Mentally ill supersoldiers programmed in virtual reality to fight dirty wars in 3rd World countries to defend the American way of life and Coca-Cola? Television reality shows that film said dirty wars for consumption by American viewers? First Amendment protections for 75 mm man-portable howitzers? Department stores making cloned customers biologically modified to prefer their products? Fast food cannibal cuisine?
Oh my yes.
Though not without its problems in terms of system, Ray Winniger’s Underground lands squarely where I want my superhero roleplaying games to be: with great power comes great amounts of mental fuckery. Characters in Underground, despite their ability to lay waste to entire city blocks without breaking a sweat, are fundamentally flawed, frequently drug addicted, and most times living on the streets after returning from their enhancement and tour of duty doing really bad things to people in impoverished locales at the behest of untouchable corporate masters. They aren’t natural heroes – they have to fight, hard, every day, to hold onto their humanity and do good in the world.
(You can easily run games where the characters are unapologetic baby-eating monsters as well, but that sort of thing isn’t for me.)
The world is cynical, bitter, and callous, with sardonic humor everywhere. You can buy guns from street corner vending machines. Washington DC is now a theme park, but yes the government still meets there (want to watch a session of congress? That’s an e-ticket!). Street gangs are the de-facto rulers of many areas while the rich stay literally above it all on fabulous anti-gravity platforms. The German government is now a theocracy based on Scientology, and the Vatican is now a banana republic in South America.
In short, the world is crappy in a gonzo, over-the-top way that used to be a source of wry gallows humor. (These days it’s actually getting a bit too realistic for my taste.)
And yet the intent of the game is very clear. The moral choices you make as your character may sometimes be difficult ones, but in Underground you are definitely there to help people, to make the world a better place. You may be mentally ill, you may have PTSD, you may have to take your meds every day, have no place to live except the streets, be rejected by the very society that cheered for you on TV as you gunned down children in Nicaragua, but by god you will fight your way through all that and help people, improve things, defend the innocent, and bring the guilty to justice – though justice itself is largely for the character to decide. You may not have bathed in weeks, your cape may be shit-stained, and just using your superpowers may risk a panic attack or catatonia, but you haven’t given up. Instead you will drag yourself out of your flop, strap on your gat, slide that rose-tinted targeting HUD over your eyes, and fight evil.
Lately, with Sophie doing work for The Hat, this game has languished somewhat on the shelf. But it’s still my go-to for a lot of settings when I want to convert. It hits a sweet spot of simplicity, versatility, and creativity that I like, and the constraints imposed by the rules allow for the sort of heroes I prefer in most of my games – the sort of Chuck Norris level badasses that are a cut above normal, but not totally outrageous. Admittedly, one way the system does this is to make normal people so pathetic and weak that about all they are good for is ablative armor against bullets, but that’s not a terrible flaw since the game is primarily about the PCs, not the NPCs.
I’ve done many conversions with Savage Worlds, but I think my best was a conversion of Dark Heresy. I’ve also “mostly” done a conversion of Malifaux that I really like, complete with a bunch of pregen characters. I keep meaning to complete it and put it in my hip pocket for conventions.
Then there’s this:
This is a great system for one-shots and miniseries. It’s now one of my big go-to games for conventions and pick-up games. You can teach the rules in five minutes, create really interesting characters, adapt the game in a wide variety of ways, and characters are readily understandable even to people who have never played Fate before. Plus, the danged thing is only $5.00! Wow!
Unlike Savage Worlds, this is a game you can even teach to kids easily, which makes it good for inter-generational family games. You can still be awesomely creative with it (shameless plug #1 – check out the Fate System Toolkit and compendiums for lots and lots and lots of ideas about modding this system), and even without the added bells and whistles of the Fate Core rules you can simulate almost anything!
(Shameless plug #2: Evil Hat is also a wonderful company. Fred Hicks is the best boss Sophie has worked for in some time. Everyone on staff was extremely supportive when Sophie had cancer and we were living our lives in daily terror. Thank you Fred, thank you Sean, thank you everyone at Evil Hat!)
Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign style play?
Honestly? Sad to say it but it has been so long since I have been in an open-ended campaign, that I really don’t know. I have enjoyed open-ended campaigns of Champions, Legend of the Five Rings, Justice Inc., and Savage Worlds in the past, but right now I feel so far from having even the possibility of a regular gaming group that isn’t over VOIP and actually meets, well, regularly, that the idea of an open-ended campaign seems very distant and improbable to me. I am in a F-T-F game of One Ring at the moment, but it meets so irregularly (once every three months or more) that I am not sure it really counts.
Describe a game experience that changed the way you play
The very first time I sat down to run Aftermath after the long and painful character creation process, I decided that just to learn the rules I should get the characters into a bar fight. Bar fights were pretty standard as a way of introducing characters back then, so I made up a few thugs and we went at it.
Naturally the bar fight followed the standard bar fight format – PCs bump someone’s drink, insults exchanged, fistfight, melee weapon fight, gunfight (where appropriate). I had carefully gone through the rather extensive list of firearms in Aftermath and found what I thought was the least dangerous of them (a .19 caliber holdout, IIRC).
