Review for “The Book Of eight Restful Retreats”, my first product published through Christina Stiles Presents: http://www.rpgnow.com/product_reviews.php?products_id=131265
Necromican, Level 10 And Up
What Do You Mean? Nine’s As High As Spells Go
Nope, These Go To
OK, Boils and Ghouls! The last part of this series covers the seriously munchkin stuff, without the John Kovalic art. For earlier parts of this series, click one of the preceding words, each one takes you to a different part. For this part of this series, keep reading.
This booklet shows off one of the best parts of Old School Gaming — sheer over-the-topness, for when Power Word Kill and Wish just aren’t good enough. If you’re fighting galactic dragons, after all, they’re not! Forget all that Fantasy Fucking Vietnam and “let’s pour water on the floor and see how it pools” crap. In this kind of Old School play, if you wanted to find a pit trap… nah, you never wanted to find a pit trap. You were too busy casting Summoning Of The Black Hole. Not a euphemism.
As usual, this will be a selected subset of the wonderment that lies within, not an exhaustive repetition of the contents.
Tenth Level Spells
This spell creates 1-4 duplicates of the caster, without his magic items. It’s not clear if this means that if he’s wearing a magic wizard robe, and nothing underneath it, his duplicates appear with a non-magic version of the same robe, or naked. I suppose it depends on the emotional maturity of the DM and his fellow players. Given the state of gaming culture at the time…
Player 1: Oh, I know! I’ll cast Duplication!
DM: OK, you get (roll) 2 duplicates. They’re naked.
Player 2: (Snorting laugh) Dude, we can see your thingie!
Player 1: Can not! Shut up!
Player 3: Oh, gross! Isn’t your magic user 30 or something? That’s ancient!
Player 2: Yeah, I bet it’s all warty!
Player 1: SHUT UP!
The spell also notes, wisely, that duplicates cannot duplicate themselves. Hey, it was the first thing I thought of, and I guarantee you that line was added after the first time the spell was used in play to create Infinite Magic Users, presumably with infinite warty thingies. (Would “Infinite Warty Thingies” be a good name for a band? Probably not.)
Cube Of Space
This spell create a 10′ by 10′ by 10′ cube around the caster. Each face of the cube is a “portal into deepest outer space”. So, someone shoots an arrow into the cube, it goes into space, and possibly hits a small space-worm, who just says “Oh no, not again.” Anyone charges at the caster, they’re tossed into space. It’s a one-way trip; the cube can’t be re-entered from the space side. It’s not clear, from the description, if the caster can fire out of the cube or not, which is kind of key. If they can, they can sit there like an artillery unit and blast the crap out of things. If they can’t, this is mostly defensive.
Excellent Prismatic Spray
Why should Gary Gygax be the only one to rip off Jack Vance? This spell is actually closer to the one in the Dying Earth novels than the AD&D spell of nearly the same name. Perhaps that’s why this one is the Excellent Prismatic Spray. (Coming soon: Enterprise Edition Prismatic Spray, Prismatic Spray Lite, Prismatic Spray for Workgroups…) Anyway, you cast this spell at a single target, and it dices him into 1-10 pieces, and you roll on the accompanying chart to see which pieces they are. For non-humanoids, you are instructed to “simply draw charts similar to this one”.
It’s kind of worth noting that there’s no specific rules for the damage done by any part being lopped off, or any other effects. “OK, you’re dead.” “Why?” “You got both your legs chopped off! And your thingie!” “So, I didn’t take any damage.” “Yeah, but you’re totally bleeding everywhere!” “Since when? You never bleed from wounds in D&D. I just have to crawl!” “No, you’re dead!” “Are you still mad about that pizza thing? I told you, I thought you’d taken your slice. Give it a rest, man.” Also, does a roll of 8 mean you lose your fingers? What if you were holding your hands in a different position, because, like, I totally was. My hands were nowhere near that ray.
