Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Inspiration: Fairies on Mars

I have come as was intended, and must have been decreed, to a most amazing land, called Mars, a land peopled, not by Things of various and curious deformities, but by Fairies of unusual grace and beauty.
– – The Old Man         

The Ship that Sailed to Mars is a charming tale about a man with an impossible desire.  Undeterred by the proponents of science and logic...
...he had taken his leave of men, and men's ways, and had spent his long lifetime in a sleepy office in a dull, dark street; passing his waking hours in strange dreams, or poring over weird and ancient books, and always and ever planning a ship to sail to Mars.
He recruited Fairies to assist him in building a ship based on his plans.  When the ship was ready, Fairies were selected by lot to act as crew.  During the voyage, they were exposed to various dangers and became lost.  The rulers of Fairyland dispatched an Air Sprite to guide them since “they know the planets by name and the stars as familiar habitations.”
The Zoo
Assisted by the Air Sprite, the old man and the Fairies journeyed to “The Star of the Classic Myths” where resided legends from “the Golden Age of Myth.”  They also visited the Pirates' Planet where the “spirits of all the Buccaneers and Pirates who sailed the fabled mains...fight their ancient and dishonourable battles over again.”

The Temple
Eventually, they reached Mars where “dwell those Fairies who fled the Moon when that unhappy planet cooled from sunny opulence to clearest shimmering ice.”  Celebrations ensued and the visitors enjoyed the various sights, such as the Zoo and the Fairy Temple.

It was indeed a spot where any dreadful thing might easily happen.”
After some time, the Old Man ventured forth on a mission from the Princess.  In the middle of a dark forest he found himself face-to-face with a monstrous beast.  Fortunately, the beast was merely the pet of some Forest Fairies “carrying lanterns of dead dragons' eyes.”  The Forest Fairies helped the Old Man on his way to Thunder City in the Iron Hills where Fairies had been entranced by Misery.  The story ends after the Old Man succeeds in his mission; however, the epilogue hints at further tales of the Old Man and the Fairies on Mars.

Industry in Thunder City
The Ship that Sailed to Mars was originally published in 1923 and is the creation of architect William M. Timlin (1892 - 1943).  The illustrations, obviously, are wonderful.  A 2011 edition is available at a reasonable price.  Timlin planned another illustrated book, The Building of a Fairy City.  Sadly, it was never completed.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Crown Jewels Caper

'Orco' poses with the crown jewels

The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game manages to avoid being a true RPG and winds up as an unrewarding, overly complicated board game.  According to the back of the box:
...In this exciting and fast-paced game, players become the forces of good.  As they explore the depths of Skeletor's hideout, searching for treasure, they will encounter monsters and evil characters, which will try to stop them.  Only their cunning will help unless they can find the magic gemstones that will defeat Skeletor's evil.
Many people would call this statement a flat-out lie.  Being in a generous mood, I say this statement is true, but only in narrow, relative circumstances.  The first warning sign is the phrase “exciting and fast-paced.”  Anything that tells you it's 'exciting and fast-paced' probably isn't.  In this case, the statement is true if – and only if – the game is being compared to watching paint dry.

The premise of the game is that Skeletor has taken the 'Crown Jewels of Eternia.'  (An argument could be made that the jewels rightfully belong to him, but let us not digress.)  The players assume the roles of He-Man and his allies and, in effect, conduct a commando raid upon Snake Mountain.  As indicated previously, ten face-down markers are randomly distributed among specific spaces indicated on the board.  One of these markers represents the crown jewels.  Some markers represent material wealth such as gold, silver, and crystal.  Yet other markers represent magic items including illusion dust – which does nothing.  (Perhaps it's just an illusion of doing nothing?)  So, technically, the characters are 'searching for treasure' but the crown jewels and useful magic items are the only treasure that matters.  Of course, characters in the cartoon series wouldn't have much use for traditional treasure either.

