Monday, February 26, 2018

Starfinder - new group new game session! And it's a hit

Friday night has never been in my rotation for gaming, but last week we started a new bi-weekly session (or as time permits) for several players I've been able to game with in the past who can't make my Wednesday night or Saturday night games. Plus, this group was keen on Starfinder, so guess what! Starfinder rides again.

This is the third time I've run Starfinder, and it was a very smooth and enjoyable experience. Reasons to contribute to this included:

1. All players at the table had a level of familiarity, interest and buy-in on Starfinder and its mechanics/setting, with excellent character concepts and roleplay skills to match!

2. The GM (me) stopped trying to fit the square Starfinder peg in to the round SF hole and just went with it, playing to the setting's core conceits....this was using my blend of Pact Worlds setting with the Conarium Expanse content I've worked up; it's leveraging my Enzada campaign (which was conceived as a Pathfinder setting) and the Pact Worlds as being in the same universe, and with mysteries tied to all. It's assuming fantasy realms exist or existed, and that the progression into space looks a lot more Space Fantasy Opera than like anything else. I made Zero Effort to try and interpret the world through an SF lens and even less effort to try and rationalize anything else. This suddenly let my internal Verisimilitude Pedant take a rest.

3. I discovered Starfinder Tools which was an immense help in getting everything I needed for stat blocks, loot and more set up super quick.

4. I made liberal use of maps, pawns and such visual aids as helped greatly in navigating combat or potential combat situations. It's funny, but when you use maps and minis the feeling can often be, "Boy I wish we could just resolve this without lots of contraptions on the table," but for systems like Starfinder (and Pathfinder) having lots of visuals greatly enhances the play experience since position on the board really matters.

I had the group start at level 5 this time. I noticed that level 5 seems to be the spot at which average damage ramps up noticeably, and that it felt like a good spot for players to get a really good feel of how the game works, especially veteran players with prior Pathfinder experience under their belt.

Net result was a very fun game in which a ysoki operative, lashunta technomancer, vesk soldier and weird squid thing operative from the "Future Races" 3PP book went on an adventure. They were approach by a techno gnome in need of a heist crew, fought pirates and won, met the gnome and learned of his mad scheme to infiltrate a space station taken over by a cult to the titan Typhon and steal Typhon's sacred relic, smuggled on board in a very "Conan Goes to Mount Doom" manner (but with space ships), infiltrated the abandoned wing of an ancient complex, encountered an army of ghouls, aided the ghouls in escaping to the inhabited wing of the complex, found the relic chamber, fought a bloodbrother which the vesk ultimately punched to death, and then beat a hasty retreat as temple guards arrived...and part 2 will pick up with their frantic escape.

I'll post the module on the blog when the scenario is done. Needless to say, it was a great dynamic experience, had good synergy, and the players were a good group. Everyone in the group liking the mechanics, understanding the game's intent and focus (and Starfinder's almost fetishistic obsession with level-based tech) helped a great deal. The fact that they were excellent RPers who were as willing and able to talk their way out of fights as they were to instigate was just icing on the cake!

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A Ysoki, a Vesk, a Lashunta and a Qlaarpian walk in to a bar...'

"The Ysoki turns to the Vesk and Lashunta and says, "What's a Qlaarpian?"" 

"I don't know" says the Vesk. 

"I don't know," says the Lashunta.

Finally the Ysoki asks the Qlaarpian. "What are you? Why are you here?"

And the Qlaarpian shouts out, "Why not Qlaarpian?!?!?" and shuffles off to the right, "Woop woop woop woop woop!"

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Optics of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia Reprint Are...Weird...

I got my copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in this week, along with the Creature Catalog, and while it's exciting to have them, the sad truth is that the scan used to make the print copy of the Rules Cyclopedia just wasn't ideal. It's readable....I guess....but the scan quality is just a bit fuzzy, almost like you're trying to read something with heavy bleed-through or shadowing effects. On the PDF (which has the same effect) I didn't really mind it because I could expand the PDF to make it easier to read, but the print edition (being "locked in" to a certain size and all) sort of hammers home that this is an issue.

Not for everyone though! Some people on the listing for the Rules Cyclopedia are saying they see no issues. I'd love to find out if this is an eyesight thing or if it's an actual print issue (I have heard Lighting Source, which does the POD for OneBookShelf, has more than one printer and results can vary).

But for now, the problem is: I'm finding the book hard to read, and when I compare it to the Creature Catalog, which is also a scanned image print, the Creature Catalog is easy to read, clean, and causes no headaches at all.

On the plus side, I suspect this means original copies on Ebay will stay a strong commodity! But for me, I think I'll be dumping my copy of the Rules Cyclopedia on Ebay ASAP.

EDIT: someone suggested I contact OneBookShelf about the issue, which I did, and their continuously amazing customer service was great. OBS remains top dog on my "best customer service online" list, forever.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Film Review: Black Panther

This hardly seems like a movie I need to hype or praise, as it's getting a great deal of such from just about every corner, everywhere. But given just how monumental and distinct this movie is, I feel like it's worth talking just a bit about how much of a milestone in film making Black Panther really is. (I'll try to avoid spoilers.)

It's not just that the movie's cast is 95% African and African American...

It's not just that the movie has a shockingly powerful cast of black women in positions of power and responsibility...

It's not just that this movie identifies with a sort of mythic representation of fantasy African culture in a manner highly consistent with how fantasy has done it for ages now with European myth and folklore (this movie does for Africa what the Thor films do for Scandinavia, I'll put it that way)...

It's that it does all of this, and more, and defies genre expectations in some fascinating ways while still managing to be a relatable, distinct comic book movie. I mean....this is possibly the best and most unique Marvel film to date, and it leverages the years of prior films to produce something that just wouldn't have been possible only a few years ago...hell, a few months ago!

Somehow, Black Panther manages to be a rite of passage movie, a spy movie, an action movie, a massive affirmation film and a comic book super hero movie all at the same time. And probably some other things I haven't yet identified. It compellingly sets up and then leverages the concept of a hidden super-science empire in the middle of Africa, makes it "make sense" (in the comic book use of the term, mind you) as to how it is there, why it is there and why it has chosen to remain a secret place (and how they do that).

