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Jeff's Gameblog
Monday, 28 June 2004
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
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
Thursday, 24 June 2004

Topic: RPGs
Today I got another piece of fanmail for the Erol Otus Shrine, with a nice list of Otus illustrations appearing in non-D&D products! I think my bud Don has some of the products in question, so perhaps I can add those illos to the shrine at some point.

I've been thinking about adapting my ideas for the Six Islands campaign into a starting environ for World of Synnibarr play. The Six Islands setting is small enough I ought to be able to slide it onto the Synnibarr maps with ease and I should be able to retain the fundamental elf/human conflicts that form the political dynamic of the setting. I'd just convert the elves to Psielves, among other changes. I've also got some ideas for placing my Keep on the Borderlands homage on one of the Islands.

Posted by jrients at 9:19 PM CDT
Wednesday, 23 June 2004
Conversions of the Damned
Topic: RPGs
So I was thinking about doing a Synnibarr conversion of the classic dungeon crawl B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. Problem is, unlike most fantasy heartbreakers, the World of Synnibarr monsters have suprising little correlation to stock D&D critters. No trolls or orcs or minotaurs in WoS. The undead are under-represented as well. WoS has a race called gnolls that have very little to do with the D&D critter of that name. Looks like if I go ahead with this insane project I'll actually have to build an homage to Keep on the Borderlands pretty much from scratch. I'll need some sort of crude backstory to explain why a half-dozen fearsome humanoid races are taking up diggs in the same smallish cave complex.

Maybe I should go back to my earlier idea of doing a Savage Worlds conversions. The folks at Dragonsfoot seem plenty willing to help.

Posted by jrients at 4:56 PM CDT
Tuesday, 22 June 2004
Happy Birfday on Me!
Topic: RPGs
I got my B-Day present from my wife this morning: a set of 2nd edition Gamma World rulebooks and module GW3 The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand. Supercool! And I'm getting chocolate cake tonight!

My wife and daughter and I were watching some SpongeBob SquarePants on the TV this weekend. SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick are discussing the fact that Patrick never does anything. Patrick announces that he wanted to defeat the giant monkey men and save the ninth dimension. SpongeBob convinces him to set his goals a little lower, so they never visit the 9th dimension. I mentioned to my wife that I ought to write an adventure that involves going to the 9th dimension and fighting giant monkeymen. She pauses for a moment in deep thought and looks at me and says "It's like your an artist or something. You don't care if your ideas are popular or not, you just do what you want." She finally gets it! Yay! I'm not sure if I could go as far as to call myself an artist, since I'm basically a hack GM, but at least she understands what I am trying to do in my little hobby: my own thing. I'm not trying to convert anyone to my one true way or make a zillion dollars by writing the Next Big Thing (though if someone wants to give me money, I stand by ready to sell out), I just want to putter around with the games I like doing the things I think are cool.

Posted by jrients at 12:16 PM CDT
Monday, 21 June 2004

Topic: RPGs
So I'm going over my new copy of World of Synnibarr and I guess I can see why some people hate it. As far as I can tell the mechanics are basically adequate. Ginchy in some places, but fundamentally sound. In terms of taste, the game is a crime against nature for two types of simulationist players. For setting-intensive simulationists, the background info is ham-handed and incoherent. For character-immersive simulationists, the character generation probably leaves something to be desired too. Random char gen seems to be the norm, though build-your-own options exist. It looks like starting characters can vary wildly in power levels, leaving some PCs with the ability to hog the spotlight.

But for the kind of player who wants to put on an old heavy metal album, scarf some snacks, and roll some dice at dragons, Synnibarr looks like a pretty good fit. I can see myself playing this game much more than Cyborg Commando. McCracken may not be the best game designer or setting crafter out there, but he certainly isn't a loon as he is often portrayed. If you can imagine yourself in a game where a ninja, a cyborg, and an elf take a starship to travel to the stock dungeon setting where they slay a dragon simply to scarf up its loot, then Synnibarr might be the game for you.

Posted by jrients at 9:16 PM CDT
Sunday, 20 June 2004
Happy Father's Day to Me
Topic: RPGs

Got a copy of World of Synnibarr as my Father's Day present. No, my family doesn't hate me. I wanted a copy. I haven't had a chance to give it a complete readthru yet, but my first reaction is that the negative hype is way out of proportion with the actual game. Synnibarr's bad rep may be legendary, but I'm not yet convinced it's deserved. I see here a game I could play and enjoy. Heck, I'm mostly done with my first PC, an Archer.

