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Over the years, I’ve played a ton of games where the PCs had hit points and didn’t need them. It took me a long time to figure out why that was a problem.

If the PCs in an RPG have hit points (or any analog thereof; a stat which can signal “you’re dead”), and the actual game being played with that RPG at the table doesn’t include a real chance that PCs can die, it’s the wrong RPG for that game.

I think of that mismatch like this: Is death on the line, or isn’t it? If it’s not, we should play something else; if it is, then cool.

(The words “death on the line” instantly cause this scene from The Princess Bride to replay in my head.)

Emulation and mismatches

In my experience, this mismatch happens most often with games intended to emulate a licensed property, since they’re necessarily more closely associated with a different medium for storytelling than other RPGs. But it also comes up with games that the group wants to feel like a TV show, or a movie, or a novel — media where the story is under someone’s control.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is never going to get killed by a stray disruptor blast from Romulan #3. It just wouldn’t be good TV. So why do the PCs in Star Trek RPGs have hit points?[1]

If those hit points don’t mean anything, that’s a fundamental disconnect between what we say we’re doing at the table — playing a game where the PCs can die — and what we’re actually doing. The illusion of those hit points meaning something wholly unsatisfying in play.[2]

The PTA question

When I hear “I want the game to feel like [a TV show],” a version of the Risus question[3] immediately pops into my head: “Why aren’t we playing this game with Primetime Adventures?”

Because PTA is designed, from the group up, to emulate TV shows. In play, it ticks along like a Swiss fucking watch, sublimely in sync with its stated design goals, as it does exactly what it says on the tin. Nothing needs to be ignored (like hit points) for the game to feel like a TV show, but it simultaneously and explicitly embraces the fact that it’s a roleplaying game. It’s brilliant.

In a PTA Star Trek game, no one has hit points. Picard only gets killed by a disruptor bolt if his player wants him to die (likely because it would feel right for the episode and for the show as a whole). The show isn’t about random character deaths, so neither is the RPG. Poof! Mismatch neatly avoided.

The older I get, the less willing I am to play RPGs where portions of the rules have to be ignored — whether overtly or covertly — to get them to work as desired.

[1] I’m using Star Trek as an example, but the same goes for Star Wars, Doctor Who, or [insert many, many things that have been translated into RPG form here].

[2] The knock-on problem is that there’s now a whole swath of the game that we probably don’t really need. What’s the whole combat system for if the PCs can’t die? Why is there a section about what to do when a PC dies?

[3] “Can Risus do this?” If Risus can do it, and do it as well as RPG X, do I really need RPG X?

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Over the years, I’ve used and experimented with a ton of different notebooks, pencils, pens, and erasers for gaming. I’m almost as much of a notebook and writing implement geek as I am a bag geek, and I enjoy the hunt for the perfect thing as much as I enjoy the satisfaction of finding something that comes close.

I’ve used the same pencil and eraser for about a year now, and they’re perfect for me in every way. I’ve used my current notebook for just over a year and a half, and ditto.

The notebook

I’m a big Moleskine fan, so for the past several years my gaming notebooks have always been Moleskines.

I’ve found that the hardcover ones don’t offer me much more durability (the softcovers are plenty tough), and what little they do offer comes at the expense of comfort while writing — they’re too stiff to lay flat easily. I also used to use smaller ones (easier to pack, right?), but they made my hands cramp because they didn’t give me enough room to write.

The extra large, ruled, softcover Moleskine notebook solves both problems: It lays flat, making it easy to write in, and it’s large enough (7.5″x10″) to make taking notes a breeze.

For the money, Moleskine makes a durable, high-quality notebook. The bookmark is handy, as is the elastic closure. They feel good in-hand, and they’re a pleasure to write in. I don’t bother using a pen for gaming notes anymore, but when I did I sometimes found their paper a bit thin for that, depending on the pen.

(Yes, I have terrible handwriting. All-caps is the only way anyone can read my notes, including me.)

The pencil and eraser

After mocking one up in paper so I could confirm that it wouldn’t be too short, I splurged on a Kaweco Brass Sport pencil (with 0.7mm leads). I’m 6’0″, and it’s just the right length for my rather large hands. It doesn’t look like it’d be long enough, but my grip ignores the back third of most pencils/pens anyway, and that’s all that’s missing from the Sport.

