Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bikini Shop Troubles & Commie Illithid Ninja

Ok, this is the long-awaited 3rd and final session of Encounter Critical.  For those keeping track, 1st session here, 2nd session here.

With a catch-all RPG that heeds no warning about genre boundary restrictions, as well as, pick and choose what you like from the thousands of books, movies, and tv shows that have ever been made, you've got a gonzo recipe for something disastrously awesome... or awesomely disastrous.  In a game like EC, there's no one looking over your shoulder telling you what to include, what to leave out, how far is too far, etc.  Similarly, there's no one to tell you, "Hey, look out for that oncoming truck!"

Not all gaming groups are alike.  Mine has had to deal with me for quite awhile.  For the most part, I'm fast, flexible, and willing to risk utter game collapse if it means the table might laugh instead of groan... or just walk out (no one's done that yet).

Anyway, I was getting to a point a paragraph or two ago.  What was it...?  Oh yeah, the dichotomy of too much and yet too little material.  When almost anything can be included, the creative center of the brain can feel overwhelmed.  Luckily, Joachim Heise tagged me in a post about a mysterious map of Illithid communists and Catholic schoolgirl shenanigans.  I felt like challenging myself to incorporate this weirdness into our EC game.  After all, why not?

A new player joined us!  I gave him the gist of what the party had been up to the last two sessions.  Shaking his head with laughter and bewilderment, he sat down to play a human warrior - practically unheard of in EC history.  Well, he rolled a human randomly and wanted a class that was easy to play.  Makes sense.  Luckily, everyone else convinced him to roll the maximum number of times on the Mutation Table.  His first roll was dwarfism or something that made him really short.  Think Tyrion from Game of Thrones.  His second was a birthmark entity (roll again to determine if good or evil).  A player joked about the angel/devil on his shoulder.  He rolled evil as I rambled on about Kuato from Total Recall.  His last mutation roll was the same frickin' thing!  So, we determined (yes, in a game like this most things are interpreted) that meant he did have a little part-of-himself creature on each shoulder.  Sure enough, that one turned out to be good.

Before the game, I tried my best to come up with a marriage between commie Illithids and what I thought was the lamest/best premise for an adventure.  Namely, Uncle Sal's Bikini Shop was in dire financial straights.  Unfair regulations were killing Sal's business and all because Senator Maximilian Deekstrung was forcing the Bikini Shop to go bankrupt so the Senator's son could buy it for a song.

So, the PCs traveled from the 17 headed serpent's lair - where they found a prisoner who was a human warrior midget (or little person, if you prefer).  There was talk by Lobstertron 500 (because now he was 5th level) about making this new PC his minion, sword shiner, or even slave.  Needless to say, this new addition to the party would have to prove his worth.

Along the way, they encountered a trio of Space Guild Assassins.  Didn't take too long before they were creatively dispatched.  Although, before they were all finished off, I said to myself that one of them should have a mutation of his own to make things more interesting.  Would you believe, I also rolled "Magic Birthmark Companion (50% odds of evil)!  And yes, I then rolled low enough to make the little sucker evil.  That birthmark thing had its own tiny laser which it blasted in the face of the NPC slave/hypnosis victim the party were using to do some of their dirty work.

But that was not the end.  After the little guy and the new guy saved against a fireball thrown by the itch magic finger of the Klengon Warlock, they determined the birthmark companion knew the bank account number of the dead Assassin he was attached to.  The Lobstertron 500 used his machine friend skill to turn his lightsaber into a laser scalpel.  The procedure was a complete success.  He went onto the shoulder of Sslash the lizard man criminal/bounty hunter who wielded a sun sword.  Throughout the adventure, his birthmark companion (complete with diminutive voice and Mexican accent) was outfitted with little cool extras like a laser eye, tiny ninja attire, and a couple strands of a Rambo-red bandanna to make his own badass fashion statement!

Before the session, I detailed Joachim's map, with a sentence or two for each room or area of interest.  Store rooms, guard rooms, a piranha spawning pool, worship room decorated with a giant wooden Cthulhu Jesus - two characters worshiped Cthulhu and pleaded with the Warlock to clone it and shrink it down so each could wear it around their neck.  Did I mention the Illithid ninja?  Yeah, there were a lot of those.  A few PCs took some damage, but healing is relatively easy.  Robodroid repair should have been as well, but Lobstertron 500 doesn't worry about bullshit like that.

