Monday, March 31, 2014

Gary Con

There are quite a few reasons why I like conventions - the chance to meet new gamers, play new games or old games in new ways, and cool stuff to buy (i'll show off my awesome new dragon dice holder in another blog post).  But there are also reasons why I dislike conventions.  Besides travel hassles and potential marital strife, it can be very distracting.  Noise, people walking by, interruptions for one reason or another, etc.  Just the sheer openness.  God help you if you're the least bit agoraphobic, claustrophobic, or misanthropic.

The first game I signed up for was Mazes & Minotaurs.  By the way, I was about 24 hours late signing up for games online, so a lot of the popular and/or much anticipated games were already taken.  Shortly after dealing with hotel registration problems, I sat down early at the M&M table.  It was in a big room.  Lots of people.  Fairly loud.  I imagined what 3.5 hours of that would be like and shuddered.

The GM seemed like a nice guy but he admitted within the first couple minutes that he had some kind of bug - maybe it was food poisoning, a migraine, or a virus.  He wasn't sure, but he may need to leave for the bathroom and puke.  I was sitting right next to him as there were only 3 players.  I'm not an extreme case, but I'll admit that I'm a bit of a germ-phobe or whatever you want to call it.  After 10 minutes, I made my excuses and left the game.  I talked to some of the M&M players later in the day and the game broke up shortly after I left.  No one said it was my fault, but blamed it on the sick GM.

I'll pin this one on the GM's frail condition, but that 10 minute session started out pretty weak.  We got to pick from a handful of characters.  Not familiar with the system, we got to see the class and a couple skills, equipment list, and various numbers which meant little to us noobs.  Then we were supposed to buy equipment before this journey which we've already started on or were about to arrive at our destination.  Nothing specific, nothing definite... it began with a whimper and who knows, it might have jumped in with swords clanking and sandals covered in gorgon blood, but I doubt it.

I vowed that when it was my turn, I would be authoritative, interesting, and quick to get to the good stuff.

Back to the hotel reservation.  I won't bore you with the details.  In a nutshell, I got bumped to their sister hotel a couple miles up the road.  Fine.  Checking in, it was a private, fancy, golf course kind of community.  I only saw a couple people the whole time I was on the grounds - and those were in the registration office.  There was a spacious, swanky common area to lounge around in.  Leather couch and sofa, TV, fireplace, and a large round table with 8 tall-back leather chairs.

Hmm, I thought.  What a great place to game.  Long story short, I decided to run my game right there.  Wasn't hard to set up.  Got permission.  Told the main hotel I needed a shuttle van to bring the group to where I was staying.  Told the gamers waiting at my designated table that I had a surprise in store for them.

The game itself?  Well, I had been working on The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence for months.  It was taking shape.  I playtested it a number of times with my home group, but needed something more.  I needed to run the near-final version for a group of strangers, ideally in a convention type setting.  Gary Con was my chance, and I think it went swimmingly.  Which is not to say it went perfect.  There were flaws, shortcomings, things I hadn't thought of.  Some I ad-libbed on the spot, others I just used what was written on the page knowing revisions were a-coming.

Even though some of it was shaky, that campaign world lived for just under 4 hours.  The purple islands breathed.  We had breathed life into it, and the party's experiences changed it forever.  For that, I'm extremely grateful.  So, thanks again Tracy Jo Barnwell, Jason Warchol, Amy Horton, Adam Thornton, Mark Malone, David Bresson, and especially Guy Fullerton who took a couple pics during the session and furnished me with those names.  Somehow, I forgot to collect them myself in the soft violet afterglow of that crazy session.  And why the hell didn't I take any pictures?!?

Strictly speaking, it wasn't your typical "con game".  No, it was the first session of a wilderness hex crawl campaign using Swords & Wizardry.  For those expecting a clear, concise beginning, middle, and end with lots of closure... sorry, folks.  That's not what happened.

Those intrepid adventurers will always remember the hot dog rotisserie, the cleric's throat being chewed off by an insane clown (just like in last night's Walking Dead episode!!!), the coincidental dark secret / Devil's bargain / cleric resurrection ruse, and of course the Purple Putrescence itself which was accurately described as "a force of nature."  While I got a little feedback post-game, I'd love to have some notes on what worked well, really well, and not at all.  Since Saturday afternoon, I've written a couple pages of changes.  But the evolution will take time, as well as, other perspectives.