When this spell is cast, the players stop seizing every opportunity to make lame double-entendres and try to reasonably evaluate rules conflicts without rancor or hostility. I seem to have constantly saved against it.
The Jaws Of Set
OK, so, this is awesome. Giant invisible snake jaws appear, biting your enemies for 1-100 points of damage. 100 hit points (remember, this was an era when the largest red dragons had only 88 hit points), moves at double speed, teleports without error, and has AC 2+2, which is AC 0, not AC 4. If you don’t understand why, you’re not Old School. N00b! The summoned jaws last until destroyed, which means, you’ve got invisible jaws that do 1-100 damage and can teleport to any point you wish and go chomp. I wouldn’t memorize any other 10th level spell. Seriously, can you imagine having… wait, how many 10th level spells do you get, anyway? There’s no rules for magic-users in this book, and none of the official D&D books gave you more than 9th level spells, no matter how high level your character was. Sigh. Yet another example of where the local house rules were so internalized the authors forgot to include them.
Eleventh Level Spells
I can only imagine this spell was created by DMs for use against players. It targets a magic item, and de-magics it. To restore the item, you need three simultaneous wishes, each cast by a magic-user, not from a scroll or item. This reeks of the got-you-last one-upmanship that most Monty Haul games reached in their final stages. It was very rare for monsters to have magic items in those days, so this is either DM vs. player or player vs. player magic. As is…
Simply nullifies all magic items, weapons, armor, power, and abilities for 1-6 rounds, save for half duration. Again, the main focus here seems to be to let the DM kill a player… I mean, a character… who is wrapped in so many magic items they can’t be easily thwarted.
Call Of The Comet
You call a comet. You designate a landing zone within 240′ of you when you cast it, then skedaddle. 1d6 days later, a comet appears. Based on the roll, it can be anything from pea-sized, doing 1d6, to 100′ feet in diameter, doing 100d6 and leaving a mile-wide crater. (Presumably, it does the damage to everyone within a half mile of the impact point.)
Probably really sucks if you wait six days then get a comet that’s about as impressive as a slingshot pellet.
For the mid-range effects, a standard issue fireball does about as much damage and doesn’t take days to show up. This spell is one of those “But.. but… it’s a comet!” things, where the sheer awesomeness of the concept distracted the designers from the utility of the spell itself.
This spell causes 10 x the caster’s level people within a one mile area to go insane, rolling on a chart to determine Paranoia, Schizophrenia, Sexual Perversion (what? No detailed subchart for that? Son, I am disappoint), etc. The description notes that it’s useful for livening up dull little hamlets. (And possibly dull little MacBeths, I suppose. Badum BUM!)
Twelfth Level Spells
The Sorcerer’s Spacecraft
So, how do you get into space to fight Galactic Dragons? With this, of course, which makes this an amazingly stupid spell to cast. Why give the DM any excuse to throw one of those TPK nightmares at you? Anyway, conjures spaceship, magically controlled flying saucer, top deck is good for cocktail parties which are things the typical D&D player of 1978 may have heard of but would never be invited to, speed is 10 million MPH, which pretty much means it’s limited to in-system travel (kind of surprising, really, you’d think there’d be an FTL drive. Maybe the designers thought that wouldn’t be realistic. You laugh, but I’ve seen far sillier debates).
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Uhm… no we’re not. This spell kills 10 times the caster’s level in humans. (Only humans? What if I want to destroy the Elven Menace, before they destroy us?) Assuming that casting 12th level spells requires being 24th or 25th level, that’s still only about 250 people. That’s not “genocide”, that’s “a typical summer in Chicago”. There are many less powerful spells that will kill many more people. The spell also notes that “a save results in no effect”. Does this mean each target saves individually? Damn, that’s a lot of rolling.
