31 May 2015

Star Frontiers: From disappointment to resurrection

Love that 80s fashion sense.
Back in 1982, TSR Hobbies released a new sci-fi game to compete in the market dominated by Marc Miller’s Traveller. My group played it when it came out (although in 1982 I would have been in middle school, though I remember playing it in high school. Than again, I am not always sure all my memories are mine). The game was Star Frontiers.

My buddies and I were stoked about it because we grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars... not Next Generation or Prequels, the real stuff. We only had the original Trek and the original trilogy but we loved it. Because Star Trek and Star Wars, a sci-fi game really got us excited, so we put away the AD&D and set our sights on the stars.

The game seemed cool at first. Character generation was easy, and though it was TSR it was not class based. We did not often play skill based games, but we were willing to try (as for TSR, competing against Traveller the designers were right to go skill based because that is where the sci-fi gamer market was). The alien races you could choose were fun, each very different from the other. I chose to play a Dralisite, a sort of big bag of plasma with floating organs, one eye. It could grow a number of pseudopods to use for walking and for use as hands. Its sense of smell was through its entire skin, making it a giant nose. It ate by surrounding its food and absorbing it, though it was too slow to use as an attack ("I jump at him and surround his head. Slurp!). I named him Captain Jack and said he was a pirate captain before joining the UPF (United Planetary Federation, which, of course, was just a cheap knockoff of Trek’s UFP, the United Federation of Planets. The game cribbed a lot from Star Trek and Star Wars which, to us kids at the time, was a good thing).
Captain Jack imitating Richard Nixon in the lower right. 

Our adventure started good. It was a module called SF-0: Crash on Volturnus. Now, as players we expected a real sci fi adventure, something different than the dungeon and wilderness encounters in AD&D. It started well with us on a star ship. Oh boy! Travelling to strange new worlds and weird cantina’s! Maybe flying a space fighter! We were jacked...

...but not for long.The excitement ended fast as space pirates attacked and we were railroaded around the ship, finding out quickly there was no hope and to abandon ship. We got in a lifeboat and safely landed on Volturnus. This is where the sci-fi died for me.

The adventure had left space behind and, although we were cool aliens and had some future weapons and tech, we essentially had to wander from encounter to encounter through the wilderness trying to find a way off world. The encounters were nothing special. The seed for this adventure did not fall far from the D&D tree it came from.

The Quickdeath. Here kitty.
We battled snakes, and weird creatures called rasties and droppers. We had to survive lava flows and poison gas. We found useless crap like a broom, mop and bucket (apparantly an entry on the random encounter table, which is weird). Then came cave ins, cave bears, fiery lakes and magma monsters (a real D&D rip off- fire elementals by a different name). Then came the boss monster, the armor plated Quickdeath, a monstrosity that could run one-hundred miles and hour, shoot poison darts, and maw on you. It sounded like something straight from the AD&D Fiend Folio to me.

Finally the adventure was over, except we were still trapped on Volturnus. It took a minute to sink in: We were still stuck there, we had not seen a real city, or anything that might have a spaceport and cantina with a jazz band. We were boned. That was when our nightmare became worse: next week we would be playing SF-1: Volturnus, Planet of Mystery.

We did play for a few weeks more, but trapped on Volturnus without a hint of adventures in space, we were not having a good time. Turns out we could not have flown a ship if we wanted to. The spaceship rules were scheduled to come out at a later date. Luckily, there were more Voluturnus adventures coming. Oh boy! A game set in a multi-world universe and we got to see only one, and it was the armpit of space.

It was not long before we boxed up the game and returned to AD&D. Star Frontiers continued without us,  eventually getting its space ship box set (Knighthawks), which was actually interesting as it was both ship rules for the RPG and a stand alone space combat game. Shortly after it was released, TSR dropped the Star Frontiers line.

Fast forward to 2014. I am reminiscing about games I played years ago. I search Google for “Star Frontiers” and the most amazing thing is there: all of the books and adventures published way back when were available for free download. There was even a book that was written but never distributed back in the day. I wondered about the copyright issue, but as I now understand it, Wizards of the Coast was kind enough to let the community have it.

I also found a thriving community of Star Frontiers fans that were striving to add to the game and keep it alive. Also, there were people playing this game, and they were not even exploring Volturnus! They were actually in spaceships traveling from planet to planet.

