is coming in by phone or wire. As the story progresses (and I'll offer only minor spoilers here) things degenerate...badly....and late in the game a desperate Dr. Mendez arrives to shed some light on the horror that has befallen the town of Pontypool.

This movie manages to capture a strong sense of suspense, the weird, a dab of the surreal, a splash of gore and even a bit of the "z" word without necessarily being about zombies. It does this with a claustrophobic focus on the radio station and manages to convey some impressive sense of horror with minimal need for actual gore and shock....and yet it is most definitely in the same boat, ultimately, as so many other end-of-the-world (or close to it) movies out there.

Great stuff! If you have Netflix, this is a must-see in my book. Even my wife liked it!


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Chirak's Top Ten Posts

Yesterday's post on PDF publishing generated a startling number of hits (285 as of Friday afternoon) which is cool and interesting....I should write more on this subject, as I have much to say/discuss and people are clearly interested.

In noticing this I thought, "What are the other posts that have garnered a lot of traffic?" since it's been a while since I last looked. As usual the results are surprising, with some new additions:

#10 The Cabin in the Woods Review joins the list with 665 page views.

#9 Much to my surprise, The Lost Tribes Review gets #9 with 767 hits.

#8 The Resident Evil 6 Leon Kennedy Campaign Review gets #8 with 922 hits. I'm especially happy about this as I really had fun writing that review, and the game was so much terribad fun that it made doing the review funny and cathartic all at once. Only REAL RE fans can claim to have experienced this game and bathed in the sort of gamer love that one can only get from a disturbed codependent relationship!

#7 The U.S. Airforce Aircraft Identification post got 923 hits. My throwaway "I'm bored what can I find on the interwebz today" post. LOL

#6 My John Carter Rant was next, with 955 hits. I mean....that was a really fun movie, how could it have bombed so badly? Sigh.

#5 The Realistic Fantasy/SF Role Model of the Week featuring Spartan Catherine-B320 remains strong with 1031 posts. She is still my favorite non-John 117 character in Halo. Tough chick.

#4 Orcs in Warlords of Lingusia for Pathfinder holds on with 1180 hits. Interesting....orc love remains high.

#3 is Sabiri Tattoos with 1329 hits. I can appreciate this. Sabiri tats are awesome.

#2 is still the Halloween Countdown Finale from 2011 with 1335 hits

#1 Remains "The Death Gods" with 2191 views. Wow....I may have to explore the death gods of the Lingusian pantheon more. Lots of unpublished material on them that I should clean up and make presentable some day.

Really interesting is what's been hit in the last month. Right now the Top 5 for the last month are:

#5. James Cash, the Explosive Rocketman has garnered 75 hits. Amazing Adventures love! A good thing.

#4. The Aliens: Colonial Marines review has gotten 119 hits. I still stand by what I said; I liked the single player campaign, and ran into no bugs. The multiplayer however continues to elude me, as I can't even get the F***er to log me into a game. So from a MP standpoint its pure crap.

#3. The Leon Kennedy Campaign Review for Resident Evil 6 garnered 150 posts in this month alone, even though it came out back in November. At least people who read my A:CM review will know I am not a tasteless junkie of cheap throwaway titles if they read this one....though one could be forgiven for thinking I am a virtual world masochist for playing both games through.

#2. Deathwatch: The Ark of Lost Souls in which I mention the first Warhammer 40K RPG product to be released that might interest me generated 175 posts, so I feel sorta bad that this is not something I will likely be able to capitalize on, being otherwise very, very unfamiliar with the WH40K universe.

#1. The Cost of PDF Publishing yesterday, already at 285 posts as of writing. Wow. I feel like I should try to write some more serious articles on the industry as a result of this. I usually treat the blog as a playground with occasional articles of a ranty or informative nature....but ultimately always as a "whatever I feel like" sort of thing. However, there are most certainly a wide range of topics, especially publishing, which would be relevant to the focus of this blog and on which I have more than a few opinions, advice or general data to share. I'll need to think a bit about what I can bring to the table going forward that people will find most enjoyable.

I also need to edit my posts better. I have a bad habit (these days) of redundant word usage  and it drives me nuts when I spot it (always after the fact). I can only blame old age, mental fatigue, and my child driving me to distraction as reasons for such sloppiness.

Anyway, thanks everyone for perusing the blog, here's to the next couple of years' growth as a blogger!

Ninja Jesus!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Cost of PDF Publishing

Another thread at had me answering a question about the cost of PDFs (in this case a PDF from White Wolf that cost $18). I know that the cost of electronic media comes up a lot, and there is a perception that above a certain point (usually around $15) that most games are too pricey...although we tend to grant exception to the ones we're really dedicated to. Anyway, I put so much effort into my answer there I thought it was worth presenting here, in expanded form, as well:

Scenario: a book, published by a major publisher (White Wolf, in this case) that costs $18 for the PDF.

The distributor (One Book Shelf) typically takes a 35% cut. It might be less if you do an exclusive distribution deal with them. So an $18 PDF gets dinged $6.30 by the distributor right off the bat, leaving $11.70 that goes to the publisher.

Now, assuming that a book of this size is averaging 64,000 words, even assuming some of the lowest rates in the industry for a per-word deal on a flat rate (i.e. no royalty) basis of around 3 cents per word then the publisher needs to pay the author(s) at minimum $1920.00. If that seems like a good deal, then I suggest sitting down and writing a 64,000 word manuscript that is mechanically coherent and relevant to the game in question, as well as readable. (EDIT: And I should note that all commissioned products I've done in the past paid more than this figure I am quoting, and I'm basically a no-name author, so if I could command a higher price without any name recognition, you can bet my example here is a lot less than White Wolf pays one of its authors).

So at this point, the publisher needs to sell 164 copies to pay the underpaid and overworked author (assume two or three times more for a real author working for real pay with a big publisher).

Then we have the art. Art can get expensive, unless you're a small press publisher with no budget, in which case art is precisely as expensive as you're willing to pay for. I can demonstrate from my own projects an average art budget of about $300, which is enough for a commissioned cover from a small-time (usually decent) artist, and a few royalty-free generic art packages. Odds are that a product like the one you bought is getting professionally commissioned art, however. The artists are probably collectively actually costing more than the author. We'll conservatively say $3000 in commissions for the art pieces.

So they need to sell 256 PDF copies to pay the artist, more if he's good.

All of this assumes no one is getting royalties. For a big publisher like White Wolf I would expect a royalty situation is in place, usually.

Then we have an editor. He's probably staff, and gets paid by the hour. Maybe he spends most of his work month editing the product (and others). So he has a salary to cover. If he has any self respect I would imagine he's making around $2 grand a month or better, and if its a real business they may be paying $1,000 or more a month in benefits, health matching 401K and all that....but this varies heavily; a lot of game publishers are "part time" affairs these days, with very few full time staff, and people doing this more for love of gaming than money. Odds are strong that the editor, if he exists, only appears in Grade A publications anyway....editing is usually the first spot that smaller press publications skip over to save money.

