Tuesday, January 31, 2017

History of Universal RPGs (Part Five 2008-2009)

Usually I do something light or vaguely insightful for these headers. That’s a little harder right now. I grew up in the 1970s terrified of being blown up by nuclear weapons. My father taught International Relations. He had maps on his office wall showing exactly how far a blast would reach if it hit a major city like Washington or Chicago. I remember when The Day After TV show came on, showing the aftermath of an attack. And then hearing my dad’s colleagues talk about how it’d be much, much worse. So yeah, nightmares.

Gaming was an escape- a way to make worlds and have control of them. I loved the idea that they could overlap- that characters could pass from one to another. I dug stories like Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld & World of Tiers series, Dr. Who’s multiple genre jaunts, Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and the concept of the Eternal Champion, Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Worlds could get effed up or be awful, but you could go elsewhere. I loved that fantasy conceit. There’s an appeal to that in universal games. It isn’t a big pull, but it’s there. The concept that stories and characters can move from one world to another. That’s not a profound thought, but it’s what I’ve got.

Normally I point to my Patreon supporting these lists. Instead I want to point to Kate Bullock’s work. She writes on games, feminism, representation, and a host of other issues at Bluestocking's Organic Gaming Blog. Every few months her work gets spotted and she’s subjected to harassment. Yesterday she woke up to rape threats as her work popped up again in the view of some assholes. WTF. I back her Patreon-- check it out and support her.

I only include core books here. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. This is a fertile time for Universal rpgs; the rate of publication drops off after this. If you spot something Universal which came out from 1994 to 1997, leave a note in the comments. 

Willow Palecek’s development of Fate 3.0. According to RPGGeek, a printed version landed in '08, and it was made available on Lulu later. Awesome Adventures cuts out stunts, taking a different path from Evil Hat's later Fate Core. At root, Awesome Adventures slims down Spirit of the Century. That's a good thing-- SotC gave me my first look at Fate and I didn't get it. I couldn't put together how it actually played. I had to read a couple of other Fate iterations to see it. When I went back to SotC I could see the game without the characters and setting submerging it. Palecek appeared on the Master Plan podcast to discuss her design choices. It's worth listening to if you're curious about this adaptation.

BRP has been the silent workhorse of universal systems. Sure Chaosium churned out a host of fringe games built on it (Ringworld, Elfquest, Hawkmoon). But more importantly it became the backbone of a host of hacks, especially outside the US. When I spot a game from Europe, there's a decent chance it will explicitly or implicitly be built on Basic Roleplaying. Before d20, many gamers took those concepts-- Stats, Percentile Skills, and whichever ornamentation they liked-- and made them their own.

This version of BRP offered the largest collection of material yet. It finally made the mechanics into a stand-alone product, a peer to GURPS, Savage Worlds, and HERO. Far from the original 16-page pamphlet, this one comes in at about 400 pages. That's presented in the usual dense Chaosium layout, so there’s a lot here. BRP goes straight for the generic, rather than setting up toolboxes or modules for the GM. I hadn't realized how much having most of the skills printed on the character sheet, rather than writing them in, affects the feel of a game. We used GURPS and HERO standard sheets for a variety of settings because we wrote in all the genre-specific info. These BRP sheets require players to ignore or mark-out non-relevant skills (Psychotherapy, Heavy Machine). GMs could probably build their own sheets but this default’s an interesting choice on the designers' part.

Building characters follows the same "lump it all together" approach. There's a list of professions, not broken out by genre, time, or tech level. Instead they aim to be generic...sort of. It includes things like Computer Tech, Cowboy, and Wizard. The skill system follows this kitchen-sink style. The character sheets include many lines for additional or optional skills. I expected we might see some of those in the book, but instead it suggests GMs can create those as needed.

Chaosium classifies all weird abilities as Powers: Magic, Mutations, Psychics, Sorcery, and Super-Powers. Magic feels like the usual BRP system: spells have individual skill levels, they're generic, high success can modify effect, and otherwise they're pretty set. The other approach to magic, Sorcery, doesn't require a casting check, but instead is based on a resistance roll vs. target. It offers a more flexible approach. Mutations are set abilities that do things in the fiction (like flying, enhanced senses). The section includes adverse mutations. Super-Powers, on the other hand, are enhanced skills. They're built with point-buy system that isn't Hero or M&M level complex, but does have some crunch. The psychic powers work like super-powers, but they're more limited and specific.

As you'd imagine with this many modules, character creation takes up the first 40% of the book. Combat, resolution, etc follows. It's worth noting that the "Spot" rules for unusual situations (acid, light sources, volley fire) take up two dozen pages. Equipment comes in at about 40 pages. The last quarter plus of the book covers gamemastering: generic advice plus some options. For example it presents a version of Pendragon's personality trait system. The chapter on Setting lists different genres and gives a quick list of suggested character types and optional rules. Then we oddly get Sanity rules. BRP closes with a pretty huge Creatures section, followed by the appendices (including conversion notes).

