Thursday, August 11, 2011

My latest obsession - MRQII and Elric

Ever since I picked up RuneQuest II from Mongoose last year, I've been looking for a suitable setting for it. I finally found what I was looking for when I bought the Elric of Melniboné Core Rulebook last week. Although published last year, I never really felt compelled to give it a look until recently and I'm glad I did. Now I will confess, I've always found the Elric saga a bit of a hard slog. While not especially complicated plotwise, Moorcock's writing has, for me at least, always been easier to put down than to pick back up again. I have read all the books in the Elric saga, but it took years. Having said that, the setting of the series is impressive. Melniboné and the Young Kingdoms is quite possibly the most perfect campaign world possible for a dark fantasy rpg and Mongoose has done an admirable job of bringing it to life.

Not surprisingly, the book starts off with some 35 pages of history and geography of the Young Kingdoms. Though probably not necessary for most players, GMs will find some useful background in here for running a campaign. The second chapter deals with character generation. Human is the default race and many GMs may decide just to allow humans. However, rules are included for playing Melnibonéans, Half-Melnibonéans and several minor humanoid races from various time periods including a race of extinct giants called the Karasim, a winged race called the Myyrrhn and a primitive, dwarf-like race called the Pukwadji. In addition to the new races, new cultures are added to supplement the four already provided in MRQII, Civilised, Barbarian, Nomad and Primitive. The new cultures are Melnibonéan, Poor, Outlaw and Wanderer of the Time Streams. The first three are pretty self-explanatory, but for those who have not read a lot of Moorcock's stories, the last one might need some explanation. The world of Elric is just one of many in Moorcock's Multiverse, known as the Million Spheres. The worlds of the Million Spheres are connected to each other by several overriding concepts, such as the Eternal Champion, who is destined to fight for Balance in each world. Besides Elric, other manifestations of the Eternal Champion include Dorian Hawkmoon, Earl Aubec and Corum. Some characters, including Elric himself, have been able to transport themselves between worlds within the Million Spheres, while others do so unintentionally. Characters who shift from world to world are Time Stream Wanderers. Needless to say, such characters are a challenge for both players and GMs. Also included in this chapter are new skills, such as Dreamtheft, Rune Casting and Witch Sight. Most of these new skills relate to the unique magic systems in the game (see below).

After a brief chapter on currency and equipment, there is a discussion of metaphysics. The eternal conflict between Law and Chaos is central to Moorcock's stories. Powerful forces on both sides struggle through their mortal proxies to control the Multiverse, while the somewhat quieter force of Balance seeks to ensure neither comes to dominate. The Eternal Champion typically works toward greater Balance, although in the case of Elric, it is not his original intention. Next follows a section on magic. There is no Common Magic, but Sorcery and Spirit Magic do exist in the game. Two other types of magic, Dream Magic and Rune Magic are also introduced. Rune Magic is not unlike Sorcery except for the obvious addition of runic symbols during casting, but Dream Magic is quite different and rather unique to the Elric stories. There are two types of Dream Magic, Dreamtheft and DreamQuesting. The former involves the theft of someone else's dreams for the benefit of either the Dreamthief or a client. Stolen dreams can provide insight into the dreamer's personality and motivations, can aid in the solution of a dilemma into which the dreamer might have some insight or even allow the recipient of the stolen dream to improve a skill which the dreamer possessed. DreamQuesting, on the other hand, allows a dreamer to travel to alternate worlds or distant time periods to experience real events. It is a particularly popular pastime for Melnibonéans, which is why their capital city of Imrryr is known as the Dreaming City.