Locating the crown jewels does not end the game; a character must “ESCAPE WITH THEM THROUGH [Snake Mountain's] FRONT DOOR.”  The rules use the term “ANY PLAYER,” so it's not like all of the characters have to escape.  Seemingly, the game is meant to be co-operative; the rules state that when a character finds a piece of equipment or a magic item, he can turn it over to another character.  So, amassing treasure is not a means to be the winning character; the forces of good win together or they lose together.  'Escaping' with the crown jewels is not especially difficult for a variety of reasons – one being that a spell-user can just teleport with the jewels to the “FRONT DOOR.”  By the way, Teela can cast spells in this game.  This is because the “evil characters” have two spell users (Skeletor and Evil-Lyn) while “the forces of good” have only Orko if Teela doesn't cast spells.  Magic ability is important because there are magic doors that can only be opened by spending magic points.  (In the top photograph, magic doors can be seen as yellow flashes on the board.)

The last sentence of the 'back of the box' quote implies that victory is possible only through “cunning” or by finding “the magic gemstones that will defeat Skeletor's evil.”  I suppose the crown jewels could count as magic gemstones; however, they defeat Skeletor's evil only if you consider his illegal possession of the jewels to be 'the' evil and that the act of taking the jewels back undoes that evil.  An actual confrontation with Skeletor is not necessary to win the game and it is theoretically possible for Skeletor not to appear at all.  If an example of “cunning” is to avoid playing the game, then the phrase “only their cunning can help” would seem to be an accurate statement.

To comment knowingly on the game, I played it twice.  For a while during our first game, it seemed as if we might lose.  Although we lost three characters (half of the party), we completed the objective.  The second time, we knew what we were doing; Snake Mountain posed no challenge and no characters were lost.  Interestingly, both games ended the same way.

When characters enter most rooms, there is the possibility of an encounter.  If there is an encounter, it is with either (1) Snake Mountain fodder, (2) monsters, or (3) evil characters.  There are two types of fodder:  robots and giant spiders.  You know...spiders...those bug-like things with six legs?
Snake Mountain “Spider”
There are four monsters.  Each is unique; if one dies, that monster doesn't show up again.  The four monsters are:
  • Gorman – When encountered, monsters usually don't pursue characters.  If characters leave a room that contains a (live) monster, it essentially disappears until the encounter chart says it shows up again.  The Gorman, however, follows you and attacks until it's dead or you are spirited away by “THE GODS OF ETERNIA.”
  • Plamydon – This monster teleports away one turn after it appears.  Yawn.
  • Swamp Monster – This monster is situated in one particular room and remains there until dead.  The monster has two attacks, but since it can't leave the room, it's easy enough to stand just outside of the room and blast it three times with a rifle.
  • Zuva-Rex – Like the Plamydon, this monster teleports away after one turn...unless He-Man is around.  Apparently, it has some kind of fixation about He-Man; if it sees him before teleporting, it will follow him around until it dies or He-Man “HAS BEEN FORCED OUT OF THE GAME.”  The Zuva-Rex is scary because it has three attacks, bite/claw/claw.

The evil characters include Skeletor, Evil-Lyn, Beastman, Trap-Jaw, Whiplash, and Mer-Man.  Whiplash gets short shrift; all of the other evil characters have living quarters shown on the board.  I felt sorry for the dude, so when I came up with new room names, I gave him a room of his own.  Like the monsters, if an evil character dies, it doesn't come back.  However, when an evil character's Life Force drops below a certain level, he (or she) is teleported away “BY THE MAGIC OF SNAKE MOUNTAIN.”  If encountered again, the character will not have recovered any Life Force and he (or she) gets only one teleport save.  Skeletor says, “ALL OF THE EVIL CHARACTERS ARE INTELLIGENT.  THEY WILL NOT DO STUPID THINGS.”  However, each has a reaction table that indicates what he (or she) will do when faced off with a given 'good' character.

