Sunday, May 24, 2020

Gamma World: Anomalies (also Cypher System)

I've been prepping a lot of Gamma World, and in the process have found plenty of new ideas in art and other sources for new Gamma Worlds beasts. Here then is the first of them, for GW 1E:

AC 4
Move 12
Hit Dice 15 (75 hit points)
Power Source: broadcast; solar powered; internal fusion core (112 year life) (pick any two)
Sensors: standard, infrared, ultraviolet, radio, maser
Control: cracked (removed controls); still responds to voice commands from PSH (35% chance)
Construction: the first sighted Anomalies were distinguished as "raw" android forms, missing humanoid imitative flesh and reflecting only the raw chassis. Later models show a great deal of modification due likely to necessary repairs with junk on hand.
   Anomalies are rogue artificial intelligences using robot or modified android bodies. They are inimical to humanoid life though they may irrationally protect pure strain humans. The stories speak of the earliest anomalies appearing near installations of the ancients known for lethal zones and other violent robot forms. Scholars of the ancients think these may be "drones" with the intelligence of the AI hive mind, sent out to serve as scouts and scavengers, but over time they became increasingly dangerous, attacking mutants on sight.

   Anomalies do not seem to be built with weapons and instead rely on scavenged goods. As such, they typically have access to what is available, though that is often (initially) a battle axe (1D8, +2 due to strength) and a laser pistol (5D6). After a while, the anomaly often loses or recycles these weapons and ends up relying on cruder weaponry it salvages. 

Cypher System:

Anomalies are Level 4 (Health 16; Armor 3), armed usually with laser pistols (4 points) or crude melee weaponry forged from scrap (6 points). Anomalies are highly resistant to intellect-based attacks (level 6 intellect defense) and immune to effects such as poison and gas unless it would directly affect the metallic body.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Weird OSR Quirks

I've been revisiting various OSR titles from the last fifteen or so years. OSR as a corner of the gaming industry is an interesting duck; it has a certain defined size and it's own specialized corners of what is arguably a cottage industry of gaming in general, and those quirks are often quite strange or unique. Here are a few of the oddities I have noticed or questions raised when I review the OSR titles I am familiar with or own in some form....noting of course that I used to be much, much more involved in the OSR games on this blog and have run campaigns in S&W Complete, C&C, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, SWN and White Star, so those tend to be the ones I am most familiar with. For my purposes enjoyment of the OSR movement stems more from appreciation for these rules on their own merits; starting as a gamer in 1981 left me with nostalgia more for the campaigns, people and general fun, but even from day one I was heavily modifying the rules to include skill systems, class freedom for demihumans, and other things some OSR circles consider sacred to the concept.

Anyway....the list! More musings than anything else:

1. What's the deal with Devils in OSR?

Devils appear in the AD&D Monster Manual, and are tied to the nine-point alignment system. As a result, a preponderance of contemporary OSR titles do not touch on devils because they often seek to emulate OD&D or B/X D&D, neither of which traditionally had complex alignments, therefore did not have need for lawful evil devils. In B/X they simply avoided demons and devils entirely. As a result of this you can only really find devils on OSRIC, and they tend not to show in games using only law/neutrality/chaos as the axis of alignment.

This has led to some oddities. For example: Frog God Games has adapted large tomes of monsters across multiple systems, leading to stats for devils which make sense in Pathfinder or D&D adaptations, but also leading to their appearance in Swords & Wizardry which otherwise is missing the parade of devils traditional to AD&D.

2. Weapon Proficiencies - Hassle or Mission Critical???

OSRIC is very faithful in catching the key salient rules of AD&D 1st edition while also making it a clear, comprehensive modern explanation of the rules. It is, so far as I can tell, the only version of the game to also faithfully adapt weapon proficiencies. Other games emulating later editions (such as For Gold & Glory) also do this, but aimed at AD&D 2nd edition sensibilities. Otherwise? You really don't see weapon proficiencies come in to play at all. B/X and OD&D variants need not worry, but for example even "inspired" ruleset like Castles & Crusades avoid these mechanics or bake them in to the fighter only.

