Friday, October 29, 2010

A look at Basic RolePlaying, pt.2

As mentioned in the previous post, there are five types of special powers in BRP; magic, sorcery, mutations, psychic abilities and super powers. Of these, you might think of magic as the default, since it is the only one that uses the basic d100 resolution machanic. It is also the one that most closely resembles the standard D&D style of magic. If you want to cast spells that burn or freeze your target, or turn you invisible or heal wounds, you use the magic system. In keeping with the d100 mechanics, successful casting of a magic spell requires a roll. Spells are treated like skills and in order to be proficient, a lot of skill points must be invested. As such, a typical magician will only have a small repertoire of spells that he is really adept at casting. It is also possible for a non-magician character to cast spells, but such a character would not be permitted to use professional skill points to improve his spells and would, therefore, be far more limited in his spellcasting abilities.

In a typical heroic-level campaign, a magician will start out knowing six spells. While it is possible to learn new spells, the magician will never be as adept with these new spells as he is with the original ones. Spells must be memorized, but once they are, they can be cast as often desired or until the magician runs out of power points. A magician can memorize a number of spells equal to half his INT, although if he has more spells than that in his grimoire (i.e. spellbook), he may cast them directly from the book. Variables such as damage and area of affect are determined by the level of the spell which is a function of the amount of power points invested into the spell. For example, a Fire 1 spell does 1d6 points of fire damage and costs 3 power points, while a Fire 4 spell does 4d6 points and cost 12 power points. Needless to say, players with D&D experience may find BRP spells somewhat underwhelming at first, but given that a typical character will start with 10-12 hp and probably never see an increase in that number, one can see that spells can be quite lethal.

Sorcery is handled differently from magic. Originating with the Elric! and Stormbringer games to model the distinctive Moorcock style of magic, sorcery spells are generally weaker than magic spells, but do not require an activation roll. The more powerful sorcery spells are those that summon demons and elementals, in keeping with the dark fantasy genre that spawned these rules. It should be noted that sorcery is rare in any game in which it is used. A character requires a POW of 16 to even cast sorcery spells. This requires some pretty good rolls or, at the very least, decent rolls combined with a redistribution of stats.

Mutations are, as you might expect, handled quite differently from magic or sorcery. They typically involve physical changes to the body, giving the character enhanced (or diminished) abilities or even new abilities such as flight or poison attacks. Mutations are rolled randomly and may be beneficial or harmful. When an adverse mutation is rolled, it may be avoided by a Luck roll (5 x POW). If successful, the character is entitled to a reroll. Any time a Luck roll is failed, the character is stuck with the negative result. Needless to say, mutations are a mixed blessing.

Psychic abilities are handled in much the same way as magic spells. They are learned like skills and require a successful activation roll. Characters normally use personal rather than professional skill points to improve psychic abilities, so the number of abilities a character can be good at is quite limited, although GMs are advised that some settings may allow the use of professional skill points, creating, in effect, a professional telepath. The abilities themselves include all the standard sci-fi tropes such as telekinesis, mind control, precognition and pyrokinesis.

Finally, there are super powers. Personally, I am thoroughly indifferent to just about everything associated with the superhero genre. Combine that with the fact that the super power rules are the most complicated set of rules for any of the powers in BRP and suffice to say, I just couldn't bring myself to fully absorb them. It appears a roll is required to activate some super powers, although they do not work like skills, so it is not entirely clear how the success number is derived. The number and relative power of super powers are based on a number called the Character Point Budget derived from the character's unmodified stats and the power level of the campaign. There is a large variety of super powers to chose from, although they do not seem any more powerful than the other types of powers available in the game. This is probably a good thing since it allows cross-genre campaigns without fear of super-powered characters dominating the mutants, psychics and sorcerers.

