Monday, March 26, 2012

Party of One: Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls Through the Breach

In order to play Open Design's new adventure, Matthew J. Hanson's Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach, one only needs a pen, some paper, and a standard assortment of dice (actually just 1d6, 1d8, 1d12, and 1d20). That is because it is part of their new series, Party of One, a (Pathfinder-compatible) collection of choose-your-own-adventure style solo adventures. Anyone who has read this blog long enough knows that I have major affection for choose-your-own-adventure solo missions, so when I became aware that this had been released, it was an easy buy. Add to that that it was only $3, and it was even easier. I ended up printing it out so I could flip through it more naturally than scrolling up and down in the pdf; it is a shame that the pdf was not linked, so when it said "go to 73" you couldn't click that and be taken to 73. It is also a shame that, despite there being a "character sheet" attached at the end with abilities, it does not have check boxes for the additional items, secrets, and abilities you pick up along the adventure, as that would have greatly have streamlined the process. It also makes a major mistake in indicating that only a d6, d8, and d20 are required: d12 rolls are quite common, and as we all know 1d12≠2d6.

Minor complaints aside, however, KBGB (that name is far too long to type out each time) is a surprisingly nuanced, engrossing adventure. The premise is simple: you are a dwarf who has just joined an elite guard for your city, and the night of your celebration it turns out that you will be pressed into service much sooner than you expected. There is a ghoul attack in the street, and it very quickly turns out that it is not an isolated incident. Through tracking clues, you learn more and more about the attacks and their implications for your entire city. And, of course, you can pick up items, information, and allies along the way.

I say that this is (Pathfinder-compatible) because it doesn't really seem, to me, to distinguish itself as really at all distinctly "Pathfinder." It presents rules as they become relevant, and always gives you a small stat block for you, your allies, and your enemies each time you must be pressed into battle. It has the overall flavor of any generic, vaguely OGL-compatible adventure out there, and at least to any part I discovered that was about where the comparison stopped. I suppose that's why it is labeled as Pathfinder "compatible," since anything OGL can be easily adapted for that system. Nevertheless, I don't want to be bogged down by semantics before I can say that I did, in fact, really enjoy the adventure.

By the time I am writing this, I have run through it four times; each time managing to get a little bit further into the mystery and intrigue that is KGBG. The first couple of times I managed to succumb, rather early, to terrible dice rolls, rather than end up making any sort of terrible decisions on my own. However, as I pressed further, a shocking betrayal resulted in my death once, and then my imprisonment again. KGBG ends up being "hard." Frequently you have to go up against multiple enemies, and you are limited to only one attack per round. Battles rapidly turn into attrition and prayer (o spirit of the dice, hear my call: turn up below 12 on the enemy's turn). Your armor class is high, which makes ordinary attacks endured by the ghouls a bit easier to weather, but there are enough other enemies that you are constantly on your toes. The adventure seems to reward audacious and brash behavior (befitting of a dwarf) over caution and stealth; ghouls are, after all, pouring into the city, and the sooner you can do something about it, the better. Each decision you make seems to have major ramifications, and I feel like I have probably only skimmed the surface of this ten page adventure, so up to this point I'd still label the replay value as "high." Plus, depending on the choices you make, it might be all over for you in under ten minutes, so you can knock it out while you're waiting for something else. All in all, I'd give this one a solid B+, and I look forward to further entries into the Party of One series (and maybe a bound book containing all of them at some point in the future? eh Mr. Baur?).

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rogue Space: The Dark Frontier, by Christopher Brandon

After receiving my copy of Rogue Space: The Dark Frontier in the mail from lulu and reviewing its contents, I have some additional comments to make about Rogue Space. Unsurprisingly, there is very little different from the PocketMod-sized basic rules, but some differences do, I believe, require comment. The most obvious change right away is in hit points. Rather than getting a set amount of hit points, as in the basic rules, you instead get a set+HD sort of mechanic. Though, the die type doesn't change (as this game exclusively uses d6's), but the base number does. Warrior gets 1d6+6 on one end, and Technician gets 1d6+2 on the other end. It averages out to about the same in the long run, but adds a little bit more variability. I'm not sure which version I prefer. It definitely adds survivability to the Rogue and Technician type characters.

