Monday 28 June 2010

My So-Called [Gaming] Life

Here's what's going on right now in Noisms Wonderful World of Role Playing (tm). I am:

  • Playing in a monthly Call of Cthulu game set in 1920s San Francisco.
  • Playing in a monthly d20 Modern game loosely based on Joe Dever's post-apocalyptic gamebooks.
  • About to start a monthly Blood & Honor game.
  • Planning a Japanese-soldiers-in-China hack of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules.
  • Running a WFRP game by email.

You'll probably have noticed something: none of this is D&D. This isn't a coincidence. I've recently become so sick of D&D I could puke blood. This is maybe an odd confession, because well over 90% of the entries on this blog have been related to D&D either directly or indirectly. But what can I say? I went through a cycle of massive enthusiasm for Old Beulah this past two years or so, and now I've come out the other side and just want to think about something else. We all go through these stages.

It'll be back, of course. That's the thing about cycles. I predict that in a year or so I'll be chomping at the bit to try to hit Armour Class 0 and save-vs-death magic. But for now, I think D&D and I need a break. Much like Ross and Rachel, except D&D knows that my flirtations with other games will never amount to anything much. That's the beauty of game systems, really - your marriage to one is always open.

Thursday 24 June 2010

The Luck in the Head

Before a combat begins, a player can elect to test his luck. This involves picking a dice - any dice - and rolling. If the number is high (e.g. 4 or more on a d6) he is lucky. If the number is low (e.g. 3 or less on a d6) he is unlucky. He should then roll a d100 and consult the following table, designating an opponent as necessary. If the results make no obvious sense, reroll.

Table of Luck

1. Sunlight. The sun happens to be shining right into his enemy's eyes; for the first round of hand-to-hand combat, the enemy is at -2 to hit. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
2. Diorrhea. Something the enemy ate that morning disagrees with him. The effort to restrain himself means he's at -1 to hit for the duration of combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
3. Slippery surface. There happens to be something slimy or wet underfoot at the start of combat. The enemy has to roll 1d10; on a roll of 1 he slips and falls prone. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
4. Daydreaming. The enemy was thinking about something else when combat started. He is last in initiative order for the first round. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
5. Butter fingers. The enemy loses his grip on his weapon and drops it. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
6. Flutter flutter. A bird, insect, bat or similar suddenly flaps into the enemy's face, distracting him for a round. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
7. Happens to the best of us. The enemy gets an attack of the nerves and is paralysed for d3 rounds. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
8. Migraine. The enemy has a crushing headache and sees flashing lights. He's at -2 to hit for the duration of combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
9. Flu. The enemy is weak and lethargic, and does -2 damage for the duration of the combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
10. Omen. The player has inadvertently performed an action which the enemy interprets as a bad omen. The enemy comes last in initiative order for the first round of combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.

I just need to think up 90 more entries. But you get the idea.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Fangs of Fury (I)

The inaugural Fighting Fantasy Monday ended in ignomony, calumny, misery, futility, and a whole host of other nouns ending in 'y'. Let's redouble our efforts for the mighty Fangs of Fury. I want correct choices this time, people!

First things first, time to roll up our character. I wasn't expecting to have as good scores as last time, but we ended up with:

Skill 11
Stamina 20
Luck 8

Which isn't too bad. To it we can add either a Potion of Skill, a Potion of Strength, or a Potion of Fortune, all of which restore points of skill, stamina or luck, respectively. I hope I'm not out of line in immediately assuming the Potion of Strength is the only one of any worth. We also have 10 gold pieces, 4 black cubes, and a gem box, the meaning of which will become clear shortly...


The introduction to Fangs of Fury is obscenely long and pretty daft, but it essentially boils down to this: We live in a kingdom called Zamarra. It is under attack from the ominously named Ostragoth the Grim and his sidekick Jaxartes, who has laid seige to its citadel. This is despite the fact that Zamarra is protected by six giant stone sentinels, who are supposed to breath fire on anything evil which enters the land; the sentinels did not work when Ostragoth's army invaded, because their "living flame" has apparently been extinguished.

This is where we come in: as an ordinary soldier we have been chosen by our Captain, Laski, and the king's chief wizard Astragal to take a special torch, crafted by the Twelve Good Wizards of Zamarra, and thrust it into the base of a great volcano found in the middle of five mountains called the Fangs of Fury. This will re-ignite the flame of the sentinels and allow them to send Ostragoth's horde packing. Sounds simple enough, no?

To protect us from the heat of the volcano we have four black cubes, each of which will absorb one wave of heat before disintegrating. We have also been given a Running Man-esque bracelet which will glow each time Ostragoth's army breaks through a defence line. It will also explode and kill us if Ostragoth succeeds, to prevent us from just legging it, which seems overly suspicious - haven't they heard you never get the choice to just run away in a Fighting Fantasy book?

