Category Archives: Characters

Characters from the many RPGs I own. An exercise in working through the rules while making sarcastic comments.

Starchildren Part II

Starchildren, Part II

Sex, Drugs, And Rock & Rolling Dice

Except… I Think You Use Cards In This?

Wow, There Goes That Headline Right Down The Pipes

OK. As we saw in our previous episode, aliens who though the 1970s were actually cool came to Earth in the 2070s, only to find an oppressive police state, which they are now trying to take down via the power of rock! Having spent all of the prior article going over the background, it is now time to create a character.

Be Ye Human, Or Be Ye Bishounen Alien Rocker?

First, we must choose our species. Because the point of these articles is to explore game systems, I’m going to go with Starchild, as that will give me access to the k00l p0werz…. erm, I mean, let me experiment with the full mechanics. Yeah.

As a Starchild, I get three “Backgrounds” (Humans get four.) There’s no specific rule limiting backgrounds by race, but “Businessman” and “Cop”, for example, don’t seem very appropriate to an alien with two years experience on Earth.

In many similar systems, “Performer” would be a catch-all for any kind of creative type, but, fitting the genre, Starchildren gives us Drummer, Bassist, Keyboardist, and Frontman backgrounds, among others. I like “Drummer”, as they’re described as being surly and belligerent (no stereotyping here, no sir!). The Drummer’s skills include “Percussion”, “Bludgeon”, and “Intimidate”.

Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?
A: A Drummer

Fitting with that default personality, I pick “Badass” for my second background. It is recommended that Badasses also take “Scrapper” to provide the combat skills needed to back up the bluster, so I’ll go for that.

Each background has 5 skills, which are ranked with on at 9, two at 7, and two at 5. The mechanics that give meaning to these ranks are not yet specified. If you don’t want to take all five skills, you can trade them for “Edges”.


Badass: Endure, Guts, Impress, Intimidate, Negotiate
Drummer: Bludgeon, Endurance, Intimidate, Percussion, Repair (Instrument)
Scrapper: Bludgeon, Brawl, Dodge, Slash, Throw

“Endure” is evidently a synonym for “Endurance”, probably a holdover from an earlier rules edit.

You can burn off one of your skill picks to raise the rank of another skill. This can be done when there are duplicate skills, (Such as Bludgeon, for me), or if you just don’t particularly want a skill or your character concept requires a higher starting rank.

I am strongly tempted to leave “Percussion” as my lowest-ranked skill, as it creates a kind of interesting concept… the drummer who is, in fact, not really good at drumming, but who is kept around by the band because he is really good at hitting people… which, in the grim future of the 21st century, is pretty useful.

So let’s see…

Presenting Thrash Beatnik

I’ll start with Bludgeon from Drummer at 9, then drop Endurance 9 from Badass to raise it to 10 and then use the Bludgeon I get from Scrapper to raise it to 11, losing my 9 from there, as well. That’s the highest a starting skill can get. I’m going to track which skills come from which background. Hopefully, I get it all correct.

Bludgeon: Jack (11) (Scrapper 9, Drummer 9, Endurance (Badass) 9)
Intimidate: 7 (Badass)
Brawl: 7 (Scrapper)
Endurance: 7 (Drummer)
Guts: 7 (Badass)
Dodge: 7 (Scrapper)
Percussion: 7 (Drummer) (I ended up not being able to drop it to 5, but now I can’t remember why. But here it is.)
Slash: 5 (Scrapper)
Throw: 5 (Scrapper)
Impress: 5 (Badass)
Repair (Instrument): 5 (Drummer)

Intimidate 5 (Drummer)
Negotiate 5 (Badass)

I didn’t spend one of my possible “Intimidate” skills in the hope of getting an Edge. Likewise, I dropped off Negotiate. I figure my character… who I am starting to think of as “Thrash Beatnik”… uses “Intimidate” as “Negotiate”. This gives me two unspent ranks for “Edges”.

Q. What does a drummer use for birth control?
A: His personality

Attributes, or, I Got Jack

There are eight attributes, four mental and four physical. Each pair is keyed a suit from a set of playing cards.

  • Diamonds: Presence and Appearance
  • Hearts: Wit and Speed
  • Spades: Perception and Agility
  • Clubs: Will and Body

I can assign ranks from a pool of Jack, 10, 8, 7,7,7,6,5. These are ordered highest to lowest, so, in Starchildren, “I got Jack” is actually a good thing. Starchildren are +2 ranks to Presence and Appearance, but -2 to Body and Will. This runs contrary to my concept of Thrash as a brawler, but, everything is relative, I guess. For a starchild, he’s a fighter.

So, Body gets Jack (as it were), which is downgraded to 9.
I’ll put 10 in Agility.
8 goes to Presence, +2 for 10.
7 into Will, -2 for 5.
Another 7 into Speed.
My last 7 into Perception.
6 for Wit
5 for Appearance, +2 =7.

So I end up like:
Presence: 10
Wit: 6
Perception: 7
Will: 5
Appearance: 7
Speed: 7
Agility: 10
Body: 9

Secondary Attributes, Or, There’s No Kill Like Overkill!

Now, secondary attributes:
My Speed is 7, so, I have 3 Action Cards, and my Movement is 4 walking/8 running.
My Body is 9, so my Trauma Threshold is 15, my Injury Threshold is 19, my Blackout Threshold is 39, and my Overkill Threshold 53.

Any game which includes an “Overkill Threshold” gets bonus points from me.

Q. What’s the difference between a government bond and a drummer?
A. Government bonds eventually mature and earn money.

Edges: I simply skipped two skill to get Edges. I dropped 2 5-rank skills.

I can get Feared, which gives me 1 Advantage Card for tests of a skill selected from a short, logical list. I pick “Intimidate”. For my other 5-rank, I select “Street Contacts”.

I also pick the Disadvantage “Usual Suspects” for 7. I can put this 7 into a skill or buy an edge with it. I will use it to buy “Flex”, which is a “Mojo”, or alien talent. Flex governs abilities related to altering ones own body, which seems like a good thing for someone like Thrash to have, even if most Starchildren just use it to give themselves magenta hair and rainbow spiral eyes like they were Pottersues.

Rocking Out

That’s basically it for character generation. It is worth at least mentioning the mechanics, though. As noted, they rely on playing cards. Except that the Ace is the low card, and Kings and Queens are reversed. Jokers are the wild card, and get +2 to kill Batman.

Everyone starts with a Hand of 5 cards, except The Man, who gets 7.

And here’s where it kind of gets tricky. Skill and Attributes each have suits. So, let’s go back to Thrash. Thrash has Jack in Brawl (yeah, I’m never going to get tired of that joke). The character sheet shows that Brawl is a “Clubs” skill, but it’s governed by Agility, which is a “Spades” skill.

If the card played matches the Trump suit for an attribute or skill, the value is equal to the rank of that attribute or skill. If it doesn’t match, it’s a “null” suit, so the value is your rank -3.

Then, The Man draws a number of cards equal to the difficulty of the test. The Man decides how difficult the test is, running from 1-5. Hopefully, examples are given. The Man then plays one of the cards they drew against you. If your score beats the card they played, you succeed. The rules note that The Man is not obliged to play the highest card they drew; they might give you a break. This provides an element of “sanctioned” GM fudging into the game; how much this appeals to you depends on how you feel about the Player/GM relationship in general. (It occurs to me that the harder the test, the more leeway The Man has to cheat… for an easy test, they draw only one card and so must play it, good or bad.) Nonetheless, the default assumption underlying the mechanics is that most of the time, the dice… erm… cards will fall where they may.