Before launching more into the substance of the book, I'll address some cosmetic issues. First, regarding the art: half of the art is great. It was custom-made for the book by the author's wife (?). It's got a consistent style, she's a great artist, and it's of a sufficient resolution to not look off when printed. The other half of the art, I can't be so positive about. It's largely public domain, low-resolution 40's/50's pulpy-style art of generic space exploration sort of settings. It's reminiscent of the art that's plastered all over the covers of my Alan Nourse and Theodore Sturgeon novels from that time period. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I happen to love pulpy space art (and the genre), and that's why I've collected those sorts of novels. However, the problem is the resolution. The problem is that these are obviously low-quality, compressed, low-resolution pictures that have been expanded to fill the space on the page, and the result is aliasing, pixelation, and a generally washed-out appearance. Too bad. I think that a lot of that could probably be solved by rinsing the pictures through the posterize tool in GIMP since they're pen-and-ink or lithograph style pictures; fewer levels of grey, cleaner appearance. But I digress.

I really hope that the stock art is just placeholder material for when the artist (Valerie Brandon) can replace it with some more of her great, stylized, distinct artwork. Though I've spent a whole paragraph complaining about it, I'll conclude by saying that it's not even that bad. There are only a couple pictures that are bad enough to groan at, and that's a better track record than even Chaosium (some of the art in Call of Cthulhu is shameful, and has been reprinted for 20 years). If Rogue Space ever gets another update, with more art from Valerie Brandon and any rules updates, I'd probably buy another copy. Valerie Brandon's art is also pulp-influenced, so it's at least not inconsistent with the stock art. However, in parting for the art section, it does decidedly lead the reader to assume that the game is "supposed" to be run in a pulp style, which is not necessarily the case. I'm honestly not sure what the long-term plans are for this game, but I'l say that, even despite these reservations, I'd categorize everything in the book, visually, as "good enough." You can download most of the relevant stuff for play from the website anyway, so the low resolution doesn't hinder that.

The book itself is standard lulu fare: 8.5x11" printer sheets perfect bound between a high-gloss light cardstock cover. I managed to spill my tea on it shortly after opening it, but the glossy cover was able to resist all of the potential liquid damage, and cleaned up well. I got a little bit of waviness on the bottom where the tea touched but I clamped it and it looks fine now. I honestly feel like, given the amount of material and the thinness of the book, I'd have preferred it to be in a different format, like 6x9" like the Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition; but I have no idea what options are available from lulu and what that does to the cost. I'd probably have preferred, overall, for there to be less art as well. There's at least some sort of graphic on nearly every page; some is helpful as it directly reflects something written on the page, but a lot of it is filler. Anyway, at this point I think I'll take off the editor hat at this point and put it in the drawer. And then lock the drawer. And give someone else the key for safe-keeping so I don't get any ideas about putting the hat back on. Oh, before I put the hat away, I will say: I did not spot any spelling or grammar anomalies, so at least in that regard Brandon's got a leg up on some major RPG publishers. Ok, hat away.

On to the rules. For the purposes of this review, I will distinguish between the two rule sets. The original, the PocketMod Basic Rules, I'll call PMB. The expanded, book-sized rules I'll call TDF (for The Dark Frontier). There is not terribly much different between the two, but there's enough that the distinction, I think, is reasonable to make. There are a couple conflicting concepts regarding initiative in the book. In PMB, initiative is determined by 2d6+current HP. In TDF, on one page, it says there is no initiative and players all declare their actions resolve them simultaneously. On the following page (under the Combat heading) it has the PMB rule of 2d6+HP. I guess (thanks to a commenter for pointing it out) that I'd still stick to the 2d6+HP rule under Combat for combat situations, and relegate the simultaneous resolution system for noncombat situations where time is still a factor. However, I'd still be tempted to break that into initiative order (since two people might be working on the same thing, and the order by which they perform their actions would have an effect on the time it takes to complete the task), and in which case I might make the initiative count current HP+relevant skill bonus. But that might be a bit too simulationist for an otherwise pretty easygoing and "abstractified" game, so nevermind. :)

Other additions to the combat system, plus a greatly expanded weapons and armor section, plus even more non-combat and supplemental items, are all very welcome. These sort of details, while not exactly necessary, are great starter ideas and I'm glad to see them. TDF also includes rules for disruptor-type weapons (remember how I was talking about that in my PMB review?), which includes a save-or-die mechanic that I really like. I can't off the top of my head remember any instance where someone survived a direct blast from a Klingon disruptor, but I'm sure it happened at some point because Star Trek is like that.