And... that's how he got blown up.  This was towards the end of the session.  He failed his save, went down to negative hit points, and then failed his survival roll.  The lizardman rolled a zero one on his percentile roll for machine friend (which doubled as Robodroid repair, we assumed).  All fixed up and ready to use his mechanical lobster claws to destroy those who would oppose him.  BTW, there was a routine machine friend roll to transform his laser scalpel back into a lightsaber - natural 100.  Not only was his lightsaber permanently a laser scalpel, but it did 1d6 damage to him as he attempted to convert it back.  Those who play and Journey Master EC (along with similar games) live for the times when a critical success or failure occurs, respectively.  Those are the moments when making up shit is given carte-blanche, encouraged by the rest of the table, in fact!

Before the session ended, the PCs encountered a Unicorn Cyclops Shark (too much Mountain Dew or just enough?).  They were going to use monster friend and bypass it when I decided to become the laziest and most voyeuristic Journey Master ever as the Unicorn Cyclops Shark told them, in lieu of nothing, "Don't take my magical horn!"  The PCs, after a solid minute of laughter, couldn't chop that thing's horn off fast enough.  Turns out, it was basically a wand of purification.

After pulling the self-destruct levers on the Illithid base, they hopped into the psionic submarine and made for greener pastures.  Oops, almost forgot.  There was something cool looking on the map near the submarine.  I decided it was The Cursed Emerald Diamond of Zalula-katan!  Jon (playing the lizardman bounty hunter) asked if it was or just looked like the LOC-NAR from Heavy Metal.  How could I say no to that?  I mean, not only is it one of my favorite movies, but we were listening to the Heavy Metal soundtrack for Taarna's sake!  So, just like that, it became the LOC-NAR.  Without touching its glowing green sentient evil - "A green jewel they must possess." - they took it with them and promptly sold it for 100,000 gold credits.  After all, the Venusians say it has spiritual powers.

Even though we have no plans to play EC again in the near future, everyone wanted to know if they leveled.  "Sure."  I said, and then 10 minutes later they finished advancing their character.

[Sigh] Wow, that was a lot of stuff.  4 hours of gonzo gaming that pretty much felt like a scifi-fantasy-pulp choose your own adventure spliced with a post-apocalypse comic book with balls, penises, and vaginas penciled into the margins.  Adolescent fun, logistical nonsense, and a hilarious romp in the Romulan Champagne Room!

Lessons learned?  Hmmm... let's see.  My normal GMing attitude is "just go with the flow", but times that by 3 for RPGs like Encounter Critical.  Attune yourself to what the players are doing, thinking, feeling, expecting, dreading, etc.  Don't always cater to them; it's fun to have things go against the PCs.  Keep your interpretation hat on at all times.  As the GM, you'll be expected to have some kind of answer or make a swift ruling - but also feel free to ask the players what they think.  A few will volunteer something totally awesome - even if it doesn't benefit them.

Can this kind of "anything goes" be inserted into your current RPG du jour?  Is the new guy wearing Transformer pajamas (Deceptions, I rolled "evil") because one of the Space Guild Assassins was bringing it back as a gift for his son and you made your Happenstance roll?  Sure, why not?

Hope you enjoyed this half as much as we enjoyed playing it.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Star Trek: Old School Through New Eyes

I loved fantasy and science fiction as a kid.  Born in 1974, there was some stuff I missed.  Thankfully, regular TV, HBO, and our family VCR helped bridge the gap so I could watch more and more and more!  The original series of Star Trek, however, somehow eluded my viewing.

By the way, my first exposure to Star Trek was The Wrath of Khan.  I must have watched it a couple dozen times in the 80's.  To this day, it's still my favorite Star Trek movie.

I think I tuned into the show once, quite accidentally, halfway during an episode where everyone was dressed like cowboys and walking through a western set.  A couple more such experiences must have soured me on the franchise's origins because I never tried to rent it or catch it on tv.  Then, a few years ago, I found out or maybe accidentally stumbled upon the episode "Space Seed".  For those who don't know, it's like a 50 minute Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan prequel.  Yes, "Space Seed" came first and the events lead up to the movie's premise.  Not only did I like the story - especially finding out it's about the earlier years of Khan - but there was a sexism aspect that I really enjoyed and found refreshingly old school.

