Sunday, June 19, 2016

Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service

Art by James Talbot

In the early 80s, TSR issued a loan to Simulations Publications, Inc.  However, in less than a month, TSR called in the note, thereby dooming SPI.  TSR acquired SPI's assets, but not its people.  Some SPI alumni were hired by Avalon Hill and a subsidiary (or “sister”) company was formed – Victory Games.  Rather than in Avalon Hill's Baltimore, Victory Games was based in New York (just as SPI had been).   Victory Games published a variety of games in the vein of SPI; they also obtained the RPG license for the James Bond franchise.

James Bond 007 was published in 1983 and it won that year's H. G. Wells Award for best role-playing rules.  It also won the Strategist's Club Award in 1984.  In his Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick recommended James Bond 007 as the top espionage system.  He described the game as having “a smooth, fast-playing style and was well supported with scenarios for one, two, or several players.”

Interestingly, the last three digits of the ISBN are 007.  The game is dedicated to (Aaron) Eric Dott, chairman of Avalon Hill's parent company.  (Dott passed away earlier this year.)  Gerald Christopher Klug is credited with “game design, development and project coordination.”  Klug's other role-playing credits include work on SPI's Dragonquest and Universe.

Klug discusses the creation of the game in the third issue of Heroes, Avalon Hill's RPG magazine.  In the early 80s, Klug felt that an “area of role-play which...hadn't been adequately covered was the world of espionage.”  His gaming group wasn't satisfied with the “only game available at the time.”  Although Klug avoids mentioning the name of this unsatisfying game, it could be none other than TSR's Top Secret.  (Even Schick describes Top Secret as “competent but unimpressive.”)  “I knew I could design a better game,” Klug reminisces, “going so far as to start tinkering with a game system.”  Klug's rules were generic – not geared toward any licensed property.  The newly created Victory Games wanted to enter into the RPG market but decided against a fantasy game given the crowded field.  Klug proposed his espionage game, but instead of a generic setting, Victory Games “decided to base a game on the only spy character really worth doing – James Bond.”  I can appreciate that James Bond was the only spy character with a currently active franchise, but surely not the only spy character really worth doing.  Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are worthwhile possibilities; even The Avengers would make a decent basis for an RPG.

The Bond license required Victory Games “to support the James Bond movies, so the characters, backgrounds, and plot lines made [in] the game would be drawn from the movies.”  According to Klug:
This would please some Bond fans and displease others, so the latter would have to be appeased by having the game system designed to support both the books and the movies...Since I was designing the game systems to emulate the books while giving the players information from the movies, that would satisfy fans of both genres.  And, as long as I made the game essentially simple to play, the young fans would by it and be happy with it.
As mentioned previously, scenarios for James Bond 007 were based upon the various Bond films, but the details were altered so that the plots were not predictable.  Even 'original' adventures were marketed as a type of sequel (for instance, Goldfinger II and You Only Live Twice II).  Not all of the Bond films were given a scenario treatment, although there seems to have been an intent to do so.  An early James Bond 007 advertisement included the following:

A 'playtest' version of From Russia With Love appeared in electronic form in 2003, but Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, and The Spy Who Loved Me never appeared.

I find it interesting to compare and contrast The Adventures of Indiana Jones with James Bond 007.  One was celebrated and the other scorned.  Yet both were released within a year of one another and both were based on the films of pop culture icons.  Even the basic game mechanics of the two games are similar.  The Indiana Jones game compares the results of a percentile roll against some multiple of an Attribute Rating for purposes of task resolution.  In James Bond 007, a character has a Primary Chance associated with some task.  The Primary Chance is multiplied by an Ease Factor to establish a number to which a percentile roll is compared for determining success.  (There are eleven Ease Factors:  one through ten as well as ½.  Lower numbers represent more difficult tasks.)  There are four “levels” of success with regard to checks in the Indiana Jones game and, in James Bond 007, there are four Quality Ratings that represent different levels of success – from 1 (excellent) to 4 (acceptable).  I'm not suggesting that either game copied the other, but both games used a similar mechanic to appeal to entry-level players.