I really do feel like this film is a benchmark for future films, and it shows that it is possible and indeed desirous to make a positive, exciting fantasy film with non-western thematics, an almost entirely non-white cast, a focus on how this is all good, interesting, exciting and frankly as amazing as you could imagine without relying on any of the underlying tropes, conceits and implied restrictions that Hollywood normally places on a film focused on black actors.

Okay, now for a few comments with spoilers!

First, I thought it was extremely interesting that the one character who is most "in line" with conventional Hollywood presentations of black characters, the usurper Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) is also the bad guy, the literal and symbolic nemesis of both the characters in the film and the metaspace of the movie itself. Killmonger's a destabilizing presence, a man who has survived in the rough ghetto culture of America but with knowedge of a faerie land told to him by his father...which he spends decades preparing to find, usurp, and essentially drive in to chaos and destruction on the principle of revenge against the world. T'Challa's nemesis is a man who has learned hatred and self loathing from the survivor society of slave culture in modern America.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) himself is the caretaker of a culture which watched it's neighbors fall victim to European slavery and quietly worked to hide themselves from discovery, knowing how much they stood to lose. And yet in the end, he sees Killmonger for what he is, realizes that there was a grain of truth....the need for rehabilitation, not destruction, hidden in his story. Fascinating stuff.

I liked how Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) was here essentially as a token white guy, in almost every sense imaginable and very much in a manner consistent with how in most historical Hollywood traditions you usually have the reverse: a sea of white guys, and a token black sidekick or secondary hero. Despite how clearly this was being done, it only added to the story, and Ross as a character proves to be a valuable ally.

Meanwhile, we have T'Challa's technologically gifted sister Shuri (Leticia Wright) who's technological savvy is clearly equivalent to or greater than Tony Stark's, the loyal general Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), Black Panther's flighty love interest with a greater desire to help the helpless than to be his queen. This movie had not one but three fascinating and deeply powerful and well developed female characters, and not even Nakia is specifically there to be the one who swoons to T'Challa.

I predict that in twenty years this movie will be seen in film classes as a seminal milestone how how fantasy and film are not restricted to European origins and expectations. As I watched this movie, I was moved very much by the notion that maybe, just maybe, we can see a future full of interesting science fiction and near future films with a positive message aimed at demonstrating just how great African and African American culture is, and can be destined to be. We don't, it turns out, have to restrict our films to a constant regression on the past: follow Wakanda into a very, very positive future (at least, until Avengers: Infinity War!)

I want to see a Blade Runner type cyberpunk future set in Africa. I'd like to see a far-future starfaring empire grown whole cloth from African origins. How about a hardcore sword & sorcery film that is entirely African in thematics and mythology?

There are so many possibilities I feel like Black Panther has demonstrated are entirely possible, and very desirable, and something which this film demonstrates has been sorely lacking from the superhero genre up to now (in film, anyway; let's not forget that as a character Black Panther has been around since 1966!) I really hope this movie leads the way for a brilliant future in films which fight for a more worldly, broader perspective, with a sense of conviction that stands with the best of them.

I'm sure it goes without saying, but I loved this (as did the family). A+! Just when I wonder if Marvel's hit their apex, they knock it out of the park again.

Steve Jackson Games Stakeholder Report looks back on 2017

Steve Jackson Games (via Phil Reed) puts this report out every year, and it's well worth reading. It's also the time when GURPS fans recoil from the screen like a vampire in an Olive Garden, but there just isn't much we can do about that....

So aside from the vaguely interesting news that the Munchkin brand isn't continuing to generate the money they expect, the stuff that is interesting to RPGers is on how Dungeon Fantasy fared, and what that means for GURPS in the future. Also, if they talk more about what it means for SJG to have The Fantasy Trip back.

Well, the sad news is that GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is essentially a failure, and the description of how things went down (including over cost and cutting printed editions by 30%) suggest to me that the hope for more sets of similar nature just isn't going to happen. Literally the best thing to happen to GURPS, it turns out, is their addition of PDFs to OneBookshelf sites and the addition of POD to Amazon's service. This is good news in the sense that the availability of those products is more or less assured, and it doesn't impact SJG's ability to keep things in print and in stock. It's bad news because it means that in many ways we might as well think of GURPS as at the evergreen stage of its product life....this, along with occasional new PDF support, is probably all we're going to see, I suspect.

On the plus side, it looks like they definitely plan to revive The Fantasy Trip and will announce something at Origins this year, and probably a Kickstarter. It probably doesn't need to be said that in terms of product excitement, it also doesn't help poor Dungeon Fantasy that The Fantasy Trip is now back, something that old grognards will recall Steve Jackson was very unhappy he did not manage to gain the rights to back when Metagaming folded. Indeed, it's not a far cry to argue that GURPS owes its existence to the fact that he failed to secure ownership of TFT!

Anyway, it's interesting and appreciated that SJG provides this report. Often, we gamers may have some expectations and opinions about how the hobby works, but the reality is far different from the business end of how things look. I found it especially interesting when Phil talked about the problem with the market right's flooded with releases and this is creating a different dynamic on the market about how products get released and how they get supported/reprinted. I know I see a lot of board game/card game releases and those seem to dominate game store shelves, but since I only really focus on RPGs it often feels like slim pickins' to me....and even then, let's be real some ways the volume of content for RPGs is higher than ever before, it's just coming to us in a format and at a cost that is far different from how things used to be even just ten years ago.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Thri-Kreen in Starfinder

Thri-Kreen in Starfinder

A long time ago I adapted the thri-kreen to Pathfinder, recently I've been considering races that would make great foes in Starfinder: neh-thaalgu, mind flayers, neogi and others are all great choices, but thri-kreen struck me as a great "indigenous" race that could keep popping up on primitive, backwater worlds in the Vast.

The conversion is part "by the book" using Starfinder's suggested adaptations, with a bit of modification to make the thri-kreen a greater potential low level threat. 

