Monday, April 25, 2022

Cypher Space

 This might be a genuinely short post....I often claim that, but this one will endeavor to do so as its quite late and I need to get to bed. I'm back to eyeballing Cypher System as the resource for my next SF campaign, once more. The Stars are Fire sourcebook is a fine SF resource. The Cypher System rules allow for the most character flexibility in terms of interesting and exotic (and supported) design decisions, and it is almost impossible for a player to go through char gen in Cypher and end up on the other side with something that isn't at least interesting. Meanwhile its really the best game ever (yes, it is) in terms of the GM side of the operation....this is the level of mechanical depth I am craving.

The question is....what exactly should I aim for? Resume the "Starship Zhuul" campaign, but powered by Cypher instead of OSE or Starfinder? Adapt my Savage Space campaign to Cypher (Cypher Space, ahem)? Evolve my far-future campaign setting in which humanity is a diaspora which survived the fall of an empire but also lost earth? Ideas, ideas....and that is what is so great about Cypher, it supports all of these ideas exceedingly well and with minimal special effort on my part other than to bring creative thoughts to the process. 

These days my most successful recent games have all been non-fantasy genres*, or fantasy heavily blended. Mothership has been a great success. Every Cypher game I've run has been great (despite feeling like advancement can be too quick, and still wrapping my head around the power levels of high rank PCs). Call of Cthulhu has been a real pleasure to run lately. I'm having fun playing D&D (and PF2E), but it's not precisely in my wheel house of visceral entertainment anymore....I likely have just, well, played too much of it, to be honest, and that's okay. At least I am mixing it up for Saturday by diving deep into the Spelljammer/fantasy space aspects of it (well, working on it....the group is being very cautious in their preparation to do so). 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Dinoplex Cataclysm Finale - Mothership Thursday

 Mothership's periodic Thursday game last night wrapped the Dinoplex Cataclysm (which had an entire session of just enjoying the park) with a huge bang.

The group, which had a medley of successful survivors from prior adventures, ended up with a 60% PC murder rate which is pretty out there. Almost everyone died in the first shot. So, the tally was....

One death by Titanoboa

One death by Megalodon bite

One stress-induced bout of heart failure following a terminal maxed out roll on the panic chart

Some of the players had kept their PCs alive since pretty much session one, but I think with the deliberate lethality of Mothership that just means they were overdue. Either way.....crazy night! Three new PCs to join the party next session (including my wife, who is rolling a scientist it sounds like). 

One of the victims had in a prior scenario purchased a backup body, a "resleeve" on another stop point. We determined his new body would awaken, but no memories leading up to his death were transmitted, so at some future date a clone of that PC will awaken by default with a big question as to what happened to his gene donor.

Another character's mind and partially degraded memories were downloaded to the ship AI by the android captain, whose player decided to see if she could pull this off. So that player gets to roll a new PC, but now he's an android with a fragmented post-mortem memory of who he was. Good times! Only in Mothership does this stuff work so well.

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Plan: D&D 5E, Savage Worlds and So Forth

 After some discussion and kibitzing with the group we have arrived at an intermediary solution, one which exemplifies why D&D 5E remains king of the heap: we're returning to our last Saturday campaign of D&D. We'd taken a break and then got distracted (repeatedly) from that campaign, but the time now is to return for a new story arc and focus. The thing is, D&D 5E is really easy to pick up and play, and the rules are very easy for all at the table to get back in to. Roll20's Charactermancer is so easy to use my son was able to make his new goliath warlock with little intervention on our parts. My other player who normally has some technical issues has been using D&D Beyond which seems to work really well and also interfaces with Roll20. win for all.

This sidesteps the Starfinder issue entirely, which I decided boiled down to a problem with the specificities of welding Pathfinder mechanics to scifi thematics. Paizo has such good visuals and design on the story and look of the Starfinder universe that it is hard not to want to explore it....but the design choices and thousands of pages of rules make it a tedious chore. Maybe in my younger days I'd have the energy, but I feel proud of myself to admit that I no longer find such volume and complexity satisfying, and it is okay to find a simpler solution.