Moving on, I purchased the original series on DVD a couple years ago after watching "Space Seed" and just kept putting it off and putting it off until just a couple months ago.  My youngest daughter likes to get up in the middle of the night (usually twice) for breastfeeding.  My wife takes care of that.  Illyria is my responsibility when she gets up around 6:30 or 7 in the morning.  At that point, we go downstairs.  She plays, I'm sitting on the couch five feet away watching, you guessed it, Star Trek: the original series until my eldest daughter wakes up and demands Mickey Mouse or Bubble Guppies or Lala Oopsie, etc.

Having never seen these vintage episodes before, I'm getting a real historical kick out of the scifi vintage that is this show.  An important point - I bought the DVDs with the updated, enhanced special effects.  Not sure if that was the right move, but think I may have been bummed to see 60's FX on a dismal budget.

It seems a little silly to review the original Star Trek show, so this isn't intended to be that.  Below are my snap-shot subjective thoughts on what I've seen so far.  The episodes I will most likely want to see again down the road, maybe when the girls are a bit older.

"The Man Trap"  -  I like the planet's rock formations, ruins, and bizarre colors that seem to be everywhere like a Dario Argento film - scifi Suspiria!  Great looking creature!

"Charlie X"  -  I have to keep reminding myself that what I might find "unoriginal" now might have been ground breaking back then.  Three dimensional chess... cool.  Not sure if I only half understood the ending because of alien exposition and saving the day or one of my kids was screaming about something.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before"  -  Cool eyes and mind powers!  Not bad at all.

"The Naked Time"  -  The beginning reminded me at little of John Carpenter's The Thing.  Sulu without a shirt.  Overall, a little hokey, but not oh well.

"The Enemy Within"  -  Kirk is divided into a virtuous and demonic version of himself.  Both are extremes and neither are able to effectively captain the ship or live within society's confines.

"Mudd's Women"  -  What?!?  I enjoyed the blatant sexy space women angle, but the overall plot kind of bored and confounded me.

"What Little Girls Are Made Of"  -  Speaking of sexy space women (this is going to be a running theme, I guess).  That "research assistant" is one hot ticket.  And wasn't that "large humanoid" the cannibalistic alien dude from that Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man"?

"Miri"  -  It's only begun, but I already have the urge to shout, "Stop it!" at the planets that resemble 1960's earth.  Of course, that urge might also come from baby and/or toddler throwing food, slapping or clawing me in the face, and similar behavior.

"Dagger of the Mind"  -  This one seemed to take forever to get going, but I enjoyed the mad scientist / crazy psychological theories angle.  Next time, cut to the chase a little faster, ok?

"The Corbomite Maneuver"  -  Who doesn't want to slap Lt. Bailey - especially when he wants to slap everyone else?  I liked the back and forth of this episode, the unknown, the unwinnable forecast.  Chess versus poker.  Cool.  Wait, who the fuck is that little dude?

"The Menagerie, Part I"  -  I was sorry to find out that this is the series' only two-parter.  A shame because it's quite awesome.  And for the really, really good stories, this is my preferred format.  Pike looks so bad.  Jeez!  Spock is betraying Kirk!  No!  Why is Talos IV forbidden?  How are those images possible?  What's going on?

"The Menagerie, Part II"  -  Wow, Vina might be the single best part of this season!  My first glimpse of the green skinned Star Trek girls I've heard about.  Doesn't disappoint.  Those large headed aliens look really cool.  I kind of wish they would've only used their minds to speak, instead of quickly switching to the regular mouth talking we're used to.  Can't say I expected the ending.  Is the hottness that was Vina still there?  Can Pike run around in his imagination?  Is this the matrix?  What exactly is going on?

"The Conscience of the King"  -  This reminds me of a Blake's 7 episode.  A couple different ones, actually.

"Balance of Terror"  -  Yes!  Finally, there's some ship to ship combat, tactical maneuvering, and general fighting aliens awesomeness!  Wait, doesn't that Romulan look awfully familiar, even for someone who's never really seen the show before?  Why was that guy picking on Spock?  Ok, I enjoy the fact that there's some species/racial connectivity between Romulans and Vulcans.  Didn't know that.  Cool.

"Shore Leave"  -  No!  We go from one of the best episodes of Season 1 to one of the worst.  Alice in Wonderland, seriously?  I'd almost rather be playing Disney Princess tea party than pay close attention to this one.

"The Galileo Seven"  -  I'm not sure about this episode.  On one hand, it reminds me of Lost in Space (which is both good and bad, but mostly bad in the serious scifi sense).  On the other, it's an interesting entry in the Star Trek canon.  Am I glad that I didn't get to see much of those giants, like their faces?  Probably.  Why is everyone hating on Spock, god damn it?!?  Ok, he's logical and emotionless, but the man's (so to speak) doing his best to keep everyone alive.  Back off, Lieutenant Boma!