Brass is one of my favorite metals, particularly for things I use often, in large part because it patinas. I’ve entirely failed to capture the patina in my photos, but it’s there and I think it’s lovely.

I love the styling, but it’s also functional in a minimalist way: It’s a comfortable pencil to use, even for long periods. It only holds two spare leads, which isn’t the end of the world (though I’d prefer more), and it doesn’t have an eraser.

Lacking an eraser doesn’t bother me, since I’m happy to use a separate, much longer-lasting, stick eraser — specifically, the rOtring Tikky eraser. Absolutely everything about this eraser is perfect, and it’s miles better than any other stick eraser I’ve used.

Before I switched to that pair, I used a Pentel Side FX 0.7mm pencil. I still swear by these as disposable options, and I keep this one in my gaming bag as a loaner/backup.

I’ve used it for so long that the lettering has rubbed off, because it’s the best pencil of its kind I’ve ever used. It holds a half-dozen leads in the body, the grip is comfortable, and the action is perfect.

The twist ring at the top controls the retractable eraser, and the button on the side advances the lead. Those are both a big deal, because crappy pencils don’t have a retractable eraser (whereas this one lasts for years), and the lead is advanced by pushing the eraser — often, in my experience, while erasing.

These are little things! But little things make the difference between the almost-right tool and the tool that’s perfect for you. These are perfect for me, and I highly recommend all of them.

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Day After Ragnarok, by Kenneth Hite, packs an amazing amount of crazy-good stuff into a teeny-tiny itty-bitty package.

Word for word, Ken Hite sticks more gameable, immediately usable, inspirational shit in everything he writes than most folks in the industry, and this book may be the best example of that that I’ve ever read.

I have the Savage Worlds edition, but DAR also comes in Fate Core flavor and a HERO 6th Edition version, and I assume it’s basically the same setting book with different mechanics.

10/10

DAR’s concept is so gonzo and batshit that it immediately commands attention. In just the first couple of pages, Ken gives us a setting like no other. The time is 1944, and the Nazis have succeeded in bringing about Ragnarök:

And then it happened; the whole world heard the howl of Garm, and the moon was eclipsed in blood. The head of Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, 350 miles across, breached the surface of the Arabian Sea and rose up into the troposphere.

The Americans, naturally, figure out a way to nuke Jörmungandr in the eye.

(No individual artist credits in the book, unfortunately.)

Which turns out to be a great idea, but also a really terrible idea:

Dark crimson rain fell from Dublin to Denver. Where it struck, the seas boiled and the earth drank poison. And things engendered, mutated horrors born of dragon’s blood and broken strontium atoms. […] But it hardly mattered, no at first, because the fall of the Serpent’s body back into the Atlantic sent up a wall of water a hundred miles high that smashed into the coast from Halifax to Havana.

The Serpent is really fucking big:

The head finally crashed to earth in Egypt–or rather, on Egypt. Its body followed it down, thunderously settling across Europe in a 300-mile wide swath from Scotland to Sicily, and setting off earthquakes 100 miles across on both sides of its fallen body.

All the fallout from the Serpent’s death doesn’t trigger a complete, worldwide apocalypse, though. It wipes out some entire countries, and scars all the rest, but large chunks of humanity survive — and all of this happens smack in the middle of World War II.

It’s an entirely different kind of post-apocalyptic game.

And it fucking delivers

Not only does Ken set up a setting like no other in just a few pages: he then delivers on all of the promises those early pages made.

My group is 9 sessions into our Savage Worlds DAR campaign, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the setting has to offer. And unlike a lot of settings, exploring a new place doesn’t involve reading a massive tome — Ken covers the whole setting in 27 pages.

This setting is so rich, and so well-conveyed, that all we need to explore some new corner of it is a couple of paragraphs from DAR, access to Wikipedia, and a few minutes of collaborative spitballing. That’s a perfect balance of inspiration and freedom — something I love in a good setting book.

I won’t veer into spoilers about the setting (everything I’ve shared above is in the intro, and is common knowledge in the setting), so suffice to say that Day After Ragnarok is one of my all-time favorite campaign settings. It’s a superb book in every way.