Overall BRP offers what BRP enthusiasts asked for: a big collection of rules. It set the look for the line; for better or worse. It looks like a Chaosium game from the period: from the layout you know who published it. Unfortunately that also means you get the usual weak art. The company supported the line with lots of modules, setting books, and source material. A few third-party publishers followed suit. A couple years later they began to vary the book design, making them more interesting and inviting. Compare the earlier BRP covers to something like Chronicles of Future Earth or Devil's "butt-shot" Gulch. Eventually Chaosium would do some spin off approaches. Magic World, for example, offers a self-contained version of BRP for fantasy, a step back from universal mechanics.

I'm a terrible gamer. Some systems absolutely escape me. Others I could pick up and play immediately even if I hadn't seen them in decades. I last ran GURPS in '05, but if I had the skill cost & ST damage charts, I could throw down a session right now. It's not a great talent; I'm sure most gamers could. But my talent for not grokking some games is probably rarer.

Cortex for example. I'm not saying it is a bad game. But there's something about the approach that loses me. I played Marvel Heroic and dug it. In that moment, with the GM helping, I got the system. But the second I went away from the table I lost it. I read MH a couple of weeks after and became completely lost. I've tried to read Smallville, Leverage, The Cortex Hackers Guide...each has stumped me. Feel free to laugh. I'm also unable to snap my fingers.

Stand-alone Cortex arrived in pdf in '08, with a printed edition a year later. This version has come to be called Cortex Classic. It's the backbone of Battlestar Galactica, Demon Hunters, Serenity, Sovereign Stone, and Supernatural. A later version, Cortex Plus, would supersede this.

Cortex generally works with multiple dice pulled together into a roll. Traits, details, attributes, etc have different die type ratings. Based on what you pick to do your action, you combine those dice. That allows the system to abstract many elements. Die pool creation's a key factor of the play. You set your fiction and illustrate it through those choices. It’s simple, so I don’t know why it eludes me.

This appeared in pdf form in '08, with a printed one available a year later. That's a weird common theme for products on this list. While there'd been earlier editions, genreDiversion i, this is the first with a printed edition (AFAIK). Characters have a simple set of stats (pursuits) plus abilities. They roll 2d6 plus those values versus a target number. You can go random or pick to build your character. While genreDiversions has some samples and examples, it aims for a thin system easily adapted on the fly. The core book includes sub-systems for things like chases, as well as an example setting-- Unbidden & Forsaken-- for modern horror. Precis Intermedia also included conversions for their many other systems: genreDiversion i, Iron Gauntlets, Story Engine Classic, and Active Exploits Diceless Roleplaying. The company supported it with a supers sourcebook but little else.

So here's a problem I've mentioned a couple of times on these lists: how far down do I dig? My general rule has been to only include products with a physical release. I make exceptions for large or influential pdf-only releases, but I try to list those sparingly. So what about Lulu-only print books? Or, as in the case of Karma, a Createspace release via Amazon. I'm going to include those, at least here because I think they're an interesting development. It's anecdotal, but I've seen more Universal PoD-release games than in any other genre.

Karma has an interesting design philosophy, "The Karma rules system sprang from one truism in gaming: gamers house rule everything. That is because even the most thought out rules system cannot account for every conceivable scenario. Nor can it account from the wealth of backgrounds and knowledge gamers bring with them to the table...So Karma is designed not as a firm set of rules, but as a framework to build a game around. The Karma core rules book is less a set of rules than it is a guide. Take the game mechanics, and then customize it based on what you need for your own game."

It offers a simple system. Roll d20 + relevant modifiers vs. task number. Modifiers include attributes and abilities. Specialties affect critical failures. I spotted a couple of interesting details in the Karma Quick Guide. It splits development between experience points and training points. That reminds me of older hour-based systems (GURPS, Daredevils) but with more flexiblity. Karma also includes a simple system for spell building. I assume those mechanics can be adapted for other powers.

6. Paradox (2008)
Google-fu failure. Paradox is from Manic Fiddler, "...a publisher of roleplaying games based in central New Jersey." It appears to be a class-based system using multiple die types. The character sheet's dense and kind of bland. For the rest, I have to turn to the publisher blurb:
  • "rules for time and interdimensional travel
  • guidelines to create characters from 5 classes and 12 subclasses
  • character level information from levels 1-20
  • historical maps
  • fantasy setting, including maps, history and descriptions of cultures and creatures
  • accomodates modern, future, medieval, western, GrecoRoman, military, fantasy and other genres without having to reroll characters or end a campaign
  • three prewritten adventures that can be modified for a variety of character levels."

It's that sixth point that sticks with me. Is this a game about moving characters between game genres? They mention interdimensional travel...I wonder. Anyway you can check out the publisher's web-page here.

7. Saga Machine (2008)
Saga Machine came out from Tab Creations and then vanished. It seems to have been removed from sale and I haven't yet found any reviews. The publishers eliminated that and instead rolled it over into other, more specific games. In particular the "Saga Machine" engine powers Against the Dark Yogi and Shadows Over Sol. According to the website:
"At its heart, Saga Machine consists of eight basic stats and two central mechanics, appropriately called the action mechanic and the consequence mechanic.From there, the core is supported by numerous subsystems, each tailored to the specific genre and themes of the game in question. For example, Shadows Over Sol comes with both engineering and hacking system, as befits as science fiction game, while Against the Dark Yogi has a system for channeling cosmic energies."
Saga Machine uses a deck of cards as a randomizer. Draw a card from the central deck. Add its value to your relevant stat+skill. Actions have an associated suit and you can "trump" with a test. Simple, but in Shadows Over Sol, at least, that's bolted to a mid-weight complexity chassis. Action Points in combat rounds, multiple kinds of consequences, skill "specialty" tracking, and various other sub-systems. I'd put it in the same category as fully-kitted Savage Worlds. I'm assuming most of that holds true for the now forgotten Saga Machine universal system.

