Friday, July 31, 2009

Star Wars Toys

Looking back on my childhood, I realize now that my parents (and family in general) were actually rather indulgent when it came to toys. I had an awful lot of them. And yet, at the time—and caught up in the 'frenzy' of Star Wars' original release—I always felt that other kids had more than I did. To an extent, this was true. In my tiny hometown in South Dakota, Bobby Claussen easily had the best Star Wars collection around—including his crown jewel: an actual AT-AT walker. We were friends, so we played together quite a bit, but still, there was that very selfish kid thing in me that when I went home /I/ didn't have the AT-AT! 

Adding to my kid frustration was my parents' inability to understand why I needed more than one Stormtrooper or Hoth Rebel Trooper. At the time (being 9 or so) I couldn't properly articulate the fact that Stormtroopers were 'cool' because there were a lot of them—that it would feel more like the movies if I had several Stormtroopers fighting against Luke and Han rather than just one. No, to them, I 'already had one of those', so I didn't need another.

Over the years, through play, theft and loss from moving around, my collection of Star Wars toys dwindled and what remained finally just languished in my Mother's garage. During my college and post-college  years I was much, much too poor to even think about spending money on toys. I scrimped and saved to buy Star Wars RPG books, but that was about it. Sometimes I would still walk through the toy isles and see what it was that people were coming out with, but I just couldn't justify spending the money (damn my responsibility, such as it was). 

In any case, it was not until well after I landed my first real job (and moved on to the more stable one I have now—knock on wood) that I was even in a position to think about a 'disposable income'. But then several things converged. First: I had a disposable income. Second: I had a house. Third: I discovered eBay. 

It began small enough. I re-claimed my toys from my Mother's garage—including MY prized toy: My original 1980 Snowspeeder. Somehow, it had survived my childhood. Only it was still missing one of its engine-nozzle parts that I had lost long ago. I looked on eBay, and what do you know—someone had one of those parts! That got me looking around at what else they had...

At first, I resolved to keep a modest collection—and to focus only on the classic Empire and Rebellions figures from the original trilogy. But as my collection of Stormtroopers grew in proportion to the rebels, that old childhood urge resurfaced. Why not make a squad of Stormtroopers? As the figures got better and better (more articulated), I found myself more and getting more and more.

As it stands now, in about 6 years of avid collecting, I'd say I have close to 300 figures and quite a few vehicles and critters. Is it geeky and childish? Maybe. But then, I AM geeky and childish, so why go against my nature? And before you ask: No, I'm not one of those guys who keeps everything 'MIB' (mint in box). I'm a visual and tactile person. I like to play wi- err... appreciate my toys. I don't want them to be sad and hanging out in their original packaging like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2. 

So, what was the point of this post? Heck. I don't know. I guess just to say that I loved Star Wars toys as a kid, and I still love them.

p.s. And no matter what anyone tells you, I was NOT playing with Boba Fett in the bathtub...I have no idea how he showed up there... nope. None.

p.p.s. And no, 'playing with Boba Fett' is not a euphemism.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Clone Wars...Good News?

In watching some of the coverage from the ComicCon on TV, I stumbled across a panel discussion with the creators of the Clone Wars cartoon (the new computer animated one). As you may have read in my earlier review of this series, I have mixed feelings about it. Strangely enough, the creators of the show seemed to express a concern that was central to my own—the 'kiddiness' factor of the show. In what I've seen of the first season, there is (for me) a disconnect between the often violent/serious nature of the stories and the wacky/goofy 'comic relief' of the droid characters and Jar Jar. It felt to me that the show could not decide if it wanted to be a kids cartoon or a real star-wars story.

Evidently, the creators felt the same way—because they're now talking about taking a more serious route with the second season. I'm not exactly sure how this is going to pan out, but I applaud the fact someone recognized the confusing duality of the show and wants to do something about it. The creator of the show (who's name I'm too lazy to look up at the moment) mentioned the experience he had as a child, watching the original movies—how parts of them really did frighten him, but how he still loved it and loved the fact it was a family experience for him (that parents and children could both watch and love the movies). I really hope he takes that to heart and implements it in the new season of the show—because GAH, those droids are so horribly annoying and UNfunny, in a really childish way. But.. I won't go into it here. If you want the full rant, read my previous review ;)

Suffice it to say that I am now even more cautiously optimistic about Clone Wars. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Where Are They Now...

Like a lot of the things on this blog, this post is mainly for my own benefit—though I hope it will be interesting to others, too. In creating my Star Wars campaign 'universe', I have worked to include and 'update' the many major and minor characters featured in the movies. Mostly, I just keep this information in my head, but a blog is a good spot to get some of it down 'on paper', as it were. So what follows is a list of the main characters from the movies/novels and where they are currently in my campaign set some 13 years after the Battle of Yavin (i.e. the very first Star Wars movie).

Luke is now grand-master of a new Jedi Order, with a new academy set up on Yavin. With the founding of this new order, Master Skywalker realized that many things had changed—and would have to change for it to succeed where the previous order had not. In much the same way the New Republic (in my campaign) restructured itself, this new Jedi order would have to base itself on the idealistic foundations of its predecessor, but look at new ways to uphold those ideals. Part of what brought the Jedi down in the first place was their belief in their own superiority and in doing things 'the way they had always been done' in the past. While there is much to learn and emulate from historical tradition, Luke does not want to lose the vitality the order has gained through its many non-traditionally trained Jedi.

In keeping with this new outlook, and building off his own experiences serving the Rebellion, Luke came to the realization that the security of the Republic should not be entrusted to any one particular group. It was only through the combined efforts of many beings that justice was restored to the galaxy, and it is only through the combined efforts of these same beings that it will be maintained. Thus, the new Jedi Order is now mandated to work alongside various government and civilian agencies to keep the peace.

Likewise, the isolationist, monk-like traditions of the old order have been set aside in favor of more 'grounded' Jedi who do not hold themselves apart from the people they serve. Love, family and friendships are encouraged in the new Jedi order—the emotions conjured are seen as healthy, as long as the Jedi does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by them.

Luke himself (unlike in canon) has not entered into a relationship with Mara Jade (or Callista, or any of the other women the novels link  him up with). Rather, he remains a very paladin-like figure, focused now on the order. Perhaps one day he will take a wife, but right now he has a job to do—and is able to remain strong in that task because of the emotional bonds he shares with his family and close friends. He's come a long way from the farm boy on Tatooine, and yet in a lot of ways, that remains who is is at his core: idealistic, optimistic and honest.

Leia has recently assumed the role of Chancellor of the New Republic. As Vice-Chancellor, she stepped up to fill out the remainder of Mon-Mothma's Second term after the elder stateswoman's health began to decline. Already a powerful political figure, Chancellor Organa-Solo has really come into her own—facing political and military crises with determination, compassion and reason. This is all the more remarkable in that she is also the mother of three children and a budding Jedi knight as well. Though she's had to step back from the 'adventuring' part of her former careers, she remains a vibrant and active personality who is both admired and criticized by her frank and honest approach to politics. While she is able to schmooze and diplomacize with the best of them, she has taken a firm and very public stance against corruption and self-service in her administration and in the government as a whole.

As with her brother Luke, Leia draws a lot of strength from her family and friends. Indeed, without the simple joys and deep connections she shares with them she could not maintain the outward toughness and dedication that her job demands. Despite her confidence, however, she is somewhat self-critical—often worrying that she isn't spending enough time with her family.

Han, now in his mid forties, has grudgingly come to accept the fact that he is now 'respectable'. A father of three and 'First-Husband' of the New Republic, his days of being an outlaw adventurer are long past—and actually? He only misses it a little. Oh, he makes a good show of 'chafing' at normal life, but the role of husband and father is more rewarding than he could have imagined. In his spare time, he still pursues his hobbies of tinkering with his ship and watching Swoop Races. He hasn't completely gone into retirement, however—he's much too talented for that. Apart from acting as part-time pilot and bodyguard for his wife, he has served in numerous undercover and intelligence missions. He has also taken up his military commission twice now—once while leading a task-force against the warlord Zsinj and now again in the face of the Nagai invasion. Han Solo—now Admiral Solo—took charge of the Starfighter forces at the battle of Arkanis, orchestrating a brilliant defense against overwhelming odds.

Much like Han Solo, Chewbacca's life has slowed down. Though he still accompanies his partner on many of their missions (official or unofficial) he now has the time to dedicate to his own family back on Kashyyyk (in fact, his family often spends its vacation time with the Solos). Whether he wishes it or not, Chewbacca has become a powerful political figure among his people—many of whom urge him to take a more active role in the governing of their planet under the New Republic. Chewbacca is torn between this perceived duty and a desire to lead the quiet life. The recent Nagai invasion has forced him into the front lines once more—sometimes alongside Han Solo but more recently in a position of command in the Kashyyyk military, defending the planet from an assault by their Trandoshan rivals.

