The Gygax Rule for GMs – All you need is good rules and good books

gary-gygax
Courtesy http://rpglabyrinth.blogspot.com

In my gaming pantheon, I clearly play wargames first, other boardgames second, and role playing games (RPGs) a distant third. Spending-wise, I have bought very few RPG products since April. In the past month I came close to buying two new RPGs but didn’t. Along the way I learned a valuable lesson taught to me by no other than the Godfather of RPGs, Gary Gygax. Gary reminded me that RPGs are inherently a personal creation; if a product is “not quite right” there are tools available to “do it my way.”

The big RPG splash of the month was the Kickstarter launch of The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin Publishing. The project currently (as I write) has over 3,330 backers pledging upwards of $239,000 against goal of $30,000 – and 24 days to go.

I initially pledged to support at the Ship’s Boat-level which is $20 for the pdf version. I then downloaded the free Quickstart pdf and took a look. I am no hard-core The Expanse fan but I generally like the universe. I initially missed the books and became acquainted with the setting through the TV series. After looking at the Quickstart I mulled it over for a few days and then cancelled my pledge.

First, the Quickstarter did not appeal to me; indeed, it actually turned me off. My initial negative reaction was to the artwork. I think my expectations are biased from the TV series and the artwork in the Quickstarter just feels too different. More importantly, it is not what I see as evocative of the setting. It almost seems too cartoonish to me whereas I imagine The Expanse though a more hard sci-fi lens.

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Courtesy The Expanse RPG Kickstarter

Secondly, the RPG core mechanic (based on Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine – AGE) just didn’t capture what I think feels like The Expanse to me. I admit I was a bit confused at first because I was expecting to see the Chronicle System used in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game which is my only other exposure to Green Ronin. I really like the Intrigue Mechanic in Chronicle and it perfectly captures (is evocative of) the Game of Thrones setting.

Looking at the Quickstarter pdf, I weighed my pledge and thought about what I was getting. I decided that I actually already have a version of The Expanse RPG. I actually have two of them, both from Zozer Games, and both using a system I am comfortable with (Cepheus Engine):

  • Orbital: 2100 – “Realistic spacecraft, using reaction drives and rotating hab modules for gravity. Orbital is set in our own Solar System and has a real hard-science feel to it.”
  • HOSTILE – “A gritty near future setting inspired by those late-70s and early 80’s movies like Alien, Bladerunner and Outland.”

I seriously weighed getting The Expanse RPG if not for the system then for the setting material. Then I (fortuitously?) came across this article by Gary Gygax himself and published in 2001 where he talks about author Jack Vance and the Dying Earth books. In particular, Mr. Gygax writes:

There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion. (Emphasis mine)

 

In my mind, I already own The Expanse RPG. My version uses a core mechanic that I feel is evocative of the setting (Cepheus Engine). I have the sourcebooks in the form of several TV seasons and multiple books and short stories. I don’t need somebody else’s vision that doesn’t strike me as evocative of the stories or setting.

The second RPG I nearly bought was another Kickstarter campaign. Tachyon Squadron from Evil Hat Productions is basically Battlestar Galactica with the serial numbers filed off rendered using the Fate Core system:

Tachyon Squadron is a Fate Core supplement that blends space opera and military sci-fi. It’s Evil Hat’s take on popular stories about interstellar battles, like the ones that have ships with wings named after letters and the one where robots chase the human race through space. If you’re interested in deep space dogfights, friendly—well, usually—rivalries with fellow pilots, and playing scrappy underdogs with the deck stacked against you, this game is for you.

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Courtesy Evil Hat

The project funded with 1,401 backers pledging $25,295 against a $7,500 goal. Like The Expanse RPG Kickstarter, Evil Hat was very generous and offers a free download Quickstarter version. It is pretty much as I expected as Evil Hat has previously sold a smaller, similar setting found in Fate Worlds Volume One: Worlds on Fire. In Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie the PCs are pilots aboard a giant War Zeppelin taking on “a horde of WWI mechanical monstrosities.” For Tachyon Squadron I actually was more interested in Stretch Goal 7:

STRETCH GOAL 7 (UNLOCKS AT $26,000): The Battle of Britain: At $26,000, we’ll start work on The Battle of Britain, a 5,000 word electronic supplement that applies Tachyon Squadron’s dogfighting rules to a WWII squadron of Spitfire pilots defending Britain. This supplement will include plane stats and mechanics to help you take to the skies with the Allied forces.

Alas, this stretch goal didn’t unlock. My potential Pilot-in-Training pledge of $12 would not have made a big difference.

