Lost in the Role – or – Why so Little RPG Talk?

If you look back on my blog, you will see that up until this year I had a heavy focus on roleplaying games, especially science-fiction RPGs. This year I have turned hard into boardgames with a mix of tabletop family games and wargames landing on the table. RPGs have definitely fallen off to the side.

I recently took a look at DriveThruRPGs Black Friday to Cyber Monday Sale and made a few purchases, but at the same time I asked myself why I lost my RPG mojo. Last year I really tried to like Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius Entertainment. I participated in part of the Living Playtest and offered (few, very few) comments. In the end, instead of liking Star Trek Adventures, I was turned off to RPGs and only now am (sorta) giving them a chance again.

I have talked elsewhere about the art in Star Trek Adventures and how I find it totally opposite what I imagine. I also talked about how the now-decanonized Klingons Sourcebook for the FASA Star Trek RPG was more inspirational. But the part that turned me off the most was this:

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Courtesy Modiphius Entertainment

This is the Star Trek Adventures Borg Cube Collector’s Edition Box Set. To me, this is not an RPG.

I cannot fully explain why I have such a visceral reaction to this offering. I understand that I don’t need the extra maps, and dice, and miniatures, and tokens, and other baubles to play an RPG. I know that all you need to play is a simple set of rules and imagination. I know because that is what I did with Classic Traveller for many years.

I think when I saw Star Trek Adventures I saw the continuation of a trend towards bigger RPG rulebooks and more IP-related gaming. To a point I had bought into that market with Serenity and Battlestar Galactica and Traveller 5 and Mindjammer and Atomic Robo and Firefly and Star Wars Roleplaying Game finding cherished places on my shelf.

But then something changed.

The first was that Mongoose Publishing brought out Traveller Second Edition and repackaged it in a way that makes it totally a price grab. This was just after they changed the rules for third-party publishers and stifled creativity (no…that’s not fair…they monetized it in an unfair manner). This was followed not long after by Star Trek Adventures and the Borg Cube trying to assimilate my wallet.

I rejected them…and walked away from the RPG hobby for a bit.

I am slowly finding my way back, thanks to small publishers like Gypsy Knights Games and Zozer Games and Stellagama Publishing. For a while that’s where I think I am going to stay for RPGs, on the smaller side of the spectrum with publishers who offer material that stimulate my creativity in a more rules-lite, non-restrictive campaign setting.

220791-thumb140I have found my RPG mojo…it never left and it is actually little changed from the late 1970’s. It just doesn’t need a large box and multiple rulebooks and maps and tokens and minis and hardcover expansions. It needs nothing more than the PWYW Cepheus Engine and a setting like The Clement Sector. What I need is like what Zozer Games is offering; the very simple 1970s 2d6 Retro Rules. With these simple tools I can make grand adventures; I don’t need a huge Kickstarter box or endless hardcovers or miniatures or tokens to do have fun.

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#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG do you enjoy using as is?

#RPGaDay August 16, 2017

pic536195_tI have a few candidates here; Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Mindjammer (FATE Core 2nd Edition), Diaspora, and FFG Star Wars. There are two (mostly) common threads amongst all those games. They all use a more narrative game mechanic and they are (mostly) all licensed IP.

Of the two, the narrative game mechanics (Cortex, FATE 3.0 or FATE Core, FFG Narrative Dice) means the games easily focus on story (adventure?) with world-building details coming in a less-structured manner. 20120423b

Although many of these games use licensed IPs, don’t think that by using these “as is” I am a canon-rigid thinker. I enjoy using the game systems “as is”, but the world-building details and adventures are definitely NOT limited by canon.

#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

#RPGThursday – Passing on Mindjammer Traveller

If you look at this blog, it should be apparent that the Traveller RPG is one of my favorite game systems. It should also be apparent that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Mongoose Publishing. Unfortunately, they are the current banner-carriers of the Traveller RPG system in the form of their Traveller Core Rulebook for Mongoose Traveller Second Edition.

To be clear, I don’t like it. Basically, I don’t see it as any real improvement over the original version and, when coupled with a more restrictive license that limits – even harms – third-party publishers, I am loathe to support it.

I also own Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game (Second Edition) by Modiphius/Mindjammer Press. Mindjammer 2E uses the FATE Core rules. I am not a real fan of Transhuman adventure but I saw much good press about the game and tried it. I even liked it.

pic3340140_mdThis month, Modiphius released Mindjammer: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space using the Mongoose Traveller 2E rules. So I was challenged; I like Mindjammer but dislike Mongoose. What do I do? Do I invest in the Mindjammer: Traveller Edition for $22.49 (pdf) or not?

So I picked up the Dominion Quickstart for Mindjammer Traveller from DriveThruRPG. This is a free 48 page intro game with a few pages of rules changes from Mongoose Traveller 2E and then an adventure.

What I found was very few rules changes from Mongoose Traveller 2E and a lot of background. Background I already have in the FATE Core Mindjammer version. After careful consideration, I concluded that there is not enough new or attractive in the Mongoose Traveller 2E version of Mindjammer to purchase it.

So I’ll pass, and pause to ponder. Why do I find Mindjammer Traveller unattractive? It is the rules or setting? In this case, I don’t see a good marriage of rules to setting here. Maybe my experience with the FATE Mindjammer version has biased me, but I just don’t  feel the Mindjammer setting is best served by the Mongoose Traveller 2E rules. Indeed, I feel the story-telling or narrative basis of FATE is much better for Transhuman Adventure than the very mechanical Traveller engine. The possible results are much more wondrous – like a Transhuman setting should be.