The Black Forest
This spell conjures ham, pickles, assorted mustards, and… no, wait. This spell creates a square mile of Evil Forest, which is exactly what you need to surround your Evil Wizard Tower. It springs up overnight, and also gives you 1-100 giant spiders, 1-100 evil ents, and 1-100 orcs, all under your control. Nothing in the spell description says it can only be cast in specific locations, so I’d cast it in the heart of a major city. In one night, the entire city is destroyed by the magical trees, and the survivors are hunted down by my spiders, ents, and orcs. Bwahahah! I’ll bet I kill a lot more people than that “genocide” spell does. Oooh, what a misnomer! I’m still pissed at that. Nearly as pissed as I was that time I went into the “Virgin Megastore”. Talk about false advertising! Where was I?
Soul Drain Deflection
This spell lets you pick someone else to be the target of any soul-draining effect cast on you. There’s no indication they need to be willing, or get a saving throw. The possibilities for amusement should be self-evident.
Summoning Of The Black Hole
A black hole is summoned. All in the area are sucked into it, and deposited into deep space, requiring three simultaneously cast wishes to bring them back. Presumably, they also get killed in the process of going through the singularity, though that’s not spelled out. (Argument time!) Those who do make their save are merely compressed to a piece of matter about a millimeter in size. I’d guess you only need a single Wish, or even a bog-standard Resurrection spell, to restore them to life.
And So, It Ends
Thus, we come to the end of the Necromican walkthrough. I really wish Fantasy Art Enterprises had made more books. There are rumors some of them went on to real jobs, or might have met girls, or otherwise were distracted from producing works of singular awesometude. Sic transit gloria mundi. (“Gloria is ill on the subway on Monday.”)
Oh, and this is for an earlier spell, and I think I may have included it anyway, but, just in case I haven’t, here it is:
Hackmaster Part II: Khan Strikes The Chamber Of Secrets Back
When Last We Left Our Intrepid
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.
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.
- 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 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.
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.
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!
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.”
Yeah! Viking Hat FTW! VIKING HAT FOREVER!
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…
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.
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…
The World Of Synnibarr
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.
The Epic Saga Continues
CAPS STILL NOT OPTIONAL
Welcome back! I know, even for me, this was a long time between updates, but I’ve been:
|01-30||Ranting on the D&D Next boards|
|31-80||Ranting on the SWTOR boards|
|81-85||Actually playing SWTOR|
|86-90||Working on fiction for my writer’s club|
|91||Working on Stellar Warriors|
|92-95||Being distracted by funny cats on the Internet|
|96-00||Looking at porn Studying new coding techniques.|
So, now that that’s been established… back to creating a CYBORG COMMANDO!
When we last left our intrepid CYBORG COMMANDO, he, or possibly she, was void and formless. I hoped to find some inspiration in the book for a character idea, but what I found was inspiration as to how not to write a core rulebook. The book is filled with endless details on how the cyborgs work, down to things like the precise angle of rotation of the neck and the alloy composition of various body parts and the fact your head is actually almost completely hollow and..
Oh, yeah. Your brain is in your chest. Your head… well…
Yeah. It’s kind of interesting that one of the leading forms of real-world nanotech now is “lab on a chip” technology, which puts all sorts of chemical analysis functionality onto a microchip, leading towards real-life tricorders. Back in the 1980s, of course, we thought you’d need to hollow out your head to do this sort of thing.
There’s a lot of really weird details in the rules, and it takes up a lot of the rules, except, it’s not really “rules”, is it? Most of this would be called “fluff”, and fluff can be good, but it’s not fluff that inspires you or gives you an idea what the world is like, it’s fluff that shows the writer probably got a degree in mechanical engineering and this is his first chance to use it. For example, we learn the Yield Strength of the frame of a CYBORG COMMANDO is 8,047 T/m2. I have no idea what that means. Is it useful in-game, in any way? No, because there’s no rules anywhere that turn “Yield Strength” into some kind of mechanic you can use to decide if your CYBORG COMMANDO is crushed by a truck or whatever. “Ten times stronger than steel!”, if technically imprecise, provides a reader with an idea, a mental image, a conception, of how tough a CYBORG COMMANDO is. “Yield strength”, for the bulk of readers, who presumably don’t know the “yield strength” of common items you find in your home and office, tells you nothing. Even in a freeform, GM-decides, make-shit-up kind of rules system (which CYBORG COMMANDO is and isn’t, and in all the worst ways), it’s a useless piece of information, because it doesn’t give the GM any assistance in making a ruling. The book is filled with stuff like this, page on page on page, and there aren’t many pages in total.