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I’ve been using a Timbuk2 Rogue backpack as my dedicated gaming bag for the past year or so, and as my needs have changed it’s been less and less ideal.[1] I asked for recommendations on G+ and got some great ones, but it was Jerome Comeau’s suggestion I kept coming back to: Tom Bihn.

After entirely too much research, reading forum posts and reviews, and narrowing things down, I decided that to go from 95% sure to 100% sure, I’d need to see a couple different bags in person. Tom Bihn is local, so I visited their showroom-warehouse-workshop, which was awesome. They’re super-friendly, and they’re bag geeks too: I asked if it was weird that I’d brought a bunch of stuff to test out in different bags, and they said not at all.

I went with the Pilot in burnt orange exterior/northwest sky interior.

I’ve only had it for a few hours, and I haven’t even taken it to gaming yet, so grain of salt and all that. But my first impression in-store is backed up by my second impression, after loading it up at home: This is a fabulous bag.

The product page covers all the stats, so I’ll focus on why I chose it as a gaming bag and what I’ve got in it at the moment.

For context

Most of my gaming these days is done with digest-sized (or similar) books, but not all of it; I use 8.5″x11″ gaming books, too, so I need a bag that can hold them. But I don’t need one that can hold a lot of books — I can always switch to a backpack for those rare occasions when I need a mess of books.

What I do need, alongside a few books, is just the right amount of space for doodads: dice bags, decks of cards, pencils, and the like. I also need room for a water bottle and maybe a raincoat or warm layer, and I want the flexibility to use this bag at local cons (starting with Go Play NW in a couple of weeks) and on occasional airplane trips.

A straight-up messenger bag isn’t ideal for this use case, because they tend to be primarily one big compartment plus a few slim pockets. That leads to jamming card boxes and shit in around books, which is annoying. And a strap designed to position the bag diagonally, with one end at my shoulder, is awesome for commuting on my bike, but less awesome at every other time.

Finally, I like a bag that doesn’t feel under-loaded when I don’t have much in it, but which also doesn’t feel overloaded when I’ve jammed it full of stuff. That’s a hard balance to strike!

Enter the Pilot

The Pilot is long enough for 8.5″x11″ books, and tall enough to accommodate a three-ring binder and oversized folders (slightly larger than 8.5″x11″). In the showroom, I fit my DCC RPG core book, big red folder/folio thing, and a three-ring binder in it — tightly, but it fit.

But look at how it’s segmented, as seen from the top:

Half of the Pilot is “book space,” and the other half is “small stuff space.” For how and where I game, and with the stuff I use, that’s a perfect split for me.

Here it is with the three main compartments open:

It’s divided down the middle, along the line of the handle. The way the pockets are positioned — two on the “book side” of that division, and the rest on the opposite side — is, like so many things about this bag, quite clever.

It makes weight “collect” along the central axis, which, along with the stiffness of the ballistic nylon exterior, makes the Pilot stay standing up quite easily. By contrast, my current bike commuting bag, a Timbuk2 Commute (small) concentrates all of its pockets on the front edge; unless the main compartment is fully loaded, it flops over on itself.

In the Pilot, I’m currently using the two “book side” pockets to hold digest-sized gaming books. Here they are, along with the stuff that shares that main compartment:

My group in Seattle generally plays three games at a time, on different nights, so I like to keep the bag loaded for all three of them. With fewer books, I might use those thin pockets for something else.

Bag dump

Here’s everything I have in it at the moment, with stuff positioned near the pocket it inhabits:

By section, that’s:

  • Five small gaming books, a large Moleskine notebook, and my folio/folder thing for loose papers in the main compartment
  • My Rory’s Story Cubes collection, snacks, tissues, and a card case that holds some 3×5 index cards and a Harrow Deck[2] in the left front section
  • Pens and pencils, replacement leads, ibuprofen, and my dice bag in the right front section

There’s room left over, too. I could squeeze another book or two into the main compartment, plus maybe my bag of poker chips; there’s also room to spare in both front compartments.

And, of course, no hydration — yet!

Agua

The central pocket on the front is made for a water bottle, but can also hold a small umbrella, a rolled-up raincoat, or anything else about that size and shape. Unlike exterior water bottle pockets, which in my experience have limited or no use for much else, this one is more versatile.

