Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Visit to the Treasure Vault (Part I)

Art by Stephan Peregrine

Treasure Vault – published by Flying Buffalo in 1984 – is one of the Catalyst Series of products.  The second page tells us, “Each book in the [Catalyst] series provides a 'catalyst to your imagination' – something to give your imagination a boost towards better gaming.”  Evidently, there were hopes that Treasure Vault would become a series of books along the lines of the Citybooks or Grimtooth's Traps.  This may be inferred from another statement on page 2, “Treasure Vault is Flying Buffalo's trademark name for those Catalyst game booklets which describe valuable goods and scenarios for use in role playing games.”  (my emphasis)

Anyway, the subtitle of Treasure Vault is, “a collection of 26 unusual items with 38 interlocked personalities in 57 suggested scenarios for any role playing system.”  The Introduction qualifies the claim of “any role playing system” with the clarification “at least those with a fantasy/medieval outlook.”  With regard to “interlocked personalities,” I guess “interlocked” is supposed to mean “associated.”  The Introduction also states:
Most of the items listed here have some sort of origin or background material involving “ancient history.”  If these clash with a particular system (for instance:  if your world has no orcs, there couldn't very well be an Orc War), change or delete them so that they fit.  Remember, change the item to fit the world, not the other way around.
Whew, what a relief!

Treasure Vault is mainly the work of Steven Howard whose other RPG efforts are limited to (1) a yawn-inducing 1⅓ page article in Dragon about monk alignment and (2) being one of the designers of the Millennium role-playing game.  Treasure Vault may have failed as a series because there was essentially only one contributor to the premier volume and only 40 pages of material.  Stephan Peregrine (listed as 'Stephen' on the cover) provides the illustrations and authors one of the items.  Peregrine has many art credits in RPG products and he seems to have written one of the items in Citybook II: Port o' Call.  Outside of the RPG industry, Peregrine is associated with the Furrlough comic book.  (Yes, I just linked to a wiki for furries.  No, I'm not going to create a 'furry' tag for this post.)

Despite the promise of 26 items, I count only two dozen items divided among three categories:  'Weapons and Armor', 'Jewelry', and 'Miscellaneous'.  There are seven weapons (and no armor items), seven pieces of jewelry, and ten miscellaneous items.  Perhaps two items were edited out in order for the book not to exceed forty pages.  Yet there are still 38 personalities and 57 suggested scenarios.  Let's take a look at one of the miscellaneous items, along with the associated personalities and scenarios.

Wildith's Quill is a magic pen fashioned by the eponymous alchemist.  Wildith has been dead for fifty years and although his “magical inks of various sorts are still widely used,” his quill is not well known and its magical properties would not be suspected by most people.  If normal, mundane ink is used, the quill can be commanded to transcribe dictation.  Other powers are dependent upon using special inks.  With linguist's ink, the quill can “translate between any two common languages.”  With wizard's ink, “magical spells can be written down, provided they are read aloud, of course.”  Cartographer's ink allows the quill to “draw an accurate map, in a given scale, of an area around the Quill, up to a radius of ten feet.”  Finally, with alchemist's ink, the quill is able to “keep track of a conversation involving up to seven people in up to seven different languages.”  Unfortunately, we are not informed as to what makes these inks special without the quill.  Cartographer's ink, for instance, “sells for 100 gold pieces per dram.”  Why would anyone buy it?  If no one would buy it, why would anyone make it?  Also, mapping an area of a ten foot radius wouldn't cover a the floor plan of a house.  A map of a nice, medium-sized room is totally doable...for 100 GP.  This might be another reason the Treasure Vault series didn't take off.

Two non-player characters are “interlocked” with this item:  Finniwac von Broch and Dorman Tweed.  The details for Finniwac are as follows.
Human.  Ht: 5'7".  Wt: 150 lbs.  Age: 39.  Fighting prowess: poor.  Magical ability: poor in C5.
As might be expected, Treasure Vault employs the Citybook 'system' of description.  “C5” refers to communication magic.  “Finniwac is a well-to-do alchemist,” we are told, “He is quite skilled and can easily manufacture any of Wildith's magic inks.”  I'm not sure how being “quite skilled” in alchemy equates to a poor ability in communication magic, but whatever.  “Finniwac is not a very likable fellow,” we also learn, “There's nothing really terrible about him; he's just anti-social.”