Sure, background is great, and having a little fluff to help define and ground the technology of the game is very useful — but you could cut the amount of text dedicated to this by, literally, 90%, and convey just as much useful, setting-defining, information. (Then there’s things that provide information not even used in the setting, like a page of math, detailed formulas, for hyperspace travel times, when there’s no space travel in the game. If there was a plan for future expansion with rules for space travel, that’s where this should have gone.)
I still haven’t gone on to developing my character, have I? The above rant is a partial excuse for why it took so long to get to this point… trying to find something to hook into. Even games I’ve been unimpressed with, or which were mechanically very simple, gave me more ideas for “what kind of character can you be” than CYBORG COMMANDO does. I will be first in line to laugh at White Wolf’s purple prose, shallowly stereotyped splats, and labored emo first person narratives with light-gray text on slightly-less-light-gray backgrounds and moire pattern watermarks, but there’s no way that, by the time you’re ready to fill in the dots on your character sheet in a White Wolf game, you don’t have a lot of ideas for what kind of people exist in the game world, what you can be, what kind of k3wl p0w3rz… I mean, angst-filled personal dramas… you get based on what you pick, etc. CYBORG COMMANDO gives you about as much inspiration as picking “Player A” or “Player B” in an 8-bit arcade game.
Even the skill list isn’t much of a help, as it’s written like a college course catalog… without any course descriptions.
However, this isn’t the worst thing. There are two worst things. Yes, two. Each is more worst than the other. That’s more worst than you’ll find at Octoberfest in Chicago. The two worst things about the skills are: First Worst, almost none of them are described. No, not even a single line of description — the rules helpfully explain there wasn’t room for such useless trivia as “What do the skills do”, we had to have space for the populations of dozens of cities (because it’s important to know that Caernarfon has 12,280 people, and that Cullera has 12,335), hyperspace travel formulas, and to tell you that the Xenoborgs lost 14 colonels in their invasion. You know, I gave Star Rovers a lot of good-natured ribbing over the fact there were no space travel rules, but even if I felt the rules they included instead were of secondary importance, they were at least rules. You could use them in a game. Should asteroid mining have been booted to make room for space travel? Sure, probably, but you wouldn’t stare at the asteroid mining rules in stark incomprehension and ask “Why is this even here at all? What purpose does it serve?” The other first-worst thing is that the skills are often referred to by number. How much information is gained by writing “attempts a skill check in the area of Physical Sciences (56o)”? The “560” doesn’t help you quickly find the non-existent skill description… it just wastes space.
(A few skills are described, mostly the “Psychogenic” and combat-related ones.)
Anyway, to acquire skills, I spend SP to purchase Fields, which are skills ending in multiples of 10, not Areas (which end in single digits) or Categories (ending in 00). This is the Basic game; you get more flexibility in the Advanced game, but I’m not going there unless someone pays me.
So, I have 30 Skill Points. That’s… uhm… not a lot. I mean, a whole lot of not a lot. How about 10 in 220, “Unarmed Combat”, which gives me 10 in “Occidental Combat” and “Oriental Combat”, the two Areas that are in that Field. (Somewhere, Steve Long is weeping.) That leaves me 20.
Well, 10 more in Personal Weapons. That makes me equally skilled with everything from 231 Ancient Bladed Melee Weapons (including agricultural tools) to 237 Artillery. (“Can you handle a howitzer?” “Why, sure, I used to cut down wheat with a sickle on my farm back home!”) (I should cut CYBORG COMMANDO some kind of break here, since this is “basic” character generation and many games have nothing but a “combat” stat, especially games of this era. But I’m just not in a forgiving mood right now.)