A large chapter on cults is next. Cults play a big role in the various versions of RuneQuest as a source of knowledge, both magical and mundane. Typically, every character will belong to a cult. The cults in the Elric of Melniboné Core Rulebook revolve around the various Lords described in the Elric saga. These include the Lords of Law and Chaos, the Elemental Lords and the Beast and Plant Lords. The book finishes with a chapter on monsters and prominent NPCs, another on tips for GMs and a final one on playing the game in other eras beyond that covered in the Elric saga. All-in-all, it's a pretty solid core book. It is well-written and, perhaps even more importantly, given Mongoose's track record, well-edited. The interior art is sparse and all black-and-white, but competent. If you like RuneQuest II and seek a campaign setting that doesn't have any Ducks, this may be just what you're looking for.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ultimate Combat, what's awesome?

Hot off the presses, I have my new copy of Ultimate Combat and I'm hungrily chewing through it. I won't go into a discussion of the Gunslinger class or the firearms rules since we have gone over those in some detail here, here, here and here. Suffice to say, the second version of the Gunslinger playtest is pretty much the final version. I'm also not going to talk about the Ninja and Samurai classes, since I simply have no interest in them. Instead, I'm going to pick out the juicy bits that immediately caught my eye and which make me want to use them in a future build.

I'm not a big fan of archetypes. It's not that I don't like the options they provide, it's just that they typically require replacing a superior class feature with a more specialized and, therefore, inferior one. So, for an archetype to pique my interest, it has to replace a class feature that doesn't impress me to begin with. Two archetypes fit the bill for me, the Crusader Cleric and the Spellbreaker Inquisitor. Not surprisingly, both archetypes come from classes that, in my opinion, need all the help they can get. The Crusader archetype allows a cleric to give up some spellcasting ability in exchange for additional feats, including feats such as Weapon Specialization and Greater Weapon Focus which are normally limited to Fighters. Even sweeter is the Spellbreaker archetype. I would never play an Inquisitor unless I was using this version. You give up Monster Lore (nice, but not awesome) as well as all those annoying teamwork feats and the Solo Tactics class feature in exchange for a bunch of saving throw bonuses against spells and the ability to make the DC for rolls to cast defensively higher for enemy spellcasters. As they say on the interwebs, it's full of win.

There are several awesome feats in the new list, but given there is a gigacrapload of feats in Ultimate Combat, It's not surprising. Here are a few of my favourites.
Hammer the Gap - great for piling up the damage at high levels, each hit as part of a full attack gets a damage bonus equal to the number of previous successful hits.
Dimensional Agility, Dimensional Assault and Dimensional Dervish - the Monk and the Magus will have great fun with this combination as it allows you to use dimension door or abundant step with far more tactical flexibility.
Clustered Shots - Oh come on now, total damage from full-round ranged attack added before DR is applied, because you know, archery really is underpowered in Pathfinder.
Pin Down - you get an AoO against an opponent attempting to withdraw or a 5-ft. step, if you hit, he takes no damage, but he can't move. No escape for you, little wizard.
Guided Hand - although it requires Channel Smite, not exactly the most must-have feat around, being able to replace your Str or Dex modifier with your Wis modifier on attacks with your deity's favoured weapon is worth it for clerics who already have to spend precious build points on both Wis and Cha.

That's it for now. I will have more to say as I digest more of this tome. I have to say, it appears, at first glance, to have much to offer.


Monday, August 08, 2011

Summer Reading

I am going on vacation next week. Not a vacation I am especially looking forward to although I'm sure it will have some enjoyable moments. I am expecting lots of down time when I am not chasing children trying to prevent their early demise. Since I will be computer free it will be a chance to catch on my reading. In the last few months I've reread the entire Song of Ice and Fire series. At long last the final book of the Wheel of Time series is out in April 2012 and I figure it will take at least 6-7 months to reread the entire series before I pick up the final book. I have until October or so until I begin that odyssey and so I have a few months to fill.

There are tons of influential books that I've never read so why not fill my vacation with them. I'll be reading them on my iPhone which is not the ideal media I'm quite used to it now and people can't snoop at my reading materials. First up is Elric. I started last night and I'm already over half way through Elric of Melnibone. It's a pretty easy read compared to Martin.