I’ve experimented with a couple different bottles and settled on the 24 oz. Nalgene N-Gen. My beloved narrow-mouth 32 oz. Nalgene fits, but requires some wrasslin’ going in and coming out. The pint version doesn’t use as much space as it could, and I’d rather have a bit more water than that near to hand. I suspect the 24-ouncer will be perfect.

I love this bag

Overall, the bag is built like a tank, and the quality level is through the roof. There’s nary a stray thread in sight, all the seams are tight, and the zppers are a delight. It’s comfortable as a shoulder bag, a cross-shoulder bag, slung around to the back, and as a briefcase (special mention goes to the grab handle, which rocks). I can see why people rave about these bags.

So there it is! Untested on the field of battle, but already feeling like mine. Many thanks to Jerome for the recommendation, and to Matthew at Tom Bihn for his help!

[1] Where it shines, and will continue to shine, is as a family day pack — particularly when we’re going somewhere crowded. It’s long and slim, but holds three water bottles, three raincoats, snacks, and other miscellaneous items well, and being thin means I don’t bump into people all the time while I’m wearing it.

[2] Story Cubes and the Harrow Deck are my two favorites sources of ideas for improvisation. I should really write a post about them sometime!

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On the day the UK voted to leave the EU, which happened to be the day after I read a heartbreaking investigative piece on private prisons, I woke up thinking about corporate greed, economic collapse, the excesses of the rich, Donald Trump, and human awfulness. And I thought, “I should design a game about eating the rich.

A bit later, I thought, “No, I should design a game about the rich eating other people. Kind of like Soylent Green, except there’s no way the rich would eat poor people. So who would they eat?

Soylent Platinum is the result: a free RPG about the rich eating the famous.

Soylent Platinum is designed for 3-6 players, with no GM. Everyone plays an obscenely wealthy person bidding for the privilege of kidnapping, killing, and eating the most famous celebrity in the world — while destroying the global economy for their own benefit.

As social commentary, it’s a lot less subtle than The Thief, my previous free RPG. As a game, it’s short-form, and there’s a bit of one of my favorite roleplaying poems, Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in its DNA. Like the other games I’ve designed, it started as an idea that wouldn’t let go of my brain until I sat down and turned it into a game.

Alongside Stoke (which features a conversation with rules about tone) and Soylent Green, Soylent Platinum’s inspirations were the films Antiviral and Hostel and the RPGs Dark Conspiracy (mainly its proles) and Dog Eat Dog (which weaves discomfort into its mechanics). It took me about three hours to design and another three hours or so to assemble, polish, and proofread.

If you give Soylent Platinum a whirl, I’d love to hear who you ate, how it felt, and what you thought about the game.

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This past Sunday, I went skydiving for the first time.

It was a tandem jump at Skydive Snohomish, and my instructor Mike (who rocked!) and I jumped out of an airplane at 13,500 feet (2.5 miles). We reached our terminal velocity, 180 mph, in a few seconds, and spent about a minute in freefall.

It was totally amazing.

I’m still processing the whole experience. My stomach felt like it was at 13,500 feet for at least an hour afterwards. And in the same way that part of me is always hiking up a mountain, part of me will, I suspect, always be skydiving.

Holy fucking shit!

Once we were at altitude, there was very little time to think about what was happening.

Mike and I were the first two tandem jumpers, but we were preceded by a team of five who exited the plane in formation, and a team of two doing some sort of headfirst freefall thing. From the moment the door opened[1], this is a rough summary of my thought process.

Hey, those people in front just fell out of an airplane! What the fuck! Hey he’s scooting us forward! Okay, my job is to tuck my feet under the plane. Hey, we’re about to fall out of an airplane! I JUST FELL OUT OF AN AIRPLANE!

That only took a few seconds, tops.[2]

There were two terrifying moments. The first was the initial drop, which I expected to be scary. The second was when the canopy opened, which I didn’t expect to be scary. What those moments shared was my body’s realization that it was falling towards the Earth from a great height.

The Fitbit knows

This is my heart rate today (thanks, Fitbit!):

That spot where there’s a gap in the graph, where it spikes from around 70 bpm to around 115, is when our plane took off. (“Oh shit, this is actually happening.”)