3. Taboo Skill Systems

There's a compelling case made in Matt Finch's treatment on what Old School Gaming is that OSR treats the play experience not merely as a simulation letting you live vicariously through wizards, rogues and fighters but as a challenge to the player. There's an equally compelling argument going back to before 1981 when I first started gaming that says that having characters with a way to guage skill sets that may not be possible in the player allows for a better simulation. I once gamed with an avid GM in the early nineties, as an example, who argued that if you did not tell him in details HOW you saddled and rode your horse then you were doomed to failure. He allowed no room for players who were less proficient or knowledgeable in such matters than their characters might be; it was a sort of Villains & Vigilantes style thought process on gaming, the notion that your character was very much YOU in every sense of the word, just with a sword or superpowers or magic added on....but somehow not skills reflecting knowledge that a fantasy character might have but a modern gamer might not.

Back in the 70's and 80's when you decided you wanted agame system with a robust skill mechanic you wrote your own game. In AD&D land you waited until the Wilderness Survival Guide came out, a book which I distinctly recall I hated with a passion by then because I had already been exposed to smarter skill mechanics in Runequest, Palladium Fantasy and even GURPS (also the then late-great TFT). Today, in the OSR movement, you avoid skills like the plague, or maybe provide a simple mechanic such as a "skill" save or something....unless you're trying to replicate AD&D 2nd edition or BECMI, in which case go for it. SF retogames have skills....but see next!

4. It's always "Like Traveller, but OD&D"

Barring the Cepheus Engine which has lite versions of Traveller by Mongoose, few SF retroclones actually do retrocloning for the SF games of the 70's and early 80's, but they all have a habit instead of doing, "OD&D, if it were scifi" instead. Why is this? Stars Without Number is OD&D inspired with a loose Travelleresque skill system attached. Other SF games tend to be "retro inspired" rather than actual retroclones; I have seen nothing that even tries to actually emulate Classic Traveller, Space Opera, Universe or Star Frontiers, to name the Big Four I recall back in the day.

Some of this could be limits of the OGL, but the truth is the OGL has been applied very creatively to emulate mechanics of all types, so it should be possible. This unfortunate tendency to make the OSR all about OD&D and later iterations leaves a large hole, I feel, in the power of modern rewrites to bring back older systems as close to the spirit of intent while being legal as possible. For now, though, we instead have a field filled with games that evoke some of that, but maybe fill a niche of "this would have been an awesome game to have back then, but at least we have it now" type systems. Just imagine, for example, if White Star had been released in 1980....that would have clobbered Star Frontiers (IMO)!

5. OSR Is Weird and Sometimes Lurid but Also It Really Wasn't Like That

Okay, for some groups out there it may have felt this way, and maybe for some golden period in the early seventies there very likely were some groups that felt like Dungeon Crawl Classics as the genre is re-re-envisioned today. But the truth is: all the deliberately kitschy retro games out there from DCC, Venger Satanis, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and so forth, the original market was not predominantly about this. It's a better notion that there were definitely tables where such gaming went on, but the level of R-Rated content, X-Rated content, or just plain trippy hippy "too much LSD before the game session" content was not so common. The stuff we see today in the OSR movement which contains wild recreations of over-the-top madness is good now because it reflects a modern environment which lets people do really crazy stuff with their old buddies, but when I was a teenager the craziest thing we got up to was timid by comparison, totally PG stuff for its day and age.

Ultimately, the really crazy content out there today is great fun (if you're in to it; I admit I only like the DCC stuff of what I listed above) but its highly specific to tastes and tolerances of a subset of this cottage industry, a bit like how Heavy Metal is out there, but most comics are a lot more timid. Still, the prevalance of this content in the OSR probably gives the young'uns an interesting (and false) impression about the Wild West of the old days of gaming!

Anyway.....just random musings....

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Modifying Monsters in Pathfinder 2E - Round One

Pathfinder 2nd Edition introduces a range of rules in the Gamemastery Guide that let you design monsters according to the new monster design mechanics, which are aimed at challenge-appropriate builds in a process similar to (but more structured) D&D 5E. The end result is that you get "numerically on-target" stat blocks through a kind of reverse engineering; rather than building from the ground up you sort of design from the top down, asking "What do I need?" rather than "What can I make?"

The trick is...this can be a bit enigmatic if you're not sure how to interpret all the data the GMG provides on this. As it turns out, I found that by using some scaling assumptions with standard Bestiary creatures you can get a much better grasp on intent, and also which monsters fill which niches.

