Sunday, December 27, 2020

Visionary Roleplaying

Art by Janine Johnston

Casting about for my next study after Tabloid! and Pandemonium!, I thought about Everway.  It's not exactly old school, but it is twenty-five years old.  Little did I realize a Kickstarter for a silver anniversary edition is planned for next month by the aptly named The Everway Company.

Designed by Jonathan Tweet, Everway was published by Wizards of the Coast as part of its Alter Ego line of role-playing games.  Such a combination of designer and publisher might seem auspicious, but the game's success was rather equivocal.  Everway was released in August 1995 and, four months later, WotC discontinued it's line of role-playing games.  This seems like some sort of urgent, end-of-the-year budgetary action.  (Yet sixteen months after that, WotC acquired the world's most popular role-playing game.)

Rumor has it that WotC required businesses that sold Magic: The Gathering to also sell Everway, forcing Everway into retail channels that did not want to accommodate role-playing games.  A survey included with the game shows the types of establishments WotC thought would carry Everway.

Were there many “New Age” bookstores that sold Everway ?  In any event, the suggested retail price for the Everway set was a pricey $35 (which would be approximately $60 in 2020 terms).  The sizable box (9.5" × 13.5" × 2") included:

  • Playing Guide (162 pages)
  • Gamemastering Guide (64 pages)
  • Guide to the Fortune Deck (14 pages)
  • Fortune Deck (consisting of 36 cards)
  • Vision Cards (90)
  • Quest Cards (6)
  • Source Cards (4)
  • Blank Character Sheets (12)
  • Character Sheets with Pre-Generated Characters (12)
  • Maps (2)

Also included, but not listed on the back of the box, were the aforementioned survey and a plastic tray.  The tray was able to hold all cards included in the game, as well as a set of “companion collector” vision cards (sold separately).  Honestly, the large box didn't need to be so large.  The guide books measure roughly roughly 7" × 9".  The character sheets and maps are 8.5" × 11", but they could have been folded in half for the sake of a more compact box.

Not surprisingly, the company behind Magic: The Gathering made cards an essential part of their Everway role-playing game.  Rather than dice, Everway employs a Fortune Deck to determine the outcome of actions in the game.  Cards from the Fortune Deck have iconography similar to the Major Arcana of the tarot.  (The survey asks, “Do you own tarot cards?”  If so, “How many decks do you own? 1-2, 3-5, 6-10, Over 10”)  Lacking numerical values, interpretation of the cards is necessarily subjective.  Like tarot cards, a Fortune Deck card has both a normal meaning as well as a reversed meaning.  For example, 'The Griffin' card has a normal meaning of “valor” and a reversed meaning of “cowardice.”

Each of the 'source cards' depicts an aspect of the Everway setting with a brief, informative paragraph on the back.  Shown at the beginning of this post is the “Gate” source card.

The 'quest cards' depict aspects of the ready-to-run quest (i.e., introductory adventure) provided in the Gamemastering Guide.  Five of the six cards are of non-player characters from that quest.  This is helpful in showing players what these characters look like.  The backs of the cards indicate the attributes of the characters, convenient for the gamemaster's reference.

The 'vision cards' distinguish Everway from other role-playing games, both then and now.  These cards are instrumental in creating a character as well as recording the character's continuing, in-game story.  Creating player characters begins with the Vision Stage, which requires vision cards.  According to page 67 of the Playing Guide :

          You use vision cards to develop your hero's background and identity.  First, look over the vision cards.  Your gamemaster may provide some, as may your fellow players and you may, of course, provide your own.  Select five cards that attract you.  You need not decide right away what these cards will mean to your hero.

          When you have selected the cards to use, look them over and invent a hero and that hero's background.  You only need a sketchy idea of your hero for now.  You can write notes about your hero's background on the back of your hero sheet.

          Keep your vision cards so that you can show them to other players.  You may want to buy special sheets that hold, display, and protect cards like these.  You will be getting more vision cards cards as your hero completes quests; your gamemaster gives these cards to you so you can have a visual record of your hero's activities.

A side bar informs us, “If the gamemaster provides your vision cards, be ready to give them back if you stop playing your hero.”

Each vision card has an image of a person or scene.  The back of each card presents questions about the image that encourage interpretations that may be useful in establishing a character's background.

An important part of the Vision Stage is the “introduction,” wherein the players show one another the vision cards they selected for their respective characters and “describe briefly what these images mean.”  Players question one another (as does the gamemaster) general questions about their characters.  As I mentioned previously, this exercise enriches a player's concept of his or her character and allows players to appreciate one another's characters.  In this manner, a player character becomes a genuine character as opposed to something that can be reduced to various numbers and a class affiliation.  It is this sort of human interaction that can differentiate tabletop role-playing from computer role-playing.

A side bar on page 68 of the Playing Guide states:

If you develop a hero alone, leave some details unfinished.  When you get a chance, have another player ask you questions about the hero so that you get some input from others before finalizing the hero... You can even talk with another player over the phone or email, though this prevents the other player from seeing your images.

Liberated from the technological restrictions of the 20th Century, sharing images is no longer an obstacle.  In fact, nowadays, physical cards are unnecessary.  An app would facilitate the Vision Stage.

As alluded to above, a separate set of ninety vision cards was available to enhance Everway play.  The ninety cards included with the game should be sufficient for most playing groups, but surely additional options would be welcome.  These “companion collector” vision cards were sold in booster packs.  (Leave it to Wizards of the Coast to shoehorn aspects of a collectible card game into a role-playing game.)  This gimmick may have put off gamers that may have otherwise shown an interest in Everway.  Such booster packs may have been viable if – in addition to vision cards – they included more source cards, quest cards, and alternate versions of Fortune Deck cards; may have been viable, but probably not.

 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Introductory Adventures for Tabloid! (spoilers)

Art by Newton H.Ewell

 

Interspersed throughout the Tabloid! rulebook are ersatz articles written by some TSR regulars.  “The articles are the 'background' of the TABLOID! world,” we are told.  Furthermore, the rules explain:  “Use the articles as inspiration for your own adventures – they are there to give you ideas.”  The list of articles follows:

Karen S. Boomgarden

  • Chainsaw Heals Injured Auras
  • Renowned Scientist Claims Atlanteans Made Crop Circles
  • Rosicrucians Contacted Aliens! Ancient Link Established by Scientist’s Hoax!
  • Stonehenge Mystery Creator FOUND!
  • Aliens Prefer College Grads!
  • Startling Research Reveals Aliens Built Ark! Holy Ark of the Covenant Designed by Visitors from Beyond; New Theory Links Ask to Coso Geode, Nazca Lines and Great Pyramids
  • Knights of the Crap Tables The King Part of the Secret Cult!
  • France: UFO Landing Fields?

 Anne Brown

  • Shocking Secret Revealed! Docs Turn Backs on Human Torches! Dozens of People Up In Smoke and No One Seems to Care!

 Jeff Grubb

  • Suppressed Manuscript Reveals Shakespeare Was a Woman!
  • Hitler’s Brain-Powered Death Machine
  • Mad Millionaire Wants to Build Dinosaur Park in Congo
  • Moon Flag for Sale Minnesota Farmer Hosts World’s Oddest Auction

Roger E. Moore

  • The Monster LIVES! Frankenstein’s Creation Discovered at North Pole; Escapes Vowing Vengeance Against Hapless Humanity
  • Hitler’s Terror Children Cannibal Nazi Vampire Dwarfs Turn Amazon Into Green Hell; Line Dancing, NAFTA Encouraged by Fourth Reich
  • Ghost Riders Plague Information Superhighway! Spirits Take a Grave View of Cable Placement; “Dead Ends” on the Information Superhighway!
  • Russians Battled Evil Atomic Space Aliens 30 Years Ago! American Space A-Bomb Tests Created Van Allen Horrors; Cosmonauts, Rockets Attacked By Ruthless Radiation Monsters, Soviets Retaliate With Doomsday Device
  • The Triangle of Terror Aliens, Atlanteans Battle for Captives off Bermuda Coast!
  • Giant Piranha “Not a Problem” Says Governor Boaters and fishermen protest handling “of nature gone mad” in Wisconsin lakes & rivers; giant beavers here, too

(The 'piranha' article quotes a resident of Lake Geneva and references Gamma Lake.  Said lake receives run-off from a nearby nuclear power plant, thus mutating its denizens.)