Oh yeah, I got to play Hollow Earth Expedition.  An adventure called Frozen Terror.  It was a lot of fun and the GM did a good job.  John Carpenter's The Thing meets At the Mountains of Madness with a dash of Return of the Living Dead.  It was fairly scripted and would have been a perfect game for a convention, except for the fact that it was a two-parter and we never got past the first.  Oh well.  One of the four players claimed (twice!) that a lady explorer with a jet pack who punched and threw out a Nazi flying a plane, then got in and landed it herself was the single coolest thing that had ever happened in any roleplaying game ever.  Which was nice.


Sunday, March 9, 2014


As you probably gathered from the title, this is a public service announcement for the roleplaying game community.  The following is a bit of wisdom that's worked well for me over the past few months.  I hope others can benefit from my RPG PSA.

Time is a valuable commodity to some of us, most of us, probably, especially when you've got a spouse, kids, demanding career, other hobbies, etc.  I had things I needed to do, RPG related writing, and a limited amount of time to configure them - toss ideas around the old brain box - before putting those thoughts down on paper.

As an experiment, I decided to cut-out my usual talk radio and CD listening on the commute to and from work.  It only takes me about 25 minutes to get to work and just a little bit longer than that to get back home due to traffic. My hypothesis was this: starved for distraction, my wandering mind would eventually be forced to focus on some of the things I was trying to formulate RPG-wise and, from that, a few good ideas would materialize.

It worked.  Maybe it took 10 minutes of driving without listening to anything but the muffled sounds outside the car (usually much less), but eventually, I thought about game mechanics, NPCs, magic items, monsters, the triumphs and tribulations of previous sessions, something I wanted to try in a future session, the nature of gaming, etc.  Most days, by the time I reached my destination I had a little something that made my silent drive worth while.  Occasionally, I'm able to solve major problems or come up with a string of neat creations in a row... bing, bing, bing!

So, I encourage you (those, like myself, with a temporal deficiency in their lives) to try it.  Rather than doing exactly what I did, take the essence of this experiment and apply it to yourself, to your own situation.  There will probably be fleeting moments of discomfort at first - the mind loves its distractions and hates to do without them - however, the price one pays for free floating thoughts is worth it.  That liberated imagination can easily (eventually, at the very least) be directed towards gaming, your job, relationships, superhero underwear collecting, or whatever it is you want to think about.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Mutant Epoch RPG

Welcome to Strange

I've heard a lot of words being thrown around like "gonzo", "old school", and "weird". Ok, fair enough. I believe Mutant Epoch (after awhile the "The" just gets dropped like a radioactive potato sprouting cybernetic lobster arms with florescent orange tendrils!) has its own tangy flavor and style. In the world of post-apocalyptic tabletop RPGs, it's a force to be reckoned with. But "tangy" is subjective; it depends on the ingredients and the individuals tasting it. Alright, put your splatter-proof bibs on and let's take a look at what goes into this Mutant Epoch's zesty BBQ garlic cheese spread!

So many character types! There's no race/class system here. You pick (or more likely, roll) to see if your a trans-human, android, ghost mutant, pure stock human, etc, and then roll on a table determining your pre-adventuring caste (including skills), traits (ability scores), mutations, implants, etc. Even size/weight, whether you're right or left handed (or ambidextrous if you're lucky), and if you can swim worth a damn are taken into consideration. Roll, punk!

Traits like strength, perception, and intelligence are used. Nice and old school, though there's something to be said for originality to spice up overly familiar RPG concepts. One thing I particularly liked was the table on generating those traits. Since they go from 1 - 100, I assumed (and have seen it in other games) a player rolls a 1d100 for each one, meaning that a trait or two could be in the 90's while another character could have abysmal scores. Thankfully, there's a table in order to keep things on a more level playing field. And yet, there's plenty of random chance to get a character like none other. That's right, no two PCs in an adventuring party will be exactly the same. The odds are probably a million to 1 against.

