They Live

Ok people, after the promising launch of a PoD line of classic D&D titles, I do not know how to call these other news: Exciting? Uplifting? Magnificent? Well, judge by yourself: For the first time, three GURPS 4e supplements come back in print via CreateSpace, the PoD platform by Amazon!

A couple of years ago I was very lucky and managed to buy many of the old hardcovers from a former player at reasonable prices, a few others I bought on the aftermarket at sillier prices (High Tech and Thaumatology, I am thinking of you!). But for anybody willing to start playing GURPS these are superb news: it really changes everything. Not to mention the fact that these reprints incorporate all known errata (and man, in Magic and Ultra Tech there were a ton!). So anybody running the game should consider getting new copies for easier table use. Be nice: go buy them.


Three Fantasy Games

First of all, I guess a owe my readers an apology. This blog has gone through a long hiatus, and perhaps it does not make a whole lot of sense to revive it now. You know how these things go: life is a b*tch and all that jazz. Somehow, I lacked the energies for regular updates, months went by etc. But the truth is that I am still into RPGs, so it would not be right to just starve this blog to death. I will not promise regular updates but, say, less infrequent updates.

Last Summer and Fall, three new releases caught pretty much all of my attention. Today and in the next few posts, I will offer some personal impressions of these games. Since my finances are limited (ah! euphemism!), I only did manage to put my money on two of them.

First, this Summer saw a triumphant Kickstarter for Zweihander, better known as “That Warhammer Fantasy Role Play retroclone that should have been out by now”. I have been following the beta releases for the game for no less than two years, and I must say that this project deserved my money, if nothing else, for the exceptional love and care that so many people put in it. This game has been conceived, playtested, revised, perfected for years by many, many WFRP fans that wanted so hard a new edition of their favourite game to see the light. I gladly shelled out my 50 euro-bucks for a physical book that, I am sure, will be gorgeous. The fact that the sellers did not charge additional shipping costs was also instrumental in making me opt for the paper as opposed to the mere PDF (shipping costs for large books can be horrifying, at times). At the moment, I have only read selections from the mammoth-sized provisional PDF, but I will give you some impressions in the next days.

The second game is Mythras. As you might remember, I have been aware of RuneQuest 6e for a long time. The fact is that I never managed to get my hands on a copy because the book was just too expensive (even for these days of expensive hardcovers). The news that the game was about to be revised and reissued made me wait a bit longer. At the end of last Summer, the game was finally out and I was (I think) among the very first to buy it in Europe. (This also resulted in a few little inconveniences, which I will discuss in a future post.) The price was just great, not least because of the partnership of the publisher with the UK based company Aeon Games. Anyway, I was super happy to finally have the book in my hands and these days I count it among my selected few favourite systems around.

The third game is, in a way, not new. It is the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy boxset that was launched on a surpise Kickstarter in September. I did not expect it and, I must confess, I just could not afford to support it: after paying for the other two books, a further expense of circa 80 euros was just too much. It is a pity, because the attempt of bringing dead-tree GURPS back (well) from the dead struck me as a great idea, really. I was never the greatest fan of the DF line per se, but that was only because I found that the attention it was getting was disproportionate with respect to the system’s potential. But you know what? They win: people want more dungeon crawling in GURPS? Hell, I am all for that. I will try to get the PDF when it is out for the general public.


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:

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!

Katana Fetishism in RPGs: Three Offenders

Pop culture has a fetish for katanas. Apparently, they are just cooler than other swords and, perhaps, any other weapon as well. If it were just an aesthetic thing, it would be no big deal. But a mix of third hand accounts by Western authors, B-movies, anime and whatnot seems to have encouraged some very specific factoids about katanas that just do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Matt Easton addressed a fair number of these in a fortunate series of videos, which I heartily recommend. When it comes to RPGs, the following assumptions seem to be widespread: (a) katanas are the supreme cutting devices: they can cut through anything, including (obviously) any form of body armour, solid wood, steel, concrete; (b) in the hands of a proficient fighter, they are exceptionally agile weapons: they can be used to attack by drawing from the scabbard with few if any chances of defense, they can be used to parry all sorts of (melee and ranged) attacks; (c) they are virtually indestructible: only another (better forged) katana can break a katana blade. I will focus on whether katanas are depicted as inherently superior to all other swords, and on whether they are granted any exceptional feat unavailable to other weapons.