When I tire of Elric, Zelazny's Chronicle's of Amber will follow. Beyond that, I have no idea. Those two series alone could keep me going for a long time if I read them all.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Fantasy Flight Games gets Star Wars

So, the worst kept secret in the gaming world has at last been revealed, Fantasy Flight Games has acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise. Ever since WotC dropped the licensing rights and Mongoose rather oddly revealed that they didn't get the license but that another company did, speculation has been that the other player had to be FFG. No other company seemed to be big enough to afford it, except possibly Paizo and they never seemed to be a good fit for Star Wars.

Well at last, the cat is out of the bag and the first announcement of new product lines include both a tactical ship-to-ship minis game called X-Wing and the Star Wars: The Card Game ccg. Although there is no announcement of a tabletop rpg at this time, there is a suggestion that one is in the works.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Some declarations of my own

I'm not usually much for memes, but I can't resist any opportunity to inflict my opinions on the public at large (or at least the miniscule subset of it that actually reads this blog), so when Joseph Bloch and, later, Zachary Houghton posted about their personal gaming preferences, well, I felt compelled to join the fun. Please note that the following represents only my opinions, and does not necessarily reflect those of my fellow contributors (although they are welcome to add their own).

On game design:
I love "kewl". I know that as a 45-year old gamer who first started playing D&D in 1981 and has been continuously playing tabletop rpgs for three decades, I don't really fit the demographic profile of a new school gamer. But I am. I love to min/max, but I also love to play suboptimal characters just to see what I can get out of them. I am a powergamer. Character background, story arc, narrative, none of these things mean very much to me beyond providing a framework in which my character can develop. I don't care what is going on four kingdoms over and I don't care what happened 2000 years ago, unless that information is relevent to what my character is attempting to accomplish. It's a bit odd, since I am history buff, but I guess it's because I only care about real history. I like a lot of options for character design. I know a lot of old school types prefer to personalize their characters outside of the rules, but I want tangible game effects from the decisions I make. I want to know that choosing a two-handed sword over a longsword and shield will have some meaningful consequences.

I definitely fall into the simulationist camp when it comes to game design. Even though I have played some iteration of D&D for most of the last 30 years, I have always chafed under some of the more gamist aspects of the game. I've never liked AC, preferring something like the BRP system in which armour reduces damage, but not the chance to hit. I also don't really like the power curve of class-and-level games. No character should ever be so powerful as to be able to confidently take on an entire army. I prefer that players never be completely confident of the outcome of any fight. Even a lowly goblin should have at least a slight chance to seriously injure any PC with a lucky shot.

I am comfortable with Tolkienesque player races, but I'm also willing to entertain divergence from those templates as long as they're not too weird. Gloranthan elves and dwarves, for example, would certainly be "too weird". I don't care for subraces, however, unless they are radically different and only serve as evil alternatives to the PC races, such as drow or duergar.

On setting:
I'm a bit of a stickler for consistency in setting design. For example, I don't like Asian settings in general and I certainly don't like them freely intermingled with my pseudo-European medieval D&D setting. No knights and ninjas for me, thank you very much. I do like the inclusion of firearms of the appropriate technology level for a High Middle Ages European milieu, but I've never been satisfied with any of the efforts to incorporate them into D&D. It seems impossible to model the advantages of firearms using the D&D rules, without making bows completely obsolete, so they are inevitably underpowered and overpriced.

Oddly enough, my gaming history and my personal preferences on setting are, once again, at odds. I am a sci-fi guy. I'd prefer a rail gun and a powered exoskeleton over a longsword and a suit of chain mail any day. Yet, somehow I always end up slinging spells and swinging battleaxes. I guess fantasy is simply more conducive to my hack-and-slash style of gaming.