There maybe advertising (which could get expensive). There might be more than one author (which can dramatically increase costs) or the author may be a relatively well known person so commands a lot more than the measly 3 cent/word minimum I estimate above. There may be artists involved who are much, much more expensive (but worth it).

There are other incremental costs...and of course the costs ramp up with the print publication which will always have a lower margin of profit due to distribution and retail costs.

I do tend to agree that PDFs often look pricier than they should be if you factor out printing/shipping/retail add-ons to the price, but there are other factors that overwhelm these considerations in the electronic format. The number of copies sold for PDFs will be lower; piracy will automatically eat into your sales, sometimes dramatically, and there is virtually nothing you can do about it except console yourself with the idea that maybe the pirates would never have bought it in the first place. People see electronic media as ephemeral and "free" because it lacks a place in meat space, so its automatically devalued in the eyes of many, and the sort of "culture of free information" online means that inevitably your product will be regarded with the same purpose and place as a Wikipedia article, given enough time. Consequently, the ability to make money on PDFs depends heavily on the willingness of the fan base to actually place value on the product and to support it with the recognition that, should the product become devalued completely that it will cease to exist as a viable enterprise in time. That leads us to situations sort of like the OSR movement, where lots of content floats around, bought by the same dedicated handful of people, but almost no one makes money on it unless they get insanely lucky.

Among small press publishers selling 500 print copies is awesome. Selling 1,000 or more is big business. Among big-name publishers these days selling 5,000 print editions is awesome and selling 10,000 or more is fantastic. PDFs do not typically sell like that, although there are exceptions, and if you're particularly savvy about how you market your game, you can potentially give away your product and still turn a profit; this is very rare (Eclipse Phase and possibly Stars Without Number) but possible. It's not something you can normally do with supplements. It is also possible to make a tiny profit on something by treating it like cheap advertising (Legend core) and potentially reap some profits from the follow-up books, but I have no way of ascertaining if this model has worked. 

I would bet for sure that 99% of the smaller publishers in PDF form are making precisely enough to fund their next project, or none at all, and that for this it is a labor of love. For the rest, maybe on occasion they get lucky and take off.....but those are noteworthy exceptions. Big publishers are probably counting on fan interest to drive some sales, but I doubt that White Wolf, WotC or others are expecting their PDF sales to bring in meaningful profits. Instead, I think that the electronic media is considered a form of adertising for print product, or a way to keep the brand alive so that when they do aim for something new and big (DDN, or the far-future WoD MMO) then the fans haven't completely forgotten about them. Just my speculation, though.

Accidentally Modelling the F2P Whale Paradigm: 

I believe that the world of F2P computer games online demonstrates a similar principle to the way PDF sales of RPGs work. They offer the product for free to all, but count on occasional so-called “whales” to actually do the it turns out 95% of people don’t pay anything, but 5% pay far, far more than is normal. In a sense, the crowd that decides "I will support this" ends up paying for the freeloader's experiences. In RPG PDFs I think a similar phenomenon happens, in which the pirate crowd all gets a free copy, but the much smaller portion of dedicated and honest fans actually end up paying a cost that is disproportionate to the perceived worth, precisely because there is almost no price point that can beat "free." 
Thus that $18 price tag is set in the hope that 500 real fans with money will buy the game over time, even though 4,000 others have downloaded it at Demonoid or something. The 4,000 pirates will never buy a game, plain and simple (or at best a very tiny percentage of them may cave in to guilt). And meanwhile, ventures like the $1 Legend rulebook will generate a ton of cheap sales, but the revenue is pathetic; it’s actually turned into an advertisement for the game's other more reasonably priced line of $12 PDF supplements, in the hope that some of those $1 sales will hook people onto more books bought legitimately. Not a bad strategy....but also quite a gamble.


Interested in seeing how many downloads a fairly well-known product's PDFs get over time? Places like Rpgnow don't usually offer up actual figures to anyone except their participating publishers, but two other sites do. Chaosium offers a download figure for its PDFs right here (to show off the BRP listings). Note that it's Big Gold Book PDF of BRP has had 904 total downloads to date, and another 514 from a separate listing for another release of the PDF (one which I think was revised with bookmarks?)

Then take a look at Outpost 19, a module for BRP. It's had 198 downloads. Curiously it's free PDF of handout (stuff to use with the module) has had over 2100 downloads. Maybe because its free, or people wanted to get a sense of what the module is like based on its supplemental offerings (Chaosium doesn't offer free previews like rpgnow and e23). Hopefully not because 1900 people pirated it and needed the handouts....but based on some figures I've seen, I'd believe it.

Magic World now has 199 downloads as of this time. That's very heartening to know that that many people are interested even before a print edition is out.

Steve Jackson Games offers a similar tracker on their site. You can check it out here. This one lets you play with the parameters a bit, but its interesting that over an eight year span the best selling PDF is GURPS Starships with 1,802 copies. Don't let the fact that the 20th most popular book in that same period is GURPS Supers with 978 downloads. This means that every other product on e23 has sold less than GURPS Supers.  

Yes....just under 2,000 copies for the top selling PDF for a game that I think could arguably be considered one of the iconic Big Five of the RPG hobby (D&D, Hero, GURPS, World of Darkness and list, definitely open to interpretation), and the #20 spot holds at 978 copies sold, which means that the 150+ other books on the site, plus all the affiliate publishers with products on e23, are under that 978 number. 

If you're interested in doing the footwork sometime, go dig through some torrent sites that host downloads with RPG PDFs, and which track number of downloads. It will be very sobering. 

There are a lot of gamers out there. But most of them are cheapskates and pirates (at least, in netspace). *

Anyway, if you think big publishers are still selling five digit sales regularly....or that PDFs regularly even break four digit sales numbers, looking at some stats like this can be sobering.  Given that the majority of GURPS PDFs are priced at $10 or less (and only the core 4th edition manuals are more expensive) it's hard to suggest their figures are low entirely due to price point.

I do wonder if Steve Jackson Games would have better sales numbers on One Book Shelf, though. Worth thinking about. 

*This may be a bit harsh. There's another blog's worth of discussion on the nature of our hobby and why piracy is so common. Maybe next week...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Good Stuff in the Mail, PS4 Announcement and More

Still reading Magic World. It's definitely a good book, and it's got plenty of content to support some robust campaigns. If you've ever played the old Elric! RPG then a lot of the content in here will feel familiar. It's key feature right now is that it works well as a streamlined version of Runequest, so if you're looking for a faster "get into the action" RPG that doesn't deal with as many technical details, MW is a great choice. The fact that it is 100% compatible with the rest of the BRP line just means adding to the system is that much easier. You could easily use this with any of the fantasy settings already out in print for BRP, for example, or pretty much any BRP-compatible product. All of the old out of print Elric! books would work with MW almost as-is.