Some things never change. So it is with these two. Threepio is greatly enjoying being able to indulge in his primary function of diplomatic aide and translator—and is quite puffily proud of his position working for the Chancellor of the New Republic. His role has grown beyond that, however—serving both as household droid overseer and even part-time nursemaid to the precocious Solo children (the latter role occasionally leaves the excitable droid frazzled). 

Artoo remains with Luke much of the time, a loyal companion and good listener—privy to Luke's deepest thoughts at times—especially during long journey's his X-Wing. Though he would never consider himself philosophical, the little droid's unfailing optimism and dedication always seem to bolster the young Jedi Master when he needs it most.

From outlaw to respectable to outlaw to respectable, Lando's life seems in constant flux. And truth be told, he likes it that way. Though two of his entrepreneurial operations have been destroyed by the Empire, that has not curbed his spirit in the least. Diversification is now the key as Lando sees it—plus, it keeps things interesting. Distancing himself from mining operations for a while, he now dabbles in several budding businesses. For a time, he served as chief manager and promoter of budding Swoop Racer Adrienne Olin (one of the PCs in my campaign). He went on from there to invest some of his earnings in the re-industrialization of Mandalore (thus helping its new planetary Governor, Rick Oman—another PC in my campaign). His latest moneymaker, however, was a Starfighter racing circuit—wherein pilots flew various kinds of souped-up and modified 'surplus' starfighters through obstacle-course like routes. Unfortunately, this idea was only in its infancy when the Nagai invaded. Finding himself caught up in the wake of the initial onslaught, Lando rallied many of the racing pilots to his cause—rearming their ships to intervene in several key early battles. Lando and his 'Wildcard' squadron have now been officially folded into the New Republic fleet and served with distinction alongside Han Solo during the battle of Arkanis.

So, that's where the main characters from the movie are in my campaign and where they seem to be headed at the moment as I forge my /own/ expanded universe within the New Republic Era. Hope you enjoy.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Skill vs. Class

This is another subject I've already touched on in other posts, so I won't belabor it here. Enjoyment of gaming depends upon personal preference—from the genre(s) you most like, to the character types you like right down to the rule systems. This is one of the reasons I hate it when people say one system is better than another. Yes, I do champion the D6 system because I like it—but that doesn't mean I think it is the pinnacle of game design or that it is better than D20 for reasons x, y and z. I just like it more than other systems—that's my personal preference.

That being said, one of the main reasons I DO like D6 is its skill-based system. This means that characters are defined according to what skills they have, rather than what 'class' they belong to (as they are in many traditional game systems). In classic games like D&D, characters were rather broadly categorized (at the time I got into the game) into four main areas: Fighter, Thief, Magic-User and Cleric. A couple specialties evolved from each of the basic classes, but that was pretty much it. Apart from combat and special abilities, most character classes didn't even HAVE skills associated with them. Thus, if  you were a fighter, that was what you did. There was no 'hunting' skill or 'blacksmith' skill or anything like that. Only the thief had easily identifiable skills: move silently, open locks, detect noise, etc.. Thus, with the earliest class-based system, everything seemed geared towards how a character fared against typical dungeon obstacles: their combat skills and spells to defeat monsters or the thief's abilities to overcome traps and locks. Yes, ALL characters could search for secret doors and the like, but that 'skill' never changed. A 1st level character had just as much skill at finding secret doors as a 10th.

While I appreciate the simplicity of this Class mechanic, even from my earliest days of gaming, I remember it not sitting right with me. Again, I point out that this is my preference, not a shortcoming of the game—as a kid, I had a lot of fun with D&D, using it pretty much as-written. What really opened my eyes to other possibilities was the Star Frontiers system. This TSR game had something of a hybrid between classes and skills. There were three primary character types: Military (soldiers), Technician (techs) and Biosocial (medics/scientists). Each of these 'classes' had certain skills associated with them (weapon skills for soldiers, tech skills for techs, etc.). HOWEVER, any character could purchase skills from any 'class'. Thus, you could have a tech with weapon skills or a medic who could use computers. It cost a few more experience points to purchase skills out of your primary area, but it was possible. This I liked a lot, even if I eventually found the small number of skills in the game somewhat limiting.

I dabbled in other skill-based systems in my gaming (Top Secret/SI for one) but it wasn't until 1987 and the release of the Star Wars RPG that I found one that I really loved. With this system, you could build whatever kind of character you wanted to. You weren't limited at all by any one particular focus. You could have a thief who could fight, a tech who was also a Force user or even a jack-of-all-trades. The sky was the limit. And if your tastes for a character changed, you could even take an established character and (with experience) change them into something new by spending points on different skills. Everyone in my campaign was like this to some extent or another. Arianne was a Pilot and a Jedi and a Spy—mixing skills from all those categories. Harry Hugganut started off as a street-punk, with thiefy and con-man type skills, but quickly became a gunman and a gambler and then turned his interest towards medicine. Adren was a smuggler and a Jedi and a swoop racer. Oman was a Bounty-Hunter who wound up adding some political skills into the mix when he became ruler of Mandalore. 

To me, this 'lack of definition' of class was liberating. It felt more 'real' to me. Just as in real-life I would not define myself by one thing. I am not a '7th level art director' or '8th level gamer' or 20th level star wars fan'. I am all those things and more.

The latest iteration of the d20 system tries to address some of this, both by incorporating a skill system and by allowing multi-classing. But to me, it feels awkward. If you're going to allow multi-classing and crossover skills and all that, why would you even NEED a Class system? It just seems like a holdover used for almost nostalgic reasons (i.e. people expect classes in a D&D system, so we're going to give them classes). I would prefer they chose one system or the other, rather than trying to do both. It's like Mr. Miyagi said (and I'm paraphrasing): You skill system do yes, is good. You skill system do no, is good. You skill system do 'hybrid'? SQUISH, just like grape.

So in closing, I would like to continue with just another highly subjective thing: I love Jacks-of-all-trades. I like characters who have something to contribute in a wide variety of areas. My own characters are like this and I appreciate it when players in my campaign broaden their horizons, too. It's a good way to make sure that no matter what the situation, odds are your guy is going to have something to do, even if it is just supporting the others in the party. Star Wars is the ultimate example of this—everyone can at least ATTEMPT pretty much any of the 'basic' skills out there. I have to look no further than my own campaign for a good example of this—when Bob the Tusken Jedi suddenly found himself the only person able to land the ship he was on (I forget what drastic reasons there were for this, but it did happen). As he positioned himself behind the controls, he uttered his famous quote: "How hard can it be to land ship. Planet large. Ship small." True dat, Bob. True dat.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jedi and Game Balance

I've talked before about this subject (here). But as it seems to be one of the most commonly stated 'problems' that people have with the D6 system, it bears going over other aspects of it. As I've already pointed out how Jedi are not (in fact) invincible (see the previous link), I'm going to talk about some of the other systems that helped me keep them balanced—some of which are inherent to the D6 system, others of which I implemented myself due to my own philosophies about the game.

This is the great equalizer built into the game. Without a master, a Force using character must spend twice as much experience raising Force skills as they do raising other skills. This ensures a very slow advancement in abilities—especially if the player tries to balance raising 'regular' skills along with Force skills. In the early stages of my campaign, we had two main Force users. Arianne's skills grew slowly, as her player wanted to keep her balanced (and relevant) in non-force areas (namely piloting and command). Bob the Tusken was definitely the more Force-centered of the two, spending almost ALL his points on Force related stuff. However, this severely limited him in other areas (But then, that was kind of the charm of Bob as a 'primitive' among the group). So there's balancing factor number one: experience point cost and the need to keep balanced with regular skills or risk becoming a 'one trick pony'. 

Though this is one thing I never really used in my campaign, it is still a valid method of controlling how powerful force users can get. Though there are three force skills (Control, Sense and Alter), there are numerous powers that must be learned in order to make use of them. These powers include such things as telekinesis, enhance senses, etc.. Since most campaigns do not have Force masters actively instructing a character, the GM can pretty much pick and choose which powers a Force user gets and when they get them. Thus, if you don't like a power, you can choose not to let a character learn it. With the level of trust I had in my players, however, I only had to exercise this option once—and that was with a 'new' force power introduced in the Zahn Trilogy. In actual game play it turned out to be too powerful, so I had to invoke my GM power to nix it. (For the curious, this 'banned' Force power was Enhanced Coordination).

This is something I implemented as a house rule when the characters started to get higher-level Force skills (climbing into the 5-6D range). Since I love the original trilogy so much, I made up my mind early on not to dilute the emphasis of Luke's 'heroes journey'. He was the son of the 'chosen one'—and the one destined to bring about the end of the Empire and the rebirth of the Jedi Order. It just would not feel right to me if, by the time that destiny began to roll around, he was totally outclassed by the PC Jedi in my campaign. I felt (and still feel) that having PCs who were better than Luke would diminish the overall story of the saga. Therefore, I let my players know up front that there would be a completely arbitrary Force skill limit set by me that they could not pass: they could not raise their Force skills any higher than 1D less than whatever Luke's Force skills were at the time. Thus, if Luke's Control skill was 'currently' 7D, they could have a maximum of 6D in their Control skill. Period. End of story. Oh sure, there were a few gripes and groans, but that was just how it was in my campaign.