Good magazine, even without a centerfold.
New material has been developed by the fans. The setting was added to and improved. New races, tech and worlds were detailed. Better, there was not one, but two, PDF magazines deveoted to the game: Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer. The writing, art and layout are better than most fan projects by far. They publish regularly, which fan mags often have a hard time doing, but they can as both magazines seem to get a lot of submissions. This may change, though, as the editor of Star Frontiersman has handed the reigns of it to the editor of Frontier Explorer due to that old bugger, RL (real life). The hopes are to keep both magazines active for as long as is possible, but eliminating one or combining them may be in the future.

So, how good is the game now? The system is decent, but clunky, lacking the features we have become used to in the here and now. I do like the small skill list which is similar to the paired down lists in many modern games. The source material (fluff!) is mediocre. It has some cool bits added, but overall the milieu is generic, with pieces borrowed from various sci-fi books, films and TV shows, so it is not something I will use in my games. However, as the old school renaissance movement is so big these days, there will be groups playing it. Also, it would be a good start to hack your own game from.

To get the sourcebooks go to Star Frontiers: The Official Site. You can also grab the magazines at these links: Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer.

29 May 2015

The TMC Effect: Too Much Cthulhu

When I reviewed The Void, I mentioned that it, like a lot of games, are suffering from the To Much Cthulhu (TMC) effect. This is the major overkill of Cthulhu throughout the role play and board game industry. This is the latest fad being jumped on, replacing TMP: Too Many Pirates. Remember how every game was seemed to revolve around pirates, from Green Ronin’s Freeport to Looney Labs’ Pirate FLUXX, and everything in between. There was good material in there (the previously mentioned Freeport is an excellent example), and there was a lot of mediocre output, but towards the end even a great product would look stale because of the overkill. The pirate fad has fallen off, but something else has taken over (as you hear this revelation, make a sanity check).

Cthulhu, the H.P. Lovecraft horror horror mythos, is the new king of all games. Board games like Arkham Horror (an early game which did not follow the trend, but help make it), the Call of Cthulhu Card Game, Chez Cthulhu, Munchkin Cthulhu, Cthulhu 500, Elder Sign, the Smash Up Obligatory Chthulhu Expansion, Cthulhu FLUXX, and on and on. BTW: I own a lot of these, just so you know I ain’t no ‘thulhu hater.

In the RPG arena, Call of Cthulhu was the trend maker for TMC in RPGs. A great background, excellently written adventures, and its revolutionary sanity mechanic turned it into an RPG hit. Along with the 1920’s setting, Chaosium brought Cthulhu to other times: the dark ages, the gaslight era, modern day (although modern day in Call of Cthulhu means the 1990s). Other companies have made their own spins on the game. Delta Green is a sort of an X-Files meets Cthulhu (although it predated X-Files by a pretty good amount, so they were not followers in the genre, but sadly not remembered as being leaders either). Future settings bring us CthulhuPunk for GURPS, CthulhuTech and The Void. Then there are the ports to other game systems: d20 Cthulhu, the GUMSHOE powered Trail of Cthulhu, and Realms of Cthulhu for Savage Worlds.

That’s a lot of Cthulhu and the list is not even complete.

The effect is that the surprise and mystery of the background is being lost. If you played enough times, you begin know what the universe is about, how it works, and the overall goal of the antagonists, no matter which Cthulhu RPG you are playing. Even gamers who have not played any of these games know much of what the mythos is about from other sources: the board games they play, or the magazines and books they read. The best horror is when no one knows what the hell is going on. Unfamiliarity breeds fear. It is like when players first play D&D. Encountering a skeleton was nerve racking, not knowing what it could do or how to kill it. Later, when encountering most of the classic monsters, players plot how to take the enemy down based on the player's meta-knowledge (“Skeletons! Switch to bludgeoning weapons,” said the first level fighter who grew up on a farm and never encountered unread in his short life).

That is why I like writers who design new universes to base their horror in, so that even regular Cthulhu players will be lost. Kult was that game back in the 90s. It had a highly original mythos, and was full of surprise because of that. Unlike all the Cthulhu-based games, it also dumped the idea of sanity, replacing it with something new: mental balance, a chart of your connection to humanity (it was interesting that being a saint or a sinner eventually makes you less human, and though it is two very different journeys they end in the same place, where your soul becomes unchained). The adventures were dark, so dark it made Call of Cthulhu look like Scooby Doo.

Vampire: The Masquerade and the other World of Darkness games were set in very original backgrounds full of unknown, and even though based on supernatural beings like vampires, really avoided the clich├ęs that have been ingrained in the genre over the last century of literature, film and TV. There was no sanity, but each type of character had its own terrible problem haunting them. Years later, when the World of Darkness had aged and the mysteries revealed, White Wolf went the distance and rebooted the game into the new World of Darkness.Like it or not, it was a daring move.