Reading through The Dark Frontier, perhaps on account of the pulp art, I was thinking that it would be more appropriate for a Star Trek: TOS sort of game, rather than a TNG sort of game, as I was thinking with the PocketMod rules. This might be also because of the sorts of items which are described as well, but I think it just goes to show how very subtle changes and details in the writing can (inadvertently?) lead the reader off in different directions.

In reading the PMB rules, I was constantly thinking that modding the game with some elements from Diaspora would probably make it more fully-realized, and give it more of that old school Traveller sort of vibe. Upon finishing the TDF book, which includes details on ships, sectors, and space travel, adding in any Diaspora elements seems less necessary. But, since 2d6 (which Rogue Space uses) and *dF (which Diaspora uses) both map out in a bell curve, the two are probably pretty easily compatible; one could probably even adjust Rogue Space to utilize 4dF instead of 2d6 and have to change virtually nothing else.

You can occasionally track the influences that Brandon had while he was writing the book, and that helps to give an idea of the sort of directions he was thinking of going with the game. For instance, in the example for how to develop an alien playable character, he outlines a sort of "Space Elf." However, it sounds remarkably like a Vulcan (and not an Eldar, shame on you for immediately thinking that when I said Space Elf!). In the section on developing alien enemies, he outlines an Alien Xenomorph, from the eponymous science fiction film trilogy (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of Alien: Resurrection, or either of the AvP films). In the section talking about psionic characters, he refers to them as psykers (which may or may not lead to complications from Games Workshop).

A few more notes, in brief. There is a choose-your-own-adventure style sample adventure in the book. I've already expressed multiple times how much I love these and encourage their inclusion as gameplay-introduction tools in RPG books, so I won't go on about that in length, but suffice to say, it's great, and almost has a Lamentations-of-the-Flame-Princess-in-space sort of feel to it. There are rules on building NPC robots, putting together and statting out ships, creating PC and NPC alien races and threats, and creating unique sectors, star systems, and worlds (remember how I said Diaspora was no longer necessary to augment this?).

Brandon does seem to love his anagrams for stats. PC stats are abbreviated FASER (Fighting, Acquiring, Scientific, Empathy, and Repairing. Ship stats are abbreviated SHIPS (Structure, Howitzers, Interior, Propulsion, Shields). Alien types are abbreviated HAIKU (Humanoid, Animal, Insect, Known, Unknown). Alien sizes are abbreviated TSARZ (Tiny, Small, Average, Really big, ZOMG!). Alien stats are abbreviated PTTPSZMVARDMHPSP. Ok, thats not an anagram. No, alien (enemy) stats are one-liners highly reminiscent of any retroclone you can probably name, so it's very easy to understand even without immediatly knowing what the letters are for. I think that "Howitzers" as a stand in for "Ordnance" is a bit forced, especially because "Howitzer" to me very highly suggests a particular kind of light artillery between a full-sized cannon and a lighter-still mortar. Plus, having two S's, tsk tsk. When I was reading it, I was thinking, why not HOLES (Hull, Ordnance, Logistics, Engines, Shields), or HOPES (Personnel). That's a joke; SHIPS is fine. It's self-referential, which is a kind of punning that I can get behind. Additionally, ZOMG! as a size for comparison is something I will be laughing about for a really long time. Anagrams are memorable, and I bet without even trying anyone who reads this will be able to remember those stats now. It's certainly better than Shadowrun's shameful "BARSCILWEdgeEssMInitIP" (which I remember, in part, as "Bar Skill? Ew!).

Lastly, there's a brief section (reminiscent of the Savage Worlds books), on a "sample" setting, Pirates & Peril, plus a short adventure within that setting. These two things help tie together all the pulp artwork throughout the book with a pulp setting. The book ends with links to other bloggers who have developed their own Rogue Space material, which is, I think, a fantastic touch. Shout outs make the world go 'round, plus, as I've said again and again, the style of the game is pretty limitless in the kind of setting you can create with it.