This was a small house rule that wound up having a big effect on how the Jedi handled themselves in battle. I actually touched on this in my post about dodging, but I'll elaborate here. As the Jedi in my campaign began to get more adept at using lightsabers in combat, they (unsurprisingly) tried to use them more and more. Often they would charge down a hall, parrying (or dodging) as they went—closing the distance with their enemies to hand-to-hand where they are VERY deadly. That quickly began to irk me, as it just didn't seem real or fair that they could charge right into the TEETH of a barrage, and still get their full defensive bonus. Therefore, I simply decreed that you cannot do that—at least not at full speed. You can zig-zag your way by dodging or advance slowly if parrying, but you can't go full speed. This meant that it took a while to close with an enemy—meaning that charging straight in wasn't ALWAYS the best plan. 

This is the most crucial (and most elusive) way to ensure that Jedi do not unbalance a campaign or steal the show. And I will admit that it is the one I have to struggle with a lot. The argument I see leveled against D6 Force users most often is that they are show stealers. That at high level, they become the only focus of attention and everyone else in the group is just there to 'mop up' after they're done. If not handled correctly, this could easily be the case. 

In the second year of the Vermillion campaign this situation began to develop. At this point, some of the other players called it (good naturedly) the 'Arianne and Bob' show (after the two main Jedi in the group). More often than not, a lot of the action centered around these two. But thinking back on it now, I am not entirely convinced that was because they were Jedi. In fact, I think it was because they were the two most experienced players in the game. Steve and Martin were both several years older than myself and most of the rest of the players. As such, they were quite good at (consciously or subconsciously) guiding the story back to their characters. They were (and are) both very forceful personalities as well—ensuring that a young GM like myself gave their 'squeaky wheels' the grease. Don't get me wrong, though—neither of them were complainers, they were just a lot more vocal and confident in their actions.

On the flip-side, the rest of the players had a bit less experience, and thus were willing (at first) to defer to the more experienced guys. As Steve2 said to me recently: "At the time, I wouldn't have been able to lead the party, anyway—I wouldn't have known what to do in most cases." This was both good and bad. Good because Steve and Martin did have a lot to teach in the way of roleplaying. But bad because all players, no matter how well meaning (and I include myself in this) are ultimately selfish. Players ENJOY having their characters in the spotlight (I know I do). I can't fault anyone for this, but it does mean that you don't always go out of your way to make room for other players. 

As a relatively new GM (this was what I consider my first REAL campaign) I had never really had to deal with party dynamics before, so it took me a while to recognize and react to the problem. It was the 'Rogue Squadron' incident that really tipped me off to it. Luckily, I feel that I got to it before it got out of hand. What I realized was that it is the GM's DUTY to try and make sure everyone has a moment in the spotlight.

Again, I don't think that the spotlight was, in this case, stolen because Arianne and Bob were Jedi. Rather, they stole it as players and just happened to have Jedi as characters. HOWEVER, there is still an important lesson here to GMs. People who do, through the powers of their Force users, try to 'steal the show' can best be kept in check by a watchful GM who makes sure not everything can be solved by a Lightsaber or Telekinetic push.

And finally, I should point out something that my players have discovered through play—that no matter how powerful your character, they are ALWAYS more powerful when working WITH someone else. In the case of Jedi, they have plenty of weaknesses and drawbacks when fighting alone or alongside other Jedi—lack of a real ranged attack is glaring among these. Likewise a skilled gunman working with a Jedi intercepting shots aimed at their duo can lay down a deadly barrage without having to worry about dodging (in fact, Padme and Anakin kind of demonstrated this at the end of Attack of the Clones). When the whole team is working together...that's when the 'unbeatable' thing starts to come into play, but to me as a GM, that's a thing of beauty. I remember one instance of this during the Vermillion campaign—when the PCs worked together to take out their rival party of 'Evil Heroes'. Holy crap. Gunmen laying down covering fire. Jedi working their way in close. It was awesome.

So, there you have it. I feel that there ARE tools within the D6 system to ensure that Force users are balanced. But I also feel that the GM and his handling of the players is probably the most single important aspect of that balance. I would much rather have the responsibility of doing that rather than having a game system that did so through 'watering down' Force abilities—which are SUPPOSED to be amazing and fantastical.

Racial Profiling

In a game that includes Aliens it is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of making every individual conform to the 'stereotype' of its race. Thus, all Wookiees are noble savages with a knack for fixing technology. All Quarren are treacherous bastards. All Mon Calamari are dignified, honorable and dedicated to a cause. All Bothans are sneaky, backstabbing jerks. All Sandpeople are violent barbarians who are easily startled, but return—and in greater numbers, etc..

For a GM, with so much to remember and be in charge of, these stereotypes are an easy kind of short-hand to use to describe a character. Players also seem comfortable with accepting these things—knowing what they can expect from any particular NPC based on race. But while this is a natural inclination, it is also rather silly—especially when you consider how widely different human beings can be in their personalities, behaviors and outlooks. 

Much of the RPG (and indeed of the movies, novels and video games) only further reinforce stereotypes. Just look at Zaalbar the Wookiee from Knights of the Old Republic. So he was a bit more 'barbaric' than Chewbacca, but he was still honorable and loyal—and even had a 'life debt' to keep him in the group (just like in Chewie's background). In the adventure module 'Strike Force Shantipole', the Quarren character Salin Glek turns out to be a traitor—which exactly mirrors the RPG's background on the race actually betraying the Calamari to the Empire.

As a GM, it has been fun for me to throw a wrench in this particular trend from time to time, and I would encourage other GMs to do the same. One of the instances I remember most sharply was in the mini-campaign to liberate Mandalore. There, a Bothan (Nef Yahn) was assigned to Rick Oman's team to serve as a clerk/supply officer/overseer for the Republic. Having just read the Timothy Zahn 'Heir to the Empire' trilogy, my players were bristling at the very THOUGHT of one of these Jerks being involved in their endeavors. Before he even arrived on the scene, Nef was demonized—all set up to be the annoying villain of the adventure. And then...he turned out to be quiet, competent and helpful. This... totally threw the players for a loop. Very quickly, opinion on the guy turned around and with just that little twist Nef became a lot more memorable than just a 'generic' NPC would have been.

Other instances of this in my campaign came with an almost 'Femme Fatale' female Wookiee who was a freelance bounty-hunter and adventurer. I'm sad to say I never got to develop her too far, as she was brought in as a 'love interest' for our Wookiee PC, but that character got retired before anything major got developed. She was strong, but lithe and agile—and had a distinctly mercenary attitude that was NOT very wookiee-like.

One of the game modules actually had a nice example of this, too. In 'Death In the Undercity', the characters encounter a Quarren street punk. Though at first seeming to be as shady and untrustworthy as his race was known to be (at least in the RPG), the punk turned out to be an okay guy.

So in short, its easy to take the easy route and make all aliens conform, but in turning that around, its a great tool for a GM to use to keep the players on their toes—and even to confront a bit of in-character 'bigotry' (if you're in to moral dilemmas and the like). 

We're going to need more dice...

One of the most consistent complaints I see about the D6 system (my favorite Star Wars system, in case you haven't heard) is that the rolling and counting of dice (especially at high levels) slows the game down. As much of a champion as I am for this game system...I find myself unable to argue that point. When you're talking beginning players, with 4-6D skills, well, then its simple as can  be. But when a campaign progresses to the level mine is at (with 8-10D skills) then things start to slow down. And when you throw in Force points (which make that 16-20D skills) you're going to spending quite a bit of game time tallying up rolls. 

For a game based on the speed and fluidity of its combat system, any factor that slows things down is a problem. In table-top situations, I've found that you just have to 'suck it up' and slow down to count the rolls. And even so, it is at least on-par with other game systems speed wise (especially with the more complex 4th Ed d20 system). 

What has been the saving grace for me in recent games, however, is man's best friend—the computer. The wide availability of free dice-rolling programs has essentially made the dice-counting lag disappear. Of course, that all depends on having a computer around when you game. When I'm at home, that's no problem. In fact, the wireless system in my house ensures that my players (Sharon and Philip) can use their own computers, both for dice rolling and for keeping their character sheets. Now, I just finally need to get that laptop and I'm all set for 'on the road' gaming...