Although Indiana Jones was developed into another role-playing game, James Bond has not returned in RPG form.  However, an approximate simulacrum of the Victory Games rules system has been produced under the name Classified.  The name leaves much to be desired; I would have gone with something like 'Agents & Assassins'.  (You can't go wrong with alliteration and ampersands.)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Who Roves Where Dreamers Seek

Art by Harold S. De Lay

I would take you back with me into an age beside which that of Brennus and Rome is as yesterday.  I would take you back through, not merely centuries and millenniums, but epochs and dim ages unguessed by the wildest philosopher.  Oh far, far and far will you fare into the nighted past before you win beyond the boundaries of my race, blue-eyed, yellow-haired, wanderers, slayers, lovers, mighty in rapine and wayfaring.
                                   – The Valley of the Worm

Today marks the passage of eighty years since the demise of Robert E. Howard.  Rather than focus on the circumstances of his death, let us instead appreciate what he has given us.

The October, 1936, issue of Weird Tales contained the final installment of “Red Nails,” the last Conan story Howard wrote.  About which he said to H. P. Lovecraft, “it well may be the last fantasy I'll ever write” and that it “was the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote.”  The illustration above is from that story.

Also contained in said issue is a poetic tribute to Howard by Robert H. Barlow (displayed below), whose other literary efforts include a handful of collaborations with Lovecraft.

In the poem, Barlow conflates Howard with Conan, Howard's most famous creation.  Writers tend to put something of themselves into their characters and there must be something of Howard in Conan.  In my opinion, however, Howard is more like another of his creations, James Allison, a contemporary Texan who recounts heroic past lives.  While Allison is constrained by his own infirmity, Howard is constrained by his mother's infirmity.  Both, of course, take us to “epochs and dim ages unguessed.”

Howard, along with various other luminaries, was written up for GURPS Who's Who 2.  Such write-ups can't help but be subjective; Ernest Hemingway's write-up would easily thrash Howard's write-up in the world of GURPS.  I would like to think that “Two-Gun Bob” would put up a good fight against “Papa,” but what do I know?  Anyway, using a tortuous conversion process from GURPS to Hero System to (A)D&D, I have fashioned Howard in terms of “the world's most popular role-playing game.”

Robert E. Howard, a.k.a. Ervin the Mighty (2nd Level Fighter)
Strength  16
Dexterity  12
Constitution  14
Intelligence  14
Wisdom  14
Charisma  15

Add a 'Survival' non-weapon proficiency, roll hit points, and equip to taste.

– – –    – – –    – – –

P.S. – Readers may be interested in a guest post I recently wrote for the eminently readable Schlock Value blog.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Chases in The Adventures of Indiana Jones

In a pursuit, there are the chased and the chaser; in The Adventures of Indiana Jones, the terms are Leader and Follower, respectively.  Distance is measured in units of 25 feet called Areas.  The Referee's Screen presents a table that converts miles-per-hour into areas-per-turn in increments of 10 mph.  (A Turn is five seconds.)

In any given turn, the distance of the Leader from the Follower equals the Follower's Chase Rate subtracted from the Leader's Chase Rate.  The Leader has a number of Areas as a Head Start.  The sum of the Leader's speed and Head Start is his or her Chase Rate for the first turn of the chase; the Follower's Chase Rate equals his or speed.  To determine Chase Rate on subsequent turns, for both Leader and Follower, speed is added to the prior turn's Chase Rate.