That is all for now. I will look at combat next time.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

A look at Basic RolePlaying, pt.1

The upcoming release of Chronicles of Future Earth has renewed my interest in the Chaosium game system Basic RolePlaying (BRP), so much so that I parted with $40 of my hard-earned scratch to buy the core rulebook. Weighing in at a hefty 400 pgs., this tome is too much to review in one post, so I will divide it up into sections and review each separately.

As I've mentioned in the past, I played Call of Cthulhu before, so I am quite familiar with the d100 system that BRP is built around and the character generation procedure is the same as the one used in CoC. There are eight basic stats, strength (STR), constitution (CON), size (SIZ), intelligence (INT), power (POW), dexterity (DEX), appearance (APP) and education (EDU), although EDU is optional in BRP. INT, SIZ and EDU are generated by rolling 2d6+6, while the others are rolled using 3d6. There are options for redistributing some of the statistics and there is also an alternate point-buy system included for those who dislike random generation. There are a variety of derived statistics based on those listed. These include melee damage bonus (or penalty) based on STR + SIZ, hit points equal to the average of CON + SIZ and power points, the fuel for things like magic and psychic abilities, derived from POW. These stats also provide bonuses (and occasionally penalties) to various skills.

After generating the basic and derived stats, the player choses a profession. This is like a class in D&D, except that the only purpose it serves is to determine which skills are professional skills. A character gets a much larger pool of professional skill points than personal/cultural skill points, so the selection of a profession will determine what a character is good at.

By necessity for a generic game system, the skill list is extensive, especially since attack and defense actions are also governed by skills. The list is manageable, although there are a few examples (i.e. Spot, Listen and Sense or Fast Talk, Bargain and Persuade) where some streamlining could have been applied. Still, I find little to fault in the skill system. I appreciate the elegance of a game system that uses the same mechanics for all actions, be they combat-related or skill-related. It took D&D decades to achieve this and it's clear from looking through the skill list, that BRP was a major influence on the designers of D&D 3.x.

In my next installment, I will look at the powers; Magic, Sorcery, Psychic Abilities, Super Powers and Mutations.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Rippin' on D&D 3e....Fiend Folio

Finally some love (or maybe hate) for 3rd edition from Zack and Steve.

Fiend Folio


Thursday, October 21, 2010

More on Chronicles of Future Earth

After checking out the fora at, I find my initial understanding of the setting to be somewhat wrong. It is not really a "Dying Earth" setting, although it does share some stylistic characteristics with the genre. The author herself describes it as far future techno-fantasy. She mentions a number of influences including Leigh Brackett, Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique setting and H.P.Lovecraft's Dreamlands. Going back to the movie Heavy Metal, it may be the "Den" sequence, rather than the "Taarna" sequence that best captures the style she describes. Still sounds cool to me.


Pathfinder's not that tough, really!

I was checking out the forum over at and ran across one of the typical 4E v. Pathfinder threads that pops over there from time to time. I don't want to get into the edition wars again, since I feel such posts are just a cheap way for bloggers to up their posting numbers without having anything interesting to say. I do take exception, however, to some of the posts which describe preparation time for DM's running 3.x/Pathfinder as especially onerous. One commentor even describes a situation in which his DM spent two hours on an NPC wizard who was subsequently defeated in a single round. TWO HOURS! I could generate a whole adventuring party of high-level characters in two hours and still have time to grab a sandwich and watch the third period of the game.

The key to NPC generation in 3.x/Pathfinder is to know what the purpose of the NPC is and what relevent information needs to be included to fulfil that purpose. Obviously, if an NPC is supposed to a major player in a campaign, more effort should be put into its design, including ample abilities to escape, since some players consider it a challenge to kill every important NPC that crosses their paths. However, if the NPC is just intended to be cannon fodder, it is a piece of cake to produce even spellcasters in a hurry. Here is my approach:

Ability scores: For low-level characters (level 1-5), make the primary ability score 16, give them Con 12 and make everything else 10. For mid-level (level 6-10), give them 18 for the primary ability and everything else the same as low-level. For high-level (11+), 20 for the primary ability, Con 14, everything else 10. In other words, 1-5 level: +3 modifier for primary and +1 hp per die; 6-10 level: +4 modifier and +1 hp per die; 11+ level: +5 modifier and +2 hp per die.