I’m pretty sure the spot where it spikes to 126 bpm is when we actually jumped.

The clichés are true

I’ve heard skydiving described as “the ultimate freedom.” That’s true.

Once we hit 180 mph, it felt like floating. I was so high up that the ground didn’t feel like it was rushing towards me, so even looking straight down didn’t feel like I thought it would. The part of my brain that should have been terrified after the initial drop hadn’t fully caught up.

I’d also read, and heard, that the feeling of skydiving is indescribable. That’s also true!

It was a jumble of terror, with my brain lagging well behind my body in responding to the situation at hand; exhilaration during freefall, which is one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever experienced; and a deeply chill, relaxing float down under the canopy, having a conversation with Mike about the sights, and skydiving, and whatever else came to mind.

I’m so glad I did this

Skydiving is something I wasn’t sure I could do. I wanted to see if I could do it, so I did it.

I didn’t even want to do it, except in the abstract sense, until a couple of years ago.[3] That was when I started hiking up mountains and learned to take considered risks around lethal drop-offs — and enjoyed it. Five years ago, I don’t think I could have gone skydiving.

It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. The adrenaline was insane. The mix of fear and excitement and anticipation and freedom and the wild rush of air at 180 mph and the knowledge that I was falling out of an airplane, towards the ground, faster than I’ve ever gone and higher than I’ve ever been before . . . is hard to put into words.

“Totally amazing” is probably as close as I can get. Two hours later, it still doesn’t seem entirely real. It doesn’t even sound real: “I fell two-and-a-half miles, but, thanks to some straps, buckles, rope, and a fancy piece of cloth, I didn’t die.”

If the opportunity arose, I would absolutely do it again. And I’d happily do it at Skydive Snohomish — they were awesome.

[1] Which, as a lifelong air traveler, was just one more moment of weirdness. (“THERE’S A HOLE IN THIS PLANE!”)

[2] Thirty minutes afterwards, I noticed that my teeth felt sore — I must have gritted them like crazy.

[3] In an “I’d like to do that someday” sense, I’d always been curious about skydiving.

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Bubblegumshoe, by game designers Emily Care Boss, Kenneth Hite, and Lisa Steele, streamlines the GUMSHOE system[1] and tunes it for teen mysteries like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Veronica Mars, and Scooby-Doo. I had a chance to spend some time with my copy last night, and so far I dig it.

Teen mystery is a fun genre that doesn’t get a lot of attention in RPGs, this design team is fantastic, and while I think GUMSHOE is neat I also wish it was a bit lighter — Bubblegumshoe sounded like it would be right up my apple cart.

Small and impeccably dressed

Like every Evil Hat book I own, Bubblegumshoe features a delightfully clear, useful layout backed up by great artwork. I love how the text uses bold and highlighting (with the look of actual “swipes” of a highlighter) to convey key concepts:

Rich Longmore‘s interior art defines the feel of the book for me:

At 272 pages, Bubblegumshoe isn’t short, but its pleasantly breezy layout (great for my aging eyes!) and the book’s form factor combine to make it a relatively short book nonetheless. Short is good! Short means I can start playing sooner.

The plot thickens

So what’s Bubblegumshoe all about? The intro covers this nicely:

High schoolers solving mysteries in a modern, American small-town setting.

GUMSHOE provides the core mechanics: The system is driven by ensuring that the PCs can find core clues, offering them the chance to spend points to get better results, and leaving some things to chance. If your PC has the Research ability, and there’s a core clue — one that’s required to solve the mystery — in the library, just mention that you’re using Research and she’ll find it, no roll needed.

Bubblegumshoe builds on that foundation. Here are my favorite things about it (so far):