Oh, and on a side-note, our gaming group has an in-joke when it comes to dice rolling. It comes from one of our players (Doyce, forgive me) one time being caught 'fudging' his dice roll. He was in the midst of counting up his dice when one of the other players (Rick) noticed an odd thing. Strangely enough, as Doyce was counting, several of the dice changed from lower numbers to sixes. Rick (being Rick) loudly (and amusedly) confronted Doyce on this strange occurrence by asking: "Hey! Doyce! What are you doing!?" Doyce ahemed and replied. "I'm.. counting." Rick (again loudly) commented. "Really? That's how you count? Turning them all to sixes?" Doyce responded with an explanation of this particular method of turning dice 'he had already counted' to sixes, so he'd know not to count them again. Nobody bought that, of course. We still don't. But then, it wasn't an everyday thing in my campaign, so it was well worth a laugh at the time (and indeed it still is most times we get together to play). 

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

General Veers

...speaking of respecting your enemy.

General Maximilian Veers is a hero (or in this case anti-hero) of mine. To me, he seemed to be the ONLY truly competent Imperial officer shown in the movies. Sure, he looked a little squeamish when he saw Vader without a helmet, but other than that? He seemed to be the only officer in that fleet that 1) was not frightened of Vader and 2) had his sh*t together. He also led from the front—commanding his walker forces right into the teeth of the Rebel defenses. In an organization where the rest of the officers are shown to be backstabbing (Piet) or inept (Ozzel)...well, it was nice. And just as in my previous post about respecting your enemy, it made me respect the Imperial army as organized, deadly and ruthlessly efficient—not just a bunch of buffoons waiting around to be attacked. That, in turn, made me appreciate the outmatched Rebel forces for even being able to stand against him for as long as they did.

In the RPG sourcebooks further help to define Veers—both through his character profile in several sourcebooks and through a short story written for the Imperial sourcebook. In this, we see a lowly Lieutenant Veers in trouble with his current (and inept) commanding officer. Assigned to base guard duty, he can only watch from afar as the General goes to meet with the native peoples. Having had a 'bad feeling' about the meeting in the first place, Veers is thus ready to react when the natives attack the General and his bodyguard. Disobeying orders, Veers and  his AT-AT crew manage to rescue the General and throw back the native attack. The General, evidently feeling foolish and embarrassed for having had to be rescued, threatens Veers with a court-martial—only to be cut short when his XO shoots in him the back and kills him. Holstering his blaster, the XO (now CO) orders MAJOR Veers to take him and the surviving troops back to base. So lowly Lieutenant Veers is suddenly a Major—and the roots of his rise to power are sunk. It was a fun little story that helped to add depth to what was really a very minor character in the movies. I loved the RPG for providing this kind of color.

In my own Campaign, Veers survived the fall of the Empire—growing so disillusioned with the parade of would-be emperors and warlords that he took up the career of Mercenary. In my reckoning, Veers was attracted to the Empire more for the chance to exercise his true military genius than he ever was to serve the oppressive ideals of the new order. Thus, as a 'soldier' and not a politician, the aspect of 'pure combat' offered by Mercenary work would be the next best thing. Eventually, however, Veers did return to the Imperial fold (after Thrawn) and now commands their crack Walker assault units. He even showed up in the Vermillion campaign, with his walkers relieving a New Republic infantry line (as, in my campaign, the Empire and New Republic are reluctant allies against the Nagai). 

In any case, I guess this whole post can best be summed up with: I think Veers is cool.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Respect Your Enemies

One of the things I constantly tangled with in my campaign was the 'wuss factor' of the various enemies faced by the party. In the original iteration of the rules, a typical Stormtrooper was cannon-fodder, pure and simple—with a 2D Strength (+1D w/ Armor) and a 4D Blaster Skill (-1D w/ Armor). Though presenting a slight challenge to starting level characters (who averaged around 4 or 5D in their combat skills), these FodderTroopers were quickly outclassed as the characters gained experience. It got to the point where they were almost becoming a joke. That's about the time I started implementing the 'combined-fire' rule. This leveled the playing field quite a bit, but there still existed (and still does exist) a cockiness among my players (and their characters) that I find both endearing and (as a GM) challenging.

On the one hand, its good that the PCs 'feeling their oats'. They're powerful. They should be proud. But on the other hand, feeling too MUCH superiority takes a lot of bite out of the game. It's like the difference between a Jackie Chan movie and a Steven Segal movie. You know Jackie is good, but he still occasionally gets his ass handed to him. He has to work at it, and because of that, you root for him all the more—there is till dramatic tension. Segal, in contrast, never loses. In fact, in most of his movies, he never even comes CLOSE to losing. Then it becomes more a matter of 'how is he going to mess up his next adversary', not 'is he going to be able to beat this guy.'

Thus, for me, its a constant balancing act between letting the characters BE the mega guys (and gals) they are while still giving them foes they can 'respect'. There is a saying that I am too lazy to look up the exact wording of. It goes something like: "A person is measured by their enemies." If you have a bunch of weak enemies, then it  belittles the characters in a campaign. But again, there is a flip-side: you don't want enemies that completely overpower the PCs. That TOO makes them seem 'small'.

Though the pendulum in my campaign has swung in both directions, I think I've managed to keep a pretty good balance—especially in the most recent enemy, the Nagai. They (and their various minions) are not unbeatable, but they ARE enough to give my PC's pause, making them consider tactics rather than barreling in head-first and trusting to stats. Likewise, all my players have a healthy respect for the lowly Stormtrooper—at least when he's with a squad of his buddies. I consider that a GM triumph.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Memorable Quote

In writing my review of the Domain of Evil adventure, I am reminded of a quote from one of my players, Mark, as he was facing a dark-side Force vision designed to test his morality. The situation presented to him was as follows:

You are on a world under attack by Imperial forces. Stormtroopers have invaded the city where you are hiding. As you are about to make your escape, screams come from the next room. Through the door you see six stormtroopers about to open fire on six frightened children...

After pondering this situation for a moment, Mark replied: "Okay...I'll spend a Force point. I'm going to take...13 shots. Once at everyone in the room and twice at the smallest child."

He was joking of course, but I still laugh about it.

Review: Domain of Evil

I remember the corner snipe on this adventure distinctly—announcing in bold black and red type against a yellow background: For veteran Star Wars player characters. This intrigued me, since all other adventures for the game had been somewhat ambiguous about what 'level' the player characters were (in fact, I've always found it an easy thing to scale the difficulty of these adventures up or down to match the party).

The plot is actually pretty straight forward—the players, pursued by a team of ruthless bounty-hunters, crash on the swamp planet of Trinta. There, they discover that they are 'not alone'. A fallen and insane Jedi lives here now, at the heart of a Nexus of darkside force power. The characters soon find themselves struggling against the hunters, the real dangers of the swamps and the twisted visions visited upon them by the now dark Jedi—Halagad Ventor. The climax of the adventure takes the party into the Dark Nexus itself—where they must each face a test of their spirit before even being able to face the master himself.

As far as a premise goes, Domain of Evil has a great one. It is very much like an elongated version of Luke's own 'test' on Dagobah—where he went into the 'dark tree' and battled 'Vader'—only to find himself behind the mask. It is a nice touchstone to have in a campaign—making your PC's journey seem almost parallel to that of Luke and the other Heroes. In fact, I recall placing this adventure close to the Empire Strikes Back timeline in my campaign, just to further reinforce this feeling.

Along with the main plot, many of the encounters and obstacles are memorable as well. They are made more so in that 'real' encounters are mixed in with horrific, illusionary 'dark visions' that seem real. This helps to keep players off balance—something that is important to a horror plot (which this adventure truly is). 

One of the more memorable 'dream visions' was the seemingly cliche encounter with the 'friendly native tribe', who invite the players back to their village. Once the players are enjoying the welcome feast, however, the scene begins to warp subtly. Out of the corner of their eyes they see the 'natives' slowly changing into hideous, fanged beasts—and the very food their eating, first appearing as luscious fruits, is now revealed as musty, rotting fungi. But just as the PC's take action, the whole scene vanishes, leaving them out of sorts in the middle of the swamp night. So right here the PCs get an inkling of what they're in for—and its made all the more unnerving in that it DOES start out as a cliche, but is rapidly turned on its ear.

Other memorable visions include an encounter with a band of rotting, undead Jedi knights, (rising up out of the swamp waters to do battle) and an  attack by a Rancor—which almost caused one of my players to commit accidental IC suicide when he first tried to 'disbelieve' the illusion then (after his arm was 'torn off') decided to try to nobly sacrifice himself by being swallowed with a live thermal detonator. Thankfully, he fumbled the detonator (which was not illusionary) before he could use it.

Interspersed with all these 'dreambeasts' (as the adventure calls them), are very real dangerous monsters and the band of persistent bounty hunters who are till on the trail of the heroes. Again, I found this mix of real and imagined threats a great way to 'wear down' the players as they approached the climax of the adventure—both 'in character' (emotionally and physically through injury and use of equipment) and stat-wise (draining force and character points). And to make matters MORE interesting, even the 'illusionary' damage had a very real effect, draining a character's force and/or mental attributes until, when they were all gone, the character is driven into one or another form of insanity. All in all, it was a great build-up to the final encounter of the adventure.