There’s also special rules for “really easy” tests, where The Man draws only one card, and the value on that card is reduced.

The Man and the player reveal their cards concurrently. If the player fails their test, they can “burn” a card, which gives them the value of that card on its face, regardless of the suit.

I don’t know how well this works in actual play, but it sounds like a decent enough system.

Opposed tests require that The Man play a card from his hand, and in this case, the suit matters. The Man is basically playing a hand for an NPC… sorry, an MC. The Man can also burn a card, just as a PC can.

Then, there’s “Boosts” and “Crashes”, or what more mundane, less rockin’, systems might call “critical successes and failures”, based on the degree of difference between the player’s card and The Man’s.

And there’s Advantage Cards. Thrash’s “Feared” Edge gives him one Advantage card when Intimidating something. This is essentially an extra card drawn when using that particular skill. Likewise, “Difficulty” cards are Advantage Cards granted to an opponent, either The Man or a fellow PC.

Finally, there’s “The Twist”. Twists are a form of metagame mechanics, akin to “bennies”, “hero points”, “action dice”, etc., allowing the player to gain bonuses, draw a new card, and so on.

Glam-Rock Alien Elvis Has Left The Building

And, that’s it for chargen and something of the mechanics. While it’s definitely odd, it’s not bad… there are no blatantly broken mechanics[1], pages of grammar/spelling/punctuation errors, or eye-bleedingly self-indulgent page layouts, despite this being a setting that could justify them. Other than the initial three chapter slog through setting material, it doesn’t hit too many of my eye-roll triggers. The art is a bit crude, hearkening back to some of the classic work from This Guy I Know (I miss his stuff in modern games), but it’s an effort from a tiny independent company which was trying to put out a hardcover book about alien rock stars at the peak of the D20 boom. No budget for art is forgivable.

If I ever see this being run at GenCon, I’ll sign up for it.

[1]Caveat: I haven’t actually played the game, and the interactions of the various systems outline above do not lend themselves to intuitive analysis of the actual odds of success or failure in casual play.


Starchildren : Velvet Generation

In The Grim Darkness Of The Third Millennium There Is Only Rock!

And/Or Roll!

And Judging From A Random Illustration, Jobs At McDonalds. Grim, Tyrannical, Oppressive, McDonalds.

So, Nothing New, Then?
I Dunno. Maybe The Burgers Are Made From Orphans, Or Something.


We’re (that’s me and my helper cats, who, at the moment, are actually helping by virtue of not being here) taking a break from RPGs produced in the 1970s to look at a game produced in the early 2000s that uses the cultural tropes of the 1970s for a game set in the 2070s. Got it? Good. Now, does the chalice from the palace have the pellet with the poison? No, that’s the flagon with the dragon.

The commentary in the Acknowledgments page informs us that although the game contains references to sex, drugs, and rock&roll, “XIG Games does not officially endorse any such activities except under guidance of a competent professional”. Oh, and the game contains a subliminal message when played backwards. So you start with characters getting wiped in a TPK and end by rolling them up?

I’m going to take the tongue-in-cheekness of the Acknowledgments into account when reading.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today About 70 Years From When This Was Published

The introduction informs us that the world was changed when the first Starchildren came to Earth in 2071, and that we will join the action in 2073. Not bad — there’s enough time for the setting to establish itself, but not a huge amount of history to learn or hard-coded backstory for the part of the timeline the PCs are a part of. The Ministry of Music has begun “a terrifying crackdown on illegal and subversive rock music”. Damn, Voldemort must be back in charge. We are also introduced to the “Blue Army”, a violent splinter faction of Starchildren, and “the Osterberg Institute”, the “paranoid and xenophobic” scientists whose paranoia and xenophobia is based on nothing more than the fact aliens have landed, disguised themselves as humans, and started a mass movement to undermine the government. What a flimsy pretext! What are you gonna do? Haters gonna’ hate.

Working For The Man

Actually, The Man does all the work. That’s this game’s version of the GM. By the 2000s, the 90s trend of coming up with funky names for common parts of RPGs was dying like disco (see, this is a game about music, so, I made a music reference), but, much like the old man in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, it wasn’t dead yet. NPCs are “The Man’s character”, or “MC”. At least PCs are still PCs.

And I Want To Be A Paperback Writer…

“Chapters Two through Four of this book help bring the setting to life, and are written from the points of view of people who lived through it.”

In other words, I’ve got to slog through three chapters of fiction before I get to start creating a character. #FML.

Do you people appreciate what I do for you? The sacrifices I make? I could be losing another game of Civ VI, but noooooo, I’m reading this. Feh.

Part I

Our game published in real 2003 about a fictional 2073  that is inspired by the culture of real 2073 begins with excerpts from a book written in fictional 2091 about fictional 2073. There will be a quiz later. I’m going to try to summarize so we can get to the core of creating a character while still having some context as to what I’m creating.

In the 2040s, psychologists and sociologists decided that rock & roll was dangerous and subversive. I guess Tipper Gore won in the long run. The 2040s were an era of depression following a long war, class conflict, and economic despair, where the masses were desperate for simple solutions and the promise of a coming utopia following the removal of negative influences and dangerous ideas. Hm. Sounds familiar.

In 2047, violence erupted at a Times Square protest, and music was blamed. Within two years, music became a “controlled substance” in most of the world. The motto of the time was “Don’t insulate, isolate!”, meaning, instead of just tuning out or walking away if you heard something you didn’t like, all “negative influence” needed to be purged. Hmm. So, Tipper Gore and today’s campus activists won. Damn. This is one hell of a dystopia, I tell you what.

Various international bodies eventually merged into the global International Culture Correction and Control, or ICCC. The Ministry of Music (MoM) became known to the rebels as “Mad Mother”.  All unapproved items (i.e., anything anyone would want) became illegal contraband. If Grampa didn’t remember to toss out his old Justin Bieber CDs, it was curtains for him.

The music industry was reduced to peddling “New music”: Muzak on steroids, or maybe on sleeping pills — utterly bland, featureless, drivel. Radio was even worse… aw… that’s cute. In 2003, people believe radio would still exist in 2073. Thus, an era began of bootleg music, exploiting the vast demand for which there was no longer any legal supply. Capitalism, people. Ka-ching!

(Oh, the most popular legal entertainment is pinball… without any of the fancier modern features. Also, badminton and bowling. Kill me now.)

The “Rock Resistance” began in 2070 in New York City, at first a disorganized rabble that was regularly beaten up by the cops. They inspired copycats, and the movement started to spread. “Luckily, the Rock Resistance soon became Velvet, thanks to the dazzling inspiration and leadership of the Starchildren.”

Part II

The next chapter is in the form of a recording made by an undercover member of the ministry of music, with only the target’s side of the conversation recorded. This creates the illusion they are describing the world’s setting to you, the reader. Again, I’m mostly going to try to summarize enough to put what follows in context.

A reminder: I write these things linearly and extemporaneously, page by page. So when I finally get to chargen, I may end up backtracking.

A sidebar notes that in 2073, using a BBS(!) or the “increasingly risky internet” is a bad way to share music. Tangible media includes a 2″ disk which can store several days worth of high quality data, a data chip “about the size of a quarter”, or good ol’ vinyl. The term “tape” is used to refer to any musical media whatsoever, although no one uses actual tape.