On pronouns and gender issues:
I always use the male pronoun. I find reading a game book that switches back and forth from male to female pronouns to be very distracting. I don't have any problem with female gamers, but my group is all-male and we like it that way (and so do our wives, I'm sure). Game night is boys night out. We don't have to suck in our guts or tighten our sphincters. Most importantly, we don't have to censor ourselves and worry that what we say might offend the ladies.

On politics and religion:
I am a Canadian conservative. That means I'm of a different breed from our friends on the right of the American political spectrum. It means, for example, that I believe religion is something best not discussed in polite company. I don't want to know how you did the nasty with your wife last night and likewise, I don't want to know how you scored with your personal savior on Sunday. Having said that, there are some similarities which have implications for my gaming experience. I despise moral relativism. Some things are just plain wrong and no amount of cultural sensitivity training is going to change my mind about that. This means the morality in my world may seem a tad Victorian to some. There are good guys and bad guys. Sure, there are some occasions of moral ambiguity, but inevitably, my heroes prevail, though the price of victory may be steep. It also means I don't really like playing in evil campaigns. That's not to say I haven't done so and I've been told by reliable sources that I can whip up a pretty awesome villain when situation demands, but it's always well outside of my comfort zone. I'm very pro-military and my games always have a healthy dose of righteous smackdown by the thin olive drab line. If I can find some way to stick a tank in there, mores the better (I know most guys are into fighter jets, but I'm a tank guy). I'm queasy about violence against women and children. Such violence exists in my campaigns, but I always prefer to leave the details to the imaginations of my players. Needless to say, any character, be it NPC or PC, will encounter swift and brutal judgement from the appropriate authority for perpetrating such violence. On the other hand, if a paladin wants to thrash some bad guy to within inches of his life, so be it. Men are expendable and evil men even more so. Waterboard the terrorists to your heart's content, boys.

On technology:
Whatever. Use it if you want as long as it doesn't grind things to a halt. In our group, we have a mix of technophiles and technophobes (ok, that last category is mainly just me) and it seems to work fine. There are laptops and iPads operating cheek-and-jowl alongside dice and pencils with no problems. Of course, no one has spilled a bottle of Dr. Pepper on someone's keyboard yet.


Cowboys and Aliens would make a great game

I went to see Cowboys and Aliens last night. It was excellent. For older nerds like me who find the screen-filling CGI, eye-searing lens flares and nausea-inducing jerky camera effects of today's sci-fi movies to be a bit too much sensory overload, Cowboys and Aliens is a nice change. That's not to say this isn't a F/X-heavy film, but it isn't the visual assault and battery that most big budget sci-fi movies are these days. I won't reveal any spoilers, because there are some genuine surprises in this film, but I will say the acting was pretty good. Daniel Craig was excellent and Harrison Ford was decent in an unconventional role for him. While not exactly a villain, his character certainly was a nasty piece of work.

I kept thinking, as I watched, how cool this would be as a game setting. There were great character types, such as the gun-totin' preacher man (played by Clancy Brown), the ruthless, wealthy rancher who owns the town (played by Harrison Ford) and the honest sheriff who has to walk a fine line (played by Keith Carradine).

The best part of the film is that there aren't any obvious dumb plot devices. The aliens are tough SOBs and the relatively primitive technology of the humans is no match for them. The only effective weapons the humans have are the aliens' own arrogance and a bit of stolen alien technology.

Also, since the aliens land in the American southwest, you know they didn't come for the water. Go see it. You won't be disappointed, unless you need a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich special-effects explosion to feel truly alive.


Monday, August 01, 2011

Pathfinder Minis

I was a bit late to the mini game. I have a bunch of reaper minis I painted myself but I own zero monsters. It seems that Paizo has started their own mini line. The first big set will be available at Christmas with a Rise of the Runlords set out next summer (which also suggests that they'll be reprinting RotR for Pathfinder).

I'll probably pick up a case for Christmas. Buy it from Paizo and they throw in a free huge black dragon which looks pretty damn cool.