Furthermore, I realize that my unbounded desire for anything Traveller has ended. These days, I appreciate a bounty of different RPG systems from the Cepheus Engine to Traveller 5 to FFG Star Wars to FATE games like Mindjammer or Atomic Robo to CORTEX Plus games like Firefly. Each of these games captures or compliments a setting in unique and positive ways – Mindjammer Traveller just doesn’t give me that same feeling.

 

#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.

#Mindjammer RPG – Winning My Heart and Mind

I have been playing around with Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game for a few months now. Mechanics-wise I am fairly comfortable with it given it is based on the FATE Core engine. However, setting-wise, I have a few problems.

First off, I am not a big fan of transhumanism sci-fi adventure in my RPG’s. Maybe I am a bit too old-fashioned and love my classic space pulp and space opera a bit too much. That’s what I get for growing up with the Classic Traveller RPG! That said, I do like my Battlestar Galactica RPG….

In my first few readings of the Mindjammer setting, I was put off by the Commonality. In the core rulebook the Commonality comes across as a unified, monolithic polity with common agenda and goals. The primary goal seems to be to reintegrate rediscovered worlds regardless of if they want to or not. This made mw think that my Mindjammer characters were going to always be the outsiders because I fancy myself more of a Browncoat than an Alliance “purple belly.”

I was very happy when I read the first Mindjammer adventure, Hearts and Minds. Besides being a great adventure that helps one understand the game better, it also introduces factions  of the Commonality (see p. 35-37). All told there are six factions mentioned, with two major ones defined as either a Major Organisation or a Supporting Organisation. After reading this part of the adventure I am much more comfortable with the setting. Yes, I understand that I could of done this on my own (after all, its MY game) but I appreciate when a setting is flexible enough to accommodate my style or trope of play.

#TravellerRPG Boon & Bane (MgT 2nd Edition)

One of the major rules changes in the new Mongoose Traveller Second Edition (MgT2.0) Core Rulebook is called “Boon and Bane.” As the Core Rulebook states:

“…there will likely be situations that arise that will make things either easier or harder for the Travellers. This is where Boons and Banes come in.” (Core Rulebook, p. 59)

When a Boon is invoked, the player will roll 3d6 and keep the two best die. Bane calls for a roll of 3d6 keeping the low two dice. To see the impact on the chances of success/failure, I recommend you look at Traveller GM and 2nd Edition playtester Shawn Driscoll’s video which graphically lays it all out.

Back in September, I was already confused about the Boon/Bane mechanic. As I wrote then:

I’m sorry – I just don’t get how task difficulty and Boon/Bane work together. Nor do I see a clear difference between task difficulty and exterior factors. Don’t get me wrong; I like the intent of the Boon/Bane mechanic (the 3D6 High/Low 2D roll makes for interesting odds and results) but the RAW are unclear as to when, or even how, Boon/Bane is applied. I would like to think it’s a narrative (role-playing) tool for the players and referee. Regrettably, the rules are silent on that issue.

As the Beta playtest continued, the use of Boon/Bane was reduced and in many cases replaced by a simple die modifier (DM). In this final version, the usage is greatly reduced compared to the early Beta. However, the rule remains. Looking at the few places Boon/Bane is used, it is finally making a bit more sense to me – but only if I make the jump in understanding that MgT2.0 is a more “narrative RPG” than I previously thought.

The eureka moment for me finally came after I read Chapter Three: Combat, Leadership (p. 72). In combat, a Traveller can make a Leadership check. The Effect of the check (if positive) is the number of Boons the leader can give to any skill checks on the same side. Conversely, if the Effect is negative, the opposing side gets that many Banes available to influence skill checks. In the FATE system, this would be called an Aspect:

“Aspects are short phrases or sentences which describe something important about your character, object or situation. You can use an aspect to gain a mechanical or narrative advantage during play….Mindjammer uses several types of aspects: game aspects, character aspects, cultural aspects, situation aspects, consequences, flaws, and boosts.” (Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game p. 67)

I think that Boon/Bane are trying to be the MgT2.0 version of FATE aspects. The first problem is that the MgT2.0 Core Rulebook is very weak on when a Boon/Bane is applied. The closest one gets is the sidebar in Chapter Two: Skills and Tasks on p. 61:

“In the vast majority of cases, a referee simply need set a Task Difficulty and then decide whether a Boon or Bane need be applied. Any necessary Dice Modifiers will be suggested by the rules.”

In FATE Accelerated (FAE), the simplified version of FATE which I often reference to understand the core mechanic, one can invoke an aspect to give themselves a bonus (Boon?) or make things harder for their opponents (Bane?). Players can also compel an aspect; use it against themselves or others making life more complicated (Bane?) (Fate Accelerated (FAE), p. 27-29). The major difference here is the use of Fate Points. While the FATE system uses Fate Points, a similar game mechanic can be found in Savage Worlds (Bennies), or Cortex Plus (Plot Points). The lack of a similar mechanic – the Fate Point/Bennies/Plot Point economy – in Traveller is the second problem with the Boon/Bane mechanic. Without a Fate Point or similar economy, too much power potentially ends up in the referees hand.

I am now more comfortable with the Boon/Bane mechanic in MgT2.0.It will be interesting to see how it works in play, but at least now i have a better understanding, and acceptance, of the intent and usage.