I’ll put 5 in Personal Arts 410, since that gives me access to 411 Error Avoidance, which covers “Karma & Fate” and “Serendipity”. And the last 5, I dump into 630 Criminal Activity, since almost everything under it seems vaguely useful… though with only 5 points, I’ll probably suck at it. Due to the lack of skill descriptions, it’s unclear if 634 Sex Related Crime covers “running a prostitution ring” or “committing sexual assault and getting away with it”. I guess that’s the sort of thing you need to argue with your GM about. OTOH, there’s no indication that CYBORG COMMANDOs are, ahem, “fully functional”, so it may be moot. A pity. Given the style of the the rest of the book, one might expect something like “The synthesteel duraplas pseudopenis of the CC unit is 19.8 cm in length and is covered with TextuWeave Quasiskin that transmits simulated neural responses at a rate of 10.94 megagigs per kilounit. It can be set to vibrate at 500 RPM.”
Yes, I went there. What, you expected class, decorum, or good taste? Did you read my Alma Mater review?
And so…. I’m done. My nameless CYBORG COMMANDO is ready to go kick some ass. Or get his ass kicked, since from what I can tell, I have a ten percent chance of hitting someone. No, wait…. after several minutes of studying the mind-numbingly confusing graphs, it seems I have a 27% chance of rolling 10 or less using the d10x system. Wow, that’s intuitive. (Also, raising my skill from 10 to 11 is meaningless, because you can’t roll an 11 on d10x. You have to raise it to 12 to see any gain.)
And in conclusion… I’ve got to find something better for my next article. I have nearly 3000 game books in my collection. This can’t be hard. Synnibarr. Synnibarr should be fun. Unless someone wants to send me a copy of that game where you play flower penis vampires. That could also be fun.
(All-Caps NOT OPTIONAL)
(Not Gary Gygax’s Finest Hour… Or Week… Or Year…)
So, what happens to an iconic creator when, for various reasons, he can no longer work on the products that made him so iconic? Well, he can start a failed computer company, or a failed comic book company, or produce a failed roleplaying game. Given the nature of this site, I hope you don’t have to guess too hard what I’m about to cover. (Hint: Read the title. It’s in ALL CAPS!)
CYBORG COMMANDO (this is how it’s written throughout the rules, and that’s how I’m going to write it here) is about COMMANDOS that are CYBORGS. What does it profit a man to gain built in missile launchers if he loses his soul? How much of your humanity will you sacrifice, to save humanity? At what point are you more metal than man? Is humanity a thing of the flesh, or of the soul? Are you more inhuman than the monsters you were created to fight? These, and other questions, are totally not even remotely asked in this game. CYBORG COMMANDO is about kicking alien ass with your built in cyber powers, and there is nothing wrong with that premise… but, according to many reviews and writeups, there’s a hell of a lot wrong with the game as a game. Or… is there? (Probably.) I’m going to find out, and you’re going to join me for the trip. (Or you’ve already dismissed this page and are eagerly looking to see if there’s any updates on goatswithboats.com.)
Let’s move on…
When last we left our intrepid would-be employee of some future Blackwater, he had just chosen his species — the Eridani, a race of Voldermort-looking dudes (again, in the interest of fairness, I want to stress that Battelords well predates Harry Potter and I’m just using the term because everyone knows what Lord Voldemort looks like… much in the same way that people tend to compare games to WoW even if the tropes WoW uses originated in Everquest or DikuMUD) who are basically Ronin….Innnnn….Spaaaaaaace, total stick-up-their-ass stoic warrior dudes who are loads of fun to play, especially if the party has some less straight laced types in it.
There’s three methods of rolling characters. Roll percentiles in order, then roll three more and replace any three with the new rolls; Roll ten times, discard the lowest 2, then assign them in the order you wish; and roll eight percentile dice five times and then choose which set you like, placing them in the stats in order. Number 2 is the “most popular”, and it’s also the easiest, so that’s what I’m going for.