"The Squire of Gothos"  -  Dear god, why me?  Why should I be subjected to this poppycock!?!

"Arena"  -  I vaguely remember seeing bits and pieces of this one in my youth.  Hmm, not sure if I really liked it that much.  The reptile alien was cool, I suppose.

"Tomorrow is Yesterday"  -  This one reminded me of Twilight Zone, Land of the Lost, and Doctor Who.  It was done alright.  Time travel can be tricky business.

"Court Martial"  -  This episode was really good.  Unexpected!  Didn't have any cool star ship battles or aliens or bizarre scifi concepts, just a solid mystery fueled by quirky human behavior.  More 3D chess!

"The Return of the Archons"  -  For Landru's sake!  I understand the studio didn't actually give you any money for alien world sets and whatnot, but come on.  Overall, this wasn't too bad, but it started off so slow.  Pick up the pace a little, guys.

"Space Seed"  -  I remember this so well, I skipped it because I want to watch it with either my wife or a couple of friends and then see Wrath of Khan right after.  Awesome episode!

"A Taste of Armageddon"  -  Great story.  This episode would be original even in 2014.  I want to punch the idiots on that planet almost as much as Kirk.  Also, there's a darkness to it.  It creeps me out a little bit to think of people voluntarily walking into a disintegration booth just because the planet's computer lost a game of Battleship.

"This Side of Paradise"  -  This reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the 70's.  Wait a minute, Leonard Nimoy was in that movie!  Last ditch save at the end.  Not sure if I like how the story panned out.  This episode made Spock sad.  >:(

"The Devil in the Dark"  -  There's got to be half a dozen vintage Doctor Who episodes that fit this basic description.  All the overweight, middle aged, average looking men at the beginning seem out of place - maybe that's because it actually seems plausible.  Oh my god, my reality has just been altered by some alien plant disease curse doppelganger hideous monster thing... no!

"Errand of Mercy"  -  Mostly awesome!  We get to see Klingons for the very first time!  Even though there's no ridged forehead stuff going on, the main one (that has more than just brown shoe polish rubbed into his pores) is pretty badass!  But who couldn't have guessed the natives of that planet didn't have some kind of ultimate doomsday weapon or were actually godlike beings just pretending to be human or were actually holograms or something?  Duh!  Still, the moral of the story was an interesting one.  Do civilized species/races have the right to wage war on each other when there are "grownup" aliens around?

"The Alternative Factor"  -  I just didn't know what to make of this one.  That dude's beard, for starters!  The last few minutes were the best.  A corridor between universes sounds pretty neat.

"The City on the Edge of Forever"  -  Isn't there a Blake's 7 episode of the same name?  Hang on, I've gotta look this up... ok, that one is called "City at the Edge of the World".  Anyways, this one started off really cool, but then 1930's earth.  Yawn.  Joan Collins?  Spock is building what with vacuum tubes and bottle caps?  Can pacifism ever be a bad thing?  Guess so.  Sorry, Hitler.  Joan Collins isn't going to lull baby America to sleep just yet.  "Let's get the hell out of here."  Indeed.  Wait, what?  No, that alien world time guardian thing is awesome.  It was the great depression era that made the episode suck.  Come back, Kirk!

"Operation: Annihilate!"  -  I didn't care for this one, either.  Kind of a poor ending to a pretty decent first season.  But wait, there's more...

"Amok Time"  -  Spock needs some time off... personal reasons.  I must have heard about "pon farr" before, but most recently a youtube series of videos called Barely Political / Key of Awesome did a parody thing about just that.  Just when I was starting to get bored with the back and forth shenanigans between Spock, Kirk, and Kirk's commanding officer telling him not to take a pit stop on the planet Vulcan, things started to get interesting.  This definitely could have been a two-parter.  I like the planet, rituals, Vulcans, fight to the death, Vulcan princesses' clever plan, and Bones' ingenuity.  That Vulcan who almost fought with Spock looked a lot like Leonard Nimoy, didn't he?  Uncanny.  And Spock smiles big at the end.  Nice.

"Who Mourns for Adonias?"  -  Jesus!  I have a feeling that this is why I never got into Star Trek as a kid.  A minute of this poorly done Bewitched meets I Dream of Jeanie bullshit is one minute too long, let alone 50 of them in a fucking row!!!

