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Jeff's Gameblog
Friday, 4 June 2004

It looks like I'll be running my Heroes Unlmited game next Friday and I still don't have a good idea of what I want to do. If Paul will be playing again we could take up a fair amount of time introduce a new PC. And I'd really like to start out with an opening fight sequence. You know, the old "welcome to the game, please roll initiative" school of GMing. I could continue last issues plotline and have the PCs go after the leader of the HYDRA cell they busted up, but again, I'm kinda coming up dry.

I may have to fall back on the old pulp writer's trick: "Two men kick in the door, tommy guns ablazing."

Posted by jrients at 10:15 AM CDT
Thursday, 3 June 2004
Attack of the Cyber-Trekkie!
I decided to give the play-by-post game of Malls & Morons a try. Here's my preliminary post:
My guy is Anthony Schicklegruber, nerd trekkie. His friends call him Tony, or when someone really wants something from him they can butter him up by addressing him as Commander Schicklegruber. He seem to always be wearing some sort of Trek-based costume and gets very upset if it's an obscure one and nobody recognizes it:

"Hey Tony! Is that you? Where's the geek gear?"

"{snorts} I'll have you know that this is an exact replica of the outfit worn by Spock when he visited New York in the year 1930. Or have you never seen episode 28, you cretinous ker'plah?"

"Geez, man. Whatever."

There's got to be an Android's Dungeon kind of store at the mall. And at that store is the Most Fabulous Object in The World, an item of Trek memorabilia that Tony simply must have, but cannot afford. I'm thinking a bronze reproduction of Mount Rushmore but with the Presidents replaced with the visages of Star Trek captains. What will Tony do to get this treasure? Will he get a job at the Burger World in the food court? Will he dress up in drag in an attempt to win first prize in the Miss Mall beauty contest? Will he resort to crime?
"Nerd Trekkie" is actually the M&M equivalent of race and class, "nerd" being the clique Tony runs around with and "trekkie" being his class. Trekkies apparently have the ability to spazz out, sorta like a geekotron version of barbarian rage.

I just finished Planet in Peril, book one of the Cyborg Commando novel trilogy. It wasn't nearly as bad as I was braced for and I actually find myself looking forward to reading book two. I have my sister Jenn hot on the trail of the sequels, having suggested that they would make cheap birthday presents if she didn't mind hunting a little bit for them. While I'm waiting to see if Jenn comes through for me I guess I'll have to bear down and finally start to read the Cyborg Commando rpg.

Posted by jrients at 9:12 PM CDT
In Praise of Bad Games, Part 3
As far as Z-grade RPGs go, Spawn of Fashan has loads of old-school credibility. Fashan was reviled a decade before Synnibarr went to print. Even without the benefit of the internet, SoF wormed its way into the consciousness of the gaming community has a prefect example of What Not To Do. Lawrence Schick (author of, among other things, the indispensable rpg reference book Heroic Worlds) made Fashan (in)famous in a Dragon magazine review "Don't take Spawn of Fashan seriously" (Dragon #60, April 1982). In this article Mr. Schick basically takes the tack that SoF is so bad that it -must- be an intentional parody of everything wrong with fantasy role-playing games. If only that were true.

It wasn't until a few years ago, when I read Roger Wilcox's review on RPGnet, that I started to appreciate some of the good points of Spawn of Fashan. Yes, there are good points even in this, one of the all-time most ridiculed RPGs. At this point I probably don't need to tell you that SoF is a fantasy rpg with levels and classes. And you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that, overall, the game mechanics are clumsy and poorly organized. Still, there seem to be at least two mechanics in game that merit a second look.

First off, Roger Wilcox acknowledges one sharp idea in Fashan, the level-up mechanics. Allow me to quote from Mr. Wilcox's review:

What's truly amazing about this 1981 game system, though, is that gaining a level does not automatically give you such things as increased to-hit chances, increased saving throws, more powerful abilities for your character-type, etc.. Instead, gaining a level gives you a chance to raise your statistics. It is your statistics -- strength, dexterity, reflexes, constitution, courage, senses, etc. -- that determine your ability to attack enemies, survive engagements, acquire languages and special abilities, etc.. E.g., your to-hit bonus is based entirely on your dexterity and courage, and does not derive from your level at all. Your basic saving roll modifier, likewise, derives entirely from your intelligence and courage, not from your level.

