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My Seattle group is coming up on a year of Ars Magica play, using 5e — my first experience with Ars. We’ve played around 20 sessions (I’ve missed a couple, but I’ve been there for 18), covering about a year of in-game time, and I say without hyperbole that I will happily play this campaign until I totter into a nursing home if that’s an option.

Out of the roughly 130 RPGs I’ve played, Ars Magica is one of only two games that I currently rate a 10/10. Here’s why I love it so much.

Ars is above the crunch level I’d usually consider for a long-term game (purely a personal preference), but every bit of that crunch is put to good use — it’s not just there for the sake of it. The game mechanics tee things up to deliver meaningful, engaging play by taking full advantage of that crunch — and you don’t need all of it at any one time. The core mechanic is quite simple. The game design, by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein-Hagen (the original designers), with David Chart at the helm of fifth edition, is brilliant.

It’s also a fascinating, unique beast in many different ways. It’s designed for troupe play: We have six players, and each of us created two characters for ourselves (a magus, who is central to the campaign but goes on fewer adventures than one might think, and a companion, a sort of “anything goes” character you typically wind up playing more often) and three grogs — minor characters — for the group. Every session, we divvy up characters differently.

Someone plays their magus; they’re in the spotlight. A couple folks play their companions. The others pick suitable grogs from the pool (whether they originally created them or not), and take on a supporting character role. And in the background, the other ~40 characters who live in and around our wizard tower keep the place running, just like a medieval manor house. It’s beautiful.

And then there’s the temporal scope, which is epic: Wizards can live for a really long time. You can pace play however you like, but it works well as a mix of seasonal and in-the-moment play. During seasonal play — which could be at the table or “offline,” between sessions — you raise skills, read magical tomes, add buildings to your covenant, and the like. That’s interspersed with adventures, typically one or two per year, where you undertake whatever the hell the wizards think is important.

And then — and then! — there’s the magic system, which mixes formulaic spells with spontaneous magic using a brilliant set of mechanics. It’s all built around combining a verb, like creo for creating something, with a noun, like aquam for water. You can look at any wizard’s stats in those verbs and nouns and have a pretty good idea of what they’re capable of — which is a LOT. I keep underestimating how good our novice magi are at doing all sorts of shit that would just wreck other RPGs. And the game supports just coming up with wild shit, plugging into the framework of the rules, and making it happen.

And it all has consequences! The characters exist in a web of responsibilities, intrigue, danger, obligation, relationships, power plays, and machinations that lends weight to everything you do at the table.

There’s so much to Ars, both in terms of the rulebook, which isn’t small, and in terms of the scope of play and the setting itself, that I really have no idea how to encapsulate it all in a blog post.

The short version is that Ars Magica is a thing of beauty, and I love it.

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As a kid, I used to spend hours poring over any sort of “superheroes A-Z” content I could find. I had some that came in issues of comics, and the long-running Marvel-phile column in Dragon, and probably other sources I’ve forgotten about.

When I started playing TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes, I traced hero silhouettes from those articles (Captain Britain was a favorite) and used them as the basis for drawing all of my characters.

Fast forward from the late ’80s/early ’90s to now, and I’m kicking myself because it wasn’t until a few days ago that it occurred to me that of course this is still a thing, and it’s probably gotten even easier to acquire big volumes of it.

It has! Enter the Marvel Encyclopedia, which — although it’s a bit squirrely about its author credits — is at least partly written by Matt Forbeck, and which is utterly fabulous.

This book is titanic. It’s a coffee table book, hardcover, and over 400 pages. Full color, of course. (It had a dust jacket, too, which I find less than useless on books this size.) And it’s $22 shipped with Prime.

It covers more than 1,200 characters, both heroes and villains, with origins, pictures, background info, and other fun tidbits. It also covers crossover events, famous hero/villain groups, and more. It’s exactly the kind of big, splashy, high-production-values book I’d expect from DK and Marvel.

This is the kind of non-gaming RPG sourcebook that I love. Need on-the-spot inspiration for an NPC? Flip through this beast. Stuck for hero ideas for your next character? Lose yourself in over 1,200 of them. Can’t remember who Obscure Hero X is? They’re probably in here.

This book is so cool.

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I missed the boat on Chris McDowall​’s Into the Odd, but eventually figured out that I was missing something splendid. It’s out of print, but the PDF is a dandy $8 and I love coil binding, so here we are.