My numerous beginning-of-year purchases keep rolling in. My copy of Over the Edge 20th Anniversary Edition arrived, a decent ebay score ($50 for the book instead of $75). I love this game, and to this day it still boggles me that I didn't run it back in the day. I drew a lot of inspiration from OTE in my early nineties games, especially Cyberpunk 2020, Dark Conspiracy and GURPS....but OTE was a bit too minimalist in terms of the game engine for my tastes back then. Nowadays I'm a lot more receptive to its brand of mechanics, which feel positively quaint compared to some current popular indie systems out there.

Aside from that, Beyond Red Crater for Mutant Epoch and my print version of Starships & Spacemen 2nd Edition arrived from Lulu. Both great books. Last night during the Wednesday game some of my players brought up Mutant Epoch again, expressing interest in trying it out. I may have to throw it down as the next game to play when the current Pathfinder campaign ends.

I've got mobilized interest in a Tuesday night bi-weekly game now, one which we will host from home so my wife can play (playing from home in theory making child management easier). It looks like the crew who want to play are up for it as an alt-game night, so I'm proposing Magic World to start off with, and will then plan for future games that include Starships & Spacemen, Remnants, Survivors of the Fire and Over the Edge. If time permits I may get even more games in sometime down the road, but I think those are the top dogs I want to focus on right now (assuming Mutant Epoch gets some time on Wednesday night, that is!)

In video game news the Playstation 4 was announced (albeit not shown) yesterday and the top points of interest and contention that video game journalists are bringing up right now seem to be:

1. PS4 is just a consolized PC (so was the Xbox 360)
2. The cloud gaming option is evil
3. Lack of backwards compatibility is evil
4. Sony is evil
5. And it will be out in time for the Holidays this year.

So, business as usual I see!

No price announced for it, but if the thing costs more than $400 I am definitely out (I can stomach paying less than that for day one buy-in, but only barely). I don't care about backwards compatibility at all, which is because I just bought a PS3 so I have that covered (and if I want to play more than is offered on that, I'll find a PS2).

Anyway.....eager to see what Microsoft announces next.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Magic World vs. Runequest 6 Take One

UPDATE: Know what? The font and layout of Magic World looks Really, Really good on my Nexus PDF reader. BIG PLUS.

Someone over at asked about the differences between the two, so I responded based on my reading of the PDF so far. I then realized "I should put this on the blog," so here goes:

Magic Worlds vs. Runequest 6....initial similarities, differences

Character options: MW is BRP based so it doesn't have a culture distinction, but breaks down by professions in a BRP format. It's BRP-compatible. (EDIT: Yes it does. I skipped over it on the initial breze through).

Health/Hit Points: It has some rules on more heroic level HPs as an option (but not default). RQ6 has a culture distinction and breaks hit points down by a location chart (BRP offers hit locations as an option, but MW defaults to a single HP value...which I personally prefer).

Resistances/Saves: MW uses the resistance table and the BRP concept of characteristic rolls (like BRP). RQ6 uses two skills, endurance and willpower (formerly resillience and persistence in Legend) to handle many "save" effects.

Magic: RQ6 has several magic systems of different flavors, which you can use all at once or individually to different effect. MW uses one magic system (sorcery) derived from Elric, so it's a more heavy-hitting swords & sorcery feel set of rules with a lot of demonic and elemental summoning features. The MW sorcery is about as expansive in terms of options as the combined folk magic, sorcery and animism rules in RQ6. MW does not have anything to compare to the mysticism and theism of RQ6, although it is compatible with BRP Magic, which is a recreation of the RQ3 magic rules.

Combat: RQ6 combat is maneuver based, and MW is as well, albeit in a slightly different format. If I had to call out one or the other as more detailed/complicated I would say RQ6 is the more complex, but really we're talking apples and oranges here....the main difference as stated earlier is that MW does not use a hit location system to break down HP like RQ6 does, relying instead on a core HP total ala BRP.

Monsters: Both games have robust monster selections, with some variants between the two. Offhand the RQ6 monsters has about 60 entries and it looks like MW has about 80. Both provide a good range of support for different conventional monsters types, with the usual quirks of the RQ/BRP family. MW is more conventional, however (i.e. earth elementals are not named gnomes) with a bigger array of familiar beasts but fewer uniques. Both games snub goblins for some reason (goblins are missing from MW and RQ6 lumps them in with orcs, which becomes a broad category for "humanoids we fight.) Don't know what the lack of goblin love is in either game.

GM/Campaign Stuff: MW has some detailed ship/sailing rules in it (RQ6 doesn't). RQ6 has specific rules on cults and brotherhoods (an important part of advancement and interaction in RQ6) but MW does not use this structure as such. Both games have some nice GM advice sections, with MW being geared toward somewhat more traditional swords & sorcery (by a slight margin) while RQ6 hangs closely on its "mythic ancient world" style. MW has a default core setting it includes in back as an example starting point. RQ6 plans to add setting in future books.

Magic Items: MW has a big plus in that it includes an array of interesting magic items to include in a campaign, which is cool but not derivative of conventional D&D-like approaches to magical devices as such. RQ6 has/will have enchantment rules, but magic in the form of items is considerably less normal in a typical RQ campaign.

Artwork: both games have great artwork. YMMV but I think I lean slightly toward MW's art style and layout, which has few "white spaces" than RQ6 and the font is easier on my eyes.

Both games are all-in-one packages for the most part, so with just these core books you could run a full campaign in either one. I might give a +1 point to this on MW since it also adds the ship/sailing rules, and offers a default setting that a time-restrained GM can immediately get into. MW is also more focused on a specific style of sword & sorcery play, so it strikes me as easier to digest the single but more robust sorcery mechanics, where as with RQ6 you need to learn five different magic systems. 

Atomic Age Cthulhu is out and Magic World gets a cover

I see that Atomic-Age Cthulhu is now out! Ordering it now. Also, it looks like Magic World has a cover, a release date of March 18th and a price ($38.95). I think I'm going to have to preorder this one and get in on ground zero...I have a very good feeling about Magic World's future versatility for what I need.

EDIT: I just noticed that the PDF appears to be available already. Will be snagging

First impressions in a bit!

Atomic-Age Cthulhu promo art

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Original Dungeons & Dragons Returns this November

'Nuff said: Wizards is releasing the original three book set plus four supplements in a wooden case with dice. It's a pretty penny ($149.95) but covers, faithful reprints of the interiors....this is even more impressive than what they did with AD&D 1st edition.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Six years late to the Playstation 3 party (but I still made it!)

