#RPGThursday – My new Top 10 RPG (March 2017)

I was updating my RPGGeek collection and noticed that my Top 10 was way out of date. Made me start thinking again about which games I like and why.

#10 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

pic1545989_mdAt first I was confused by all those fancy dice with their crazy symbols. Now I see this system as one of the best matches of narrative gameplay and setting. I don’t see any other way to play a cinematic science fiction adventure. The nearly-identical Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny round out the trilogy of adventure just like the original trilogy of movies did. Although low on my list, I am the GM in a campaign for the RockyMountainNavy Boys using this system.

#9 – Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game (Second Edition)

pic1972069_tI always thought I would not enjoy transhumanism settings in my sci-fi RPG adventuring. At least, that was until I found the FATE Core-driven Mindjammer. Another exploration into narrative-driven RPG systems. (Avoid the Mongoose Traveller version.)

#8 – Traveller5

pic1550426_tMore a guilty pleasure than a game I play. Many people deride the rules but this is my go-to version of Traveller when I want to do some hardcore setting creation. Actually, as long as one avoids Melee Combat the rules hold up surprisingly well. It’s a shame this one gets so much bad press, the game is actually very good – its the bad reputation the first rulebook got that I think makes people stay away.

#7 – Firefly Roleplaying Game

pic1978226_tDriven by the Cortex Plus system, this is another game that shows my tilt towards more narrative-driven games. The setting is also in keeping with the Original Traveller Universe (and not all that far from Edge of the Empire either). The production quality of the books are so shiny!

#6 – FATE Accelerated

pic2026320_tStrictly rules, this slimmed down version of FATE Core is the best rules set I have found to introduce new players to narrative RPG gaming. Some people accuse this game of being too simple; I disagree and say it is the ultimate “rules-lite” system.

#5 – Atomic Robo

pic2005630_tAtomic Robo is a fine example of what happens when authors and game designers are of the same mind. The rulebook is one of the best I have ever seen, effortlessly taking source content and marrying it to game system and examples. The Brainstorming Rules are absolutely essential to ANY narrative-driven game played.

#4 – James Bond 007

pic532310_tGoing old-school here, but James Bond 007 has stood the test of time. The Chase rules, where one bids for initiative is very cinematic. I now recognize that this was the first RPG I played that had a Game Economy in the form of Hero Points. There is also the best-ever Example of Play which puts iconic scenes from the movie Goldfinger opposite game play.

#3 – Cepheus Engine System

pic3217788_tCepheus Engine is the modern 2d6 Sci-Fi RPG system that is the natural evolution of Classic Traveller. Except this one uses the Open Game License and not Mongoose Traveller’s much more restrictive legal obstacles to third-party publishing. Though a youngster, there are several great settings that take advantage of they rules including the awesome The Clement Sector, Orbital 2100, and the brand-new These Stars are Ours!

#2 – Diaspora

pic536195_tDiaspora uses the older FATE 3.0 engine, and could probably use an update to FATE Core. But the designer’s don’t have to be in a rush because Diaspora is a great game as-is. Occasionally called the Traveller version of FATE, I love it for many of the same reasons I love Traveller; it is a sci-fi adventure RPG with moderate rules overhead. The Space Combat rules are a unique take on vector-combat using range bands (and should be retrofitted to Classic Traveller).

#1 – Classic Traveller

45b96a0a8845ed78b2958bc87f1b6b58_largeIt was 1979 that I first discovered roleplaying games, and my gateway game was the three Little Black Books of Traveller. Who can ever forget the simple text on the box cover:

“This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack…main drive is gone…turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is Free Trader Beowulf…Mayday….”

Now known as Classic Traveller, the rules are still a model of “complex simplicity.” Complex in that all the tools for making your own adventure are there (there is no default setting or Third Imperium in the original LBBs) and simple in terms of rules. Maybe a bit too simple, as shown by the modern rules version in Cepheus Engine. It really doesn’t matter to me what today’s version is called, Classic Traveller will always be the one dearest to my heart.