8. Solar System (2008)
Finnish designer Euro Tuovinen’s universal adaptation of The Shadow of Yesterday. The designer has a nice statement of intent at his website, in particular his usual distaste for universal systems. There's a printed version available, but you can also find a Creative Commons HTML version here . Solar System uses Fudge dice for resolution. It offers a fluid collaborative approach to creating the setting. Characters have Abilities (backgrounds, skills) associated with a pool. They may also have secrets (special tricks and powers). Most importantly they have keys- details and behaviors the characters need to hit to advance. Overall Solar System takes an interesting approach, including calling out "crunch" as a thing in the rules. Worth checking out.

Another vanished game from the same company that brought you Saga Machine mentioned above. It also uses card-based resolution. Maybe one's a derivation of the other? This product had significantly fewer pages (64 vs. SM's 256). Also Tab-System Classic came out of a fantasy rpg, 
"In 2000 the 'Swords & Arrows Role-Playing Game Core Rules’ were completed, as well as a novel-length story set in Trystell, The Aggression of Licad. The edition of the rules and setting survived as the authority on the topic until 2002, when an attempt to make a second edition was started—and even a full campaign ran in the developmental version of the second edition rules—but ultimately the attempt at a second edition was aborted in favor of a full conversion of the Trystell setting to the d20 System.""From there development moved away from the rules that would become Tab-System Classic. A d20 version of Trystell was completed in early 2005, followed by a revised d20 version in late 2006. But the earlier system did not die. It was kept alive, revised and revived in mid-2007.""And here it is: ready to play. This edition of the rules has been made setting neutral at its core, so that it might be used to power the many house settings that have been developed over the years."
Is it generic? RPGGeek and RPGNet list it that way. There's little info available elsewhere.

10. Wordplay (2008)
In Wordplay, you define characters via Traits-- words or phrases. These have a value from 1 to 12 with higher being better. Each trait can be associated with Body, Mind, or Soul. After a starting concept, players set goals for their characters. Players gain or lose dice depending on whether they're working towards their goal or against it. Failing a goal can also cause Doubt, a negative condition. Players may generate their traits in a number of ways. It's a process similar to HeroQuest (see below). You could make a simple list or write a story and pick out elements. Supernatural powers have their own mechanics, but generally operate by the same trait system.

Wordplay characters end up with a lot of traits on their sheets. The sample one has 33 numbered traits, plus Concept, Age, Goals, and a pre-play story. For resolution players roll a number of d6's, looking for X number of successes. That's always determined by an opposed roll-- either from an active opposition's traits or a set difficulty for a passive one. Players build this pool by choosing a "Foundation Trait" which shows the basis of their attempt. If you don't have a trait that quite fits, it increases the difficulty. Then you build on this with other traits: supporting ones from your own set, help from allies, pushes from goals, use of equipment, etc. Flaws and damage can also add dice to the difficulty. Success is 4+ on each d6, with a 6 counting as two successes. Beat the opposition’s roll to win.

The system's heavily narrative and fairly simple. It takes a fully generic approach to Universal gaming. By that I mean there’s no approach to sub-systems. Everything can be handled via this resolution system. It doesn’t require further articulation.

It's another new edition of this classic crunchy system, but one which made major changes. The shift from HERO System 4th to 5th lost a number of players- myself included. Still many found the changes necessary and not overly elaborate. They went with the 5e BBB that could literally stop a bullet. Seriously- look it up.

In 2009, Hero Games again moved the game engine forward, this time with fairly drastic revisions. These aimed at simplification and consistency: attack and defense split from characteristics, elimination of secondary characteristics, improved disads (now called complications), reduced stun multiple for killing attacks, heroic action points, and a host of others. Champions grognards will understand and appreciate the scope of that. HERO remains a chunky system, split into two volumes of 464 pages and 320 pages. Or you could go for the stripped down version which leaves out the bells and whistles at 138 pages.

HERO remains the definition of a "Mathy." My wife could handle the math; it was the level of work and the deep advantage for system mastery that bugged her. This edition produced fewer "niche" rpg settings and sourcebooks (like Lucha Libre Hero or Pulp Hero). Instead we got just the usual suspects: Champions, Fantasy Hero, and Star Hero. The company's output has slowed and we've gotten fewer supplements offering new bolt-ons for the core universal system. More development in recent years has come from third-party publishers.

12. HeroQuest (2009)
Woot! A game I've reviewed before; that makes things easier. HeroQuest 2e is a generic engine for running narrative-centered games, primarily written by Robin Laws. You ought to know going in that HQ2 structures itself in nearly all senses around the way stories are presented. It builds from literary forms and conceits. Laws makes a forthright case for considering the needs of the story as shaping the rules and the play. That can be a turn-off for some players, a point Laws actually addresses in the GM section.

