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Jeff's Gameblog
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

My sister and I didn't have time yesterday to play Carcassonne, seeing as how we were both engaged in full-press kid-wrangling for most of the get-together. I did get some nifty gaming-related stuff as belated b-day and father's day gifts. My sister got me the 2nd and 3rd books of the Cyborg Commando trilogy, Chase Into Space and The Ultimate Prize. I plan on reading them after I finished Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life. (I finished Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? this morning. Good read. Lewis mentions in passing an Islamic reform movement called Babism, which I'm curious to learn more about, sorta like my reaction to the brief mention of the Mahdi in my earlier reading of Queen Victoria's Little Wars. What can I say? Heresy is intriguing to me, whatever orthodoxy it springs from/reacts to/rebels against.)

Anyhoo, my folks got me a couple of those neat new joysticks that contain hardwired videogames. The graphic above is for the nifty new SpongeBob SquarePants joystick game. His nose is the stick! Too cute. You just pop some AA batteries into the base and plug it into some AV ports on your TV and you should be gaming in no time flat. The second joystick is a throwback to the good olds days. It is programmed with five old Namco coin-op games, most notably Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Galaxian. A nice touch of this one is that the stick is designed with the old red ball top found on the classic cabinets of yore. I'd really, really love to get one of these babies that was programmed to play Space Invaders, but I've heard that the holders of the Invaders IP are pretty touchy these days.

Unfortunately, I've been so busy that I haven't had a chance to play with either joystick. At my sister's urging I tried to get the Namco jobby to work on her TV, but we couldn't figure out how to get her set to flip from TV to "Video 1" mode. Her original remote is MIA, her universal replacement has an appropriate button that was non-functional, and the set itself had nothin'. Since getting home my daughter has managed to monopolize our TV, which isn't the end of the world since we've mostly been watching SpongeBob SquarePants. Still, I'm hoping to finally get a chance to play with these buggers later tonight.

Posted by jrients at 8:08 AM CDT
Saturday, 26 June 2004

Going over to my sister's place today. Our mom, my wife, my nephew and I all have out birthdays within a week of Father's Day, so we're are getting together for the joint birthday/father's day extravaganza that we do every year. It should be a busy day, but I'm taking along my copy of Carcassonne just in case.

Posted by jrients at 8:58 AM CDT
Friday, 25 June 2004
Brief Wraeththu Update
Topic: RPGs
In my Wraeththu overview and re-evalution I commented that the proposed rules for Wraeththu don't fit the source material but might make for a playable game. While scouring the official Wraeththu site for more info on the 'Storm' system, I came across this short thread in the official message board for the game. I can't be exactly certain, since Gabby2600 is being so damn circumspect, but it looks to me like the Storm system is derived from Gabby's vintage '92 rules. I don't think that bodes well for the success of the game as a simulation-of-setting endeavor. If the combat and magic rules are well implemented, the game might still be a relative success, assuming the audience for queer future fantasy is big enough to support an rpg. I doubt the audience is really as big as the Wraeththu team hope, but that's the way it always goes when people new to the rpg business try to make a breakout product. I'd like to get onto the board and ask some more question about the system, but when that happened on rpg.net Gabby was even less forthcoming than in the link above. Still, RPG.net forums are down today, so I have some online time to burn.

Posted by jrients at 12:17 PM CDT

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