The articles are one or two pages each, except Moore's 'Russians' article (3 pages) and Brown's article on spontaneous human combustion (4 pages).  The headlines tend to take up more than one-half page each.  In all, the articles account for 20% of the book's page count.  A handful of articles would have been more than sufficient; perhaps a sidebar detailing apparent cases of spontaneous human combustion and another with a list of planes and ships that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle.

“The Wedding of the Year” is “the first of two funtabulous, fully authorized and mostly realized TABLOID! adventures designed specifically to get your TABLOID! campaign to a running start.”  In this adventure, “your favorite actress” marries a “crime boss heir.”  The player characters are assigned to obtain photographs of this private event.  There are two days before the wedding and most of the six page adventure is a discussion of obstacles the characters face and the results of potential strategies the players may attempt.

The second adventure, “Faux Pas,” is a more scripted affair.  It asks the question,  “What's buried in Grant's tomb?” – a play on the riddle “Who's buried in Grant's tomb?”  The basis of this adventure is that a Canadian professor, Anton Sacka-Weejie, has announced that “Ulysses S. Grant was really a space alien!”  The player characters are required to introduce the professor in person.  This entails traveling to Yellowknife.  The author dedicates a few paragraphs describing how Canadians talk and admitting his ignorance about Yellowknife.  The player characters encounter a wendigo which, for purposes of this adventure, is an alien being.  “In another adventure,” we learn, “the wendigo might be something else, depending upon the conspiracy involved.”

Since the player characters only have a P.O. Box address for the professor, “they must go to the post office and bribe some mail clerk into looking the address up.”  Suggested complications include:  (1) The Canadian Postal Service is on strike – again, (2) Ultra-Patriot is working the desk today, and (3) The entire staff is Quebecois.

Eventually, once the player characters find the professor, he relates that...

[T]here is an evil conspiracy of ancient proportions that has been working for centuries to control humanity for its own evil ends.  According to him, some time in the 1800's THEY perfected the secrets of cloning and behavioral conditioning.  This allowed THEM to clone world leaders and then condition those clones into absolute loyalty to THEIR conspiracy.

The professor knows this because alien beings told him so.  These same aliens “taught THEM the secrets of cloning a long time ago” without realizing “THEY would use these secrets to evil ends.”  Said aliens show up and confirm this information.  We learn, “Grant was really an alien, planted by the good guys to try to undo some of the damage caused by THEIR clones...”  However, the good aliens “don't want their involvement known!”

No adventure is complete until the players submit the story.  To facilitate this, the game provides an “Instant Copy Generator,” a Mad Libs type template (shown below).  “No thought required,” the book assures us.

 


 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Introductory Story for Pandemonium! (spoilers)

 

The premise of the Pandemonium! Introductory Story is that Elvis has been missing for three weeks and the player characters are dispatched to his last known sighting.  Of course, since it is an Introductory Story, the player characters are just starting their career as tabloid journalists and, just possibly, it may be the Editor's first time running a game.  As such, the Story describes the step-by-step process of the player characters entering the home office of the Weekly Weird News and receiving their assignment.  Even the car their employer provides the player characters is fulsomely related:

In the parking lot, parked next to the dumpster, is a 1976 Pinto.  The car sports a bilious green paint job, has a few dents in it, and shows signs of rust around the wheel wells... The interior smells of stale cigarette smoke, thinly disguised by an air freshener that looks like a plastic pine tree, which hangs from the rearview mirror.  The green vinyl seats are faded and worn, and you can feel the springs pushing up from below.

There are four “background” pages describing the offices and staff of the Weekly Weird News.  “This information may or may not be of use... in this Story,” but would be useful should the introductory Story become the basis of a campaign.  In any event, Elvis was last seen in a Milwaukee supermarket.  Helpfully, Pandemonium! supplies a “mileage chart” indicating the distance to Milwaukee.  We learn, “Describing the entire trip to Milwaukee would be both time consuming and incredibly monotonous.”  Instead, an Editor should play out “a handful of short encounters and events designed to give the players something interesting to do until they get to their destination.”  Pandemonium! categorizes such encounters as either information, obstacles, or ambience.  Of course, nothing proscribes any given encounter from combining more than one category.

In Milwaukee, player characters have opportunities to cultivate clues and may even be presented with a false lead regarding Spike, teen-aged assistant manager of the supermarket where Elvis was last seen.

Spike may look and act like a Satanic Cultist, but he's not.  This is a false lead intended to throw the [player characters] off the trail.  However, he is a member of a weird group of guys who get together to eat potato chips, drink pop, and play a game in which they fantasize about running around in dark dungeons crawling with demons and dragons.

Ultimately, Elvis may be found in an abandoned garage.  He is the captive of Replicants.  According to the Encyclopedia Paranormal...

Replicants are artificial life-forms created by Martians.  They can be made to resemble ordinary humans or other sentient races, as desired.  On the surface, Replicants are indistinguishable from 'normal' individuals, though they tend to speak and act a little like robots.

Replicants have no real emotions, though they may be programmed to emulate 'typical' human emotional responses, in which case they will do so badly, and without subtlety.  They have no conscience or moral values, and are incapable of independent thought.  If cut-off from Martian psychic control, a Replicant will freeze in place, awaiting further commands.

If the player characters rescue Elvis, he can help “kick some Replicant butt.”  Pandemonium! emphasizes the King's purported martial arts skills.  The Encyclopedia Paranormal goes so far as to present Elvis' TCB Oath:

  • More self-respect, more respect for fellow man.
  • Respect for fellow students and instructors.
  • Respect for all styles and techniques.
  • Body conditioning, mental conditioning, meditation for calming and stilling the mind and body.
  • Sharpen your skills, increase mental awareness for all those who might choose a new outlook and personal philosophy.
  • Freedom from constipation.

Words to live by.

So, what's the Martian plot?  The player characters do not receive a definitive answer but, if asked, Elvis supposes they wanted to force him to record “some kinda alien record with a buncha subliminal messages hidden in the mix.”

Should a player character query Elvis as to why he faked his death in 1979, the King replies:

I'm afraid your security clearance isn't high enough, son.  [Or, little lady.]  Right now, it's a story that can't be told.  Maybe next time...

The last quarter-page of the Introductory Story is a 'Continuing Stories' section.  Should the enterprising Editor choose to run further Stories, this section presents several adventure seeds “that branch out from” the Introductory Story.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Adventures in Pandemonium!


Pandemonium! provides am “Introductory Scenario” for first time players and Editors of the game.  The Story Section advises the Editor:

After you’ve finished playing this introductory scenario you may want to create more Stories of your own.  Optionally, you may want to throw this game out the window, and curse yourself for ever wasting good money on such a ridiculous piece of trash.

Presuming the game isn’t defenestrated, Pandemonium! offers the Instant Story Generator.  While one may argue about the validity of “Instant,” the Generator provides the Editor with the basic elements of any good Story: What Happened, Where it Happened, Who Did It, and Why.” (emphasis in original)  The Instant Story Generator “also helps the Editor create a number of incidents and encounters that could happen to the P.I.s during the course of their investigation...”

The Generator consists of four percentile tables:

  • Manifestations – The primary focus of the Story; a list of twenty-three possibilities ranging from “Mass Hallucinations” to “Elvis Sighting.”
  • Location – Where the Manifestations transpire; a list of twenty-four places from “New Mexico” to “Nightclub (in city of choice).”
  • Major Phenomena – Source of the Manifestations; a list of nineteen occurrences from “Hoax Perpetrated by Local Publicity Seeker” to “Alien Abductors.”
  • Minor Phenomena – A list of fifty-three incidents from “Mundane Encounter” to “Elvis Sighting in the vicinity (authentic).”

There is some overlap among the tables.  Using the Generator, an Editor can obtain, for example, “Mass Hallucinations” for both Manifestation and Major Phenomena.  Fortunately, Pandemonium! grants “Editorial License” which the game describes as...