Basically, although this is a class/level system, its mechanics are characteristic based rather than experience-level based, and I have to applaud them for that. It's a concept we Champions/HERO System players are well familiar with, but which was virtually unknown by most AD&D-like role-playing games 20 years ago.
I really am starting to believe that even the worst rpgs (except maybe the big three) have at least one good idea.

The second mechanic I want to bring up is discussed and dismissed by both Wilcox and Schick: the combat system. The combat system is unwieldy in the extreme; this I do not deny. There are several times where the same roll has to be made mutliple times in a row before moving on to the next step of the cumbersome combat sequence. There's a lot of stuff to be looked up on poor organized tables. All in all, it's a ponderously slow combat system, as Wolcox's heroic attempt at a solo playtest makes clear.

To this criticism I must say, "So what?" People play rpgs with amazingly slow combat systems all the frickin' time. I personally have been to more than one session of Champions in which a single fight took up the majority of a 6+ hour session. Total elapsed game time was certainly less than five minutes of fighting. If the SoF combat rules were edited for clarity and then given some computer assistance, they may in fact kick ass. I don't know. My point is that some earlier game systems aren't as broken as they seem when modern computing power can be brought to bear.

Finally, I want to call attention to the setting material. Unlike most games nowadays, a lot of rpgs back then came with "sample" settings that weren't as inextricably hardwired into the game as in many post-Vampire rpgs. These sample settings were sketchy and could usually be completely ignored without any real difficulty. For example, the '81 Dungeons & Dragons Expert rules came with a map and brief description of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. The game ran fine without using the Grand Duchy. Heck, many D&D adventure modules came with very scant setting material so that they could be dropped into any typical swords-and-orcs type of campaign.

(Two modern examples of the sample setting design ethos can be found in Eden Studios' Terra Primate and All Flesh Must Be Eaten rpgs. Eden goes one step further and offers multiple sample settings for both its ape and zombie games. Off the top of my head, Boot Hill is about the only old school rpg I can think of that does that, with its "quasi-hostorical" and "fictional" versions of Promise City.)

Spawn of Fashan has a sample setting in its own particular idiom: "Boosboodle, a land just south of where Melvin is standing now." I am not making this up. Apparently, the little map even has an arrow pointing towards the top of the page indicating how to get to the enigmatic Melvin.

What can I say? I can't help but fall in love with a dorky little setting like that. Knowing virtually nothing but the name of the realm and the Melvin joke, I find myself irrestibly drawn towards Boosboodle. I want to trounce around Boosboodle, stirring up trouble and brawling with the local misfits. Sure, Boosboodle is not in the calibre of setting material to which I normally feel this attraction. The lands south of Melvin are no Tekumel or Glorantha or Jorune or Harn, but they may be somewhere near the league of The Fantasy Trip's Cidri or Bard Games' Atlantis or the pre-Gazetteer Karameikos. I don't think I'd ever use Fashan's rules, but I would be reluctant to pass up a chance to strap on a sword and see the sights of Boosboodle.

On last quote from Mr. Wilcox:
And always remember the last words in the rulebook:

How many Boosboodles are there in your life?

Posted by jrients at 3:38 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 3 June 2004 5:29 PM CDT

Argh. I had the beginning of Part 3 of "In Praise of Bad Games" type up but tripod went and ate my homework. Worst part of it is that this happened when I clicked "save as draft" so that I wouldn't lose the data. I guess I'll try again when I am in a better mood about this situation.

RPG.net has a new forum, Play By Post. I'm tempted to try GMing some sort of weird indie RPG, like maybe Everyone is John or Puppetland or My Love For You Is Way Out Of Line. But maybe I should play a game before I GM one. Recruitment has started for a Malls & Morons game. Apparently, M&M is a d20 game of kids misbehaving at the local consumer catherdral.