For example: the Orc Brute. A CR 0 creature, is designed to be a very low level foe for level 1-3 characters. After about level 3 they are serious fodder. Recently however I ran a game (level 15) in which a major conflict and battle between three warring factions took place, which included an army of orcs. The orcs as presented were mostly grunts and low level, so the players got a moment to shine as true heroic badasses on the battlefield. However, having a percentage of the orc population be heroic foes in their own right would make for a more engaging and risky conflict. As such, I thought about ways to bulk up the monsters....imagine, for example, a "heroic" version of the orc brute.....I started by assuming it was a CR 14 monsters, and boosted it accordingly using the guidelines. It seems like the simplest default is to add level to all relevant stats, then add additional modifiers based on reasonable proficiency levels. When done this way and compared to the charts in the GMG you can quickly assess intended level and scope of threat of the foe as it advances in experience.

When an orc brute grows in power he thus becomes an Orc Greater Thane. As I developed the character it became clear that adding an extra ability for a multi-action attack would make sense; this gives them some extra striking power while sticking to the core conceit: brutal thugs that beat things to death with their orc-brand cestii:

Chaotic Evil Medium Humanoid Orc
Perception +21; darkvision
Languages Orc
Skills Athletics +24, Intimidation +20
Str +5, Dex +3, Con +5, Int +0, Wis +1, Cha +0
Items  +2 breastplate, +1 striking javelin (3), +2 striking orc knuckle dagger (2)
AC 33; Fort +24, Ref +20, Will +20
HP 210
Ferocity [reaction]
Speed 25 feet
Melee [one-action] orc knuckle dagger +24 (agile, disarm), Damage 2d6+9 piercing
Melee [one-action] fist +24 (agile, nonlethal), Damage 2d4+9 bludgeoning
Melee [two-action] flurry of knuckle dagger strikes +24 (agile, disarm), Damage 6d6+27
Ranged [one-action] javelin +21 (thrown 30 feet), Damage 2d6+8 piercing

And just like that you have a mook designed to fight level 15 characters and be a sufficient challenge that they aren't a total waste of time, while also not being enormously overpowered.

I'm going to explore some more evolutions like this as things roll along. In PF1E there were a number of books Paizo did (such as Monster Codex) that did something like this; perhaps we'll get lucky and Paizo will do more such tomes in the future.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Gamma World in Roll20

While poking around Roll20 to see what it can do, I noticed that among the many games with some form of character sheet support that there was one in particular of note: classic 1st edition Gamma World has a Roll20 character sheet someone devised. Even better, it's a nice character sheet, with hot buttons for figuring out artifacts, rolling for mutations, fun stuff like that. I think it could use some hot buttons for die rolls, but all got me thinking.

Over the last two months, one of the first things I did with Roll20 was create a test environment "home game" to experiment with features. Early on I had my wife and son log on to help me figure out audio, character sheets, stuff like that. I used D&D 5E for this and was fairly impressed with the charactermancer (Roll20's official name for the D&D PC sheet) and the free OGL-tied content on offer. Although we have not as yet advanced with that for a real game, it laid the groundwork for the ongoing weekly Pathfinder and Cypher System games I am running.

Lately my son has expressed an interest in playing so I decided to revisit the idea. Here's how the train of thought on my end went:

1. I can run D&D 5E. But, I don't have the D&D books unlocked and they are kind of expensive purchases for what could be a one-off or possibly very short run on Roll20 if we can all game in person. Also, why doesn't Roll20 have the Dungeon Master's Guide as a compendium option? What madness is that???

2. Also....I am really enmeshed in Pathfinder 2nd edition, maybe I could try that? Even better, I could try running Pathfinder 2E with the Gamemastery Guide's optional Proficiencies without Levels rules, which would dramatically flatten the math for my son on most rolls.

3. Okay, so Pathfinder 2E character sheets are INSANE and I am impressed my players have figured them out. I get's very thorough and works well....but it takes a lot of effort for the initial setup and I don't have that kind of time. If I don't have that kind of time then my son will not benefit from this at all. Plus, it looks like the proficiency+level is baked in to the sheet in such a manner I'd have to edit the code to remove it and I haven't got time to figure out how to do that.

4. So if D&D 5E will work but maybe not optimally, and Pathfinder 2E is too painful to set up for a young new gamer (note: doing this in paper and person would be much easier as I see it, but my son is enamored with the "video game" element of Roll20 so I'm leaning in to that) then what other options are there? Cypher System is an obvious choice, but I feel like exploring other options.