For only a 130 pages, HeroQuest packs in a lot of ideas, material and more importantly tools for building the kind of campaign you want. The introduction begins by setting up the core idea that HQ2 will be starting from: in dealing with challenges and conflicts, the difficulty depends on the story. Or as Laws states it for the GM- "Pick a resistance, then justify it." He compares it to standard games where to calculate the difficulty of an action you analyze the physical factors, determine range, figure wind speed, and come to a target number (or whatever works in the system). This might be a little Straw Man-y these days, but it wasn’t always so.

Any character is defined by the abilities they possess-- there are no stats or other factors (like wounds or willpower). It’s a little like Wordplay. Abilities can be anything-- and options are provided for the GM to set them more or less loosely. Depending on what the GM wants the player might write out a block of description and then pick out from there, make up a list, or even come up with them on the fly. The player then assigns ratings to these abilities.

Players' ability ratings have a number with points to spread around. When an ability hits 21, it shifts and the character gains a “mastery.” Characters roll a d20 against their abilities when presented with a challenge. If one side has more masteries in the relevant ability than the other, they may bump up their result by one level (i.e. failure to success, success to critical success). They can also spend a hero point to bump up results after rolling. The GM compares the results and determines the level of victory for one side or the other (tie, marginal, minor, major, or complete) and narrates the results based on this.

Contests can be simple or extended and everything's done this way. This is important in that you can be "killed" or effectively removed from action on any of these fields of conflict. In a simple contest, the loser fails and also suffers a penalty to their relevant ability. Those consequences can be even more severe in an extended contest. For example if it was an economic one, the loser might expend resources or have their control shaken. Most of the rules elaborate these simple mechanics-- exploring the various permutations (like group simple contests, options for representing support abstractly, parting shots, disengaging).

HeroQuest came out of Laws' original HQ1, based on Glorantha. The book provides details on how to circle this back to that setting. That offers a nice window on how you'd adapt this for fantasy world.

Short for Mental-Attack-Defense-Skill aka "...the four types of rolls that form the core mechanics of the MADS character conversion system." MADS offers a different universal approach. Rather than building within the game, you convert characters over to this system. Then they can play together and find a "good way to answer the question "Who really has the toughest character?"". If that's what you've been looking for in a game, then you're in luck. It reminds me a little of the Flailsnails set up, intended to allow various OSR gamers to play together online.

MADS rates characters with eight statistics: Strength, Agility, Endurance, Willpower, Intellect, Mysticism, Charisma, and Perception. Players look at the benchmarks from their original system, assuming they have them, and then make a judgement call. This gives you the final stat. If your original system didn't have ability scores, just roll a d10. Players follow similar procedures to determine how much damage they can take before dying. Then, based on levels or the general sense of competency, they assign an Experience class. This determines how many d6 they may distribute among the four basic tests. Rolls are further modified by values from the eight stats and skills. Skills, special abilities, spells. etc follow the same pattern of rough eyeballing.

It’s an interesting approach, but one that gives a lot of leeway for judgement and discards balance. Some groups will be cool with that. Most tests are rolling pools against another pool or a set difficulty. But there's also a bunch of add-on smaller mechanics which can complicate this (like Extra Damage Capacity). In other places, the game forgoes complexity—for example it says the GM should come up with a critical hit or miss system if they want to use one.

MADS has had several supplements and a revised version in 2011.

14. No Dice (2009)
As you might guess, this rpg gets rid of the dice. It replaces them, for the most part, with cards. Is that a cop-out, trading one randomizer for another? The designer says, 
"Let us just tell you, we love it when people come to play a sample game with us and say: "Well we wanted a different kind of RPG and when we saw yours was called 'No Dice' we just felt we had to try it!" Yeah, that's good.The slight disappointment that tends to follow when we hand out packs of cards we're less keen on..."
As someone who has been playing a card-driven rpg for a little shy of two decades, I feel for them. Cards offer interesting options- hand management (DragonStorm), additional information (Wrath of the Autarch), suit trumps (Saga Machine), strategic push-your-luck (Action Cards).

No Dice opens with a confession/plea/argument I've seen other rpgs. It wants role-playing to be about Story. Other games didn't provide that so the designers created this one, a game which tries to get the mechanics out of the way. How much of that kind of call is a marketing pitch and how much is the designers' sincere experience with other rpgs? It's odd that a game this recent still has to make these kinds of arguments. No Dice echoes them throughout; it creates an odd tone. The first 60 pages are just meta-discussions about rpg play.

Resolution takes two forms in No Dice's "Vanilla System." A 50/50 chance split or a task number. Players draw a card and compare that value to the task difficulty. Characters are made up of whatever stats and scores the group wants. Short version: make up everything. It’s all written as optional. I'm in favor of freedom, but it makes it difficult to track what we're supposed to take away. I've heard people call Story Games loosey-goosey (and worse). This may be the kind of thing they're talking about.

About half the book's taken up with various scenarios. Here's where we actually get some mechanics. These showcase different combinations and approaches based on the setting. It's weird. All the rest of the book could have probably been cut down to just a few pages by removing the philosophy and explanation of role-play. When you actually get to the scenarios, you get everything you need. It's more a collection of variant systems, each using cards. Those have some interesting ideas, but they're buried in this 250 page book.

