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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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?