– a colorful euphemism that basically means 'fudging the die rolls until you get what you want.'  In other words, Editors should feel free to alter, revise, warp, twist, or if all else fails ignore the Instant Story Generator die results anytime they don't like them.

Pandemonium! contains a sixty-two page section – about one-third of the total page count – called the Encyclopedia Paranormal.  Among other details, this section contains entries that provide information about many of the listings in the Instant Story Generator tables.  Within the environment of the game, the encyclopedia functions as an item of equipment for player characters.  “All sentient inhabitants of the Tabloid World universe recognize the Encyclopedia Paranormal on sight,” we read, “and may think twice before bothering any entity who is so enlightened as to carry a copy on his/her/its person.”  This statement is immediately qualified:  “Naturally, the authors cannot guarantee that this will be true in all cases.”

A result of 98 on the Manifestations table indicates “Animal Mutilations Reported.”  The Encyclopedia Paranormal has this to say about Animal Mutilations:

     Cattle and other types of farm animals are the most common victims of this phenomenon, though household pets or strays may also be affected.  Victims typically show evidence of laser-like incisions, and may be missing body parts such as tongues, entrails, and/or reproductive organs.  Though the subjects will often be found to have lost a substantial amount of blood, the surrounding area will usually be devoid of bloodstains.

     These occurrences may be attributed to such Mundane explanations as wild animals, or paranormal sources such as Vampires, Deranged Serial Killers, Satanic Cultists, or UFOs.

A result of 55 on the Location table refers to “Louisianna” (sic), about which the Encyclopedia Paranormal says:

     Louisianna is another place that gets a bad rap in the tabloids, though not entirely without reason.  The bayous and parishes of Louisianna offer a melange of Voodoo cults, Hoodoo (a combination of Voodoo, European witchcraft, and Amerindian magic), Bigfoot kidnappings, Elvis sightings, close encounters with UFOs, and so on.  Plus there's the city of New Orleans, and all the weird stuff that happens around Mardi Gras time.

The listing on the Major Phenomena table for a die roll of 13 is Practical Joke Played by EBEs.  According to the Encyclopedia Paranormal:

     EBEs (pronounced EE-beez) are Extraterrestrial Biological Entities who hail from the Betelgeuse galaxy (sic).  They are a technologically, if not emotionally, advanced race of beings who span the galaxy in flying saucers.  Standing less than four feet in height they are the original 'little green men' of popular folk lore.  The old legends of 'faeries' and 'changelings' may be attributed to these mischievous creatures, who've probably been playing humans for saps for thousands of years.

     EBEs are inveterate practical jokers who love to play pranks on other life-forms.  Typical EBE 'jokes' include leaving fake Bigfoot prints in wooded areas, impersonating Elvis, scaring people by faking alien invasions or Abductions, leaving Crop Circles all over the place, creating phony miracles, and so on.

     EBEs are not evil; they're just a pain in the neck.  They will never deliberately cause harm to other life-forms, though frankly, accidents have been known to happen.

     If threatened, EBEs will defend themselves, using a peculiar type of stun gun that can be made to resemble any sort of harmless object or device – stun guns shaped like bananas, cameras, or pickles are especially popular with EBEs.  Once their pranks have been discovered or have had the desired result they will usually hop into their disk-shaped spaceships and head back to Betelgeuse, laughing all the way.

For Minor Phenomena, the Editor should “roll or choose at least 3 entries from this table...”  Rolls of 25, 36, and 81 correspond to the following:

  • Outbreak of Forteana delays the characters.
  • Out of Body Experience: a P.I.'s astral self suddenly flies forth into the Astral Plane, where he or she is approached by a benevolent ghost offering advice.
  • A group of drug-crazed Satanic Cultists, chanting evil rock & roll lyrics, puts a curse on the characters.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Death in Pandemonium!

The Seventh Seal
 

In a prior post, we learned that Pandemonium! characters die when any of their Attributes (Body, Mind, or Spirit) fall to –10 or below.  Specifically...

When Body is reduced to -10 or below:

the character lapses into a coma and faces the potential death of his, her, or its physical form.   Unless the character suffered a severe head injury the Mind will still function for as long as the character remains alive, as will the Spirit (though it will be preparing to leave the body en route to its next incarnation).  If the character recovers by Cheating Death, a Near Death Experience (NDE) will result, after which the character will return to life.  If no recovery occurs, it’s time to read the Reincarnation rules.

When Mind is reduced to –10 or below:

the character is unconscious, and in a catatonic state.   Autonomic functions (breathing, circulation, digestion) continue as normal, though the character will not regain consciousness until Mind Rating is restored to -9 or greater.

When Spirit is reduced to –10 or below:

the Spirit is immortal, and cannot die.  However, if this occurs the silver cord that connects the Body and Mind to the Spirit will be severed, causing the Spirit to leave the Body and drift into a part of the astral plane known as Limbo.  If the character’s Spirit rating is restored to -9 or greater within 24 hours, the Spirit returns to the Body. If not, it’s Reincarnation time.

We learn in the Cheating Death section, “Anytime one or more of a character’s Attributes falls to –10 or below the character must roll on the Fate Table to determine whether the victim kicks the bucket for good or makes a miraculous recovery just like they do in the movies.”  The Fate roll is modified by -1 for each Injury Point below -10.  For every five Instant Karma Points spent, the roll is modified by +1.   If the roll is successful, the character will recover.   “In addition,” we learn, “the character earns 5 points of Instant Karma for undergoing a harrowing Near Death Experience...”   Page 33 goes into more detail about Near Death Experiences:

During the NDE, the individual’s spirit leaves the body and moves toward a radiance called The Light.   This is accompanied by a feeling of great inner peace and tranquility. If the body survives its injuries, the spirit must return to it.   This ‘spirit journey’ and the resulting wisdom accrued from the NDE is worth 5 Instant Karma Points.

Assuming a character fails to cheat death, the next step is reincarnation.  When using the E-Z Rules, the player selects another pre-generated character; with the Very Complicated Rules, a new character is created from scratch.  In either instance, “Reincarnated characters retain all the Past Lives and Instant Karma points of their previous character – including the life of the recently deceased character, who now qualifies for Past Life status.”  The player selects “one of the deceased character’s abilities to serve as the Past Life trait.”  Additionally, “Like all Past Life abilities the ability to recall this Past Life starts at 0, and can be improved by spending Instant Karma points...”  Editors are advised to inform players, “Any player who deliberately offs his or her character for the sole purpose of Reincarnating and acquiring additional Past Lives is too un-Enlightened to be Reincarnated as a Walk-In.”

Once the new character is complete:

Have the Walk-In arrive on the scene somewhere in the vicinity of the other P.I.s as soon as it is convenient or expedient to do so.  The Walk-In can then introduce himself, herself, or itself and rejoin the group.

Once players are thoroughly familiar with the game, the Editor may decide “to make the Reincarnation experience more interesting for the players.”  For example, “...the Editor may decide that certain devious organizations and individuals would take advantage of a P.I.’s untimely demise and send a false Walk-In to infiltrate and spy upon the other P.I.s.”  As another example, the Editor could…

...make the player portray the dead P.I.’s disincarnate spirit as he wanders about looking for a suitable body to walk into.   Then he must persuade the subject to move on and let him take over.  There night be tricky ethical considerations here…

With regard to Walk-Ins, the Minor Phenomena section of “The Encyclopedia Paranormal” has this to say:

Walk-Ins are disincarnate entities that hail from the Sixth Dimension, Sirius, or another reality. These spiritforms travel to the earthly plane in astral form, and are invisible to all those who do not possess Clairvoyance or similar paranormal abilities.
Upon arrival the Walk-In will begin to search for the body of a corporeal creature such as an animal or human to occupy, so that it can better interact with a physical reality. Once it has found a suitable host the Walk-In requests permission to take control of its Body and Mind. In return for allowing the Walk-In to utilize the host’s physical form, the host’s Spirit is allowed to move on to a higher plane of existence.
Most Walk-Ins are highly Enlightened, and only inhabit the physical forms of other entities in order to use them for a higher purpose. They differ from Channeling Spirits in that they prefer to act rather than just talk. P.I.s who kick the bucket in the line of duty usually reincarnate as a type of Walk-In, which beats waiting around for twenty-odd years until a new body can grow to maturity…

At some point, a P.I. may want to fake his or her death:

To do so, you must inform the Editor that you want to arrange a Fake Death should the need arise. Your character will need to raise at least $5,000 to cover the requisite bribes that must be handed out to individuals such as coroners, funeral home directors, newspaper reporters, a petty bureaucrat or two, and so forth. You’ll also need a minimum of 25 Instant Karma points to cover the incredible amount of luck and clever planning needed to pull off a stunt like this.
Once these preparations have been made the stage is set for a Fake Death. Should your character appear to die during the course of a Story, the hoax begins – the bribes are paid, and the Instant Karma points surrendered.
Though it will seem as the your character has kicked the bucket, the death will be a fake. The ‘dead’ character can return to his or her own body whenever you desire, though to get the full effect a phony funeral is a nice touch.
There’s only one catch. Upon returning to the land of the living you’ll need to concoct a sensational story that will explain how your character survived, and why the Faked Death was staged.