You can see the publisher's website here, though it hasn't been updated since 2012. They clearly had some supporting projects in the works. If you're interested you can download a free copy of the core book from there.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Both Guns Blazing: Playing Feng Shui 2 (Part Two: Everything Else)

This is the second part of my consideration of Feng Shui 2. Part one here.

I ran Feng Shui 2 online with Google Hangouts and Dice Stream. Since I didn’t need maps, I skipped Roll20. However Dice Stream wasn’t a perfect solution. Since you can’t color code the dice for positive & negative, we split that between the first and second die rolled. This worked OK until a die exploded, then you had to do some more visual tracking and math.

On my side of the screen I used the Sylvan Master app for Feng Shui 2 ($3-4 iirc). It’s pretty amazing with a complete collection of the archetypes, automated shot clock, die roller, and built in modules for several adventures, including the one at the back of the core book. I pulled that up, dropped in the characters, and chose the fights. It calculated the opposition automatically.

In theory that ought to be awesome. In practice it felt clunky. For one thing, Sylvan Master’s Apple app, so I had to run it on my hand-me-down iPad. It worked well, but that meant players couldn’t see the initiative tracker. That interfered with their sense of enemy numbers and hid the turn order. In turn that meant they couldn’t make choices based on that and weren’t sure how long it’d be in real time before they acted again.

That’s an execution issue on my part. But while Sylvan Master’s an amazing app, it has a couple of minor issues. Once I set up the PC group, I couldn’t find an easy or obvious way to remove someone. We lost a player between session one and two. Since the opposition’s keyed to the number of PCs, the fight became more deadly. About halfway through, I finally spotted how to drag characters down to the dead pool, listing them as KO’d. I ended up rebuilding the party between fights to eliminate the excess PC. Sylvan Master also lacks an undo function in certain places, particularly after resolving an attack. If I screwed something up, I couldn’t find an easy way to step back and fix it. My fat fingers got targets wrong, missed bonuses, and entered incorrect numbers. That snowballed quickly and I couldn’t rely on the values in the app after a few goof-ups on my part.

As I mentioned in the last post, if I ran it again online, I would use Roll20. There’s a custom Feng Shui set up for it. It doesn’t have Sylvan Master’s built-in archetypes or automaton. But it has character sheets to enter those in. You could have an image of the shot clock, with tokens for characters. Plus you could more easily display additional images. Most importantly, it has a built-in FS2 die roller.

That being said, I’d probably try running Feng Shui 2 again f2f first. There’s a certain delay you get running online that probably hurts Feng Shui’s momentum. You’d have the tactile benefit of actual dice, making explosions more interesting. It does have a double-edged sword with the Shot Clock. If you have a flat clock with tokens on it, those tokens have to be large enough to read at a distance. The whole thing has to be visible and within arm’s reach of the GM. On the other hand, you could have an upright clock. That’s the solution I used with Scion’s Battle Wheel: a steel sheet with magnetic tokens. But it still didn’t work great. If I stood it up facing the players, I had to reach around or turn it to change things. If I held it up from time to time, that got intrusive and meant players didn’t always see it. This would all be easier with Augmented Reality…

A few short comments…
  • Great presentation of the theme via the archetypes. Those do an amazing job of telling us what the game could feel like. The best games manage to do this. Wonderfully laid out.
  • When I ran, I had a really tough time finding rules. There’s some mechanics at the start, then a resolution section after the character examples, then a combat section. They’re all short and tight, but don’t do a great job of flagging key in-game mechanics. I’m sure with time I’d get used to where to find things. But even on a second and third reading after the game, I had a hard time cross-checking.
  • I like the conceptual setting: a reality war between factions that can move across various timelines and realities. I’ve borrowed heavily from that for my OCI game. Feng Shui can span many different genres. The factions in that war feel distinct and interesting.
  • That being said they removed one of my favorite elements from the previous edition—The Architects, flesh-shapers from a terrible future. They replaced them with one of my least favorite elements, The Jammers, anarchist cyber-apes. I’ve done the “Ape Enemy” bit in other games; it feels a little tired. But some people like that. I’ve never dug Planet of the Apes et al.
  • Feng Shui has player choose a melodramatic hook at the start. This is more focused than an aspect, disad, or even background notes. It really helps players get into the genre and their character. I also like the explicit discussion of “Buy In.” I hadn’t seen it framed quite this way. Essentially you present the starting incident/location and the players need to say why they’re interested, why they would help. This gives the players freedom to connect play to their head canon. At the same time it is prescriptive: you’re in on this. Given the tone of the game, it fits.
  • As I mentioned in my last post, there’s an asymmetry to the mechanics. Things operate one way, until there’s this exception (exploding v. non-exploding; declare before here, after here). So we’ve got what appears on the surface to be a mechanically simple system. But there’s enough switches that it takes some time to get used to. I’m sure after a few sessions you’d get it under your belt. But you have to overcome that first learning hurdle, like an Umberto Eco novel.
  • The companion book to Feng Shui 2, Blowing Up the Movies, is great. An awesome otherwise of thematic films.
  • The sheer number of setting options can make everything feel a little diluted.