Unfortunately, the ending of Domain of Evil is both its best and worst point. This was one of those 'if I had it to do all over again' moments for me when I look back on it. The idea was that as the players enter the Dark Nexus to face the fallen Jedi, they each have a personal vision which tests them morally and spiritually. This SOUNDS good, of course, but truthfully, a lot of the visions seem (again in retrospect) so generic and OBVIOUS that it takes what should be a very dramatic scene and makes it a bit... well.. silly. For example, one of the suggested visions gave you the choice of either saving or abandoning a bunch of children as stormtroopers charge in to gun them down. Gee. Wonder which one of those decisions gets you a dark-side point? Failure of these tests means the character might possibly fall to the Dark Side (which will have consequences in the final encounter...)

What I would do differently now if I could would be to throw out these generic tests and dig deep into the backgrounds and emotions of the players to come up with something that actually meant something to them on a personal level. Exactly what that would entail I'm still not sure of. But it is what I'd do if I got to run the adventure again. 

In any case, once past the test of character, the stage is set for the showdown with the Fallen Jedi, Halagad Ventor. To the credit of this adventure, there are two ways to resolve the situation—redemption or death. Redemption is the more heroic method, but not all parties might take it. Death is the simpler solution, it seems, but carries with it a possible complication—any characters who fell to the Dark Side during the tests will be lost forever if the Halagad is slain (if he is redeemed, then fallen characters are automatically saved along with him). 

So, I've done a lot of talking about the plot and encounters, but one more thing needs to be said about this Adventure, and that is the excellent interior artwork provided for it by Allen Nunis. It is consistent and evocative throughout, with some truly memorable scenes rendered (most notably the 'undead Jedi'). A lot of Star Wars adventures are rather hit-and miss with their internal artwork. To me, this one was a definite hit.

And now, back to that snipe on the corner of the module cover—the one saying that this was for 'experienced' Star Wars characters. I guess everyone has a different definition of experienced. In my campaign, I found I had to bump up the stats of the NPCs—particularly of the Fallen Jedi Halagad Ventor—quite a bit to be a threat for my PCs (who had been gaming solidly for a year and a half by this point). So, from an attention-getting perspective, the snipe was good, but it wasn't exactly what I expected.

In closing, I would like to say that I highly recommend this adventure—but I would also urge GM's running it to give a lot of thought to the climax and work to tailor it to their particular player characters—or at the very least come up with some less obvious moral choices.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dodge This

Though it seems like a simple game mechanic (and it is), the dodge skill is one of the most important components of running a 'cinematic' style adventure game. It is one of the things that really sets the D6 system apart from games like D&D, where how much armor/magic-protection  you had was the primary determinant of whether or not you got hit in combat. Though armor is still useful in the D6 system, the dodge mechanic allows you to play the kind of heroes you see in movies—who usually don't wear much more than normal clothing. Since this is what we see most of the time in the Star Wars movies, its nice to see that the game supports this (and as a side note, this is yet another reason I don't think the D20 system captures the 'feel' of the movies as well).

The skill was defined in the last generation of rule books as: "a reaction skill used to avoid any ranged attack...Character's using this are doing whatever they can to dodge the attack—slipping around a corner for cover, diving behind cargo containers, dropping to the ground or any other maneuvers to avoid getting hit."

Pretty self-explanatory, but also I can see where some people might not consider it terribly realistic. Well.. it isn't. But then, Star Wars isn't a terribly 'realistic' setting. Its cinematic. Heroes do things that, in 'real life', would probably get them killed. Thus, in my own mind, the Dodge skill has had to expand a bit beyond its basic definition. It isn't as simple as a character just being able to see an incoming attack and move out of the way. 

First of all, to me dodge includes an element of 'luck'—a commodity that heroes (and major villains) seem to  have. And to me, this is even 'demonstrated' in the movies—when you look at just how bad a shot the Imperial Stormtroopers seem to be. Since these guys are vaunted to be 'accurate' shots, I can't think of many other plausible reasons for them not hitting.

But, in talking with my friend Philip, I have come to see the dodge skill as an overall kind of 'awareness' that people get through training and combat experience. It is the ability to know how to subconsciously take advantage of cover while moving. To know how to 'fire and move' in an unpredictable manner. To me, this makes a lot more sense than imagining a person who can see incoming blaster bolts and sidestep them.

Indeed, when I first began to play the D6 Star Wars system I rather quickly had to make some house-rules regarding its use. Most notable of these was the rule that you can't 'Dodge Forward'. Often, my players would have their characters move directly into the teeth of enemy fire, dodging as they came to close the distance. To me, this pushes the bounds of even cinematic realism. I mean, it was like they were becoming 'ninja masters', sidestepping blasts. Now, in order to close the distance, you have to move obliquely to those who are shooting at you (thus making approaching enemy fire a lot slower). 

Anyway, those are just my random thoughts on the subject—and like a lot of D6 things, it 'feels right' to me, and has worked for quite a few years now.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Heroes

Continuing in my series of self-indulgent reminisces...I will now reflect upon my own roleplaying characters—the ones I played in those few times where I was actually a player and not a game master. I hope I don't bore people with stuff like this, but the truth is that I love to hear other people's stories about their gaming experiences and I figure other people might like it, too.

It would all have to start with Kajan. This was the first character I ever made—even BEFORE I got my first game of D&D. I had heard what the game was like and so I drew a character on a blank sheet of paper (I ALWAYS drew my characters, you see) and just made up some stats that had nothing to do with anything. In any case, I eventually did get the game and made up 'real' stats for Kajan. He was a fighter—and that pretty much set the tone for all my characters. I was never drawn to spell-casters or thieves or even Elves or Dwarves...nope, just your basic fighter, please. 

Unfortunately, in the middle of South Dakota, there wasn't much going on in the way of gaming. I played with my older sister (and later one of my step-sisters) but we never 'really' played. More often than not we just made up characters. And so, while Kajan was the first character I ever made, I have yet to ever really play him as anything other than an NPC. Still, Kajan lived on in my mind, and as I became more immersed in gaming (or at least reading about gaming) he continued to evolve as a concept. Though initially modeled after Thundarr the Barbarian (complete with poofy, fur boots) he gradually evolved into a Ranger. That particular class—introduced to me in a 'Best of' Dragon Magazine—really struck a chord and has become intertwined with the concept of most of my characters in the future. By the time I read lord of the Rings, I was completely hooked. 

There followed a long drought in my ever actually playing except for an agent I played for one or two adventures in the Top Secret SI game run by my friend Mark. I can hardly remember the guy, except that he once had a traumatic flashback (damn disadvantages) in the middle of a hostage-bus filled with explosives and irate Libyan school children. Fun. I ran a D&D campaign in high-school, and of course my Star Wars game in college, but it was not until Doyce ran his Dark Conspiracy game that I actually ever got to be a 'real' player. 

The character was initially an NPC 'henchman' in the gaming group—meaning I had no say in his creation or stats—he was just given to me  to play. Physically? He was pretty much average across the board (5-6's on a 1-10 scale). His charisma, however was like a 9 or something. And so for me that provided a hook. The generic 'ex-marine henchman' became the suave Cajun face-man, Etienne LaFitte. He was Cajun because our campaign was initially centered in New Orleans. He was Etienne LaFitte for two reasons: 1) Because LaFitte was the name of a famous pirate from New Orleans (around 1812) and 2) Because Etienne LaFitte was the name of the character Gung-Ho from GI Joe. Yeah. Real original, I know, but I went with it. It was with this character that I began to have fun with playing an extrovert. All my concepts previously were always the 'strong silent type' and typically not interested in social interaction. Etienne on the other hand was a party-guy—and the guy who schmoozed or lied for the party when they needed it. All in all, he was fun and (for me) new. Alas, the campaign didn't last too long.

Dayl lived in another short-lived game run by Doyce was the 'World's Beyond' campaign (based on the obscure system of the same name). He was an ex-marine hired as security for a tramp freighter. Again, I don't remember a lot about him except that he was (for me) disappointingly short (5'4") and that at one time, he got tusked by a giant space-walrus. He was also involved in the 'Flaming Bears of Ixion' incident. In fact, he was one of the chief proponents of NOT wanting to camp overnight in the alien-infested crashed ghost ship.

This was the one. My favorite character. He began in Doyce's 'Dangerous Journeys' Campaign (a short-lived system designed by Gary Gygax, then destroyed by TSR via lawsuits). 'Explorer' was one of the archetypes in the system (not classes, as it was a skill-based system)—and since that was about the closest thing to Ranger, that's what I chose. I wound up with a character who was rather physically imposing, but almost exactly average in mental and spiritual aspects (these were the three main stat areas in the game). And then, strangely enough, when it came to the (also randomly generated) advantages and secondary turned out that Sebastian was not only devastatingly handsome, but also charismatic. The hell. It was a weird conglomeration of my personal character traits: the laconic ranger and the charismatic extrovert. And so my concept really took off. Sebastian was going to be a swashbuckling adventurer/explorer type.