I want to see new games with original backgrounds and entities, and am not getting enough. I have not pursued it yet, but I have heard good things about Noctum, whose design seem to support many different styles of horror in a consistent and original world.

This was my problem with The Void. The game presented a generic near future mixed with the over exposed Cthulhu mythos. It did not excite my imagination at all. I really wished it had worked for me as space horror has not been explored enough in RPGs.

Well, I am out of time to rant. I have to get back to setting up my Cthulhu Pirate game. With ninjas.

28 May 2015

Avoid “The Void?” Read the review and find out!

The Void is a horror/science fiction games that takes the cthulhu mythos and moves it into the year 2159. Published by WildFire (the creators of the cyberpunk/cthulhu-horror mashup CthulhuTech), it is available in both PDF (which is thankfully well bookmarked) and print on demand versions, so you will not be seeing this on the shelves at your friendly local game store. It clocks in at 242 pages (though the pages have a little less text that you would expect because the print size of the book is six by nine inches), the layout is professional, and the artwork is good.

Price-wise the PDF is a steal, literally, although it is intentional. The Void is sold as “pay what you want.” which can be zero (although, be cool and pitch in something. The printed version is not free). This seems to be an attempt to get people into the game with money to be made down the line through supplements. Without a physical store presence this is a good plan, and because the core rules are “free to play” (they do not intend to make much money from folks paying what they want) and released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License, I don’t see why this cannot be passed around in order to bring new players in to the game. This strategy worked well for Posthuman Studios' Eclipse Phase (which went further using the pass around idea even though it is available in brick and mortar stores).

The core rules have been published before, though under a different name and a different rules system. It was called Cthonian Stars, and was Mongoose Traveller compatible. Though this is a game I would run under a system I prefer, the change to an original rule set is a good thing for this game if you use it.  Traveller is a very middle of the road system, trying to be realistic. The Void’s system looks easy to use and includes some mechanics to make the role play more dramatic, like you would find in a film. It also has its own sanity system that is solid; you will feel the burn when your mind goes. Another good mechanic is the idea of triggered effects in your character’s talents (their name for advantages/edges), allowing for cool effects.  The Killer Instinct talent, for example, lets you bypass armor on a good hit. On glancing through there are few talents with triggered effects, however there is a player’s book out which probably includes more.

The Void is also missing some material from Cthonian Stars, mostly in the monster category, which has been moved to supplements. I was sorry to see that The Void traded out the included adventure in Cthonian Stars which I ran and enjoyed very much. Good news: the adventure was moved to their adventure supplement, Pandora’s Paths I: Adventures.

The book features several short stories that are well written and help to set the mood of the game and action. Sections on tech and spaceships contain what you would expect from a near future sci-fi background, but was very workman like and did not have anything innovative. The tech is based on extrapolation of current technology (which any good hard sci-fi tech should be), with really advanced computers and nanotechnology, but no lasers. Your gun will be firing lead which seems realistic considering the slow advance real world batteries are making in storage capacity.

The background is a typical arena for science fiction, with sub-light ships drifting between planets and bases. Travel between worlds takes time (Earth to Saturn takes 49 to 61 days). Because of the lack of faster than light communications, each location is somewhat detached from the others which gives a nice feeling of isolation to the bases and colonies. A world government controls Earth (there are still countries but it seems like they finally got a United Nations-type organization that works). Corporations are so large they almost have the influence of countries.

Locations of interest are described in the “Worlds” section. Each world has its statisics listed (atmosphere type, gravity, length of day/year, and so on), and is followed by a disappointing description of the location, lacking any in depth information to make the world come alive. Some of the locations will have supplements devoted to them which sound more in depth. If the decision was to save the best information for the supplements, it really gimped the descriptions in the core rule book.

This lack of detail also hurts the history section. It has a timeline of the near future, but nothing really grabs me. Most lacking is a sense that the growing danger of the mythos is really intertwined in the history. It is almost like the game is split into the sci-fi part and the mythos part, but they never really mix. Why do I need this background when I could have just mixed Call of Cthluhu and, say, Transhuman Space and basically have the same thing. Again, this may be fixed in the supplements, but without a core rulebook that grabs a person’s imagination, they may be lost before they consider buying more.

I need to contrast this to Eclipse Phase. While not a horror game (or at least a supernatural horror game; there are some damn scary things in there), it is an example of how to detail a universe that grabs and maintains player interest (I will review Eclipse Phase in the future). Everything in it works together, like cells in an organism. It may be interesting to hack it with Call of Cthulhu, discovering how cultists and mythos beings have infiltrated the future. Is a mythos entity in control of the TITANS? What is their real reason for forcing the evacuation of the Earth?

