On Star Wars: stories and games

On the very last day of 2015, I managed to watch The Force Awakens. Yes, one of the few advantages of a  super mega global franchise is that you get to watch it round the corner…no matter where you live. What can i say? I definitely liked it, and yet, I liked it because my expectations were so low. I mean, my last experience of a Star Wars movie (in the far 2005) was, well, horrendous.  TFA is better than the prequels for the very simple reason that it is a homage to A New Hope, and it is a less than satisfactory film for the very same reason.

Unexpectedly, after watching it I happened to think a lot about RPGs, especially RPG adventures vs. storytelling.

I thought: look at how the authors exploited all sorts of silly coincidences in order to cram as many references to the original trilogy as you could hope for. On film, it looked somewhat gratuitous, but I guess that if I ever had to GM a campaign set after the original trilogy, I probably would have done the same, in order to keep my players entertained. In fact, I guess that whenever you play in a setting borrowed from books or movies, you are to some extent tempted to do the same.

On a different level, I also reflected on the bit of insight that originated the webcomic Darths & Droids. The idea was that, storywise,  the prequels were so bad, that one could not make sense of the fact that somebody had written them that way. What if, in fact, they were nothing but the write-up of an RPG campaign? They suddenly made a lot more sense. Again, I came to think that TFA was in fact a very clever beginning for an RPG campaign. The references to the original trilogy were there (see above). The PCs had obviously been created and played by very different players. Rei is such a Mary Sue because her player is a min-maxer, who managed to get superior fighting and piloting skills while also being strong in the Force. Poe’s player is obviously somebody who is very busy and just cannot manage to be there every week: s/he was content to create a PC with one single, super high skill (starfighter piloting), and not much else to speak of. Finn’s player is obviously the least experienced one: he comes out as a character who is not especially good at anything, except perhaps putting himself in danger. His player, if anything, must have had a good time. BB-8 is obviously the GM’s favourite friendly NPC, or perhaps a character played by one of those friends of the GM who is often dropping by and must be kept entertained: this would explain why so many scenes revolve around that damned little thing…

[More seriously, I was also drawn in the unhealthy trip to revisit the now defunct Expanded Universe, which I knew little about. For the first time, I have “properly” read the five Thrawn novels by Timothy Zahn. Hopefully, I will share some thoughts about them on this blog very soon.]

After the End (of the blog?!)

Ok, I know I have screwed up pretty badly with my blog updates. I hope to do better in the next fw months. In the meanwhile, I drop by to express my satisfaction at the launch of a new GURPS series:

http://forums.sjgames.com/showthread.php?t=141985&highlight=wastelanders

Post-Apocalypse has never been my favourite genre, but as somebody who “sort of” authored a Hokuto no Ken RPG, I thought it was only right for me to bow to my betters! Really: these are great news for GURPS, which is and has always been my favourite system. After its shift to a PDF-only model, GURPS has focused pretty heavily on the Dungeon Fantasy series: an understandable choice, given the Old School Renaissance, and one that apparently sold well. But a generic system truly shines when it tackles on a wide range of genres, and I am sure this series will highlight the many strengths of the system. In particular, with the usual dials and switches, one can easily go from a very cinematic, anime-style, “gonzo apocalypse” game to a ultra-gritty, tactical guerrilla war in the wasteland. Since we have not seen official Vehicle Design rules yet, perhaps a simplified system might be included in the series for all those P-A settings that make great use of motorized vehicles on wheels. Otherwise, though, GURPS already has what we need and more, and the new series will surely make the most of it. So, those who loved the new Mad Max last year should definitely give GURPS AtE a try!

The Red Cloud Brothership, Mystics of Krondahar

tiger nest monastery

[This calls for an explanation. Among other RPG related things I have been doing in my long abstinence from the blog, I have done some reading of the beautiful retroclone Dark Dungeons, by Blacky the Blackball, which I like a ton and I am likely to review here soon. At the same time, I am browsing through my official WotC PDFs of the old GAZ series, and an idle thought crossed my mind. If you wanted to find some use for the Mystic class that sort-of fitted in the already eclectic Known World setting, where could you place them? So here it is, my little homage to BECMI, Dark Dungeons and campy Asian fantasy.]