All images courtesy RPGGeek

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#RPGThursday Retrospective -Cortex Worlds (Serenity, 2005; Battlestar Galactica, 2007; Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, 2008)

I spent 2007-2009 stationed overseas, and my access to gaming materials was limited. Upon my return stateside in 2009, I quickly searched the local game stores and found a game that changed my RPG life. The game was an RPG based on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series. Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (BSG) represents to my a major turning point in my RPG gaming history.

It’s in Color!

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Courtesy Battlestarwiki

BSG was a very different game that I had seen in the past few years. First off, the Corebook was a hardcover that was lavishly illustrated with pictures from the TV series. It did not have the desktop publishing feel that I had become accustomed to in the past few years (see the 1990’s and my Second RPG Interregnum).

Cortex at the Core

BSG used the Cortex System (these days the BSG version is known as Cortex Classic). In Cortex, character attributes are not numbers, but a die type ranging from d4 to d12+d4. Skills were also described by die types, and each character also had Assets or Complications that also were rated by a die type. The core mechanic was a simple Skill Die + Attribute Die vs. a Difficulty number.

Assets and Complications were very interesting to me. BSG was the first time I really saw a mechanical impact of role playing characteristics of a player character. But the part that really excited me was Plot Points. Although I had played with Hero Points in James Bond 007 RPG, it was the Plot Points mechanic in BSG where I first started understanding a “game economy.” I also have to say that BSG has my second-favorite ever Combat Example (second only to James Bond 007 RPG) which replays a scene recognizable from the series.

The other very interesting part of BSG were vehicles. Unlike vehicles and spacecraft in the Traveller RPG games, BSG described vehicles in the same way characters were presented; attributes and traits. I actually embraced this approach because it was more “narrative” and fit with the Assets/Complications and Plot Points in supporting more narrative play.

Finding Serenity

So much did I like BSG that I went in search of another Cortex System game; Serenity. Published by Margret Weis in 2005, it was the 2005 Origins Awards Gamer’s Choice Best Role Playing Game of the Year Winner. I had missed this one but now caught up. Serenity uses a earlier (and slightly less refined) version of Cortex Classic but was similar enough that I caught on easily.

A Savage Exploration

Having caught the “attribute as dice” bug, in 2008 I picked up the then-new Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition. Described as “Fast! Furious! and Fun!” I quickly discovered that this rulebook was another set of rules sans setting. It also had a near-miniatures rules feel to it (see Figures and Battle Mats, p. 4). That said, I really was intrigued by:

  • Character attributes described by dice
  • Edges/Hinderances
  • Wild Cards and Extras (maybe the first time I recognized “Minion” rules)
  • Bennies (Game Economy)
  • Initiative using playing cards

The part that confused me was Arcane Backgrounds. I had a difficult time grasping this at first, and really didn’t understand what Arcane Background could do until seeing it used in a later setting book.

Discovering a New Narrative

The major impact BSG/Serenity and Savage Worlds had on my RPG gaming experience was the introduction of a more narrative style of play. The use of Assets/Complications or Edges/Hinderances along with the game economy tools of Plot Points/Bennies totally changed how I viewed playing RPGs. My games became less simulationist and more narrative. Now, I had seen (and played) some more narrative games (like James Bond 007 RPG or even Babylon Project) but I did not fully recognize what was happening. With Cortex System and Savage Worlds I recognized this change in gaming style and embraced it. It also helped that at this time I moved away from a preference for hard(ish) sci-fi settings and went to settings influenced by pulp (in no small part due to my discovery of the Wold Newton Universe through Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan Alive and The Other Log of Phileas Fog and Win Scott Eckert’s Myths for the Modern Age

The move to narrative also explains my next purchase.


Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game, Copyright (c) 2007 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. 

Serenity Role Playing Game, Copyright (C) 2005 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP.

Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, Copyright (C) 2008 Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Produced under license by Studio 2 Publishing, Inc.

#RPGThursday Retrospective -#ThousandSuns #Traveller

While stationed overseas in 2008, I was experimenting with new RPGs in search of a good science fiction game. I was in the middle of my Star Wars Roleplaying Game – Saga Edition experience but was not “feeling the love.” I wanted a sci-fi RPG more like the old Classic Traveller RPG. I didn’t want swords in space.

Thousand Suns Rising

I think it was through some gaming websites that I came across Thousand Suns by James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II. The first thing that caught my attention was the liberal use of quotes from Golden age science fiction stories like Alfred Bester’s The Stars, My Destination. I also was attracted to the intent of Thousand Suns, as laid out in Chapter 1: Basics, The Game:

Science fiction, it’s been said, is really about the present, not the future. Consequently, a lot of older science fiction – including the works that inspired Thousand Suns – feels somewhat dated because the concerns of the time when they were written don’t always translate well across decades. Yet, older science fiction often joined a wide-eyed sense of wonder with an appreciation for classical archetypes that’s generally lacking in either the jaded cynicism of cyberpunk or naive optimism of transhumanist SF of the present day. Thousand Suns is an attempt to marry the best of the past to the best of the present to create exciting space opera roleplaying adventures in the imperial SF tradition.

Imperial science fiction – whether classical or contemporary – is a vast genre, both in terms of its literal scope and its diversity. Of necessity, it takes place over a large canvas, with hundreds, even thousands, of worlds as potential sites for adventures. Having such a large canvas allows it to encompass almost any kind of science fiction story, big or small. (p. 9)

While the setting potential initially drew me in, the game engine kept me interested. The core mechanic is called 12º. It is a very simple system:

Roll 2d12 and if the result is equal to or less than your Target Number (TN), the action succeeds. It’s as simple as that.

Your TN is a number based on two associated Abilities or skills plus or minus any modifiers. (p. 12)

Tests, or checks, come in three forms; Ability Tests, Skill Tests, and Opposed Tests. There is a narrative play element introduced with the possibility of Dramatic Failure or Dramatic Success. There are also Degrees of success to consider. There was also a difficulty ladder of modifiers to the TN.

Further reinforcing a narrative play element was the concept of Hooks and Action Points. Hooks were described as:

…roleplaying tools that describe some aspect of your character’s past history, personality, or connections to other characters, among other things….Each of these hooks is suggestive about your character and possibly about his relationship to the wider universe – both of which make them invaluable to the GM as he plans engaging adventures among the Thousand Suns.

Besides suggesting interesting things about your character to the GM, hooks have another more immediate benefit: Action Points. Action Points are a kind of dramatic “currency” you acquire by creating hooks. They can be traded for situational boons, such as bonuses to your Target Number, free re-rolls, and other benefits. (p. 16)

I found the idea of Hooks and Action Points fascinating. Hooks were a non-mechanical character aspect that gave the GM ideas for adventures. Action Points were a very mechanical element for the player to use to affect the luck of the dice, or even being able to go as far as “edit” a scene (p. 58).

Outside of a different core mechanic, and the use of Hooks and Action Points, the rest of Thousand Suns had a very Classic Traveller RPG feel to it. Character generation was not Traveller’s career, but instead a mix of point buy and “packages.” Vehicles/Spacecraft was very abstract combat process and design harkened back to a Classic Traveller Book 2 simple process. Even the World creation was – if not a near-direct copy of Classic Traveller – a close spiritual successor.

Looking at the book today for this retrospective, I now also realize that most of the book is rules, not setting. This is all the more surprising to me because I it was the implied setting – Imperial Science Fiction – that drew me in. In Thousand Suns there is a Meta-Setting, but even here (Chapter 7) it still offers options like:

  • The State – or Concordium – could be the “Second Federation” or “Empire of the Thousand Suns.”
  • The Head of State may be “The First Citizen,” “The Puppet,” “The Corrupt Politico,” “The Man of Vision,” The Zealot,” “The Emperor,” “The Doddering Fool,” “The Naif,” “The Once and Future Emperor,” or “The Tyrant.”