Ironically the next story arc of that older D&D campaign involved the group finding a crashed Spelljammer ship and trying to salvage the helm so they could use it on a new vessel. As such, it would be doing more or less exactly what has been planned for the other group. Kizmet? Who knows. Either way....I plan to blend the old AD&D Spelljammer stuff with the Legendary Games Alien Codex stuff, so it should be interesting.

I still plan to get back to Starfinder, but I am mulling over an idea of using Savage Worlds for the rules, instead. Pinnacle, the company behind Savage Worlds, published a very nice adaptation of Pathfinder to their ruleset, and I think they should do the same thing for Starfinder, too. A lot of settings from other games adapt really well to Savage Worlds, and this is a great example of how the flavor and style of Starfinder would be improved upon by the flexible but simpler and more intuitive ruleset of Savage Worlds. I am not saying Starfinder can't be fun to play on its own....for a great many it is......but merely that a SW style take would be amazing. So my plan is not to wait, and look at how I can use Starfinder as the setting resource, but Savage Worlds as the mechanical resource. It would solve all my issues with Starfinder's rules in one fell swoop, that's for sure.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Simplifying Things

I'm going to avoid any long diatribe on the why, but just put this out for the game systems I ought to be playing more of. I've got four givens: Mothership, Cypher System, D&D 5E and Call of Cthulhu, all are logical systems and fun to play that cater well to my style and level of depth, even if I have some caveats with D&D 5th. The ones I put on this list are:

GURPS - it really is easy once you get in to it, but you need a group that is relaxed and devoted to the process of understanding that the initial sense of complexity is an illusion, and controllable.

BRP and/or OpenQuest 3 (okay that's two systems, but they are very close, as is Delta Green).

Cyberpunk Red - a system I should invest time in, and clearly indicative of my lack of time/lack of devotion due to age and other life demands stealing away that desire I once had to absorb large rulebooks and new games.

D&D 3/3.5, the only collection on my shelf that generates enthusiasm and waves of nostalgia all at once.

13th Age, a game I feel suffers only from the Icon System being tough to keep up with sometimes.

Savage Worlds - I don't really give enough credit for how fun this one is to play.

Traveller - always a staple, and the best go-to for basic SF.

Anyway.....things not on this list that I feel like I should question more include Starfinder and Pathfinder. Must think about this. Would the effort it takes for me to continue to run, immerse myself in the books, and try to achieve GM level system mastery of these games really be of benefit to me at age 51, or would I have more genuine fun just running, say, D&D 5E with some space-fantasy supplements, or Traveller, or heck even just "Savage Worlds Pathfinder edition?"

I think I already know the answer. 

(Footnote....I'll be honest, I think maybe I should have just said we should continue using OSE and tried harder to find an OSR supplement that I could crib some scifi stuff from. That sounds like 1,000 times easier and more compelling to me right now than having to re-read and re-learn Starfinder again).

Monday, April 11, 2022

Thinking About the Next Game - Starfinder

The end of the OSE campaign left us with a potential space-adventure cliffhanger. I proposed using Starfinder as the system of choice. This may or may not have been a wise choice....Starfinder's got some strengths, and I am not 100% sure those strengths are important for me right now so much as that I can get the framework of the game to support a more holistic approach to the style of play I seem to be favoring these days.

Still, at least I have ideas here, and I am excited to get a chance to use the Galaxy Exploration Manual, a book I consider so vital that it should have been the third release in the Starfinder lineup to begin with, but instead came out after I stopped running Starfinder.

These days, I realize my expecations for the game table are as follows:

Shorter campaigns

 I am having a very hard time committing to long term campaigns. I am strongly favoring scenarios or mini-campaigns that will take between 4-10 sessions at the most. It doesn't mean we can't revisit those characters in the future, it just means that I am better now at proposing a discreet campaign with a plot structure of some sort, rather than an open-ended thing that goes forever. Some of my players love the lofty goal of level 20 as the campaign end goal; I just haven't got that sort of energy in me at the moment, any more. My age is at last catching up to me.