Editors are encouraged to incorporate a player’s idea for a Faked Death “into the reality of their version of the Tabloid World universe.”

 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Jamaican Halfling

Without further comment, I present a missive originally published in Arak / Son of Thunder #13 (September 1982): 

 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Death in Tabloid!

Etrurian Minchiate.


The Tabloid! Weapons Table assigns damage amounts to various circumstances, not just weapons.  A few examples are provided below.

Chainsaw:  3d6

Chinese water torture:  1d2/hour

Electroshock therapy:  1d4 (But you have a much nicer character)

Mad doctor's operation:  0 (Brain transferred, create a new character)

Paper cut with lemon juice:  1

Processed meat by-products:  1d2

Radio in tub, portable:  0

Radio in tub, wall socket:  2d10

Rifle:  1d10

Star, exploding neutron:  1d6 × 10³⁰

Straw, in tornado:  1d12

Any given source of damage has a 'lethality rating' which acts as a success margin rating; if the one's digit of a successful attack roll is equal to or less than the lethality rating, the damage amount is subtracted from the afflicted character's body.  Otherwise, damage is subtracted from the character's stamina.  A character loses consciousness when his or her stamina points are reduced to zero; a character dies if his or her body points are reduced to zero.  Once a character is unconscious, additional attacks automatically cause body damage.  Exactly how body points and stamina points are determined varies among the Amazing Engine games, but body points are derived from the Fitness ability and stamina points are derived from the combination of Willpower and Reflexes.  For Tabloid!, there are no instructions for determining body and stamina, not even in the character creation example or the character worksheet.  However, for another Amazing Engine game, a player character's body points are equal to one-third of Fitness; stamina points are equal to one-third of the sum of Willpower and Reflexes.

Unlike other Amazing Engine games, weapons (and other sources of damage) in Tabloid! do not have an assigned lethality rating.  Instead, any given source of damage has a lethality rating based on how newsworthy a character's death would be should the circumstances turn out to be fatal.  To this end, Tabloid! presents a Death-to-Copy Ratio Table; the more attention that a death would garner, the higher the lethality rating of associated damage.  A “normal” death (e.g., old age, heart attack, etc.) has a lethality rating of “0.”  A death which is 'one for the records books' has a rating of “8.”  Each whole number between those extremes represents a distinct level of news item and lethality.  For instance, a 'filler bit' death (e.g., eaten by crocodiles, victim of a voodoo curse, etc.) has a rating of “4.”  A 'front page news' death (e.g., getting torn apart by Bigfoot, being killed in a mob-style execution, etc.) has a rating of “6.”  Evidently, the normal death rating is meant be zero; however, with a rating of zero, damage is not fatal (except in the instance of an unconscious character).  This is in conflict with the Amazing Engine damage rules:  “Lethality ratings can never be less than 1 or greater than 10 (0 on the die).”

Zeb Cook provides several examples of deaths that qualify as 'one for the record books', some of which are fictional and some which are not.  Among the factual examples, there are people killed by cheese, molasses, and beer.  We might suppose that drowning damage (1d10/minute) applies to molasses and beer, but guidance for cheese damage is lacking.  In any event, we encounter something of a paradox; common ways of dying are less dangerous than more unusual circumstances.

Editors are encouraged to permit player characters “to heal faster than the rate allowed by the rules [otherwise] ...their wounds are going to become a burden.”  This can be accomplished through appropriately tabloid methods:  “vitamin therapies, allergen tests, orgone reactors, inhalants, aromatherapy, herbal mojo bags, all-lemon-rind diets, and cortex manipulation groups!”  We also learn that...

With just a touch if creativity, characters almost never have to die.  Unless, it'd be hilarious, of course.  Then you should stick it to them – just this once.

Should a player character actually die, the situation need not be permanent.  We learn, “There's nothing that says the character's spirit can't hang around for a while.”  Existence as such a ghost “lasts until the player gets a chance to create a new character – or gets the old one restored via some unknown means.”  As ghosts, player characters...

...are limited in what they can do.  They can't directly talk to other players, and everything they do is a psychic power.  That means they have to manipulate things to get their message across and that means making Psyche checks to accomplish anything.
With the consent of the Editor, a dead character can come back to life.  However, no character can return without being changed.  “Maybe the character has amnesia (retains all skills but gets a new name and no knowledge of the other PCs),” the rules suggest, or “Maybe he or she just loses some skills.”  Of course, the mechanism of reincarnation must be considered.

So how was the character miraculously returned?  Aliens, clones, mad scientists, Atlantean super-science, or just good clean living – you name it.  That's the point – getting returned should be an adventure in itself.

 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Playing Pandemonium!

 

The essential rule mechanic for Pandemonium! is to roll 1d10, “add the appropriate numerical ability” to create an Action Sum.  By consulting the Fate Table, the Action Sum indicates a result.  The Fate Table is not especially complex.  An Action Sum of six or greater represents success; the higher the number, the greater the success.  Conversely, when the Action Sum is less than six, a lower number represents a more profound failure.  An Action Sum of one or less indicates a “Total Screw-Up – your inept blundering results in the worst possible consequences.”  An Action Sum of ten or greater is an “Excellent result!,” meaning, “Your expertise results in the best possible consequences.”

In May, we learned that Pandemonium! has E-Z Rules and Very Complicated Rules.  Under the E-Z Rules, P.I.s have a maximum value of three for attributes, paranormal talents, hobbies, and mundane professions.  Additionally, P.I.s can use a maximum of three points of Instant Karma to influence Fate Table die rolls.  Under the Very Complicated Rules, these maxima become ten.  The Very Complicated Rules also introduce the concept of the Degree of Difficulty Rating (or DDR).  The DDR is a numerical value applied to the Action Sum before consulting the Fate Table.  A positive DDR represents a circumstance that makes the action easier (e.g., 'Hitting someone from behind' is +1) while a negative DDR represents a circumstance that makes the action more difficult (e.g, 'Climbing a wet slope... while carrying a friend on your back' is –7).  The combined DDR for any given action must fall within the range of –10 through +10.

In Pandemonium!, the term for “gamemaster” is Editor.  According to page 7, the terms “El Exigente,” “Grand High Pooba,” and “Enlightened One” are also applicable to Editor.  Page 39 supplies the following caution with regard to determining DDR:

If the Editor makes things too hard for the P.I.s they will quickly get discouraged, and may not tell all of their friends and relatives to buy a copy of this game – in which case the makers of this game will have to send somebody named Knuckles to pay a little visit to your house.

Pandemonium! characters have three attributes:

Body – “Anything of a physical nature, including running, dodging, lifting, climbing, breaking free of physical Restraint, tests of endurance, resisting disease or exposure, etc.”

Mind – “Anything of an intellectual nature, including comprehension, memorization, mental endurance, intuition, mental stability; also includes the ability to process information perceived through the senses...”

Spirit – “Anything of a spiritual nature, including the will to live, spiritual strength and endurance, the ability to resist temptation or coercion, willpower, etc.”