....and that's how I discovered that Gamma World and many other OSR titles have various levels of representation on the Roll20 Charactermancer. Gamma World in particular stuck out because it's the game that got me into RPGs in the first place. Although my father purchased the D&D Basic set for me a few weeks prior, I picked up Gamma World myself at around age 10 and proceeded to run it for my sister and some friends (we were all kids traveling around with our artist parents). For various reasons it resonated well; I think it helped a lot that I had just finished reading Starship and Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, as well as Piers Anthony's Battle Circle series, so I had a firm literary foundation for what Gamma World was about. Within hours of getting the boxed set I had found a map of the Hilton Hotel we were staying at on one of my parents' many art show events in Albuquerque and I was running a post-apocalyptic exploration of the region. That first group ended in a TPK when they wandered afar and found a nuclear missile silo which they promptly detonated. It was the time of the Cold War and I was regularly obsessed with the persistent risk of the end of the world; Gamma World fit well with these worries I had as a kid.

So here I am now, with Gamma World's reprint in my hands from Drivethrurpg, contemplating a game for the family. My son is the same age my sister was back then, and his interest in the thematics seems to be obsessively strong; he's not nearly as interested in fantasy as a genre so much as post-apocalyptic sci-fi and superheroes (not just any superheroes, either; he's primarily about the Flash, Venom and Spider-Man). So a game set in the apocalyptic wasteland featuring mutants might be right up his alley. Bonus since we're in the thick of an ongoing pandemic that is just deadly enough to disrupt the planet while not being deadly enough for us to feel like it's a genuine existential threat (yet; TBD).

Anyway....another perk is that there are a fair number of map packs out there for modern and apocalyptic settings, and scouring the internet brought be a veritable trove of wasteland and Gamma World specific images to be used as props in a Roll20 game. This aspect of Roll20 is great, really....when I do go back to tabletop gaming, I will miss the ability to quickly share images and maps with the players; I may be temped to continue using it even if we are all in person just for that purpose, to be honest. Heck, if the pandemic continues long enough I could, gee, maybe even get used to Roll20 as the norm or something. Maybe., I miss sitting at a table with live humans and rolling dice!

Anyway....the environment for the first game is fully prepped and ready. I'm setting it in New Mexico (easy fit, and a tradition) and will integrate the Albuquerque Starport module from the GM Screen. I may approach my regulars and see if any want to play, too. At least one of my friends may have to be reassured that I will houserule some less onerous poison damage tables into play....he was famous back in the day for immediately dying due to intense lethal poison/toxin exposure....!

Monday, May 11, 2020

Previewing the Pathfinder 2E Advanced Player's Guide - Much Needed Goodness

I just noticed that the Paizo website listing for the upcoming Advanced Players Guide now lists the general contents of the book....check it out:

--Four new classes: the investigator, oracle, swashbuckler, and witch!
--Five new ancestries and five heritages for any ancestry: celestial aasimars, curious catfolk, hagspawned changelings, vampiric dhampirs, fate-touched duskwalkers, scaled kobolds, fierce orcs, fiendish tieflings, industrious ratfolk, and feathered tengu!
--40 new archetypes including multiclass archetypes for the four new classes, Pathfinder favorites like the cavalier, dragon disciple, shadowdancer, and vigilante, and brand-new archetypes like the familiar master and the shield-bearing iron wall!
--New class options for all twelve classes from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook including champions of evil, genie and shadow sorcerers, zen archer monks, rogue masterminds, spellcasting rangers, and more!
--Even more exciting new rules, from rare and unique backgrounds to investigative skill feats, from spells and rituals like reincarnate and create demiplane to new items including special wands with unusual effects and exciting potions worthy of a witch's cauldron.

That is a very exciting list. Perhaps most exciting is they seem to be covering all the ancestries and heritages my group has been missing; it's really hard to run some of my games without ancestry stats for aasimar, tieflings and catfolk, for example. This is a much needed tome, really looking forward to its release! It will by coincidence arrive in July sometime (exact date post-COVID-19 disruptions not determined it looks like), which will be right around the time our current Pathfinder campaign which started first week of August and has been meeting non-stop will be hitting the Real High Levels (somewhere around 17-18 depending on how things go; they are all about 65 XP away from level 16 as of this weekend).