At last I can play the trilogy about Laura's adventures after her FTM conversion
Thanks to some fortuitous savings recently (even with a move and a lot of new purchases for Mom and the Kid) there was a bit of change left over from the discretionary splurge fund. Since I obviously don't have enough books, games and crap, I decided to add a Playstation 3 to the pile of stuff under which my corpse will one day be found after a major shelf collapse.

Getting the Playstation 3 at the end of its life cycle (what with plans to announce the PS4 apparently imminent on Feb. 20) has some advantages. First off is there are lot of budget priced games and game bundles floating around. Second is you can pick from quite a few decent titles and avoid the duds, as they've long since been weeded out. 

About the biggest non-surprise for me is that the PS3 doesn't actually look that impressive, although when I try to compare a title to the release date I can see how, over the course of its career, that each game taken into consideration would have looked better at the time it was new. Now, of course, just as with the Xbox 360, both consoles are starting to look long in the tooth when contrasted with the norm for dedicated PC releases.

The biggest actual surprise is how much loading time this machine demands. I had read some anecdotal tales of 30+ minute long load times to get from "insert disc" to "play game," but I did not realize it was this bad. I have probably spent 3 hours in actual play time on the system this weekend and 10 hours in load time.

All that aside, its going to be fun catching up on the Playstation side of the gaming fence. I haven't had a PS2 in ages, so I have a lot to catch up with. The Killzone Collection, Resistance Trilogy, God of War Collection, Heavy Rain, Uncharted series, Twisted Metal, Yakuza Dead Souls, Starhawk, Demon Souls and more. 

All I need now is to clone myself so I have some free time to play....

At last I get to play the game with the Space Nazis!

Nuking the Fridge

I like this. Reel Physics is a newish show at Escapist that's a lot of fun:

So next time someone is frothing about Indy's nuclear fridge adventure, note that the only really egregious issue in terms of the physics of all of it is that he was too far ahead of the pressure wave!

Note that (surprise surprise) I liked Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Yes, I think I have a complex where I tend to like the "underdog" in any given situation. I have no idea why I am so contrarian when it comes to geekland popular opinion.....Indiana Jones, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Duke Nukem, 4E.....sigh.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Meteor over Chelyabinsk!

Fantastic and spooky stuff....check out the Bad Astronomy entry on it, with numerous video feeds of the meteor which passed over the Russian city of Chalyabinsk. Injuries from the effects of the sonic boom, which set off car alarms and rocked the city, causing glass damage and possibly worse. And it's not even related to the 2012 DA14 asteroid....anyway, Bad astronomy has a good selection of videos, as does google (not many I can find set for imbedding, however).

The Final Aliens Post: A Decent Critique

Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report has an interesting article on why he feels Aliens: Colonial Marines failed as a game sequel to the movies, and why making a game out of the films is so difficult, if not impossible. It's a good read and I am inclined to agree with much of it in principle, even if I am far less harsh in my experience with the game, having found myself not even noticing or being bothered by so many of the features that apparently drove Ben and others nuts. The alien behavior, for example....I did not notice or was not bothered by poor AI during the play. Was it there? I guess, maybe. Truth is, I was enjoying the ride and was not bothered that the game experience wasn't a precise emulation of the style and feel of the movie in that way....I pretty much just assumed that we were dealing with a story about a group of more experienced, less cocky and more well-informed marines who weren't as foolhardy as the ones from the movie. Unlike Ben, I guess I entered the game not expecting it to be an emulation of the Aliens film, but its own thing, spinning off from it, and using the medium of video games to do what it could to give us an experience in that universe.

That said, I bet the guys behind Dead Space could have nailed it.

Anyway, read his commentary, I think it's an interesting perspective and carries through with the previous games, although I am less inclined to agree that throwing predators into the mix has been a very useful story tool....and in fact feel that the AvP games and movies have largely been let downs to both franchises.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

This Week in RPGs: Remnants, Maschine Zeit, Starships & Spacemen, Beyond Red Crater, and Over the Edge

At long last and after an address snafu (which the customer service at OneBookShelf fixed immediately and to their credit, even though the error was mine) I now have the print versions of Maschine Zeit and Remnants. I've been reading both in electronic format, but not perhaps as dilligently as I would like; for me, games seem to work better in the print medium, and the PDFs are just more effectively useful as quick references, not for reading.

I'll post more about those two soon, but some quick comments:

Remnants is a "post-apocalyptic giant Kaiju vs. relic mecha" adventure setting with a nice ruleset to support it. The book is concise and well-written, with the setting content front-loaded and the rules in back (a popular indie style). It's a tight game, and I really plan to run this soon.

Remnants just got its first expansion book as well: The Broken Lands is $6 in PDF right now and having just downloaded it I shall include details on it as well in my Remnants review, which I'll hopefully get to in a week or two at the most. I can tell you right now, the review's going to be one of those fanboy gushy ones, I really like this game.

Maschine Zeit is inspired by the "haunted space station (or ship)" genre of horror SF. It's heavy on the expository fake clippings and bits of text that string together to form some sort of campaign picture. I am still wading through this one, as the PDF version wasn't quite as optimal as Remnants was for easy reading. The rules, as I've scanned through them so far, are really minimalist. Not sure if this is going to prove to be a better "idea/inspiration" book for a preferred system (i.e GURPS or BRP) or if it will stand on its own legs. I'm not a minimalist storyteller style rules kind of guy....I like a bit of meat on my games. We shall see, as with the print edition I should be able to finish plowing through it.

One oddity: for a future full of haunted space stations there are a lot of old school internet and news clips scattered through the campaign section of Maschine Zeit. I would think that in the next century or two blogs and internet anything, never mind news clips, will all be so quaintly "21st century," archaic relics of a bygone era of simpler communication.

Despite my worries that the system in Maschine Zeit is going to be a bit lean, I still picked up all the modules, and must say its a fine read and interesting premise. More to come on this, of course.

Today I ordered print copies of Mutant Epoch's latest module "Beyond Red Crater" and Goblinoid's revised 2nd edition of Starships & Spacemen. I rather like S&S, it's right at the lower end of the threshold of rules complexity for my tastes, and the homage/spoof of the Star Trek classic universe makes this a rather fun product....anyway, I have all of Goblinoid's other games in print now (except for Time Master) so this will more or less complete the GG collection of retroclones and homages that make for some great retro gaming.

Last but not least I spotted a copy of the 20th Anniversary release of Over the Edge. This is one of the greatest RPGs out there which I somehow never got to play or run when it was actively in print. I need to rectify my old gang would attest, we had some wildly surreal and over-the-edge style adventures back in the day, albeit using Cyberpunk 2020, Dark Conspiracy, Call of Cthulhu, Kult, GURPS and Unknown Armies. How Over the Edge escaped our attention is beyond me.