"The Changeling"  -  Even though Kirk tried to explain it, I have no idea what this episode has to do with changelings.  This is a common scifi tv trope.  I've seen it done in Lost in Space, Doctor Who, and probably a dozen other shows.  Not bad.  Nomad reminded me of IG88, which was nice.

"Mirror, Mirror"  -  Awesome!  This is more of what I'm talking about.  Spock with a goatee, Sulu a facial scar... where's the eye patch?  Assassination is a reasonable avenue to promotion!  Who knew?  Definitely enjoyed watching "the Captain's woman".  That dagger coming down into the world stencil really says it all.  Is evil Spock even more awesome than his usual self?  I think so.  He's still as logical and calculating as before.  Loved it when he said this to the scheming Sulu, "Many of my agents are Vulcans."  I can't believe we didn't get to see the evil landing party initially interact with the good enterprise crew.  Did the writer fall asleep?  This could have been another grand two-part episode.

That's all I've seen so far.  Will probably take me a couple months before I'm through season 3.  Hopefully, no one is offended by my sort of snide or snarky comments.  Just trying to add a little humor to the process.  If you have a comment, want to chat about an aspect of the show or something that happened in an episode, go right ahead.  Even though these episodes are fresh in my head, I'm no expert.  Find a Trekkie for all your esoteric trivia needs.

I'm starting see what all the fuss was about, up to and including Big Bang Theory.  Sheldon Cooper as Spock?  Only if he keeps the goatee...


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

VSd6, a System for Narrative Leverage

For years, I had players roll a variable amount of dice (2d6 for easy, 3d6 for average, 4d6 for difficult, etc.) trying to hit their character's ability score or lower.  If they did, success.  If they didn't, failure. Not very dynamic.  

What I've created here - influenced by what must be over a hundred different d6 game mechanics - is a system of narrative leverage.  Instead of pass/fail, there are interesting shades of grey which a competent GM can use to his advantage, improving the roleplaying experience for all.

The VSd6 system can be used anytime an action is attempted outside of conventional combat maneuvers.  That means if a character wants to use a skill, lift a portcullis, or kick the sorcerer's wand out of his hand before he blasts you again, this can be your go-to game mechanic...


 Roll a dice pool of d6’s.  Only take note of the single highest number rolled, except in cases of critical success. The GM and relevant player(s) should calculate each dice pool together.  Traditionally, the lion's share of calculation falls upon GM shoulders but players are encouraged to negotiate their dice pool based upon prevailing conditions.  Excessive whining, bitching, and complaining, however, may provoke a -1d6 penalty [cue Evil Laugh!].

 If the highest number rolled is a 6 that means “complete success”. 5 means “mostly successful” or “success but with a minor complication or catch”. 4 means “partial or half success”. 3 means “mostly failure” or “failure but with a silver lining”. 2 means "unsuccessful", the attempt did not succeed. 1 means “Disaster!"; not only does the attempt fail but, additionally, something unexpectedly bad occurs.  Multiple 6's means "critical or outstanding success!"

To put things in simple terms, let me present the system's essence:  if a character should have an excellent chance of success, have the player roll 3d6; if a character should have a moderate chance of success, then 2d6 should be rolled; if a character only has a slim chance of success, then reduce the player's dice pool to 1d6.  That's it.  However, if you want more - subtlety, nuance, intricacy, and options - everything that follows should suffice...

• If there are two 6’s rolled in the dice pool that means a critical success: you make it look easy, accomplish it in record time, or do it with stylistic flourish. Three 6’s means super-critical success: above and beyond expectations resulting in more than you thought possible. Four 6’s means hyper-critical success: all of the aforementioned benefits plus the next time you attempt the same action under similar conditions, you get an automatic 6 in your dice pool.

• Take 5! Characters with a dice pool of 4 or more can accept a result of 5 instead of rolling. 

•  1d6 is standard.  The average character attempting an ordinary action under normal circumstances without any special skill, training, background, experience, or aptitude will only have 1d6 to roll. Characters who find themselves with an empty dice pool (0d6) must work a little harder to at least have something to roll. Ingenuity! 

[Optional rule #1] If the action is exceptionally innovative and well described, GMs may grant characters a 1d6 minimum dice pool to at least have a chance at success.

[Optional rule #2]  A character with a zero dice pool may roll 2d6, discarding the greater of the two. 