What really solidified this character as my favorite was the setting that Doyce used for this campaign—The Free City of Haven, with all its incredible and fun detail. It captured my imagination and gave me all kinds of in-character ideas. Based out of a warehouse in the city docks, our small party became involved in intrigue between the city nobles and their rising middle-class rivals. We also ran afoul of the 'bad' Thieve's Guild ("The Black Hand"—the one trying to take over from the other guild). Sebastian himself became involved in an epic horse-race (coming in second, damnit) and even began to form a 'boys club' type thing for the street urchins living in the area around the warehouse (you know, kind of like the Baker Street Irregulars). And somehow, in the midst of all this action, Sebastian managed to start a tentative romance with one of the NPCs in the group—a young female thief they'd picked up along the way, named Corwyn. 

The campaign had some big twists that helped further develop Sebastian—namely the time where the bad guild captured the party and sold them into slavery on a galley bound for far off lands. The group escaped, of course, but the abuse they suffered not only made a nemesis of the ship's captain (who escaped, damnit) but solidified the resolution in Sebastian that he would, one day, crush the Black Hand. Despite his vowed vengeance, I never allowed Sebastian to become a dark character. In fact, his goals and conduct always remained...well, almost paladin-like: When hired to recover a 'kidnapped' noblewoman, only to discover she'd actually run off with her lover, he convinced the party to let them go and forgo the reward. He took his 'Baker Street Irregulars' on a camping trip to give the city kids some 'healthy' exposure to the great outdoors. He single-handedly stood toe-to-toe with a horrible undead beast in order for the rest of the party to evacuate threatened townsfolk (of course, it was one of the party that accidently released the critter in the first place...). Yeah. He was fun to play. And I was sorry when the campaign petered out.

One summer during college, I caught wind that Lee was running a D&D campaign. I somehow got invited to play. I went totally against my usual archetype, choosing instead to play a good-natured halfling thief. This campaign (though again short-lived) was great fun—made so both by Lee's excellent game-mastering skills and by the sense of humor of the others in the group (Lee's brother's, Mike and Dale as well as another friend, Lonnie(?)). I don't remember the adventures in this game nearly as much as I do the inter-party antagonism—mainly between Dale and Lonnie, who's characters (a thief and druid) really did NOT get along. Dag the halfling proved himself to be a selfless friend when one inter-party argument turned particularly brutal. Dale's character had actually injured Lonnie's and Lonnie summoned some creature (I think it was a unicorn? or maybe a huge horse?) to trample Dale. Dag jumped in between the two to keep it from escalating. Dale's character swept in to save mine, even as Lonnie called off his beast. The situation was defused and Dale was grateful for the risk I'd taken (even if he didn't like me 'meddling' in his affairs). 

Though they had nothing to do with my character (and thus don't really belong in this post) some of the other antics of the group are just too good to not talk about: Like when Mike got hold of a 'Deck of Many Things'—and because of one of his draws from it, one of his henchmen (a mute servant girl) went berserk and pitch-forked his horse to death. This prompted an emotion-choked cry of "No! *choke* Spot! Nooooo!" from Mike (his horse was evidently named Spot, though none of us knew that prior). Oh, and then there was the time we were tomb-robb- err.. I mean exploring, and one of the dead bodies suddenly sat up and started doing the chicken dance. This was Mike's character secretly using 'Animate Dead' as a joke. But to see Lee act out the corpse's dance was... well, I'm laughing right now as I write this.

When I first started MUSHing (online, text-based roleplaying), it was just after Doyce's Dangerous Journey's campaign had ended. Thus, when pressed for a character to use on the Star Wars MUSH, I naturally retooled Sebastian to fit the bill. Thus, Sebastian Kalidor, space-explorer was born! But then...well...nothing ever happened on Star Wars MUSH—except for the occasional bar brawl. It wasn't until my friends and I built our own MUSH (Minos Cluster) that he had anything real to do—starting as an Alliance Sympathetic Bartender on the planet Yelsain, he eventually became an officer in the New Republic. I played him in much the same manner as I did his fantasy iteration and it was a lot of fun, but alas, as the MUSH proceeded, more and more my duties were those of 'game master' not player. Star Wars Sebastian became an NPC in my current campaign—and even became the husband of one of the player characters (Adren) before dying a hero's death in the current Nagai War. Sniff.

And that is about it. Oh sure, there were smaller campaigns and other characters, but not many of those really stand out. As a GM, I have had the pleasure of running many different NPCs—many of which I have developed great affection for, but enjoyable as they are they aren't QUITE like being 'just a player' in someone else's game.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Minos Cluster

My last post got me thinking about the Minos Cluster (presented in Galaxy Guide 6). This setting within the Star Wars galaxy has taken on 'mythic' proportions in my own mind. It was here that the Vermillion Campaign really got it's start. It was this place that inspired my friends and I to create our own online game (MUSH). It was the place I went to when starting a new campaign. Obviously something about this setting struck a chord with me—and that connection has only grown through the further development through gaming. And so, it is The Minos Cluster that I will blather on about for a while.

Initially presented in Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, the Minos Cluster was described as a remote sector of space far from the 'more important' worlds of the Imperial core. As a place for a fledgeling group of undercover Alliance agents, it sounded perfect. There were Imperials, of course—their tyranny was felt everywhere. But here, in the ass-end of space, there was a lot more 'wiggle room' than  you could find elsewhere. This meant that the character's could make a few mistakes without getting trounced. It also meant they had a REAL chance to affect the course of events. In essence, the Minos Cluster was a microcosm of the Star Wars Galaxy—a small pond where the PCs could stretch their legs as small fish.

Solid (but still somewhat sketchy) information was provided for the planets in the cluster, along with its major NPCs. A rough outline of several adventures and even a campaign was provided as well. And throughout there were numerous hooks for plotlines that could be developed. Though the first couple adventures I ran for the Vermillion Campaign were modules, this was the first time I really got to pick up the ball and run with it. And boy did I. This was really a 'sandbox' era of the campaign, with a lot depending upon just what the players did or didn't do in their undercover professions as tramp freighters. I used a lot of the pre-generated NPCs, but made up a number of my own as well—Joblo the informant, Nelson Felroc, the rich (but noble) miner, Nelson Jr. His idealistic son, the nobles of Eliad (based on the noble houses from Battletech), etc.

The whole campaign built towards an open revolt in the sector—beginning with their making contact with various sympathetic cells, continuing through their liberation of a political prisoner and capture of an Imperial Frigate and culminating in an assault on the main Imperial fleet at the head of a rag-tag fleet. At one point, they even escorted Princess Leia around the cluster to help build up the resistance! 

In the end, the Empire in the cluster was overthrown and decisively defeated. Being such a remote backwater (and relatively unimportant to the Empire) they took no immediate action to retake the sector (that wouldn't come until much later). So in a way, the players got to experience their characters changing the course of history for an entire sector. All very good stuff.

The fun and success of the campaign and the setting coincided a year or so later with my introduction to (and obsession with) MUSHing. For those who don't know, a MUSH (or Multi User Shared Habitat (or hallucination)) is a text based online environment where numerous people can come and interact. In our case, this interaction was gaming. Many of the Vermillion crew got into playing the original Star Wars MUSH, but after months of waiting for it to be 'finished' (i.e. have an actual game system in place), we began to look at the possibility of building our own. Luckily, Steve2 and Doyce were both computer literate enough for us to start (though Steve2 quickly proved himself to be the main coder—and the best all-around MUSH coder I've known). 

We decided to set the MUSH in the time period just after the Return of the Jedi. By choosing the Minos Cluster, we figured we'd have a more 'manageable' chunk of the Galaxy to deal with and a more balanced setting where neither Empire nor Alliance (New Republic) had the upper hand (at least not initially). 

Looking back on it, we were woefully unprepared. Our opening week was chaotic in the extreme. With rogue players running around stealing anything not nailed down, others attempting to slaughter people at random and still more trying to hack the code to destroy the place—simply because they could. This was a rude shock—especially from someone used to tabletop gaming. I had come to expect at least a modicum of maturity or even politeness. Not so with the online community. People seemed to take this anonymous environment as an excuse to be as big an ass as they wanted—and with (seemingly) no repercussions. 

And yet somehow, we survived the deluge. The code got better and I began to really experiment with online, text-based roleplaying. On a small scale  (with 1-3 other people) it was really a blast. But the larger he group, the more cumbersome the media became. Our ambitious 'mega-plots' involving fleet-scale battles were especially frustrating—with inevitable breakdowns in either the computer itself (lag) the game systems (code) or the players (logging off, being jerks, complaining, etc.). 