Glantri’s law condemns the worship of Immortals in any form. Ethengarian immigrants, thus, had to renounce the ancient cult of spirits and ancestors as practiced in Ethengar. Under the influence of the powerful magic practiced by the Virayana family and other secular lore, a tradition of mysticism developed that emphasised the power of mind over matter and the transcendence of human limitations by relying solely on mental discipline. Besides more contemplative activities, a group of such scholars oriented more strongly towards the martial arts. Their training takes place prevalently in one of a small number of secular monasteries in the principality. Mystics who wander around in search of challenges can carry on their instruction autonomously or under other brothers that they meet in the world. These Red Cloud Brothers, as they came to be called, are now a precious resource for the small principality of Krondahar, in that they make excellent elite troops and unrivalled body guards and security officers. Like the textbook mystics of DD, Krondahar mystics swear a vow of poverty, so mystics who work in the capital or elsewhere in the above mentioned capacities transfer most of their income to their monasteries.

As a general rule, the level of mystic NPCs must be set as follows:

Apprentices (lvl 1): Young students at the monastery, occasionally on guard duty.

Disciples (lvl 2-6): Common members of the brothership, often employed as irregular troops or mercenaries all around the country.

Champions (lvl 7): Mature disciples, with exceptional abilities, they can often be met as they wander looking for a challenge.

Sifu (lvl 9): True masters, they can take disciples of their own.

Grand Sifu (lvl 16): Keepers of the most secret techniques.

Mystics have no official titles, and regardless of their level they address each other as Brother/Sister. Only at level 9 they earn the title Sifu (Master), and can officially take apprentices of their own: before, they can only offer informal assistence in another’s instruction. A Sifu has mastered all the more “mundane” abilities their mystic tradition has to offer, but the path to the most esoteric techniques is long. The only known Grand Sifu (expert, among other things, of the legendary Dim Mak technique) is the Grand Sifu of the High Monastery of the Red Cloud in Lhamsa (see below). Higher level mystics are rumoured to exist, but it is generally assumed that they start wandering in far away lands and savage places in search of higher challenges and enlightenment.

Combat-wise, the greatest emphasis of the training is on unarmed strikes, but armed fighting is taught as well. The first weapon taught is invariably the staff, but the one-handed (“normal”) sword, the spear and the dagger are also commonly taught.

The alignment of young mystics is usually Lawful, and they are generally assumed to be loyal and deferent servants of the Prince of Krondahar (in spite of his many quirks!). Wandering mystics, especially the most powerful, often change their alignment to Neutral, as a result of their ever increasing detachment from the material life. A Chaotic alignment is incompatible with the mental discipline of the Red Cloud mystics: mystics who happen to change their alignment to Chaotic immediately lose their abilities. With GM permission, these characters might be converted to Thieves of equivalent XPs.

Grand Sifu Thokmay (Mystic 16, AL:L). STR 12, DEX 16, CON 10, INT 10, WIS 16, CHA 13. HP 42. AC -8. Weapon Feats: Staff (Master), Sword, Normal (Expert). Special Abilities: Strike to Kill (Unarmed): 3d12 x 4 Attacks; Alertness; Self Healing; Speak with Animals; Resistence to Spells and Breath; Smash/Parry; Speak with Anyone; Mind Blank; Fade; Dim Mak. Thief Abilities: Find Traps 76%, Remove Traps 70%, Climb Walls 102%, Move Silently 72%, Hide in Shadows 60%. Special Items: Staff of Dispelling. A mature-but-not-exactly-old-looking gentleman of Ethengarian descent, Grand Sifu Thokmay  has unassuming manners and demeanor. He always carries his staff, but in the rare occasions in which he has to defend himself in a fight he opts for his dazzingly fast and powerful punches and kicks, which can harm even the toughest magical opponents the Princes can send after him. Like others before him, Thokmay is tempted to pass the monastery onto another Sifu and retire himself somewhere in the wild, but he is under the impression that the Machiavellian politics of Glantri are constantly endangering Krondahar and its people, so he tries to hold on and do his best to maintain peace and order in the principality. The Grand Sifu is respected and feared by the magic-users, not only because of his fighting prowess and spiritual force, but because of the Staff of Dispelling that is inherited by the Grand Sifus of the High Monastery. This object, bestowed to the founder by the then-rulers of Krodanhar, makes it very hard for a magic-user to harm the Master with spells or magic items.