“Dives” are where illegal musicians perform; “Record managers” are basically pimps (so, nothing’s changed), bribing cops and arranging gigs. Many have other illegal interests on the side.

Lots of various drugs, color coded for your convenience: Whitepills, Graypills, Blackpills, Redpills, etc.

We then get about two pages of details about how Velvet is organized and maintained, using a kind of ad-hoc networks assembled via portable servers and routers, along with a lot of what old folks like me call “sneakernet”.

We are also introduced to the concept of “Blackholes”: Starchildren, or something like them, working for the Ministry. And, as noted earlier, the Blue Army, the violent splinter faction of Velvet.

Part III

In which we finally get some background on the Starchildren. Yay. This takes the form of an interview with “Stainless Pakistan”, set in 2078. Trying to distill out the key points.

  • They (Starchildren) don’t “really distinguish between the sexes”.
  • Sex and food, as humans understand them, are “really alien”. Good lord, don’t get them mixed up.
  • Sex is for fun, but not how they reproduce.
  • They can’t get humans pregnant, they use clouds of spores that look like floating glitter.
  • They learned about Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc., on their way to Earth.
  • They’d get away with their alien appearance by saying they were from France… I mean, “from somewhere else”.
  • They know little about their own homeworld; they were coming to Earth because it would be a better place.
  • They were really pissed when they arrived expecting the free-love 1970s and got the totalitarian 2070s. Like most immigrants, the reality of the promised land turned out to be far worse than the fantasy, but it was too late to pack up and go home.
  • No word on if the government of the time planned to build a wall and make the Starchildren pay for it.
  • They only live to about 40, and are impressed by humans’ long lifespans of 70+. This is a nice twist from the immortal aliens lamenting that humans come and go so quickly you can’t get to know them. It also reinforces the youth/rebellion nature of the setting.
  • Their “landing pods” decayed very rapidly in Earth’s atmosphere, rusting to junk in a few weeks.
  • Also, humans are physically stronger and have higher endurance. Again, a welcome change from the “better than you at everything” aliens that dominate the genre, and it’s good to see mechanics and backstory that reinforce the bishounen archetype that defines the particular musical genre that inspired the game. (Well, I’m assuming there will be mechanics. I will be… irked… if the rules do not match the setting. “Does what it says on the tin” is one of my cardinal rules of game design. If X is supposed to be good at Y, the game mechanics better make that happen.
  • There have been several references to “The Humanity Campaign”, which seems to be some sort of xenophobic genocide, but I haven’t seen it well defined yet… or I missed it on my first read. I’ll check back later.
  • The “Blackholes” were a clique aboard the ship; their parents had some disagreement with the parents of the Starchildren before Stainless Pakistan was born.

OK, the text gets more text-y at this point, and so will I.It all started in 1972, when radio and TV signals from Earth reached a world “billions of light years away” — they acknowledge the impossibility of this, but there’s no in-world explanation for the phenomenon. The transmissions lasted only five years… again, no explanation why… but transformed the alien world.

Enraptured by Earth music, they built a generation ship and set out for a fifty year journey. Those born on the ship would become the Starchildren, naturally.

They originally planned to arrive in a public display, but after seeing what Earth had become, made multiple clandestine landings in various wildnerness areas, then set out to the big cities, instruments in tow.

Their bodies are mostly human-seeming, but these are not their native species’ form… that is unknown, even to them. They have an unearthly mien to them, being pale, slightly blue, and unusually thin. They can also perform minor alterations to their form, to look more human, or to create cosmetic changes to skin tone, hair length and color, or fingernails. The very skilled can use this ability to heal wounds.There are no Starchild country musicians.

And so we get to Chapter 5… page 37 out of 124… before the chargen starts. I think we’ll do that in Part II.

Road Rebels Part II

Road Rebels Part II

Revenge Of The Moltov(sic) Cocktail

Well, here we are again. For Part I of this, please look here. I am not responsible for any loss of sanity that may result. Just remember this: You only have to read what I wrote, and only once. I had to read much more of it, many times over.

I need to name my character, I suppose. With a total lack of originality, I’m going with Angry Al.

So when last we left Angry Al, he (or me) was trying to figure out how to buy skills. After a lot of time pondering the rules… I still don’t know, 100%. I even gently removed the taped-in errata, surveys, and notes from the inside back cover in the hopes it would be there. Nope. (In the survey, though, the author asks “How do you think [Road Rebels] should be improved (Besides art, correct grammar, riffles (sic), and correct tab settings)?” There’s a level of self awareness there, at least.

I think you primarily get your starting skills via spending generation points (of which I have but 50) on “acquired knowledge”, each of which is… uhm… well, they’re kind of different. Some are cheap and simply grant a generically described ability, such as Street Wise (sic), which provides “good knowledge of gangs, people, where they live, where people go”, etc., for 2 points. On the other hand, there’s “Hand Weapons”, which gives +75 to four hand weapon classes, as well as +75 to all three (left, right and two-handed) parry skills, for 50 points.

The skill system is d100 based, so a +75 is pretty damn impressive, though I haven’t studied combat yet. There may be an “opposed roll” mechanic there, as the “parry” skill implies.

With only 50 generation points to my name, there’s not a lot of options. The best choice, for my character concept, is “Hand Combat”, which costs 42 points and provides +50 to Street Fighting, +75 to punching (R/L), +75 to kicking (R/L), +75 dodge, +50 to Jump, and +50 to catch (R and 2H… not sure what you need to improve left-handed catching.)

That leaves me 8 points. Two go to Street Wise.

I’m kind of tempted to put 3 into Musical Instrument, which will make me, and I quote, “totally awesome at an instrument of the character’s choice”. Sure, why not? Instrument of choice has to be electric guitar, never mind the general lack of outlets.

So, 3 left. Well, might as well go for Hot Wiring, which lets me steal a car in 2d10 rounds, unless it has an alarm. In which case, evidently, I just can’t even try. It strikes me as odd, given the detail of many other areas, that Hot Wiring is simply a “spend the time and you’re done” skill; you’d expect a lot of modifiers for kind of car, quality of tools, and so forth.

But that’s my 50!

As near as I can tell, that’s it for the attributes/skills portion of chargen. Now I guess I buy equipment? There’s no real “step by step guide”. Anyway, I have 1d10 dollars.

I roll a D10: 1.

Well, frak.

The only thing I can buy is a candle. A can of beer is 2 dollars. A cigarette lighter, 5. I’m going to hold on to my money. I mean, not really sure what I could do with a candle.


You may remember I was curious about Condition Levels 4 and 5. They do exist; there’s a notation in one of the paragraphs that, as I speculated, they go into effect as a result of multiple concurrent factors, such as being both heavily encumbered (CL 3) and badly wounded. A perfectly reasonable system. High crunch, but I don’t mind that, and the target audience for the game is self-evidently people who like crunch. The character sheet only shows the modifiers for 1-3, which isn’t too bad, because you can do very little at 4 and nothing at 5 but look around (use perceptive skills).

The Road Goes Ever On…

That’s pretty much it for character generation. If I wanted to fill out the full sheet and plug in all the numbers, I could, but we’re past most of the interesting bits. Someone with a higher social status than I rolled would have a lot more Generation Points to play with, and more money to spend.