Fewer maps and minis

If the maps are convenient and available, sure, but otherwise I have not got the time or energy (or desire) to sit down and work out elaborate maps for everyone at the virtual table. I know some players need the maps for contextual reference; those players might find other games by different GMs better; I am strongly in favor these days of a single "Old School" diagram which has a series of areas on it, reflecting "far, near, engaged" on each side and letting the PCs move themselves to each location as a move action. Basically, Final Fantasy Combat Style. I recall this exact sort of grid (or close to it) existed as far back as Classic Traveller and its essentially just a modern restatement of what is used precisely in 13th Age for abstracted combat.

I really need to go run 13th Age again. It's been a while, but that was honestly a really fun game to play.

Anyway....the point is, I feel that the wargame element a map and minis bring to the tabletop is counter productive to the actual RPG elements I actually enjoy in tabletop. And yes, I know this means that it's more of a challenge to pull this off in a game like Starfinder where the foundation of the game rests on the laurels of maps and minis. 

Weirder - weirder perhaps than is normal even for me

By this I mean....I want to run a game that is interesting once again, and not so procedural. If I am running Starfinder it is because there are interesting ideas, species, worlds and exotic elements to explore, and not because I can't wait for the next highly procedural map and minis firefight. It's not that a good battle doesn't matter.....but I am 100% done with needless random fights that contribute nothing to the overall story. Good random encounters (such as can be seen throughout various Mothership modules) are where it's at. 

Okay....some thoughts. We'll see if I am at last able to structure a scenario process that will work with Starfinder. I have more confidence now than I have in the past thanks to the Galaxy Operations Manual, which is to Starfinder what the Universal World Profile generator is to Traveller. 

Monday, April 4, 2022

OSE Adventure Conclusion - Cold Wind Whispering Module

 So the Old-School Essentials mini campaign I ran is now over with. The group explored The Mountain of the module Cold Wind Whispering, which is a module written for use with any Original or B/X based D&D edition (and easily usable with AD&D as well). As I had originally prepared the module I realized that I was sending in a gang of level 1 PCs to a module that had a lot of 2-4+ hit die monsters, so I ran a short dungeon crawl in an abandoned temple before it, which I will probably post on the blog soon. The dungeon crawl was fine, but it was what reminded me that the old school format of dungeon crawls could sometimes be less exciting than we remember....I've been around the block too many times now to get that excited by a standard dungeon crawl, I guess (though my son enjoyed it).

Anyway, a theme in Cold Wind Whispering...and, real quickly:








Okay, so the Mountain in Cold Wind Whispering is the location of an ancient crashed space ship. In the module it's Zhu, the basis for a cult of worship, and an ancient monastery which is corrupted by a demon. Lots of other stuff fills out the background and exploration areas of the modules, from lost dwarven empires to ice fairies and frost elves, talking wolves and a witch who likes turning children in to cats. The module is written as a Path Crawl, which is a fancy way of saying you give the players a limited number of choices to take (do you go down this trail or that trail?) and if they break off from the established paths the chances of getting lost or eaten by wandering monsters goes up considerably.

The module also introduces a Body Heat Die mechanic, which is a fun way of ascertaining whether the group is at risk of exposure to the cold, and to what degree. It's a depletion die mechanic not unlike what the Black Hack is famous for. In actual play I didn't remember to call on it nearly as often as I should have.

What I did with the module was add the ruined temple dungeon at the beginning to bolster PC XP, then renamed some items to disguise them/fit them in better with the world I set the module in, renamed Zhu to Zhuul, and elaborated a bit on what the space ship was (a giant sentient exploration ship), why it was crashed, and why it could continue to work. At least one patron NPC with the group had a vested interest in finding the shrine of Zhuul/Zhu, and each PC got a motivation from the chart in the module to be there, too. 