Thri Kreen (CR 2)
XP 600
CN medium humanoid (thri-kreen)
HP 25 EAC 14, KAC 15
Fort +0 REF +5 Will +4
Defensive Abilities: none; Immunities sleep
Speed 30; leap (special)
Multiattack 4 claws +4 melee (1D4+2 S each) and bite +2 melee (1D4 plus poison)
Multiattack 4 gythka strikes +4 melee (1D6+2 S each)
Melee gythka +8 melee (1D6+2 S)
Ranged chatkcha +8 ranged (1D6+4)
Offensive Ability Poison (Fortitude DC 11; paralysis 1D8 rounds)  
Space: 5 ft Reach 5 ft
Abilities: Str +2, Dex +4, Con 0, Int 0, Wis +1, Cha 0
Skills: Acrobatics +12, Athletics +7, Stealth +7, Perception +7
Other Abilities: Darkvision 60 ft., immunity to sleep, leap

Poison (Ex): A thri-kreen delivers its poison (Fortitude save DC 11) with a successful
bite attack. The initial and secondary damage is the same (paralysis for 1D8 rounds). A thri-kreen produces enough poison for one bite per day.
Immunity to Sleep (Ex): Since thri-kreen do not sleep, they are immune to magic sleep effects. A thri-kreen spellcaster still requires 8 hours of rest before preparing spells.
Leap (Ex): A thri-kreen is a natural jumper. It calculates the DC for jumping with a ten foot or more head start at ½ the default value and also may jump up to its movement value vertically wit no running start. An unencumbered thri-kreen does not need to make a jump check on athletics.
Camoflage: The exoskeleton of a thri-kreen blends in well with desert terrain, granting it a +4 racial bonus on Hide checks in sandy or arid settings.

Thri-kreen are found on backwater desert worlds in The Vast. The typical thri-kreen is a 1.5 to 2 meters tall four limbed insectoid being, and they demonstrate ferocious territoriality. Some who have studied the thri-kreen suspect that their prevalence on multiple worlds suggest they may have once been capable of space flight. On some worlds thri-kreen demonstrate a keen potential for mysticism. Vesk slavers like to capture thri-kreen as for use as thrall warriors and gladiators.

Thri-kreen live about 30 years and do not sleep, requiring on meditation time for spell recovery.

Thri-kreen warriors have invented two exotic weapons that are unique to their race—the gythka and the chatkcha. As no thri-kreen have yet developed advanced technology, these weapons only have primitive analog versions:

Gythka: This Large exotic melee double weapon is a polearm with a blade at each end. A thri-kreen who has the Multiweapon Fighting feat can wield two gythkas at once as double weapons because of its four arms. Each end of a gythka deals 1d6 points of slashing damage. Each end is a slashing weapon that deals double damage on a critical hit. (level 1; price 500; Bulk 1; analog)

Chatkcha: This Medium-size exotic ranged weapon is a crystalline throwing wedge. Its sheer weight makes it unwieldy in the hands of those not proficient with it. A chatkcha deals 1d6 points of piercing damage and has a range increment of 20 feet. It deals double damage on a critical hit. (level 1; price 40 apiece; Bulk L; analog)

Friday, February 16, 2018

White Star Galaxy Edition - Here at Last

About two weeks ago (or less) I finally got my Lulu-issued copy of White Star Galaxy Edition in the mail. It's a thick monster of a book for a game with such humble origins, clocking in at a 9X5 format over 332 pages. The new format is cleaner and easier to read for old grognard eyes; I don't know about you, but my copies of the original rulebook, while nice looking, had a faded "grayscale" quality to the printing which made it a bit hard to read at times. This new version does not have that problem, at all.

As you may know, this edition of the game combines the original rules with the Companion, and adds some extra content in as well. It's notable features include:

--a lifepath/background generator (it creates your "serial")
--25 classes (of which only 5 are core, and the rest are optional!) plus a skill system
--metric ass-tons (yes, ass-tons) of equipment, weapons, armor, vehicles, starships, mecha, mystical traditions, aliens and monsters to build your crazy White Star universe with
--cybernetic and "etchings"
--world generation, two sample star sectors, and lots of fluffy stuff

So yeah, a lot.

After finishing our test drive on SWN, my group spent a bit of time agreeing that we might prefer to spend more time with White Star. Indeed, we left off our last White Star campaign (season one) with a cliffhanger and the promise of a season two to come! Perhaps it is at last time to visit the sequel to the Dark Stars Netherspace Campaign.....

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Mythras: After the Vampire Wars is Out

I did not know this was a thing that was happening; in fact last I'd heard, I assumed After the Vampire Wars was going to get some future anticipated re-release under the eventual revision of BRP. Instead, much sooner than I'd have imagined, there's a fully revised and updated edition out for Mythras!

I haven't run this at all, but will comment that it is a nice way to expand the Mythras repertoire of supplements, and will provide some much needed modern content to the system.* I've got my physical copy on order and will talk more about this when it arrives.

*That doesn't require familiarizing yourself with an obscure 1970's era comic about a parallel dimension-hopping spy.

Stars Without Number Actual Play Session (Drawing comparisons and contrast to Traveller, White Star and Savage Worlds)

For the Wednesday night game we had some absent players (it being Valentine's Day and all, and some players have actual lives, or romances, or whatever!) and so it was that the hardcore, the jaded, the misanthropic, and also my family decided to enjoy the holiday with a one-shot.

The purpose of this one-shot was to exercise a chance to try out Stars Without Number. Before going in to this game you can see my general feelings on it in in prior articles, but I'll sum it up like this:

--Wonderfully quick character generation

--numeric old school simplicity

--A very Traveller-esque skill mechanic

--brilliant "tag" structure for world/adventure generation

--seems to have enough equipment/vehicles/ships/augments to support robust campaigning

After playing, I now feel this way about SWN:

--We all agreed, char gen is quick and efficient

--the numeric old school simplicity was at time "too simple." This will sound weird, but I found myself not enjoying the core conceit of SWN as much as I do it's close cousin, White Star, nor the game to which it pays direct homage, Traveller

--The Traveller-esque skill mechanic felt more shallow and less fulfilling than Traveller's own skill mechanic. Indeed, it made me wonder why it even bothered, given how slender the SWN system is, when Traveller's core conceit is exactly the same yet manages to provide a more robust and interesting experience....the only "lite skill" system I really enjoy/tolerate is Savage Worlds, I guess

--the tag structure is still a great mechanic for inspiration, but SWN does not support the interesting "technical" elements of design that Traveller does. Traveller in turn lacks the "stuff to do" element that SWN's tag system offers. SWN is a clear "win" on this.