What really turned me off about Tachyon Squadron was the over-the-top SJW proselytizing. It is so in-your-face I think it overwhelms the game setting. Even if I am able to put the SJW part aside I see the the game offering me little new. The major rule of difference, dogfighting, is likely not far from that found in Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie which I already own. Much like The Expanse, I have a Battlestar Galactica RPG in the form of the officially licensed Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis Productions, 2007). This game uses the CORTEX Classic system which I generally like (indeed, I am still awaiting my CORTEX Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game Kickstarter to deliver – only 3 months overdue…so far). If I want to do Battlestar Galactica using Fate Core I already own all the setting and rules material; why should I invest more money into a near-version that alleges to be ruleset but comes across more like a SJW propaganda tract?

Passing on The Expanse RPG (Green Ronin’s AGE System) and Tachyon Squadron (Evil Hat’s Fate Core System) got me thinking about the games and systems I do have. Last June I listed Star Wars The Edge of the Empire RPG (Fantasy Flight Games) as one of my Top 3 RPGs. I like the Narrative Dice System and want to play more with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. Thinking about expanding beyond Star Wars I picked up GENESYS: The Roleplaying Game for All Settings.

Genesys is a role playing system designed for flexibility and adaptability, specifically tooled to work with any setting imaginable. The Genesys Core Rulebook not only contains an overview of the rules and how the innovative narrative dice system works, but everything a GM and players need to run adventures in five completely different settings. Everything from equipment to adversaries, character abilities to an overview of narrative tropes, all is provided in the core rulebook for Genesys. With a system so adaptable and expansive you can explore every popular roleplaying genre, from classic fantasy style campaigns, to modern day detective thrillers, and even to a far off sci-fi future, Genesys doesn’t fit into any one genre of roleplaying, and instead invites players to craft their own stories with unparalleled freedom.

Taking GENESYS and combining it with Gary Gygax’s Dying Earth GM approach, I can likely make a version of The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica – or any other setting I chose to explore – for myself.

The most important RPG lesson I learned this month is that I don’t need Kickstarter to make an RPG for me that “isn’t quite right”; I just need good books and a good ruleset.

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#RPGThursday – Top 3 TTRPG?

Was challenged on Twitter to name my Top 3 Tabletop Role Playing Games. Here was my response:

Each of these titles is starkly different from the other. One is old/new, one very old school, and the third a modern narrative system. How did I arrive at this list?

Starting in 2004 and continuing through the mid 20-teens, I focused my hobby hours more heavily into RPGs than wargaming and boardgaming. In part this was because I was in the military and on the move with most of my gaming collection stored away. The electronic revolution in RPGs was just starting so instead of buying physical books I could get a whole library on my computer! I also had younger kids who were not ready to game yet. In those years, I dabbled in a lot of RPG systems, especially newer ones such as CORTEX Classic (Serenity Role Playing Game, Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game) that evolved into CORTEX Plus (Smallville Roleplaying Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game, and Firefly Roleplaying Game). I dug deeply into FATE with great games like the encyclopedic Starblazer Adventures or Diaspora. There were many other games too. Looking back, I had become a “mechanics nut” and explored different RPG systems to study their mechanics, or how they modeled the world. I didn’t really play many of these games as much as I studied them.

During this study time, I took another look at the James Bond 007 roleplaying game. I came to realize that this game had a near-perfect marriage of theme and mechanics.

In 2013 my gaming took an unexpected turn. That year, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the Star Wars license and produced their excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook. The RockyMountainNavy Boys were now older and I had done a good job of indoctrinating them into the Cult of Star Wars. So we started playing together. This was a major change for me since I now started playing games instead of mostly studying them.

As I started playing games more, I fell back on a classic of my youth. The three Little Black Books of (now) Classic Traveller had always been a favorite of mine. Now there was something different; a revival of sorts in the form of third-party publishers like Gypsy Knights Games with their incredible The Clement Sector ATU. Since 2013 I have stuck with the newer Traveller as it evolved into Cepheus Engine. It remains my favorite.

So that is how I arrived at my Top 3. The first is a classic of my youth, updated and recreated into the modern day. The second is a design I admire. The third is loved because it connects me to my Boys.

Random Gaming Thoughts (Good & Bad) on the First Weekend in May 2018

Sort of a hodgepodge post today. More a collection of random gaming (and beyond) thoughts than anything in particular.

Travel Gaming – Took along several solo games to play while on the road this week. Only got to play one – Merrill’s Marauders: Commandos in Burma 1943-1944 (Decision Games, 2016).

RPG Gaming – Gypsy Knight Games had their May the Fourth Sale going on so I picked up the new Manhunters: Bounty Hunters in the Clement Sector (2018). This has a very Classic Traveller RPG and Firefly-like vibe to it. I also picked up Uranium Fever: Asteroid Mining Rules for the Cepheus Engine (Stellagama Publishing, 2018). I really need to get back into RPGs. I am still awaiting my now-delayed Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Roleplaying Game by Cam Banks from Kickstarter. As much as I like Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG I probably should pick up the “generic” Genesys RPG.