Anyway, reviews of all of the above as soon as I receive and finish reading them!

The Eternally Mutating Alien

This is still bugging me. It might help if some sort of explanation was forthcoming in the Alien-verse (Prometheus-verse?) but I think the rationale may change from one film to the next, or dictated purely by the whim of the FX artist or video game art/design lead. So I present a collage of alien heads over time, as they have mutated from one movie to the next:

The alien as he looked in the original movie...also the "stalker" type in A:CM

The alien look from Aliens, Alien 3 and the warrior type in A:CM

The Protoalien of Prometheus. I loved Prometheus, but after months of reflecting on the movie I have to say, I really wish that they get a good screenwriter for the next script, one who likes a challenge in creating a bridge movie that explains WTF was going on in Prometheus and how it all leads directly to Alien.

I this alien what comes out of an engineer, or is just a literal protoype, a stepping stone for the genetic virus toward the final master race model?

So many unanswered questions that are floating around, but not, I suspect, because of any master storyline, instead because they were making it all up as they went along. I really wish they'd sprung for a novelization. Never did a movie need a movie-tie-in novel so badly as Prometheus.

AvP: Requiem alien warrior. Note that his bony skull is not quite as pronounced as the earlier pic (two up). But it's all good as the AvP aliens are from an alternate reality, the one which contains the mustache twirling Spock.

The dog alien of Alien 3. Not entirely sure what made this one unique other than that was "born" more physically developed than other aliens usually are.

The painfully stupid human-alien hybrid of Alien: Resurrection. If we assume it's a product of the alien gene-stealing element and not a product of the insane and incompetent mad scientists that also cloned Ripley, then it ruins my theory (below) that the aliens might steal the most useful genes in host organisms.

The equally stupid albeit slightly scarier Predalien. Noteworthy for bypassing the egg-face hugger-hatchling snake process, going right to a new "vomit up alien embryos right into the host" process instead. This is the only instance we see of aliens hatching more than one progeny from a single host, which is another curiosity of the'd think they would be capable of generating multiple hatchlings from a single face-hugger implantation. My theory is they are, but not in humans (not enough room or "resources" in the host to sustain more than one baby alien at a time).

If the predalien supports the gene-stealing theory, then it does in fact make one wonder what sort of reproductive processes predators are supposed to have.

The Alien Queen in Aliens. Pretty spry for her time. Still, I never did understand the xenomorph development stage very well. I mean it's easy enough to explain: think army ants who need to capture other bugs that they then expose to hatching larvae, and those larvae sink into the hosts to plant a second larvae, which then hatches. Sure, I get that....but only one larvae per host? That's a population that is limited in expansion by the number of other species around it. Very bad survival trait, if you don't mind my saying so.

The Alien Queen in AvP. A terrifying tyrannosaurus Rex in the guise of an alien. Apparently not able to survive the crushing depths of the ocean, even if she is more than capable of escaping orbit. She was, however, able to survive for untold millennia in Predator cryostasis, apparently. Speaking of which, the Alien vs. Predator films don't even fit in well with the canon Predator universe. Keeping aliens for some rite-of-passage event on Earth is directly comparable to a big game hunter who keeps a private kennel full of lethal asps inside a petting zoo.

I saw this last one happen in real life. It was actually messier.

There seems to be a suggested theme in the movies that the aliens steal DNA or adopt characteristics of their host species. This is never elaborated on (no scientist type seems to step up and mention this) but is rather simply assumed*. It's a good example of artistic expression trumping a good story, I feel. Now, taking into account the reveal in Prometheus (that the aliens may be a genetic third or fourth generation byproduct of a hyper-mutating genetic virus of some sort) it does raise interesting questions, such as "if they can adopt species characteristics that are useful, then why don't they borrow...say....bigger brains for more intelligence, or better adaptive/reasoning skills?" For that matter, why don't the aliens simply adopt a better reproductive system?

I suppose the answer will be revealed in a future Prometheus sequel, but I would imagine the real answer is: they are actually stuck with a limited range of adaptive traits. Specifically, they are bred for war and genocidal extermination, and the engineers created the virus to breed monsters of a destructive nature, so the virus seeks out traits that are calculated to be the most damaging to a target species. Maybe? It's all speculation at this point. A byproduct, in truth, of nearly forty years' worth of different film makers and script writers dipping their hand in the pot.

Here, let me confuse you (source unknown...wish I knew who did this)

*Except, of course, in Alien: Resurrection where it's sort of the whole impetus of the movie, to the point where they are cloning Ripley from some ill-defined source of her DNA (attained magically) to extract alien DNA from her clones. Oh that movie makes my head hurt. I think the novels imply as much, too....but for the most part 95% of the Alien tie-in novels have been little more than poorly-conceived paid fanfic. Um, IMO. There are some exceptions, though.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Aliens: Colonial Marines - The Contrasting Reviews (aka am I just a pushover?)

I was reading the PC Gamer review of Aliens: Colonial Marines (here) and have to admit, I agree with many points he raises. However, despite agreeing with many things, there's an interesting slant in the review that is obviously weighted toward the negative, which makes it hard for me to appreciate how the reviewer can look at the same issue I may have encountered, but where he sees "crap" I had fun, instead. I guess....with all the accusations of shillery in the video game journalism business,* when an opportunity arises to slam something, they must take it with all the gusto they can? When a game displays a flaw/feature that, while not debilitating or even problematic necessarily, is nonetheless possible to spin as negative then it must absolutely be so, lest the reviewer be called out as the shill we all suspect he/she is? I have no idea.

On the other hand, am I just so jaded as a game player (and not a pro reviewer by an stretch) that I automatically engage with a game on its preset level of expectation? I knew A:CM wasn't going to be another Mass Effect, but in the Aliens universe....even though I would love to see such a game, of I instead played it with a contrast to other, similar titles (Crysis 2, Halo 4, Aliens vs. Predator) and in that context I found it rather enjoyable....more so, in fact, than I have any of the aforementioned titles, even though I also enjoyed (or am in the process of enjoying) each of them. Hell, I actually felt compelled to play A:CM all the way through, in one sitting. I didn't grab up Halo 4 to finish it....nope. A:CM was good enough to keep me going to the end. short, I think my review of the single player campaign still stands. I enjoyed it, I did not find it as trite or hollow as, say, the PCG review....and among its peers I found it perfectly acceptable. Could it have been more? Of course. But such was not the game they designed, or advertised it as. In the scope of "today's first person shooters featuring space marines and aliens," it was a pretty fun ride....and for an older "casual" gamer like myself who's interests lie in relaxed engagement first and "proving my geek cred" a distant second, this was about exactly what I needed to play this week.