--SWN has enough interesting equipment, vehicles and ships. It's not a problem. 

But! Throughout the course of play as well as over the last few days designing material to run, I realized that SWN is most definitely a "one world" system by default. Arguably Traveller is the same way, as is White Star, but both of those games give you a "starting point" which makes few real assumptions about the universe....well, maybe White Star's Galaxy edition is different (it assumes not just star knights but talking squirrel star knights, for example) but Traveller's only real conceit is that you use Jump Drive, and that gets you from point A to point B a certain way, and that the setting is humanocentric. Traveller in the past has expanded on this to let you customize how and why technology works to handle other universes of play, but it's only real conceit is a universe of humans, mostly. 

SWN has a lot of Traveller's conceits, but it also bakes in some default assumption about FTL drives, the "scream" as a defining point of the setting, and other features that are fairly baked in to the setting's presentation, tags, core assumptions, and much of its infrastructure. This is not a problem if you want a ready to go setting, not at all. But it does pose issues when you don't want to use that setting, and during play we thought about this issue on several occasions.

In the end, the problem wasn't that SWN wasn't fun, or even that it wasn't a setting I wanted to use (I could easily see accepting its default assumptions for any extended campaign easily). It was the fact that it felt like it was a homebrew homage to Traveller, and one which only left me feeling like Traveller has been here, done this, and done it maybe with a bit more depth and support than SWN does. Traveller does not have a Tag System for enhancing world generation, though, and SWN definitely beats the other games hands down.

But for designing my own setting, with no fuss? I'm afraid that Savage Worlds remains firmly on that throne. 

Anyway, other comments on SWN in actual play:

Combat was pretty smooth, but the veteran players in the group found at level 1 that charging in with a melee weapon against armed combatants was a preferred strategy. This me. 

Melee weapons do shock damage against targets under a certain Armor Class on a miss. I did not like this rule at all, it felt like something out of D&D 4E, especially since it was pretty much a guarantee to make melee weapons much deadlier than expected, at least at low level, and was defying my understanding of what was happening that, in essence, under a certain AC you could never avoid damage in melee. Yes, games like 13th Age do this....but the very core of those games support different basic expectations. SWN is very OSR, and if I were playing White Box and suddenly started dealing auto-damage on a miss I would feel like maybe the shark had just been jumped, y'know?

I did not like how melee weapons are given a very short, non-descriptive list of "primitive/advanced" and light, medium and heavy with damage but vague suggestions as to what that meant. I wanted more depth here, and the game provides that depth in so many other areas that it seemed weird to simply avoid putting any effort into detailed futuristic (and primitive) melee weapons.

The skills felt like their name tags were trying to be too hard to be short and simple despite so many of them feeling like call-backs to Traveller skills. I feel that the game, for what it is, does itself a disservice by having so few skills even as it has just enough specific skills. Lacking multiple "shipboard" skills for example meant that the only person with a "useful on the spaceship" skill was the guy with pilot. Why no gunnery, engineering, sensors or other interesting SF skills? Claiming the "Work" and "Know" skills could cover such elements if desired is both an inadequate fix (for a system which rewards very few skill points to start) and maybe a bit lazy (as any halfway decent skill system, I now realize, deserves more than 1-2 pages to detail).

Now, on the major plus side, like most OSR systems gameplay is fast and I was miraculously able to plow through the entire one-shot in the alloted time, including lots of role-play, encounters, and some combat. This would not likely have happened in Starfinder without some serious effort to speed things along, I admit. However, the pacing would have been the same for Traveller, Savage Worlds and White Star, easily. 

Okay, so my final take: Stars Without Number is perfectly serviceable, and I think it would be fun to play again, but I don't think it's going to scratch all of the itches for me that Traveller, Savage Worlds SF and White Star manage. I can use White Star for gonzo Space Opera Crazy. I can use Traveller for my "starship owner procedurals." I can use Savage Worlds SF for literally any sci fi world I want, just so long as its a universe that likes fast, furious fun. SWN's strength may well be in hardcore scifi sandbox play in the default setting. Unfortunately, I don't have interest in the setting and I don't have time in my schedule to explore the sandbox elements of the game, at least not without losing patience with the rules, that constantly reminded me that I like the way Traveller does it all just a little bit better. 

I'm not done with the Sine Nomine system, though. I am still keen to try out Other Dust, and see if maybe it might not scratch that particular post-apocalyptic itch. The only two games to come close in the last couple of years are a two-part Wasteland GURPS game I ran (which would be better if GURPS had more Wasteland support than a couple anemic supplements), and Precis Intermedia's Earth A.D. 2 which was an interesting (if convoluted) but fairly detailed post-apoc experience that I enjoyed but was still frustrated with after running it. I could see Other Dust being a good choice for the genre....we shall have to see.

So, final verdict:

SWN is not a good replacement for Traveller; it is not simpler, mechanically; just different, in a "homebrew" sort of way. If you like Traveller, this feels like a cruder homage. If you think Traveller is too complex, SWN is as complex as Traveller, just in a different way. If you think Traveller is too simple...then you will also think such of SWN. What I'm trying to say is, it's not a good replacement for Traveller if you don't have any problems with Traveller in the first place, and if you do, SWN doesn't "fix" anything, really. As a contrast with Traveller I give it a B to Traveller's more well conceived mechanical cohesion.

SWN is superior with its tag system, and everyone should check that part out. This part is A+.

