Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sunken Empires

As I'm sure you've noticed by now, I don't write many reviews. Part of this is because I don't tend to write about things I dislike. Part of it is because I'm not a fan of negativity and too many reviews are just too negative, even when the reviewer likes a product.

That said, however, I'm going to try to write more reviews.

As my regular readers know by now, I'm running a series of one-shot games with a variety of systems and genres for a small group of friends (and I have good news on that front, too, by the way).

Being who I am (a voracious reader of books), I like to pull ideas in fron a variety of sources. Especially for those games without built-in settings.

I recently read this, and it started me thinking about a coastal fantasy or fantasy/horror game. While I could easily integrate the sunken forests into a Call of Cthulhu game, I didn't want to do another Cthulhu-flavored game this soon after my last game.

I received an e-mail last week informing me that the latest Open Design project, Sunken Empires was now available for review. That's right: I got a free copy of this one for review - and I'm glad I did.

Now, I have the Seafarer's Handbook for D&D 3.0. It ... it was okay. It was (unsurprisingly) rules for playing sailors and having adventures on the sea. Like most of the "Legends and Lairs" series that Fantasy Flight Games did, it was long on rules mechanics and short on flavor.

I'm a big fan of flavor. Flavor is especially important when your plan is to translate ideas to another system.

Sunken Empires was written by Brandon Hodge for the Pathfinder system. Like most RPG's, it begins with an introduction. It's interesting enough, and tells the history of the Aboleth. It's worth reading, too - especially because the Aboleth are referenced a number of times throughout the rest of the book. I'd forgotten about the D&D tournament scene - it was something I was unaware of until the late 90's, by which time (I think) it was dead and gone.

The first chapter of the book is all about "historical" sunken cities in real-world myth and legend. The author specifically discusses Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu. Each of the three cities begins with a discussion of the history of the city - Atlantis, for example, was first written about by Plato. Plato's description (as written by Hodge) reminds me a great deal of the Biblical tales of Sodom and Gomorrah - humans become corrupt, and God (or Gods) decide to destroy it as an object lesson.

Hodge then discussed the cities in a bit more depth - not much more, but enough to give us some flavor. Each city gets just over a page of its own, plus a sidebar. These sidebars call themselves "Design Notes," but what they are is plot hook generators.

Following these three cities, Hodge designs a lost city of his own - just to show us how it's done. The resulting city is as believable as any of the other three, and is rich with plot hooks and story ideas for a fantasy game.

Most importantly to me, this chapter is 100% rules-free. It's usable with nearly any game. I could easily see using this chapter in a Spirit of the Century game (not least of which because both Mu and Lemuria feature heavily in pulp writings from the 20's and 30's). It wouldn't be too difficult to move the twin cities of Cassadega forward to a more modern pulp setting, either.

Chapters two through four are rules-and-stat-heavy. I'll be honest: they were a bit of a slog for me, especially as I am not currently playing any Pathfinder games. I can take a few of the ideas from these chapters and tweak them to work in the games I'm more likely to be playing, but Chapter Five is where things start to heat up for me. I am familiar enough with Pathfinder to be able to say "nothing in these chapters seemed hugely broken," however. These chapters are your lists of weapons and armor and spells and Feats and so on. One thing did catch my eye, here: There are no new classes. There are suggestions for modification of existing classes, instead.

The spells, Feats, and items all seem to be relatively well-balanced, with very few exceptions. Every land-borne wizard bound for an aquatic adventure, for example, should take the "Will to Live" feat. The next time I play a Wizard in Pathfinder, I'll take "Puddle Jump" over "Dimension Door." Every time.

Chapter Five is the chapter on underwater adventuring - he starts out with guidelines for GM's to keep from just utterly annihilating characters from the beginning. These guidelines are broken down by level, but are easily adapted to other game systems. Low-level characters, for example, shouldn't be pulled into the deepest parts of the ocean. It's common sense, but a lot of GM's can still handle a reminder or two.

The author then breaks ocean terrain into three zones, with a few pages on what to expect from each zone. It's a good breakdown and has some rules suggestions for GM's. The paragraph on "Sea Stacks" reminded me of Haystack Rock in Oregon (If you've seen The Goonies, then you know what Haystack Rock looks like).