Speaking of Star Wars – I hear that FFG is going to be publishing X-Wing Second Edition. This one will be app-enabled.

I think I’ll wait for Ares Games and their Battlestar Galactica version instead.

Speaking of Kickstarter – In April I backed No Motherland Without, a 2-player card game about North Korea since 1953. It really looked interesting. I had really high hopes. It was cancelled – for all the right reasons I am sure. I hope they come back and try again, maybe with a stronger publicity campaign. Personally I watched The Players Aid review and was sold:

Veterans in The Expanse (very mild spoilers for S3E4) – I like The Expanse TV series but one line got me going last week. Alex states he has done his time and is an honorably discharged veteran. His implication is that he is special. As an honorably discharged veteran myself I resent this attitude. Unfortunately, I see it everyday – too many veterans who believe that since they served they have a special privilege above “mere” civilians. They grouse when a place does not offer a veterans discount or the like. Being a veteran does not make you a special citizen. This is not the world of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the book, not the horrible movie) where only veterans are citizens. Veterans get many privileges; be humble not an entitlement baby!

#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

#RPGaDay August 14, 2017

pic514176#TravellerRPG, nee Cepheus Engine. No surprise if you have been following my #RPGaDay for 2017. But, not just any version or style of Traveller, but what Tales to Astound calls “Out-of-the-Box” Traveller. This version of Traveller depends on using Encounters as they were originally laid out in the 1977 Little Black Books – as tools for creating the setting, situation, and play. It wasn’t laid out for you in an adventure or campaign arc; the GM created it on-the-fly.

It’s true that such an approach is not exclusive to one game; indeed, I use this approach in my Edge of the Empire campaigns. More narrative-driven games, like FATE Core and FATE Accelerated actually use game mechanics to encourage this kind of on-the-fly creation. But no game does it as well as Classic Traveller does.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Describe a game experience that changed how you play

#RPGaDay August 13, 2017

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Courtesy quickmeme.com

When I first started GMing RPGs with the RockyMountainNavy Boys, I looked at gaming with kids as a teaching tool. In one of our early sessions, when one kid (kiddingly) said he was going to backstab the other, I took control of their character and took the event out to its gruesome conclusion. All against their wishes. I took away all player agency and ran away in the wrong direction.

Total failure on my part.

I have come to recognize that RPGs are a valuable teaching tool, but learning comes best with a proper balance of player agency and GM fiat. This may be part of why I prefer systems that have a built-in narrative mechanic (like Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Edge of the Empire RPG) or are more narratively focused (like FATE Accelerated) or rules-lite (Classic Traveller and Cepheus Engine RPGs – yes, I said rules-lite – look at the core mechanic!).

I have found that sharing the narrative is the most important part of learning. With a shared narrative, the RMN Boys are challenged to create more themselves. Game sessions become more me responding to their creativity than me prepping in advance and laying out the adventure. This often means the adventure goes places I never expected, but never does it go in a direction that isn’t enjoyed by all.

#RPGaDay 2017 – What was your most impactful #RPG session?

#RPGaDay August 7, 2017

Although I have been playing RPGs for nearly 40 years, the most impactful session happened not too long ago. It was the day I introduced the RockyMountainNavy boys to RPGs.

I had the new FATE Accelerated rules in hand and it looked to be easy and fun – a great lite RPG and a gateway game. I found a small western RPG scenario online (basically the PCs ride into town and things start happening). The big bad was a Hutt; his minions droids.

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The Wild Bunch by Steve Jung

I GM’d the game in a very loose fashion. After all, it was also my first really serious run of FATE Accelerated.

It was a blast!

Now my boys are heavy into Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the EmpireRPG. I am happy that they still like the “edgier” adventures since it fits with my history of Traveller RPGand Firefly.

#RPGaDay 2017 – You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do!

#RPGaDay August 6, 2017

First off, understand that I am a tabletop gamer. To me this includes RPGs, wargames, and family boardgames. So in a given week I play more than just RPGs.

My game week starts on Monday. This is a day where I select the games for the week and start any relevant research.

Tuesday is either #TechTuesday or #ThreatTuesday for my blog. Here I look to find interesting technology for my science-fi games or explore the "threats" in wargames.

Wednesday is #WargameWednesday. This is my day for usually a solo wargame from my grognard collection.

Thursday is #RPGThursday. This is the true prep evening for the upcoming weekend.

Friday and Saturday are for gaming with the boys. This can be an RPG session (Edge of the Empire or a FATE Accelerated game) or one of the lighter wargames like Memoir '44or a "Manual Video Games" like Wings of Glory or Tanks.

Sunday is a day of rest. If there is gaming, it is usually very casual and with Mrs. RockyMountainNavy. Something like Qwirkle or Patchwork.