SWN lacks the toolkit elements of Savage World SF Companion, or even the free-for-all madness of White Star, so you have to revise and back out a lot of baked-in core assumptions in the game if you want to design your own universe. Indeed, I sort of felt like the core conceits of SWN were more pervasive in its underlying assumptions than normal (by contrast, Traveller's only two core conceits are human dominance and jump drives, and that's it). Oddly, the bonus content of SWN is interesting but expands in weird ways, with transhumanism ideas followed by sorcery and magic options. For this it's a C, but gets a B+ for touching on transhumanism and AI in ways an OSR game usually wouldn't.

If you don't play games all that much, but love tinkering with them and writing up rules stuff (as I often do on this blog) SWN has a lot to offer, though, as most OSR systems do...Good A here.

SWN does provide a solid core package if you are not familiar with Traveller but like the concept of a rules-lite hexbox themed scifi game, and need a system that provides you that core underlying setting to riff from. If you fit this category this game is a good solid A, with the Tag System still A+.

Afterthought: the SWN playtest vs. the Starfinder Playtest

These two games really are different beasts. That said, it was interesting because after finishing Starfinder I was frustrated with elements of the experience, and my efforts to impose my will on the game's implied setting (which is strongly implied, moreso than SWN's setting is), but I still enjoyed it...the experience was very solid. With SWN I found the rules to be rather comfortable (within limits; e.g. my telekinetic in the party was rank 1 but she wanted to throw a guard around...and by the book that was a no-no for some reason but I thought that was stupid so invoked handwavium and made it happen...repeatedly). But from a purely mechanical perspective I really did feel like playing Starfinder was like experiencing a carefully designed machine that was riddled with a ton of testing and input, with subtle but wide-ranging designs that would impact the play experience over time. SWN felt like (what I think it is) the brainchild of one person who is very good at OSR design and made his homebrew baby lovechild of OD&D and Classic Traveller something others could enjoy...but it's not a team design, and it's not built with inherent synergies in mind. SWN is a naked tree waiting for ornaments. Starfinder is the Times Square Xmas Tree, ready to blind you with carefully decorated radiance. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

It's been a busy couple of weeks so I am unexpectedly behind on my routine blog posts, but fear not...things will eventually normalize.

So for the last month or so I've been up to this:

Guild Wars 2 has sucked me back in.....after lamenting the sorry overall state of the MMORPG scene in leading up to my Birthday I received the deluxe Path of Fire expansion. This prompted me to make a real effort to dive back in to Guild Wars 2 know what? I really enjoyed it! Apparently its exactly what I needed right now for computer gaming, and the story structure of GW2 suddenly feels much, much more "user friendly" than all the other MMOs I have grown tired of. I especially enjoy not getting constant, endless quests from angry ghosts and snooty elves (TESO, you vex me!!!) and instead get to enjoy a quest structure that lets me wander and explore while also enjoying a personalized, semi-branching epic tale in which the NPCs are actively assisting rather than just making excuses to get you to do all the dirty work. Amazing!

Path of Fire is the second major expansion (following Heart of Thorns), and it is the first expansion in the history of the franchise to introduce mounts. The mounts are varied (five core varieties with a bazillion skins) and a lot of fun to handle....the mounts also have some combat tricks to them as well, and you can use them in any region of the game world. The only issue is you need to hit level 80 and start the Path of Fire campaign to unlock them on your character, but they make that easy....if you don't have an avatar at level 80 already the different iterations of the PoF expansion all include a token to start a character at level 80.

So far the story is amazing, and very in depth with lots of interesting characters. I never actually started the Heart of Thorns campaign, but it seems that this one directly follows it, so I stopped working on this campaign so I can get through Heart of Thorns first. But seriously....the story development, structure and focus is much better than all other MMORPGs out there. As a side note, if you were not a fan of the "framed" conversations of the vanilla GW2 campaigns they seem to have dispensed with that format and all stories are "in game" least, so far.

Anyway......despite my pessimism about the MMORPG scene at the start of the year, it looks like Guild Wars 2, at least, has managed to fill this void for me. Just in time, too! I have begun to at last get tired (a bit) of Tom Clancy's The Division end game, which is fantastic but also can only go so far with the main storyline ended.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Ten Fun Facts about the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia

Ten Fun Facts about the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia

When I suggest that looking through the D&D Rules Cyclopedia is a bit like staring in to a weird carnival funhouse mirror, I’m not kidding. If you spent most of your formative years learning AD&D 1st and 2nd edition, the BECMI edition of D&D is strangely familiar and utterly weird all at once. Here’s ten interesting observations about those rules for those interested:

1.       Despite having “race as class,” the Rules Cyclopedia compiles all of the optional rules letting you play elves, dwarves and halflings indefinitely, ganing experience which in turns lets them benefit from optional rules that allow them to advance in combat ability using letter-identified “demihuman attack ranks.” So a Dwarf with enough XP for DH rank K, for example (2.2 million XP!), can hit as hard as a 22nd-24th level human fighter.

2.       If you didn’t like the demihuman attack ranks and special rules associated with gaining XP after hitting level cap, the Rules Cyclopedia actually provides guidance on simply letting demihumans continue to advance in level as an optional rule.

3.       Weapon Mastery rules were one of the many strange add-ons included in the BECMI edition of the game and codified in the Rules Encyclopedia. In only about seven pages this edition of D&D makes a system of weapon specialization that is both more nuanced and more complicated than the system that AD&D 2nd edition codified in an entire separate rulebook (the Complete Fighter’s Handbook)! Weapons advancement under this optional system goes through five ranks of profiency, improves damage dice with the weapons, defense bonuses and provides for unique special effects, with a distinct advancement chart for every weapon in the game. This is one section of the “Basic” game that is actually more complex on its face than the AD&D proficiency rules.

4.       The D&D Rules Cyclopedia also provided a more elaborate skill system (which was also identified as such…no proficiencies here) with as many (possibly more) core skills identified in the rules as you see in the AD&D 2nd edition of the game. Indeed, rules allowed for demihumans at level cap to continue gaining skills as they hit benchmarks in XP advancement, something not provided for in AD&D.