Another problem with this game is the TMC effect (Too Much Cthulhu). I will explain what that is in the next posting and explain how it negatively affects many games.

It does one thing that most horror games do not do well, and that is give a reason that the characters stick together. This was always a problem in Call of Cthulhu to me. Taking a hint from Delta Green, the group are a special response team looking to investigate the strange events happening and keep them secret from the public

In summation, I cannot reccomend the game as portrayed in this book, even though horror in space is an exciting and under appreciated genre in tabletop RPGs. Luckily it is basically free to try, and YMMV, so you have nothing to lose giving it a shot. While I have not read any of their five part cycle of interrelated adventures, I always love to see a company support their product with adventures.

For another point of view, there is a review on RPG,net.

27 May 2015

Kickstarter Alert! Sixth Gun RPG for Savage Worlds

A quick shout out:

Do not miss a good thing. Pinnacle Inc., along with Oni Press, has a new Kickstarter for the Sixth Gun RPG. Check it out and get on board. 
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/545820095/the-sixth-gun-rpg-for-savage-worlds

Munkin Munchkin Munchkin

I have been a fan of Steve Jackson Games for a long time. GURPS was my go to system for role-play back in the ‘90s and first half of the ‘00s. I loved the source books, especially for third edition, that was not only excellent role-playing material, but often was just a good way to learn about the subjects covered. I know people that bought them who never used them to role play, only as reference, and others who used them with other systems because the books were so full of playable ideas. GURPS Traveller may be the best version of Traveller made IMHO, especially the details in the supplements (you can have my copy of Traveller: Alien Races 1 when you pry it from my cold, dead vargr hands).

These days though, the supplements have slowed down for fourth edition. Fourth edition really improved the GURPS system, with Sean Punch doing a great job of fixing the broken parts of third edition, streamlining some a lot of the rules, and making the system of advantages/disadvantages into a truly, flexible system, allowing you to create and modify them to exactly how you envision them. However, SJGames decided to (with a few exceptions) not handle the supplements like previously. Most are PDF only releases of a serialized sourcebooks (Dungeon Fantasy, for example). There are very few full sourcebooks dealing with history and culture (though Crusades is a good 4th edition one), and few licensed books. The books they produce are mainly rules supplements or world-building books. They are really well done and worth the price. The world-building books (like Fantasy and Space 4e) still have that “use with any game” goodness we love. Also, Banestorm is one of the best realistic fantasy worlds in gaming, and is especially interesting today with its themes of Christianity and Islamic faiths clashing. For me, personally, I am waiting for GURPS Conspiracies, announced years ago, but now hard to even find a reference to it. Illuminati is a fave GURPS book for me, and I am excited to have even a fleeting hope of seeing an expanded version which deals with some of the many conspiracies that have come out in droves over the last twenty some years. If you are reading this and are from Steve Jackson Games: get off the browser now and work on Conspiracies, and the long awaited Car Wars Kickstarter as well!

What is causing the change? It is Munchkin. Munchkin is a fun card game of knocking down doors, killing things, getting loot, leveling up, and screwing your opponents. It comes in many different genres (dungeon, space, super-heroes, the apocalypse, and the de rigueur Cthulhu edition, and more (both available and to come). Munchkin swag is also popular (my wife has both the plush Duck of Doom and Duck of Gloom). So popular is Munchkin that it often seems that the company has basically become the core of the company. I don’t blame them: if it sells serve that market! I do not think games companies should be in the business just for fun. You got to pay the bills as well.

What will the future for Steve Jackson Games bring? Lets throw a 3d6 skill check and see what the crystal ball shows:

As of 1 January, 2016, Steve Jackson Games will be changing its name to “The Munchkin Factory” to better represent the core brand of the company. Andrew Hackard, line editor for the Munchkin series, summed up the reason for the change. “Seriously, SJGames is pretty much ninety-nine percent Munchkin. I think the name change is overdue, and not just because my line is becoming the focus of the company and I am getting a huge raise because of it.”

Also announced was the next six Munchkin sets just starting development:

  • Munchkin Car Wars - Designed to tie into the upcoming Cars Wars Kickstarter.
  • Munchkin Synnibarr: Set in the universe of “The World of Synnibarr.” Perfect for the one Synnibarr fanatic court ordered to life in Arkham Asylum.
  • Munchkin Munchkin - A Munchkin set that pokes fun at other Munchkin sets.
  • Munchkin Serial Killers - You are the killer and the “monsters” are just normal people. Features such cards as “Harvey, The Talking Dog,” and “Catcher in the Die,” a reference to J.D. Salenger’s novel “Cather in the Rye,” a favorite of many killers.
  • Munchkin Porn - A new “adults only” game set in the world of pornographic movies. Includes the fan favorite class card, “The Fluffer.”
  • Munchkin Seinfeld - The puffy shirt, the smelly jacket, and a J. Peterman Catalog are featured items; watch out for monsters led by the Soup Nazi and Newman. Like the Duck of Doom, make sure you do not pick up the Smog Strangler.