Dorman Tweed is Finniwac's apprentice.
Human.  Ht: 6'.  Wt: 205 lbs.  Age: 23.  Fighting prowess: average.  Magical ability: poor, C5.
As opposed to his master, Dorman “is handsome, friendly, and well-liked.”  He works for Finniwac in order “to put himself through magic school.”  His description concludes with, “He will readily befriend a party of player characters, especially one including an experienced magician.”

Three scenario suggestions are provided for Wildith's Quill.  In the first scenario, the PCs obtain the quill and figure out its powers.  They then go to Finniwac to procure some alchemist's ink.  (Because they want to record a multi-lingual conversation?  I hope this doesn't break anyone's campaign.)  Finniwac, however, needs a certain ingredient to make the ink – the eye of an undead wizard.  If the characters procure the ingredient, Finniwac will let them have a dram of alchemist's ink for free.  What a bargain!  In the second scenario, Finniwac hires the PCs to obtain a rare ingredient.  While fetching the ingredient, they find the quill.  “Finniwac might show them how to use it,” the book states, “and he might not, depending on his mood at the time.”  (I think this is supposed to be dramatic tension.)  In the third scenario, “The players are hired by Finniwac to retrieve the quill.”  Dorman Tweed is not mentioned in conjunction with any of the three suggested scenarios, so maybe “interlocked” isn't the right word.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Starr's Party

Starr's house, front level
In the high school role-playing game Alma Mater, all player characters “should be placed” in Mr. Buzz's homeroom.  This is because the game provides details for twenty-six non-player character students – the balance of the homeroom's population.  Mr. Buzz is also described, along with several other teachers and school employees.  We learn that...
...Mr. Buzz is unkempt and wears a loud, bizarre neck tie every day...His classroom is disorderly and his teaching is sporadic at best.  He likes to play fantasy-role-playing games until all hours of the night, much to the disgust of fellow teachers.
An example of Mr. Buzz's meager teaching ability is provided in the day plan for the second day of school.  At 9:05, “Buzz tells everyone to choose a lab partner and read Chapter 26 in the text.”  At 9:06, “Buzz falls asleep at his desk...Those who try to read Chapter 26 will find that the book stops at Chapter 16.”  No teacher skills are listed for Mr. Buzz.

One of the students in Mr. Buzz's homeroom is Starr.  She is...
...a Social Queen who is constantly surrounded by friends, boyfriends, and admirers...She usually hangs around Jocks as if she were a team mascot and often grants them “favors” to enhance her popularity.  Her skill is Drug Use.
Starr is a Cheerleader with a Coordination of 9 and an Appearance of 10.  “...Starr will go to no end to hold the wildest parties of the year,” page 44 tells us, “To make sure everything goes well she only invites popular people and gives out drugs and booze.”  However, page 46 reveals, “For the sake of simplicity, Starr's first party is held soon after school starts and because she knows few people, everyone in her homeroom class (except Losers) are invited.”  No reason is given for why “Social Queen” Starr would know “few people” – her sister went to the same high school, which suggests that Starr's junior high is in the area.  Still, this is for “the sake of simplicity” and “it would be ridiculous to have a scenario without [the PCs].”

