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Jeff's Gameblog
Thursday, 1 July 2004


Started book 2 of the Cyborg Commando trilogy today. These novels are so light and fluffy that I've gotten past page 60 tonight, even though I got home later than usual, made supper, picked up the living room, vacuumed, and put my daughter to bed. I just wish I could bring myself to finish reading the Cyborg Commando rpg. The basic premise is sound (good guy cyborgs vs. the alien menace) but the execution of that premise is just plain not working for me.

Posted by jrients at 9:06 PM CDT

Topic: RPG Actual Play
Last night was Dave Hoover's "Avatars" campaign, using the Savage Worlds system. I had a great time as usual. Although it delayed starting the game, we all had a great chitchat before the roleplaying starting, mostly chewing the fat about videogames. That was a lot of fun. Even more fun was the total slobberknocker of a fight we had with some more of the dreaded ant riders. Those guys are a great foe. We very nearly lost two PCs and Count Dante's horse. At one point things looked so bad I thought we were staring down the barrel of a Total Party Kill. I love it when rpg combats get that scary. We also hooked up with some non-dead friendlies (thanks for reading the blog, Dave!), so hopefully we can get some information from the locals next session. I had a really good time despite the fact that I had a bout of indigestion for much of the night. (Too much pop + too much food + not as young as I used to be = boo-boo tummy.)

Later I noticed an error in my revised advancement plans for my PC. I tried to slip Power Surge onto the ladder before its prerequisite. Power Surge is a nifty little edge that gives you a slew of extra power points whenever you get a joker for initiative. Considering that both my and Loren's spellcasters were depleted by the end of the fight, I think an edge like Power Surge could be beaucoup handy. Anyway, so I moved Power Surge further along the advancement track and finally buckled under and bought some Fighting skill for my little wussboy PC. Now I might actually hit my foes regularly. Of course, I still only get a d4+1 damage with my low Strength score. But them's the breaks.

There was a general consensus that everyone at the table would like to play the "Necessary Evil" campaign when it comes out. This is an official SW campaign book in which an alien menace invades and defeats the superheroic defenders of Earth. The PCs are the supervillains who must now step up to the plate and stop the bug eyed monsters. Sounds like a great concept, though I'm unsure how well Savage Worlds can be tuned for superheoic play. One problem with "Necessary Evil" is that everyone at the Wednesday night game would like to be a player in it. As far as I can tell it may well turn out to be one of those really cool games that no one wants to GM. I've seen this problem before. I might enjoy running NE, but I'm pretty darn certain that I would have a blast being one of the players. Especially with Pat at the table.

Posted by jrients at 4:54 PM CDT
Wednesday, 30 June 2004

Topic: RPGs
Tonight is another Savage Worlds session and I'm already getting all jazzed up for another fast and furious session. Hopefully there will be plenty of trouble for us to get into tonight! I'm going to try really hard not unnecessarily poo-poo any dungeon crawling tonight, no matter how insane the plan. Its obvious that other players really want to go down in some tunnels.

Posted by jrients at 11:18 AM CDT
Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Topic: Chess Variants
Well, I've decided that at least as a temporary measure I'm going to call my large chess variant Better Late Than Never 100. I'd really prefer something more poetic than that, some name that would allow me to use the variant in a fantasy setting in the same manner as Gary Gygax's Dragonchess, S. John Ross's Mastery or Peter Aronson's Gothic Isles Chess. I suppose I could call my game 6 Islands Chess and make it the variant unique to that setting. Calling it such invokes Gothic Isles Chess, which certainly inspired me with the idea that every fantasy setting needs its own chess variant. The fact that there are no Islands involved in the game certainly could cause a bit of confusion.

Posted by jrients at 4:13 PM CDT
Monday, 28 June 2004

Topic: Books
I'm two-thirds through Gould's Wonderful Life, about the unusual Burgess Shale fauna from the Cambrian era. I feel like the book may have peaked early. The middle chapter covers all the "monsters" in detail. The rest of science is all well and good, but I got into the subject because of the weird critters.

Posted by jrients at 9:15 PM CDT

Topic: Chess Variants

I'm ready to start work on the HTML coding for my large variant but I'm being stymied by the lack of a decent name. What do I call this variant? "Jeff's Obvious Ripoff of Gothic Omega Tamerlane 100" seems a tad long. Kings & Things would be a great name, if Thom Wham hadn't already used it. Drat him! I suppose there are other naming schemes besides acknowledging the three games I am, ahem, paying homage to. I could somehow mention the importance of the Court pieces (Queen, Minister, Archbishop, and Prince) with something like King's Court 100 or Court Chess 100. A quick search reveals that King's Court is in use but Court Chess is not. Of course, Court Chess 100 is a rather bland name. Maybe I should call it Better Late Than Never 100, to signify that I envisioned the earliest version of this variant as a possible entry into the 100 Squares Contest. That makes this variant about four years late.

Posted by jrients at 4:09 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, 28 June 2004 4:17 PM CDT
In Criticism of Good Games
Topic: RPGs
I've had plenty of nice things to say about some pretty poor RPGs in my "In Praise of Bad Games" series. For a balanced view I thought I should maybe take some well-loved games and lay into them with the ol' Stick of Pain. I want to start with the system that I am currently playing and have fallen in love with, Savage Worlds.