GURPS 3e did not include the katana in its core book. The weapon was, nevertheless, included in many supplements, most importantly Low Tech and Martial Arts. On the damage side, the game does not do anything dramatic: compared to its closest analogue, the thrusting bastard sword, the katana inflicts one more point of damage when used to cut and one point less when used to thrust. If one must think of this bastard sword as one of those acutely pointed longswords, it seems to make sense. But when it comes to other aspects, the fetish rears its ugly head. Low Tech, like the core book, states that a bastard sword can only by used one-handed with two severe penalties: it becomes unready after a swing attack and after a parry. Katanas have no such penalties, because, we are told, they are exquisitely well balanced. Martial Arts makes things worse by granting an entirely ad hoc defense bonus to skilled katana wielders: while in GURPS 3e the Parry value equals 1/2 of your weapon skill, a katana can parry at 2/3 of your skill, provided that you use it two-handed. It is hard to say whether this unfair advantage stems from katana fetishism or merely the will to assimilate katanas to fencing weapons (other privileged weapons in rules-as-written). Hilariously, this bonus was inherited by GURPS World War II: so players, do not even think of attacking a Japanese officer in close combat! Luckily, GURPS 4e openly reformed its ways and took katanas and (one hand and a half) longsword on the same level.

For a meaningful comparison in oWoD, you must peek into the old, nearly forgotten Combat supplement. Published at a time when (Asian) martial arts  had become fashionable in RPGs, the book seems to mimic GURPS or HERO in giving martial artists cool maneuvers in order to make them better than anybody else in combat or, at least, more interesting to play. I will disregard this, and focus on the weapon stats. In this system weapons are differentiated by a number of parameters, namely Initiative, Accuracy and Damage. We are told that a bastard sword has a +4 Damage modifier, and and +0 otherwise. A katana, on the other hand, has +1 Initiative, +1 Accuracy and +3 Damage. Again, katanas are so exquisitively balanced that etc.

But those were the Nineties. Let us jump back to the present day. Savage Worlds, as we all know, is fun, fast and furious. So why care about verisimilitude? That would be slow, boring and, you know, non-furious. So the author decided to give katanas (a) a higher average damage than any other sword and (b) an Armour Piercing value of 2 against all kinds of armour, something that no other melee weapon has in the rules-as-written. I have not extensively playtested the rules, but it seems reasonable to expect that katanas are going to wound armoured opponents that other swords or pole weapons would not affect. This makes the katana by far the most attractive melee weapon in the game. Interestingly, this was so over the top that at least two licensed Savage Worlds settings discarded the Armour Piercing feat: not only the pseudo-historical Solomon Kane did it so, but even the chambara inspired Iron Dynasty did the same. It seems that katanas cutting through steel like butter are not to everybody’s liking, these days.

Ubi Maior

[I am not posting very often lately, but now I hope to make up with a series of short and (hopefully?) to the point posts on stuff I have had in mind for a while.]

One of the nerdiest and most intriguing ideas I had for a post series was to take each time one descriptive aspect of traditional RPGs, e.g., ranged combat, learning spells, buying equipment, and compare its treatment in a bunch of big games, trying to figure out what the differences (if any) might amount to in actual play. The only problem I had with that was that it is a lot of work. Now I have a second problem: as far as combat is concerned I could never do better than Douglas Cole. His recent Violent Resolution series compares five disparate games (D&D 5e, Savage Worlds, Gumshoe, Fate Core, GURPS) under many different aspects of character generation, action resolution and playability. I am happy to leave it to him. On the other hand, I might still consider to attempt something like this for other (non-combat related) fields. Stay tuned.