Body is the attribute used for physical combat, but concepts of combat can be extrapolated to Mind (as in Mind Control) and Spirit (as in Astral Assault).  A successful attack inflicts damage equal to the final Action Sum minus five.  Damage is subtracted from the applicable attribute.  Should any of the attributes be reduced to –10 or below, death will result unless prompt treatment is received.

Regardless of the applicable attribute there are “three basic types of combat.”

Injure – inflicts damage as described above.

Restrain – attempts to control or restrain the opponent's Body, Mind, or Spirit.

Special Effects – maneuvers “of the type that one generally sees only in the movies, on TV, and in comic books.”  Examples include one-shot knock-outs, acrobatic moves, spectacular leaps, creating a diversion, and “running through a hail of bullets or laser beams without suffering so much as a scratch – as long as someone is covering you...”

 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

How To Be A Better Monster

 

Art by Gustave Doré

The second edition of Monsters! Monsters! is now available.  Technically, the second edition was available forty-one years ago.  The subject of this post is the second, second edition which – in a more prosaic numbering scheme – would be the third edition.  According to the introduction, this version of Monsters! Monsters! (hereinafter M!M! ) stemmed from Ken St. Andre's desire “to get Toughest Dungeon in the World back into print...”  Since that adventure was intended for trolls, St. Andre believed it should be reprinted for M!M! rather than as a Tunnels & Trolls product.  Of course, the most recent version of M!M! was four decades old.  As such, the new Toughest Dungeon should include a set of M!M! mini-rules.  Instead, the development of those mini-rules blossomed into a full-fledged product.

Given that M!M! is compatible with Tunnels & Trolls (hereinafter T&T ), the rules are very similar.  The differences, however, are interesting.  In T&T, the default system for determining primary attribute values is to roll 3d6 for for each attribute in order.  In M!M!, players assign rolled values to attributes as they see fit.  Because attribute modifiers for monsters are more extreme than the usual T&T player character kindred, assigning attribute values can be especially effective.

Primary attributes are not described, but Charisma can cause “regular humanoid kindred” to react in different ways depending upon the symbol associated with a monster's Charisma on the “Monster Character Modifier Table” on pages 20 and 21.

= terror (Example monsters include Balrukh, Dragon, and Obsidian Spider)

= some fear (Example monsters include Yeti, Dire Wolf, and Mummy)

?  = indicates surprise or disgust (Example monsters include Living Skeleton, Harpy, and Giant-Slug)

đź–¤ = awe or liking (Example monsters include Griffin and Unicorn)

There are five kindred for use in a “Fast Start” game of M!M! :  Flesh Trolls, Dhesiri (Lizardmen), Uruks (Orcs), Hrogrs (Ogres), and Gremlins.  Attributes are modified by fixed amounts.  For instance, Lizardmen have +10 Strength (STR), +10 Constitution (CON), +4 Dexterity (DEX), +4 Luck (LK), –3 IQ, and –5 Charisma (CHR).  For M!M! games that aren't “Fast Start,” there are 49 monsters listed on the “Monster Character Modifier Table.”  Attribute modifiers on the table are expressed in multiples.  The modifiers for Lizardmen are STR × 1.75, CON × 1.75, DEX × 1, CHR × .75 , IQ × .75, LK × 1, and Wizardry (WIZ) × 1.  So, +4 DEX, +4 LK in “Fast Start,” translates as no modifier in the table.  Furthermore, the Lizardmen modifiers are different from those in the Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls (dT&T ) Peters-McAllister Chart.  According to that chart, Lizard People have LK × .75, WIZ × .75, and CHR × 1.25.  The rules do not explain these inconsistencies.  This is just one example.

Each kindred in M!M! as a special ability not necessarily reflected in dT&T .  Lizardmen have an amount of armored skin based on their level; Gremlins reduce by 25% the Luck of non-Gremlins within ten feet.

Monsters can enter “Beast Mode” at will.  Although this is described as “berserk,” Beast Mode is handled differently than Berserk Combat in dT&T.  In Beast Mode, player characters “no longer use their normal stats but instead use their converted MR and attack twice every combat round.”  MR is Mankind Rating (or Monster Rating) and, “A Humanoid's CON = Mankind Rating...”  This phrase suggests that non-humanoid MR is derived differently, but this is not addressed in the rules.  Beast Mode 'costs' four points of MR for the first round and the cost doubles every round thereafter.  Beast Mode lasts until MR is depleted (which causes unconsciousness) or no friend or enemy is present within twenty feet.

Once character generation and combat is explained, the remainder of the rules fall under a section called “How To Be A Better Monster,” including such things as saving rolls and adventure points.  An optional rule called Chaos Factor is also included.  Chaos Factor equals a monster's level and “represents the forces in... nature that spread misfortune, bad luck, and ill omens throughout the land.”  Once per turn, a monster can add or subtract its Chaos Factor to or from any one roll.  Monsters can learn spellcasting, but in so doing they lose their Chaos Factor.  Monsters who are not spellcasters really have no need of the Wizardry attribute.  Perhaps, instead of a monster's level, Chaos Factor could equal Wizardry.

Speaking of spells, M!M! offers five pages of spells.  Some monsters inherently know certain spells; most Sphinxes know the Divine Disapproval spell and Gorgons know the Medusa spell.  Unfortunately, these spells are not described in M!M!  It is unrealistic to expect M!M! to include all the dT&T spells, but it should at least include all of the spells it references.  After all, the introduction says dT&T “really isn't necessary for you to get into this RPG.”

The original M!M! described fifty-two monsters.  One could use a deck of cards to randomly select a monster.  As indicated above, the new version of M!M! describes forty-nine monsters.  Why not include three additional monster kindred and asign a card to each?  There are various possibilities.  The description for Stingaree begins with, “Often confused with the common manticore...“  However, manticores are not among the 49 described kindred.  Strangely, manticores are included on an encounter table for the adventure included with M!M!  Another encounter table has a Deathfrog:  “Large, the size of a rhinocerous [sic], green, warty, with a long prehensile tongue that strikes with the force of a whip, sharp teeth that can bite through iron, and powerful hind legs.”  Some monsters from dT&T that could easily have been part of M!M! include Redcaps, Keeraptora (winged humanoids), and Ghouls.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Comedy in Tabloid! (et al.)

A public domain photograph of the King which TSR could have used for Tabloid!

Tabloid! has a four-page chapter on death called 'The Final Byline,' beginning with the phrase, “Dying Is Easy...”  The following chapter, 'Anything for a Laugh,' begins with the conclusion of the aphorism, “Comedy is Hard.”  In this two-and-a half-page chapter, designer Zeb Cook attempts to explain how to instill comedy into playing Tabloid!

Cook writes:
This is not a game where the mighty, brave, or even the cynically mani-pulative profit.  In this universe, success goes to those who are willing to risk their characters on the stupidest, most lame-brained, and ill-thought-out plans possible.  It's kind of like real life in that way.
Thereafter, Cook supplies “a few rules of comedy.”

1. Get Physical.  This rule has two parts.  First, “Comedy is action – it's called slapstick.”  (Evidently, Cook did not want to address cerebral humor.)  For inspiration, Cook recommends that the prospective Editor “watch some cartoons... and some Three Stooges.”  (The TSR lawyers may have missed this.  Given that they censored B*g B**d, I would have expected them to give the same treatment to the T***e S*****s as well as R**d R****r and W**e E. C****e.)  The other part of this rule encourages the Editor to be active during the game.  (e.g. “Pretend you're the airplane spinning into a dive.”)

2. Maintain a Manic Pace.  Essentially, this means keep the action going and don't let up on the humor.  Cook says not to give the players a break.  “If they players have time to think,” he comments, “then they won't get themselves into stupid messes.”

3. Steal Shamelessly.  These first five rules actually come Mike Pondsmith's Teenagers from Outer Space.  We know this because Cook tells us he stole them from said game.  Cook also explains that he “stole” the rules with Pondsmith's permission.  Of course, having permission defies the notion of stealing, but I suppose Cook wanted to provide an example of incorporating – “stealing” – outside material.  Anyway, Editors should take jokes “and give them a whole new spin” to keep players from anticipating the punch line.

4. Use Running Gags.  According to Cook, “every adventure should have at least one or two set-ups that always seem to reoccur.”  However, “An important part of a running gag is that it can't always be the same.”  Again, this keeps the players on their toes.