  • I’m a sucker for collaborative setting creation, so building the campaign’s central town, and then expanding on it through play, is awesome. It’s nowhere near as fleshed-out as, say, city creation in the Dresden Files RPG, but it’s solid and simple.
  • Relationships are a key component of Bubblegumshoe. Every PC has Loves, Likes, and Hates which connect them to members of the supporting cast — NPCs in the town the group creates together. These are more than just roleplaying hooks, though: Bubbblegumshoe PCs are kids solving mysteries, not adults solving mysteries — they don’t necessarily have “adult” skills. But with relationships, they can borrow them from adults based on their personal connections. I love this!
  • High school drama also plays a central role. In addition to Relationships, PCs belong to cliques and clubs, and social status is a big deal. A sizable chunk of the book is devoted to social conflict, and it looks like a nifty system. All of this stuff has mechanical heft, too: For example, “damage” from social combat costs you Cool, which reduces your effectiveness as a sleuth.
  • In that vein, violence is downplayed in Bubblegumshoe. There may be scuffles, even fistfights, and there will likely be chases and daring escapes, but this isn’t a game about kids carving prison shanks, stealing their parents’ guns, and beating up suspects. The book stays laser-focused on its specific niche, high school noir.
  • Bubblegumshoe has fewer moving parts than core GUMSHOE. There are fewer abilities, and the game feels like it would zip along beautifully in play.

I also love the Drifts — so much that they need their own section.

Rooby-Rooby-Roo!

Drifts are Bubblegumshoe’s playsets, tweaks and suggestions for adapting the basic formula to play different sorts of game. Here’s the iconic image of the default town, spun for the Bellairs Falls setting:

(Art by Rich Longmore)

I bought Bubblegumshoe with an eye to using it to run lighthearted Scooby-Doo mysteries, and while the default tone of the game is a bit more serious than that, Drifts are how I can get my Scoob on.

The book includes eight of them, each with an overview, rules changes, and some suggested types of story that work well:

  • Bellairs Falls is a town “where dark and destructive magics roil beneath the surface” — a solid option for supernatural campaigns
  • Danvers High is in the vein of Smallville: You play young superheroes (the game recommends using Mutant City Blues for powers)
  • Dymond City, an urban dystopia, for tales of gangs, crime, and survival
  • Kimball Middle School stretches the core concept to tweens, and lightens the tone
  • Kingsfield Academy is a boarding-school game setting where only the best won’t flunk out
  • Ruby Hollow is my jam: plucky kids, humorous sidekick, and villains who often turn out to be greedy white people in masks — Scooby-Doo, baby!
  • Strangehill Scout Troop 221 builds on Kimball Middle School, but the PCs are Scouts
  • Veronica Base, Mars moves the action to the red planet, and into a small, isolated base

The Drifts are great, and there’s more than enough here to get your juices flowing if you want to stretch Bubblegumshoe in other directions, too.

My stumbling block

The only thing that bugs me about Bubblegumshoe, which also applies to GUMSHOE, is its emphasis on plot. That’s a purely personal preference: I don’t think “there’s a plot” will be a barrier to the average Bubblegumshoe-playing group. It’s just not my jam.

The basic idea is that for a given Bubblegumshoe mystery the GM comes up with a hook, the spine — one logical path the PCs could, but don’t have to, take to reach the conclusion, and some scenes and clues built around the spine. The book also offers advice on going with the flow and changing things you had planned in order to accommodate players’ choices, and so forth.

To run Bubblegumshoe, I’d likely fall back on the game’s improv advice, which is sound (“do the usual stuff, but fuzzier”), augmented by what’s in its excellent section on “bubblespyramids.” This bit borrows the Conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents — one of my all-time favorite bits of game tech. You arrange clues on the bottom layer that are easy to get, then stack fewer clues on top of those, and so on, in a pyramid shape; the apex is the mystery’s conclusion.

That provides many ways into the mystery, and many paths through it, and gates later stuff behind figuring things out early on, and it seems like it could come together quite organically in play. Bubblegumshoe suggests this structure for season-long mysteries, but I think it could also work for mysteries lasting just a session or two — as the default approach, basically.

Bubble-yum

On balance, I quite like Bubblegumshoe. It’s a concise, flavorful look at a genre that’s under-represented in RPGs, its take on GUMSHOE is superb, and the blend of sleuthing, relationship drama, and small-town hijinx is deftly done — and looks like it’d be a blast in play.

[1] The guts of which are available in SRD form.

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I mentioned S. John Rosslist of personal GURPS book ratings in an aside to my love letter to Warehouse 23 and Illuminati, but after using it to track down a bevy of awesome-looking books the other day, I realized it needed its own call-out post. This list is a fantastic tool (and trouble for my wallet).

My latest $5 GURPS acquisition, which I snagged based on its placement on S. John’s list, was Planet Krishna, by James Cambias.