Posted by jrients at 2:39 PM CDT

Last night was Dave Hoover's "Avatars" game and once I had a great time. Our efforts to be goodwill ambassadors between the humans and the Twisted pretty much ended in a clusterfuck. Ah well. Player characters aren't always the best people to address sweeping social problems, especially problems that can't be fixed with senseless violence.

The other development was the solution to the situation involving Ray's PC Jonny the kid. Turns out I was worrying for nothing. Jonny is a runaway and really doesn't seem to be interested in finding his parents. The rest of the party was a bit cheesed off to discover that Uncle Lars, whom we had busted ass to save from a horrible fate, was just some guy named Lars that wasn't related to Jonny at all.

Dave has thrown the PC group a lead for a dungeon to explore and frankly, I am doing my best to keep the group from exploring that dungeon. If I get outvoted, overridden, or ignored it won't be the end of the world, but I feel like I have to make some sort of effort to avoid further dungeoneering in the campaign. It's not that I'm against dungeoneering as such. Anybody who has gamed for any length with me knows I'm a big ol' dungeon-monkey. It's just I signed on to Dave's Savage Worlds game in hopes of doing something different than kill orc, take pie. And if we really are going to do dungeons, why not just play & Dragons and be done with it?

I dunno. Maybe I gots a bad attitude. After all, I was just contemplating a few weeks ago how it might be fun to port The Keep on the Borderlands over to SW. Still, I have my opnions on where I'd like to see this campaign go and I intend to steer the game that way as much as I can without being a disruption. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, so if I seem to be doing more harm than good, I'll back off.

Posted by jrients at 9:49 AM CDT
Wednesday, 2 June 2004

Voting started yesterday in the Chess Variants 44 Squares Contest. I'm going to be sending my vote in shortly. Now if the kindly editors would post some of my other stuff, maybe I could stop worrying that they did not receive my submissions!

Tonight is Dave's Savage Worlds game. Hopefully we can resolve the issue of having a kid adventurer in the party. I've been trying to figure out a way for my character to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, like maybe asking his folks if my character could take the lad on as an apprentice. I'm not sure how Ray will like such an idea, but I don't see what else will work, short of Dave orphaning the poor kid.

Posted by jrients at 4:27 PM CDT
In Praise of Bad Games, Part 2
Raven McCracken's World of Synnibarr is often listed as one of the worst RPGs of all time and Mr. Cracken is villified for authoring it. Two of the three RGP.net reviews for WoS (those written by Darren MacLennan and Bradford C. Walker, RPGnet regulars) are both pretty hard on the game. (The third is basically unsubstantiated fan praise, proving little except that at least one person not on the design team thinks the game is really kewl.) Although I don't necessarily disagree with Messrs. MacLennan and Walker in their assessment of the game's flaws, I do kinda wonder if maybe their reviews have somewhat poisoned the well when it comes to the RPGnet community's view of WoS.

Although I do not yet own a copy, I'm starting to wonder if maybe Synnibarr's reputation is a tad overblown. For one thing, some folks have characterized WoS as the ravings of a lone powergaming munchinoid nutjob. But this assertion is contradicted by the Pen & Paper entry for the game, which shows that the second edition at least is the effort of a fairly substantial team.

Furthermore, the setting is often derided as an incoherent mess, chock full of mutants, wizards, freaks, and the infamous grizzly bears with frickin' laser beams shooting out of their eyes. I don't understand how this is supposed to be different from lots of other games. D&D, for most of its history, has been so chock full of stuff that the best way to make a coherent campaign has been to cut stuff out. In the d20/OGL era this is even more true. And I've heard of a bajillion World of Darkness games in the PCs were a vampire, a werewolf, a mage, and some Highlander houserules guy. I know shit like this goes down and I don't even play Vampire. And a grizzly bear with deadly beam eyes sounds like a stock Gamma World creature to me, nothing to write home about. Heck, you can easily find more absurd monsters by flipping through the first edition Fiend Folio.