So the bar fight commenced. Insults were exchanged (skill rolls, check!), fistfight started (unarmed combat/brawling rules, check!). Along about this time I started noticing that PCs were taking a significant amount of damage, but I carried on. Melee combat started and I worried a little when one of the PCs managed to actually kill an NPC by breaking a chair over his head, but still I carried on.
After a few rounds of roughhousing and the occasional laceration or blunt force trauma injury, finally out came the .19 caliber holdout. Bang! One shot. Random PC hit. Roll for location (head), roll for damage (a small amount), roll to make constitution save (failed – character unconscious), roll to make critical constitution save (failed).
Now while I was somewhat impressed with this (guns are dangerous after all – do not play with them kids!) the fact of the matter was that we were playing a game, and moreover one in which it had taken SIX HOURS OF EFFORT to make that character. Presumably it was going to take hours of additional effort to make a new one. During that time the player was going to be sitting on his ass, doing nothing but flipping through rule-books (rule-books that I needed to reference to run the game) and rolling on occasional charts. As a group we were already somewhat shell- shocked by the amount of time that it had taken us to get through character creation, and the idea of one of the players having to wade through it again was pretty horrifying.
I tried to hand=wave it, but the player (who was understandably upset) got petulant and insisted on making a new character.
Things went downhill for the game from there. I think we played a couple of sessions and then gave it up.
How did this change the way I play (or GM)? This incident convinced me that long, convoluted, and involved character creation was really only acceptable it the character death rate was going to be low. Any game where it takes six hours to create a character and 30 seconds to kill one is going to have some disastrous consequences sooner or later. There is going to be a dearth of fun for someone at the table, that dearth of fun is going to last through the session and beyond, and resentment and bad feelings are likely to result.
Moreover, if a player is going to invest that much time and energy into creating a character, the death of that character should be epic. No dying in a random bar fight. If a character like that is going to die it had better be in single combat with the main villain on top of a volcano during a radiation storm while dodging a stampeding herd of mutant jackalopes or something similar. Epic.
I don’t object to games with 30-second character death per se, but character creation had better be easy and fast.
Any game where creating a character will take you out of most or all of the rest of the session has problems. People come to the table to game, to play their characters, not to create them. While there is a certain joy in creating an interesting character that you think will be fun to play, the more time it takes to actually create it, the less time you have for fun playing it. And if that character can die from a couple of failed rolls in a minor bar brawl, the player who created it will not be happy, will not feel that their efforts at character creation were worthwhile, and will inevitably wonder what the hell they put in all that time for.
A second example: Spaceship Zero
This is actually something that happened to Sophie, not me, but I was there for it.
Our regular GM decided to run a miniseries of Spaceship Zero for us. Neither Sophie nor I had an idea what the game was about, and the GM asked us not to research it because he wanted to “surprise” us.
Sophie likes to make deep characters that have ties to the game world, so in addition to creating her character (which, IIRC, is a fairly simple and straightforward process) she took the background material that we were given, created ties to several of the major NPCs and organizations of the game world, and wrote several pages of text about her character’s background in the setting. She did this not simply because she likes doing that sort of thing but because she tries to go out of her way to give GMs handles for what sort of adventures she wants for her character.
If you know Spaceship Zero you already see the problem.
We all wound up in our little experimental space ship, activated the drive, and HEY PRESTO! The entire universe collapsed around us and reformed. All that work that Sophie did on her character background? Gone. Instead we had to deal with froglike aliens who had taken over the new earth.
In this case the problem was that the GM had not thought enough about what he needed to communicate to the players for character creation purposes. The premise of Spaceship Zero is a classic of 50’s science fiction, but without knowing that, Sophie as a player couldn’t create a suitable character for the genre (ie one in which the character background and ties to the game world didn’t matter much because it would all be blown up in the first 30 minutes of the game anyway). So she spent time and creativity on a backstory that was essentially worthless, and got frustrated when her efforts turned out to be wasted. I think we played 2 games before the GM gave up and went back to something else.
What I learned from this is that there has to be a degree of player buy-in for any game you run, and the GM has to trust the players enough to allow them to understand what they are buying into. Bait-and-switch plots are a staple of fiction, and can be a lot of fun when handled correctly. But care must be taken to assure that the bait isn’t more attractive than the switch in the long run or there will be player push-back. Having your Castle Falkenstein loving group create new characters, only to show up for the game and discover that they have all been sucked through a portal and you have converted everyone to Pathfinder for the campaign is a risky proposition.
Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art (other than Aftermath, just so you aren’t tempted to mention it, even though it’s art was sucky)?
This is a hard question for me to answer, because production values and art quality in the game publishing world have changed so much since I started playing. It seems unfair to compare the lushly illustrated RPGs of today with the games we played in 1977.
(Admittedly a small amount of black shading, suitably placed, could go a long way towards making interior art enticing for teen-aged boys back in the day).
As mentioned yesterday, I loves me some Tribe 8. The game’s illustrations had a rough, unfinished feel that set the tone for the game itself.