Tell me this doesn’t sound fantastic:

The natives are all too human — except for the green skin, the feathery antennae, the eggs . . . ‘Protected’ from technology by interstellar law, armored knights clash in a wilderness of blue woods while square-rigged war galleys patrol the Inland seas.

This is a book I’d ignored when browsing in-stock GURPS books in various places, and I would have continued to overlook it had it not appeared in S. John’s list — and that’s what I love about the list!

The best of the best of the best

He’s also done a version of the list sorted by rating, with only books he rates 75% or higher appearing thereon, and this version is the one that’s cost me some money.

One of the only books to score a 90% on the list is GURPS Time Travel, which I can’t stop writing about because it’s so damned good. Warehouse 23, another personal favorite, clocks in at 85%. In fact, every GURPS book I’ve ever liked appears somewhere on the best-of version of the list.

On the cheap

Based on loving S. John’s work, and after my first couple forays into his recommended books bore fruit, I see a lot of overlap in what we look for in a GURPS book.

Which is why I’ve been trawling the list and then visiting my favorite haunts to track down the ones that catch my interest, generally for under $10 a book — and sometimes for as little as $4.[1]

So yes, S. John’s list is trouble . . . but it’s the best sort of trouble.

[1] It’s mystifying to me why old GURPS books are so cheap, but I’m not complaining. They’re fantastic resources for any game, and they often include bibliographies which, in turn, inspire more great reading.

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The more of GURPS Time Travel I read, the more I love this book. Pound for pound, it’s one of the best gaming books I’ve read, GURPS or otherwise.

Leaving aside the “idea nuggets” scattered throughout, Time Travel offers up six settings. Time Corps is brilliant, and does more in 13 pages than most setting books do in hundreds. Infinite Worlds is the other setting which gets a longer treatment (and which later got blown out into its own book, GURPS Infinite Worlds, which I haven’t read yet).

But there are also four mini-settings, which collectively take up just 16 pages. These sounded neat, but I figured the real money was in the two more complete settings. Not so! These mini-settings are fantastic in their own right.

In the Cube

The first mini-setting is a short one, just 3 pages, and casts the PCs as lost time-travelers jumping randomly throughout history. They’ve got a support team back home, in the present; their time machine, the Hypercube, is also in the present.

The PCs can contact the scientists at home[1], although it’s not a quick or automatic process because the Hypercube isn’t a stable, smoothly-operating machine — it’s kind of a mess. The home-timers can also send the PCs stuff.

This tight little setup is a big, shiny hook for a rollicking time-romp. The PCs are yanked into another time — whatever sounds fun, perhaps a historical tipping point or the middle of a raging battle — and have to make their own way until the scientists can establish contact and give them support.

It’s very Quantum Leap, but there’s also some Star Trek: Voyager in the mix — because of course the PCs would eventually like to return home.

Eternity’s Rangers

The opposite is true of Eternity’s Rangers: The PCs can’t return home, because in their home time, they’re all dead. This mini-setting gets a whopping 8 pages, and it’s my favorite of the bunch.

Eternity’s Rangers, as the name suggests, is a military campaign. The Recruiters, a mysterious group with access to time travel, controls the Rangers, a military unit composed of soldiers from all along Earth’s timeline. Each ranger was snatched from the moment of their death and offered a choice:

I died in the Ardennes, during what you call the Battle of the Bulge. Ran into an enemy patrol in the middle of the night. There was fire; too much fire. Then a voice said, “If you want to come out of this alive, friend, take three steps to the left.”

The Recruiters send the Rangers on missions throughout time, always with specific objectives: “Turn the tide of this battle in favor of the Visigoths; everyone gets an assault rifle and 10 magazines,” or “Rescue this prisoner, but don’t reveal that you’re time travelers.” And if someone does cotton to your unnatural origins? They’re probably going to have to die, because the Recruiters are ruthless about obeying their orders.

I could go on and on about this setting (it’s so damned good!), but instead I’ll share just one more favorite element: the pickup. Every mission comes with a pickup time and location, and if you’re not there, you’re stuck forever . . . unless you’re important enough to merit a follow-up rescue mission, of course!

