Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Do your characters have appropriate talismans?

In a setting where magic is more-or-less commonplace, superstition becomes pragmatic.  Charms and amulets become less frivolous and – perhaps – gain some degree of efficacy.  Presented here is a plate from The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems along with notes from that tome.  What game effects – if any – would these items have?  What would it take to 'activate' one of these things?  Would the owner need to wear it for a year and a day?  Perhaps 'invest' a hit point?

104Harpokrates – “...god of eternal youth and fecundity...”
105 Caduceus – “...the wand of Mercury...worn to render its possessor wise and persuasive, to attract Health and Youthfulness, as well as to protect from the Evil Eye.”
106 Horn – “...worn to protect from harm, danger, and...evil influences...and also a charm to attract good fortune and success.”
107 Anubis – “...the Guardian of Souls in the under-world.”
108Bull's Head – “...worn...for success in love and friendship and...was also worn by men for Strength and Long Life.”
109Hand – “...a Talisman against fascination...”
110Key – “...the joint symbol of...Apollo...and...Diana...and was worn for Prudence, and for Remembrance of things past, and foresight of things to come...”
111Hand of the Lady Fatima – “...a sacred symbol representing Generosity, Hospitality, Power, and Divine Providence...”
112Salus Ring – “...worn for Health and Success in all undertakings, as well as for general Good Fortune.”
113Crescent – “...worn by Roman women upon their shoes as a safeguard against witchcraft and to prevent the evil spirits of the moon from afflicting them with delusions, hysteria, or lunacy...”
114:  (Zufur Tukiah) letters making the name Nasiree – “...the Preserver, one of the names of God...”
115:  (Zufur Tukiah) letters making the name Gadiri – “...the Powerful, also one of the names of God...”
116:   (Zufur Tukiah) letters making the name Mohammed
117Pine Cone – “...the symbol of Cybele the goddess of abundant benefits...”
118Cornucopia – “...the symbol of Abundance, Fruitfulness, and Prosperity...”
119Frog – “...worn for fertility and abundance.”

Monday, May 26, 2014

Tunnels & Trolls without Tunnels or Trolls

Art by Michael Kucharski

As an employee of Flying Buffalo, Michael Stackpole was exposed to Tunnels & Trolls.  His experiences inspired him to adapt the T&T system to 'modern' genres of adventure, specifically “detective, spy and mercenary fiction.”  So, in 1983, Flying Buffalo published the descriptively titled Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes.  (Personally, I would have gone with Guns & Gumshoes.  Would you believe Mysteries & Mayhem ?)  The back cover proclaims, “This is a unique role playing game which can be set from the earliest use of gunpowder to the near future with its ultramodern technologies.”  While statistics are given for 16th Century firearms, MSPE is better suited for more recent eras.  The “near future” is not specifically addressed.  Aside from contemporary characters, there are sample characters for the 1930's and even the 1880's (including Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty).

When a T&T character gains an experience level, there may be a windfall of attribute increases  Improving attributes in MSPE is more moderate; at each level, a character can improve one attribute by two points or two attributes by one point.  (BTW, Holmes is seventh level, Watson is fourth.)

There are no character types/classes in MSPE; beyond differences in attribute scores, skill portfolios make characters distinct from one another.  I previously wrote about Stackpole's skill system, at least as it relates to T&T.  In essence, a character's Intelligence determines the number of skills the character can have.  (This seems reasonable, except aristocratic titles and 'psychic' skills are purchased no differently than 'normal' skills.)  Unlike T&T, where weapon use is based on character type, MSPE characters must purchase combat skills in order to be competent with weapon groups or fighting styles.  Each skill starts at level one.  Additional levels can be acquired during character generation by spending additional skill points; however, during play, skills can only improve via experience (i.e., 'adventure points').  Naturally, characters earn adventure points, but points are also specifically assigned to skills when they are used during an adventure.  According to the rules, “There should be no other way for skills to pick up APs.”  Anyway, upon earning one thousand adventure points a character advances to level two and when a skill's total assigned experience reaches one thousand, the skill becomes level two.  So, instead of just tracking experience for a character, a player is obliged to track the character's experience as well as separate volumes of experience for each skill.

Although I do not think this is a good way of handling skill improvement, I could at least appreciate it if it was consistent...but it's not consistent.  'Martial Arts' skills are improved not by experience gained during an adventure, but only through training.  One might think that many skills (e.g., Pilot, Medic, Slight of Hand, et al.) would benefit as a result of training – much like what happens in  real life – but this is not so in MSPE.  Beyond meeting attribute requirements and spending one skill point, a character can obtain up to five levels in a martial art by training.  In MSPE, “training” equates to an outlay of money; five levels equals $1,400.