According to the rules:
It doesn't matter if your characters are using cars, horses, or their own feet in a chase.  You run chases the same way for all three.
Despite this assertion, the rules primarily address vehicle chases.  Vehicles have the following specifications:  Acceleration, Breaking, Maximum Speed, Redline Speed, Turn Speed, and Vehicle Rating.  If a vehicle tries to turn when in excess of its Turn Speed, the driver must make a Movement Check.  If successful, the turn is accomplished without incident; if unsuccessful, “your character loses control and has an accident.”  The vehicle's speed is added to an accident roll.  Results on the Accident Table range from 'skid' to 'flip and roll'.  When a vehicle travels faster than its Redline Speed, the driver's Movement Rating is halved.  Vehicle Rating “is a measure of a vehicle's durability.”

If light damage is inflicted upon a vehicle, its “Maximum Speed is reduced by 10 mph.”  If a vehicle suffers medium damage, “The vehicle's speed is cut to half of its normal Maximum Speed.”  When a vehicle takes serious damage, it “stalls out and [slows] to a complete stop.”

The Adventures of Indiana Jones has a Chase Flow Chart (presented above).  It consists of twenty-five circles identified by letters A through Z (with the exception of O).  Twenty-one of the circles represent intersections, three represent Hazards, and one is a dead end.  The Hazard Table is shown below; however, the rules state, “The Referee may also create his own Hazards.”
Ten of the circles are numbered, permitting a 'starting' circle to be determined by rolling 1d10.  If the Leader is attempting to reach a specific location, that location is also determined by rolling 1d10 (rerolling if the starting circle number results).  The Chase Flow Chart is not shown to the players.  When a player character is the Leader and he (or she) is attempting to reach a specific location, the Referee should announce which direction the character should take at a given intersection if the character “is pretty familiar with the area...”  If the character “is only slightly familiar with the area,” then an Instinct Check must be made at each intersection.  Of course, this is dependent upon the Referee realizing the ideal route.  What's the best way to get from 9(X) to 2(C)?  A random direction is rolled for an NPC Leader not headed for a specific location.  If the difference in Areas between the Leader and Follower exceeds the number listed between two linked circles, then the Follower loses sight of the Leader.

The Judge's Survival Pack includes additional rules and material regarding chases.

First, there are five more Chase Flow Charts:  one for “citystreets,” one for countryside, and three for buildings (“mainfloor,” “midfloor,” and rooftop).  Additionally, there are Hazard tables for “countryroad” (with results like blow out, cloud of dust, and bridge out!) and buildings (with results like loose carpet, cleaning lady, and “laundry in hall”).  (Incidentally, The Fourth Nail Adventure Pack includes several Chase Flow Charts, including charts that represent Barcelona.)

Second, chase participants can attempt “shortcuts.”  With a successful Movement Check, the character gains “spaces” (either 2, 4, or 6).  Although unstated, I suspect that for vehicle chases, “space” means Area and for foot chases, “space” refers to Square (i.e., five feet).

Lastly, the Judge's Survival Pack provides rules for stunting.  For “wild car chases,” characters can do things like attempt “skid turns and bootleg 180 degree turns” (succeed with a Movement Check or else roll on the Accident Table) or jump an obstacle (“there must be a ramp in front of the obstacle, the driver must be going Redline speed, and he must make a Movement check at × ½”).  Rules are also supplied “for overcoming obstacles in a foot race.”  For instance, actions such as “Sliding, Swinging, Vaulting, and Tackling require a Movement check at × ½ to maintain control and not get hurt.”  Another rule helpfully explains, “Walking a ledge, Jumping High, and Controlling a fall may require a normal Movement check or one at ×½ or ×¼ depending on how difficult the situation is.”  So, in short, engaging in a Movement 'stunt' may require a (possibly modified) Movement Check.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Measuring Success in The Adventures of Indiana Jones

Art by Rafael DeSoto

One of the enjoyable aspects of role-playing games is watching your character develop through continued play.  Experience points are often the means through which such development is represented in game terms.  The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game (hereinafter Adventures) does not have an experience point system; characters are essentially static.  Adventures, however, does have rules for earning Player Points.  Such points – like the name suggests – are assigned to the player and not the character.  Since players can “trade off” the characters they play, it is appropriate for 'points' to be player-centric.  Player Points are also earned by the Referee.  They are generally obtained in two ways:  meeting objectives and receiving awards.

