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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel’s four mini-settings

The more of GURPS Time Travel (paid link) 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 (paid link), 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 obedience to 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 (paid link), 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 (paid link) 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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Tabletop RPGs

Setting information is telling me about your character

Jack Shear’s blog, Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, is always a great read (it’s been one of my RPG blog staples for years), but World-Building: When is Enough Too Much? is an especially good post.

It made me think of a scene in Game of the Year (paid link), where the GM uses the game session as an excuse to inflict his “exquisite storytelling” on the group while riding roughshod over what they actually want to do: play. It was painful to watch,[1] not the least because I’ve been there (I’d bet many — most? — gamers have), and I’ve been that guy.

My setting bible has its own lectern

Here’s Jack’s thesis:

I think I understand why people aren’t interested in page after page of fictional history and paragraph after paragraph of world-building: it’s the DM version of “let me tell you about my character” magnified without a sense or proportion or boundaries.

And, a bit further on, the stinger:

Dear DM: if you would roll your eyes at a five-page character back story that a player wants you to read, you should roll your eyes at your own expectation that the players will read five pages about the history of the Cult of Paradoxis and their war with the fire giants too.

That analogy is perfect. Once in a blue moon, I enjoy hearing at length about someone’s character, but blue moons are vanishingly fucking rare. And these days, reams of setting information turn me off at least as much as great walloping rulebooks thick enough to serve as body armor.

Some types of setting, or kinds of book, or mixes of the two, will require more words than others. But even a beefy, lengthy chapter on the world can be long without being long-winded.

But for fuck’s sake, if Time Corps — one of the settings in the superb GURPS Time Travel (paid link) — can frame an entire, enormously compelling time-travel campaign in just 13 pages, how many pages does the average campaign setting write-up really need?

Concision is king. I wish more gaming books used the absolute minimum number of words necessary to convey setting information.

[1] Not the movie — I enjoyed it. But oh man, that scene.

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Tabletop RPGs

The Astralnauts roam the galaxy hunting alien ghosts

Thanks to a G+ post by Greg Gorgonmilk, I checked out the weird, colorful world of The Astralnauts over the weekend. Created by artists Alex Pardee and Matt Richie, the Astralnauts are a team of spacefaring ghost-hunters who track down extraterrestrial spooks.

If you read that and immediately thought “campaign setting!” then I like the cut of your jib. It sounds like Ghostbusters meets Star Trek, with a side order of Stargate SG-1, and I like all of those things a great deal.

It looks like this:

(Artwork by Alex Pardee, image from io9)

Ghosts . . . in . . . spaaaaace

A gallery show for Astralnauts artwork opened this past Friday, and I wish I was close enough to visit — their stuff is bananas. The concept behind the Astralnauts is equally bananas, and in such a good way.

(Artwork by Alex Pardee, image from io9)

Here’s the core of the Astralnauts concept as a campaign pitch, excerpted from the team’s origin story:

In 2116, NASA revealed that spirits and ghosts don’t ONLY exist in the usual organisms like plants and animals. Unforeseen by any theorists or astronomers, NASA made a shocking discovery after retrofitting their telescopes with similar lenses that ghosters have used for years. Through the eyes of the Earth’s most power telescope, they saw the angry spirit of the entire dead planet of Bewmer, and it was rapidly moving toward Earth, clearly threatening its existence. If this planet-sized-ghost wasn’t stopped, Earth could be destroyed. Military forces from almost every country united and called for volunteer ghosters to travel into space, where they would work together to destroy the spirit of the dead planet, Bewmer.

In October 2117, a small army of nearly 3000 ghosters from across the globe was deployed to the dead planet of Bewmer. Almost immediately upon their arrival, all communications were lost.

A fucking ghost planet!? Stick a fork in it, because that’s a campaign setting in its own right.

Ain’t afraid of no toons

But the other half of the concept is “tooning,” which at first sounded less intriguing to me from a gaming standpoint:

“Tooning” was the process of adding a specially–mixed gas to the ectoplasm of the ghost, which, when combined, shrunk and crystalized the ghost’s essence, freezing it in a pocket-sized enamel form that looked like a small cartoon pendant. In other words, “tooning” a ghost trapped it inside it’s own personal tomb. This “crystalized” representation of a spiritual form meant that physical evidence could then be provided whenever someone captured and exterminated a ghost.

That takes advantage of Matt Richie’s artwork, which involves producing stuff you can hold, in a cartoony style:

(Artwork by Matt Richie)

And I figured that was that, right? I mean, these are two artists with a cool idea and a desire to collaborate in a way that uniquely leverages their individual art styles, not two dudes setting out to design a game setting. Buuuuuuut:

Balek Parker utilized his new technology to create and patent “Toon Guns”. These toon guns simultaneously sprayed the gas on to the ghost while vacuuming its essence into an attached container where the crystallization took place.

And boom, right back to gaming.

I mean, a party of PCs zipping around the galaxy, tooning weird-ass alien ghosts with gas guns — where do I sign up? Because that’s a game I’d love to play.