More importantly, goofy monsters and incoherent settings can be a heckuva lot of fun. Not everyone needs a tight setting to have a good time roleplaying. I think back upon some of my favorite gaming moments, like the time my half-orc assassin/cleric Munge brought down an airsquid with a single shot from his arquebus+1 or when Doc Phostarius and his crew meleed a bunch of shoggoths in the TARDIS of evil, or that time the flumph injected acid into the brainpan of Sir Cleave yet he survived, and I can't help but realize how utterly goofball others would find some of my most cherished D&D memories. Most of the best times I had in role-playing wouldn't have happened in a straightlaced pseudomedieval simulation. If gonzo low adventure is not to your cuppa, no problem. Just don't kick Synnibarr in the jimmy just cause it ain't another Nobilis. It was never meant to be.

The game mechanics are also harped upon and I really can't respond to the majority of complaints here, because I don't have access to a copy of WoS right now. There are two criticisms against the game mechanics that I would like to address. First, it is commonly reported that character creation is a mess. A quick read of The Sexy Naked Gamer Chick's Guide To Creating A Character In World of Synnibar bears this idea out. Still, I think a lot of people are ready to jump on ANY system that uses any form of random character generation. Hardcore HERO and WoD fans, I'm looking at you. Criticize WoS chargen for being oafishly clumsy and I may well agree with you. Criticize it for using dice and be ready for a fight. I still throw dice when making D&D PCs and I still think that Classic Traveller chargen is a gem.

Besides, you can have a lot of fun rolling up a ridiculous character and then trying to turn them into something playable. The character creation session for my Heroes Unlimited campaign was a lot fo fun. The party isn't exactly balanced in the traditional sense, but we are having a good time. My buddy Pat and I had a hoot last weekend whipping up 1st edition Gamma World mutants. And Traveller, with the much-maligned possibility of death by chargen, is actually a fun and interesting mini-game all by itself.

The other game mechanic that I want to address involves the interesting restrictions the text of WoS places on "Fate", the Synnibarr term for GM. At this point I think I will just quote Bradford C. Walker's review:

The rules for GMs forbid any variation. As pg. 332 clearly dictates, "Fate has absolute control during the game regarding rolls and interpretation of the rules. Fate may not, however, deviate from the rules as they are written, for if he or she does and the players find out, then the adventure can be declared null, and the characters must be restored to their original condition, as they were before the game began." Don't think you can tell the munchkin to bugger off if he cites this. McCracken successfully instituted the only Game Police in the industry by writing the following: "Players may attempt what is known as "calling Fate." This means that if a ruling is disputed by a player and he challenges Fate and is found to be absolutely correct, the player may receive double gaming points ("XP"- BCW)for the entire adventure." These passages are but a small sample of the insanity rampant throughout the game.

Mr. Walker is a smart guy and most of the analysis in his review seems right on target. Here, however, I think he misses the hidden jewel in World of Synnibarr, the one thing in the game that just might be a stroke of genius. The Fate rules may the one good idea that Ron Edwards, in his essay on Fantasy Heartbreakers, tells us to always be on the lookout for. You see, the World of Synnibarr restrictions on Fate look like they would go far toward enabling serious Gamist play.

By strictly binding the GM to the rules and making the GM accountable to the players for running the game literally "by the book", McCracken is sending out a Gamist challenge to the WoS GM. It's like he's saying "Here's my over-the-top powergame. The rules are a mess. Ad libbing the rules is strictly prohibited Are you a bad enough mofo to run this puppy and not be busted by the players?" Suddenly, the GM has as much on the line, if not more, than the players. Just making up shit on the fly is no longer an option. If things go the wrong way "Rocks fall, everyone dies" isn't a way out. Once the game begins you have to stay on script and see it through.