Each 'episode' in an adventure lists objectives for the player characters and for the non-player characters.  Players are not informed as to what the objectives are.  Point values for the objectives are also listed.  As an example, here are the objectives for the second episode in the Raiders of the Lost Ark Adventure Pack.  (This is the episode that includes the scene in Nepal.)
     Re-establish the relationship between Indy and Marion (worth 1 Player Point).
     Escape the Nazis who attack the PCs in The Raven (worth 2 Player Points).
     Keep the headpiece to the Staff of Ra out of the Nazis' hands (worth 2 Player Points).
     Bring Indy and Marion together (worth 1 Player Point).
     Bring the Nazis into The Raven (worth 1 Player Point).
     Have both the PCs and NPCs gain a copy to the Staff of Ra (worth 2 Player Points).
Each player receives the same number of 'objective' Player Points per episode.  Evaluation of the player as an individual happens with 'award' Player Points. When 'award' Player Points are determined, three questions are asked of of each player by the Referee.  “Then the players, as a group,” according to page 43, “apply the same questions to the Referee.”  The questions are:
  1. Did the person make the game fun to play?
  2. Did the person play the part of his player character (or his NPCs) well?
  3. Did the person have good ideas?
For each question to which the answer is “yes,” the player (or Referee) receives one Player Point.  These questions clearly establish the goals of the game:  fun, role-playing, and imagination.  This concept of 'award' Player Points is important for two reasons.  First, for beginning players, it can be beneficial to have the purpose of Adventures (or any role-playing game) stated so succinctly.  Second, distribution of 'award' Player Points represents a feedback mechanism.  In other RPGs, feedback from a gamemaster to his or her players is common enough, but Adventures facilitates feedback from players to the Referee.

'Objective' Player Points are determined and distributed at the end of an adventure; specifically, “When the adventure is over, the Referee should decide which objectives the player characters met, and which objectives his NPCs met.”  Unfortunately, the rules are unclear as to when 'award' Player Points are provided.  According to the rules, “The players and Referee also award Player Points to each other at the end of an adventure (or episode).”  Which is it, adventure or episode?  Given that the average number of episodes per adventure is six, whether Player Point awards are provided per adventure or per episode makes a significant difference in the potential amount of Player Points that the players and Referee may have.  The rules state that “the Referee should try to keep from awarding more than 5 Player Points to each player in an adventure or episode.”  Players can accumulate up to five 'objective' Player Points as a result of what happens in an episode.  If we assume that 'award' Player Points are also determined per episode, players could be prevented from gaining 'award' Player Points due to the five point limit.  Since this is contrary to the point of having 'award' Player Points, then those points should be determined per adventure.  However, as we shall see below, this is also problematic.

“Player Points are a good measure of how well you play the game,” say the rules, “but they do serve one other, very special purpose.”  Player Points can be spent to reduce damage effects by one level – “making a Serious wound a Medium wound, for example.”  This costs five Player Points which must be spent at the time the damage is inflicted.

“You can accumulate Player Points from adventure to adventure,” the rules also state, “but you can't have more than 15 Player Points at any one time.”  To emphasize the point, “If you earn Player Points that would put you over your limit, you lose the extra points.”  If the episodic 'objective' Player Points and the 'award' Player Points are calculated at only at the end of an adventure, it's quite possible for more than fifteen points to accumulate for any given player.  I would suggest that 'objective' Player Points be dispensed at the conclusion of each episode.  This would allow players, and the Referee, to use those points during the adventure in which they are earned.  This would also reduce the possibility of exceeding the fifteen point limit if all points are calculated at the end of an adventure.

Also, “If a player sacrifices his character's life to save another character (PC or NPC), he automatically earns 15 Player Points to use for his next character.”  Presumably, this means “earns up to 15 Player Points,” since a player may not have more than fifteen points at any given time.