Even when Thousand Suns offered up a setting, it still gave options for the user to pick and chose from.

Lastly, Thousand Suns included a Bibliography which is really list of inspiration sources. This collection of books and stories are essential Imperial Science Fiction reading.

So much did I like Thousand Suns that I wrote a review on DriveThruRPG that proclaimed Thousand Suns was the spiritual successor to Classic Traveller.

That is, until I found Mongoose Traveller (MgT).

I am not sure how I acquired my first Mongoose Traveller book. I have two copies of the Pocket Rulebook. Like so many other long time Traveller players, I was immediately drawn in by the simple black cover with the red line crossing underneath the Traveller title. Inside I found a game system that I was very familiar, and comfortable, with.

Familiar, yet not identical. Character generation was more refined, with items such as Characteristic Modifiers, Background Skills, Connections, and different tables to add Mishaps, Events, and even Life Events. The core mechanic remained roll 8+ on 2d6, but now there was an expressly defined difficulty ladder. Personal combat was more abstracted, with actions and range bands and armor reducing damage. Space combat was even more abstracted, doing away with Classic Traveller’s vector movement and becoming more like an extension of personal combat. Other parts, like starship construction, animal encounters, worlds and trade were very similar to the LBBs.

Like Thousand Suns, MgT is mostly rules with little setting. There were no aliens in the Classic Traveller LBB, but they are present in MgT. My searchable pdf of the Main Rulebook only returns seven (7) instances of “Third Imperium,” the setting that has become synonymous with Traveller. Like I had so many times before, I missed the part which said, “While the Traveller rules can be used for almost any science fiction novel, movie or setting, the traditional setting for games is the Third Imperium of Mankind….”(p. 2). In some fashion, MgT achieved the goals set out by Marc Miller in Traveller 4 to be a universal science fiction rules system.

So Mongoose Traveller became my new RPG of choice. Over the next few years I would invest heavily in the system. But what MgT lacks is narrative play. Like its predecessor Classic Traveller, the GM is king. Looking back, as much as I love Traveller, I also think it was this time that I started wanted a system that had more narrative. I looked back fondly at James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game, and even Thousand Suns had narrative Hooks and Action PointsMgT lacked any nod to narrative elements and had no game economy.

My next purchases were a major step in the narrative direction, and opened up a who new gaming frontier to me.


Thousand Suns, Copyright 2008, Rogue Games, Authors James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II.

Traveller ©2008 Mongoose Publishing. Traveller is a trademark of Far Future Enterprises and is used under license.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2016 Far Future Enterprises.”

 

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Traveller: 2300 – 1st Ed (GDW, 1986)

Traveller! In the year 2300AD! Who wants to play an early milieu Traveller campaign? I certainly did, and that is why I bought Traveller: 2300 in 1986.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Traveller: 2300 was neither the Traveller rules nor the Traveller setting (I was not the only disappointed person, by 1988 the setting was renamed simply 2300 AD). But as I opened the box and read the Player’s Manual I became intrigued. This was a Hard Sci-Fi setting, with a timeline and background derived from the earlier Twilight: 2000. In 1986, I was in a bit of an anti-space opera mood (actually, anti-space fantasy as Star Wars was rapidly devolving into). Traveller: 2300 felt realistic, especially with the Near Stars Map and List showing all the stars within 50 light-years of Earth (in three dimensions!).

What I Thought of It Back Then – I loved the setting, and we did try to play a few times, but I remember the sessions bogging down because we just couldn’t figure out how to do things. I didn’t know it at the time, but Traveller: 2300 was an attempt by GDW to further their “house” system that had started in Twilight: 2000. In doing so, GDW attempted to define a Task System for the game. Starting on page 4 of the Referee’s Manual, GDW laid out their Task Resolution system. It was all summarized in one page (p. 9) of the manual.