The MUSH lasted 3+ years (as I recall) during which time the Minos Cluster setting was developed even MORE thoroughly than in the original Vermillion Campaign. It was here where I came up with the idea of the Templars and Inquisitors of Pergitor. It was here that Yelsain gained a lot of its flavor through roleplay and where the players made for some truly memorable moments, often through IC stupidity. A prime example of this was the Imperial Civil war between the Army and Navy (brought about mainly because both sides wanted to be in charge of the other). The army 'made its move' by trying to capture a grounded corvette. When the boarding failed, they decided to 'trap' it by raising the planetary shields. Unfortunately, being inside the shield meant that the corvette could bombard the Army base AND the shield generator—so not only did it escape, it left the planet open to invasion by the New Republic. Another glorious moment of stupidity took place when a disgruntled fragment of the New Republic decided to plot a coup... while on the bridge of the Fleet's flagship, in full view (and hearing) of its NPC crew.

But, for all its stupidity, there was some truly outstanding roleplay as well—a prime example being my friend Sharon and her various exploits (indeed, this MUSH spawned a campaign with her than lasted years after the place went down). My Vermillion crew were likewise responsible for moments of awesome. Steve2 and Lee spring to mind here, in their roles as Dark Jedi villains. There were a few other stand-outs as well (Hollifeld, for instance) but alas, the fickle social aspects of this kind of gaming wound up souring me on most people.

And so, when the MUSH finally developed an incurable corruption after all those years, part of me was actually glad. For all the good times, there were lots of bad. I would continue to MUSH for quite a while after Minos Cluster, but eventually, the grind of having to deal with mean-spirited people soured me to the whole thing. I am officially DONE MUSHing, but Minos Cluster will always stand as a landmark in my gaming history—and did more than any campaign to deepen the setting.

A couple years ago I caught the gaming bug—specifically the Star Wars bug. Luckily for me, Sharon and her husband Philip were willing to indulge. And so we embarked on a campaign with their two characters. While this campaign was completely unrelated to the Vermillion or online one, the influences of both those things were in full effect. In a way, it was like coming home. I had internalized so much of the setting that I didn't need to refer to anything to run it—from settings to NPCs to plots and events, I felt like I was in my element. And even though I had run this before, the styles of Philip and Sharon assured that this was anything BUT a repeat of past experience. We came to jokingly refer to the game as "The M.C." (a parody of the young-adult drama "The O.C."), due to the various romantic entanglements both characters got wound up in. Though the campaign only lasted a half-year, it was great fun for me—and I think for my players, too. 

In any case, I think I'm done blathering. Suffice it to say I will, through all these experiences, always hold a special place in my heart for the Minos Cluster—in all its incarnations.

p.s. If Forge or Tsijin are reading this—I still hate you guys.

Planet Profile: Pergitor

The planet Pergitor was introduced in Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters—which is possibly one of the best sourcebooks ever made for the Star Wars game. I say 'probably' because my own judgement is clouded by personal fondness for this book. In any case, this post is just a bit of a blurb about how I used Pergitor, and how it could be used in someone else's campaign.

As it's name would suggest, Pergitor isn't a very nice planet. It is a world of steaming jungles and volcanic wastes. And as if that weren't bad enough, it is ruled by corrupt and oppressive theocracy called the 'Church of Infinite Perception'. As with most of the planets in this guide, Pergitor is only sketchily described. But those sketches sparked my imagination and I ran with the idea (though truthfully, not until AFTER the first time I did the Minos campaign).

I expanded upon the idea of the Church by creating several agencies for it. The first of these were the 'Templar'. These were fanatical warriors (brainwashed) absolutely loyal to the corrupt hierarchy of the Church (i.e. they were the Church's version of Stormtroopers). To give them a unique look, I envisioned them wearing fearsome armor reminiscent to gothic full-plate armor complete with ornate religious symbols (in this case, the 'all-seeing-eye' of the Church). Instead of your typical weaponry, the Templar were equipped with 'Blast-Pikes'—a combination force-pike and blaster-rifle, heavy and fearsome looking. The Templar were responsible for enforcing order and obedience from the masses of the planet.

Keeping with the religious motif, I added the Inquisitors. As their name suggests, these are agents of the Church who root out 'heretics' and other troublemakers (i.e. anyone who stands against the Church). Thus, the Inquisition is the 'secret police' of the Theocracy, finding threats for the Templar to crush and otherwise making life miserable for the masses.

I tweaked the world itself a little, giving it a red sun to play up the 'hellish' aspect of living there (actually, I can't remember if it was ever specified what color the sun was...but anyway.) The main occupation there was working in the mines and smelting plants. So imagine an industrial nightmare with low-tech mines worked by millions of hapless citizens. Picture broken-down train rails hauling the ore up to gigantic smelting plants, belching pollution out into the already volcanic-ash-laden skies. Picture block upon block of crowded housing for the people, looked over by Templar and Inquisitors as loudspeakers constantly broadcast pseudo-religious doctrine. And then picture a massive palace-cathedral at the center of it all—from the outside stern and threatening damnation. Long lines of people march in and out—a constant 'conveyor belt' of mandatory worship. But behind this facade are the decadently luxurious private chambers of the high-clergy, where they indulge in every vice imaginable. Yeah. Now Pergitor really is living up to its name, huh? Anyway, it was just a fun thought—and hopefully it can be of use to someone in another campaign!

Oh, and by the way—no, I don't dislike organized religion, but I think when it goes bad, it can go REALLY bad (witness the Spanish Inquisition). 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Adventure Conversions

I am a pack rat and a collector of game books. It doesn't even matter what system they're from. If I see something I like in them, I'll buy them. Thus, I have a gaming library that is full of all sorts of adventures and sourcebooks from different game systems. As I peruse them from time to time, I get to thinking about how I could use adventures from one system in another. Since many of my books are old D&D stuff, those wind up getting a lot of thought in this department. So in this post, I'm going to discuss some of the adventures I think could be translated into a Star Wars setting.

Slave Lords
This series is one of the easiest translations in my opinion. The slavers would be raiding planets instead of coastlines, and each of their bases could be on a different world. The temple in Highport (Module A1) could be a remote 'pirate' type port on the Outer Rim. From there, you would learn the location of the Hill Fort (Module A2)—perhaps an old ruin on another planet. And finally, you could follow the trail to a seemingly barren and volcanic world which houses the 'Aerie' of the Slave lords (Modules A3-4) in a sheltered (domed?) valley. Since all these modules are relatively low-magic, you wouldn't have to change a whole lot. Even the various creatures can be explained away as Alien races or monsters (the Aspis Insect-Men, for instance). Markessa (from A2) could be a genetic scientist (thus explaining her bizarre and warped creations). As far as the Slave Lords themselves go, the mages and clerics among them could easily translate into minor Force Users (rogue sith, dark force 'mages', etc.). Since each of these adventures involves infiltration and (in most cases) rescue of slaves, it is an easy matter to avoid the 'nuke it from orbit' solution that can pop up with many Fantasy-to-Sci-Fi conversions.

Against the Giants
This one is a bit more tricky to handle than the Slave Lords. The setting is easy enough: Picture the remote agricultural world of Sterich. After defeating the native gigantic humanoid races of the planet, the settlers suddenly find themselves under concerted assault by highly organized bands of the brutes. The characters would be hired to come in and put an end to the assault (and find out who's behind it). It is...a bit more difficult in this adventure to avoid the use of starships and bombardment. The Steading of the Hill Giants (G1) could easily be strafed by your average PC ship—unless you give the Giants access to some anti-air weapons (supplied by their mysterious organizers?). The Glacial Rift (G2) and Halls (G3) would be more secure from Air assault, however, requiring players to go in on foot. But then, this all brings up the question of just HOW can characters battle giant humanoids. First of all, they could bring heavy weaponry (rocket launchers and heavy repeating blasters). Or, more interestingly, they could be supplied with a small amount of power-armor or even combat walkers. This is going to change the dynamics of the adventure considerably, but could still be kind of cool.

Descent into the Depths
Whether or not you get ambitious enough to convert the Giants adventure, the Descent series could still work. With the Giants, you find out that an evil, underground race is actually supplying them with arms and provoking the attacks. Without the Giants, perhaps local settlers in a remote system have suddenly disappeared or been attacked by unknown foes at night. In either case, the trail leads the characters deep underground, through the lairs of fierce cave-dwelling species and monsters. The adventure would culminate in the foul and degenerate lair of the Drow—whom I see as an entire race of force-sensitive and force-using evil near-humans who worship a force-warped and seemingly 'immortal goddess' Lolth—who could be a Force Spirit or simply a very ancient force user kept alive by draining others life force (or even ancient cloning technology). Including the 'Demonweb Pits' (with their extra-dimensional-gateway aspect) in all of this would be a bit more fantastic than my own tastes, though you COULD include the giant Spider-Ship thing if you wanted—Lolth's Creation that she intends to use to move to another world (or something).