Also announced was the upcoming Fifth Edition of GURPS, Steve Jackson’s role-playing system. The new version will undergo a name change to GUMS: The Generic Universal Munchkin System. Sean Punch, line editor for GURPS, explained the change. “The focus in the past was on the adventure. Now it is on the character creation. Players will vie to squeeze the last point out of their character to create a rule-defiling monstrosity. After that is done, actually adventuring is just an option.”

Founder Steve Jackson was locked in his sensory deprivation chamber and unavailable for comment as he drifts on the astral plane.

Note: This press release IS NOT REAL. It is humor. Okay?

25 May 2015

Reviews: I'll do them. Just relax and make no sudden moves.

I am always checking out new games, and reading older and out of print games, so I will time from time spit my opinion into the Internet wind. Before I begin posting them, I want to lay down a few rules about my methodogy (as opposed to a meth-doggy, ie. the Meth Lab).

I generally divide RPGs into two main types. The first is games where the system is not tied to the feel of the backround (aka the “fluff.” I know John Wick loves that word LOL). Usually I play these games under a system I know and enjoy instead of the system the game is in. I used Steve Jackson Games GURPS for many adventures in the worlds of Call of Cthulhu, Fading Suns, and (the sadly out of print) Kult. Lately I am interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons adventures under Savage Worlds, mixing what is some of the best background material in fantasy role-play with a fast, fun and furious game system (come on WotC... get the Forgotten Realms sourcebook for 5e out). In these reviews I will probably not even mention the mechanics and concentrate on the background itself, so if you don’t see me mention how the system works that is why.
It's so gorram shiny!

The second group of games are ones that the system does define the feel of the game. These systems are integral to the play. It is usually because the mechanics replicate the tropes of fiction. I am throwing a big kiss to you, Margaret Weis Productions. Play Leverage or Smallville and you will find the system is built to replicate the story structure and drama of those shows (I suppose the new Firefly RPG is as well, but I haven't had a chance to get the book yet). They are a symbiosis I would not want to disturb. This category also includes games where the system is the game, built to allow you a to create a story in, usually as a shared experience. These are usually indie games with no fluff at all. Instead, through the mechanics, you build the characters, setting, situations and resolve the action. Fiasco and Primetime Adventures are two I have enjoyed. In these reviews will, of course, be pretty heavy on analyzing the mechanics.

Reviewing adventures is all about the story. Structure, plot, surprises, is it a rail or more of a sandbox, it will all be there. Sometimes with spoilers, so don’t read it if you are going to play a character in it. I’ll give spoiler warnings.

Other things I will review, mostly as capsule reviews, is resources on the web. There is some really creative ideas out there. Let’s celebrate them.

Well, until next time, remember what Nietzsche might have said if he was an RPG player: “And if you gaze long enough into the rulebook, the rulebook will gaze back into you.”

23 May 2015

Welcome to BroccoliFest: A Badly Named Blog About The Tabletop RPG Hobby

Hi everyone- human, demi-human, planetouched and everything in between! Welcome. Feel free to take your shoes off and have a seat.

This blog will be about all aspects of the RPG hobby. It will have reviews, opinions, observations, occasional facts, and humor. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have for the last twenty minutes.

Also, I intend to have a forum set up soon to discuss just about any RPG related topic, but it will be a little different in its execution. It will either fly or crash and burn, but dammit I will give it a try. More to come on the forum in the near future.

As for the humor part: Some of the posts are made as parody, poking fun at the industry through fake press releases, made up releases, or the occasional limerick. It is not meant to be mean or degrade anyone. If anything, I’ll try and have the humor be about something, shedding a chuckle on the way our hobby works. If you get or not is your own problem. It’s like online humor sites including The Onion, Clickhole, and USA Today, all three well known humor sites that nobody believes is true.

The thing is that role playing is supposed to be fun, and I’ve hung out one RPG website (which I will not mention by name) that while having very good content in their reviews and columns (and I recommend you read them otherwise you are missing out), their forums are devoid of fun and humor because the admins are capricious and uneven in their handling of situations. IMHO!

So together, lets put the phun back in RPG (role phun gaming?).