And I was lost.

The biggest problem is a severe lack of examples of play. This was not the first game I experienced with Difficulty Levels (see Paranoia or James Bond) but in their efforts to define tasks they ended up making it too complicated. The scariest part was “Step 6. Referee records task description.” References to notebooks or file cards or even computer files seemed (at the time) to be taking this RPG-thing to extremes. The game didn’t feel playable out-of-the-box.

What I Think of It Today – Even today I have to step through the Checklist for Task Resolution carefully. It’s all there, but not all on the one-page Task Resolution helper. Graphically, the system would be better served by flowcharts…and an Example of Play!

From an RPG-perspective, I give Traveller: 2300 Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 3 (Early Task Resolution System attempt that is unclear)
  • Simulationist = 4 (Attempt at Hard Sci-Fi)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Uses task difficulty and mishaps)

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2015 Far Future Enterprises.”

#RPGThursday Retrospective: James Bond 007 (Victory Games, 1983)

James Bond 007: Role Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the 1983 winner of the HG Wells Best Roleplaying Rules award. In terms of my growth as a RPG player, James Bond 007 was another rules set that I struggled to understand at the time, but have come to deeply respect today.

Rereading the rules these days, I can clearly see where the Core Mechanic was discussed up front in the rulebook, in a section labeled “Game Concepts.” This section, approximately two double-column pages, succinctly and lays out the how the Primary Chance interacts with an Ease Factor to find a Success Chance. A d100 roll on the Quality Results Table gives an Excellent/Very Good/Good/Acceptable result.

The best part of the rulebook, something I thought back then and still do today, is the Example of Play. Laid out in two columns, the Example of Play narrates an iconic segment of the movie Goldfinger on one side and a corresponding RPG session on the other. Never before, and rarely since, had I seen an RPG example that came to life like this Example did. This is the Gold Standard (no pun intended) which every RPG should strive for.

 

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Courtesy IMDb.com

In terms of the Core Mechanic, at the time I got this game I had a hard time wrapping my head around the Ease Factor. As the rulebook states:

The central concept of the game is the Ease Factor – an element which must be thoroughly understood by both the players and the GM. It is a number, ranging from 1/2 to 10, which is used to measure the ease or difficulty of performing a task. The lower the Ease Factor, the harder the task, and the higher the Ease Factor, the easier the task is to accomplish; …. The GM may apply whatever positive or negative modifiers to the Ease Factor he feels are appropriate to the situation. (Basic Rulebook, p. 8)

Part of the reason this was hard for me to grasp is because the players needed a multiplication table to turn Primary Chance into Success Chance based on the Ease Factor. The multiplication table was even right on the character sheet!

 

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Courtesy RPG Geek

The math is what put me off, but looking at the system today I see this as the first Task Difficulty system I had really encountered. Not only did the Ease Factor portray difficulty, but the Quality Results Table gave a grade of result! This system was unlike the binary Pass/Fail I had encountered to date. This game was truly the first step toward Narrative Play that I experienced.

Another major difference was the character generation system. James Bond 007 used a Point Buy system. Up to this point, I was used to the Classic Traveller or even Behind Enemy Lines career/background generation process. Building my own character was very new to me!

Another difference that I again had difficulty understanding back then was the Damage system. Instead of hit points, when hit the player had to cross-index the Quality Rating of the hit with the Damage Class of the weapon. This revealed a Wound Level. This system is very cinematic which was another change from my usual simulationist games.

Yet another game sub-system that I have grown to respect over time is the Chase Sequence. This sub-game included bidding on maneuvers; the lower the Ease Factor the more advantage one had on initiative but the more dangerous the possible results. The system again created very cinematic results.

James Bond 007 also had a rules section for Interacting with NPCs. This section had rules for Persuasion, Seduction, and Torture. Today these interactions are called Social Combat. Although there was Social Combat in Classic Traveller, the concept was not as clearly delineated as it was here.