Bonus link: Niilo Paasivirta's hilarious Synnibarr page

Posted by jrients at 9:28 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, 2 June 2004 2:32 PM CDT
Tuesday, 1 June 2004

So last night I started reading Planet in Peril, book 1 of the Cyborg Commando trilogy, the official novel line for Gary Gygax's rpg by the same name. I'll say one thing for this novel, it's a fast read. I'm already to page 118. It wouldn't take much effort for me to tear down the writing in Planet in Peril, but what would be the point? It's game fiction for a game that's generally regarded as one of the worst ever written (yes, Cyborg Commando will make an appearance in my "In Praise of Bad Games" series). I wasn't exactly expecting great literature when I blew a dollar on this puppy.

Posted by jrients at 9:26 PM CDT
In Praise of Bad Games, Part 1
Before I begin praising bad rpgs I think a little disclaimer is in order. I am not going to be praising the three worst role-playing games ever devised. In all my rpg-geekery I have encountered tales of three games that are completely without merit:

1) FATAL would be just another piss-poor fantasy heartbreaker if not for its skin-crawlingly creepy fascination with rape.

2) Racial Holy War (a.k.a. RaHoWa) is the official rpg for skinhead Nazi fuckwits. When it comes to Nazis I hold with Professor H. Jones ("Nazis. I hate these guys.") and J. Blues, esq. ("I hate Illinois Nazis.") but I believe it was the Dead Kennedys who put it most eloquently: "Nazi punks fuck off!"

3) HYBRID claims to be an rpg but is just plain crazy. Not good, zany, funny crazy, but sad, pathetic, incoherent crazy. HYBRID is nothing more than the sad ramblings of a mentally distrubed man who truly needs professional psychiatric help.

The above trio constitute the top three worst rpgs of all time. If you can find a game as abhorrent as FATAL or RaHoWa or as insane than HYBRID, please let me know so I can add it to the above list.

Anyway, what I really want to talk about are other games that perpetually hover on lists of "all-time worst rpgs". A detailed look at these games reveals that most of them have a redeeming feature or two that deserves mention. Some of these so-called "bad games" may even have an unwarranted reputation.

Posted by jrients at 4:43 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 1 June 2004 9:13 PM CDT
Monday, 31 May 2004

Yesterday Pat came over for a few hours. We shot the breeze about games like we usually do. He brought over, among other stuff, a run of Challenge magazines he had found in a quarter bin somewhere. I'm not into any of the games GDW was hawking back in the early nineties, but Challenge still had some pretty good stuff. Issue 66 had a short article on conference games, things like faux UN assemblies and such. There's also a handful of Call of Cthulhu and FASATrek stuff peppered throughout the issues he had found.

We also rolled up some first edition Gamma World characters as a first step toward a campaign. We each made one of each type: mutant animal, pure strain human, and humanoid. The PSH's were pretty boring to make compared to all the fun to be had rolling on the mutation charts. Once I get a copy of the 2nd edition rules we'll have to add some mutant plants to the party.

Pat also talked about wanting to finally start a campaign for that old Palladium rpg The Mechanoids. I suggested that I could make a large cast of PCs from the Palladium books I had handy. Using Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas & Superspies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness and the Palladium FRPG to make characters for a sci-fi campaign may not make much sense, but it sure infuses the project with a gonzo sense of fun.

I finished reading Queen Victoria's Little Wars last night. I'm tempted to hunt down a book on the Crimean War as a follow-up, but I'm also starting to wonder if maybe I should read a book that isn't about war or murder. You know, just for a change of pace from my current routine.

The last couple of days has been a challenge for me on the eBay front. Just before I vowed to clean up my act I found a game that I wanted and I put it on my watch list. It was in new condition, going for less than half cover price (including shipping), and being sold by a reputable dealer whom I have donw business with in the past. But it wasn't from the Gamma World line. As per my new self-imposed eBaying limits I'm only buying items for one line at a time. I really wanted that game, but I allowed the action to end without bidding on it. A small victory for financial responsibility, perhaps, but I'm happy to have passed the test.

Posted by jrients at 3:36 PM CDT

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