As usual, my rolls suck. Obviously, we drop the 9 and the 12.
The eight attributes are:
Strength, Manual Dexterity, IQ, Agility, Constitution, Intuition, and Charisma
No, wait, that’s seven attributes.
OK, there’s an “Agression” score. Every other attribute has a table; Aggression doesn’t. It’s very easy to overlook. So, OK, 8.
It’s recommended that you roll on the “I Was Just Growing Up” and “Fickle Finger Of Fate” charts before assigning attributes, so let’s do that, shall we?
Past Is Prologue
“Life charts” or “Fate Charts” or “Backgrounds” or whatever were really, really, big in 1990s era games. They hardly originated there… I remember the first edition of Mekton had a “Lifepath” system that could get you spinning endlessly as you diced for the hair color of your sixteen siblings and whether or not you liked any of them, but the nineties were the golden age of finding out you were born on a farm and your older brother tried to kill you and you were kidnapped by gypsies and encountered a mentor who taught you how to ride a motorcycle and then your girlfriend was assassinated by space nazis and you worked on an ice planet in their broccoli mines and then, when you were twelve… so let’s see what we get here.
There’s two tables, Table 1 and Table 2. If you want to roll on Table 2, the “good” table, you must roll on Table 1. If you roll three times on Table 1, you can roll twice on Table 2. If you are married filing jointly, subtract the total of line 45 from…
I’ll just roll once on each.
Table 1: 40. I have hydrophobia. According to the table, “Your mother dropped you in water and you sunk”.
Table 2: 32. I was a famous cyball player (+2 charisma). Since we’re on a 1-100 scale, that’s not a whole hell of a lot.
I can also roll once or twice on the Fickle Finger of Fate table, plus an additional once on the Warrior Fortune table.
Fickle Finger Of Fate: 78. I was mugged while walking my pet, -200 credits. Boy, this is going to really look crappy on my performance review.
Warrior Table: 04. Hey, cool! Obtained training in swordsmanship at the famed Swintash school. +10 to hit with edged weapons! That actually fits my character. Go, me!
Time to assign stats. As an Eridani, I get a bunch of bonuses and only a few penalties, so let’s just work this out. I want to be a kick-ass sword wielder, so I figure we’ll start with the physical and go from there. My base numbers, again, are: 44,86,25,45,55,87,54,23
Manual Dexterity: 45+5=50
So what’s all this mean? Well, there’s a lot of very AD&D 1st edition tables with “Minimum for an Orion” and “Maximum for a Ram Python” here, so I’ll check to make sure I’m not breaking any bounds. There’s also plenty of attribute-dependent things like encumbrance, etc. My strength of 97 gives me a +2 to damage, an “SB”… that’s skill bonus, for strength based skill checks, or +12, and I can dead lift 660… lbs, I assume. My 75 agility gives me a -2 Defensive Modifier (that’s added to my opponents roll, so it’s subtracted, which is a good thing, except, again, we’re on a percentile scale, so that -2 is going to be more an annoyance than a real benefit. “The enemy rolls a 98, plus his attack bonus of 47, so he hits you.” “Did you remember to take away 2?” “Yes.” “Oh, OK, then.”) I also have a +4 to my attack rolls with archaic hand held weapons, so I’m already at a +14 to hit. Sweet!
I just want to note the Constitution table has “System Shock” and “Resurrection Percentage” values.
Lastly, my Intuition of 20 makes me “Absolutely Clueless” and gives me a -20 to sight, hearing, and smell checks, and my Charisma of 15 means I am “Ugly as !%$&*”. No, really, that’s what it says — literally transcribed. Oh, and there’s a Henchman Loyalty Base. By the way, if Charisma is pure appearance, as would seem to be the case by the comments, why did being a professional Cyball player improve my Charisma, however slightly? Did we get free plastic surgery or something?