One of the more difficult chapters in the rules was Gambling and Casino Life. Absolutely essential to any good James Bond adventure, I had a hard time understanding the various tables of die roll results for the different card games. Today I look at these tables and admire how the designer translated the odds of success in a card game into die rolls on a table.

By far the most different chapter was Hero Points. Hero Points could be used to change the results. Taken along with the Quality Results Table, this was another step towards Narrative Play. Coming from a solid Traveller RPG background, this concept of Hero Points seemed near-heretical in the day. This was my first introduction to a game economy; the Luck mechanic in FASA’s Star Trek RPG was a step in this direction but now players and GMs had a currency (Hero Points) to trade in.

Another sea-change system for me was Experience Points. With this system, characters could grow and be promoted. Like FASA’s Star Trek RPG, this system was very dependent on the whims of the GM but at least there was a system (unlike Traveller).

What I Thought of It Then – Back in the day, the math of character generation and Success Chance determination turned me off to this game. My group also had a hard time understanding how Narrative Play and the Hero Point economy was supposed to work. We liked the game, but had a hard time breaking out of our (stubborn) Traveller RPG approach to gaming.

What I Think of It Now – James Bond 007 is a gem of a game. The Ease Factor system of portraying difficulty, the Quality Results and Hero Point economy make for a very cinematic RPG system that faithfully creates exciting adventures in the James Bond mythos. Although the game is dated, the system is one of my all-time favorites.

From an RPG-perspective, I give James Bond 007 Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 3.5 (Does need a multiplication table)
  • Simulationist = 2 (More cinematic than strict realism)
  • Narrativism = 3 (Quality Results and Hero Points!)

 

#FourRPGs of Influence

Reading the #FourRPGs hashtag on Twitter is a great nostalgia trip, as well a thinking challenge. Here are the four RPGs that most influenced me.

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From tasteofsoundsfiles.wordpress.com

#1 – Classic Traveller (Published 1977 – discovered 1979)

Anybody remember the game store Fascination Corner in Arapahoe Mall in the Southeast suburbs of Denver? It was there I bought my first war-game, Panzer, by Yaquinto Games in 1979. Soon after that, I found a little black box with a very simple logo. The game was Traveller, and it was a role-playing game. Being a huge Star Wars fan, I just had to have the game. This was my gateway into RPGs. Although I had friends who played Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t (fantasy didn’t catch my attention then, and to this day still doesn’t). I have never looked back since.

I actively played RPGs until the mid-late 1980’s. After college, my job and family didn’t really give me the time to play. Instead, I became a bit of a collector. I tried to keep up with Traveller (buying Marc Miller’s T4 and later the Mongoose Traveller versions). I tried other Somewhere in the mid-2000’s, I discovered DriveThruRPG, and started building an electronic collection of games that I had missed. Being a huge Traveller RPG fan, I stayed with GDW RPGs for the longest time. Sure, I dabbled in other systems (like the James Bond 007 RPG), but I really tried to stay away from Dungeons & Dragons. I had tried my hand at D20 Modern, invested heavily in the Star Wars: Saga Edition, and even looked at Savage Worlds, but none of then really captured my interest.

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From en.battlestarwiki.org

#2 – Battlestar Galactica (Published and discovered 2007)

Being a huge fan of the show, I just had to have Margret Weis’ Battlestar Galactica RPG. I was immediately sold on what is now known as the Cortex Classic System (which, in retrospect, is not so different from Savage Worlds). The Battlestar Galactica RPG was a major turning point for me because it was with this game that I truly embraced designs beyond the Classic Traveller system. The Plot Points system, i.e. a tangible game currency for the players to influence the story, was a major break from my previous gaming philosophy. I realized that I was too fixated on systems like Classic Traveller, with its many sub-games, which is very wargame-like and not actually a great storytelling engine. I continued to follow the Cortex system, and these days really enjoy the Firefly RPG using the Cortex Plus system.