The more I read the frothing mad rage reviews about this game, the more amusing it gets. If only I hadn't actually played the game and found it fun, then I might be able to participate in the witch hunt of a triple-A title that didn't quite meet expectations.

*And I know that by implying they slant a review negatively just to avoid accusations I am putting them in a double bind no-win scenario. Life as a journalist is tough.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Review (single player campaign)

Aliens: Colonial Marines released Tuesday morning (shortly after 1 AM my time in fact) and despite some Steam hiccups it was working in time for me to jump into it today. As it happens I've been sick, thanks to moving over the weekend in some very chill air, I think....sneezing and coughing uncontrollably at times! And yet, somehow, I not only managed to play Aliens: Colonial Marines, but thanks to today's relatively low standard for campaign length I even managed to finish it.

This sort of thing never happens to me. Traditionally I buy a game, play it for a bit, decide I would like to set aside a decent weekend to finishing it, then never get around to actually doing so. A year or two later I realize I've got this great (sometimes) neglected game still on the HDD and I finally tackle it. So buying a game and finishing it immediately after release feels really...weird.

This review is for the PC version. I snagged it plus the season pass for about $50 on Green Man Gaming after applying some decent discounts and credit I had over there.

Raptr says I spent 10 hours on A:CM today, and I am inclined to believe it. The single player campaign is a direct sequel (as in, immediately following) Aliens and Alien 3. It addresses the way things wound up by the end of those two movies, more or less, and probes some interesting questions about what was going on away from the prison planet Fury 161 (Alien 3) as well as the condition of LV 426 and Hadley's Hope after the reactor explosion in the terraformer at the end of Aliens. It specifically sets out to address the following questions (which I will not provide the answers to, so no spoilers, as such):

1. We see Michael Weyland and his mercs moving in on Ripley at the end of Alien 3. What else were they up to while in the neighborhood?

2. What happened to the Sulaco? For that matter, is everything that we thought we knew about the Sulaco correct?

3. Was Hadley's Hope destroyed by the terraformer explosion?

4. What about the alien vessel? The engineer vessel (called the "origin" vessel here) was only really touched upon in the Extended Cut of Aliens and the is it still sitting out there, full of eggs?

A:CM takes place 17 weeks after the LV 426 skirmish and three more weeks after the events in Alien 3. It focuses on your character, Winter, a marine who's part of the crew of the military vessel Sephora, sent to respond to the Sulaco's distress signal. They find the Sulaco where they least expect it (back in orbit around LV-426) and crawling with both xenomorphs and Weyland-Yutani mercenaries. A brutal firefight ensues, as the marines are caught off-guard by both the xenomorphs and the mercs. Eventually we get to see LV 426, Hadley's Hope, and more (including the promethean vessel) as the game cascades along at a cinematic breakneck pace.

If this had been a real movie sequel, it would have been fantastic (and might have made one overlook the blemish of Alien: Resurrection). As it stands, this is supposedly an official sequel, which is good...there's a lot here to appreciate as a fan of the Alien universe. I can't go into specifics without spoiling it, but at least one familiar face pops up that I didn't anticipate, and of course Lance Henrickson reprises his role as Michael Weyland from Aliens 3 as well as another Bishop model (or two).

In terms of game play A:CM handled well although it's built using some variant of the Unreal 3 engine that felt a little funky to me; not as "tight" as some other Unreal 3-powered games I've played. The game, while largely linear in design, had some very wide-open spots and level design that felt less restricting than is normal for shooters these days. If you're used to Call of Duty style rail design, this game will feel oddly open. Do not expect a Borderlands-like experience, however. Even if you are leveling your marine and equipping level-earned weapon mods, it is fairly unintrusive and does not betray the core conceit of a good shooter (that skill and a decent weapon are all-powerful).

Graphically it looked good, but not state of the art; it looked (and felt) like a great release for 2008-2009, but maybe not quite up to current graphic expectations. When you notice the character models you'll see what I mean. If this game had been released at the same time as Bioshock, it would have looked amazing.

Was it scary? Well, I did find some spots that were a bit nerve wracking but to be honest I've found other games (like Rage, for example) to be more nerve-wracking than this. I played the campaign on middle-of-the-road soldier mode, however, so maybe more difficult settings are a bit more harrowing. Just keep in mind, this is a direct sequel in tone and flavor to Aliens, and is not meant to model the original Alien. In this regard it does a fantastic job. This is also a negative, in so far as you can only provide so much depth to a story focused entirely on the colonial marines. Space marines just aren't that good at nuanced depth. But the story is there, and it is worth checking out.

I have one gripe: why do the alien heads seem to change more and more with every new iteration? There are a few different types of alien in this game, and there seems to be an underlying explanation (which is fine), but the core alien seems to have mutated quite a bit from the original Alien xenomorph (with a long smooth skull). I know, they're closer to the actual look of the aliens as seen in Aliens and Alien 3, but still.....ah well, just a curious gripe. We're not talking "oddly different" on any level comparable to the proto-xenomorph at the end of Prometheus, for example. But, to contrast, take a look at the aliens in, say, AvP and notice how different the heads seem to look from one depiction to another over time.

EDIT: I take it back. The weird types of xenomorphs in the game were interesting, but the more I think about it the less sure I am that a good explanation for their existence is provided.* There's an acid spitter, for example, that I was thinking might have been a product of Weyland-Yutani's tampering, but best I can tell no actual assertion of such was provided. A big four-legged brute shows up, too....but what was its function, and was it due to tampering (as I was thinking) or a natural form? There's also a level where you encounter strangely diseased aliens that are slinking off to die. It's an eerie and interesting level, but they never provide an actual explanation for the condition of these particular aliens (that I can recall). I sort of assumed they were deformed or dying from radiation exposure due to the reactor explosion....but I could be wrong.


Bottom line: great shooter (A+), good story (A), okay graphics (B+) worth the time of any fan of shooters and the Aliens film to check out. A:CM is a solid A. Don't let jaded critics fool you! It's better than they make it sound.

*Technically there is an explanation, as follows: a video game of this nature must have a skirmisher you can shoot as it runs at you, a spitter/shooter that you pick off at a distance, a brute you must dodge when it charges, and so forth. The alien types are here because someone in the design team thought these were inviolate archetypes and they must shoehorn them in, regardless of whether they are really needed or not. Please, game designers, stop doing this. Please.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Brief Hiatus

Just a short post to letcha all know that I have been busy moving to a new apartment in-town, so my time and internet access has been limited. We've got internet back and as of this morning are all settled in, so it will soon be back to business as usual.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Wednesday Bits: Deluxe T&T, B/X D&D PDFs and GURPS Underground Adventures

Just a "smidgeon of news to me" post for today.....too busy to do much more!

The Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls Kickstarter closed at $125,440, over 400% above its original goal. I opted in for all the print stuff I could plus the "vital spots" Tee. I predict a good year for new T&T gaming later this year! The release date goal is August, and hopefully Ken, Liz, Jim and the rest can meet that deadline. I hope Liz gets her tattoo sooner, though....!

I finally caved and bought the Basic and Expert PDF's of Dungeons & Dragons over at A few brief comments from my perusing the documents last night:

1. the PDFs are really nice and clean, and the Expert set is indexed (maybe it was my reader, but I didn't see linking/indexing in the Basic book). The Expert PDF also includes a scan of a TSR catalog circa 1982ish. Pretty cool. If you remember the old D&D scans from then WotC was doing this before, keep in mind the quality of the scans has gone up dramatically.

2. I find it very amusing that when you get back to the Basic/Expert sets gnomes are once more delegated to the status of monstrous denizens, and the Expert set even includes a sample gnome lair....

3. Speaking of gnomes, I had also forgotten that in Basic, the gnoll was described as being created when a mad wizard crossbred a troll and a gnome! Fantastic stuff. Will be mulling over using this nugget in future games.

4. I have to concede that in terms of my appreciation for older editions that I haven't given enough credit to just how important Basic and Expert D&D was to my formative gamer years (even back then I tended to ostensibly play AD&D while in reality I was using AD&D for characters and monsters and leaning on B/X for actual rulings). Looking at them now, there is a strong temptation to break these bad boys out for a new campaign played By The Book. Probably will never happen, but they're loaded onto my Nexus now, so I'm prepared, should the need arise.

So anyway, if you're wondering if $10 is worth the admission to check out Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons, the answer is: yes, yes it is.

On other news, there's a new GURPS PDF out which looks really interesting: Underground Adventures is all about the fantastic world of digging deep into the earth, and the mysteries it has held (or was imagined to hold) over the ages. So far a great read and very inspirational. As with most GURPS supplements, this can work well as a sourcebook for your preferred game engine as easily as it can for GURPS 4th.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Amazing Adventures: James Cash, the Explosive Rocketman!

As an example of Amazing Adventures character creation, I'm going to create a sample character with a bit of history to show off what the system lets you do. Yes, AA is a D20 spin-off with class-based mechanics, but it's got some pretty nifty features as far as its breed goes, and here's a sample of how that works:

Meet James Cash, the Explosive Rocketman

James Cash began his career as a daredevil stuntman in the Hollywood of late 1929, known primarily for his role in cheap action serials as "Daredevil Dan, the Singing Detective Cowboy," but his role as a real adventurer didn't begin until one fateful evening when he was invited to a glitzy party at the Wollerman Mansion in the Hollywood Hills. There he was unexpectedly thrust into a web of deceit, lies and treachery when he arrived at the party and found  Marvin Wollerman, Hollywood mogul, under gunpoint by hooligans working for the famed Doctor Anthony Sevarius, a well known mad scientist who had been ousted from his profession for unethical practices a few years earlier, and was now working with local mobsters to unknown ends.

It turns out that Marvin Wollerman was secretly the (now retired) former Captain Skyfall, famous American vigilante and hero who worked against the fascist menace in The Great War some ten years earlier. He was forced to retire from duty as a covert agent of the United Stats due to a crippling injury to his back from the secret forces of agent Kaiser Wilhelm II during the final days of the war. Still, Wollerman was resourceful, and had built many fabulous gadgets since, including the exoskeletal framework which let him walk in public.

The goons holding him up were rapidly dispatched by a fast-acting hard-punching James Cash, who earned the respect of the party-goers and the police who arrived to mop up. More importantly, Wollerman realized that Cash was the sort of man he could appreciate, the kind who could carry on a legacy....after the event, Wollerman invited Cash into his parlor, and made a proposal: take up the mantle of his old guise, armed with the many gadgets and devices Wollerman had built over the years to aid him in his duties as secret agent for the U.S., and carry on the good fight. More importantly: find out what Doctor Sevarius wanted, and shut him down!

Cash, naturally, could not refuse the offer. Especially not when he saw Wollerman's greatest invention yet, the flying rocket suit...and thus was born the Explosive Rocketman, as the press would come to call Hollywood's latest mysterious vigilante of the skies!

Rolling up James Cash

Amazing Adventures gives you a point pool to design PCs with (you can roll if you want, too). I'm going to point buy James Cash for maximum focus; each stat starts at 6 and I get a pool of 45 points to distribute. Right now I see him as a bit of a pugilist and a gadgeteer rolled into one, so multiclassing may be in his future. For now, I assign his stats as follows:

Strength 14 - Cash is tough and strong, but not muscle bound.
Dexterity 14 - I see Cash as very agile, he needs to be in his line of work.
Constitution 18 - Years of work in the stuntman business has hardened Cash to pain and injury.
Intelligence 11 - Cash is above average, but not a brainiac.
Wisdom 9 - Cash has some good intuition, as he needs it in his line of work, but he's no Socrates.
Charisma 15 - Cash is loaded with charisma; its why he makes the Saturday adventure serials!

AA's modifiers for stats is the same point spread you see in C&C, LL, S&W and others, so he has the following stats: STR 14 (+1), DEX (14 (+1), CON 18 (+3), INT 11 (0), WIS 9 (0), CHA 15 (+1). Okay, so no below average stats, he's all around above average or better. Soaking hits is his big score.

Cash gets three primes. We're gonna make them Charisma, Constitution, and Dexterity. He's noted for his good looks and charm, his toughness and his agility. In AA, this gives you a +5 modifier to challenge checks, which are a base DC 15 (so the AA universe is ranked slightly off from conventional C&C).

James is destined to be a gadgeteer, but I really see him being strong as a pugilist, to reflect his years as a stuntman. In AA there is an official multiclassing option which looks a lot like C&C's rules (4th crusade edition onward) and an optional version that looks a bit like 3rd edition D20's methodology. As intrigued as I am at the alternating class level option, I'll stick with the official multiclass option for now, making Cash a level 1/1 gadgeteer/pugilist.

Multiclassed characters have a formula for calculating XP gain which I won't go into, but the short version is "figure it out and write it down." They also gain all class abilities, weapons and armor permitted, and an average of the two classes' hit dice and hit bonuses.

After adding in class abilities and combining them accordingly I get the following:

Hit Points: 12 (6 for gadgeteer plus 12 for pugilist, averaged out, plus Con Mod; note that after this he will roll D12 and D6 for each and get the average at each new level)

Base to Hit Modifier: 0 (neither class gets a bonus at level 1)

Base Gadgeteer Abilities: Support Gadgeteer (he gets his gadgets from Wollerman), making his prime Charisma. He starts with 1D6+1+Charisma mod. in gadget points but I'm going to cheat and max him out with 8 points. More on this in a sec. He also gets Jury Rig, an intelligence-based skill which reflects a general handiness with machinery and fixing things.