“Starr's Party” is the sample scenario included with the game.  Two additional NPCs – Starr's sisters – are introduced.  “Twinkle is Starr's sweet, innocent little sister.”  Although she “adores Starr,” we are informed “there is a rivalry between them.”  At 11 years of age, Twinkle is too young to have a character class or any skills.  Bunny, however, is 21 and “she works in the local Playboy Club.”  Her character class is Cheerleader.  (Adults, it seems, retain their character classes after high school.  Adult analogs appear on the 'Outside of School Encounters' table along with Truant Officers, Beggars, Prostitutes, and Policemen.  Alas, we are not provided with the character classes of the high school's personnel.)  Bunny's Appearance is 12; however, it increases to 14 when “she is wearing her costume and makeup.”  Bunny...
...prefers not to get involved with her sister's parties, often staying in her bedroom.  [She] has been known to drink too much on occasion...Her skills are Drinking, Driving, and Drug Use.
Speaking of drugs, Starr serves a variety of 'refreshments' at her party.  Aside from beer, gin, rum, “and assorted soft drinks,” there is Starr's “mystery punch,” a serving of which acts like “potency 3 alcohol.”  Starr also has “fifty joints and...ten grams of hash” for her guests.  Unfortunately, she has procured “some bad blotter (LSD)...It has the effect of a potency 1 drug, but also acts as rat poison.”  (Starr has injected the LSD into some oranges.)

The scenario itself has no plot.  Starr's house is described, the general location and activities of each of the attendees is covered, and there is a schedule of events.  The player characters can 'explore' the house, interact with the attendees, and react to events according to their own dispositions.  Incidentally, Starr is 14 years old – as are most of her homeroom classmates attending the party.  Here are choice occurrences from Table 97 – Starr's Party Events:
9:00 – party starts
9:10 – Blotto vomits on random PC
9:11 – Sid vomits on random PC
10:15 – Bunny asks PC to help her with stuck zipper in her costume
10:30 – Starr suggests that everyone go for a swim
10:40 – Doctor K releases pet dogfish shark in the pool
11:25 – Blotto eats all the remaining oranges in the bowl and has to go to the hospital and have his stomach pumped
11:30 – Twinkle comes out of her room and flirts with PC
11:40 – G I Jim spots the RED ember of Daisy's joint and sprays the patio with bullets (hitting no one)
12:00 – An orgy starts in the livingroom
12:02 – Starr's parents arrive home
Starr's house, back level

Monday, February 15, 2016

Inspiration: The Fantastic Journey

Long ago, in a magical time called the Seventies, there was a brief television series called The Fantastic Journey.  With only ten episodes, there was insufficient material for re-run syndication; however, that single viewing captivated your humble host's youthful imagination.  Thanks to the Information Age – and YouTube specifically – the shows can be viewed again.

The Fantastic Journey is quite similar to a role-playing campaign.  In fact, the introductory narration for each episode describes the protagonists as “a party of adventurers.”  Each episode, the party encounters a different 'civilization of the week' and the plot would include an allegory in the vein of Star Trek (which is hardly surprising given that D.C. Fontana was one of the story editors).  Yes, The Fantastic Journey is like a campaign; however, it is a campaign with a player retention problem.

The premise of the series is rooted in the Bermuda Triangle, which was something of a fad at the time.  A scientific expedition becomes shipwrecked after encountering an eerie, green cloud in the triangle.  Among other personnel, the expedition includes a 'famous' scientist, the son of said famous scientist, Scott (played by Ike Eisenmann of Witch Mountain fame), and the token minority, Fred (played by Carl Franklin), a recent graduate of medical school.  Because the night sky has no moon or stars (only a “strange glow”), they realize they are experiencing something out-of-the-ordinary.  They decide to hike inland where they see mountains and the television audience sees stock footage of koalas, giraffes, and other animals of disparate biomes.  It seems our protagonists are somewhere beyond normal reality.  Then they meet up with Varian (played by Jared Martin).  Of course, they don't know it's Varian – all they know is that he's some guy in a wig and a loincloth.

I didn't like Varian, but at the time my young mind didn't understand the difference between character motivation and plot contrivance.  At first, Varian doesn't say anything and the protagonists assume he's an Arawak Indian.  He slips away from the camp at night and Scott, the kid, follows him.  Varian explains that he is from the year 2230 and he shows Scott his – now inoperable – futuristic craft.  Naturally, when morning comes, Scott's father and the other members of the expedition form two search parties and go looking for Scott.  Varian and Scott are found by Scott's father.  Varian explains that he disguised himself as an Arawak Indian because, when he first arrived in the area, he was captured by English privateers from the 16th century.  He couldn't reveal himself to the expedition until he was certain they weren't affiliated with the privateers.  Of course, when he was certain, he didn't reveal himself but walked off in the middle of the night instead.  So, the other search party gets captured by 16th century privateers because Varian didn't bother to warn people they might get captured by 16th century privateers.  But it's OK because everything works out, right?  No, a guy dies because of the privateers!  Thanks Varian.