edge-of-the-empire-corerulebook_ffg_2013
From en.wikipedia.org

#3 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Published and discovered 2013)

While Battlestar Galactica started me on the path to narrative RPG play, I didn’t truly arrive until Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I had got the core rule book and the Beginner’s Game and tried to play with my boys. But at first I just didn’t “get it.” What do all those funny dice really mean? One day I discovered the Order 66 podcast, and listened to their advice on Triumph and Despair. At that moment it all clicked. From then, I was sold on the the system and strongly believe that this game is the best marriage of theme and gameplay. That said, I have to say that the later volumes of this game system, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny don’t hold my interest as much as Edge of the Empire does.

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From evilhat.com

#4 –Atomic Robo (Published and discovered 2014)

After Edge of the Empire, I started looking for other narrative RPGs. Somehow, I happened across a copy of Atomic Robo. I picked up the game (mostly on a whim) but after reading it was so intrigued by the gaming possibilities. As fortune would have it, I also discovered a Bundle of Holding that had many FATE products. I discovered I had been missing out on a great game system. Now, in addition to Atomic Robo, I enjoy Diaspora (FATE 3.0) and Mindjammer (FATE Core). I have even played a few games using FATE Accelerated with the boys, much to their (and my) enjoyment.

Truth be told, these days I pay much more attention to the “game engine” than the actual game. I admit that my favorite “game engine” these days is FATE Core. That said, I still enjoy Traveller (and even the much-maligned Traveller 5) although the newest Mongoose Traveller Second Edition is not impressing me.

RPG Thursday – It’s a Shiny Day Again

Courtesy MWP

Recent news from Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) tells of the return of an RPG based on Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly/Serenity TV series and movie.

A couple of thoughts come to mind here. First, from the subtitle of the press release, what does MWP mean when they say “Pick-Up-And-Play Games?” This line is repeated in the body text where MWP states, “MWP’s own crew of seasoned designers and creators of licensed role-playing games, stand ready to develop an all-new series of pick-up-and-play games and game supplements.” Second – and closely related to my first question – will this new RPG use the latest version of Cortex or an older or newer system?

MWP previously produced the Serenity RPG. This was the first game to use their Cortex System (named after the Cortex in Firefly/Serenity and now known as Cortex Classic). As an early effort, the game had much further development done through later releases, especially items like the Big Damn Heroes Handbook which was as much a Cortex System update as a sourcebook. It also apparently had a limited license – MWP was able to use only the movie.

Later MWP RPG games took Cortex through several upgrades and outright system changes. Changes to the point that the early versions of Cortex are almost not recognizable when placed next to the later versions, now known as Cortex Plus. Cortex started out as a dice pool mechanic that also used Plot Points to create a cinematic effect. As Cortex developed over the years, it has become much more narrative in approach. To see what I mean take a look at the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Example of Play from the MWP website. The battle scene presented uses no figures, no map, but only pools of dice and some sticky notes yet it moves along rapidly in a good representation of an action-packed comic book superhero confrontation. This is much different than Cortex Classic. Look at this Example of Play taken from the Battlestar Galactica Quickstart Guide which certainly captures the cinematic aspects of the source material but in a much different, more recognizable (classic RPG?) way.

Karl “Helo” Agathon (played in this example by Sean) has been trapped on Cylon-occupied Caprica for weeks with his co-pilot, Sharon “Boomer” Valerii. They have fled one hiding place after another and have recently discovered a shelter beneath a restaurant. They are planning to rest and re-supply. Helo has ventured upstairs to make a hot breakfast, while Boomer catches some extra sleep.

GM: Helo, you find that the perishable food has all spoiled. You do discover plenty of canned and boxed food in the pantry, including oatmeal and toaster pastries.

Sean: The pastries should be fine. I heat them up in the toaster and look for a couple of clean plates.