Feats: Don't sweat this one. It doesn't matter if there are a couple of hundred to chose from, there are only about 20 that are worth a damn for NPCs. Honestly, nobody cares if the enemy wizard has the Forge Ring feat, it won't come into play. If you are rolling up a non-fighter, you won't have very many feats anyway and assuming at least a couple will be non-combat feats, you typically only have to assign 3 or 4 feats to your NPC. For spellcasters, you are looking at Spell Penetration, Combat Casting, Improved Initiative and maybe Empower Spell. There, done. A similar list can be easily thrown together for any other character type. Obviously, you will spend a bit more time on fighters since they are all about feats, but then you don't have to worry about spell selection, so it all balances out.

Skills: Perception, Stealth, Spellcraft and Acrobatics are the only skills that matter in combat. Don't worry about the rest.

Spells: Again, feel free to cut corners. A high-level wizard may have dozens of spells, but chances are he won't be around more than five rounds. He'll either be dead or he will have bugged out. So, pick a half dozen offensive spells and a Teleport, give him Mage Armour and Resist Energy (fire)(already cast) and be done with it. Your players will not notice how little effort you put into a wizard that they kill in three rounds.

Magic Items: The core rule book has a nice section on equipping NPCs. It's fast and easy. Use it.

With a little experience, it is possible to generate NPC combatants in a minute or two. The complete rules for character generation are only necessary for player characters.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

15 games in 15 minutes

I picked up this meme from Save or Die, 15 games that had the biggest influence on me. So here goes:

1.Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D, AD&D 2e, D&D 3.x/Pathfinder) - These games have provided me with almost 30 years of enjoyment.
2.Risk (boardgame) - Honestly, shouldn't this one be on everyone's list?
3.Axis & Allies (boardgame)
4.Sid Meier's Civilization II (computer game) - I still play this old classic from time to time.
5.Star Fleet Battles (wargame) - Hydrans rule! Eat hellbores, Klingon scum!
6.GURPS - It's lost its appeal somewhat, but I played this game a lot back in the 90s.
7.Star Frontiers - My first sci-fi game, loved it.
8.Call of Cthulhu
9.Traveller (Megatraveller, Mongoose Traveller)
10.Star Wars (d6)
11.Star Wars Saga Ed.
12.D20 Modern/d20 Future
13.Rifts - Mostly it is the setting that appealed to me, the game itself is dreadful.
14.Axis & Allies (miniatures game)
15.Advanced Civilization (boardgame) - A true classic by Avalon Hill, played many times, lost every time.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Chronicles of Future Earth....looks awesome

Chaosium reminds me of an aging movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The beauty is gone and the style is dated, but occasionally a bit of the glamour of the past shows through. I used to play Call of Cthulhu quite a bit. Actually, to clarify, I used to run Call of Cthulhu quite a bit. It's a hard game for a player like me to enjoy. I prefer heroic adventure in which my character has a chance of winning. The best CoC has to offer is slow, steady defeat punctuated by small, temporary successes. As such, I would typically run small campaigns of 6 to 10 game sessions. By then, most of my players would have gone through more than one character and any original PCs would be hopelessly crippled by their experiences.

Having said that, the Chaosium game engine, now called Basic RolePlaying or BRP is a good one. It may be a bit more granular than some may think necessary, but it is simple to learn and easy to adapt to other genres. Happily, Chaosium is doing just that. A quick look at their website will reveal many supplements for BRP that introduce a variety of different fantasy and sci-fi settings. Chaosium hasn't yet been convinced of the virtue of selling low-cost pdfs of the core rules ($30...yikes!), but many of the supplements are quite affordable.