'Psychic' skills cost three points each.  There are six possible skills:  psychometry, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, and empathy.  A player does not choose a specific 'psychic' skill; the skill is determined randomly.  A saving roll modified by Intelligence resolves whether a psychic skill is latent or controllable.  Alas, no rules are provided to allow a latent skill to become controllable with experience.

Combat in MSPE is handled much like combat in T&T, except MSPE does not use two-minute combat turns.  Combat Rounds in MSPE last for thirty seconds – except Missle-Weapon Combat Rounds only last for fifteen seconds.  Oh, and “Movement takes place in 15-second increments...”  Why not have combat rounds of a consistent, standard duration?  I guess that wouldn't be realistic.

From the foregoing, one might assume that I dislike MSPE.  This is not the case.  I agree with another statement from the back cover, “...MSPE is elegantly simple, easy to learn, and most of all, fun to play!”  I object to those rules facets that – in my opinion – mar the elegance of the system. It is because I like the system that I find these errant facets frustrating.  “Contradictions and inconsistencies can destroy a campaign,” Stackpole writes on page 77; they can also reduce the appeal of an otherwise competent rules system.

To end this post on a positive note, I commend 'Book 2' (of 3) of the rules, “Introduction to Scenario Design.”  The 'Hit Location' and 'Car Crashes' sections really belong elsewhere in the rules, but the rest is top-notch advice on creating  adventures and campaigns in the MSPE genres, with a special emphasis on formulating and running “mysteries.”  After all, a mystery needs a degree of finesse not often required in a typical dungeon romp.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

If Melvin is north of here, this must be Boosboodle!

Art by Bruce Anderson

Thanks to Catacomb Librarian, I have been able to peruse The Spawn of Fashan, the topic of today's post.  Accordingly, this post is my official entry for the 2014 Obscure Fantasy RPG Appreciation Day contest.

In a more innocent age, Fashan was widely considered to be the worst table-top role playing game.  This was before such abominations as RaHoWa and F.A.T.A.L. blemished the hobby.  Fashan can scarcely compare to these egregious efforts, yet the legend persists.  The game even has its own TV Tropes page.

Is The Spawn of Fashan worse than The Realms of Atlantasia?  In comparing the two games, we must keep in mind that Atlantasia was created with the benefit of a 21st Century word processing application while Fashan utilized typesetting circa 1981.  Still, Fashan manages to embrace the concept of formatting and actually has interior artwork and a map.  In terms of presentation, Fashan is better than Atlantasia.  In terms of intelligibility, the jury is still out.

I wanted very much to show some redeeming features about Fashan – to present the diamond in the rough.  Alas, there is no diamond, only overwhelming rough.  Fortunately, I had read this review, so my encounter with Fashan was not as jarring as it could have been.

Fashan was written by Kirby Lee Davis of “The Games of Fashan Co-operative.”  Davis expected to publish a series of fantasy books having “Fashan” as the setting.  Fashan was a post-apocalyptic world “during the fifth volume of The Annals of Fashan,” an era that may or may not have had gods.  (The rules are unclear on this point.)  With the game rules, it was Davis' intent “to direct players and Referees on how to play and create worlds that are like Fashan” and because these worlds would not actually be Fashan, “it can be said that they are Fashan's spawn.”  Hence, Davis called the game The Spawn of Fashan

The game is so exquisitely bad that Lawrence Schick, in his Dragon review, assumed it was parody.  Although Davis was earnest, there are certain passages which might lead a reader to believe the game was written as a spoof.  “The Spawn succeeds in keeping the rules simple,” page one tells us and the very next sentence begins, “Furthermore, it is a complicated system...”  I hadn't realized the two concepts were reconcilable.

Davis stated his belief that, “The Spawn is the best role-playing game on the market.”  Sure, he was trying to sell a product and, doubtless, his proximity to (and enthusiasm for) the game prevented an objective perception of its flaws, yet his braggadocio bordered on the bizarre.  For instance, “We of the Games of Fashan co-op realize these are extraordinary claims, so we have countered these with an equal amount of modesty.”  What does that even mean?  Fashan is the “best” RPG (in Davis' thinking) because it “is the most realistic and lifelike role-playing system (short of manuveurs) [sic] around.”  As is often the case in RPGs, “realistic and lifelike” translated into convoluted detail and a plethora of acronyms and tables.  Although Davis included a “massive number of tables and charts,” he did not supply every table and chart necessary for play.  For instance, a portion of text with the heading 'The Radiation Chart' begins with, “Here is an introduction to a table that is not here...So, this is another table the Referee can make up for himself.”