Similar to the tri-fold modules I was raving about last week, this module, despite being around 70 pages in length, takes advantage of a kind of brevity of design. Each area of the mountain takes up about 1 page, and a few areas then open up to dungeons with several pages of description. My group never visited the monastery, and they explored about half of the ice lair of the mad wizard before fleeing in terror. In Saturday's finale, they found the ship, and I elaborated on it in more depth. They ultimately were able to get the vessel going (after an overheat roll caused a glacial meltoff and avalanches), and in the very end, half the group stayed with the ship to depart to parts unknown, and the other half asked to be dropped off in their home city, which the Zhuul AI obliged. 

The campaign ended with a unique situation, two branching paths for equally interesting potential campaigns:

--The group dropped off in the city of Zalfurak were deposited in the royal gardens, where the giant bird-like ship left them. As they departed, terrified witnesses in the city proclaimed them oracles of the goddess Zhuul and asked what must be done to appease the goddess, who's last priest had died and for whom no one had believed in --until now! 

--The other half of the party departed with Zhuul into the depths of space, on a voyage which is best handled by other game systems. Alas, OSE's closest "stellar" campaign on offer is Planar Compass, which is more of an astral/dream adventure type thing, and the idea I had in mind is more hard core SF. I could crimp from something like White Star*, but the truth is using something like Starfinder or the 5th edition books published by Legendary Games for SF adventuring with D&D would be more suited to what I have in mind. Heck, even Spelljammer adapted would be a good option.

(My son suggested that I could keep running the game with each group split like this, but I pointed out old dad was old and knew better than to run two completely different campaigns that would never cross again in the same session, and it would send him to an early grave if he tried!) time with OSE has been fun, and I can respect what the game system does, as it does it very well. I concede that ultimately this system is too simple in scope for my tastes, and in the process of playing I realized that there are a lot of Old School things which, looked at through OSE today I now realize were easy ways to model skills and such back in the day....Detect Secret Doors is just a Spot or Search skill. Listen to Doors is just a Listen skill. Break Down Doors is just Feat of Strength/Athletics. Framed that way, they become more broadly useful for resolution. Not having other skills outside of basic class abilities or the optional proficiency mechanics makes characters feel a little anemic by modern standards, but there is definitely much fun to be had in a system where things are largely undefined. 

It is strange, though....OSE feels so much simpler than AD&D 1st Edition, although technically it's still modeling that system (at least in the Advanced mode). I think that may be one reason that OSE, while fun, hasn't been scratching the nostalgia itch for me as much as I thought it would......AD&D was loaded with individually complex or arcane subsystems, proficiency rules later being added, and lots of specific stuff which you had to parse out, ignore, or replace as needed to enjoy the game. The XP system, for example, which I had previously mentioned I never used the GP=XP standard when I actually ran AD&D in the 80's, and it took me approximately 2 sessions of the mini-campaign to ditch it with OSE as well. 

I think the next excursion I make with an old-school nostalgia trip will, for clarity's sake, be to attempt to run actual AD&D again.....though which edition (1E or 2E) remains in question. I had speculated that 2E would make more sense, but not really; everything about 2E that was clunky or annoyed me was fixed in D&D 3rd edition, so just looking at 2E makes me want to play 3E instead. AD&D 1E, however, has a level of mystical recollection of youth to it that might make it more fun to re-experience again (in my defense, I ran an AD&D 1E campaign back in 2008 and it was fun). We'll see. For now, I think it's time to get back to more modern games.

My son chose to go with the space ship Zhuul. I showed him Starfinder after that, to see what his gnome barbarian character might be in the Starfinder universe, and he promptly took the rulebook from me to go read it. I may finally have the motivation to run Starfinder again and stick to it for a while as a result. The infectious value of a new gamer to the mix, one who is earnestly enjoying the hobby for the first time, is well worth nurturing.  

EDIT: Aside from Legendary Games' 5E SF stuff and Starfinder, two other possibilities include Esper Genesis and Cypher System. The latter would have the most flexibility but also thematically the stories would change as Cypher works best when its not all about combat. Esper Genesis I will have to investigate, though, as to the feasibility. 