Last week on a lark I bought a box of bilingual popsicles, labeled "Fruit Carnival" on one side and "Carnaval da Fruta" on the other. Today I reached into the box and pulled out the last one. It was a coconut popsicle. That was unexpected. I had never heard of such a thing. It was very good. It even had real coconut in it. Two thumbs up for coconut popsicles.

Posted by jrients at 6:00 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, 20 June 2004 6:10 PM CDT
Friday, 18 June 2004
The Next Big Thing? Prolly not.
Topic: RPGs
Coming soon to a friendly local gaming store near you: Wraeththu, the game of psychic swordfighting posthuman hermaphrodites stuggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world!

I shit you not.

The setting, if a bit on the weird side (even for an RPG), has literary credibility. The Wraeththu RPG is apparently based upon a trio of dark fantasy novels written by Storm Constantine. Ms. Constantine's works are highly regarded in some circles and it was apparently a bit of a coup when White Wolf was able to get her to write the intro fiction for Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. (Ms. Constantine's Pen&Paper entry has a nifty photo of her. In addition to her writing talents, she ain't hard on the eyes.)

The Wraeththu rpg itself, however, seems to have gone through all the growth pains that one sees when folks who aren't RPG industry-saavy try to step up to the plate. The initial Wraeththu PR machine was sloppy even by RPG industry standards. Here are the two RPG.net threads that clued me into Wraeththu's existance:

Most Pretentious and Artsy RPG Ever Created?: Wraeththu

Wraeththu: Bring On the Clowns

Those are both monster huge threads with large swaths of only-barely-on-topic material. I'll try to summarize the key points, split into three departments.

The "Your PR Sucks" Department: The overhype of the Wraeththu rivals the things I've heard from the bad old days of SenZar, Synnibarr, and Multiverser. "Wraeththu is going to take the RPG world by storm, no one will play [your fave game]anymore, playing Wraeththu cures cancer, etc., etc." Also, despite hoping that White Wolf players would buy their products, both gabby and the official site spend time knocking the World of Darkness. I can't see how alienating the fanbase is going to make sales. Furthermore, the frontman for the operation, 'gabby2600', seemed to pull the old gag of posting under multiple identities so that he could agree with himself. Finally, claims were made that look like just plain lies. The big one was that Storm Constantine is acknowledged as an influence in the 1st edition Vampire core book. No such acknowledgement seems to exist in the real world.

The "This is an innovative system?" department: Yet again the new kid on the block is claiming to have an utterly revolutionary system. (Here's a hint folks: Is your name Jared Sorensen or Robin Laws? No? Then you system probably ain't revolutionizing jack squat. And if you've never heard of Messrs. Sorensen or Laws, then you have no goddamn business claiming your system is revolutionary to begin with.) Turns out the innovative system is nothing more than yet another fantasy heartbreaker, i.e. mostly stuff we've seen before. More disappointingly, the system was written in '92 and was not created with the Wraeththu setting in mind. Now, there were certainly good rpgs written in or before 1992, but the odds are long that a designer could break new ground today if they are ignorant of Sorcerer and the Pool and Dying Earth and Universalis and Adventure! AND Rune AND Inspectres AND HeroQuest AND EVEN FRICKIN' D&D 3rd edition. I mean, come on.

What do I actually know about the system? Not a whole lot. You have 6 or 8 stats, rated 3-18 or 1-20 or something like that. You roll a d20 to do stuff. There's some sort of enigmatic weapon creation subsystem combined with an emphasis on swordplay. The psychic/magic/psionic rules use a freeform system reminiscent of Ars Magica. No hint of hardcore social or psychological mechanics, despite some folks claiming those would suit the novels to a 'T'. In fact, such rules seem to better fit the spirit of the Wraeththu Mythos more than the swords and swordfighting, which are downplayed or even nonexistant in the novels.

The "I'm playing WHAT?" department: RPG.net hasn't seen any gabby antics in a long time. The website has mostly cleaned up its act. I haven't actually seen the mechanics, they could work just fine. Heck, the 'Storm system' mentioned on the current incarnation of the website may be a totally different set of rules than gabby2600's musty old homebrew. Assuming all these issues are under control, that still doesn't address the main hurdle for this game to be a success: all the PCs are members of a race of gay posthuman hermaphrodites. I know "gay hermaphrodite" sounds like a contradiction. It's not. The 'hara' race is composed of male humans who have mutated into hermaphodites. (I'm not going to get into their strange "flower penis" biology here, you'll have to follow the RPGnet threads above for the lowdown on that.) According to reports, some of the characters in the novels were homosexual prior to their transformation. Either way, the result is that hara sexual intercourse is between two posthuman entities who previously were both human males. Apparently the characters in the novels all use male pronouns as well. In short, and to simplify greatly, the novels might be called "gay science fantasy" if you felt the need to pigeonhole it. (Some would disagree with that assessment, which is fine. Mischaracterizing a trilogy I've never read isn't the worst thing I've ever been accused of. Like, today.)