This covers random other stuff. The first is Terrestrial Knowledge, which is the chance you’ll know anything about a particular planet. To determine it, you roll %ile dice and divide by 3. 17, divided by 3 is 5.6, and we round up to 6. I have a 6% chance to know anything, but since there’s 20 galaxies in this setting, I think that’s pretty good.
Military Leaderships: I add Intelligence, Aggression, and Intuitions, divide by 4, and round up: I end up with a 36.
Persuasion is Intelligence+Charisma, divided by 3. 23
Bargaining is Persuasion-15, or 8.
Given that there’s a bunch of skills later on, I have no clue why the “Secondary Statistics” are not just, you know, skills, or why Persuasion and Bargaining are broken out as they are. Anyway, there’s the numbers. I do get to add some racial bonuses, though, so my final Secondary Scores are:
Terrestrial Knowledge: 21
Military Leadership: 56
Frankly, I think any race of beings known throughout
the galaxy twenty galaxies for being warrior-lunatics would have a huge bonus to “Persuasion”, but, then again, I got mugged while walking my pet. I don’t even know what kind of pet it was. Fooey.
Hey, there’s a Racial Preference chart!
Yeah. Getting a bit of déjà vu here….
One of these things is
not just like the other….
I now need to figure out my size class, which is based on my height and weight, so I have to go back to my racial description to see what dice I roll. I am 82 inches tall and weigh 280 lbs. This makes me size class 6. I have 10 Body Points, and can make 3 punches per turn. My Social Status is content, which gives me a 25% bonus to starting money, which is determined by my race, which gives me 100 * 6d6, and I rolled a total of 25, so, 2500*1.25=3,125 galactic… whatever, minus 200 since I got mugged walking my pet. Yes, I’m still bitter about that. That leaves me 2925.
Skills to Pay The Bills
Everyone begins with 50 Proficiency Points, except I’m not Everyone, I’m an Eridani, so I begin with 40. I will be complaining to the Galactic Equal Opportunity Board forthwith. I get a few bonuses due to my race, as well — I get three levels in Archaic Hand Weapon, and Archaic Hand Weapon skills cost 1 point less. I can start with only three levels in any skill above and beyond my racial levels, so let’s see max out “Whack People With Sword”. Lessee, here’s the skill table and… my eyes! Sweet cold and merciless gods of space, my eyes!
I’m obviously spoiled by modern layouts. Wow. This is just one giant wall of numbers and symbols. Sure, it all makes sense eventually, but this is the kind of thing that tends to send folks running in terror.
There’s two full pages of this. Yeow! (Really, though, this is cleaner and more straightforward than many similar games of the era, and it’s probably better to have all the vital information in a chart, however abbreviated, than to have to flip across multiple pages to compare skills, but it’s still an overwhelming mass of numbers and symbols, hard to take in all at once.)
The most important number is “SC”, which is “Skill Cost”, which is “How much it costs to get a level in this skill”. Archaic Hand Weapon only costs 2 points per level, or one point ’cause I’m an Eridani and I rule, baby, but there’s a little squiggly symbol next to it which means “Does not give standard +10$ modifier”, see skill description to see how it is used.
I need to specify type of weapon… that’s easy, “Big Ass Sword”. Then I look at the Hand to Hand Combat Chart. If I add 3 levels (for a total cost of only 3 points), to my pre-existing 3, I will be at level 6, which gives me a +24 hit bonus and +2 damage and +1 to “number of attacks”. Add in my +10 from my race and my +4 from my Agility and I’m at +38, which seems pretty good without any knowledge of what the combat system is actually like. I also have a +2 damage from my Strength and a +2 from my skill level, so +4, which if most people have Body Points in the low double digit range, as seems to be the case, means I’m doing serious whackity with each hit. (A two-handed sword, which requires minimum strength of 70 to wield, does 2-12 points of damage and has a base 85% chance to hit, so my chance to hit is, I’m guessing, 85+38 minus some defensive whatever. 2-12+4 is pretty sweet damage, though. Maybe. Actually, I have no idea.