All of this takes us up to about page 27 or so. (I say “about” because the chargen rules and other rules are kind of muddled together.) The book is nearly 200 pages long. So what’s in the rest of it?

Combat, mostly. And vehicles. And combat with, on, around, and under vehicles.

Rules for “Maltov Cocktails”, of course. Not to mention kerosine (sic) and diesil(sic) fuels. Four different kinds of paint gun ammo (paint, smoke, explosive, stink). Two different super soaker guns (with acid available for ammo, natch).

And vehicles. Hoo, boy. The author freely admits the vehicle sheets are complicated, because he “can’t design a simple game”. I feel your pain there, buddy. But “complicated” is less of an issue than “cluttered”. These sheets need a lot more space — probably spreading the same data over 2 or 3 pages would be better. The use of proportional fonts means a lot of the tables don’t line up very clearly. Well, see for yourself…

I Regularly Used GURPS 3e VDS, Striker, and Mekton Z. This Is Beyond Any Of Those.

I Regularly Used GURPS 3e VDS, Striker, and Mekton Z. This Is Beyond Any Of Those.

Want more? Armored turrets, oil slicks, smoke screens, nitros (sic) systems, “shitty paint job” (100 dollars), “awesome paint job” (500 dollars), and way, way, more. Rules detail ten levels of road quality and the various factors that allow you to determine them. There are rules for how much damage a vehicle takes when jumping (hitting a bump or ramp, flying through the air, then landing), with the ability to design a vehicle specifically to absorb some of the damage (i.e., a stunt car), and charts that consider both the height of the jump and the type of road surface you land on. There are rules here for all sorts of things I never considered, most of which interact with the design and modification systems. (That’s a compliment, by the way.)

Within the scope of the design space, Road Rebels really tries to include damn near everything. How well do the systems work in play? I have no idea, and no time to start learning them all well enough to test even a basic combat, but there’s little doubt that Mr. Gordon was passionate about his interests and was determined to cover as many setting-appropriate situations as possible.

And all of it is buried under so many basic structural errors that it’s virtually impossible to drag the game framework out of the mire, clean it off, and make it run.

Wait, What?

So I’m looking at the creatures section and I notice that the hit location charts include “Four Legged Creatures with 2 heads”. This table is used only for “Zargonites”, which is “a wolf like creature except it has two heads and is much larger”.

Also included is the Kriton, which are large humans with upward pointing noses, and are “hired assassin’s bounty hunters or businessmen”(sic). It seems to me that a hired assassin employing a bounty hunter is taking outsourcing too far. I mean, if I hire an assassin, I expect them to do their own hunting, not get a kriton to do it! Sheesh.

Then there’s the Labotimizers (sic) who kidnap people, pour acid in their ears to destroy their brains, then send them out to repeat the process.

End Of The Road

That about sums it up. Overall, I’d say Road Rebels is a perfect example of a creator’s reach exceeding their grasp. Given a decent editor and a decent (for the era) desktop publishing/layout program, it might have found some niche success. As is, it vanished without nary a trace… at least, I can find few, if any, references to it. When I google “Road Rebels RPG”, the first part of this article is the third hit, and the second… something I wrote back in 2002(!) on RPG,net. And I even used the same line: “Well, uhm, no one can deny that this game has ‘personality’.” Wow. I totally forgot I wrote that… it was 14 years ago… but given identical inputs (the text of the game) I seem to produce nearly identical outputs. Go figure. Perhaps I have failed the Turing Test.

Next time… who knows? Maybe I’ll go to my pile of weird-ass “indie” games and see what strikes my fancy… (Yeah, I keep threatening). Or I might do “All The World’s Monsters” or this game I’ve got around here somewhere about luchadors.

Road Rebels

Road Rebels

Things The Marines Teach You: Courage, Duty, Honor, Service, Loyalty, And, I Presume, How To Kill A Man 26 Different Ways Using Only A Paperclip

Things The Marines Do Not Teach You: How To Spell “Rifle”


This May Be The Only Page In The Entire Book With No Spelling Or Grammatical Errors

This May Be The Only Page In The Entire Book With No Spelling Or Grammatical Errors

Let me begin with a digression. Wait, is that possible? Can you digress from a path not yet traveled? Am I digressing from the digression I wanted to begin with? Anyway, in the early 1990s, I lived in North Carolina, which had a Hungate’s Hobbies. This was primarily a crafting type hobby store, but unlike most such, it also had a fairly vibrant RPG section. And in that RPG section there was a bargain bin. And in that bargain bin, there were treasures. Such treasures! One of them was Machineguns and Magic, already covered here. (Good lord? 2008? I’ve been writing these unread articles for over eight years? Well, they say that true art is not done for an audience, but for oneself. If so, I am the truest artist of all time!)

Another was Road Rebels.

And so if our digression actually leads directly to our topic, is it a digression?

(! Where else can you get feeble attempts at humor mixed with pointless jabs at philosophy? “Oh, 99% of the Internet!” “Shut up! It was a rhetorical question!”)

So. Road Rebels.


It Took Until 1989 For The First Game For Serious Roleplayers To Be Published

It Took Until 1989 For The First Game For Serious Roleplayers To Be Published

The introduction, with its oddly centered text, almost seems like heavy metal lyrics. Hell, the entire game tries to evoke that kind of hard-driving, hard-rocking, attitude. The overlap between metal music and culture, and 70s/80s RPGs, deserves study by someone far more competent than myself. Road Rebels isn’t Metallica; it’s more “garage band that’s totally going to get some gigs once we get a drummer who won’t always flake on us, Karl, and when Joey, he’s our bassist, gets back from military school”. At this stage of my read-through (remember, these are mostly extemporaneous, written as I turn the pages, though this little bit you’re reading now was written on my “editing” pass just before I posted this first bit), I can say there’s some interesting mechanical aspects — high crunch, but I don’t mind that — that hint at possibilities, but these glimmerings are buried under some of the worst grammar, spelling, punctuation, and organization I’ve seen in a published game product. (There’s another one, a very minor league supers game called… uh… I’ll have to find it… I thought it was “Guardians”, but the cover image is wrong (and not the new, “old-school” game by that name released circa 2015,this was from the mid-80s or so)..,. that might give it a run for its money. But I digress.)

My ability to forgive grammatical mistakes in older RPG systems is a function of “How old is it?” and “Are the ideas expressed so awesome they transcend crudeness of form?”

By 1989, a certain level of professionalism was expected. The book itself is not something run off on someone’s home mimeograph machine. It is well bound. It is professionally typeset. Anyone who had the budget to produce a book at this level in the late 80s could have afforded an editor, or at least asked a more-literate friend to look at it.

The ideas within… well, let’s just move on, shall we?

In Which I Wear Out My “(Sic)”

I have to include a few samples of the introductory text. Transcribing this is like copying passages from the Necronomicon, only without the hope that perhaps an Elder God will be summoned and devour me, to end my torment.

“It was the year 2010 when the fires stopped burning. They ceased to burn only when there was nothing left to burn. Nothing but a shattered rain forest and an expanding city.”

“All of The (sic) fuel resources in the gulf had been used up. When their (sic. Also, huh?) fuel ran out so did the worlds (sic) supply lines.”

“All power plants stopped, fuel stations ran out (sic) fuel, and factories were shut down.”

“No country could defend their self.” (sic)

Three hundred years later, “Of the few factories still existing there are only a few people in control of them. Unemployment has reached an all time high.”