*I feel bad about it, but realize White Star's Galaxy edition really killed my interest in the game. Too much riffing on satirical/pastiche material from established IP like Star Wars, Transformers and such. In the original White Star it wasn't much...minor riffs like Quinlons, star knights and Cannicks were easy to overlook, but the core conceits were closer to, say, a OSR riff on Traveller more than anything. But when taken in total in the galaxy Edition I was was too much for me to soak, man. I guess I just like my SF systems to be a little more serious; let me add in appropriate humor, and leave the generic off-brand ewoks, wookies, and yodas on the cutting room floor.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Tri-Fold Module Follow-Up: An Exercise in Designing with Brevity

 As a quick follow-up (we'll see if it's quick by the time I'm done writing) I think I'll try an experiment and take three properties that I know of and turn them in to tri-fold modules. The intent is to make them useable in Mothership or perhaps another system, such as Traveller or BRP/CoC, but the goal is to create a tri of short scenarios that model from known sources that I think, when framed as tri-fold mini adventures, make a lot of sense. The three candidates I am picking:

Dead Space


The Thing (1981)

We'll see how it goes!

Okay, gotta go get my fourth booster, just got an opening, so this is indeed short. Yes, that says something about my age if I am eligible for a fourth booster. Later...!

Friday, April 1, 2022

In Praise of the Trifold Adventure Format

I have been posting like crazy this week. Last night we finally dived in to the Dinoplex Cataclysm trifold module for Mothership RPG. Like the Ypsilon-14 module, if you get it in PDF format it includes extras, including a non-disclosure handout for visiting PCs to sign that is hillarious, a guided map tour to find all the dinosaur stickers that is a lovely framing device for the Warden to walk PCs through the park while he sees the real map, and three audio pieces that add to the ambiance. Unlike The Haunting of Ypsilon-14, the audio are not specifically linked to any location and can be used when the Warden senses the time is right. 

A lot of posts on sites like ENWorld about the Paizo Adventure Path Abomination Vaults got me to thinking about the fact that I really do not run those sorts of things, but I will run this tiny little two page adventure any time. The five columns of data (plus one column cover illustration) of the module provide at least 2-3 nights of gaming, so packed and delicious is this thing that if it were a food it would be a dense, rich pastry. My group meets for 3-4 hour sessions once every week or two, schedules permitting, but the brevity of design in Mothership mechanics plus its lightning rod focus on imitating schlock B-Movie horror in space is excellent at keeping everyone focused on the point of the game....seeking to avoid the horrifying stuff in Mothership is never the goal. 

Now, I am sure this format of module is not for everyone. It's brief and to the point, but it provides enedless branches upon which to hang as much riffing and improvisation that you as the Warden (GM) wish to do. I've embellished my own version of the park with several additional features and threats, for example (of which I shall name none --yet-- as the module is still ongoing). We meet on Roll20 so the handouts are easy to deliver, and the audio clips easy to play. The processual elements of the module include periodically rolling to see what is happening pre or post disaster, who the group meets, and so forth. 

If you don't embellish and play it very close to the module as written I imagine it is possible the scenario could last one, maybe two nights. With embellishment we have turned it in to a fine adventure...the first session was all about the group enjoying the park while the slow build on sense of dread at the imminent and as yet unclear point of failure that will turn the park into a nightmare slowly looms. Could the PCs figure out what might happen that could go wrong and stop it? Possible! But unlikely.....the real point of Mothership is to buy that ticket and get on the roller coaster, even though you just heard a news story that they have a record high mortality rate at the park, so to speak. 

Anyway, just some praise for this insanely brief yet packed module format. I would love to figure out how to construct a module like this, particularly for other genres like fantasy where the tradition has been to dominate with weighty, burdensome tomes laden with extraneous content that one might labor to find a way to introduce. The no-nonsense, to-the-point nature of the trifold adventure is simply amazing.