• If a character attempts something having relevant skill, training, background, and/or experience, then add a d6 to the dice pool.

• If the character has a relevant ability score of 7 or lower (well below average), then subtract a d6 from the pool. If he has a relevant ability score of 15 or higher (well above average), then add a d6.

• If the character is being aided by someone (or something), then add a d6... provided that aiding character has some skill, training, background, and/or experience relevant to the task at hand.  Same goes for characters aided by an appropriate tool, device, or apparatus.  Normally, these bonuses are not added together or "stacked", but the GM is the final arbiter in this matter.

• Awesomely imaginative/inventive actions that are outside the box and described by the player add a d6.

• Relatively easy actions add a d6.

• Subtract a d6 if there’s overwhelming force working against the character.

• Subtract a d6 if the attempted action is particularly challenging.

• Subtract a d6 if the character is in a debilitated state, handicapped in some way, or is suffering from a major wound.

• If the active character wishes to make a quick, fast, simple, or minor action (one that doesn't require its own roll), in addition to the one he's attempting in a single round, he must declare his intention before rolling his dice pool, as 1d6 should be taken away to allow for the extra, albeit brief, action.  Quick actions might entail: drinking a readied potion, dodging a bullet, parrying a sword thrust, shouting for help, moving 5', or taking the safety off a handgun.  

A standard action (standard in length of time and scope of tactics, yet effortless or reflexive to perform) should reduce an active character's dice pool by 2d6 - this is no different than two quick actions in the same round.  Standard actions might include swinging a sword, casting a spell, firing an arrow, firing a laser pistol, reading a scroll, or moving more than 5'.

Actions substantial enough to require a dice pool calculation reduces a character's dice pool by 3d6 (also equal to a standard action and a quick action or three quick actions in the same round).  The player may decide how to allocate his 3d6 reduction between both actions.  For instance, a PC who wants to bullwhip a thug around the throat and throw a ruby the size of a monkey's head across a chasm in the same round might have dice pools of 3d6 and 4d6 respectively.  The player could choose to reduce his whip action by 1d6 and his throw by 2d6 leaving him with dice pools of 2d6 for each. 

• Characters can save up their dice for a rainy day!  Simply keep a d6 or more of your dice pool in reserve until you really, really need it.  However, a dice pool modified by reserved dice cannot be more than double the original dice pool.  Furthermore, reserving dice cannot reduce the current dice pool below 1d6.

Let's say a PC is about to shoot a phaser at the mirrored surface of a black pylon in order to hit an enemy hiding for cover behind an Ancient Wyrm skeleton.  Based on the GM's calculations, he has a dice pool of 4d6.  However, the player feels that's over-kill, so decides to only roll 3d6 and keep 1d6 in reserve.  Later in the session, the PC tries to figure out the symbols on a high-tech scrying device.  He gets a 2d6 dice pool, but isn't really that interested enough to give it his all.  He decides to roll 1d6 and save 1d6.  Finally, at session's end, the PC attempts to hurl his sword into a cyclops' eye.  In this case, the dice pool is set at 2d6, but the player wants to "cash in" that extra 2d6 for a total of 4d6 (giving him the option to "take 5"). 

If the player wanted to improve his character's last action to 5d6 (assuming he had enough dice in reserve), he wouldn't be able to because the original dice pool cannot exceed twice that amount.  GMs should watch out for "juicing".  Intentional or not, players might have their character attempt an inconsequential action just so dice can be saved for later.  If the action attempted is relatively meaningless, then forego rolling, simply have the inconsequential action succeed.  No dice pool, no opportunity for juicing.  

Also, at the end of a session, any unused reserve dice are divided in half (round down) in expectation of the following session.


The above is still in its workshop phase, but I like how it's evolving.  What's it for?  Ideally, I want it to support all the RPGs with awkward, clunky, or inefficient task resolution mechanics... giving the GM his much needed narrative leverage and the PCs a decent chance to do something original which any given set of rules couldn't begin to imagine, let alone cover.  

Maybe the VSd6 system is right for your own RPG?  Even if game rules could be copyrighted, I wouldn't care to with these.  Everyone is free to use VSd6 or modify it as they wish (as if I'd be able to stop them - Ha!).  Some small credit or attribution would be nice, assuming you include them in your own published work, but not required.  Do as thou wilt!