Here's the thing.  The point of the game is to gather markers until you find the one that represents the crown jewels.  There's no point in entering any room unless it has a marker or is the only way to get to a room with a marker.   The encounters for these marker rooms tend to be from the character table – meaning Skeletor or one of his minions.  Assuming the good characters don't split up, they can gang up on the evil characters because they usually show up alone.  It gets repetitive.  Wear down an evil character until he (or she) is teleported away; when the character shows up again, finish him (or her) off.   When there are no more evil characters, any room with a 'character encounter' will be empty.  This means many of the remaining markers will be unguarded.

In both of the games I played, Orko remained relatively unscathed.  There are two reasons for this.  First, according to their reaction tables, the three most powerful evil characters “ignore” Orko.  Second, since Orko is not very effective in combat, he stays out of combat and avoids injury.  By the time “the forces of good” reached the chasm, the evil characters had been eliminated.  This left Orko free to float over the chasm, open magic doors, and gather markers.  So, in both games I played, Orko found the crown jewels in an anti-climactic finale.  A game where you win because Orko does something?  No thanks.

Part of the problem is the programmatic way in which the game engages the players; replayability is limited.  This could have been offset with such things as a modular board, multiple scenarios, secondary goals, and time constraints.  Ideally, the game could have been adversarial with players taking sides; good characters versus evil characters.  The game could have adhered more closely to the concept of role playing by having a 'Snake Mountain' player in opposition to the other players.  I'm thinking something along the lines of GDW's Asteroid game.

Since my second-hand copy of the game did not contain the original stand-up figures, I was forced to create my own figures based on images at BoardGameGeek.  While I did so, I thought about broadening the game's appeal and created some stand-ups for characters outside of the MOTU setting.  I present my humble efforts...

L to R: Mike Mearls, Columbo, Half-Elf, Gene Weigel, Gord the Rogue

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Characters in The Masters of the Universe RPG

Skeletor's back, better than ever!
In last week's comments, there was some discussion about what the character generation rules could have been like in The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game, had such rules been included.  We can make assumptions based upon the presentation of the pre-generated characters and clues provided by the rules.

On page 7 of the rules, He-Man informs the reader that “characters are defined by six attributes and several skills or magic spells!”  He lists five 'basic' attributes but follows up with information about skills without mentioning the sixth attribute (which is evidently 'Movement Points').  The five 'basics' are Strength, Agility, Intelligence, Life Force, and Magic.  He-Man further mentions that “66 is the highest and 11 the lowest – and the worst!”  These are the numeric values associated with the 'basic' attributes. Upon examining the attributes for the twelve characters provided with the game – six 'player' characters and six 'evil' characters – there are no attribute values that end with 7, 8, 9, or 0.  As mentioned last week, this suggests the use of d66 as an attribute value generator.  (For d66, two six-sided dice are rolled; one die represents 'tens' and the other represents 'units.')

By necessity, the attributes are self-explanatory; the game provides no formal definitions.  A character is able to sustain a maximum amount of damage equal to his or her Life Force.  Attempting to cast a spell requires the expenditure of Magic Points; a character that needs to spend Magic Points has an amount equal to his or her Magic attribute.  The respective functions of the other three attributes are not so obvious.  The 'Movement Points' score seems to be one-tenth of Agility (rounded down); otherwise, Agility has no effect in the game.  Aside from when He-Man lists the 'basic' attributes on page 7, the only other mention of Intelligence is when it is used (along with the Magic attribute) to determine the modifier for using one particular magic item – a modifier that could have been derived just as easily from the Magic attribute alone.  Given that the featured character, He-Man, is renowned for his strength, it is curious that the Strength attribute is not used for anything in the game.  What's the point in having an attribute if you're not going to do anything with it?