Chapter Six is the monsters chapter. There are some excellent creatures here that I will be adapting to the Burning Wheel RPG when I have some spare time. I'm especially fond of the Goblin Shark. The end of this chapter (and the book) is dedicated to the Aboleth. They are presented as monsters and villains, and the book provides a number of variants which serve to make the Aboleth more versatile and less predictable. These variants also make Aboleth society seem a bit more well-rounded and realistic.

All in all, I'm satisfied with this book. Even though I won't be playing Pathfinder any time in the near future, I will definitely be using some of the ideas from this book in a Burning Wheel game in the not-too-distant future.

Oh! And the most important question for me: "Does it Kindle?"

This book rendered on my Kindle DX with no problems or hesitation. The font was a bit small, so those of you with the Kindle 2 may want to wait until you have the 2.5 update before trying to read it on your Kindle.

Sunken Empires is available from RPGNow and the Kobold Quarterly store.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Role-Playing Game I'd Like To Play

A few years back, I was trying to figure out how to do Oz as an RPG. No, not the HBO TV series. L. Frank Baum's setting.

I think most of us have seen the movie, but the movie is not the book, which is in the public domain. As are most (if not all) of the (more than you think there are) Oz books. Project Gutenberg has most of them in a variety of formats. And they're worth reading.

Yes, they're aimed at kids. This is actually one reason I abandoned the project - the setting was too saccharine to make an effective game. Good always triumphed over evil, who - really - never even had a chance. Most of the character background elements that GM's use to hang story hooks on just don't fit in an idyllic setting such as this.

I gave up completely. Tossed my notes.

Then I watched SyFy's "Tin Man" film. It wasn't spectacular, but it was entertaining and grownup. And got me thinking about Oz again.

Then I saw this a few weeks ago. Go. Watch it now. I'll wait.

Suddenly, the land of Oz doesn't seem like quite as idyllic a setting, and I'm pondering pulling the project off of the back burner.

I can see it run as a Sorcerer game, with each PC haunted by their own demons, as it were. After all - the classic four characters were all deeply flawed in some way. In the first book. After the first book, they were just as flawed, but they didn't let their flaws get in the way - and they had different flaws.

Or maybe it would be playable in Fate - after reading through Spirit of the Century, I think it could be a good match. After all, each character had a number of distinctive traits that could easily be picked as Aspects.

Maybe it could be done in The Burning Wheel. I'm not sure which flavor of BW - it'd either have to be the core BW game or a Mouse Guard hack. Burning Empires isn't really as translatable to a different setting. I just got the core game, so I don't know how adaptable it is, yet (based on what I've seen so far, it's very adaptable). Mouse Guard, on the other hand, has an entire forum devoted to hacks such as this one.

I may have to think about resurrecting the project, which means reading the books again, looking for shadows I can amplify.

Sounds like a great way to spend a few days - reading.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Literature, Series, Campaigns, Killer GM's, and Attention Spans

I've been accused of having a short attention span, and this is not necessarily inaccurate at all times. The most obvious exception is when gaming - and, even then, I sometimes need a break (and that break can be a very good thing).

One of my favorite games of all time is Empires in Arms. Even a cursory glance at it will warn you that it has a significant play time. It's a long game. BGG estimates 100 hours of play, and that's not necessarily off.

Remember how I keep saying, "Your game is not literature, there are significant differences." Here is another key difference: PC's in an adventure are at risk of both failure and death. After about book five, I have trouble believing that of characters in novels.

Some of you have seen part of this discussion elsewhere. Please bear with me.

The best example of this that I have found so far is the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. By the end of every book, the protagonist is in a better condition than before. Sure, she may be injured, and one or more characters in her orbit (as it were) may be dead, but Honor herself will have a promotion or a medal, and the tiny Kingdom of Manticore will be in an improved position politically. Oh - and whatever trouble she's in will have magically fixed itself. Is it a universe I'd like to game in? Absolutely1. But I lost interest in the books when they same pattern repeated itself over and over and over again.