I've read a number of ME reviews that go extensively into character creation, rolling for mutations, etc. So, I'm not going to do that here... or am I?  In this case, I feel its justified since going through PC generation is one of the primary reasons for picking ME up.

Drowg the Super-Handsome, a Human/Horse Assassin

We start by rolling on the Character Type table.  There are three options, I'm going with the middle one, "Experienced Player".  My result is a 65, which means I'm a... Bestial Human.  No!  That's the one I kind of didn't want.  Oh well, the dice decide.  I shall be their obedient vessel.

Now Trait rolling... 

Endurance: [37] raw % roll was 62

Strength: [18] raw % roll was 14 (Ouch, guess he's not going to be wrestling mutants in the slave pits.  Pity.)

Agility: [79] raw % roll was 96 (Awesome!  He may not be strong, but he's quick... perhaps slippery?  Because of my high roll, my result was actually 60 + 1d20.  I rolled a 19.)

Accuracy: [29] raw % roll was 46 (Pretty average.)

Intelligence: [59] I rolled an 83 which translated into 40 + 1d20.  (Yes, another 19.  I'm on fire today!)

Perception: [21]  I rolled a 21

Willpower: [50]  I rolled an 84 which translated into 40 + 1d20 (rolled a 10.)

Appearance: [118]  Wow, I rolled a natural 100 which translated into 100 +1d20.  (He's a real looker!  Seriously, not making this rolls up.  This is the first time I've rolled these dice.  They came out of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess grindhouse box.  Thanks, James!)

Pre-Game Caste: I rolled a 61... Assassin.  Cool!  Now, the Bestial Human table... 73.  That means horse.  What?  Between my Caste and Human/Horse genetics, I get quite a few favorable modifiers to my Traits.  A whopping + 57 to Endurance!  Can that be right?  +25 to strength?  Another 21 points added to my appearance of 118?!?  Jesus Mutant Christ! Additionally, there's only a 50% that drugs will affect me and a 5% chance that the opposite effect will happen.

Being an assassin gives me the following skills: martial arts and knife throwing were automatic. Lying, pick pocket, dodge, unarmed combat, and wilderness survival I rolled for (wilderness survival I already had one skill point in because I'm half horse).  Also, I have black ninja gear... I guess it's tailor fitted for my immense stature.  Oh yeah, that's another thing.  Everything is in meters, centimeters, kilograms, and all those measurements alien to Americans.  Well, I know I'm big.  That's enough.

I had a 33% chance of having some mutations, but rolled too high for that.  :(  No ability to read/write. 

Ok, let's look at Trait Value Modifiers... 94 Endurance means my healing rate is 9.  That's how many hit points I can regain naturally each day.  My damage bonus is +2 and range of throwing things is +10%.  Agility Defense Value is -10 and then another -7 for being half horse and then -5 because of my dodge skill (that means I take away 22 points from people attacking me).  My Strike Value is +2.  

I'm also right handed and a strong swimmer.

Because I'm Rank 1 (Ranks are pretty much like levels).  I have a 50-50 chance of hitting something, but then it's modified by my +2.  So, everything I want to try and hit someone, I roll a percentile and if it comes anywhere between 01 and 52, I hit.  If my opponent has a Defense Value of -10, then I would only hit with a roll of 01 to 42.

As you can see, this is one crazy motherfucking system.  Pretty cool, but involved.  Lots of rolling, chart consultation, and modifiers up the wazoo!  Nifty in theory, but I won't know how it works in practice until my group actually plays ME.

I can see that rolling 6 characters is going to take about half of our 4 hour game session.  At least the remaining 2 hours can get be action packed, trying out combat and exploring a ruined city.  

Back to the Review

Some concepts were not intuitive (for me). Endurance is a trait and that number also doubles as a character's hit points, I assume. When I run it (and I'm really looking forward to that day), I'll probably drop some of the non-essential stuff like complicated combat moves and the type of over-complications which bog down the first few sessions when everyone is learning the rules. Not everything is spelled out but it tries to think of everything.  ME bills itself as an RPG for experienced players. Noobs are welcome, but are advised to watch and learn from those who've been around the block of ruins. This is the Outland system - expect an eye-gouge before that blonde mutant with the nice boobs opens up all three of her legs for you. Novice GMs should prepare themselves for some growing pains.