This I have learned: Post-apocalyptic wastelands where day-to-day life is a struggle to extract the most meager resources needed for basic survival have unemployment rates.

“With no country and no home, there is only the road.”

Because 300 years after ecological disaster and social collapse, someone is still paving the god damn roads, right?

“After all the toxic waist (sic) dumping, oil tanker spills such as the Exzon (sic) Raldez (sic), and the depleted uranium many of the Earth’s animals have mutated. “

“Many of these creatures consider human’s (sic) inferior. This is possibly due to our white skin where their skin is green or some other color, or that they are just smarter.”

And remember, these are a few sample sentences from a full page of text. You owe me, non-existent audience. You owe me.

My assumption that the author was a high school kid with rich parents who indulged him was undermined on the next pages, where he notes he was a Marine and worked over five years on this.

Look, let me be serious for a moment. I respect anyone who is willing to go out and get shot at so I can continue to sit on my fat Big Mac stuffed ass and write snarky comments about other people’s work. I am, without sarcasm or cynicism, genuinely grateful to all of those “rough men (and women) who stand ready to do violence on [my] behalf”, as Orwell is wrongly credited with saying.

But, you know… you don’t get to be a Marine by people giving you a pass on your actual performance because you tried really hard. So I’ve got to follow the same principle. You get judged on what you do.

“Many roll(sic) playing games are created by a bunch of dead head geeks who care more about making money[1] than a decent game. They have about as much personality as a dried up horse turd. In this game you’ll find a lot of personality. It may be crude or strange but it’s better than dried up horse turds.”

No argument there. This game has personality.

Under some GM advice, he notes “If a person like is allowed to run ramped (sic), it takes much fun out of the game for the other players and they can lose interest in your game an (sic) alarming rate.”

“Fruitcakes Stay Away” reads another header.

“If you’re a weird one and think you might take Road Rebels to the streets please buy (sic) all means don’t play this game.”

Perhaps the weird ones need COMPETENT PSYCHIATRIC HELP.

Trying to actually move on without quoting every other sentence, but I keep getting sidetracked. For instance, low technology towns are described as “… generally ancient ruins that are still inhabited. They are usually dangerous since most of the people are sparsely populated.”

Forcing myself to keep going through all the, uh, personality

The Roads Must Roll… Up Characters

Seven characteristics, roll 4d6 and keep the three highest. Put them where you like. To the author’s credit, the rest of the mechanics are not a generic D&D clone. And I’m not going to ding someone for going with a system and value range that works instead of being different solely to be different. Too much of that coming down the pike a few years after this was published.

The seven characteristics are Happy, Sleepy, Snee… no, sorry. But, damn, wouldn’t that be an interesting idea for… something. Some wacko indie system where your personality or abilities or something are defined by your ranking of the Seven Dwarfs. Healing? Roll your Doc. Resist mind control? Roll Grumpy. Social interaction? Roll over your Bashful. Seriously, there’s something here. And I’m getting distracted again.

Strength, Dexterity, Looks, Constitution, Size, Charisma, Speed.

And it’s rolling time!

Every year, at GenCon, I get a scoop-o-dice at Chessex. Let’s see how they roll….

9,7,15, 11,6,13,12

So, about typical for me. Sheesh.

A six and a seven? Seriously? On best 3 out of 4d6?

(In the Pathfinder game I run, a player rolled two crits on their iterative attack, dealing 112 points of damage to a 105 hit point boss monster. Later, in another encounter, when I was attacking with a powerful 2d6+10 trample, I rolled a ‘2’ for the damage. Twice. Dice hate me.)

Anyway, I need to roll for social class. The rules note that a given RM (Road Master, of course!) may have differing social classes in their game, and that social class can change over time.

21. Peasant. (Other options were Thief, Townsman, Barbarian, Assassin, Road Rebel, Choice, and Choose Two. I’m not sure what that last one means. Do you add together the benefits and penalties for two classes? Pick the best features of each? I don’t see an explanation in the general vicinity of the chart, but there might be one later.

As a Peasant, I have a +10 to picking pockets, despite the text noting that “Peasants are generally not good thieves since they appear very ragged.” I have a +3 to my Constitution, and gear such as inexpensive, ill-fitting clothes and a shopping cart. My weapons may include a mop handle or a screwdriver. My wealth is 1d10 dollars, and I have 50 “generation points”.

Now we get a lot of detail about certain physical skills and how they’re affected by your “condition level”, which is a blend of fatigue and encumbrance… the more tired or burdened you are, the worse your skills are going to be. Nothing wrong with that.

It’s looking like I’ll need to assign my crappy rolls before going much further. Hm.

9,7,15, 11,6,13,12

Strength: 15
Dexterity: 13
Looks: 6
Constitution: 12+3=15
Size: 11
Charisma: 7
Speed: 9

Basically, a brawler with nothing else going for him. Probably badly scarred from all of his fights.

But back to condition level. “To determine a character’s mass per condition level he must first determine his mass. He will then go to the chart on page 25 to determine his mass.” Yeah, I’ll let that sink in for a bit. Then, it will sink in, for a bit, while I let it.

Size 11 means my mass is 75. With a Strength of 15 and a Con of 15, I can carry 2/3rds of my mass at Condition Level 2. (Condition Level 1 is fixed at <10kg.) 2/3rds of 75 is 50.

(The necessary charts and tables are on page 25, while the explanation I’m trying to follow is on page 13.)

Also, the text says there are five condition levels, but then only talks about 1, 2, and 3. There may be more rules for 4 and 5 later on, maybe wounded or something? We’ll see. The three-tier system seems reasonable… CL 1 is “Effectively unencumbered”, carrying <10kg. CL 2 is the assumed norm, carrying more than 10 KG and less than the calculated value, and CL 3 is carrying more than your allowed capacity. What I haven’t found, yet, is how to calculate some of those base numbers… such as “Rounds at Maximum”.

I’ll skip the optional pain factors. This is taking too long as it is.

The weapons sheet is also presented here. It’s pretty darn complex. This doesn’t bug me, per se, if the rules are generally well explained. I know all the cool kids like everything to fit onto a fortune cookie, but I like systems where there’s a lot of differentiation between weapons and other gear, especially if they feed into systems that make it make sense to pick specific weapons for specific tasks. (GURPS rules for reach and space, for example, give an advantage to a guy with a short weapon when he’s “all up in your grill” — it’s hard to get a 6′ sword to swing properly against a target who is in direct physical contact with you. At the same time, trying to close with the guy who has a 6′ sword (and the skill to use it) when all you’ve got is a dagger… well, I digress.) Point is, I’m not going to dis the game a priori for a weapons sheet that’s more detailed than many games’ entire character sheet. We’ll see how it’s actually used, first.

Skills: Recognizing The Unhidden

Skills are grouped into classes; some have different scores for Left, Right, or Two Handed use. Some are impacted by condition level. The rules talk about rolling to increase skills, a mechanic familiar to players of Chaosium’s systems, among others.

Then there’s the skill descriptions. Most are pretty bog-standard so far. And it may be the fact I’m writing this late in day when I’m tired (usually, I set aside time on weekends for this blog, but today, some whim struck me to work on it now), but I’m starting to find the author’s personal style to be almost charming. I mean, I praised Hargrave for it, and the Princeton folks, so why not? (Well, for one, 1989 is not 1977 and standards change.)