The same goes for the Dresden Files novels. Every book, Harry gets tangled in something more powerful than him. Sometimes, it's a client. Sometimes it's someone cashing in one of those favors he owes. Sometimes, it's just bad luck. But he manages to squeak through. And after every book, he owes more and more people bigger and bigger favors, which occasionally serve as plot hooks for the next book - or for a few books down the line. I gave up after five books or so, even though the writing style got better and better. Again: A setting in which I'd love to game2.

By about the fifth book, I had stopped fearing for the protagonist in both cases.

It's another reason I like playing with Killer GM's: The protagonist(s) are continually at risk of losing.

For the record: There are settings and series I've been able to read past the first trilogy without a problem. Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, for example. The setting has continued for nine books, now. The initial three books about Fitzchivalry Farseer, then three books elsewhere in the setting, and then three more books focusing back on Fitz.

Part of that is because Hobb is cruel enough to her protagonist that you're pretty sure he's going to fail. In fact, she even kills the lead character at one point. Yes, you read that correctly. The series also didn't grow stale for me because of the three-book break that moved it elsewhere in the setting. By the time we return to Fitz, he's not the same as he was before - he's older and ... changed. I don't know that he's necessarily more bitter, but he's not exactly the same as he had been.

It's one reason I enjoy one-shots so much. See, I'm not usually a killer GM. But in a one-shot, players don't usually grow as attached to their characters, so I have no compunctions about killing them off. In a campaign, I get nervous about it because players grow attached to their characters. In fact, when I run campaigns, I'll often call a halt for a few weeks or months. And usually I'll tell players, "We're taking a break from the campaign. During the break, five years will pass. Tell me what happens to your character in that time, and I'll give you appropriate XP." And Advantages and Disadvantages, as appropriate. It allows those characters to grow and change, but not always in the direction given so far. Sometimes, I'll run a solo adventure or two with those players so they can get an idea of how the setting has changed or is changing. Sometimes these solo one-shots spark ideas for me which allows me to continue the game.

For example, I ran an L5R game for a long time. I ignored the metaplot for the most part. At one point, I declared a break, as the game was going stale and I didn't know how to continue. During the break I decided that the Hantei Emperor died without a clear heir, leading to a power struggle. The PC's individually chose sides in the resulting power struggle during a series of solo one-shots which started a few weeks after the game started its hiatus. Not all of the PC's chose the same side. By the time the game was off hiatus, I'd decided who won the power struggle.

During the hiatus, I also ran a few one-shots, and had a chance to play in a few of them.

I asked the players to keep the solo scenarios quiet, because I wanted them to be surprises when the group met again.

When the campaign restarted, the PC's were tasked with ending the struggle and healing the Empire - starting with the rifts which developed within the group. It made for a much-invigorated and interesting game with lots of actual role-playing going on.

1 Ad Astra apparently has has the RPG rights to the setting - and it's a setting I'd play in. Provided the PC's didn't have to cross paths with the title character.

2 Evil Hat has these rights - and I already preordered.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

PDF's From Your FLGS, PDF's as Pre-Orders: Is This The Future?

It sure feels like I'm living in the future right now. In the last week, I have acquired four RPG PDF's at no cost above and beyond the initial cost of the book they are electronic versions of.

Two of them are because we pre-ordered The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. Evil Hat made these available to all preorders through their web store. If you haven't read the books, by the way, you should. At least the first few.

A similar situation happened with the new Delta Green book, Targets of Opportunity. As I was one of the original pre-orders, I now have a pre-release PDF file for the game.

This, by the way, is really awesome. I know have two new games that I like a great deal, and they won't be available in-store for another four months.

I also got a PDF copy of Spirit of the Century from Evil Hat's Brick and Mortar PDF Guarantee. If more publishers had similar deals, I'd order more books. It's that simple.

And it makes me feel like I'm living in the future. I just put the .PDF onto my Kindle DX, and I'm four months ahead of the rest of the world.

Now if only I could get Houses of the Blooded to render correctly. Maybe once that update hits.

The future: It's a scary place. But I think I like it.

UDPATE: In between the time I wrote the post and the time Blogger published it for me, Fred Hicks posted about Evil Hat's Brick & Mortar PDF program and how it works for pre-orders.