The uncaptured protagonists decide to wait until night to rescue the captured protagonists.  Meanwhile, Varian regales everyone with how awesome and New Age-y the 23rd century is.  It turns out than Varian is a musician, but in the 23rd century musicians are healers.  (Yeah, Varian is stepping on Fred's skill set.)  Varian is able to heal people by using the “sonic energizer,” a device that looks like a crystal tuning fork.  Actually, Varian can use the energizer for all kinds of things (i.e., whatever the writers need it to do); essentially, it is a deus ex machina gizmo (although that sounds redundant).  Yet using the energizer for purposes other than healing is “draining,” so there's a reason he doesn't use it at every opportunity.  Varian is also a pacifist; he won't even destroy inanimate objects to cause a distraction in the rescue attempt because “it's wasteful.”  (My RPG analogy breaks down at this point because I can't imagine a player character that wimpy.)  One more thing about Varian before I continue:  In another episode, he's asked to help free an oppressed group of people.  Although he doesn't condone such oppression, he's not willing to do anything about it because it's none of his business.  (He does end up helping, but that's beside the point.)  I still don't like Varian.

The pilot episode ends with Varian and the (surviving) members of the expedition heading east.  Varian relates that the Arawak say there's a place to the east where anyone can find a gateway back to his own time.  (Note that no Arawak characters appear in the show.)  Eventually, we learn that this Bermuda Triangle version of Emerald City is called “Evoland.”  In order to reach Evoland, the party must traverse various “time zones” that are separated by invisible doorways.

After the pilot, the series was retooled.  Originally, the producers intended the protagonists to encounter displaced persons from various eras of history in the time zones, but a decision was made to forgo the historic angle and just concentrate on the science fiction elements.  Also, the expedition members other than Fred and Scott were removed from the cast, leaving Varian as party leader.  With regard to story continuity, it was necessary to explain the absence of the missing cast members .  This leads us to the second episode, “Atlantium.”  (Don't worry, I'm not going to cover every episode.)

So, Atlantium is a city of Atlanteans run by “The Source.”  (Exterior and interior shots of Atlantium were filmed at the recently constructed Bonaventure Hotel.)  “The Source” is a throbbing pile of brain pudding marinating in a bubbling liquid.  It needs to be rejuvenated by a fresh intellect – said intellect being destroyed in the process.  Apparently, the missing cast members “went ahead” of the others and “The Source” sent them back to their original time (because they weren't suitable to replenish him or whatever).  I think the audience was supposed to believe that the characters really did go home yet, even as a child, that sounded fishy to me.  When Fred and Varian become bothersome, “The Source” makes arrangements to eliminate them.  Why would he bother to send the others through time?

At the beginning of the episode, Varian, Fred, and Scott appear through a doorway and find that the others aren't waiting for them.  A guide from Atlantium explains to the trio that the others went to the city; the guide then leads them there.  Arriving at Atlantium, the trio are told that the others have gone to their correct time, but the trio can't immediately follow because whatever powers the time travel needs to “recharge.”  Would Scott's father have left him like that?  Of course not, but Scott needs some reassurance – as does the audience – that his father's departure is legit.  The Atlanteans produce a letter written by Scott's father that satisfies everyone's concerns.  Varian informs Scott that his father really wrote the letter because he can sense the father's aura in it.  (The father could have written it under duress or in a trance state, but whatever.)  Later, Varian's marvellous aura detection ability fails him utterly when a Scott simulacrum fools him.  (The real Scott is being prepared to rejuvenate “The Source.”)  In another episode, Varian says he can also detect “alpha waves.”

Anyway, as hinted at above, “The Source” selects Scott to rejuvenate him.  By the time the episode ends, “The Source” is destroyed and the Atlanteans are free to rule themselves.  However, without “The Source,” the Atlanteans have no more time travel (if they ever had it in the first place).  So our heroes set out to find Evoland via the doorways.  They are joined by Liana (played by Katie Saylor) and Sil-El (uncredited) as regular cast members (although they drop out for the final two episodes).