Without further ado, let's get on with it:

You are taken to the deepest part of the Citadel. Captain Laski and two soldiers march in front of you and the twelve Wizards shuffle along behind you. Astragal looks at you, shakes your hand warmly and wishes you good luck. He then stands back with the others.

Captain Laski orders the soldiers to lift one of the slabs in the chamber. They prise it up to reveal a set of stone steps leading into a tunnel. The Captain then gives you some advice: 'Keep to the left-hand wall. Don't light a torch, you might be seen. And. . . well . . good luck.' You are amazed to hear a good word from your hard-bitten Captain. You check your pack, equipment and the all important Torch hidden in the secret panel of your leather
armour, and step down into the dark hole.

Just then, the ground shakes as another boulder slams into the Citadel walls. You look up. Captain Laski pokes his head into the hole and screams at you, 'And make sure you succeed. I won't have you besmlrching the honour of the Seventh Foot sloggers.' His head disappears and the slab is dropped backdown. You are in complete darkness.

You feel your way along the left side of the wall for about 4oo paces and then you fall over a pile of rubble. You get up to find the tunnel ahead is blocked. You listen carefully and can hear shouting and screaming. You also smell faint whiffs of fresh air. You feel around in the dark and find another smaller tunnel to the right. Your first instinct is to go back but you realize that from here on there is no going back. What do you decide? Do you take the
tunnel to the right (turn to 250) or do you climb the pile of rubble (turn to 118)?

Thursday 10 June 2010

No One Here Really Cares About Us Anyway

This week I've mostly been listening to Everclear's Sparkle and Fade. God knows why; sometimes you just want to hear the songs you loved when you were a teenager before forgetting about them for another five years. (It's still a great album though.)

Anyway, my thesis is that around 99% of gamers started playing when they were between the ages of 11 and 14, and since this is usually the period of your life when you are also seriously starting to get into music, the two - RPGs and music - tend to get linked together in an inextricable way in the mind, so that just as certain smells remind you very strongly of certain incidents in your life, certain songs and albums remind you of gaming and vice versa. Here are mine:

1. Incesticide by Nirvana. We played the hell out of this tape while playing nightly (nightly!) sessions of Cyberpunk 2020 circa 1994, in my friend's attic bedroom. I was never the hugest Nirvana fan, which is weird seeing as I sucked up everything all the other grunge bands had to over, but this one was great. I can still listen to it start to finish even now.

2. Generation Terrorists by THe Manic Street Preachers. My big sister was really into the Manics, so by extension I was too, because I thought (wrongly) that she was cool. There's something about NatWestBarclaysMidlandsLloyds that gets me wanting to roll d20s to this day.

3. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins. When you're a kid living in boring suburban Northern England with no money and nothing to do, you need something like this album to show you that somewhere in the world there are people who have ambition to rise above. D&D performs a similar function.

4. OK Computer by Radiohead. This was the biggest album of the 90s, probably, at least in Britain. I remember playing it on cassette over and over again while a friend and I studied Planescape manuals when we should have been revising for our GCSEs; Tony Diterlizzi and Thom Yorke will forever be tied together in my mind.

5. Tiger Bay by Saint Etienne. We used to game in my room when I was about 13, and music from this album could often be heard in the background floating down from my sister's room, which was directly overheard. There is something highly incongruous about listening to Hug My Soul while pretending to be an elf killing a grell, but it was a regular occurrence round my house in the mid 90s.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Seas of Blood (XVI)

Last time, deep in an underwater cavern, we chose to enter through the slit rather than the back door. I'm sure Pat Robertson would approve. This led us to paragraph 398:

As you swim through the crack, it snaps shut, pinning you tight some twenty fathoms under the sea. The slit is actually the heavily encrusted mouth of a giant clam. The creature holds you fast long enough for the effects of the magic potion you drank to wear off. Your adventure is over.

Yes, you did read that right. I'm sure this sort of crushing unfairness breeds character, or something, but suddenly I'm remembering why I always used to cheat with Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks....

Anyway, on that abrupt note, it seems the adventure is over. It was fun while it lasted. Next week: Scorpion Swamp!

Sunday 6 June 2010

Modernise that d20

A wet and rainy hangover Sunday; time to talk about d20 modern. I played it for the first time last weekend, and thought I'd give a little precis/review of the experience.