5.       Attack roll advancement in D&D Rules Cyclopedia is erratic…fighters, for example, tend to advance in attack rank every fourth level or so. Despite this, the THAC0 rule applies just fine and remains the default mechanic for easily tracking your character’s attack ability. Likewise, it is not correct to assume that fighters (and demihumans) don’t get multiple attacks at later levels…..they do. But unlike AD&D which was balanced over 20 levels of advancement, the same advancement on number of attacks is spread out over 36 levels in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (with one additional attack gained every 12th level).

6.       I had always assumed that encounter balance was primarily a mechanic starting with D&D 3rd edition (mechanical provisions for such not being in AD&D as far as I recall). Yet the Rules Cyclopedia includes optional encounter balance rules, which kind of shocked me. They are slightly more elaborate than you might imagine, and deploy fractions….but they seem to work.

7.       Those who remember what passed for unarmed combat rules in AD&D may be shocked to learn that the D&D Rules Cyclopedia has a more elaborate and effective approach to unarmed combat and wrestling outlined in only a few pages, and no dumb chart in site!

8.       There are six ways to accrue experience in the game: story goals, party goals, monster experience, acquiring treasure, exceptional actions and then the optional skill use. The game discussed expected advancement, suggesting characters level up after five adventures….which means, going by standards of the 80’s and 90’s, a player needed to stick with a character for potentially 175 sessions (!) before hitting level 36. When I think back to my games in the 80’s, and how I think it took my sister 110 sessions to get from level 1 to 15/11 on her thief/mage elf in our AD&D games, that doesn’t sound too off. They do suggest that if the pace is too slow you could dial it up to a level every 2 sessions. This sounds like a lot of other games I knew which had dudes with level 40 paladins carrying two copies of Thor’s Hammer around since they killed him…twice.

9.       By the way, paladins, avengers and knights are totally a thing in the RulesCylcopedia. You just need to get to fighter level 9, first. The magic-user equivalent is the magist, magi and wizard. Clerics at 9th level are simpler, oddly…but this iteration of the game does let them cross class in to druids, and also there’s a whole other optional class named the Mystic which is essentially something between a spiritual adventurer and an AD&D monk. Either way, the trigger for what sort of special class you are comes from hitting “name level” which is level 9…at which time you decide if you’re going to rule your particular brand of fiefdom, or remain a wandering adventurer.

10.  The Rules Cyclopedia touches on how the planes work in D&D, and while it is essentially close to the AD&D Great Wheel, it is also oddly different. There are chiefly elemental (inner) planes, the ethereal plane, the astral plane and then the amorphous outer planes, which are where the Immortals….a tangible end game goal for all PCs!...dwell. The exact nature of the outer planes is left for the DM to define on an as needed basis.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

D&D Rules Cyclopedia and Creature Calalog both POD Now

Long after it's original release, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia has it's chance to shine once again as a fully POD edition at rpgnow:

This is the definitive "final" word on the classic BECMI edition of basic Dungeons & Dragons, the quasi side-edition which ran coterminously with AD&D from roughly 1981 to 1993ish. After that there was an attempt to adapt Mystara to an AD&D 2nd edition setting. In 1991 or thereabouts the D&D Cyclopedia was something the "hardcore" D&D fan picked up as a curious novelty...a sort of one-volme collection of all that had come out of five boxed sets in the prior decade, a weird sort of mirror universe edition of AD&D that spoke of worlds in which elves were a distinct thing unto themselves, demons had never been exercised from the Monster Manual because they weren't there in the first place, and multiclassing was anathema.

In 1993 the Creature Catalog, also now POD at rpgnow, arrived. It was a revision and reprint of classic D&D's version of the Monster Manual, after a fashion:

With these and other classic D&D books in POD now, this game is arguably more alive and available that AD&D is at this point. For me, it is much more interesting now to pick these games up and realize that their unique level of simplicity has stripped away any sense I once had that these were the crude hill cousins to AD&D 1st and 2nd edition, and that indeed the prospect of using them feels more viable now than it ever did 25 odd years ago.

I have a soft spot for these books, as this is where one of my favorite monsters, the neh-thalggu brain collectors, got their first appearance.

(Yes, ordering these PODs right now! To set next to my original copies of Basic and Expert with the Otus covers....still my defacto preferred edition).

Friday, February 2, 2018

Savage Space: The Stars Without Number Adaptation Part I - Syndirei Culture Vampires

I'm sufficiently enamored with Stars Without Number Revised that I have decided to adapt my Savage Space setting to the SNW ruleset. I'm going to start this off with the various alien races that have appeared in the Savage Space blogs and then work to equipment, foes and other details from there. In cases where prior formats may have touched on different parts of an overall topic I will combine them in to one master feature.

For those of you not familiar with the Savage Space series, it started as a daily feature a few years back in which I built a Savage Worlds-powered setting by finding inspiring SF imagery and then developing the setting, one piece at a time, through the inspiration derived from the art. I'll try to use the original art that inspired these pieces as I upgrade the setting to SWN.

If you remain familiar with the original, then this might still interest you as I plan to upgrade and expand on each entry as I adapt it to SWN.

First up: The Syndirei Culture Vampires!

Syndirei Culture Vampires in SWN

Syndirei have a homeworld: it's yours. They have a language, too: yours. They love what you love, eat what you eat (and work out metabolic treatments for digesting local cuisine if necessary) and want what you want. All of it.

The original homeworld of the syndirei is lost to time. Their rapid adaptiveness to other cultures, languages and even ways of thought are regarded as eerily effective by xenogentic researchers, who have worked hard to amass data for the Federation records on this race, which has been working its way in along the edges of the galactic expanse for six centuries now. One belief is that the syndirei are actually a form of artificially engineered species designed specifically for such an effective level of cultural adaptability. Another theory, however, is that they are a weapon.

The syndirei don't just assimilate and take over your culture: they take ownership of it, and then they start to corrupt it from within. Some xenoanthropologists believe that the syndirei are actually the last survivors of a much older civilization toward the galactic core, and that they may have been singularly responsible for the destruction of said civilizations, based on an careful analysis of exctint cultures on the many worlds found toward the core. 