One type of setting I think the BRP system is ideally suited for is the so-called "Dying Earth" genre. Though this genre considerably predates the writings of Jack Vance, it is his work that lends it the name. Basically, it is a vision of a far future earth, in which the sun is fading, resources have largely been depleted, the ruins of thousands of fallen empires decay under shifting sands and sorcery and ancient technology exist side-by-side. The "Taarna" sequence from the 1981 animated feature, Heavy Metal, is a good example of the style of the Dying Earth genre. In a couple of months (hopefully), Chaosium will release its own take on the Dying Earth setting with Chronicles of Future Earth. It is written by Sarah Newton, author of the Mindjammer campaign setting for Cubicle 7's Starblazer Adventures game and appears to be the first of a series of supplements for this new campaign setting. As best as I can tell from what little information is available (Chaosium isn't exactly the most communicative company in the business), Chronicles of Future Earth is not a Cthulhu Mythos-related game setting and perhaps it might benefit the company's bottom line to make that clearer, since for most people, Chaosium is synonymous with Call of Cthulhu. Chronicles of Future Earth is looking like a must buy for me.

Now, if I could somehow get a pdf of BRP for under $15...


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cthulhu Rising - not bad, needs polish

I'm a bit puzzled by Chaosium's monograph series. The monographs are publications written primarily by a single author and with limited editorial oversight by Chaosium staff. They typically present alternate settings for the Call of Cthulhu. What I'm not clear on however, is how the works are commissioned. Are they little more than well-written fan scripts that have been submitted unsolicited to Chaosium or are they written by freelancers who have been commissioned by the company? Because of this, I have been somewhat reluctant to purchase any of them (that and the fact I haven't run or played CoC in almost 20 years), figuring they would probably be rather amateurish. Unlike many old-school gamers, I've never been enamoured with the DIY approach to game design and prefer to have my games complete and play-tested before I buy.

So it was with some reluctance that I decided to buy the pdf for Cthulhu Rising, a monograph by John Ossoway detailing a far future (but pre-End Times) setting for Call of Cthulhu. The mundane aspects of the setting are pretty standard fare for space-based game settings. The earth nations are balkanized, but there is a beefed-up version of the UN mandated to ensure we all play nice. There are scheming megacorporations and rebellious colonies, space pirates, rogue mercenaries and shadowy government telepaths. One notable omission from the usual list of space age tropes is aliens. As is common in the space horror genre, aliens are not our friends. They are either unknowable puppetmasters or vicious anthropophages and when you are talking about the Cthulhu Mythos, they can be both.

Cthulhu Rising starts out with a detailed timeline of the next 261 years of future history complete with the obligatory "2271: NOW" ending. I didn't know people still did those things. I thought they went the way of van murals and guitar solos. After that is a brief, but useful description of technology, politics and explored space in the 23rd century. This is, in turn, followed by a few pages on the Cthulhu Mythos and how it relates to the setting. All the setting material is sufficiently thin to allow GMs to customize their own settings with little need to edit.

The next section deals with character generation. There isn't much in here that varies from the basic Call of Cthulhu rules. At this point, I should clarify that I own the 3rd edition rules of CoC. The game is currently in its 6th edition. I also do not own Basic Role-Playing (BRP), the generic game system upon which CoC is run. So, some of the things I am about to write may be rendered moot by more recent versions of the rules of which I am not aware. So, a few changes included in this section include hit location hit points and melee damage modifiers for high STR+SIZ. There are also bonuses for high ability scores based on a classification scheme of skills presented by the author. One of the problems with Cthulhu Rising pops up here. There is no listing of which skills fall into which category. Some are obvious. For example, knowledge skills should be fairly self-evident. However, there are likely to be some toss-ups when categorizing manipulation skills vs. agility skills, for example. Indeed, weapon skills are given special treatment in that Attack uses the manipulation modifier while Parry uses the agility modifier. This classification may appear in later editions of CoC or in BRP, but I'm not aware of it and, in any case, there are several new skills in Cthulhu Rising and the classifications are not provided for those either.