I would describe Shane Hensley's Savage Worlds as a rules-medium generic system with a decidedly pulpy bent. The system seems to be a development from Mr. Hensley's earlier work, the horror/steampunk western Deadlands. Most stats and skills are rated with a single die, much like Jadeclaw/Ironclaw, the Window, and Dave Hoover's unfinished Dicebag. The range of possible dice is d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. Thus my puny friar character Rondoo has a Strength of d4 but his education gives him a Smarts of d8. I like it. Its very simple and has the advantage of using lotsa different dice. Not enough games use multiple polyhedral types. Character generation is a pretty simple points-based affair, with a merits and flaws system. The math is very simple, with low numbers, so there's no half point shaving exercises or other sorts of tom foolery one finds in GURPS or HERO games. The merit system (called Edges) looks a lot like the 3E feat system. Although feats in 3E make me crazy, I actually like the implementation in SW. I think the difference is that I don't like the feats married to the older class/level technology. Savage Worlds doesn't have to contend with any earlier design baggage in the way that 3E does. The combat system I would also describe as "like 3E, but I actually enjoy it", the main difference being the lack of AoO (unless one has the appropriate Edge). Areas of Opportunity make me crazy. Not "look at me, I'm Andy Kaufman" crazy. More like "climb the bell tower and shoot people at random" crazy.

All in all, I find that Savage Worlds lives up to its tagline of "Fast! Furious! Fun!" But like most any RPG, Savage Worlds still has its share of flaws. I'm still very new to the game, but here are the four problem areas I've encountered so far:

Statistical Weirdness In SW the baseline target number for most rolls is 4. Each interval of four gets you a bonus called a "raise". Raises are very important. For example, one or more raises on your to-hit roll increases the damage done to the opponent. The problem here is that these target numbers interact with SW's exploding dice system. Rolling max on your die means you get to reroll and add the two dice together. I generally like exploding dice but this system has an odd breakpoint. It's actually easier to get that first raise (at target number 8) with a d6 in a stat rather than a d8. The math to back this claim up is simple. On the d8, you have a 1 in 8 chance of getting that first raise, if you roll an 8. One divided by eight is .125. That means on a d8 you have a 12.5% chance of getting the raise. Getting to an 8 on the d6 is a two step process. First you have to get an exploding result. That only happens on a 6. Then you need to get any number but a 1 on your second roll. That makes your chances of getting an 8 or better equal to 1/6 multiplied by 5/6. That works out to a 13.8% chance of hitting that first raise. This flaw only amounts to a 1.3% discrepancy from the intentions of the design, so I'm not exactly forming a peasant mob to storm Mr. Hensley's castle. Still, these are the sort of things I kinda expect a professional game designer to address before publishing rules. The probabilities of the Savage Worlds dice mechanics aren't as opaque as things like the Storyteller system. If I can find this flaw, why didn't the author?

Wound System Clunky Most of the mechanics in Savage Worlds are pretty smooth. The wound system is one of the places where this seems to break down. I can't quite wrap my head around it. At first I thought I was just being a lazy player and not learning all the rules because so many people at the table already knew them, but I'm not the only one with this same experience. RPG.netter and fellow retrogamer Grubman also hits a rough patch when it comes to the wound mechanics. Grubman got his hands on SW because it had some good cred among the old school crowd. And I can see why. Savage Worlds is very combat friendly, very minis friendly, and lacks the artsy-fartsiness of the post-Vampire rpg world. Grubman reports that he doesn't not play SW pretty much only because the wound mechanics are so darn non-intuitive in an otherwise simple system. (I may still be a lazy player though.)

Too many bad guys, too many bennies A bennie is a device, usually in the form of a glass stone, that the players may turn in for opportunities to reroll poor rolls or to reduce the effects of wounds. Although not always embraced by mainstream gaming, bennie type mechanics have a long history in the hobby, from 1st edition Top Secret to James Bond 007 to the original Marvel Superheroes to Over the Edge to QAGS. In general, bennies represent an acknowledgement by the system that the players are the protagonists of the game and as such deserve special treatment. I think Robin Laws put this attitude most succintly when in Rune he notes that only monsters, not PCs, can lose limbs in combat "because monsters don't buy rulebooks". But seriously, most players like having a 'get out of jail free' card for when the going gets especially tough. The problem in SW is that sometimes the forces o' evil seem to have plenty of bennies to go around. The game explicitly allocates bennies to the bad guys, but I'm surprised at how often they come up in play. The general pulpishness of the game led me to assume that only the Master Villain and Kickass Lieutenant would have their own supply of bennies. Yet in the campaign I'm in we seem to be encountering ordinary monsters with these script-bending resources. Maybe this is a peculiarity to the game I'm in, but I think that this issue would not be coming up if the rules explicitly said to only give bennies to the big bad, his key henchman, dragons, uberninjas, etc.