The rationalization is this: syndirei are extremely friendly and adaptive, joining a new community in the most placating and friendly way possible, then worming their way in at the lowest levels of society, all while taking on tasks and duties that the native civilization could use cheap labor for. Then, in time, they grow, and expand into every niche above, slowly subsuming the greater percentage of population into their own by sheer numbers, but done in such a manner that only the most carefully engineered cultures will notice the shift over time. It takes generations, but one day the syndirei are in direct control and a majority holder in the local culture. That's when things get....interesting.

Syndirei when left to the own devising (such as the trapped population that was found after two centuries of isolation on Tarterus IV) seem to degenerate into a culture of violent might-makes-right fiends, preying on one another with rapacious intensity. The original researchers on Tarterus IV came to the conclusion that syndirei society on its own was naturally violent and destructive; they need a foreign population as a stabilizer, to help them maintain some sort of social contract; without that foreign society to attach to they degenerate rapidly into the most violent form of barbarism.

The problem arises in those cultures in which the syndirei have been enmeshed, and in which they have grown to become them majority population. There appears to be some sort of breaking point, at which the syndirei scales are tipped and the indigenous alien population is eclipsed so thoroughly that the syndirei now rule supremely. When this happens, social disorder begins to manifest, first in the form of random violence and criminal action, but over a matter of one or maybe two generations it spirals into madness, and the entire syndirei-controlled region collapes into chaos and violence. The xenoachaeologists studying the Coreward Expanse dead worlds think this has happened to multiple planets in the past, and they also suspect that the syndirei know about this problem, because certain prominent researchers have recently been found mysteriously dead after trying to go public with their research.

The current and most widespread advance on syndirei is in the region known as the Hexen Expanse. The cluster of worlds in this area are reaching what is believed to be a tipping point....and some may have gone past it, in terms of syndirei cultural absorption and population. Federation officials observe the region with great concern, wondering if the freeworlds in that area are about to suffer a terminal social collapse thanks to the cultural vampires...behind the scenes, agents of the Aegis Division have already conducted illegal tests on syndirei populations and know exactly what they are capable of.

Physically syndirei are humanoid with dusky gray and greenish skin, curiously weathered features and completely hairless. Syndirei have surprising genetic compatibility with humans and can eat human cuisine without any treatments. 

Syndirei Focus:

Charismatic - Synderei are known for being friendly and affable (when they are not experience cultural/population pressures; see Culture Dependency, below). They gain +1 to their Charisma Modifier.

Origin Skll: Verbally Adaptable - Syndirei are incredibly fluid, persuasive and adaptable speakers, and gain the Talk skill at rank 0.

Innate Ability: Linguist - Syndirei are able to pick up new languages with alarming accuracy, even languages not spoken in a conventional manner. For each week a syndirei studies a new language (through recordings or actual use) it may make an INT check (Diff 8) to indicate that they have become proficient. A syndirei can learn any number of languages, and their neurophysiology is considered marvelous for its ability to assimilate almost any form of language that can be spoken.

Culture Dependency - syndirei psychology depends on other cultures. When a syndirei is by itself for a protracted period it (two weeks or more) it must make a Mental Save once per day, with a -1 cumulative penalty per week of isolation. So long as it succeeds everything is fine; when it fails the first time the syndirei begins to develop psychotic and self-serving personality traits. When it fails a second time it begins to lose cognitive reasoning skills (-2 on all Mental Saves, WIS and INT-based checks and skills). When it fails a third time the syndirei stabilizes and regains its reasoning skills (loses the penalty) but now develops an inimical murderous psychotic personality akin to a manipulative serial killer. In this stage the syndirei gains a +1 to attack and unarmed 1D4 damage against other species and a +1 skill rank to Talk when coercing its own kind. It loses it's Talk skill against other species until it experiences a new culture and "acclimates." It then loses all psychotic bonuses.

Syndirei who have reached the third stage of their metamorphosis will behave accordingly until introduced to a new culture (not the previous culture; they have psychologically discarded that culture from their minds) at which time they can begin making a new Mental Save with a +2 modifier. One success means they immediately acclimate, regain mental control and begin earnest efforts to learn the new culture.

The dependency also triggers when syndirei become the dominat population and cultural influence in a region; the exact trigger is not known, but it appears to be when a syndirei population exceeds 60% of the local indigenous aliens. GMs can inform syndirei PCs that they may be making the dependency checks when this threshold is passed locally as well. Large regional populations always trump local events, so a syndirei on an island with ten humans will still feel the degeneration begin to set in if the worldwide population has passed the threshold.

Syndirei in the Federated Commonwealth have willingly agreed to colonize regions under careful monitoring to insure that they do not exceed specific population thresholds, accepting that they may be periodically forced to migrate to reduce the risk of a population pressure "dependency explosion" leading to cognitive decline, then sociopathic and psychotic behavior. Although drugs and gene treatment exist which can supress these tendencies, most syndirei are repulsed by the idea of submitting to such treatments. Gene therapy has the added complication of causing other more dangerous and debilitating side effects, including cancer and even stranger behaviors. The Medical Treaty Act of the Federated Commonwealth prohibits such gene treatments without consent, anyway.

Most syndirei are not willingly living under controlled conditions in the Core Worlds, however. The vast majority of syndirei groups dwell in regions such as the Hexen Expanse, where they have assimilated into local colonies and more densely populated worlds without much familiarity on the part of the locals as to their nature. Some regions have dangerously large populations of syndirei, and Watchdog groups from the Commonwealth try to identify these colonies and warn them when it appears the syndirei are reaching dangerous population levels. Other, smaller communities are often obliterated before finding out the risk. The syndirei themselves, meanwhile, have developed a sophisticated special organization known as the Cleaners. The syndirei high clans pay in to support this secretive order which supplies the agents used to keep their cultural secret exactly that: a secret. This includes exterminating nosy Commonwealth agents in the outer rim expanses as well as exterminating their own kind in situations that could lead to widespread risk of exposure.