A character's skills (and spells, if any) “are rated from 1 – basic familiarity to 6 – a master!”  As is, only combat skills come into play:  Hand-to-Hand (weaponless combat – “martial arts, boxing and wrestling skills”), Sword (actually, “all bladed weapons”), Club (also referred to as Club/Hand Weapon – “anything you can pick up to strike someone with,” other than bladed weapons I suppose), Pistol (“one-handed firearms of any kind”), and Rifle (“two-handed firearm”).

The provided characters have other skills but they are neither used nor explained.  Some skill names are intuitive (such as 'Animal Riding' and 'Medical'), but others are not. 'Machine' skill is distinct from 'Machine Use' skill because there are characters that have both.  (In one instance, 'Machine Use' is listed as 'Uses Machines' and in another instance as 'Using Machines.')  A third skill is 'Tinkerer,' which suggests the repair of machines.  So, what can the 'Machine' skill provide that does not involve the repair or actual use of machines?  A skill for identifying machines (but a separate skill for their use)?  Machine trivia?*  The ability to mimic the sounds made by machines?  What?  Beastman has the 'Animals' skill at a rating of 6; he also has the 'Animals' skill at a rating of 4.  Did he max out and contribute points to a redundant skill?  Ram-Man also has the 'Animals' skill while Mer-Man has the specialized 'Sea Animals/Plants' skill.

Among the provided characters, those who have spells have a Magic attribute of at least 53.  These characters are the only ones who use Magic Points, yet Ram-Man and Fisto both have a series of boxes on their character cards to track their Magic Points.  Perhaps at one point during the design of the game Ram-Man and Fisto were required to spend Magic Points to activate their special abilities?

The rules describe six different spells:  Shield, Teleport, Fly, Shrink/Grow, Animate, and Blast (Listed as 'Offensive Blast' with some characters in order to distinguish it from what other kind of blast?).  Shrink/Grow (or sometimes Grow(th)/Shrink) causes a target to either grow to twice its size or shrink to half its size; however, the only game effect is that that target's hand-to-hand damage is doubled or halved respectively.  The only function of Animate is to “cause any object to attack who[m]ever the player wants.”

The spellcasting characters have ratings in spells not described in the game.  As mentioned previously, these spells were to be addressed in the never-to-exist 'advanced' version of the game.  These spells are:  Viewing, Illusion (Creation), Telekinetics (not to be confused with the Object Movement spell), Seek, Control (Being), Project Thought, Counter Spell, Space Portal, Disguise/Transform, and Summon(ing).

*  The world's first vending machine dispensed holy water.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Combat in The Masters of the Universe RPG

Beastman, colored entirely red in this depiction, represents the weakness of communism
against capitalism while Skeletor is symbolic of the fallacy of socialism.

To put it mildly, the rules to The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game are not presented in a manner conducive to comprehension.  For instance, the description of the 'Swamp Monster' provides a curious statement:
He makes two attacks per turn at random targets but he never attacks?  Huh?

Scrutiny of the rules reveals statement 5(B) from the SEQUENCE OF PLAY:
So, a defending character has an attack option and a defend option – presumably mutually exclusive of one another.  To avoid confusion, maybe 'attack option' and 'defend option' should have been called something along the lines of 'offensive stance' and 'protective stance'.  Yet, to assign more appropriate terms, we need to understand what these 'options' are supposed to accomplish.

Perhaps now is an appropriate juncture to disclose how attacks are handled in MOTURPG.  To resolve combat, the attacker and defender each roll a d6 and apply various modifiers.  Consulting the Resolution Matrix, the defender result is found along the y-axis and the attacker result along the x-axis.  The intersection of the the appropriate row and column provides a letter code that indicates the resolution of the attack.  Oh, you would like to see the Resolution Matrix?  I suppose that can be arranged.

Anyway, there is a list of combat modifiers for the “ATTCKER” [sic] and one for the Defender.  The 'defend option' provides the defender with a +2 modifier, but also:
Strangely, in the rules, this paragraph immediately repeated verbatim except that the last word, “MODIFIERS,” is replaced with “CHANGES.”  It's almost as if someone thought that the word “modifier” was too advanced for eight-year olds, but then was inconsistent in replacing it with “change.”