Bennies as XPs Most PCs get 3 bennies at the start of the session. At the end of the session you are required to surrender any remaining bennies. For each bennie turned in at the end of the night you get to roll a d6. On a 5 or 6 your character gets an experience point. In Savage Worlds it only takes 5 experience to buy a new goodie for your character (a new Edge, an increase in die type of a stat, etc), so every xp counts. A character who holds their bennies rather than uses them will eventually be buffer than the PC who burns through their bennies. I assume that this fact explains why so many fellow players at my Wednesday game try to hold onto their bennies as long as possible. At the end of the night a lot of bennies get turned in. I've seen the exact same problem in Marvel Superhero campaigns. In MSH the stat called Karma is both your pool for manipulating dice rolls and your XP total for purchasing new powers. Most MSH games I've seen involved almost no Karma expenditures in play. Everyone was saving up for more or better superpowers. To be fair to the other players, I would probably turtle down and horde bennies myself if it weren't for my long-standing membership in the "smoke 'em if you got 'em" school of rpg resource management. I first encountered this theory in an old Dragon article devoted to strategies for AD&D tournament play. The basic argument was that players should not hold back the expendables (spells and device charges) early in the game in case they are needed later in the adventure. If you don't survive to the end of the adventure, what good does that extra healing spell do you? Although playing fast and loose with the resources has sometimes backfired for me, I've never had cause to regret it. While other players are miserly rationing their spells, I have been having a wahoo time flinging fireballs with the wild abandon of a monkey hurling poop at zoo patrons. Not everybody sees it this way though, and the rules for turning bennies into XPs actively discourages the sort of zany PC antics that bennies were designed to promote in the first place.

Despite these flaws, I still give Savage Worlds high marks. It's a great game.

Posted by jrients at 1:00 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, 30 June 2004 10:56 AM CDT
This is it.
Topic: Collecting Games
Today I received my copy of The Ultimate Adventurer's Guide, the lone supplement to World of Synnibarr. Once I leave feedback that concludes my last outstanding eBay transaction. I'm now going as close to cold turkey as I can muster. I no longer visit eBay to browse the rpg section. I'm leaving four or five longterm searches open, but that's it. Until one of those searches kicks out a result I'm done eBaying.

Posted by jrients at 11:08 AM CDT
Sunday, 27 June 2004

Topic: Video Games
My daughter Elizabeth's cartoon jones was abated sufficiently this afternoon to allow me to give my new joystick games a try. Pac-Man, Dig-Dug, and Galaxian were as solid as ever. Elizabeth tried playing Pac-Man but she doesn't quite understand how joysticks work yet. The other two games, Bosconian and Rally-something-or-other, are both quite good, too. I'm sured I've seen the Rally game before. As a young man I undoubtedly dismissed it as a racecar game, but in fact from a gamemechanic point of view its a great Pac-Man variant. Although I have played plenty of car games over the years (Notable faves being Spy Hunter and Up'N'Down) but I always tended to shy away from outright racing games and other sports simulation titles. My loss. Just cause I'm not inclined to go play baseball doesn't mean I won't like a decent baseballish video game. Back when I was a kid I was too dumb to realize this. A game had to be wrapped up in a fantasy or sci-fi package for me to give it a ringing endorsement.

Speaking of sci-fi, Bosconian is a great deep space shoot-em-up. (The title of this game seems to be an homage to the classic Lensman series of novels in which the evil space menace originates from the planet Boskone.) The game has great terrain in the form of staionary asteroids and spacemines. The goal of the game is to blast the crap out of these large green hexagonal space stations, several of which pepper each level. Your spacecraft stays in the middle of the screen as it moves around multi-screen levels. All in all, it seems like a great little game.

I only got to try three of the SpongeBob games before Elizabeth reasserted her control of the TV. (Yes I do spoil my daughter, thank you very much.) The first game, called Bubble Burster or somesuch, is essentially a nifty redo of the classic game Breakout. The second game involves hook trying to reel in Patrick, Sandy, and Squidward. SpongeBob throws krabby patties at the hooks to keep them at bay. Although simpler in many ways than Defender, I am somewhat reminded of that arcade classic in that both have the goal of "protect the innocents from the Other". The third game involves playing Sandy as she rides her surfboard and throws acorns to dispatch foes. I only got to play this one for a minute or two, but I was immediately reminded of an old Atari 2600 cartridge. I believe it was called UFO. The basics of gameplay of the two games are essentially the same. The screen constantly scrolls slowly right-to-left but the UFO/Sandy may move anywhere around the screen. Foes moving slightly faster (or much faster) than the scroll rate appear on the right of the screen. Most of them simply fly in a straight line, creating an air hazard/points opportunity. I seem to recall that my sister and I enjoyed the Atari game greatly. What was neat about the old UFO game was that for once you played the invader. The targets were airplanes, balloons, helicopters, etc.

Posted by jrients at 4:16 PM CDT

Topic: Chess Variants
Hey! My article on Knight Chase is up over at the Chess Variant Pages! Very nice. (Except for the grammatical error in my text that I just now noticed. Grumble, grumble.) I feel a tad bit more motivated to finish up my large variant project. The rules as they exist in my head are pretty much finalized. I just need to write up the damn thing.

Posted by jrients at 8:24 AM CDT

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