One reason for absent tables is that Davis expected Referees to devise “cultures and societies” for their own campaigns.  For instance, distinct societies would have distinct influences on character creation and would therefore need original tables.  I can respect Davis' intent in this regard, but societies were also expected to be similar to those of Fashan and sufficient details about Fashan existed only in Davis' mind.  Davis ought to have presented a fulsome setting with a complete set of charts and tables; he could then have provided advice on how to 'personalize' the setting.

Another reason for absent tables is “the small space available” in the rulebook.  This might have been a compelling reason had Davis not been so extravagant in certain sections of the rules.  For instance, Davis spent two paragraphs to define 'mountains'.  His definition started, “Mountains are rock pennicles [sic] that extend thousands of feet in the air.” Unless you're writing a dictionary, if you feel the need to define 'mountains', chances are you're doing something wrong. Davis tried to be comprehensive, but he bypassed essentials and concentrated on minutiae.

“Due to the nuclear war on Fashan 2000 years ago...all life on Fashan evolved the ability to 'feel' other life forms,” according to the rule book.  The rules refer to this ability as “Senses.”  Contrary to the notion of “all life,” some character occupations do not have “Senses.”  Seemingly, the nuclear war was responsible for other biological changes.  Some character occupations, like Creepers and Healers, have unnatural abilities.  As a result of failing saving rolls during character creation, characters roll on tables that may grant an ability or inflict a disability.  Such (dis)abilities range from the mundane (e.g., 'deaf in one ear' or 'clubfoot') to the peculiar (e.g., 'microscopic smell' or 'attuned to insects').

Davis provided a page-and-a-half long example of Fashan play.  Detailed examples like this are perhaps the most important part of a system of rules; they show how the designer expects people to play.  Such examples should demonstrate the game's features in the best possible light.  Davis didn't do this;  instead, he showcased the dumbest possible playing experience.  In the example, a just-created player character (with a “Supersticious [sic] fear of bald hunchback females”) begins play in Biddles, capital of Boosboodle.  (According to the map, north of Boosboodle is “where Melvin is standing now.”)  The first inclination of the player character is to rob a store.  The example concludes with the player character murdering a shopkeeper by striking him with a metal chest.

In 'Section I', Davis asked perusers to “brush on through the rulebook.  Glance at the terms, the outlines, the tables.  We feel you will be impressed.”

Impressed?  Yes, but not in a good way.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Skills in Tunnels & Trolls

Art by Victoria Poyser

In a 1982 issue of Sorcerer's Apprentice, an article appeared, “Skills in Tunnels & Trolls,” written by Michael Stackpole.  More than twenty years later, it was incorporated into the 5.5 edition of Tunnels & Trolls.  In Stackpole's system, each character has a number of 'skill points' equal to his or her Intelligence (IQ).  Each skill costs one point (or more) and each skill has a minimum IQ necessary to learn the skill.

This system owes much to Metagaming's The Fantasy Trip, specifically In The Labyrinth (1980).  The 'skill point purchase' system in TFT is essentially the same except the term “talent” is used rather than “skill.”  Stackpole employs his system in Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes (1983) as well as FASA's Legionnaire (1990), co-designed with T&T alumnus Jim “Bear” Peters.

In his article, Stackpole describes only eleven skills as well as two types of “open” skills (open in the sense that they have no IQ minimum).  The first open skill is 'Special Interest' which includes
...almost anything that might be learned by a character doing personal study.  The only areas that cannot be covered...are areas covered specifically by another skill.
The other open skill is 'Occupational Skill', each of which represents “one year of an intensive training course in one form of employment.”  The other eleven skills, sorted by IQ minimum, are:
  • IQ 6 – Bludgeon, Climbing, Swimming
  • IQ 8 – Begging, Pickpocket, Treasure Evaluation
  • IQ 10 – Trapping, Trap Disarm
  • IQ 12 – First Aid
  • IQ 13 – Navigation, Plant Lore (These cost 2 points each.)
Of course, Stackpole did not intend this listing to be comprehensive, merely “a small sampling.”  According to Stackpole, “You can flesh T&T characters out with appropriate skills from other games.” (i.e., Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes and Monsters! Monsters! ).  This sort of brevity is acceptable in a magazine article, but when presented in a rules compilation, a more thorough listing ought to be supplied.

Skills have “levels” and these levels are added to an appropriate attribute for the purpose of making saving rolls.  For instance, 'Trap Disarm' would be added to IQ when attempting to identify a trap, added to Dexterity in disarming the trap, or added to Luck to lessen the effects of a sprung trap.  Upon acquiring a skill, it is 'level one'.  A skill's level increases only with experience, but a skill's experience is distinct from a character's experience.  Every attempt to use a skill – successful or not – earns fifty experience points for that skill.  The amount of experience points needed for a skill to gain a level is the same as for a character to gain a level; a skill advances to second level upon amassing one thousand experience points (or twenty attempts).  Tracking character experience is one thing, but tracking experience separately for each skill is a tedious exercise.