5. Dare to be Stupid.  “Your players aren't going to be stupid if you aren't.”  I beg to differ.

6. The Innocent Must Suffer.  “It's undeserved stuff happening to any character,” Cook tells us.  “If they deserve it,” he continues, “it's a comeuppance” and therefore not funny.

7. More is Better.  “There's no such thing as too much,” Cook says.  He advises adding complications to any situation.  This echos Rule 4 from Cook's Bullwinkle and Rocky Role Playing Party Game ; namely, “The Good, The Bad, and The Funny” or “Bad is Good, the Worse the Better.”

8. Plot?  Cook tells us that plots “give the characters some motivation to do things,” but this should be secondary to fun.  “Just throw out the encounter that's not working,” Cook writes, “laugh, and get the characters toward the goal by whatever means.”  Cook uses the word “Improvise,” which ought to have been the name of this rule.  Contrary to what is said at the beginning of the chapter, Cook reveals the “real secret” is that “Comedy is simple.”

After these rules, Cook provides a concluding section to the chapter, part of which reads:
Because this is a silly game, you've got a freedom referees don't get in other games.  You don't even have to be consistent.  You don't even have to make much sense.  By their very nature, silly universes are illogical! That's part of their fun... Just don't worry.
Cook presents four words in large, bold font and in capital letters, presumably to emphasize their importance:
MAKE IT ALL UP.
This should have been a coda to the last rule rather than a separate section called, “Some Other Extremely Useful Advice.”

I might be inclined to add another rule, Embrace Absurdity.  Regardless, humor is subjective and what might be funny to someone might be tasteless to someone else.  Back in the nineties, one could still get some comedy mileage from disturbed people going on shooting sprees.  Result #10 on the Work table for character generation begins, “Co-worker comes in and plays disgruntled postal worker.”  Yet even twenty-five years ago, there were some things that just weren't funny.  Result #16 on the Journalism School table for character generation reads in part:
Killing the neighbor sure livened up a slow news day.  With good behavior, character gets out after five years.
Yikes.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Character Creation in Tabloid!

Cartography by Dennis Kauth

Included in the back of the Tabloid! rule book fold-out poster map of “The Real Weird World,” a portion of which is shown above.  It's incorrect to call the map a selling point since there's no mention of it in the cover copy.  I suppose it was meant to be a source of inspiration, but it just seems like a mistake.  If anything, it exemplifies some of the things I find off-putting about the game.

Apparently Tom Wham was unavailable to draw the map, not that there's anything wrong with Tom Wham.  However, having Dennis Kauth draw the map in the style of Tom Wham seems such a waste.  Speaking of waste, the map for one of the included scenarios is attributed to Dave Sutherland.  If you have Dave Sutherland on tap, why limit his contribution to drawing a house plan?

Attention to accuracy is somewhat lacking.  Roswell is, of course, in New Mexico and Hangar 18 (not 'Hanger') is in Ohio.  In the rules, author Dave Cook refers to the Trilateral Commission as Trilateralist Commission and Nostradamus as Nostrodamus.

The map refers to Lake Geneva as the location of a “secret mind control base.”  This is interesting given the degree of caution with which TSR's lawyers approach other portions of the game.  Elvis is a beloved staple of tabloid journalism (or was in the twentieth century, at least) and any game regarding the tabloids cannot ignore the King.  However, Tabloid! scrupulously avoids direct mention of his name.  Instead, we get a sequence of asterisks – E***s P*****y.  One image of Elvis in the game as a 'censored' block over his eyes and another image is a bust, but with everything above the mouth is cut off.  Other entities that get the asterisk treatment include Burt Reynolds, Big Bird, Geraldo Rivera, Michael Jackson, and Satan.

Tabloid! has no pre-generated characters.  In other games, this may be cause for me to complain, but this doesn't pose a problem in Tabloid!  There are sufficient examples in the System Guide and the components specific to Tabloid! comprise a clearly described career path mechanic.  To begin with, there are “RĂ©sumĂ© Steps.”  The first step is to select a post-high school option:  College, Journalism School (to be “an idealistic reporter – like G*****o R****a”), Work, or the Beach.  Each choice is represented by one the remaining steps; however, after the first step, the steps are not followed in order, nor will every step necessarily apply to a given character, and a character may repeat the same step multiple times.  Each time a character engages in a step, a year passes.

A player character in Tabloid! is entitled to a number of skills equal to Intuition / 15 (rounded up) plus Learning / 10 (also rounded up).  Skills are divided into seventeen pools called schools.  Some examples include the Institute of the Secret Truth, Lawson's Absolute Center of the Universe School, and the G*******d Tour Guide Training Program.  Most skills are only available from a given school; however, there are some skills that are available from more than one school.  For instance, Photography is available from both the CIA University of the Air as well as the Forbert School of Celebrity Nude Photography.  Unlike the CIA, however, the Forbert School offers the specializations and enhancements of Video Camera, Paparazzi, Darkroom, and Photo Retouching.

For the College step, the player chooses one of the schools.  If a Learning roll is successful, the character enrolls.  If the roll fails, the character can try to enroll in another school.  If the second attempt fails, the character must go to the Work step.  Assuming the character successfully enrolls in a school, the player selects one of the skills from that school's pool.  Each time the character engages in the College step, the player rolls 1d10 and adds the number of times the character has taken that step.  A roll of ten or more means the character develops a quirk; specifically, the player rolls 1d20 on the quirk table.  Possible results include tinfoil user, alcoholic, and paranoid.

The Journalism School step is similar to the College step, except the character automatically enrolls in the Columbia School of Journalism (and the player selects a skill form that pool).  Instead of developing a quirk, a character can acquire “one of those wonderful traits that so endears journalists to the rest of the world.”  The 'trait' table requires 1d12 and possible results include irritating whiner, caffeine addict, and one set of clothes.

With the Work step, the player rolls 1d20 to determine the character's job.  If the character engages the Work step more than once, he or she can keep the job or roll for a new job.  Most jobs are listed with a school from which the player can select a skill.  Each job also has a Savings Account modifier.  (In Tabloid!, finances are abstracted into a Resource Rating derived from a character's Savings Account.  Characters start with a Savings Account determined by 1d4.)  We are informed that, “All of the jobs described below (save one) are real and were held by people the designer knows...”  Examples include, Chicken Defroster - Night Shift (School of Hard Knocks), Convention Organizer (Kult College), and Fishmarket Gopher (San Diego Cryptozoological Society).  Additionally, in the Work step, at the cost of one point from his or her Savings Account, a character can attend night school and chose a skill from any school.

For the Beach step, the player selects one skill from either the School of Hard Knocks or Louie di Chang's Dojo and Shooting Range.  The character's Savings Account is also reduced by one point.

The College, Journalism School, Work, and Beach steps each have a 'life event' table.  Each time a character engages in a given step, the player rolls 1d20 and the result is checked on the table.  Any given result offers a bit of color commentary and describes an effect which may grant an additional skill, require the character to switch to a different step, or cause something else to happen.

Result number 9 from the Journalism School table reads:
Playing the D&D® game at work does not count as “reviewing.”  Character learns RPG Mind Control skill but takes a pay cut.  Lose 1 point of Savings Account and roll again on this table.
RPG Mind Control is distinct from Army Mind Control.  The description of the RPG Mind Control skill occupies half of a page; Army Mind Control is described in four sentences.

Result number 5 from the Work table reads:
The one-armed man did it – really!  The cops aren't buying it.  Your character barely gets away in time and is now Hunted by the law for a crime someone else committed.  Lose 2 from the character's Saving Account but immediately gain Disguise and Survival Instinct.  Go to Step 5: The Beach.
The process of engaging in the various steps continues until the character fills all of his or her skill slots.  However, the last step must be followed to the end; this may mean the character acquires skills in excess of the nominal maximum.