Here’s the blurb:

Into the Odd contains everything you need to create a character and explore an industrial world of cosmic meddlers and horrific hazards. This is a fast, simple game, to challenge your wits rather than your understanding of complex rules.

You seek Arcana, strange devices hosting unnatural powers beyond technology. They range from the smallest ring to vast machines, with powers from petty to godlike. Beside these unnatural items that they may acquire, your characters remain grounded as mortals in constant danger.

It’s a great book. Tight. Taut. Pregnant with possibilities. It does a lot between the lines, and even more that looks innocuous but is actually delightfully clever. And it includes a marvelous on-ramp in the form of an introductory dungeon, a hexcrawl surrounding said dungeon, and a starting city — plus a raft of tables to flesh things out on the fly.

I absolutely love its leveling system, which is handled not by XP but by the number of expeditions you’ve survived (and later on, shepherded others through), and the mechanics for buying military units and starting businesses which hum along between sessions are fantastic.

There are so many small-yet-not-small flourishes in Into the Odd that I won’t try to catalog them all here. Chris offers a free edition of Into the Odd so you can get a feel for the game before plunking down some cash, and many of those flourishes are on display in that version of the game.

I want to run at least a one-shot of Into the Odd to see what it feels like in play — probably straight from the book, as there’s plenty in that intro adventure and its environs to get a campaign off the ground.

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Earlier this month, at Go Play Northwest, I played a game of Traveller Carcosa run by Alex Mayo that really made me want to play more Traveller. It also reminded me to prod my long-simmering, largely unrequited interest in Traveller and see if Mongoose Traveller was still my favorite iteration.

I then bumped into this post by Alex Schroeder about the nuances of sector generation in Classic Traveller (from The Traveller Book) and Mongoose Traveller 1e, and that led me down a rabbit warren of Classic Traveller exploration.

What I learned was that there is at least as much meaningful variation in the nuances, presentation, expression, and philosophy of different versions of the Classic Traveller rules as there is in versions of old-school D&D.[1] I had no idea!

I love exploring this kind of stuff (and I’ve written about a bit of it myself; for example, my posts about B/X D&D), and just as it did with D&D, delving deeply into the seemingly innocuous variations in Traveller has led me to the realization that it’s the very first presentation, the 1977 versions of Books 1-3 that interests me the most, supplemented by The Traveller Book for specific areas (like its tidy summary of the encounter rolls that form the basic structure of a campaign).

Interestingly, the only source for the 1977 version of Traveller that I’m aware of also happens to be one of the best deals in gaming: the Classic Traveller CD-ROM from Far Future Entertainment, which also includes the entire CT canon for just $35. Apart from that lone source, the later revisions of the original rules, notably the 1983 Traveller Book, have “taken over” and supplanted the 1977 version. The FFE CD, though, includes the original 1977 booklets, the 1981 revision, and The Traveller Book.

Classic Traveller love

Here are some of the branches in that rabbit warren, all great reads:

Collectively, all of the above gave me a newfound appreciation for the original 1977 iteration of Traveller, as well as for the many parallels between Traveller Books 1-3 and OD&D’s original three LBBs, which embody a similar freewheeling, DIY, make-your-own-fun ethos.

When I — eventually! — get to run Classic Traveller, it’ll be with the 1977 rules (Books 1-3), The Traveller Book for some handy clarifications, and possibly, though only possibly, Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium for alternate careers (but minus the Imperium stuff).

[1] And that’s not even considering all of the other full-on different editions, like MegaTraveller and whatnot.

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Thanks to the inimitable Alex Schroeder, I followed a link to this excellent 2005 essay by Michael Andre-Driussi: Deciphering the Text Foundations of Traveller.

Here’s Driussi’s thesis:

The creators of CT wanted the anarchic, amoral, and violent adventure of fantasy role playing translated into a science fiction setting. They also wanted a kind of science fiction that used more “hard SF” than even Niven’s work. They categorically rejected New Wave SF, which made them allied to the Old Wave, except that GDW wanted a gritty, noir setting (where the Old Wave is characterized as upbeat and moral).

Traveller as noir is something I’d never considered, but it makes perfect sense. There’s a lot more to unpack, even in just that excerpt — the whole essay is a damned fine read.