As Savage Worlds is my go-to for just about any sort of homebrew, inpromptu modern fantasy sort of game I'd want to run, I think Rogue Space will take that role for any sort of spacefaring, heroic kind of game. Warhammer 40K, Stars Without Number, Diaspora, Traveller, and others I think have their place, but for me, Rogue Space rises to the top as a great little universal system for playing among the stars. The rules take about 5 minutes to explain, creating a character takes even less time, and then you can just get right in to it and start having fun (without 400 pages of special conditions to wade through). All in all, I'm glad to have randomly downloaded the original a few months ago, and I'm doubly glad there's a book to buy with expanded rules. I'd recommend checking it out to anyone who likes spacefaring sci-fi.

Edited to add: The PocketMod rules that I have been referring to are apparently an outdated version. There is practically no difference between the "big book" TDF rules and the PocketMod Basic rules in terms of damage, hit points, or armor at this point, so the distinction between PMB and TDF is less important now, upon review of the most recent PocketMod version. I downloaded the basic rules some months ago, read them, forgot about them, and then only recently decided to revisit them. I must apologize for any confusion related to pointing out differences where there are, in fact, no longer any differences.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rogue Space Role Playing Game, by Christopher Brandon

I like the simplicity that is Christopher Brandon's mini-RPG Rogue Space. The Basic Rules are available free for download, and you can print them out in a clever little pocket-sized mini-booklet. There is a "complete" rulebook available for purchase on lulu (a bargain at $7.10), but I haven't received it yet.

Rogue Space is a rules-light RPG system that allows for a great variety of play styles, and great flexibility for running one-offs, or pick-up games. You can boil the rules down into just a couple minutes of explanation, and then every test is just 2d6+relevant attribute against a target difficulty, and then you succeed or fail. It utilizes a more abstract, modern approach to abilities; rather than having an ability score which then has a derived score to apply to the roll, all you have is your "modifier," which is probably just 0 or 1. The result is very similar to the method used in FUDGE or FATE at its core: a roll of 7 (after modifiers) is a success for an average difficulty test, and mitigating circumstances can raise or lower the difficulty by one or more degrees. Opposed tests are similar: both sides roll, the higher number wins. There are options for adding in more boiled-in modifiers for combat, but at its core that's all there is to it. Weapons deal a fixed amount of damage when an attack hits, from light (2 dmg) to extra-heavy (8 dmg). Armor reduces weapon damage by a fixed amount along similar lines.

Personally I think that this system lends itself most readily to a Star Trek style game style; landing on alien worlds, interacting with intelligent species there, occasionally having to get in a phaser fight or rapid flight back to the shuttle. Star Trek, though, in particular, is pretty loose with consistency in what phaser hits are deadly, and which are ultimately grazing blows. A great example of this is the Next Generation episode "Starship Mine" where Geordi LaForge and a Red Shirt both get hit by the same weapon in a similar location. LaForge is fine (though in pain and temporarily disabled), but the other guy is dead. This can pretty easily be explained under Rogue Space mechanics: neither character was armored, and let's say the phaser was a "medium" weapon and dealt 4 damage. If LaForge (a technician) had 4 hp, then the damage would have knocked him out, but he would not be dead (represented by negative hit points). But if the other guy only had 2 or 3 hp (not unreasonable for an NPC), that would have reduced him to below zero hp and he would have perished. Additionally, Rogue Space allows for nonlethal damage. One could also houserule in that, since the other dude was severely drunk, the alcohol would have dealt a point of "nonlethal" damage that made him more susceptible to phaser fire, and it dealt more damage than it more than usual. Most rules modifications are like this: you add one here, subtract one there.

I'm stacking lethal damage on top of nonlethal here, rather than keeping them in separate tracks. My reasoning is essentially that it makes more sense, to me, that if someone was beaten to a bloody pulp with fists and clubs they wouldn't be in great shape. It might not be deadly, but they're not going to be able to do the same things as an uninjured person. And certainly, if that pulped person were to take another hit from something more nasty, they'd probably have a much more high likelihood of going down than someone fresh. Given that initiative in combat is determined by the dice roll plus your current hp, severely injured characters are mechanically "slowed" as well, which supports this assumption about damage stacking.