We clearly see that a character can only apply his skill and magic weapon changes/modifiers in defending against a single attack (in a given round) and only defend and shield modifiers can be applied against additional attacks.  However, we are left in ignorance as to the utility of changes/modifiers of weapons that are not magic.  Non-magical clubs typically grant a +1 defend modifier and non-magical swords grant a +2 modifier.  Do they apply against multiple attacks or not?

Regardless, the 'defend option' is an option.  It provides a benefit but, seemingly, the only cost involved is foregoing the 'attack option'.  So what does the 'attack option' do?  SEQUENCE OF PLAY Step #5 is the “RESOLVE EVIL CHARACTERS/MONSTER COMBAT” portion of the round; It takes place after  “RESOLVE PLAYER COMBAT,” which is Step #3.  As such, the choice of the player between attack and defend options established in 5(B) quoted above does not mean that, in order to adopt the 'defend option,' he must 'give up' his attack; the attack will have been made earlier in the round.

Does the 'attack option' give the character another attack during Step #5?  By the same logic, are 'attacking' evil characters/monsters allowed an initial attack during Step #3?  It seems unlikely given how the rules are presented.  However, since the rules are not presented very well, we cannot dismiss the possibility.

On the Resolution Matrix, when the ultimate defender value equals the ultimate attacker value (and the value is at least four), the result is “H/H.”  This means that the attacker inflicts damage upon the defender – just as if the attacker value was higher than the defender value – but it also means that the defender inflicts damage upon the attacker (“according to the weapon type”) if the attacker and defender are adjacent.  Common sense suggests this applies only to non-ranged weapons, but there is no clarification.  Does the 'attack option' enable the “H/H” result, meaning that “H/H” is treated as a regular hit for a defender using the defend option?  “H/H” would seem to suggest an opening of which an opponent could take advantage, but an opponent focused entirely on defense would hold back.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Snake Mountain

The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game allows for only one adventure.  This tends to support the notion that the game is a board game rather than a genuine role playing game.  The 'adventure' consists of the player characters looting Snake Mountain in an effort to retrieve the 'Crown Jewels of Eternia.'  The denizens of Snake Mountain are adverse to this and conflict is thus engendered.  Players can assume the roles of He-Man, Teela, Orko, Ram-Man, Man-at-Arms, or...Fisto.  Stratos makes a cameo appearance in the rules, but he is not a playable character.

The game includes a map (or board) “representing the catacombs of Snake Mountain.”  A slightly modified image is provided below for your edification.  Take a few minutes to stock it for your own purposes or avail yourself of the encounter tables.

Snake Mountain according to the good people at FASA circa 1985
The game comes with ten treasure “markers,” one of which represents the Crown Jewels.  They are randomly distributed – face down – upon the blue stars.  The object of the 'adventure' is to locate the Crown Jewels and remove them from the environs of Snake Mountain.  If an encounter occurs in a given room, the adversary (either character or monster) starts on the red star of that room.  If there are several adversaries, are they stacked on the same square?  The rules are silent.  Why are there red stars in rooms where there is no chance of an encounter?  Again, the rules are silent.

Here is a directory; location names have been changed for entertainment purposes only.

When player characters cross the Bridge (location 52), they are attacked by the weapon in the Armament Room (location 49); it is the equivalent of a rifle.

There are four encounter tables:  standard, special, character, and monster.  For each of the tables, 1d6 is used with a possible modifier according to a particular location.  For instance, in location 47, the result of 1d6 would be added to four and the result checked on the standard encounter table.

Standard Encounter Table

Special Encounter Table

Character Encounter Table

Monster Encounter Table

The monsters on the 'monster encounter table' are inventions of the game designers and are not associated with MOTU continuity.  Also, how these monsters are depicted in the rulebook differs from how they appear on the cardboard 'playing pieces' included with the game.