Moreover the game was fairly lavishly illustrated for a game of that era, with lots of little character sketches in the nooks and crannies that helped to give a good visual picture of the world and its inhabitants (and break up the horrible 6-point font – what WERE they thinking?)
There are a lot of RPGs that I miss, but I would have to say first and foremost –
Don’t say Aftermath.
But the game really…
Stop it. You are only saying it to be funny. You don’t really honest-to-god want to run Aftermath again.
There are a lot of “dead” RPGs out there that I would love to run. Since I like a lot of small, indie press sorts of games which feature short production runs and not a lot of splat books or reprints, one could say that the vast majority of roleplaying games that I like are, in fact, dead. So I am going to list a few here.
This is a game I have wanted to run for a decade or more now, but could never get past the complex mechanics, immersive but convoluted metaphysics, narrative writing style of the rules, and the 6-point font (oh for the days when we were young and could read 6-point font!) to convince myself that I could sell it to players (my optometrist has been very supportive, however). This is a setting that really needs a genius game designer to fall in love with it and rewrite the rules to capture the flavor of the setting without the old and outdated Dream Pod 9 rules. Just the illustrations alone, in that rough pen-and-ink sketch style are enough to make me long to lay maps on the table and roll some dice.
Hot War/Cold City
The mechanics of these two little games gave me the opportunity to think a lot about mechanics and their place in a roleplaying game. At heart, both games very much take the attitude that you shouldn’t be rolling at all if the roll isn’t something that will have a potentially important effect on your character. Roll to pick the lock? No. Roll to pick the lock when the price of failure is the death of your beloved daughter? Yes. In both these games, success or failure on each individual roll change your character, with success bringing rewards such as improved confidence and skill, and failure bringing consequences such as psychological trauma or lasting injury. The revised mechanics in Hot War are, I think, an improvement over Cold City, and if I were to see them revived I would encourage both to use a cleaned up version of the latter.
I love the gonzo writing of this weird RPG, which spends as much time on fiction at the beginning of each chapter as it does on actual mechanics. It’s a post-apocalyptic setting really like no other. Yes, the world is totally wrecked by wars, pollution, alien invasion, and plain-old-everyday asshattishness by rich people towards poor people, but there is a high science-fantasy tecb base that survives among the wastes, with numerous technocracies, each with a different “feel” holding power over the remains of the world. Characters are agents of one or more of these technocracies, doing agenty things and trying to survive in the standard “world gone mad”.
The rules mechanics look pretty simple overall, based on a d20 role. Character creation is somewhat convoluted, and made more so by the fact that the main rule-book contains only pretty basic character creation rules, with the more advanced and complete rules for each of the technocracies contained in an appropriate splat book. Unfortunately only a few of the city-state splat books were ever published, leaving GMs with the task of either banning characters from that particular city-state, or doing a lot of work to fill in the blanks.
Running this as a one-shot zany romp through the wastes has been a dream of mine for some time. I’d just give everyone their pick of the pre-generated characters (I think there are ten totao) and go from there.
Though I assume that lack of market viability doomed the original product, I would love to see it revived at least to the extent of getting all the source-books published. I doubt it will ever happen, but a guy can dream.
Special Mention: Earthdawn
Love the world, hate the system, in which the most dangerous and deadly thing that player characters seem able to do is fall off a wall. I know that a new version is out there, but I haven’t seen it yet so at least in my personal mind space the game doesn’t quite count as “revived” yet. The one time I played a playtest version of the new game it didn’t seem “right” to me, but in fairness it was a playtest version and I played it at a convention, so a lot could be different from what I remember.
When I am looking for good RPG reviews I generally hit Google first. Because our hobby is both small and diverse, there are a lot of teeny weeny little websites out there (*COUGH* *COUGH*) done by fans and nerds and such that don’t get the same amount of traffic as the big sites and honestly I often like to hit them first just out of solidarity.
After just noodling around on various fan sites for a bit, my second stop is usually the site of the publisher. Publishers obviously have a vested interest in reviews of their product which are positive, but accounting for that they will generally post links to every positive review that they can find (if you go to the publisher’s website and find no links to outside good reviews, worry slightly). This also gives me a chance to read the publisher’s own writing about the RPG, so I can get a better understanding of what they are trying to achieve with the product, which is a big help in determining whether its the product for me.
(Aside: Sophie Lagace came up with the very effective “Character Sheet Litmus Test” many years ago, which has served me well. Find the published character sheet and look it over. You will be able to tell about 90%+ of what the game is like mechanically just from that. If you can’t tell what the game is like mechanically from looking at the character sheet – or if the publisher wants to actually sell you character sheets instead of making them available as free downloads, worry slightly.)
Step three is to go fishing in the review section of some of the big RPG websites like RPG.net, or YouTube reviews like Tabletop. I don’t really have a favorite for this, I just wander around and look at what catches my eye. Frequently I watch the video reviews with Sophie so that we both get a feel for the game and I can gauge her interest as well as my own. I confess though, often this step happens when the game is already in our possession. Impulse buying – what can you do?