There's a lot of tables, many arbitrary percentages for likely narratives - your former owner wants his slave back, etc. Sometimes, you're rolling on a table to get a random number of things (which you roll) in order to find out how many times and in which categories you roll on a brand new table. Not a deal-breaker, obviously, but if you detest that sort of thing, then perhaps ME isn't for you.

For many, the layout might be a disadvantage. The type is a bit small (a youtube reviewer claimed he had to read the entire book with a magnifying glass!), though I didn't have any trouble reading it, and quite a bit seems kind of run together without nice paragraph breaks separating them for a cleaner look.  But the good news is that its 240 pages would come to something like 320 in most RPG books.  A lot of text, tables, and artwork. Let's talk about that. The artwork is pretty awesome. Some of it is a little cartoon-y or juvenile, but most illustrations fit the genre. Art throughout the book - everywhere! Of course, some of the images are pretty small, like 2" x 2", 1" x 3", or even 1" x 1", making it difficult to see any detail or even appreciate how cool a certain creature, mutant, or weapon is.

People compare ME to Gamma World. I never had the pleasure of running, reading, nor playing GW, so it's hard for me to say. However, some of ME reminds me of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness RPG along with a sourcebook called After The Bomb. Freaky human/animal mutant hybrids scavenging for fuel, food, and weapons in a post-nuclear wasteland. I'm not sure if Gamma World or similar RPGs include magic, but ME doesn't. There are psionic powers and hi-tech relics which seem magical to some, but this is not a scifi-fantasy post-modern mix like Shadowrun or Rifts. However, an introductory paragraph or two suggests that would be a cool addition to the game. Also, the creator, William McAusland, says there's a fantasy RPG using the Outland System coming out soon.

ME has hazard checks (saving throws), weapon codes, unlooted corpse classifications, a random hit location table (with only 1 in 20 chance of "torso"?), quite a few mentions of prostitution, erotic art practitioners, and sex-bots, as well as, quite a few tips on forming a campaign. GMs need it, too, because the post-apocalyptic genre just doesn't have as many ready made, go-to ideas as standard fantasy or scifi. There's probably only a dozen fantastic post-apocalyptic films I can think of - not all of them will be inspirational regarding the GM's particular campaign. Hundreds, if you count traditional scifi or fantasy.

There are some typos, but that just comes with the territory. Alright, I think that pretty much covers it. The ME website has a lot of cool stuff, including a members only area accessible once you email Mr. McAusland with the code at the back of your book or PDF. Basically, this is a sweet (and tangy) post-apocalypse RPG if you like that sorta thing. Maybe a bit too Gygaxian for some, but those who want AD&D with laser eyes, chainsaw hands, crab claws, and tentacles should get more than their money's worth.  It's not a perfect fit for everyone, but a few will absolutely love this!


Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Shadow Over Hollow Earth

Got halfway through True Detective tonight.  In some sick world that's probably a kind of victory.  Kids won't sleep.  I think they might be allergic to it.  Oh well, at least it gives me the chance to update my old school gaming blog.

Anyways, earlier today was our first time with Hollow Earth Expedition [HEX].  Virgin blood.  Had some trouble getting the original hardcover edition of the book.  It's been out of print for a little while, but with amazon's help I now have both the travel sized softcover and a mint condition hardcover with the colored end papers and character archetype plates - better than mint, actually.  My used copy is signed by Jeff Combos.  Whoever you are, "Jen," thank you.

Onto the game!  Rather than do the easy thing, which, in this case, would be running the introductory adventure at the back of the book, I decided to "do my own thing".  The outsider's curse.  It took me until the night before to come up with something decent.  HEX's game world environment is simultaneously specific and vague.  I love that, but sometimes I struggle to find a purchase on the slippery setting.  From the moment I read about dinosaurs, Nazi occultism, mad scientists, 1930's, and the lost city of Atlantis, I knew Lovecraft would have to be involved.

I decided to do a HEX makeover/hack of "The Pits of Bendal-Dolum" - a Call of Cthulhu adventure from the Cthulhu Classics scenario book by Chaosium.  Old school.  The middle was almost identical, but the beginning and ending took on drastic changes...