First things first, it was a very fun session. We're playing a post-apocalyptic scenario based on the background of a series of Joe Dever gamebooks called Freeway Warrior, which has a nice flavour of cheesy 80s near-future sci-fi, sort of like a mixture between Black Rain and Mad Max Return to Thunderdome. There's been plenty of opportunity for both player ingenuity and blowing things up, as well as good comraderie between the players. (It really is true that system comes a distant third to a good group and good GM.) So on that front, things are really good.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way character classes work; having different varieties of 'hero' (tough, smart, strong, etc.) based on abilities is the logical move that somehow never managed to be completely realised in D&D, and it makes good sense - even if I'm not particularly sold on the whole "being a hero" motif. It's a bit superhero/action-movie-esque for my tastes, which as you probably know if you read this blog leans towards the gritty, the rogueish, and the low-level. On that note the Action Point mechanism didn't impress me very much either, even though it allowed my character to survive death on a couple of occasions; I'd rather both GM and players be on the same playing field, though I recognise that's just a personal taste thing.

My main beef with the system, as always with d20, is the rules for combat, which manage to combine both the annoyingly fiddly and the misplacedly abstract while diminishing neither. The GM did a good job of making combat go smoothly (I suspect by ignoring lots of rules most of the time), but even so I found myself becoming a little irritated with all the attacks of opportunity and complicated grappling manouvers.

That's okay inasmuch as you can simply discard those rules. The worse problem is the abstraction of hit points, which destroy all realism in d20. In older editions of D&D, hit points work because you can buy into the idea that they represent a combination of physical and mental will-to-fight, both of which can be reduced over a 1-minute melee round by wounds, shock, tiredness, fear, and so on. They're a way of representing all the many variables which come into play in a 1-minute hand-to-hand melee with a very simple mechanic.

With d20 a round is 6 seconds, so obviously it is supposed to represent blow-by-blow combat rather than a back-and-forth melee. In this paradigm hit points start to make no sense at all; if losing them only stands for physical injury, why is there no physical effect of injury until they're reduced to 0 (whereupon the character loses consciousness)? But if they represent "will-to-fight", mental and physical exhaustion, etc. etc. as they did in older D&D, then are we really to credit this being (potentially) completely eliminated within 6 seconds of combat for a first level character?

This problem was bad enough with D&D 3rd edition, but once you introduce guns into the mix the system quickly becomes unfit for purpose. People are hit by multiple bullets and almost killed, only to recover almost immediately thanks to medical treatment. You can be hit by a grenade, rendered comatose and bleeding to death, but on your feet and walking around as happy as larry a few hours later thanks to a painkiller. You can be set on fire by a molotov cocktail and recieve third degree burns but have no consequences to speak of once you've "healed" your 7 hit points, which takes a week. In D&D this sort of thing can be hand-waved thanks to the existence of magic; in d20 modern you don't have that get-out clause. D&D-style hit points and modern combat don't mix; give me the system from Cyberpunk 2020, GURPS, or Twilight 2000, or even Shadowrun, any day.

A subsidiary beef is character generation, which takes forever. I don't mind the notion of skills in a modern-setting game - it's reasonable to assume that people who aren't trained in chemistry, demolitions, computer hacking or scuba diving can't perform associated tasks. But why there have to be skills for things like 'swimming' and 'listening', I have no idea. And then you have to pick from lengthy lists of feats and talents which are a min/maxer's wet dream, but draw out the entire process and don't seem to add anything substantive in terms of play (it all seems to boil down to: "if you have feat x, in situation y you get bonus z", which is all very dull).

I suppose this goes to show that even mediocre game systems are fine if you have a good group, GM and snacks. I can't help but feel that we'd be better served with something else, though.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Star Magic

There are many Gods in the Yellow City, and almost as many seperate sects and religious orders devoted to their worship. One of these is the Xáwúló, literally "the ones who look at the stars", a cult whose membership has grown in recent decades. Its members, who tattoo their skin with many tiny dots as if representing the firmament, can often be seen on rooftops and street corners at night, gazing up at the sky. It is their unusual belief that the stars are not a source of light alone, but represent distant other worlds which are inhabited by strange and foreign races.

Whether or not this belief is true (though it is viewed with contempt by the city's philosophers and scholars), what is certain is that the Xáwúló have found a way to communicate and even interact with something. For members of the sect are sometimes able to summon strange spirits into the Yellow City, through manipulating star light with mirrors and lenses. These ethereal beings are barely visible and possess only the weakest physical presence, and they cannot communicate in a spoken tongue, but their existence is undoubted.

Members of the Xáwúló maintain that these entities are the manifestation of beings from the stars. Others speculate that they are demons, ghosts, or ancestral spirits, who have tricked the
Xáwúló into believing they hail from other worlds. What is certain is that they are unaccounted for in all of the treatises of the sages, and are viewed with suspicion and fear by the powerful philosophical guilds.