Here’s another concise snippet:

What the creators of CT were after was science fiction adventure, featuring freelance “adventurers” (with all the connotations of gold hunters, mercenaries, and trail blazers that this term implies) who could live or die in the course of pick-up games.

One of the sources Driussi cites is the Dumarest Saga, by E.C. Tubb (which I’d never heard of, but boy does it sound like it’d fit right into Appendix N). Here’s the skinny:

E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra series (1967 onward) portrays its titular hero as a far future Odysseus trying to find his way home across a galaxy that has forgotten Earth completely. Each novel is slim and action-packed: Earl Dumarest arrives penniless at a new planet where he must use his wits and his reflexes, not only to survive but also to make enough money for passage to the next planet. From this series, already 17 books long in 1977, CT got such details as: low passage (a deadly hibernation system); mesh armor; the drugs fast, slow, medical slow, and combat (i.e., two-thirds of the drugs in CT); the weapon “blade”” and perhaps the psionics.

I could quote this puppy all day. It’s so good!

Driussi’s essay gave me a new perspective on, and a deeper understanding of, Classic Traveller. It’s fascinating to see what shaped the nature and quirks of Traveller’s premise and presentation.

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After I posted about Devil Ghost’s character generator for Classic Traveller, Frank Filz mentioned that he hosts the same generator on his site — and that he’s made it user-configurable. I tried it out, and it rocks.

To get a character, just open the generator page. For a new one, just refresh the page. Easy peasy (just like the Devil Ghost generator).

By default, this generator shows quite a bit of detail. Here’s a partial screenshot of Brom Tanaka, a 7-term general I rolled up:

But you can also tweak the generator in a variety of ways by altering the URL, and Frank explains all of the settings on his site. Want to see the die rolls? Toggle the “verbose” setting. Want less history, just the results? You can change that. Need a Navy character? Specify the service branch in the URL.

If I needed a character fast, with minimal output — just the facts, ma’am — I’d go the Devil Ghost route. If I needed more control, or wanted to see the details of how my character got where they landed, I’d hit up Frank’s version. Two great flavors to enjoy!

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This Classic Traveller character generator on Devil Ghost is a hoot. The visuals are a perfect match for Traveller, and it couldn’t be easier to use: just refresh to get a new character.[1]

Here’s my favorite character I’ve rolled up so far:

Just look at this dude: he spent five terms — 20 years — in the military, working his way steadily up to the rank of colonel, and has the mustering-out benefits of someone who was a very successful soldier. But what interests me most is one skill in particular: Dagger-3.

Dagger-1 is a professional knife fighter, or equivalent. Like if there’s a job that involves knifey stuff, you can get hired to do that job with Dagger-1.

Dagger-2 is an elite knife fighter. This is someone with special skills, who stands out even among skilled knife fighters.

But Dagger-3? Dagger-3 is a fucking ninja assassin. And in his 20 years in the service, that must be what Colonel Wang spent the most time doing.

Why? What kinds of missions did he undertake? How did they shape him as a person? Who is he today, mustering out at 38 with the means to travel the galaxy?

I had some ideas the moment I scanned his character sheet, and I bet you did too. That’s why I love Classic Traveller‘s minimalist characters and delightfully random character creation.

[1] I do wish there was a permalink for each character, but I don’t know enough about programming to know if that might be difficult to produce.

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This post is a round-up of three things that crossed my path and grabbed my attention, all RPG-related.

Gygax on agreement

I found this fascinating 1975 Gary Gygax quote over on The Acaeum:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the “rules” found in DandD. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don’t believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson’s campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to “survive”. Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don’t like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. DandD enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them — except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

Looking at the last 40-plus years, at all of what’s come after that quote D&D-wise, this quote is mindblowing. So many things that have become commonplace assumptions in many RPGs are gleefully and confidently disregarded in this paragraph. I love it.

1975 was still salad days for D&D — the era of OD&D, and of this quote (also Gygax) from the afterword to The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (emphasis mine):

We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?

I love that ethos as a GM and as a player. It’s directly at odds with the existence of supplements (and many other aspects of the RPG industry, including some of the books I publish) and other books I enjoy, though, so I’m also always torn about how it applies in practical terms. But as a foundation and a navigational aid, it’s one of the principles I like most about old-school RPGs and gaming in general.