For example, under Climb, Mr. Gordon writes “This system will be improved as I learn more about climbing. Please excuse my lack of knowledge.” And, earlier in the paragraph, “Forget those cheesy climbing spikes in other games.” Consider them forgotten.

BTW, the use of “riffle” for “rifle” is endemic; it can’t be blamed on a typo. If there was one word (well, one word not included in Carlin’s famous monologue) I’d expect a Marine to be able to spell, it would be “rifle”. Sigh.

Following a longstanding RPG tradition of “highly variable detail”, while many of the skills include detailed rules and modifiers, “Pick Pockets” is almost mechanics-free, noting only that “This skill should not be blown out of proportion”, and that other skills, such as Hide in Cover or Move Silently may have to be used “in conjunction”. The skills, overall, have the mix of ultra-detailed mechanics and generic “just be reasonable” advice that pretty much defined early gaming.

(Speaking of detail… “Sound Detection” is distinct from “Sound Recognition”, and “Recognize Hidden Object” is distinct from “Recognize Camouflage(sic) Object” and “Recognize Unhidden Object”. Yes, that’s a skill. It’s used to recognize something someone tried, but failed, to hide. Yeah. I had the same reaction. Moving on.

Oh, hey, I opened the book to start working on this again, and found the “rounds at maximum” chart… with my Strength and Con I can go 18 rounds at “maximum effort”, if you know what I mean, and I think you do, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. If I rest for 12 rounds, I will regain my full “Max Rounds”, but if I rest for 2 rounds, I can regain 3 rounds. The mechanical concept here is actually pretty interesting. It lets you take a brief rest in combat (including, per a note, fighting defensively) to regain 3 rounds of maximum effort, which presents a useful tactical option and a way to model someone who, in the course of an ongoing fight, chooses to take a little time to recover, pulling back for a few rounds before resuming the full-on battle. Most games, in my experience, have either no fatigue/exhaustion type systems, or have a pool which can only be refreshed outside of combat.

Well, I was going to try to figure out my skills, but the exact rules for assigning a starting character’s skills are not clear. I think I’ve found all the relevant bits and bobs, but I’m not sure how to put them together in the right order just yet, so, this article just became a two parter.

[1]Boy, did they choose the wrong profession! Where did people get the idea RPGs are a great way to earn a living? RPG writers are paid less per word than pulp writers of the 1930s… unadjusted for inflation. Let that sink in.

A Villain Team?

A Terrifying Trio

So this crawled into my head as a villain team for some supers game I’ll never run.

Caught in an undersea volcanic explosion, a scuba diver was mutated into a hideous lava covered monstrosity with giant pincers in place of hands, and extracts revenge on the world as the ROCK LOBSTER!

A martial artist was banned from competition when their mutant power to become two-dimensional manifested unexpectedly… with their career destroyed, they turned to crime as the PAPER TIGER!

An explosion embedded shards of lethal metal in the skin of an ordinary dockworker, while granting them superhuman speed, and the world fears the razor-sharp, lightning-fast crimes of RUNS WITH SCISSORS!

This is the kind of thing that always gets me nasty notes from my editors…

Of Gods And Men

Of Gods And Men

Because It’s Been On My Shelf For Years, And I Want To Know What’s In It

That’s Why

Warning! You May Need COMPETENT PSYCHIATRIC HELP After Reading This!

(An amusing note: I started this in June, 2012. Then I did other stuff. Now I’m finishing it… if I can find my copy of OGAM again… ah, found it. Good.)

(Amusing note 2: It is now 2016. The last edit on this post was 2014. There’s no great special reason for this, no “This is the WORST GAME EVAR” horror. I just get distracted easily.)

Greetings, faithful reader, and welcome to another installment of “Lizard tries to pretend he provides content”. In today’s episode, we look at “Of Gods And Men”, an RPG you’ve never heard of. No, you haven’t. Don’t lie.

“Of Gods And Men” was published in 1991, and it ended up in my collection… uh… I dunno. I think I scarfed it from Gamescape in San Francisco when it drifted from the “Half Off” shelf to the “Got Wobbly Furniture? Look Here For Help!” shelf. Anyway, I happened to glance over at one of my bookcases earlier today, spotted it, and decided “What the hell? Why not?”

I mean, it’s got a picture of a guy playing “Alas, Poor Yorick!” with a fireball on the cover. What could go wrong?

We’ll find out…

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Hackmaster 5e, Part II

Hackmaster Part II: Khan Strikes The Chamber Of Secrets Back

When Last We Left Our Intrepid Hero Protagonist…

OK! Welcome to Part II of my Hackmaster 5e character creation walkthrough! Now with more exclamation points! For those of you who missed Part I, it’s here. So, click the underlined part back there. Unless you’ve got your browser set funky so you can’t see links, in which case, you’re on your own.

Anyway, I had just finished adjusting my stats, and I was going to spend those lovely BPs I’d been hoarding. I had 59 left.

Step 7: Priors And Particulars

Oh, this isn’t about spending BPs. It’s about how much you weigh, that sort of thing. There’s some excellent advice in this section about how to use your background and history to create a rich and full character for roleplaying. Nah, I’m just messin’ with ya. There’s some excellent advice in this section about how to use your background and history to pull some sort of life-saving bullshit out of your ass (hmmm… that’s a disturbing mental image) when you really have to.

Age: I’m a human mage, so, my starting age is 25+1d6p. I roll a 5, so, 30.

Height: 71 inches.

Weight: “Unlike inferior games that utilize an uncorrelated table to determine a character’s body weight…” I just had to copy that in. See, that’s attitude. That’s old school. (I just picked up Chivalry & Sorcery Sourcebook I, circa 1980, and it contained a long rant about “other game designers” (i.e., Gary Gygax) who abused mythology and lore when creating their substandard and inaccurate monsters, blahdy blahdy blah. That’s part of what the OSR is missing. There was none of this ‘if everyone’s having fun, it’s all good’ attitude back then. The gaming community was, if anything, even more fractious and self-righteous in the late 1970s/early 1980s than it is now. We didn’t need no Internet to be assholes back then. But I digress.) Anyway, first I roll for my BMI, which turns out to be 21. The I multiply this by my height in inches, so, 1491. Then I scold my cat for pawing all my dice off my desk and sticking his orange butt in front of my screen. He’s actually scooping dice out of the plastic container so he can roll them onto the floor, where I can step on them and do the Dance Of The Spastic Cat Owner. I love my children. I divide 1491 by 703.. no that, can’t be right. Oh, I multiply BMI by height squared. Stop it, Rocket. Daddy can’t see the screen when you do that. OK, there we go. I weigh 150 lbs.

Handedness: I assume two, but who knows? Yeah, that was pushing it. Right handed. Oddly, half-orcs have an 80 percent chance to be left handed, perhaps because they’re sinister.

Birth: I have a 1-in-10 chance of being illegitimate. I’m not. Both my parents are still alive. My father was indifferent to me (-2 BP) but my mother loved and nurtured me (+2 BP).

Siblings: I have 6 siblings, 4 sisters and 2 brothers, but three of them are dead. So, two surviving sisters and 1 surviving brother. None of them are twins of me. Of the four of us, I’m third-born. I’m also the second-born son, so, not an heir. I have, thus, an older sister and brother, and a younger sister. I now roll 2d12 (Why? Why not?) and add the Morale modifier (+1) from my Charisma, to see how much they like/dislike me.

  • Older Sister: Argumentative, can’t get along.
  • Older Brother: Very close.
  • Younger Sister: Ditto.