Syndirei Commoner
HD 1; AC 10; ATK +1; DMG by weapon or unarmed 1D2; MOVE 10m; ML 6; Skills +1; Saves 15+
   This represents an average, normal, culturally assimilated syndirei. Usually a syndirei is armed with a personal sidearm or melee weapon for protection.

Syndirei Psychotic
HD 2; AC 10; ATK +2; DMG by weapon (cleaver 1D6+1) or unarmed 1D4; MOVE 10m; ML 8; Skills +1; Saves 14+
   A psychotic syndirei loses Talk as a skill against other species but is at Talk-1 with its own kind. They prefer melee weapons but are still (usually) stable enough to sophisticated weaponry. A cluster of psychotic syndirei are a serious threat!

Syndirei Cleaner Agent
HD 4; AC 16 (combat field uniform); ATK +5; DMG Disintegrator weaponry (see below) or molecular arm blades (1D8+1)
MOVE 12m; ML 10; Skills +2; Saves 11+
Augments: Panspectral Optic Enhancement,  Molecular Arm Blades (1D8+1; Shock 2/AC18)
Special Augment: Viral Breakdown Protocol - bodymass destroyed in 1D6 combat rounds on death or by command
   Syndirei are armed with combat field uniforms that have specially reinforced gauntlets designed to absorb up to 10 points of damage dealt directly to the wearer's hands (see below for why). They use special disintegration weaponry which they favor due to the fact that so little forensic evidence is left behind. A typical syndirei disintegrator works as follows:

Syndirei Disintegrator Pistol (Damage 2D8; Range 25/50; Cost 1,500; Magazine 8; Attr. Dex; ENC 1; TL 4)
   These aren't much larger than laser pistols but are powered by a destabilizing quantum burst which doesn't so much actually disintegrate the target (which would be an immense amount of energy) as cause a massive quantum destabilization effect which scatters the target's atoms across a light year of space. Forensic efforts (Know skill) to identify a victim of this weapon with the right tech are at a minimum difficulty 12. Any target reduced to 0 HP by this weapon is effectively annihilated. If the attacker with this weapon ever rolls a 1, roll a D20 a second time, and on an 11+ the weapon implodes, dealing it's damage to the shooter.

Syndirei Disintegrator Rifle (Damage 2D10; Range 35/70; Cost 2,500; Magazine 8; Attr. Dex; ENC 3; TL 4)
   The rifle is similar to the pistol in effect, but is a bit bulkier and packs a real wallop. It's range is just as short, however, due to the fact that the weapon's quantum "spray" deteriorates rapidly with short distances. It has the same chance to implode on a critical failure as the pistol. 

 Syndirei special forces agents are part of a special group which engages in long-term therapy to improve their resistance to the species-wide capacity for murder in isolation. These agents are part of a group which works to keep their cultural time bomb a secret. Each agent wears a tight body suit under their armor that will initiate a destructive biofeedback explosion on death to disintegrate their remains. Failing that they also hold subdermal viral implants which will reduce their flesh to a pulpy, unidentifiable mass within seconds should they be caught and killed; it can be triggered with a mental command, as well. Despite their similarity to human physiology these implants only affect syndirei.

Cleaner agents don't just go after nosy xenoanthropologists and Federation Agents looking to make their careers on scrutinizing syndirei; they also take out rogue syndirei, or find and exterminate colonies of their own kind where social order has degenerated into chaos and for which there is risk of discovery.

Aegis Division agents have tangled with the cleaner agents on several occasions, and succeeded in keeping one alive long enough to extract a tissue sample for proper identification. Agent Lu Varn still recalls the horror he saw under the dermaskin armor....the syndirei was physically unidentifiable as any specific humanoid species due to the severe nature of the dermagraft with his armor. It was estimated that it would take 2-4 months of careful therapy to remove such a suit and repair the graft damage. Problem is...when you capture a cleaner agent, you only have seconds before their self-destruct protocols kick in.

Cleaner agents regularly hire clueless mercs and criminals from other species to get jobs done for them. Most agents work behind the scenes, though they always take direct action when it comes to corralling "defective" syndirei.

A note About The “Tipping Point:”
Syndirei aren’t prone to going crazy when they have large clustered populations in a region….not until the total population of a given region reaches critical mass, that is. This trends to function at a city-wide level (the largest identifiable “unit” of syndirei society which appears to respond to their psychological imperative for social stimulation/destruction). In cases of high tech worlds where the population is wide and dense, or spread out over a world-wide arcology, it is possible for the syndirei to sustain to the point where their population reaches critical mass at a world-level scale. This can prove disastrous to an entire planet. Researchers from the Academy in conjunction with the Aeon Group believe that the tipping point is extended due to the globalization of communication and travel; that syndirei are biologically wired to become violently hyper-competitive when they reach a dominant population percentage apparently gets “defeated” to a certain degree by mass communication and globalization. Still, it is suspected that there is a certain degree of either pheremonal, radiopathic or telepathic communication between syndirei as the numbers are very precise in determining that the population, when it hits 60%, even globally, causes the entire species to plunge in to psychotic madness at their neighbors.

Syndirei Plots:
1.      A local colony took in a refugee ship of syndirei a few years ago but the population is already reaching critical mass due to the relatively small population of non-syndirei in the area. The PCs are part of an Aegis Group mission which identifies and warns of threats like this, and need to convince the syndirei to depart before disaster strikes (by coercion or force).

2.      Deep in the Hexen Expanse is a remote colony of nonhuman Fadelik who are unaware of the syndirei threat. This is a large, densely habited world and the syndirei have been a local population for close to two centuries now; as the world population reaches critical mass, the threat of a syndirei psychotic episode on a global scale becomes a major threat. Can the PC agents convince the risk-averse fadelik to help deport syndirei populations before the seemingly benign immigrants turn in to rapacious, terrifying predators?

3.      Investigators at a colony which went silent discover a massacre, and stumble across cleaner agents in the middle of a calculated “fix.” A colonial port overrun by psychotic syndirei, cleaner agents, and desperate human survivors must be resolved.