Maliszewski on rough edges

I’ve spent quite a bit of time mulling over this excellent GROGNARDIA post. Back when I first read it, it didn’t sound like what I wanted out of gaming. Nowadays, I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it’s not. Most of us, I think, if we’re honest, understand that we like rough edges — we need rough edges. Something that’s too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis.“

Looking back on my best gaming experiences, they often had rough edges — and maybe those were integral to making the overall experience richer. To get the alchemy that makes gaming so exciting, you have to accept that sometimes lead just stays lead, and not everything has to be perfect.

Combat as sport vs. combat as war

I remember seeing this thread about combat in different editions of D&D going around (and around) a while back and never clicking on it. But a year or so ago, when I finally read it, it changed my understanding of D&D. It articulates things I’d previously thought about in a nebulous way, but could never have put into words this clearly.

Here’s a few excerpts from the original post by Daztur:

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game). […]

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

So much of what I enjoy about older editions of D&D and dislike about 3.x and 4e, and what I enjoy about sandboxes, is neatly encapsulated in the sport vs. war analogy. I’ve returned to it many times over the past few months, and I wanted to make sure it was archived here on Yore for future reference.

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I love sandbox games and urban horror, and at that intersection sits the absolutely stellar PbtA RPG Urban Shadows.

I expected Urban Shadows to be good at facilitating sandbox play, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it is. Since the proof is in the pudding, below is the brief recap of goings-on in El Paso, Texas that I provided to my players after our fifth session. For context, session one was character creation; we did start-of-session moves for sessions two and five (rather than every session); and our sessions are 3 hours tops, usually more like 2-2.5 hours.

Ignore the specifics and think broad — just look how much stuff is happening all over the city after this little play (bold names are PCs):

  • The Warden militia group gunning for Carmen and trying to make Angels’ Triangle their base in the city
  • A new vampire in town, Orlando Cranshaw, who wants to shake things up
  • Another vamp, Carlos de la Rosa, who is a rival to Desmond
  • Katya Ulanov, another demonic soul-trader who shares Nick‘s patron, who wants Nick’s territory
  • Mason Black’s coyote goons after Hector
  • Kyle‘s missing friend, Brandon, who was abducted by the wizard Mason Black
  • A group of coyotes who also want the Paper Shop building for their own, who have struck a deal with Orlando for protection
  • A missing senator’s son, Diego Hernandez
  • An extremely competent cover-up of the killing at Midnight
  • ICE on the prowl for Carmen, so they can deport her like the rest of her family
  • Veronica‘s visions: the Warden skinning Carmen in about a month, after assassinating Father Riley; Hector being choked to death by White Eyes in the sheriff’s office jail; and Father Riley’s death

And how much of that did I come up with, as the MC, before the start of the campaign? Zero.

Player backgrounds, and the Q&A we did for everyone during character creation, produced many of those elements. The first time we did start-of-session moves, several more came into play — including the opening scene for the campaign, another thing I hadn’t prepped in advance. Around session three or four, I generated Threats from all of the sandbox elements my players had created, and fleshed them out a bit with my own ideas. The rest grew out of session five’s start-of-session moves.

The mechanics of the game combined with the energy and creativity of the players produce a sandbox organically and with minimal effort. It’s clever, and it works beautifully in practice.

So far, I fucking love Urban Shadows.

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Nick Abadzis‘ and Hilary Sycamore‘s Laika is meditative, thorough, and heartbreaking.

Everything I knew about Laika — the first orbital space traveler, a stray dog trained and conditioned for her one-way mission — before reading this book came from her Wikipedia entry and small exhibits about her at aerospace museums. I now know a lot more about her, and how extraordinary she was.

Laika is as good as two of my other favorite biographical comics, Box Brown‘s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend and Derf Backderf‘s My Friend Dahmer. Both are sad reads (and the latter is challenging in other ways, too), and both enriched my knowledge of their subjects.

Where Laika takes liberties — fully disclosed at the outset — they ring true to me. Dogs have an inner life; they think and feel, love and fear; they’re sentient beings. Considering what Laika’s inner life was like, which is beautifully expressed in the comic, is one of the things about the book that resonates most with me — and has continued to resonate months after I finished it.

Reaing Laika made me glad my first dog, Charlie, died in my arms, surrounded by people who loved him, and it makes me want to go home and pet Wicket.

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