Liana has an extraterrestrial mother and a father “of Earth.”  Apparently, she was born on her mother's world (which has stronger gravity than Earth) and came to Atlantium at an early age.  She joins the party on their quest for Evoland because she wants to return to her mother's beautiful “City of Spires.”  Aside from her heavy-gravity enhanced physiology, she can cause people (or men at least) to lose consciousness by staring into their eyes.  She could also telepathically exchange information with Sil-El by staring into his eyes (or maybe her eyes).  You see, Sil-El is a cat.  As John Kenneth Muir states, “It was a daring and original move to include a cat as a regular character.”  Nowadays, we have LOLcat memes, but positive feline role models were rare in Seventies' media.  Excellent for reconnaissance, Sil-El became a valued member of the party.

I can has Evoland?
The third episode introduces the final member of the party, Willaway, “a rebel scientist” (played by the inimitable Roddy McDowall).  Rather than the Bermuda Triangle, Willaway was lost in the Devil's Sea (another of Ivan Sanderson's vile vortices).  Actually, Willaway is the villain of the episode.  Instead of trying to find a way back to his own time (1963), Willaway has set himself up as the ruler of a time zone and surrounded himself with servile androids.  With regard to interacting with genuine humans, Willaway states, “Society and I do seem to have our problems.”  Also problematic is the fact that the androids belong to an alien community.  By taking over their androids, Willaway caused the community to flee to the swamps.  By the end of the episode, Willaway is deposed and the aliens occupy their rightful place.  Varian invites Willaway to join the party, introducing an interesting dynamic to the team.  When Willaway asks why, Varian reminds him he's from the future and says, “I know more about you than you do.”  Not to slight the capable performances of Eisenmann and Franklin, it was McDowall who made the series memorable.

What was my point?  Oh yes, The Fantastic Journey as a role-playing campaign.  In the show, party composition could easily change from episode to episode, similar to a campaign with an inconstant player roster.  Aside from a 'new' setting from week to week, there is the big picture to consider.  Do people appear in the time zones through random chance or is there some overarching logic at work?  “Evoland” suggests evolution.  Perhaps people are brought into the time zones for some grand purpose (or to serve penance, such as the case with Marcus Apollonius in the episode “Funhouse”).  Perhaps people are taken to the time zones to be tested and/or to improve themselves.  Perhaps Evoland is not just a location, but a state of being.  One one occasion, a red cloud envelopes and transports the party.  Perhaps there are clouds of different colors working at cross purposes.  In the surreal episode “Riddles,” the party encounters one of the mysterious “riders” that help guide travellers to Evoland.  There must be some organization, some intelligence that sustains the riders.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Combat in Alma Mater

Art by Owen Oulten

Sometimes fights occur in high school.  As such, Alma Mater includes rules for combat.  Characters can commit up to two “options” in each five second turn.  An option is defined as “Any form of attack, defense, or other maneuver.”  The rules also explain that “Any option which is not an attack is considered to be a defense.”  In a turn, a character can commit two attacks, two defenses, or one attack and one defense (in either order).  Although a defense counts as one option, the defense – if successful – can last for the entire turn.  A character can also move during a turn.  Movement rates are shown in terms of entire turns, so it does not seem that movement can be performed in the same turn as attack and defense options.  One of the movement types is “Run & Dodge,” which could be interpreted as incorporating the 'Dodge' defense; however, this movement type seems to have an attack modifier against all attacks (instead of a single attack).  (Speed of movement, incidentally, is based upon a character's Constitution – the sum of Strength and Willpower.)