The Order of the Hourglass

This mini-setting is Roaring Twenties pulp adventure + psychic time travel + time-hopping adventurers opposed by shadowy secret societies. Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with time travel.

By default, the PCs use time travel to study or explore the past — but their enemies use it for evil. Unscrupulous time travelers set up bases in the past, altering history for their own ends. Some have figured out that committing murder in the past leaves no loose ends, and have no compunctions about killing those who oppose them — like the PCs.

It’s a simple concept, but a rich one. There’s no vast temporal conspiracy, just ragtag time-explorers getting into trouble, often at the hands of a diverse bunch of enemies. There’s a ton of room to maneuver, which is one of the things I like about this setting.

The Horatio Club

Imagine if the Diogenes Club were actually a pan-dimensional cross-time nexus frequented by all manner of strange people, and you have the Horatio Club.

No one arrives there by accident, and the club’s many doors lead to myriad universes which, generally, feature entertaining problems that need to be solved. It’s a bit heavy-handed for my tastes, but the bones are intriguing — and like In the Cube, it’s a marvelous excuse to romp through time and space without worrying overmuch about the consequences.

This book just keeps on delivering

I’m on to the Infinite Worlds portion of GURPS Time Travel next, and a bit further on down the line I’ll be checking out the much longer standalone IW book. Based on the strength of the five Time Travel settings I’ve read, I’m excited to see what that one’s like, as well!

[1] The book also suggests another option: Everyone plays two characters, a time-wanderer and a scientist in the present.

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I’ve rounded the horn on 2016 Hugo Awards finalist novels, wrapping up Naomi Novik‘s Uprooted on Sunday night. Seveneves was a 5/5 that roared through my brain, and The Fifth Season was a 5/5 that took a bit of time to get rolling, so I was curious to see if Uprooted would keep the streak alive.

Like Jemisin, Novik was new to me; the blurb suggested that Uprooted had a fairy-tale thing going, which didn’t sound awesome . . . but the first few pages grabbed me hard, and I bought it on the spot. I blazed through the book in just a few days, because Uprooted was awesome — a rich, textured yarn set in a world where fairy-tale logic and magic is real, which fully explores just what that would mean for its people.

(Apart from mentioning what’s in the blurb or within the first few pages, and a quote from around 16% of the way in, this post is spoiler-free.)

From a simple foundation

There’s an evil woods.

There’s a mysterious wizard who lives in a tower, and who demands one village girl every decade in tribute.

There’s a witch.

Bored yet? On the face of it, those things sound pretty dull.

But that’s the fairy-tale thing at work: Uprooted is built on a deceptively simple foundation. None of those ideas are new — but what Novik does with them is both novel and delightful.

An exploration

What does it mean when a forest is evil? Not just dark and dreary and full of monsters, but actively — proactively — evil? And why would ordinary folks lives within a stone’s throw of its edge?

Given the prevalence of Forests of DoomTM in fantasy literature, I wouldn’t have expected there to be many interesting answers to those questions left unplumbed, but Novik does just that — and more.

The forest — the Wood — is truly creepy. It reminds me a lot of the Zone in Roadside Picnic: a place that operates on its own rules, unrelated to humanity’s, and which is incredibly dangerous.

Here’s one of my favorite examples, a throwaway bit from early on in the book:

Two years ago, an easterly wind had caught our friend Trina on the riverbank while she was doing some washing. She came back stumbling and sick, the clothing in her basket coated with a silver-grey pollen.

Because it’s the Wood, that breeze wasn’t errant or random, and because it’s the Wood, even just the fucking pollen is enough to wreck your shit.

Everything about Uprooted, from its remarkable protagonist and her allies to the way fairy-tale logic comes to make sense in the context of its setting, is that good. Novik delves deeply into each element, spinning things out and unfurling surprises as she goes.

The ending felt a bit rushed, but only a bit, and apart from that I loved everything about Uprooted. It’s a 5/5 for me — three for three among the Hugo finalist novels I’ve read so far. Uprooted is high on my list of favorite standalone, no-previous-experience-necessary fantasy novels.

Moar Hugos plz

Up next in my Hugo finalist reading, I think, will be The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass. I’m tired of steampunk, but I sampled it last night and was hooked inside the first few pages — much like Uprooted. As a Butcher fan, I expect this one to be a fun ride.

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