On playing time travel

Last week I watched the Director’s Cut of Donnie Darko for the first time, ten years after watching the theatrical release. For those interested in my opinion, the latter had a problem: the plot was a little too convoluted to be left at that. The DC, on the other hand, tries to remedy in a distinctly uncinematographic way: by adding long text excerpts that the audience is expected to read and put together. So, neither is entirely satisfactory, but I still like the mystery and the conciseness of the older cut above the expository excesses of the DC. Anyway, the film induced some disordered thoughts about time travel in fiction and RPGs.

There are basically three “cool things” about time travel that just about define its place in fiction. First, I will call the Theme Park Effect. Imagine yourself fighting in a Roman legion, serving at the court of a Chinese emperor, or meeting dinosaurs: how cool is that? This appeal is pretty self evident, but also quite superficial (hence the name). This happens to be pretty much included in all time travel RPG settings.

Second, the “What If” Effect. This involves the notion of (alternative) presents, rather than times in the past. The relevant scenario is when some time traveler changes something in the past which either changes their own present or, in some conceptions, creates a brand new timeline which differs from their original one. This is much more sophisticated than the first aspect, and presupposes more complex problems. In fact, it might even involve one or more of the following…

Third, the Paradoxes. I will not go into the devilish subtleties of time travel. By Paradoxes, I refer generically to all the sort of counterintuitive causality related problems involved in time travel to past times. Even occasional fans of SF know those: What does it happen if you meet your older self? What if you kill your grandfather? etc. In fact, SF literature (and, nicely enough, the academic philosophical literature) has a range of formulations of this strand of problems and a good number of different solutions (never mind the fact that, by the most rigorous definition, if something can be solved it was no paradox to begin with).

The problem, simply put, must be that paradoxes are a mess, and more specifically, a GM’s nightmare. Imagine having to detail how a given PC’s actions in the past are going to modify their original timeline. What happens? Does it affect their original timeline, when he or she comes back to the present? Or is it a Multiverse reality, so that one change just create a parallel timeline alongside the original one? Even if the latter is the case, how can the PCs manage to get back to their own universe, as opposed to find themselves in a new “future”? So it is not that strange that RPGs, mostly, discourage the inclusion of Paradoxes in your game.

These days I have browsed through two (absolutely likable and intriguing) settings, one for Fate Core (Timeworks, in Fate Worlds 2: Worlds in Shadows), another one for GURPS (first as a suggested campaign for GURPS Time Travel, then as an assumed background to GURPS Alternate Earths 1 & 2, then as the 4e standalone volume Infinite Worlds). They are remarkable in that they manage to incorporate all of the superficial glamour of the Theme Park Effect, and even to give you some of the mind blowing appeal of the “What If” Effect, but without allowing for real Paradoxes. Let us see how.

Timeworks circumvents Paradoxes in two ways. First, the opposite of the Butterfly Effect is claimed to be true: minor changes in the past do not propagate or snowball. The effect of a change in the past is always minimal (the timestream is “inertial”, so to speak). This is still fine, because the assumed task of the PCs is always to induce local, limited changes on behalf of private clients (say, make so that a certain work of art is inherited by my family, or that I win that academic prize etc.). Second, Paradoxes involving the PCs themselves (say, if they kill their grandparents) are avoided because they undergo a process called “dealignment”, by which (preemptively) they are causally disconnected from the current timeline: they are ontologically zeroed, their existence is written off. This, in itself, is only a drastic measure to make Paradoxes literally impossible, but it lends itself to bringing an existential angst component in the game that might be appealing to many players.

The older setting, Infinite Worlds, is a more complex affair to begin with. It is not, strictly speaking, a time travel setting, but it is built in such a way that it shares much of the appeal of time travel, minus the Paradoxes. The Theme Park Effect is offered by worlds called Echoes: worlds which are like our own at a given point in the past. Since these are not our past, changing them has no effect on our future (even though it is discouraged anyway, for setting specific reasons). The “What If” Effect is served by another type of worlds, Parallels: these are worlds which resemble how our world would have been, had certain things been different at a given point in the past (divergence point). Interestingly, it does not seem to be the case that Parallels result from changes occurred to Echoes: all in all, this ontology feels a bit contrived, because it was pretty clearly invented by the authors in order to mimic the best time travel fiction pretty closely, while at the same time preventing Paradoxes. Interestingly, the latest iteration of the Infinite Worlds campaign (the 4e volume) retains a (now) pretty unjustified chapter on real time travel, which goes at length about why it is a bad a idea for a GM.