The beginning of combat happens somewhat differently than a standard turn.  The Courage attribute of each combatant is modified according to Table 44.  Examples of possible modifiers include “Must turn around to attack” (–4) and “Attacks from above/below without warning” (+2).  The modified Courage scores are compared.  “The combatant with the highest modified [Courage] gets the first attack, consisting of one action,” the rules state, “while the other character does nothing.”  Some complications are not explained, such as what to do if the modified values are tied.  Perhaps more importantly, what if there are more than two combatants?  Also, does this “First Strike” occur as the first of two options of a turn or does the fist turn have only one 'option'?
“Options occur simultaneously,” meaning that “first options are compared first...[with] the second options being compared second.”  Although options occur simultaneously, there is no provision for when options are declared.  It would seem that the person who declares first is at a disadvantage.  “In each turn,” according to the Combat section, “defenses are determined first.”  (Does that include determining second option defenses before first option attacks?)  Defenses are successful if the character succeeds with a Coordination roll.  The defensive options are Advance, Block, Dodge, Grab, and Retreat.  'Block' imposes a –3 modifier against one close attack (or –1 against two).  'Dodge' acts as 'Block', except against ranged attacks.  With 'Grab', a character may either take hold of a limb (or object) or place an opponent in a wrestling hold.  'Retreat' allows a character “to move out of an attacker's effective range.”  Decide for yourself what “effective range” means.  “Advance is the opposite of Retreat,” the description tells us, “Combatants resume close combat.”  Apparently, 'Advance' isn't used to engage in combat, only to resume it.

Before discussing attacks, it is practical to talk about damage.  “Each weapon attack is rated for either type A or B damage,” the rules state.  Type A damage is less severe than type B.  Presumably, unarmed damage is type A but this is never explicitly stated.  Type A damage is recovered at a rate of one point “per hour not spent in strenuous activity” while type B is healed at one point “per day not spent in strenuous activity.”  (More type B damage can be healed in a day with successful application of the First Aid skill.)

For any successful attack, damage is determined by rolling 1d6 and applying appropriate modifiers.  The Strength modifier “applies only to forms of attack where the physical power of the attacker is important.”

Inflicted damaged is subtracted from the target's Constitution.  If the amount of damage from a single attack is less than two-thirds of a character's (original) Constitution, 1d20 is rolled.   If the result of the roll is greater than the character's original Constitution, then the character “is stunned and unable to attack or defend for a number of options equal to the amount by which the roll was missed.”  If a single attack inflicts more than one-third, but less than two-thirds of (original) Constitution, then the character must – in addition to checking for stunning (as above) – succeed in a 1d10 roll against Coordination to avoid falling down.  Strangely, if a single attack inflicts more than two-thirds of a character's (original) Constitution, there is no possibility of being stunned or falling down.  Upon losing all of his or her Constitution, a character becomes unconscious.  Death occurs should a character's Constitution be reduced to –5.  Whenever a character's Constitution is reduced to less than zero as a result of type B damage, then the character loses an additional point per number of minutes equal to the character's (original) Constitution.  First Aid can prevent this loss.

Similar to defense options, attack options succeed with a successful Coordination roll; however, there are many possible modifiers.  Situational modifiers typically regard aiming, obscured vision, and movement of either attacker or defense.

While there are only five defense options, the are a plethora of attack options:  Bite, Claw, Elbow, Head, Kick, Knee, Punch, and Slap.  These are just the standard options; there are also several additional attack options.  The only differences among these standard attack options are the hit location modifiers associated with them.  For instance, a bite has a –3 modifier for hitting the head and a –4 modifier for hitting the chest or abdomen while a punch has a –1 for the head and a –2 for the chest or abdomen.  If the an attack hits and the attacker did not aim for a specific location, then the 'Hit Location' table is used.  Different hit locations apply different modifiers to damage.  For instance, +3 for a hit to the head, –1 for a hit to the foot.

An entire page is devoted to weapon listings.  Each weapon has a damage type, a damage modifier, and range modifiers (short, medium, and long) to the attack roll.  Among the more unusual 'weapons' are electric fans, paper shredders, oranges, chalk, chalk erasers, doors, marbles, medicine balls, rubber bands, yardsticks, bottle caps, dinner forks, cigarettes, hot liquids, wet towels, and spitballs.  Also covered, of course, are 'usual' weapons like switchblades, baseball bats, pool sticks, scissors, pellet guns, and M-16 rifles.