There must be literally a thousand different paper & pencil, tabletop roleplaying games in existence.  Does the world really need a new one?  Sometimes, I feel that my efforts are better spent improving the RPGs that already exist, either thematically or mechanically.  Nevertheless, I'm working on a gonzo scifi-fantasy mashup with Mike Berkey in the spirit of Encounter Critical, Extreme Vengeance, and Gamma World.  VSd6 will be the core mechanic... possibly in conjunction with a percentile-based skill system. How that's going to work I have no idea!  Additionally, VSd6 will be included in The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.

One last thing... your feedback is appreciated - especially if you're one of the few, the brave, and the awesome who actually sit down and use this in your game.  If you do try it, please let me know your findings.


p.s.  By now, there's a long and winding list of individuals who improved VSd6 with their comments, questions, criticisms, and suggestions.  Thank you!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Encounter Critical review and actual play report

Somewhere deep inside, part of us yearns to see Boba Fett beam down from the U.S.S. Enterprise onto Arrakis in pursuit of Ookla the Mok and Buck Rogers who bear the one ring to city-state Tyr under dark and dying suns.

Tell me you wouldn't watch that TV show!

The Gist

For those who don't already know, Encounter Critical is a scifi fantasy roleplaying game meant to belly flop along the razor's edge between fanboy mashup and absurd homage.  It's a self-conscious mosaic of tried and true influences so deeply etched into geek history that our meme-filtered experiences shine like surreal diamonds in a cyber sky.  EC is a collage of everything awesome... brought down to an adolescent level of slapstick debasement.  It's porn for RPG nerds, not created to elevate the worlds of sword, sorcery, lasers and starships, but to get one's rocks off on the shameless gratification that comes from playing a Vulkin warlock casting Demon Master or an Amazon/Robodroid doxy [space prostitute] seducing her way to Conan's throne.  EC is Spaceballs crossed with Mad Magazine and Traveler... but Traveler from a parallel universe where it has a goatee and wears an eyepatch.

The Origin

Encounter Critical did not come out of Racine, WI circa 1979 but from the demented mind of S. John Ross around 2004.  He had most of the roleplaying community fooled for awhile, then announced it was a hoax.  People still play the thing, though.  Most notably old school RPG blogger Jeff Rients.  I stumbled onto EC awhile back.  Didn't pay much attention, forgot about it, then tripped over it again and thought I should take a closer look.  What I saw confused and amazed me to the point of needing to play it... just to see if EC was as special (in both meanings of the word) as I suspected.

Anyway, I posted an ad on a local geek meetup looking for players.  Not as much interest as I'd hoped for.  I guess a game people have never heard of with a half-baked premise that extreme turns most off.  Fortunately, the people I've been gaming with recently attended, as did one other guy - a local news reporter who wanted to record our session.  I convinced him to take part in the craziness a la Hunter S. Thompson... gonzo journalism at its best.  Seemed fitting because EC is one hell of a gonzo RPG.

The Hunch

There's one thing in particular I was dying to know about EC. Were the rules (game mechanics) an integral part of the design?  Could a Journey Master replace the system with something more streamlined and elegant than being slapped in the face with a fish and still have as much zany, madcap sci-fantasy-sploitation fun?

The CharGen

We had approximately four hours to try this game.

Character creation was tedious.  It tested the players' mettle.  After the first hour I almost regretted my decision of having everyone make their PCs from scratch.  But at the 90 minute mark, it was finished.  Luckily, one of my players had his tablet or ipad or whatever there with the Encounter Critical PDF available to share.  That sped things along.  Of course, it didn't help that the reporter had never played a RPG before in his life.  Not that I'm complaining.  I love running games for the uninitiated.  I pride myself on being an easy going, noob friendly GM.

The Party

There was a Robodroid that looked like a lobster.  Its name was Lobstertron 300, naturally.  He was a warrior with a ton of hit points, his Robot Nature ability score was a 20, Strength 19, Intellect 16, Dexterity 5, and everything else in the middle.  We had an Amazon warlock who could phase through walls, blast people with some kind of energy or fire magic missile.  She had mutations like detachable limbs and super speed in short bursts.  A Lizardman bounty hunter (criminal) with an atrophied psi-lobe, death prone, and a 4 Intellect seemed so handicapped that he couldn't help but awesome-up proceedings.  A Klengon warlock constantly enslaving dudes with some kind of transport and an Elf pioneer who explored the crap out of underground caverns rounded out the party.