The "gay thing", to use a lame turn of phrase, ought to be enough to doom Wraeththu's chances of being a mainstream commercial rpg hit. Too many RPGers will be squicked with the idea of playing mutant homos. It's that simple. With a little luck and a lot of post-"RPGnet fiasco" work Wraeththu might make it as a good niche game. If the game gabby2600 was pushing gets published as described, the best it could hope for is a spot in Middle Finger Evolution's hall of shame.

(I supposed this would be as good a place as any to insert the usual disclaimer: I'm het, but I'm not a hater. If you think I've written any homophobia into this piece, go ahead and call me on it.)

All in all, Wraeththu is lined up to be the next rpg that everyone loves to hate. Heck, they've already got a great head start over at RPG.net. And yet, I can't help but think that the game has serious promise, even if it sticks to the tacked-on '92 homebrew system. The few details I've heard about the system do seem to contain kernels of good ideas. There's a lot to be said for an elaborate weapon construction system that is well-integrated into kickass sworddueling combat rules. Team the sword rules up with an effective magic-on-the-fly mechanic and you've got the basis for some great fightery. I see visions of glittering futuregoth prettyboys dancing about the battlefield, swinging intricately bejewelled razorwhips and katanachuks, dodging each others' luminescent multi-hued psychic emanations. It could rock. These rules might not have much to do with the world of the Storm Constantine novels, but what do I care? I've never read them. (Though I have put the 3-volumes-in-1 omnibus edition on my Amazon wishlist but no one in my family ever uses the damn thing come gifty time. It's not that I end up with crappy birthday and Xmas gifts, it's just that I maintain the wishlist to make it easier on them. Why no one uses it is still a mystery. Anyway, I guess I should try my local used books emporia. I have no idea what section of the store to go to find them. Sci-fi? Queer fiction? I dunno.)

And as to the whole "hermaphodites with flower-anemone shaped penisvaginas" angle, I can't say I'm completely annoyed with the idea of playing one. I play too many characters who are obviously expressions of my own Freudian anxieties. You know the type, guys with big guns or swords. Right now I'm going through a phase in which all my PCs wield large knobbby quarterstaffs. And of course all these guys are straight. Being forced to play a gay hermaphrodite could very well afford some insight into these overcompensating tendencies. Or maybe it'll just creep me out. Won't know unless I try.

Then there's the whole posthuman angle to the hara. Most games that deal with this sort of stuff posit posthumanity as either a fairly clearcut but interesting set of technological extrapolations (I'm thinking of Transhuman Space here) or else as Nietzschean overmen, taking the form of spandex-and-cape clad Olympian gods. Wraeththu goes with the idea that the next step in human evolution will be unexpected and pretty damn weird. I gotta give props for that. After all, if you were to thaw out a neanderthal and expose him to modern America, I think he would be pretty freaked out. It rings true to me that homo sapiens would have the same reaction to the beings that come after us in the chain of evolution.

All in all, I have to give credit to the people behind the Wraeththu rpg for trying to bring something truly different to the table. I really hope their game gets into print and finds its way onto the shelves of friendly local game stores everywhere. I'd love to flip through a copy and I might even buy it. Of course, they might not end up publishing my ideal version of Wraeththu, in which mutant girlymen spend all their time engaging in Jedi duel style combat using their personalized battleblades.

Either way, best of luck to them and theirs.

Posted by jrients at 2:45 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, 18 June 2004 9:31 PM CDT
Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Topic: RPGs
Got an email out of the blue from a fella named Doug. Apparently Doug lives in the Shampoo-Banana area. He noticed my listing in the player directory for Ron Edwards' indie rpg Sorcerer. Doug is interested in playing Sorcerer and/or Sorcerer & Sword. S&S is probably one of the best rpg supplements ever written. I rank it right up their with Aaron Allston's Strike Force. Both products really advance the state of the art in the hobby.

So maybe, just maybe, I'll get a chance to play Sorcerer.

Meanwhile back in the world of actual play, tonight is Dave hoover's game. I'm looking forward to another night of his "Avatars" campaign, but I am starting to wonder about something. Maybe I am on the wrong track in trying to steer the group away from dungeon crawling. Maybe that's exactly where we need to be. After all, plumbing the depths of moral dilemnas seems like a kinda odd way to approach a fantasy campaign world in which the paladins can detect lies with ease.

Or maybe that's just my D&D genie whispering into my ear.

Posted by jrients at 10:40 AM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 17 June 2004 10:38 AM CDT

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