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Tabletop RPGs

The ripperbox: Rippers Resurrected as a sandbox campaign

My booty from the Rippers Resurrected Kickstarter came in on Tuesday, and I’ve had a chance to spend a bit of time with all three books. As is so often the case, my first thought was, “How well would Rippers work as a sandbox?

All of the ingredients are there, and the hook is so damned sexy — I suspect the answer is “really, really well.”

From lodges to social status mechanics to calling in favors, the setting deftly hooks into the system to add mechanical weight to fun things the PCs would be likely to do anyway. And the setting itself, with rippertech (bits of monsters you extract and graft onto yourself) and a delightful “kitchen sink” approach to Victorian-era monster hunting, is just fantastic.

The books

The Rippers Resurrected line kicks off with three books and a screen. The books are the Player’s Guide (paid link),  Game Master’s Handbook (paid link), and Frightful Expeditions (paid link).

If this sandbox — “ripperbox” — were a hearty meal, the meat would be in the Player’s Guide, the potatoes would be in the Game Master’s Guide, and the gravy would be in Frightful Expeditions.

All three books are gorgeous: full-color, great artwork, clean layout and design, lovely graphic novel format, and available in hardcover (limited) and softcover (unlimited). Like most SW settings, the core rules (paid link) are also needed to play.[1]

For context

I’ve played two city-based, sandbox, supernatural horror campaigns in the past few years:

  • A Dresden Files RPG (paid link) campaign in which the PCs came together to clean up Dresdenverse Boston, which was dominated by witches and snake-people. (This one also involved round-robin GMing and used Microscope (paid link) to gin up our version of Boston.)
  • A Hunter: The Reckoning (paid link) game where the PCs were mortal monster hunters in the World of Darkness version of San Francisco, wildly outclassed by all of its myriad horrors. This one was dark, and mixed “here’s tonight’s adventure hook” sessions with pure sandbox “we, the players, are going to do This Thing That Interests Us” sessions.

Both of those experiences inform how I’m thinking about a possible ripperbox, as does the setup for Rippers itself: proactive PCs, a home base, and a world full of evil that needs smiting — plus many, many ways for the PCs to get themselves in trouble.

Ripperbox ingredients

Rippers Resurrected assumes you want plotted adventures, and offers a wealth of support — including a complete Plot Point campaign — for that mode of play. I don’t want that, so for me most of that support exists as imagination fuel and ready-made resources for sandbox play. Which is great! I’m happy to have it; that’s why I bought all three books.

(There’s no artist credit accompanying the image, but I love this illustration of a Ripper lodge.)

In terms of ripperbox ingredients, here’s what jumps straight out at me (with each element’s book, or books, of origin in parentheses):

  • That sexy, sexy hook (Player’s Guide): In Rippers, the PCs are monster hunters in the late 19th century, balancing their role as fighters of evil with their place in Victorian society. There are different factions of Rippers, and pretty much any classic monster you can think of is out there somewhere, doing evil.
  • Lodges (Player’s Guide): Each group of Rippers, including the PCs, once they’re Seasoned, has a lodge — their home base. Whenever the PCs earn an Advance, they each also earn a Lodge Point; those are spent upgrade the lodge with labs, workshops, etc. A home base with a base-building mechanic is pure gold in a sandbox game, and the lodge system is clever. There are sample lodges in this book, plus more in the other two books.
  • Status and favors (Player’s Guide): What do PCs do? Get themselves into trouble, often while helping people. Both of those things involve one’s status in Victorian society, and that in turn brings favors into play. Help someone (particularly if they’re all fancy), and you earn Favors; do something scandalous, and you have to spend Favors to smooth things over. You can also call in Favors to get help from others. Tying things that will already happen in a sandbox into a fun mechanic which presents further hooks for adventure is a fantastic way to glue things together.
  • Lots of monsters (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): If it’s found in classical literature (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Jekyll and Hyde), the real world (Jack the Ripper), a pulp yarn (mummies, evil wizards), or a Hammer Horror film (skeletons!), it’d fit right into the Rippers setting — and the stats are probably in one of these two books. That makes it dead simple to populate the world with threats. SW is on the outer edge of my personal sweet spot for mechanical complexity, so having monsters already created for me is a big plus.
  • Adventure generators (Game Master’s Handbook): The GMH includes a chart for random encounters during travel (for example: “Fortuitous Find: Someone on the trip has something the heroes want. How they get it is up to them; just decide how they learn of the object.“), and there’s a whole section on rolling up different kinds of adventures. In a ripperbox, I’d recast these as adventure hooks, give the PCs lots of ways to learn about them, and too many of them to possibly follow up on them all — and not plot any outcomes, of course.
  • Lots of world info (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): There’s an assumption of globe-trotting built into Rippers (although I think it’d work great as a city-based game with only occasional travel, too), and that generates a need for concise, gameable setting material — but not too much of it. Day After Ragnarok (paid link) nails this a bit better than Rippers Resurrected, providing so very much in so few pages, but the looser approach here works quite well. If there’s an iconic pulp location, it’s likely to be covered here through the Rippers “lens.”
  • Rippertech and chances to get in trouble (Player’s Guide, a bit in the Game Master’s Handbook): The titular setting element, rippertech, is the thing that originally drew me to the setting: The PCs can literally harvest the monsters they kill and impant those bits in themselves. Want improved poison resistance? Replace some of your organs with preserved organs from a mummy. Want tentacles that can burst from your chest to attack your foes? Rip ’em out of a demon and stick ’em on in there. There are costs, of course, both social and mechanical — and that’s what makes it work. Giving the players plenty of tempting opportunities to get themselves into trouble, which have a variety of meaningful consequences in the game mechanics, is sandbox gold.[2]