If we broadly define Feng Shui 2 as a “Hong Kong-Style Action Game across Multiple Genres,” then I can only think of a few other available games covering the same ground. On the one hand we have Hong Kong Action Theater. The second edition uses Tri-Stat. I don’t know it, having only looked at the wuxia supplement, Blue Dragon, White Tiger. On the other hand, there’s Action Movie World, a game which embraces the action movie meta-conceit (you’re playing actors playing characters in an action movie).

Outside of that your options get smaller. We have a number of Wuxia games, focusing just on classical rather than contemporary Asia: Dragon Lines, Qin, Dragon Pool, Legends of Wulin, Qin, etc). I’ve even tried my hand at a less than successful hack for this genre. Our other option would be generic: d20 Modern, HERO, GURPS, BRP, Savage Worlds, Fate. Of those, I’d probably lean towards the last two. I’m not conversant enough with SW to tell if they’ve got a HKA-esque setting out there.

As far as hacking it? I’m still not sure. I’d usually go to one of two systems for that: PbtA or Fate/Action Cards. The former could be useful if I want play out the emotional and melodramatic elements of Hong Kong action films. So maybe focus on conditions and bonds? But I’d also want visceral combat. That may be a little more difficult to hit. Single test resolution would be too fast; a Hit Point-based approach would need to be balanced. Fate’s a good option. Tainted Dingo suggested using Jadepunk’s approach. That’s not a bad idea. There’s also Tianxia, but that has a strong setting baked in and might be hard to adapt. Finally Michael Barford suggested hacking Lady Blackbird and now I’ve got that in my head.

I’m rambling on about this because there’s so much to love in Feng Shui. It makes me happy as I read through it: fun, flashy, cool, explodey. But the mechanics felt rough. I suspect if I steeled myself and ran it for several sessions, it would smooth out. It’s less a question of the game and more about how I approach things at the tabletop.

It’s also interesting to put this in the context of older games getting new editions: Feng Shui 2, Unknown Armies, Kult, Chill. How do they maintain continuity with the old game, while embracing new approaches? If you change core elements like the Shot Clock, then it wouldn’t be Feng Shui. At least I imagine that might be the reaction. On the other hand you have a revised game like 7th Sea which heavily retools the base mechanics and even some of the crucial setting conceits. It’s managed to do that and succeed.

I’ll be curious which roads other re-makes take..

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Mutant City Lite Blues: Gumshoe Express

I’m planning what to run for TGIT Gauntlet Hangouts in April. I’m debating between Kuro and Tenra Bansho Zero on one hand; on the other I want to do a GUMSHOE game. As I’ve talked about, I dig that system but it hasn’t gone over with groups I’ve run for. I’ve noticed a few trends in responses to GUMSHOE. Some folks who haven’t played it criticize its approach to clues and the perceived “lack of challenge.” But those who have played and didn’t dig it often comment on the complexity of the “skill” lists and tracking required.

So I thought I’d try a slimmed down approach with one of my favorite settings, Mutant City Blues. It’s probably the GUMSHOE game which has gotten the least love and attention. In it you play members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit: super-powered cops for super-powered criminals. MCB has some great tech, including the Quade Diagram, which allows players to draw inferences from power-use evidence.

My approach requires a few changes, especially to investigative abilities. First, we cut down that list by at least half. I’m reducing each of the three categories to six abilities. Second, we use a variation on the Cthulhu Confidential mechanics. Each investigative category has a pool of points. Players make spends from a pool if they have any of the abilities listed. Ideally on the sheet, abilities they possess will be in bold and those they don’t will be greyed out. That way they can see the range, but know quickly which they have. Third, investigative powers will be associated with one of the categories and its pool of points. Fourth, we’ll reduce the number of investigation ability points to one-half or one-third.

On the non-investigative side we’ll trim the general ability list a little. We’ll move Health and Stability values to a different place on the sheet. They should look a little more like “Hit Points” to make their break from the other abilities clear. I’ll also probably set that, except for special cases, the GM declares difficulty before players roll and spend for a general check. I may also say that if they just hit the difficulty, that’s a success with cost. Otherwise they get what they want. We’ll keep the default system which has a rating for each ability.

I’ll obviously have to go through the Powers to see if this screws any of those up. I’ll put translated and slimmed down versions of the powers on the PC’s sheets.

The default list of Investigative abilities in MCB is:
  • ACADEMIC: Anthropology, Archaeology, Architecture, Art History, Forensic Accounting, Forensic Psychology, History, Languages, Law, Natural History, Occult Studies, Research, Textual Analysis, Trivia
  • INTERPERSONAL: Bullshit Detector, Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Flattery, Flirting, Impersonate, Influence Detection, Interrogation, Intimidation, Negotiation, Reassurance, Streetwise
  • TECHNICAL: Anamorphology, Ballistics, Chemistry, Cryptography, Data Retrieval, Document Analysis, Electronic Surveillance, Energy Residue Analysis, Forensic Entomology, Evidence Collection, Explosive Devices, Forensic Anthropology, Fingerprinting, Photography.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Forensic Accounting
  • Human Analysis (Psychology, Textual Analysis, Anthropology)
  • Law
  • Research
  • Scholarship (Archaeology, Architecture, Art History, History, Natural History)
  • Trivia (including fringe things like Occult)

  • Bureaucracy
  • Cop (Cop Talk, Bullshit Detector)
  • Influence Detection
  • Intimidation (Interrogation, Intimidation)
  • Larceny (Impersonate, Streetwise)
  • Manipulation (Flattery, Flirting, Negotiation, Reassurance)