 I Can Spendz Bild Pointz Naow?

Yes! Can spendz!

Sorry. I was just reading the Fark Caturday thread. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Build pointz… er.. points. As I recall, I had 59 BP left. I now go to Chapter 8, Quirks And Flaws, or “How To Be An Annoying Prat At The Game Table And Then Justify It With ‘But I’m Just Playing My Character!'”.

Quirks are mental/personality issues, while Flaws are physical detriments. That’s a nice distinction, and more flavorful than “Mental Disads” and “Physical Disads”, for example.

If I cherry-pick what’s wrong with me, I earn fewer BPs, but I have a lot more control over my character. Screw that. I’m going whoring for BPs. I can spend a BP to re-roll, as often as I like, until I run out. With 59 BPs to blow through, I shouldn’t be saddled with anything so crippling my character is unplayable as a mage.

Random rolls on the chart are D1000. Yes, 1000. Hey, this allows a really high level of granularity, which I love. It means there are, in theory, quirks/flaws that will be in less than 1% of the player base (unless the chart has no ranges less than 10, of course). I need to write down which die is read as what… OK, the dark brown one is the “ones”, the light ten one is the “tens”, and the speckled one is the “hundreds”.

You get full BPs for the first quirk/flaw rolled, then -5 for each additional one, cumulative. This means that you could theoretically end up losing BPs while still being saddled with the drawbacks. Greed is punished in Hackmaster.

A roll of 156 gives me “Clean Freak”. Basically, I am the Felix Unger, or perhaps Adrian Monk, of mages. I go into panic attacks if I am forced to enter sewers. While this is a little problematic for an adventurer, it sounds like it would be a lot of fun to play. Also, the “metagaming” section notes I must begin each game session with a pristine character sheet. Heh.

So, do I want to go again, at a -5 penalty to the BPs? Sure, why not?

582 gives me Spendthrift. I spend my money as soon as I get it. This nets me 20 BP, -5 for the second quirk, so, 15. I think I’ll stop there. That’s an additional 23 BPs, on top of my 59, for 82, total.

Now, I purchase Skills, Talents, and Proficiencies, or STPs, not to be confused with STDs. I hope.

Weapon Proficiencies

As a mage, I can purchase any weapon proficiency, but at double cost, except for staff and dagger. While it might make sense to invest in melee for emergencies, each point in this area is a point I’m not spending on things that could help me avoid melee in the first place, so I will go for a minimal proficiency in dagger, which costs me 2 BP. 80 left. I will also pick up crossbow, at double cost, for 4 BP, so, 76 left.


As a mage, I get the Magical Transcription proficiency for free. And… huh. You know, this character doesn’t have a name, yet. He needs a name. Coracinus Nelumbo, I think, or “Corac” for short. There we go. He also gets a free purchase of Arcane Lore and two purchases of literacy in my native language.

Maintenance/Upkeep, for 5 BP. As a neat freak constantly polishing my staff (heh heh), this makes sense. 71 left.

Style Sense (home region): 2 BP. I know how what’s in this year, and what’s not. I look classy. 69 left.

Combat Casting: This allows me full defense when casting in melee, something that’s quite vital. It’s 30 BP, but that’s part of why I’ve hoarded them. 39 left.

Diminish Spell Fatigue, which lets me recover from casting more quickly, also looks good, but it’s another 20 BP. Let’s see what skills cost, first, then get back here.

Appraisal (Books, Maps, Scrolls): 2 BP gets me my Intelligence score (15)+my mastery die roll (d12p, for 7, +2 for my intelligence), or 23. I’ll spend another 2BP for another roll of the mastery die, a 3, +2 again, so, 28.4 BP spent, down to 35 BP.

Arcane Lore: I get the first purchase for free, and my mastery die roll is an 8, +2 for Intelligence, so, 25. A second purchase would be 10 more BP. Let’s get back to this, too.

Let’s see…

  • Astrology (2 BP) (Score ends up being 23)
  • Escape Artist (4 BP) (Score 21)
  • Hiding (6 BP) (Score 26)
  • Literacy (2 levels free, plus a third for 4 BP) (Score 47 — I rolled a 12 on the mastery die, which got me another roll.)
  • Monster Lore (5 BP) (Score 27)
  • Riddling (4 BP) (Score 23)

That leaves me with 10 BP left. I can save it, or get that other rank in Arcane Lore. Let’s go for it. Mastery die is 6, +2 for my high Intelligence, so 8, added to my existing score of 25, gives me 33.

That’s it for STPs.

Hit Points

Hit points are based on my Constitution (8), my size bonus (10), and my class Hit Die roll (D4 roll, I roll a 1. Yeah, that seems familiar.), for a total of 19 HP.

Other Numbers

My Base Attack is based on my Intelligence and Dexterity, which gives me a +4 (Go back to the first part of this article to see why!). My Base Initiative is +2, which is bad (the higher the number, the slower you act), and my Base Defense is also +2, which is better than nothing (high numbers are good for defense).

I have 45 sp to spend on stuff.

And So…

We’re done!

With 19 hp to my name, I can take a small amount of damage — a goblin with a crossbow does 2d6p, for example.

While I’ve got some mildly useful spells, the only one with even a marginal combat application is Phantom Irritation, which is a “debuff” — it gives the target a -2 to his Attack rolls. Not useless, but hardly a Nuclear Winter Fireball.

It should be noted that the combat rules, which are straightforward but not simplistic or abstract, are demonstrated through a comic-strip sequence featuring the Knight Of The Dinner Table stupidly goading BA into unleashing more monsters on them. It’s probably one of the best examples of combat I’ve seen, because it goes through every step, roll, and calculation in action, and does so in a way that’s fun and amusing to read. If I’m not mistaken, it actually continues the story from Hackmaster Basic, which used the same method.

As I said in the first part, this Hackmaster, while not as over-the-top gonzo as the prior edition, still retains a lot of humor. It’s just less in-your-face. You have to read the spell text, quirk and flaw descriptions, and so on, to find all the jokes and asides. (You can also tell, by reading some of the full text, what kinds of lame-ass exploits players attempted to get away with, and how they were smacked down by their GM.)

In conclusion? Unlike a lot of the more dubious games I perform this process on, there’s not a lot of head scratching, “what were they thinking?” moments, at least not for this particular character. Characters begin with mediocre skills and abilities, but that’s by explicit, called-out, design. There’s no disconnect between the promised game and what the mechanics deliver, and that’s a really good thing. I do admit I miss a lot of the “gonzo” of HM 4e, even if some of it was forced in by mandate; the wider range of races available, the more outre class choices, and so on, were a lot of fun. Mechanically, there’s not much that can stop you from adding such things in. Casters, in general, are very toned down in HM 5e. You have incredibly potent spells at high level, true, but you don’t get a lot of spells to cast at any one time, and the road to high level is going to be a very long slog, indeed.

Also, there’s no Game Master’s Guide yet for Hackmaster, and given that it took several years from Hackmaster Basic for the PHB to come out, I’m not betting on the GMG being at GenCon 2013. There’s a lot of material in the PHB that refers to the GMG, too. This brings back something truly old-school — it took three years for the three core AD&D books to come out. Yes, kids, three years. We made do. We cobbled together rules from OD&D and Holmes Basic and Dragon articles and Arduin. We also walked twenty miles to the game store, barefoot, and uphill, both ways. Through blizzards in summer and winter. So get offa my lawn!