And I think I will stop here for the nonce… picking skills is the best part of games like this, so it deserves its own take. Then we ought to be done!
“Suddenly, five soldiers in heavy assault armor appeared out of nowhere!”
Battlelords Of The Twenty Third century is a game I remember seeing a lot in stores in the early 1990s, but I never picked it up. Recently, I was offered a chance to review the new (or possibly re-released, not 100% sure…) edition, and was given a free copy of the PDF in order to do so. Some bloggers whine and complain that they may have to disclose getting free laptops or vacations in return for reviews… I get a PDF. Go figure.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, the opening quote here is from the introductory game fiction. I do not like introductory game fiction. If I have to read a badly written short story to figure out what the game’s about, it’s a badly designed game. Fortunately, it seems the story is unnecessary to understand the game, a lesson White Wolf still really hasn’t learned. Unfortunately, while it isn’t necessary, it is badly written. The expository dialogue isn’t just ham handed… it’s “entire damn pig” handed. However, this is not a fiction review, it’s a game review, and, as usual, it’s not so much a “review” in the traditional sense as an “I make a character and I write down everything I do and everything I think along the way, as if anyone cares”. So let’s get on with it!
Who Do You Kill, What Stuff Do You Take?
All roleplaying games… well, all good roleplaying games… boil down to “Kill things and take their stuff.” Sometimes, the things you kill are your inner personal demons and the stuff you take is emotional maturity (it’s worth 500 gp to some vendors on the lower planes, by the way), but I think we can safely guess that a game called “Battlelords” is going to be a bit more… literal. (Which is a very, very, good thing.) From the introductory fiction, I learned that the main theme is that you’re going to be mercenaries for a megacorporation, blowing stuff up and risking constant death because there’s nothing good on television and while they’ve invented super-galactic-hyper-travel that allows the setting to cover 20 galaxies(!), they haven’t invented diet pills or Prozac. Really.
“With mixed emotions, the mercs called SSDC “Mother.” Mother offered people from the streets the chance to become something, to be more than fat, alcoholic, armchair quarterbacks whose lives suck so bad that they commit suicide in their early forties.”
The “something” they become is usually a charred corpse, but hey, it’s a living. Oh, wait, it’s not. It’s a dying. Anyway, let’s face it, by any kind of objective standard, virtually every PC in every game ever is basically a homicidal sociopath whose antics would make Stalin and Attila scratch their heads and say, “Dude, don’t you think you’re taking it a bit too far?”, so I’m not going to bitch too much about that.
Anyway… 20 galaxies? Really?
I can’t gripe too much about the general setting, though, since it hits a lot of my own personal favorite themes. Huge frackin’ galactic empires! Mysterious mysteries from the past! Super-psychic powers! Lost artifacts! You know, all the cool stuff. The writing could be a bit less clumsy, but its heart is in the right place (which, depending on species, might be the fourth leg).
By the way, you’ll be happy to know that the author takes time out to assure us that playing an RPG won’t make us believe we’re really a man eating squid. That is, a squid that eats humans, not a human who ordered “calimari” because he didn’t know it meant “squid”. I want to be clear here. The rules also tell us that there’s no devil worship involved. Yes, folks, in the 1990s, some game writers still felt obliged to tell their audience their games weren’t satanic. This tells you a lot more about game writers hoping against hope that people still believed RPGs were satanic, because that would be cool, than it does about the actual made-up scares of the time, which were more focused on Pokemon and games like “Doom”, which would turn everyone into psychopathic axe murders (but with guns, not axes), which is why, after an entire generation has grown up running demons through with chainsaws, violent crime keeps dropping despite harsh economic times that normally lead to an upswing in crime… but, please, Fox News, don’t let “facts” get in the way of your witch hunts… not that they ever have. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. Battlelords.
Blah blah what is an RPG blah blah…