Some skills are more useful than others, but if they lack utility, at least they are interesting.  Tabloid! is likely the only game where Smug Liberalism is a skill (with Secular Humanism as an enhancement).  Having the Predictions skill means a character “has studied famous predictions – biblical, astrological, oriental, alchemical, mystical, and whatnot” and can relate them to current events.  Additionally, the character “can fashion predictions for every occasion.”  Cook provides the following advice for cruel Editors:
If you really want to have fun with your players, secretly make a skill check for every prediction made.  If a success margin of 1 is rolled, secretly make note that the prediction is real.  Then use it later to build an adventure for the player characters.  Have fun – make them sorry.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The AMAZING ENGINE System



After an unintended hiatus due to computer issues, your humble host is back.  Before we were so rudely interrupted, we were discussing the two 'tabloid journalism' role-playing games from the early 90s.  TSR's contribution to the genre – the aptly named Tabloid! – was the last Universe Book for the AMAZING ENGINE® system.  Therefore, we must understand the AMAZING ENGINE in order to understand Tabloid!  According to the System Guide :
          ...the AMAZING ENGINE system consists of two parts.  The first part is this book, the System Guide.  Here one finds the basic rules for creating player characters and having those characters use skills, fight, and move.  These rules and procedures are found in all AMAZING ENGINE settings...
          The second part of the AMAZING ENGINE system are the different settings to play in.  Each setting is called a universe and is described in its own book, naturally called Universe Books.  Each Universe Book is a complete role-playing game and only requires the System Guide to play.  It is not necessary to buy every Universe Book in order to play in the AMAZING ENGINE system...
Obviously, a Universe Book cannot be a “complete” role-playing game if it requires something else in order to play.  The System Guide – credited to David “Zeb” Cook – provided the essential mechanics of a role-playing system but required a Universe Book to flesh out the rules for any given setting.  Eventually, such as in the case of Tabloid!, the System Guide material was included in the Universe Books.  While the System Guide as a distinct product was 32 pages, in Tabloid! the material takes up 16 pages.  This is can be attributed to a small font and a lack of illustrations.

In the AMAZING ENGINE system, player characters are primarily defined by four ability pools of two attributes each.
  • Physique:  Fitness (“bodily strength”) and Reflexes (“reaction speed and hand-eye coordination”)
  • Intellect:  Learning (“knowledge in areas requiring long training and study”) and Intuition (“ability to remember random trivia, innate wit, street smarts, comprehension, and worldliness”)
  • Spirit:  Psyche (“potential to perceive and manipulate the spiritual and metaphysical world”) and Willpower (“mental fortitude”)
  • Influence:  Charm (“rates the characters' personalities and the way others are disposed toward them”) and Position (“a rough rank for characters on the ladder of social advancement”)
When a player first generates a character he or she assigns a rank to each ability pool; Rank 1 being the most favored pool and Rank 4 being the least favored.  The player then selects four attributes to receive 4d10 each; the remaining four attributes receive 3d10 each.  For each attribute, the player rolls the set number of dice and records the total.  The player the allocates fifteen points between the two Rank 1 attributes, ten between the Rank 2 attributes, and five between the Rank 3 attributes.  The result is the basis of not only the player character, but also the “player core” (infrequently referred to as “character core”).

The concept of the player core is the AMAZING ENGINE's claim to fame (such as it is).  A player can use the player core as the basis of subsequent player characters in other AMAZING ENGINE campaigns, or even the same campaign universe with the Gamemaster's approval and “only if the previous character is dead or permanently retired.”  Experience earned by one character can be transferred to a new character based on the same player core.  Specifically, when a character earns experience, the player “must immediately assign the xps to either [the] current player character (the one who earned the xps) or to the player core from which that character was created.”

Aside from experience, a player core consists of the original Rank scheme and, for each ability pool, a dice rating.  To determine the dice rating for an ability pool, add the values of the constituent attributes, divide by ten, and round up.  This is the number of dice that the player can allocate among the two attributes when generating a new character.  For example, a first – or “prime” – character with a Learning of 23 and an Intuition of 28, would mean the player core would have an Intellect dice pool of six.  ( [23 + 28] / 10 = 5.1)  New characters based on a player core receive seven “free” dice to allocate among the eight attributes.

The maximum ability value for a beginning character is 50, even after allocation points from the ability pool's Rank.  As such, no more than five dice can be assigned to a given attribute and an ability's dice pool cannot exceed ten.  Different settings may allow for a base adjustment for ability pools or specific attribute.  Such adjustments can cause an attribute's starting value to increase beyond 50.  In Tabloid!, “All player characters...add +30 to their attribute scores.”

To determine if an action (such as skill use) is successful, percentile dice are rolled.  A result equal to or less than the applicable attribute value indicates success.  Depending upon circumstances, an attribute's value may be modified, making success more or less likely.  “A skill check always fails on a roll of 95–00,” we read, “but there is no corresponding chance for automatic success.”

The AMAZING ENGINE system also incorporates the notion of margin ratings.  There are success margin ratings (“noted as S#: S2, S5, etc.”) and failure margin ratings (“noted as F #: F8, F7, etc.”).  If a skill roll is successful and the one's digit of the percentile result is less than or equal to the success margin rating, the result is a critical success.  Similarly, if a roll is failed, and the one's digit equals or exceeds the failure margin, the result is a critical failure.

For player characters (as opposed to player cores), experience can be used to permanently increase a player character's attribute value.  The experience points necessary to increase an attribute value by one point varies from setting to setting.  Regardless, no attribute can be increased beyond a value of 90.  Experience points can be used to purchase new skills for a character, also at a rate depending upon setting.  Finally, experience can be used to 'tax' an attribute, a temporary increase for the purpose of a single roll in a dire situation.  In multiples of five, a player may increase the value of an attribute to a maximum of half of the attribute's normal value.  The decision to tax, and the number of experience points to expend, must be determined before the roll is made.

Karen S. Boomgarden, credited with AMAZING ENGINE “Project Management, System Guide development and editing,” contributed an article to Dragon #195 (July 1993), “The little engine that could: the AMAZING ENGINE™ story.”  Most of the article is about For Faerie, Queen, & Country, the first AMAZING ENGINE Universe Book; however, it begins thus:
          When the members of my product group first suggested the concept of the AMAZING ENGINE™ system, I was skeptical.  A stand-alone rules set, usable with any kind of fantasy or science-fiction setting we could dream up?  Complete basic rules in only 32 pages?  Whole game settings (with attendant rules modifications and specifics) in only 128 pages?  Sure.  Right.  Oh, and one more thing:  The players earn the experience points, not the characters, and they can take those experience points along to other game settings within the system.
          It'll never work, I thought.
It turns out that her initial assumption was correct.  TSR supported the AMAZING ENGINE product line for about a year before giving up on it.  The world wasn't ready for such a concept and I guess it still isn't.  Nonetheless, the System Guide and the various Universe Book are available at Drive Thru RPG.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Strictly for the Enjoyment of Our Readers

August 31, 1993, edition of the self-proclaimed "World's Only Reliable Newspaper"

Once upon a time, if a person wanted timely and accurate information, he or she would procure something called a newspaper.  Today, people have various, more convenient means of obtaining news but advances in technology aren't the only problems that afflict newspapers.  The public's 'confidence in newspapers' has waned over time.  If we look at 1994 (with the lowest 'Great deal/Quite a lot' confidence percentage of the 90s) and compare it to 2019, we see some telling figures.  In 1994, the combined 'Very little/None' confidence was 28%; the combined 'Great deal/Quite a lot' confidence was 29%.  In 2019, the combined 'Very little/None' confidence was 39% and the combined 'Great deal/Quite a lot' confidence was 23%.  If we interpret the 1994 difference as +1 (i.e., 29 – 28) and the 2019 difference as –16 (i.e., 23 – 39); we see a 17 'point' decline in confidence.

There are two conflicting components in the news media:  purpose and product.  Purpose is the journalistic goal of responsibly providing news for the benefit of society.  On the other hand, product is a combination of profit motive and intentional bias.  Previously, purpose outweighed product – at least in the public perception.  In our jaded era, where truth has become subjective, it seems that product has encroached upon purpose...

What?  What's that?  You don't read Thoul's Paradise for tedious social commentary?  You read it for tedious commentary on old school role-playing games?  Well, excuse me for attempting an erudite introduction to the next games we are to examine.