Regardless of the consideration of separate experience, this kind of skill system may not be suitable for Tunnels & Trolls.  In Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes it works because there are no character types, all characters are on an equal footing.  T&T has character types that define a character's abilities and pre-game background.  Imposing a skill purchase system as well seems stilted.  Stackpole notes that, “For balance, each level of T&T magic spells cost two skill points.”  Does that apply to both rogues and magic-users?  Does this mean that, upon gaining an experience level, a magic-user can only have access to spells of that level if she has spare skill points or if she opted to increase her intelligence? I'm not opposed to skill systems, but Stackpole's solution is not ideal for Tunnels & Trolls.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Spells in Tunnels & Trolls

I think that the aversion to Tunnels & Trolls that some gamers possess is attributable in some degree to the light-hearted nature with which Ken St. Andre approached the rules.  After all, pretending to be an elf is serious business.  St. Adre's whimsy is readily apparent in his choice of spell names, some of which include:  'Zingum', 'Freeze Pleeze', 'Poor Baby', 'Little Feets', 'Hidey Hole', and 'Yassa-Massa'.  It has not been my experience that the names of spells were detrimental to the course of play (Dare I say 'immersion'?).  Sometimes, it's liberating to say, “Take That, You Fiend” (i.e., the name of a first level offensive spell).  Of course, nothing prevents a gaming group from changing the spell names if they dislike the ones given.

Some spells in earlier editions of T&T did not survive to later editions.  The 'Oh Dread' spell “predicts next group of monsters to meet you and when it will happen, but not where.”  'Green Tongue' allows “one to speak to and command all plants.”  Lastly, the 'Greasy Geas' spell “compels men or monsters to either perform a given task or to refrain from certain actions.”

In St. Andre's Monsters! Monsters!, it is noted that:
Certain types of monsters have their own magical powers, sometimes analogous to and sometimes completely different from...human magic...These spells may not be used by any other type of monster or by humans – except, possibly, if they were used by a monster carrying a deluxe staff, which would then learn the spell, and could enable any subsequent owner to use it.
Among the spells listed, there spells for trolls and goblins which – while not “kindred” races – are playable races in T&T.  Goblins have 'Darkest Hour', which can drain light “from any natural source except the sun.” Trolls have 'Ole Stonewall' (which creates a stone wall), 'Rock-a-bye-bye' (which can change an opponent to stone or backfire against the troll), and 'Reconstr-yuch-tion' (a 'cheaper' version of a 'human' spell that converts “rock to mud or quicksand”).

Upon reaching fifth level, a magic-user “can start inventing his own spells.” (Rogues are not capable of designing original spells.)  Rules about the time and cost for research are not provided; only the instruction that “[h]ome-brewed spells must be subject to the approval of the G. M. who should ensure that the spells are not too powerful for the level and cost assigned in terms of strength expenditure.”  Interestingly, early editions of T&T allowed magic-users to improvise spells – a rule not carried over into later editions.
The effort of composing a spell on the spot in a game situation will require the expenditure of 90 percent of the magic-user's strength, and can only be attempted by wizards with more than 10 strength points available.  Otherwise it is fatal to the magician and does no good.
It's a shame that this rule was suppressed.  When a game undergoes a new edition, it should be improved; removing an opportunity for player creativity cannot be considered improvement.  I can certainly see how the rule could be abused; assuming that the GM/DM approves of the spell and the magic-user has at least ten points of strength, success is automatic.  Magic-users recover strength points at a rate of one per ten minutes, so magic-users can frequently create “impromptu” spells.  A chance of failure might be appropriate.

T&T has rules about “saving rolls.”  For a saving roll, the player rolls two dice and attempts to equal or exceed a target number.  The target number for a “first level” saving roll is 20 minus the character's 'luck' attribute, with a minimum target number of five.  Rolling doubles entitles the player to re-roll and add the result.  For each “level” of difficulty, 5 is added to the number from which luck is subtracted (e.g., a second level target number would be 25 – luck; third level, 30 – luck, etc.).  Later editions would introduce saving rolls using attributes other than luck.  I don't know why static target numbers weren't adopted with a saving roll being 2d6 + attribute.  For improvisational spells, the level of the saving roll could be equivalent to the level of the prospective spell.  Of course, with no penalty in effect for failure, the potential for abuse is not curbed.

What if a magic-user could only attempt improvisational spells once (or a limited number of times) per experience level?  I suppose that method is viable, but one must keep track of attempts.  Perhaps a failure causes a permanent loss of one point of strength (or 'wizardry' as later editions would have it).  What if a point of wizardry needs to be sacrificed to merely attempt the improvisational spell?