The Beginning

The memoirs of Jasper Hedrick were published a decade ago.  Hedrick was a small-time explorer back in his day.  His primary claim to fame was an expedition to Baaldum-Jale, a temple devoted to the forgotten gods.  However, his editor, Lawrence Talbot, made sure it was barely mentioned in an effort to preserve Hedrick's credibility.  "An account bordering on the fantastical."  he said.

A fortnight ago, Mr. Talbot died.  Among his papers were the original notes of Hedrick's central American expedition to Baaldum-Jale, where he observed carvings depicting inhuman creatures, strange phenomena, the practice of black magic, and something he never dared describe at the bottom of a stone stairway containing 777 steps.

A room full of people listened to this new account thanks to the blabbering mouth of Tuffy MacStinson.  Normally, that wouldn't be a big deal, but Tuffy spilled the proverbial beans in the drawing room of the Intrepid Explorer's League club.  Several expeditions were launched by week's end.

The Middle

Native tribesmen encountered, the survivors of a competing expedition saved, some kind of dread seal or talisman found, a giant Tulu statue marked the temple's perimeter, and nightmares disturbed everyone's slumber.  Except for an increase in reptilian aesthetics around the temple, it was a lot like the Call of Cthulhu adventure.

But this is where we got to try the Ubiquity System.  Basically, you roll big pools of dice and try to get evens.  As GM, I got very few.  Everyone else seemed to do fairly well, about average, sometimes better than.

If you think Call of Cthulhu is deadly, holy shit!  Playing a Big Game Hunter or Fortune Hunter if you want to see the bodies pile up.  The adventurers killed a saber-toothed panther jaguar in 1.5 shots.  Later, they took out a traitor/cultist/Hell-plant in a single round.  But what do you expect when rolling 14 dice to the defender's 6 or 7.

I believe only 1 Style Point was spent during the game.  Unfortunately, I can't even remember what it was for.  But a few of the players really hammed it up roleplaying-wise in order to get them.  The Christian Missionary was the best.  At every turn, he had a sermon ready or a passage from the bible - the guy even brought an old beat-up bible to the game!

The End

After the demonic vegetation burst out of the cultist's back, the Thule Society wandered in suggesting a combined expedition.  They had a man in their group who had actually been to the hollow earth before and was pretty sure this would be a way back.  Plus, they had a special girl with them; she was physically blind but also a spiritual medium.

Boldly stealing from Star Trek, the super-expedition climbed down the Cyclopean steps only to find a de-materialization area for beaming people down to where the action is.  They went.  Jungle again but more exotic... and dangerous.  PCs saw their first T-Rex, the missionary befriended an Ape-Man, convincing him to let everyone into the Atlantean ruins.  That's where the session ended.

Experience points were given.  I can't remember if it's in the rules, but I allowed players to use their unused Style Points as XP if they wanted.

"How was it?"  That's a question I frequently ask since I've started running new games on a regular basis (new to me and my players, that is).  Because sitting behind the screen - figuratively, because the HEX GM screen is harder to find than a solid night of sleep at my house - doesn't tell me everything.  Even though I try my best to gauge player actions, reactions, expectations, verbal and non verbal cues, etc... sometimes you just don't know until you ask.  Not that you always get an honest answer, but it's better than guessing.  The verdict?  Everything had fun, liked the system, and wanted to keep playing.

After session #2, I'll end at a good stopping point, ask people if they want to continue playing HEX or move on to something new... like The Mutant Epoch.  Thanks for reading.  Feel free to comment.  I enjoy the feedback.


p.s.  After session #2, I have some fresh insight into HEX: given enough time and enthusiasm (especially when fueled by an awesome idea), the PCs will pretty much be able to do anything they want within the setting's context and never die.

It would have been nice if the introductory text had said that up-front, but I got there in the end.  That's how this style of game should go and that's what the system facilitates.  Once the GM is aware of this, the game noticeably improves for all.

If your players are tired of scrounging and scavenging for a +1 sword, constantly trying to survive battles with giants, dragons, and wizards, then they'd probably enjoy a little vacation.  Give them some well-deserved R&R.  Run HEX.  Somewhere between 1 and 3 sessions should do the trick.