Base Pugilist Abilities: At 1st level a pugilist gets nothing exciting; most of that stuff comes later in the class. He does get an unarmed attack damage of 1D4 (instead of 1D3) and Mind over Body (+1 to Con saves). Pugilists at level 1 are basically living for the future.

Alignment: I think we'll go with lawful good on this. James Cash is a lawful sort of guy, and good runs in his blood.

Fate Points: Yes, there are fate points (hero points, action your butt points). You start with 1D4+1. I roll and get....3 fate points to start.

Building Gadgets: James is a charisma-based gadgeteer, so he wears and uses stuff his support man makes. This is a tougher role for the gadgeteer, because you lose the ability to make on-the-fly gadgets, and you can possibly lose your support if they are shot, kidnapped or otherwise removed from your access. The plus side is slightly reduced cost in making gadgets. At first level the suggestion is to let the gadgeteer buy level 0 or 1 gadgets, and one higher level gadget. Obviously we're going to make a rocket pack, so we'll start there. Here's what we work out:

Rocket Pack (Fly, cost: 4); We've got our rocket pack, which gets Cash around at a hefty clip. It's reasonably portable, and we'll say its bulky but can slim down to fit in a hiker's backpack if necessary. Cash can lift the equivalent of his normal maximum load in flight as well as himself while he is airborn (which for the record is 140 lbs. or even potentially 210 lbs. dead-lifted, for a few seconds).

We've got 4 points left after that. This is enough to get two level 1 gadgets, four level 0 gadgets or a mixture. We'll go for something  a bit complex, the "Rocketman Pistol." The rules don't (that I've spotted) specifically talk about combined gadgets but I see no reason not to allow it here:

Rocketman Pistol (Light, Dancing Lights, Arcane Bolt; Total Cost 4); this impressive pistol has three settings: it can project as a ordinary but very effective flashlight (light), can emit four glowing electrical balls of plasma to illuminate the region (dancing lights), and it can fire arcs of force energy at targets to injure or even kill (arcane bolt). Wollerman has future intentions (when more gadget points are earned) to add a chafe effect (faerie fire) and stun setting (daze).

Swapping class abilities is next. There's one ability I don't think hits Cash well: his Jury Rigging. Cash isn't a technical guy, and Wollerman is the man for the job in designing the gadgets, so I see Cash as more likely to have something that fits his background here. Looking at the abilities at hand I find two that feel handy: Two Fisted (punch with both hands) and Wealthy. Wealthy is an appropriate swap for Jury Rig, so we'll take that instead, reflecting Cash's accrued wealth as a stuntman and his newfound resources through his patron, Wollerman.

Next we come to Backgrounds. The background can be picked based on character type, or rolled randomly. There's no specific suggested background that fits, so we'll invent one: professional stuntman. In addition we get some knowledge skills, specifically kowledge (gadgeteer) and knowledge (pugilist). Knowledge skills are a lot like the D20 variant, but some good guidelines here will help more traditional OSR GMs with adjudicating how this skill works.

Next we have traits. Characters can start with two traits, which provide both benefits and drawbacks. With my vision of Cash two traits immediately look appropriate: the brawler and reckless. Brawler however is for non-pugilists who want a bit of the fight in them; this might be a good choice if I was rolling a pure gadgeteer with a touch of fisticuffs in his blood, so I instead go for aggressive. Cole is a man of action and being aggressive gives him a +2 initiative bonus at the expense of a -1 to AC.

After reading up on reckless I think it would be a bit of a hindrance (bonus to damage, penalty to hit) and would overlook some non-combat opportunities for character development. I go with polite, instead; he's polite and friendly to a fault, gaining a +1 bonus to diplomatic charisma checks but at the penalty of -2 to charisma checks to intimidate.

We're not finished yet, though! Cole has a sanity score (ripped right from the pages of CoC D20) and that score is 45 (WisX5). Hoookay. Lets hope Cash fights mostly fascists and mad scientists, and fewer cthonic beings from beyond the veil of space and time!

I did run into one oddity in design: in AA pulp armor is by suit piece, so you could get an armor bonus for wearing a bomber jacket, fedora, gloves and even a scarf. However, my choice of classes has limited what James can secure: his gadgeteer options aren't quite in sync with my vision of a bomber jacket wearing dude, and his pugilist options are effectively none, so I guess I'll just deal with it. Ultimately I think this means that my vision of James includes him wearing some sort of flight just doesn't happen to be very effective at stopping blows.

James Cash is now complete!

James Cash, Alias the Explosive Rocketman
Level 1/1 Pugilist/Gadgeteer; Alignment LG; Background: career stuntman
STR 14 (+1), DEX 14 (+1)/P, CON 18 (+3)/P, INT 11 (0), WIS 9 (0), CHA 15 (+1)/P
Hit Points: 12; Base to Hit Modifier: 0 Sanity: 45; Base AC: 10 (+1 Dex, -1 trait); Fate Pts: 3
Traits: Aggressive (+2 Init, -1 AC), Polite (+1 diplomacy, -2 intimidate)
Knowledge Skills: kowledge (pugilist), knowledge (gadgeteer)
Gadgeteer Abilities: Support Gadgeteer (Cha), Wealth (swapped with Jury Rig), Mind over Body (+1 to Con saves)
Pugilist Abilities: unarmed attack damage of 1D4
Gadgets: Rocket Pack (Fly, cost: 4); Rocketman Pistol (Light, Dancing Lights, Arcane Bolt; Total Cost 4)

In time he will gain new gadgets, including a fancy helmet and maybe even some bullet proof sort of flight suit....but for now, he's got his trusty jetpack and his unique pistol!


I thought about retconning the pugilist class entirely, but I like the idea of him swooping down and punching fascists in the face. To demonstrate the long term advantages for this multiclasser:

Level 2: Base unarmored AC jumps to 11, unarmed strike become 1D6 damage, Down and Dirty which grants a +1 to all grapple, escape and overbear foes, and also adds to opposed Str and Con rolls. He also gets his first +1 BtH. As a gadgeteer he gains 2 gadget points (enough to buy a new level 1 effect). His hit points go up an average of 8 this level to around 20.

Level 3: Unarmed AC jumps to 12 and he gets fast movement. As a gadgeteer he gains 3 more gadget points (enough for a level 2 gadget). His BtH will go to +2 (assuming you average and round up). His hit points will be somewhere around 28.

By higher levels he'll look suspiciously like a rocket powered monk from C&C in many regards. Except this monk will supplement his fists of fury with terrifying, instantly reusable devices that do terrible terrible things...