One can easily get lost in details at this point; if a character is wearing light armor, for instance, and is shot by a gun and the damage is all soaked by the armor, do they still take a point of nonlethal damage from the kinetic force applied to their bodies through the armor? Are there different types of armor to protect against kinetic damage, piercing damage, burning damage, etc.? Using Star Trek as an example again (can you tell I've been watching it recently?), Star Fleet does have "riot gear" when they send in the heavies, but it seems a direct phaser blast still takes someone out, armored or not. Klingon disruptors add another level of complexity, since they seem to ignore armor completely, or at least are powerful enough to pierce through anything less protected than a tank. A disruptor is a small, handheld weapon, which means it probably only qualifies as a "light" or "medium" weapon at the most, but the damage is certainly much more severe than the average phaser setting. Shadowrun and other games have "armor piercing" values for weapons; perhaps certain kinds of energy weapons would ignore a certain number of armor points when figuring damage.

Rogue Space Basic only has three classes: Warrior, Rogue, and Technician. I don't like these names. For a science fiction game, the fantasy roles of Warrior and Rogue don't really "fit" for me; especially because Technician, given the other ones, just seems like a stand in for "Mage." I propose changing the names to Soldier and Scoundrel, for a more archetypal Star Trek or Star Wars sort of feel. Technician is fine, since it hearkens to someone who works in a more scientific or technical station on the ship. Plus, there are psionic rules available optionally as well, so you could easily build a Jedi (for a Star Wars style game) or an empath (for a Star Trek style game). I believe that some people have even developed a 40K addon for this system, which I think just goes to show exactly how flexible it is. For this reason I can't imagine even doing something like Mass Effect wouldn't be unreasonable.

One rule I would change, however, is luck. As it stands, the luck rule (which is optional) dictates that a person can re-roll one dice roll per session. This seems a bit underwhelming. I propose having either a luck "points" system, or else tracking luck and experience with the same points. In order to level, as the rules are written, your character must survive 3 adventures and then can add 1 point to any of the attributes, or to the hit point total. So in other words, one adventure is worth 1 xp, and you need 3 xp to level. Under a unified mechanic, players could "burn" one of their xp (or more) to add a point to their result. It might mean that they don't level with everyone else, but if the other option is dying, it's a small price to pay; it's representative of that character escaping from the deadly situation, but not unscathed. It would also allow the characters to burn a whole level in order to survive from a situation (equal to 3 xp) and, optionally, take a defect to represent their narrow-miss, or a "permanent injury." This makes it a bit grittier than Star Trek usually is, so I don't think many people would miss it if it wasn't there. Regardless I would want luck to play a larger role in a Star Trek (or Star Wars) style game, just because of the nature of the types of heroes in those shows.

Using the experience-burning method of figuring luck could also be applied to more than just dice rolls. Perhaps someone takes lethal damage that would kill their character. They could burn some experience to reduce the damage until they are merely unconscious. This would support a Star Trek style "main cast" character approach, where the characters can survive very unlikely situations relatively unharmed, unless they are Tasha Yar. Although... if a character is going to die, there's not much reason to not burn levels to keep them alive, since if they die those levels are lost anyway. Some sort of constraint might have to be imposed to limit runaway abuse of this system. The up side to character death is that a character can be rolled up in literally seconds, and then could easily be introduced as a new ensign, smuggler, or technical staffer to pick up the slack.

Anyway, this was only intended to be a more or less brief overview of one of the possibilities for adding on to the very smart and simple efficient rules that is Rogue Space, but I got a bit carried away. I'd love to actually run a game of this, either as a one-off or longer, to see how it works, especially how some of these proposals for add-on rules I've made in this work. I have already ordered the extended rules, and I'll have another review of the complete set once I get that in my hands.

One additional note: Apparently this PocketMod version that I am reviewing here is an older version than what is currently available now. In my version, damage is all set values. In the most recent version, they are randomized (light, instead of just 2 set damage, is 2d6, drop lowest, for instance). There is not a date on it, but it says "Copyright 2011 C.R. Brandon." Hit points are the same; random in the present version, set in the previous version. I'm honestly not sure which version I prefer.