I couldn't help but create a few random tables for such things as prior professions, known and secret affiliations, personality traits, and god worshiped.  A little bit of Paranoia RPG influenced the selections, as well as, the idea of secret societies and the like.  Adding another layer or two only helps the game, in my opinion.  After all, those things can always be ignored if they don't move the story along or aid roleplaying.  For instance, the reporter rolled "depraved" for his PC.  This allowed him (gave him "social permission", if you will) to act like a complete bastard, taking his characterization to places most people sitting around a table full of strangers wouldn't go.

The Story

Rather than going with the short introductory adventure included in the manual, I decided to create my own planet, history, and plot.  Using Vanth (included in EC) as a guide, both visually and when it came to thinking up intriguing places, such as Ambush Alley, Cold One Tombs, Tribalistic Gibbering, and the City of Crimson Hawk.  I hand drew the map in under 20 minutes so that it could pass for something scribbled during study hall.

I borrowed stuff from Thundarr the Barbarian, Zardoz, Logan's Run, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Terminator, Krull, Dune, Otherworld, Flash Gordon, Ice Pirates, Alien, Blake's 7, and Battlestar Galactica!  Somehow, I just kept piling more references on, squeezing characters and equipment and god knows what into a glorious rip-off of epic proportions.

Basically, earth was ravaged by a runaway comet, the United Federation of Planets had invaded the planet (renamed Thaavn), and Emperor Ming created The Protected Zone.  The PCs were each given a message to meet at a strip club in Nova City, inside The Protected Zone.  A bounty hunter messenger clone offered them a mercenary mission of recovering pirated ice from a space cruiser crashed in the Southern Jungles.  Shortly after that, Emperor Ming asked them to collect a secret cache of the spice melange from the same crash landed cruiser.

The Highlights

Wizard merchants traveling by caravan traded the PC's newly acquired AT-AT (enslave spell) for a bunch of cool stuff including a lightsaber, protocol droid, and a green skinned slave girl.  A glaive laid at the bottom of a molten lava stream.  Cryogenic chambers were disturbed, releasing silver robed humanoids with overly large brains and psionic powers.  A war-band of mutants destroyed.  Mutant and magical powers were used, as were skills.

As random as the skill names were, I found them strangely user-friendly and intuitive:  logic, happenstance, clue, saving throw, melee attack, machine friend, see the future, and psi resist.  Those and a few others came into play at one point or another.  Less time was taken up debating if skill x, y, or z was more appropriate for the situation than I've seen in a lot of RPGs.

There were no fatalities, though a warlock who rolled few hit points almost died.

The Answer

I'm still not sure if the Stalinist bureaucracy that is EC's system and layout makes the game or if they can be thrown out in favor of something better.  Time will tell, I suppose.  There's probably no way of being sure without running it again after re-writing bits of it.  Something I'm already tinkering with.

The Verdict

The reporter said he enjoyed himself, and he certainly appeared to be having a good time; however, he has nothing to compare it to since this was his first paper and pencil tabletop RPG session.  Of the four other players, one liked EC a little better than our standard D&Desque campaign, another liked it a little less, and the remaining two thought EC was roughly comparable to it.

For myself, it was a much needed release.  I dared to be stupid and won... won big, in fact.  But I don't know how far that rabbit hole goes.  It is sustainable?  Does it get better?  Worse?  It fulfills one kind of need while leaving another high and dry.  Perhaps these questions are moot because they can't be answered definitively or objectively.  Gaming is not science, it's an art.  Just as I wouldn't want to only look at impressionist paintings and nothing but impressionist paintings for the rest of my life, there's no single RPG that I'd want to run or play until the end of time.  Variety is the spice of life, and EC is chock full of variety... and spice if you're lifting from Dune!

Obviously, you need a sense of humor to enjoy this game.  It's a fine line between cheesy awesome with a side of ridiculous and super-sized silliness taken way too far.  The former can be liberating and refreshing, but I have a feeling the latter just might be a complete and utter shambles.  Of course, that all depends on if your group would enjoy playing Toon the cartoon RPG with scifi and fantasy tropes.

If RPG success is judged primarily upon the benchmark of fun, then EC is an unqualified triumph.  Lots of laughs echoed through the library meeting room earlier this afternoon.  I'm going to run it again and again.


p.s.  Ok, just got a phone call from one of yesterday's victims... I mean players, and he was really into it, apparently.  He told me EC is probably his favorite RPG now.  So, that means I'll definitely be running an EC campaign in the near (mutant) future.

p.p.s.  Want to read about sessions two and three?