Anyway, the nineties represented the golden age of tabloid journalism, when UFO space aliens, Bigfoot, and Elvis commanded the headlines and people had enough common sense not to take such things seriously.  A disclaimer contemporaneous with the issue shown above indicates that the Weekly World News is “a journal of information, opinion, and entertainment... strictly for the enjoyment of our readers.”  Eventually, in the twenty-first century, their disclaimer would emphasize that most articles are fictitious and the “reader should suspend belief for the sake of enjoyment.”  I don't know how, but the Millennials must be responsible for the decline of the tabloids – Today's tabloids focus on celebrity gossip and weight loss programs.  (I'm not concerned with 'online' tabloids; if I don't see it in the check-out lane at the supermarket, it doesn't count.)

What?  Get to the games?  Fine...

1993's Pandemonium! has as its setting the Tabloid World where “everything you've ever read in the tabloids has either happened or is likely to happen...”  Of course, many people are “Mundanes” who discount tabloid phenomena.  Similarly, the setting of 1994's Tabloid! is “a neat world, just like ours, except – EVERYTHING YOU READ IS TRUE! ”  Yet “normal” people don't believe the truth of the tabloids.  Not surprisingly, there are many similarities between the two games.  In both games, player characters are reporters working for a tabloid.  Also in both games, the official title of the game master is Editor.  In Pandemonium! (or PANDEMONIUM as it refers to itself) the player characters are Enlightened (“any sentient entity that is able to perceive, believe in, and have some understanding of paranormal phenomena”) and are called Paranormal Investigators.

PANDEMONIUM uses the “E-Z Rules System,” but “optional Very Complicated Rules for anal retentive role-players” are provided.  The E-Z Rules do not allow for character creation; players must choose among the eleven provided “pre-generated, pre-destined, and ready-to-play Character Cards.”  For the reader's edification, these Paranormal Investigators are described below.

Each character has a Mundane Profession (“the occupation that the character practiced prior to becoming Enlightened and finding work as a Paranormal Investigator”), one or more Hobbies (“talents or avocations that can be practiced and developed in a person's spare time”), one or more Paranormal Talents (“'extra-mundane' (or just plain weird) abilities”), and a Phobia.  Also, each Paranormal Investigator has a Past Life.  The character can use the abilities of the Past Life by rolling on the Fate Table.  “If successful,” we learn, “the Past Life recollection lasts for just ten minutes, then fades from memory until the next time it is used...”  For example, a character with Houdini as a Past Life could “escape from any type of restraint, prison cell, or practically any dicey situation...”

Without further ado...

Rick Dante
Male, Italian-American, Age 22, 6', 175 lbs, brown hair, green eyes; acts cool, smokes too much, hangs out with strange people (mostly musicians), nocturnal by preference
Mundane Profession: R & B Musician (sax player, speaks musician's lingo; familiarity with most types of street drugs, seedy bars, and the dark underside of city night life)
Hobbies: Amateur Detective
Paranormal Talents: High Chemical Tolerance; Magic
Phobia: Hydrophobia
Past Lives: Bogey


Celia Brown
Female, African-American, Age 20, 5' 8", 130 lbs, brown hair & eyes; excellent physical condition, outgoing, friendly -- flexible and athletic, perceptive
Mundane Profession: Aerobics Instructor (teaches exercise techniques, knows how to treat sprains and bruises, terrific endurance, looks great in tights)
Hobbies: Judo
Paranormal Talents: Mind Reading; Psychic Assault
Phobia: Phasmophobia
Past Lives: Joan of Arc


Henry Yakamoto
Male, Japanese-American, Age 25, 5' 7", 150 lbs, black hair & brown eyes – thoughtful, studious, introspective -- as a result is sometimes thought of as a nerd
Mundane Profession: High School Physics Teacher (understands laws of physics as they apply to both the mundane and tabloid world universe -- ability to teach high school kids while retaining sanity)
Hobbies: Computers
Paranormal Talents: Psychokinesis; Cryptozoology
Phobia: Altophobia
Past Lives: Albert Einstein

Joseph Cloudwalker
Male, Native American, Age 21, 6' 3", 200 lbs, black hair, brown eyes, good physical condition, lean but strong, good balance -- quiet and softspoken, sometimes moody
Mundane Profession: Construction Worker (experienced welder and riveter, can operate heavy machinery (trucks, crane), has no fear of heights)
Hobbies: Bow Hunting
Paranormal Talents: Dowsing; Magic (Shamanism) [perhaps not the best descriptor]
Phobia: Belonophobia
Past Lives: Geronimo

Mike Washington
Male, African-American, Age 24, 6' 3", 240 lbs, well built, good athlete (former college football player until knee injury), self-assured but never cocky
Mundane Profession: Nightclub DJ & Rapper (streetwise, knows the rap club scene, speaks the language of the inner-city, knowledge of recording studios and sound gear)
Hobbies: Football (Linebacker)
Paranormal Talents: Sixth Sense; Clairaudience
Phobia: Claustrophobia
Past Lives: Joe Louis


Tracey Novak
Female, Polish-American, Age 23, 5' 10", 132 lbs, blonde hair, blue eyes, very attractive, great body, acts a bit dizzy but is quite intelligent, likes to party
Mundane Profession: Professional Model (knows how to use make-up and clothing to enhance looks, good at self-promotion, can hold same pose for hours, knowledge of fashion industry)
Hobbies: Acting
Paranormal Talents: Speak In Tongues; Faith Healing
Phobia: Triskadeccaphobia [sic]
Past Lives: Marilyn Monroe

Crawford White
Male, WASP, Age 28, 6', 180 lbs, blonde hair, blue eyes -- family was rich until stock market crash; very outgoing, well-mannered, a real socialite
Mundane Profession: Ski Instructor (seasonal job with the side benefit of meeting wealthy women; good skier, knowledge of ski resorts and posh nightclubs; speaks the language of the upper class)
Hobbies: Boating
Paranormal Talents: Retrocognition; Object Reading
Phobia: Ergophobia
Past Lives: JFK

Che LaVie
Female, French-American, Age 21, 5' 5", 110 lbs, black hair & brown eyes; alternative fashion sense (combination of Seattle grunge and N.Y. punk); emotional termperament [sic], strong-willed
Mundane Profession: Freelance Photographer (knowledge of most photographic techniques, film developing, shooting under less than ideal conditions; can candle temperamental models and subjects)
Hobbies: Ancient Egyptian Mythology
Paranormal Talents: Astral Assault; Spirit Photography
Phobia: Ophiophobia [sic]
Past Lives: Cleopatra

Ernesto Villa
Male, Mexican-American, Age 27, 5' 11", 195 lbs, brown hair & eyes, muscular build; macho temperament when angered, otherwise easy-going, speaks fluent Spanich [sic]
Mundane Profession: Cab Driver (able to drive fast and recklessly, specific knowledge of home town or city streets, able to work long hours without getting drowsy)
Hobbies: Boxing; Automatic Art
Paranormal Talents: Precognition
Phobia: Ballistophobia
Past Lives: Marco Polo


Judith Rosenberg
Female, German-American, Age 30, 5' 6", 125 lbs, wavy brown hair, brown eyes, 1960’s fashion sense; radical feminist, vegetarian, has Masters [sic] Degree in Women’s Studies
Mundane Profession: Health Food Store Nutrition Advisor (knowledge of harmful and/or weird food additives, vitamins, natural foods; can diagnose nutrition-related maladies and suggest remedies)
Hobbies: Kung Fu
Paranormal Talents: Read Auras; Palm Reading
Phobia: Pharmacophobia
Past Lives: Madame Blavatsky

Johnny King
Male, Serbian-American, Age 32, 5' 10", 195 lbs, black hair, brown eyes, about 20 lbs overweight, loves junk food & sci-fi movies, somewhat shy when not on stage
Mundane Profession: Elvis Impersonator (able to sing, speak, and act like Elvis; knowledge of the Elvis repertoire, shobiz lingo, and most of the least attractive nightclubs in Las Vegas and Atlantic City)
Hobbies: UFO Watcher
Paranormal Talents: Alien Empathy; Astral Assault
Phobia: Teratophobia
Past Lives: Nicola Tesla