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Many Sourcebooks for D&D 5E That Are Luring Me Back: Arcana of the Ancients, Alien Bestiary, Alien Codex, Cthulhu Mythos

In 2013 when Dungeons & Dragons was moving from "next" to 5E, a common complaint among fans was the general dearth of content. Wizards of the Coast had moved to a more austere and careful release schedule, with a limited range of products year over year. So far they've stuck pretty close to this strategy, releasing at most about 5 notable products per year, and until quite recently had avoided any significant new campaign settings aside from Forgotten Realms. Instead, all of the "fluff" content that old school gamers are used to seeing and choosing from migrated to the DMs Guild store, or through other third party content. Over time, the third party content became so enormously prolific that here in 2020 we have an almost overwhelming array of products to choose from for our own curated D&D experience.

Recently I've picked up an array of books which have been filling some really interesting niches in D&D  and providing an array of tools for really interesting gaming concepts, especially if you want to try a genre mashup. For example:

If you want to really make your game Legendary, there's no easier way to do it than to look at Legendary games' Alien Codex. The Alien Codex comes in several flavors, for Starfinder, Pathfinder 1E, and 5th edition (so far; I'm hoping one day we see a PF 2E version but I'm not holding my breath). The book is sufficiently good that I grabbed the 5E edition for sure, and will likely grab the Starfinder editions soon as well.

For those interested, as with many Legendary Games products, Alien Codex is a potpourri of stats, rules,  ideas, equipment and generally useful content to let you populate a setting filled with a future-themes science fantasy campaign. Using this with D&D 5E is almost (not quite, but almost) as robust as grabbing Starfinder. If you're a dedicated fan of the 5E mechanics and like the idea of science-fantasy space adventures this is an extremely useful book.

Alien Bestiary, also from Legendary Games, is a natural compliment to Alien Codex. You get hundreds of pages of 5E adapted monsters with a science fiction space-fantasy theme, from old OGL favorites to mythos monsters to completely new things. It's got content designed to tie in to the default settings Legendary Game offers, but the book is primarily a toolkit for your own games. Like Alien Codex the Bestiary is full of goodness, with hundreds of monsters as well as some SF spot rules and equipment in the back. I have both the 5E and Starfinder version, as it fills a much needed roll for both game systems.

Arcana of the Ancients is a Kickstarted experiment from Monte Cook Games aimed at bringing Numenera concepts and content into line with 5th edition mechanics. It, like the other books on this list, has some content with an implied setting but is primarily aimed at being a toolkit to inspire the DM and allow for the population of your own setting with unique monsters, items and ideas. Because it is deriving this content from Numenera, the mechanics include ideas unique the the Cypher System, such as actual cyphers, rule concepts such as the GM intrusion mechanic, lots of monsters and some new special rules introducing distinct traits and mutations for characters. Future books in this series will focus on Numenera proper, but this one is an excellent stand-alone product for adding far-future "technology indistinguishable from magic" concepts to your campaign.

Last but not least is Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos, an enormous adaptation of the Cthulhu Mythos to D&D 5E. Originally released for Pathfinder 1E, this tome adapts to 5E quite well, providing a strange array of options for adding Lovecraftian themes and elements to a D&D game, including lots of Dreamlands concepts that mesh better with fantasy and weird fiction than the horror elements. That said, the many monsters of Lovecraftian lore and pastiche are well represented here, and the book, like the rest on this list, provides an implied setting while primarily offering you an array of toolkit options to customize to taste. The net result is a book that lets you skew as faithfully or deviate as much as you want to the core conceits of the Cthulhu Mythos. I have enmeshed the Cthulhu Mythos a lot in my own Pergerron campaign, which should I revisit one day will be greatly served by this book, as an example.

All of these tomes as presented allow you to expand your D&D 5E campaigns in strange and interesting directions. For bonus points you can take all four and imagine what sort of strange universe you can devise with them. I've been toying with ideas on this, using Alien Codex to establish a post-Spelljammer future universe in which technology and magic have intersected, and with the future civilizations of this setting exploring a universe populated by the denizens of the Cthulhu Mythos and Alien Bestiary. Meanwhile, traces of lost civilizations across the sci-fi fantasy galaxy suggest that "the ancients" colonized and then abandoned countless worlds for mysterious (and probably Mythos related reasons), leaving these colonies to degenerate back to fantasy worlds populated by the material of the Arcana of the Ancients.

Such a setting, a kitchen sink of space fantasy and weird horror, would provide more than enough gaming content to last decades, I imagine. The four books above would each individually provide enough such content on their own as it is! Anyway.....A+ from the Death Bat for each of these tomes, check them out if the idea of 5E with sci-fi fantasy and weird horror thematics intrigues you.