I do quite like the psionics section of this setting. Although there is no mention of it in the acknowledgements, I get a distinct Babylon 5 feel from it, right down to the use of the P-rating system and the existence of an organization called PsiCorps. PsiCorps is a branch of the Earth military in Cthulhu Rising, while another organization called MetaPol is a psionic investigation agency attached to another branch of government, the Federal Law Enforcement Authority (FLEA). The psionics aren't flashy and, much like in Babylon 5, most psychics are incapable of performing much more than minor feats of telepathy and precognition. Jedi-style telekinesis is possible, but requires an extremely high rating which would be all but impossible to generate under normal conditions.

The rest of the book provides rules for high-tech and zero-G combat, as well as lists of equipment and weapons. Oddly, except for a few pages in the setting section, there is very little about the Cthulhu Mythos in Cthulhu Rising. It turns out, that sort of information is intended to be provided in supplements dealing with different parts of human space. The first of these is called Jovian Nightmares, which I will review in the near future. All in all, Cthulhu Rising is decent, if a bit dull. A motivated GM could take it as a starting point to build something truly inspired. For the rest of us, I hope future supplements add some much-needed spice to the broth.


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Rippin' on D&D

Zack and Steve brought their A game to the module B3: Palace of the Silver Princess. Funny stuff.

Palace of the Silver Princess, pt.1


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

What kind of group do you play with?

Yesterday, I was reading about Christian's ongoing attrition problem at Destination Unknown. I certainly can relate to his problem, we've all been there. But what really struck me was how different a group of players he has/had as compared to our little band of brothers. The players Christian lost from his group include two actors and two screenwriters. Can you imagine a more different collection of folks than our group? Ok, maybe the "Playing D&D with Porn Stars" group. Still, look at us, computer geeks, geoscientists and a teacher compared to a bunch of artsy Hollywood types. One can only imagine how different the style of play must be. I suppose Christian's players are probably a lot more comfortable with the role-playing aspects of the game. It is, after all, what actors do. We science-and-technology types are far more at ease with numbers and machines. I guess that's why we like rules-heavy games with a lot of chargen options. Perhaps it's not surprising that our teacher is the most enthusiastic role-player of the group.


2300 AD is coming back...and it's Traveller!

Back in the '70s and especially the '80s, Game Designers' Workshop (GDW) was a big player in the tabletop rpg and wargame business. They had some major successes, most notably Traveller, and some stinkers (anyone remember Dangerous Journeys?). They introduced the steampunk genre to gaming with Space: 1889 and played on our worst Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation with Twilight: 2000. Since the group I played with throughout the '80s was not interested in playing anything except AD&D, I never had much of an opportunity to try out any GDW games until years after their initial release. The only one that really caught my attention was MegaTraveller. My reaction to that game was lukewarm and with so many other games to try, such as GURPS and Call of Cthulhu, I never really went back to GDW.

Well, recently I have rediscovered Traveller, thanks to the new coat of paint it has received from Mongoose. The folks from Swindon have really breathed new life into the Traveller game engine by adapting the rules to a number of IPs including Babylon 5 and Judge Dredd. Later this month, Traveller will meet Lovecraft with the release of Chthonian Stars and I have just learned that next year, Mongoose intends to revive another GDW classic with the release of 2300 AD, again using the Traveller game system.

I never tried the original back in the '80s, but the setting intrigued me. It takes place a few centuries after the Twilight War (the nuclear war described in the Twilight: 2000 game). France, which chose to sit out the war (insert cheese-eating surrender monkey joke here), is now the most powerful country on earth and has created a sizable interstellar empire. The Americans and the Chinese, having had to rebuild after the war, also have interstellar empires, though smaller than that of the French. In addition to their own mutual hostilities, the human space empires have to deal with an alien race which has a biological imperative to make war. All of this takes place in a much smaller milieu than the Third Imperium setting of Traveller, something I much appreciate. I will be watching closely for this one.