GM: While you’re scrounging around the cupboards, you hear a loud crash and the sound of broken glass coming from up front, near the door.

Sean: Frak! I look for someplace where I can hide and see what’s going on.

GM: Okay, roll your Alertness + Covert. Sean rolls the dice for a total of 11. The GM rolls Alertness + Perception for the Cylon Centurion who is entering the front door. The Cylon gets an 8.

GM: You are pressed up against the wall. From here, you can see tall shadows moving in through the door. You hear heavy footsteps.

Sean: I pull out my pistol, trying to stay as quiet and stealthy as possible. Any way I can get a better view from my vantage point?

GM: You look around and see a stainless steel dishwarmer off to one side. In its reflection you can make at two Cylon Centurions. They slowly walk around the room.

Sean: I remain quiet and perfectly still in my hiding place. Maybe they’ll go away.

GM: They continue to look around the room, but something’s up. The Centurion closest to you readies its arm-mounted rifle, though neither of them are looking your way. The Game Master rolls again for the Cylon’s chance to spot Helo, and again the Centurion fails.

GM: You smell something baking.

Sean: Uh oh. Is breakfast still toasting?

GM: Yes, and it looks ready to pop up.

Sean: How far away is the toaster?

GM: Do you mean the Cylon, or—

Sean: The one holding my breakfast!

GM: It’s about fifteen feet away. The first Cylon Centurion is only a few feet away, partially separated from you by a frosted glass wall.

Sean: I make sure the safety is off of my gun.

GM: Sure enough, the pastries pop up, and the sound alerts the Cylons. Both Centurions spin toward the source of the sound. At the same moment, Sharon walks through the door from the stairs.They turn away from you, focus on her.

Sean: I fire at the closest toaster—er, Cylon! I yell for Sharon to run!

GM: Since the Cylons were not aware of you, you have the Initiative and can go ahead and roll the attack: Agility + Guns. Sean rolls, scoring a 17. Shouting a short phrase does not count as an action in combat.

Sean: Good roll! Did I hit? The GM determines that the Cylon was standing still, facing Sharon. As an Easy target, the Cylon’s defense was 3. He calculates base damage as 14. He also adds 3 more points for the weapon damage of the pistol—a total of 17!

GM: Your armor-piercing rounds hit. The first shell tears through the back of the Cylon’s head, and the second goes through its torso. The Centurion looks as if it’s about to drop. Now we have to take a look at Initiative. The GM checks everyone’s Initiative ratings. The surviving Cylon Centurion goes first, then Sharon, then Helo. Checking the Cylon’s game information, the GM rolls an attack on Helo. The result is a 9.

GM: The remaining Cylon shoves its way past its comrade and begins firing at you in a wide arc. Sharon stumbles to get out of the line of fire. Are you going to be attacking this turn or defending?

Sean: These things have automatic weapons. I’m dodging, and I’m going to dive for cover when my action comes up.

GM: Roll Agility + Dodge.

Sean: I’m spending two Plot Points on my dodge action! Sean rolls the Attribute and Skill dice, and adds a d4 for the Plot Points. All together, he rolls an 11.

GM: You barely dive out of the way as bullets tear the room to shreds. You duck behind the bar, even as light fixtures and other debris fall down on you from the ceiling.

(For the record, I do think that MWP has some of the best Examples of Play since old Victory Games and their James Bond 007 game. Go to this link and read the two-column example of play starting on page 12 of the pdf which has a classic set of scenes from Goldfinger and an in-game version side-by-side.)

I for one welcome the narrative approach to gaming. I dare say that narrative RPG play is gaining popularity and will get a huge shot-in-the-arm when Fantasy Flight Games releases the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook in the second quarter of 2013. This narrative surge is in stark contrast to what Wizards of the Coast (WotC) appears to be trying to do by releasing Dungeons & Dragon classics. Although I have no personal interest in DnD 5e, it will be interesting to see just how many narrative elements WotC does – or does not – bring into their new edition.