How shall I conclude? First, that even Paradox-free time travel (or analogous notions) makes for an attractive premise for an RPG adventure or campaign. Second, that I would be curious to read an RPG that takes time travel more literally and makes Paradoxes the core of the setting: does anything like that exist? Let me know.

On toolkits

This is meant to be part a review of the Fate System Toolkit, and part an appraisal of a whole approach to game writing. Some games openly present themselves as toolkits: GURPS and Hero come to mind. What does it mean for an RPG line to be a toolkit? It means that either rulewise, settingwise, or both, it gives the reader a menu of options rather than fixed, prearranged content. Rulewise, it is along the lines of: do you want a very detailed approach to combat (body locations, damage types, detailed stats for arms and armour) or would you rather go for something quick and dirty? Do you want to play stuff like NPC reaction or the PC’s wealth mechanically or would you rather just handwave it? Settingwise, it is for instance: Do you want your fantasy deities to intervene directly in your game, or should they just belong to a system of beliefs? Would you like your swashbuckling game to be set in the Caribbeans, or rather “IN SPACE!”? The whole philosophy, obviously, is much more burdensome to GMs than a more ready-to-go approach. Nobody, I am sure, has ever set up and played a GURPS game “in minutes”, as Savage Worlds authors want us to believe we can do with their game. This has obvious drawbacks, but I think it was and still is a healthy countermeasure to the Splatbook Way of Publishing. By this I mean the TSR/White Wolf way of detailing one setting in one hundred supplements, some targeted at GMs some at their players. These were classically extremely verbose, had a very bad playable information over word count ratio, and had metaplot at their conceptual foundations: we the authors tell you what happens in our fictional world, and how you characters might fit. I happily concede both the indie folks and the Old School revivalists that this was what marred RPG publishing in the Nineties. Ultimately, it might even have played a part in my leaving the hobby at the end of the decade. At the same time, a pure toolkit approach, one which gets very austere and technical, might leave a GM with too much to do, especially if s/he is somebody with some kind of real life concerns. I must confess that I still miss the golden balance of some third edition GURPS books, which gave you many concrete, playable building blocks to work with.

Coming to Fate, their toolkit is what it says to be, except when it is not. Methodologically, it is a very uneven book. At times, it merely suggests minor tweaks to Fate Core’s ingredients (aspects, skills, stunts). Some of these are ingenuous and useful, other are so obvious to feel like wasted space (“if I give these guys extra stunts they are going to be more powerful? You don’t say!”). I think some of this stuff could have been included as options in the core book, and others just left out. A second type of information are rules for special situations or settings. Most of these are very smart, but again, at times there is just not enough information to make them of much use: the discussion of martial arts (‘Kung Fu’) boils down to ‘choose whether you prefer to have a specialized skill or do with Fight, Athletics and Physique’. On the other hand, the specialized rules for swashbuckling duels are indeed new and sophisticated, and should work if anybody is interested in the genre (even though the notion that sarcasm can win a fight is bound to remind us of Guybrush Threepwood). The most articulated contributions are also the ones that convinced me the most: the rules for squad action are a well-crafted extension of the conflict rules on a tactical scale, while the (entirely independent) rules for mass combat make for an interesting game-in-the-game. Somewhat disproportionally, a large portion of the book is devoted to rules for designing magic systems, and to five worked out examples which cover a pretty wide range of fictional magic. This chapter truly is to Fate what Thaumatology is to GURPS: it takes you on a tour of the possibilities for both the crunch and the fluff. The comparison is also quite revelatory of the philosophical differences between the two games, which are, though, just too many to discuss here. So in the end, while this Toolkit is not by far as well designed and consistent as the core book, I must acknowledge that it is a close-to-mandatory read for anybody interested in detailing their own Fate settings, especially if magic or other special powers are in the mix.