Dwellers of the Forbidden City
This would make a fun adventure for an exploration-geared party—following rumors to a lost city in the midst of a thick jungle. Again, you'd have to find some way to rein in the use of Starships, otherwise, it could easily degenerate into a situation where the party simply strafes the locations of the bad guys then goes in to sift through the rubble. My suggestion to deal with this would be to have some ancient defensive mechanism still in place, either a shield or an ion thing of some sort that prevents flyovers. The remote nature of the city itself would mean the players would then have to go in on foot (and through the caverns) to reach it. Again, the monsters could easily be native species vying for control—with the Yuan-Ti being the remnants of a degenerate former race.

I've actually run this one as a Star Wars conversion, and it seemed to work just fine. Strahd the Vampire becomes Strahd the Dark Jedi. To prevent use of starships is simple enough- the castle itself is defended by a shield generator deep beneath it. Of course the fact that innocents might be held captive in the castle would also be a deterrent to liberal use of aerial firepower. I remember I had to give Strahd a few more extreme force powers, however, to make him more vampiric—thus he was 'undead' in a way, not just a pale-skinned sith.

Tomb of Horrors
I haven't really looked to closely as to how this would translate—but it intrigues me nonetheless. Many of the deadly traps herein could be explained by various types of high-technology gizmos—perhaps even 'lost' technology from some ancient race. Of course the 'killer' tone of the module would (in my campaign at least) have to be cranked down a few notches—leaving it challenging, but not total-party-killing. The demi-lich himself would be difficult to handle, he could be a 'dark Jedi' or some such, but that may be too much cliche (considering a lot of the other 'magical' elements in adventures are easily force related). Perhaps the demi-lich in this is actually the mind of an ancient 'mad-inventor', now living in a computer system that monitors and controls the deadly traps in the tomb.

White Plume Mountain
I see this adventure much in the same vein as the Tomb of Horrors. A 'funhouse' of traps and the like accomplished through technology rather than magic. The monsters living within could even be cryogenically preserved and activated only when sensors detect the party entering. As far as the over-riding plot of the adventure (recovering the three weapon-artifacts) perhaps they're ancient Jedi/Sith heirlooms? Heh...Imagine a 'Blackrazor'-esque lightsaber. Booyah.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
Since it's about exploring a crashed alien ship, the translation of this adventure would be relatively easy to accomplish. In a Star Wars setting, however, it would become a lot more 'routine' than in its original form, as the whole aspect of learning how to use technological devices would be lost. 

The overall plot of the 'U' series modules is an interesting one. Consider a remote swamp planet with a small modern settlement (Saltmarsh). The locals notice strange goings on around an old (and supposedly haunted) ruins. The PCs are hired to check it  out and discover a smuggling ring operating in the area (U1)—and they seem to be supplying the primitive lizard-man tribes with arms! The PCs are then sent to try to pre-empt the imminent lizard-man attack (U2), only to discover that the arms aren't intended to be used against the settlement, but rather against a hostile tribe of sea-dwelling natives seeking the destruction of the lizard-men (and eventually conquest of the settlement). In the final installment (U3), the PCs team up with a band of lizard-men and townsfolk to attack the underwater lair of the bad-guy tribe. Yep. Seems to work for me, and it could be a fun aquatic adventure—not your typical setting.

Isle of Dread
You have to look no further than the King Kong movies to see how this adventure might be converted. A lost planet populated by fierce creatures and perhaps an ancient evil race (the Kopru). Though it is a cliche in Star Wars adventures, the best way to get players onto the planet (and keep them that way) is to have them crash-land (have the planet surrounded by some strange mist and magnetic fields that play havoc with their technology). Once on the ground, the search for parts from other crashed ships would keep them moving, even into the domains of the scary beasties. I figure some the 'native' tribesmen in this case would actually be the degenerate descendants of crashed starship crews, living behind gigantic fortress walls. The 'inland' natives could be ex-slaves of the now fallen Kopru empire, etc.

So anyway, these are just a few ideas with what I see are the most adaptable modules. I'm sure there are more if you put your mind to it—and once again, it shows to me the all-inclusive nature of the setting and just how many different things it can encompass.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review: The Isis Coordinates

As modules and supplements came out for the Star Wars RPG, I eagerly scraped together my meagre resources to buy them all (or at least, I tried to). For several years it seemed that every thing I bought was of really excellent quality. The first real dip in this seemed to come with this module. To be honest, it may be more of an issue of personal taste, but this perception has stuck with me, even looking at the book years after the fact.

The adventure begins with the players stopping over at a secret Alliance shipyard (on the planet Isis)—only to discover an Imperial scout ship nosing around. The rebels manage to down the scout-ship, but are themselves disabled and have to give chase on foot over the rugged, crystal terrain of the planet. This sets up an encounter with the native crystalline-humanoid tribesmen (a typical 'prove your worthiness and friendship' situation). From there, the characters finally catch up with the Imperials, just as they break into the Rebel shipyards and steal a gunship! What follows is a 'Die-Hard' like situation, where the Imperials and Rebels are both onboard the stolen ship as it races away in hyperspace towards the Imperial fleet. The party tries to regain control while the bad guys try to stop (and or) kill them all. Whether or not they succeed in time, the characters wind up captured and are subsequently imprisoned and interrogated—only to escape at the last minute and sabotage the Imperial's nav computer, thus thwarting the Imperial attack on Isis.

In reading the above, you may already begin to see the signs as to why I have problems with this adventure. More than most of the preceding modules, the story line of Isis Coordinates is very railroady. The plot DEPENDS on their ship crashing (a big cliche used in a LOT of Star Wars adventures—and starting to get really old by this one). The plot DEPENDS on the players failing to stop the Imperials from boarding the gunship. The plot DEPENDS on the players being unable to recapture the ship in time to avoid being captured. In story adventures, there is often a bit of this kind of thing, but when you string so many situations like this together, it not only strains credulity, it is also frustrating to players.

Though it is probably blown more out of proportion in my mind than it actually was, I recall my players being just a little miffed at their seeming inability to affect the course of the plot. The instance I remember most vividly is when the players finally regained control of the gunship and subdued or otherwise neutralized the Imperials onboard. They were trying to fix the ship and get it turned around back to base when the Imperial Star destroyer arrived and took them onboard. Unfortunately for the Imps, the characters (through some ingenuity and good skill rolls) managed to get one of he gunship's missile launchers going. They fired a shot WITHIN the hangar bay. It messed up the destroyer, to be sure, but also damaged the gunship. The Imperials were unwilling to let them go, however—thus leaving the players with the very real choice of allowing themselves to be captured or blowing themselves up—which I informed them was a very real possibility if they fired another missile. Rick Oman's player (easily one of the most mild-mannered in the group) was certainly miffed at this point, but conceded In Character that they had called his bluff. He had to make the decision to try and 'live to fight another day'. But he didn't like it.

I can't help but equate this whole adventure to a Kobayashi Maru scenario in Star Trek. The no win situation. And honestly, it bothered me a little—though I only realized the extent of it as I ran it. To my player's credit, even frustrated, they got over it and reacted in character—toughing out the rest of the adventure and pulling together at the last to defeat the bad guys. But still, I didn't enjoy the sessions of this adventure as much as others. This is NOT the only time the players had ever had to face a losing situation. They got themselves into trouble on numerous occasions (Mission to Lianna). But this was one of those rare times where they were FORCED into the situation because that's how the adventure was designed.

Looking back on it, it was probably my fault for not modifying the adventure enough prior to running it. I say 'enough' because I DID actually modify it quite a bit (cutting out the whole scene with the native crystal-humanoids). But in any case, I was left feeling a bit put out by this module. And that was a rare thing with the RPG products up until this point. 

All this having been said, there are redeemable elements in the adventure—the whole 'Die Hard' concept is great fun (even if it had been done in Black Ice). This was a bit different, because the intention was to pit a party of exceptional player characters against a party of exceptional NPCs—not a bunch of lower-level 'grunts' or one high-power baddie. THAT more than anything stuck with me. In fact, this was the adventure where I came up with the concept of Rina Nothos—a recurring villain and nemesis in the campaign. She and one of her henchmen survived this adventure and put together another party that came back to plague the party again. 

The adventure also included an NPC undercover Rebel agent who helps the players out. I replaced the 'generic' guy in this slot with one the character's had encountered before (Tiree). Thus making him a recurring guest star (he went on to be in at least two other module adventures and more of my own). 

I'd previously talked about modifying and personalizing stock adventures. This is a prime example of that. I took a group of generic NPCs that had no ties to the players at all, and by switching them I was able to create a hook that added depth. 

But I digress into personal memories again. Back to the reviewy part—once you get over the railroad feel of the adventure (or write your way out of it), the module has the usual good things you'd expect from a Star Wars story: lots of action, interesting locales, puzzles (in this case actual handouts that you can use to try to repair vital components of the stolen gunship), and a large consequence for failure (thus giving it a bit more impact). 

Overall, the adventure was usable, but to me it never quite measured up to the quality of the other adventures. If I had it to do all over again, I would wind up re-writing an awful lot of it—mainly to take into account player character's tendencies to jump the tracks in any railroad situation.