  • Anamorphology (inc. Energy Residue Analysis)
  • Autopsy
  • Crime Scene
  • Electronic Forensics (Cryptography, Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance, Photography)
  • Explosives
  • Physical Forensics (Ballistics, Chemistry, Forensic Entomology, Fingerprinting, Document Analysis)

General Abilities won’t change as much. The standard list has: Athletics, Driving, Filch, Health, Infiltration, Mechanics, Medic, Preparedness, Scuffling, Sense Trouble, Shooting, Stability, and Surveillance. If we pull Health & Stability out, we have 11 abilities. We might fold Sense Trouble & Surveillance into a perception-type abilities. I could pull the security tech elements out of Infiltration and fold them in with mechanics to make a “Technology” skill, though I’d need another name. The stealth elements from Infiltration and Surveillance could be added to Filch to make a general Thief or Sneak ability. That would get us: Athletics, Driving, Medic, “Perception,” Preparedness, Scuffling, Shooting, “Technology,” and ”Thief.” I’d need better names for those.

I may go into one of the GUMSHOE sheets on Roll20 to see if I can make a version which supports this.

Good? Bad? Indifferent? Am I reinventing the wheel?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Blam Blam Epigram: Playing Feng Shui 2 (Part One: System)

I backed the Feng Shui 2 Kickstarter-- full disclosure. Why? Well back in the day I dug Shadowfist but had already invested in too many CCGs. I skipped it despite the amazing backstory. Instead I flipped through other people’s cards to piece that together. So when Daedalus Entertainment’s full-color Feng Shui rpg arrived, I bought it immediately. Its reality war concept appeal to me. I also liked how Feng Shui used the archetypes to sell the setting. The game offered new approaches to combat. Laws’ discussion of mooks and set-piece fights changed my GMing.

But I never actually ran Feng Shui. We were too wrapped up in GURPS, Storyteller, and Champions. But FS stuck in my head. Cut forward to 2014 and a promised new edition. I backed for the hardcover and a few choice options. I wanted to see the original odd system married to a more modern game design approach. Feng Shui 2 was probably the Kickstarter game I burned hottest for. But somewhere between the time I backed it and I actually got a copy in the mail, my interest shifted. Now I wasn’t sure I could get a campaign out of Feng Shui. Our group’s devotion to long-play also meant f2f test drives weren’t a realistic option.

But running the Thursday night TGIT online series for The Gauntlet Hangouts has opened new options. I’ve been able to get my “boughten & unplayed” rpgs to the table. Spoiler: while it looks like I’m showcasing a wide assortment, I’m actually working through my backlog.

I’ve just finished up two sessions of Feng Shui 2, which I recorded. I ran from the scenario included in the core book: “Shadow of the Future of the Apes.” So there’s spoilers in there. If you like RPG Actual Play, you can check those out here (Session One & Session Two)

So Feng Shui 2.

It’s a good game. The book looks awesome; it’s well laid out and gorgeously illustrated. It moves you quickly through the rules in a breezy way. The designer’s voice echoes on every page. You’ll find some character to go gaga over. Feng Shui 2 has the massive list of them—each with different powers and a striking picture.

If I’d gotten a copy of this 10-15 years ago, I’d have gone nuts over it.

Today, it’s not exactly what I want. Feng Shui 2 has a reason for its approach: a stunt-descriptive number-crunchy action game. But some of its mechanics and approach doesn’t work with how I play these days. Let me start with the mechanics.

Feng Shui 2 has deceptively simple rules. Resolution’s based on a roll + single value vs. static target number. Your margin of success impacts the result. Classic. You only have five “stats”: Defense, Toughness, Speed, an Attack value, and “Fortune,” fate/power resource number. That last one’s given different names depending on the character type (Chi, Genome, Magic, etc). Weapons only have three values- damage, reload, and concealment. Some characters have skills, mostly for out of combat bits. But these are sparse. One archetype has eight and two have five. Most have two. Even the biggest character skill lists consists mostly of different trivias (“Info”).

Shticks complement the minimal stats and skills. They’re the feats/powers/talents that give each character flavor. Each archetype has five or six of these. But even those don’t have dense mechanics. They mostly offer triggered effects, bonuses, or situational options. It’s all pretty minimal. Seems like a clean, clear approach. I like a simple character sheet.
But let me swing back to that that resolution roll. It isn’t simple one.

When you make a Task Check, you take your AV (Action Value) and roll 2d6. The first d6 is your positive number and the second’s your negative. Subtract the second from the first. Generally this die roll will range from +5 to -5. That’s called The Swerve. You add the Swerve to your AV.

But remember that if you roll a “6” on either die, it explodes. Roll again for that die and add it. This can keep going. So while you’re usually going to end up with a zero, it can flail wildly in either direction. I’ve had players who disliked the swingy-ness of Fate dice. They’d flip over this.

Now also don’t forget that if you roll doubles, the final result’s effect is amped up (for better or worse). That’s mostly color in the fiction, but can be confusing. When I explained that to the players they mixed up doubles and exploding dice in the heat of play. They also wanted a concrete sense of what doubles actually meant.