(My) 2015 (Space) Odyssey

I wanted to thank my readers for staying with me in this first year of blogging. It has a been a bit of a tough year, both personally (job hunting and sh*t) and gaming-wise. I have not managed to put a gaming group together. Next year I might try harder, perhaps via Hangout or something. This evening I am probably going to be able to watch The Force Awakens at last, so expect some post on Star Wars stuff in the next couple of weeks. Or maybe not: it depends on how strongly I (dis)like it, on how many RPG hooks I find etc. Anyway: thank you and have a happy new year.

My Problems with Superheroes

In the next future I plan to write about superhero games, so it is perhaps time to spell out my fundamental lack of interest in role-playing superheros. In my life I have read my good share of superhero comics (mostly Marvel, mostly mutants). And yet, as I mentioned before, I have never felt terribly attracted to superhero RPGs, even though two decades ago I gave it a shot with the then-only superhero game in town in my native country.

My problem, to avoid misunderstandings, is with super-heroes, not with super-powers. The idea of playing a scenario or a campaign with superpowered characters sounds pretty appealing, in fact. Only, I would not make them comic-book superheroes. Demigods in a fantasy setting? Yes. Cosmic entities with a psychedelic space opera feel? Sure. Super mercenaries in action movie adventures? Perhaps. But not superheroes, not crime-fighters with stylized names and costumes, who honestly think that knocking out (but not maiming or killing, God forbid!) a bunch of small fry criminals every week makes any difference in the grand scheme of things.

In all fairness I think that everything Alan Moore put in Watchmen (and Snyder heavily underplayed in the movie) applies to the very concept of a superhero in general. What kinds of people would plausibly choose to be comic-book style vigilantes? Childish types, violent brutes and people with sexual kinks.

In a way, I suffer from a moral dissonance which is the opposite of the one often lamented about D&D: there, the stereotypical adventuring style (“murder-hobos”)  clashes with the assumption that at least some PCs are “good” and law-abiding, many of them are devout to peaceful religious cults etc. With superheroes, I cannot help finding the righteous and impractical attitude required by the run-of-the-mill superhero scenarios ridiculous or otherwise unconvincing, and I would be tempted the make the characters less “heroic” but more interesting. So yeah, if I really had to, I would rather play a campaign of super-villains. At least, their motives make marginally sense.

Requiem for a Gentleman

[The frequence of my posts is pretty low these days. Hopefully I will make up for it with a good bunch of posts I have drafted.]

Today I would like to elaborate on my last point: Chaosium and Hero Games are de-genericizing their classic generic systems (Basic Role-Playing and Hero System, respectively), to focus on their best selling genre games (Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Champions). I am especially sorry for BRP, and here is why.

BRP is by far the most long-lived system still around. In thirty years it has brought to life many disparate, often memorable games. In my country, where Runequest was not translated in order to avoid the competition of D&D and MERP, BRP was especially known for Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer. A literate system for anti-heroic and desperate adventures. In what I might call the Classic Age of gaming in Italy (late 80s-mid 90s), while D&D was by far the most widely played RPG, it was a rarity that a gaming group only played D&D. The informal arrangement was that in a group people alternated to GM, and more often than not each member bought the core books for a different system. So almost every group that played D&D also played CoC, Cyberpunk 2020, MERP or Stormbringer.

Eventually, even the generic BRP booklet was translated in Italian and had some diffusion, but the Classic Age had come to an end by then. The move by Chaosium to publish the Big Golden Book in 2008 was the explicit recognition that the system itself had some popularity, and people would have loved to use it for other, less explored settings of their own choice. In the last ten years, the Big Golden Book, together with the licences to Cubicle 7, Alephtar Games and others, has generated a great number of sourcebooks, most of them historically inspired, of the highest quality. Books like Alephtar’s RomeCelestial Empire or Crusaders of the Amber Coast are among the very few that can rival the classic GURPS 3e historical titles. Because of the end of the BRP licenses, all these books have been put out of print all of a sudden, and forever. This is objectively a huge loss for the gaming community at large, especially if you consider that the books were very usable with other systems, and the second-hand prices for these books are already outrageously high. I am glad to have the PDFs of most of these titles, but I deeply regret not buying physical copies when I was still allowed to.

Now that it has been deprived of BRP, Alephtar Games is working on their own generic d100 system, which will be called Revolution D100. I have come too late to back them, but I am pretty surely buying the thing when it is out. BRP deserves a worthy heir.

 

EDIT 23 December 2016 – Rome has been expanded and redone as a Mythras supplement. It also seems that Revolution D100 is finally out. Hallelujah!