Hackmaster 5e

Hackmaster 5e

This ain’t your father’s Hackmaster.

The original Hackmaster was based on AD&D 1e and 2e, put through a psychedelic blender and cranked up to 11. The only mechanics from that version that really remain in this one were the ones they added to the older game — percentiles for all stats and a working skill system. Gone are gummy bear golems, leperchauns (note spelling), and most (though by no means all) of the other stuff mandated by contract so no one would notice that, under the jokes, was a pretty workable evolution of older D&D, one which might have easily been AD&D 3e in another universe.

This Hackmaster has core mechanics rather unlike those of any edition of D&D, save that there’s a D20 involved and you still have basically 3-18 stats. 1 second combat turns, active defense rolls, and a spell point system are clear departures from the classic game. Mechanically, there’s almost nothing old-school about it. (Unless one defines “old school” as “anything that isn’t exactly like D&D 3.5 or 4e”.) The designers of Hackmaster 5e are aware that the last 35-odd years of game design have happened.

What Hackmaster retains of Old School, gloriously and wondrously so, is the attitude. My lack of God, this book drips with attitude. It knows what Old School really means: Kicking ass and taking names, so you can go back and kick the asses of people you didn’t get a chance to before. It also recognizes the rightful and proper relationship of players and Gamesmasters: The former kneel, grovel, and crawl before the almighty and unforgiving gaze of the latter.

Page 9. Paragraph 2: “In Hackmaster, any rule ambiguity related to character creation and PC powers is construed against the player character.”


It is made clear over and over in the rules: This game isn’t about mollycoddling your PC to godhood because he’s so special and wonderful. You begin as a worthless shlump and you might survive to be someone, someday, but you probably won’t. Instead of “Everyone’s a winner!”, the attitude of Hackmaster is, as the Demotivational poster says…

For Every Winner, There Are Dozens Of Losers

For Every PC Who Lives, There Are Dozens Who Don’t.

No gamer worth his dicebag can resist a challenge like that. Hackmaster dares you to confront it.

But does it work? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. At least, we’re here to roll up a character.

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Chi-Chian, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Roll Up A Communist Cockroach

Or Maybe Not, I Don’t Know Yet What I’m Going To Roll. Or Even If I Roll.

I don’t want to just do older games or D&D heartbreakers; I want to do any game I own and which might catch my eye. Chi-Chian is one of the games that originally inspired me to do this, way back when, because I knew I’d never play it; it’s only fitting I get around to it eventually, and eventually is now!

The campaign setting, according to the back of the book, is a New York City inhabited by six foot cockroaches, but it’s also set in 3049, so I assume there are some fictional elements added in to the mix, as well as the aforementioned gritty realism. Yes, I’ll be returning to this particular well a lot, folks. I never go for the hard jokes if I can go for the easy ones.

The setting is based on an animated web series and some comic books, neither of which I’ve heard of, by “Voltaire”, who is a modern gothy type and not an ancient philosopher. Knowing nothing but what’s in the book, I’m a good test subject for how well it works as a game in itself.

The first page features a summary of events, which involves skyscraper jumping as a hobby, sentient BioLogic clothing, giant worms that serve as subway trains (and the worm-wranglers that debrain them), lost blind sexbots, homicidal cousins (and the tentacle robots who serve them), and brain merges…. and it still makes more sense, and is better written, and more internally consistent, than Synnibarr.

It goes on for several more pages, in white text on black/grey photographic background. Why white text on black/grey photographic background? Because fuck you, that’s why, as they say on Fark. This book is the product of an artiste, and artistes do not care for your decadent capitalistic running dog bourgeoisie concepts like “legibility”. Actually, it’s pretty much readable, more so than a lot of White Wolf stuff, but there’s a range between “looks like it was Xeroxed in 1974” and “looks like a MySpace page”, and it’s tilting a bit towards the latter.

Anyway… lessee… monks, dragon boats, wormtrains, caterpillar heads, giant samurai, Spirit World, Material World, neuronetic bra(?), waltzing with roaches, flip, flip, more stuff, flip, flip, a bit of fiction, flip, flip… we don’t get to the game until Page 19. I have a feeling I’m going to have to go back and read through the stuff I bleeped through eventually.

Writing for games is, or should be, the antithesis of writing fiction. Tell, don’t show. “Elves get +2 to Perception” is a lot better than three pages of a story about an elf listening for something. At the most, dress it up with “Elves are known for their keen senses, as they are master hunters. (+2 Perception)”.

Now, I get that Chi-Chian is a game set in a specific world, and, as such, introducing that world’s background and history is vital because, without it, you have no guidance as to how to apply the mechanics. Doing this is a delicate dance. You need to introduce the bare minimum of context on an as-needed basis, adding more when it becomes necessary, with dribbles and drabbles of flavor text and micro-fiction, ideally no more than 2-3 paragraphs in a sidebar, to set the mood. Page after page of background, especially background presented in a story fashion, instead of an encyclopedia fashion, is a huge barrier to anyone actually getting to the “play the game” part of things.

Sensei No More

The GM is called the Sensei. Sigh. Anyway, we still have PCs and NPCs, not “Heroic Protagonistic Archetypes” and “Secondary Metafictive Instruments” or some such twaddle. What is an RPG, blah blah, OK, some meat. We have Statistics, which mean what they do in every game, and Capabilities, which seem to incorporate powers, feats, skills, and so on. This isn’t bad; one word means “Shit everyone has some score in”, and one word means “Shit only some people have a score in/can do”. I can dig it.

Oh, cool! A white box, clearly set aside, that gives the framework for making a character. Pick a concept, spend Chi (character points), pick two Tragic Flaws, fill in all the roleplaying fluff (appearance, mannerisms). Good. We have a plan.

Concept. Uhm… uh… OK, this is the time where I go back and read the fluff again, isn’t it, so I can come up with a character who fits in the world… (Why don’t you just hum the Jeopardy theme to simulate the passage of time…)

You know what to do with little “More” type things now, don’t you? Good…

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The World Of Synnibarr

The World Of Synnibarr

World Of Synnibarr

First Edition Cover, Image From, because I’m too lazy to scan my own copy of the cover. Hope they don’t mind.

OK, first off, let me note I have a few weird psychological issues with the World of Synnibarr, because I bought my copy (the first edition of the game, with the lion man cover) at an SF con in the early 90s where I a)had a migraine, and b)had my girlfriend of the time decide to spend all her time traipsing around with other people. Yes, I still nurture my two-decade old psychological scars. I hold on to my trivial emotional traumas the way other people hold on to their grandmother’s good china. (If your china is made in New Jersey, why isn’t it new jersey? And how can you have eyeglasses made of plastic? Shouldn’t they be eyeplastics? And that airplane food…)

So. Synnibarr. I will attempt to put my personal issues behind me, and review this San-loss inducing book fairly. No, seriously. No matter what my weird cross-associations may be with things, this game is wonked. I’ve referred many times to things that teeter on the edge of awesome and awful… this doesn’t teeter. Hell, it didn’t even fall off. It never got out of the pit of Awful to begin with.

Or…. so it appears merely from flipping through it, then trying to reconcile what I’ve read with any notion of a sane and ordered universe, or at least, a universe which was not actively malign. I haven’t tried to make a character with it, yet. Let’s see how it goes. Who knows? It might be better than it seems. Odin knows, it couldn’t be worse.

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