Players can mitigate the Swerve a little. You can spend your Fortune one to add a one die, +1d6 positive, to any check made. You can do that after a roll. This doesn’t explode, so you’d better remember that switch. Also, you can spend a Fortune to add a d6 to your Defense value against an attack. But this time you have to do that before opponent rolls.

Each combat breaks down into Sequences and the Shots that make up that sequence. Imagine that each shot is a tic of time. You roll Initiative at the start of each sequence: d6 + Speed. That’s probably going to fall in the 9-12 range. That number’s the “shot count” you get your first action. The GM tracks named baddies individually and mooks as a group. Feng Shui suggests using a visual for this, the Shot Clock. The Kickstarter had a nice laminated one, but you can make your own. I suspect you could get the same effect online with Roll20’s images and tokens.

That’s important because you have to track and shift characters on that clock throughout the sequence. When you perform an action, you reduce your initiative by the number of shots it takes. That’s usually 3. Three shot actions include attacking, picking things up, reloading, a running sprint. A few actions have different costs—performing an active defense only costs one shot and increases your defense by three for that attack. That cost pushes your next action back, making it a hard choice.

But those mechanics and counts change up as you get to the end of the sequence. On shots 2 and 1, characters may take actions that cost up to 3 shots even though there aren’t enough shots left. There’s no penalty for this, and the unaccounted-for shot cost is not carried over to the next sequence. Actions with a shot cost higher than 3, however, do carry over. If you use an interrupt—like defend-- during the last three shots, it reduces your initiative during the next sequence.

When you hit that next sequence, everyone rolls initiative again and you reset the shot clock. Some effects carry across sequences. If a combat condition lasts a “keyframe,” that means it stays until the same count on the next sequence. Luckily you can only have one of these effects on at a time. The book suggests that fights shouldn’t last more than three sequences. If you go that full distance, you’re looking at 9-12 actions per character in a fight.
I used an app to handle this when I ran. I’ll come back to that.

To hit someone you roll attack AV versus the target’s defense. If you beat that, you add that margin of success (Outcome) to your attack damage. That total’s called the Smackdown. But the target then subtracts their Toughness from that and takes the remainder as Wounds. Side note: if you want to hit someone and do something else (i.e. shooting and catching a falling idol) you can either declare it after if your Outcome’s 4+ OR declare it before and add 2 to target’s Defense.

Combat Process: calculate final roll, add AV, subtract Defense, subtract Toughness, subtract remainder from Wounds.

Characters have a bunch of Wounds. When you hit 25 wounds you’re impaired and subtract 1 from AVs. At 30+ subtract -2 from AVs. If you hit more than 35 Wounds, they start making “Up Checks” to seeing if you stay standing. The damage track on the sheets goes up to 60 but characters will be out by that point. On the NPC side, you’ll usually hit Enemies in one of three classes. Mooks go down in one hit; named baddies can take damage like the PCs and go down at 35 Wounds; Bosses can take 50 Wounds before checking if they drop.

Let me run those numbers on a named foe. Let’s assume a fairly average successful roll gives an outcome of +1. Let’s say the damage value of the attack is a 9. That’s higher than a pistol, but seems good when I look through the character sheets. So our total Smackdown will be a ten. But our target will then subtract their Toughness from that. Let’s say that’s pretty low-average, so a five. That means with this average check, the attacker does 5 points of damage.

That means, reading things straight, we’re going to need 7 successful attacks to take down that opponent. The sample fights in the book have one named baddie per PC, plus a number of mooks equal to the number of PCs. Let’s leave the mooks out. Some characters have powers that can easily dispense with them in a single action.

On paper that’s a lot of successful hits. A lot of resolutions and calculations. But it characters stats will swing this in different directions, raising the Smackdown. But not by that much. All four of the PCs I ran for fell into this range. Of course you then also have the combat Shticks, but at least among our group they more added effects than pushed this up much. Players can spend a single Fortune point on a check, even after the roll. That adds 1-6 to that final results, but costs a limited resource that often powers their other abilities. You can attack multiple foes with a single attack, subtracting the number of targets from your roll. That reduces your chance of success and your overall damage. Great for killing mooks, much more risky for other foes.

And the dice are swingy as I mentioned above. So a few bad rolls can drag this out and a few good rolls can cut this time. If the GM has the big rolls, they can seriously dish out damage. Bottom line: the fights can take a while, chipping away at opponents’ health. That’s classic for a lot of games, so nothing inherently wrong with that. It just feels dragged out compared to what I’m comfortable with.

What Feng Shui 2 offers is a game with a different tactical space. We don’t measure space really—the book only mentions distances in a couple of places. Instead we track time and moments. That’s combined with some number processing which you can affect in few ways. You don’t have a whole suite of options, but you have some choices. On top of that is the idea of big, dramatic narration. But you’d better hold off that narration until you see what you rolled.

In some ways it reminds me most of 13th Age mechanically, though with a more complicated initiative system. I can imagine FS2 working for a lot of groups. And if I’d gotten this book in 2000, I’d probably have run it hard and heavy. But today it didn’t fit with the kinds of games I want to run/play.

This is running a little long, so I’m going to split this into two parts. Next post I’ll talk about running online, using the app, things that I loved, things that bugged, and how I’d try to do a Feng Shui game.