It’d be fun to play other ways, too — the setting is just so good! — but for me, Rippers Resurrected cries out for the ripperbox treatment. All three main books (all paid links: Player’s Guide, Game Master’s Handbook, and Frightful Expeditions) would be useful for making it into a ripperbox, although in a pinch you could get by with just the Player’s Guide and some old-fashioned research into locations and monsters.

However you use it, Rippers Resurrected is awesome. It’s a quirky setting that nicely balances existing material with new elements, giving you lots to work with, and it does so in a way that leverages the crunchiness of Savage Worlds to give player agency meaningful mechanical consequences.

[1] And at a mere $10, it would be a crime not to coil-bind that sucker, making it one of the best deals in gaming.

[2] It’s also a big part of why, despite preferring lighter rules, I’d probably run a ripperbox with Savage Worlds: SW has enough mechanical complexity to give grafting demon organs some mechanical heft, and connects that heft to other parts of the rules — without bogging itself down in the process.

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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

Time Corps: A brilliant time travel setting in 13 pages

I’m plowing through the most excellent GURPS Time Travel (paid link) at a good clip, and its Time Corps setting is just too good not to share here. (I wrote about the overall book in yesterday’s post.)

 

 

Six settings

GURPS Time Travel includes six settings:

  • Time Corps, the default time travel setting, which is about Timepiece agents vs. Stopwatch agents
  • In the Cube, which has the PCs lost in the past as part of an early time travel experiment
  • Eternity’s Rangers, a military campaign
  • The Order of the Hourglass, about time-traveling mentalists in the 1920s
  • The Horatio Club, a dimension-hopping campaign featuring free-agent PCs
  • Infinite Worlds, a full-blown dimension-hopping setting with two opposing organizations (like Time Corps)

Time Corps gets 13 pages (one is essentially the “cover,” so it’s really 12 pages), while the short ones get 2-8 pages apiece. Infinite Worlds gets a whole chapter, like Time Corps, and runs over 30 pages. It also got expanded into its own book, GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link), which should be landing in my mailbox today.

Timepiece needs you!

Time Corps packs a mind-boggling amount of goodness into its handful of pages — more than enough to get a campaign off the ground.

 

 

Here are my five favorite things about Time Corps:

  • The hook. The Time Corps, and its Timepiece agents, are opposed by Stopwatch, agents of The Hive (an uber-bureaucracy that spans the globe) — classic “time war” setup, right? Right, except that the two agencies exist in different versions of the present. There can only be one present, so both Stopwatch and Timepiece are trying to make sure it’s their version that survives.
  • 49/49/2. The ground state at the start of the campaign is a 49% chance the good timeline (Timepiece, us) wins, a 49% chance the bad timeline (Stopwatch, The Hive) wins, and a 2% that one of a myriad of incredibly unlikely alternatives wins. Every mission either agency sends into the past — each from its own version of the present — has a chance to move the needle, changing those probabilities. After every mission, you roll dice for each side and change their respective probabilities. If either falls below 8%, they lose and their timeline is wiped out — it simply never comes into being. If both of them added together fall below 70%, one of the previously-unlikely alternate timelines takes over, wiping out both realities, Timepiece and Stopwatch. Talk about player agency and meaningful consequences!
  • Clever temporal physics. Time travel can only occur through “windows” into the past, and the windows are always about 8 months apart. Want to foil a Stopwatch plot? You might have to go back to some time long before the plot and wait for the appointed hour. This also gives real weight to using local agents — folks “embedded” in a local time — for support.
  • Snap-back. Agents can trigger implants to snap themselves forward to the present, but anything they brought with them automatically snaps forward if it gets more than a few feet away from them.[1] Need to send a message to HQ? Drop a “notecard” and it’ll pop into the present; HQ can then send help, assuming a window is available and useful to you. Don’t want your ray gun to fall into the hands of a medieval peasant? It won’t, because as soon as it leaves an area a few feet around you, it’s zapped forward to HQ.[1]
  • Observation equals reality. A quirk of this setting’s temporal physics is its approach to the Observer Effect: If someone from either present, Timepiece or Stopwatch, observes an event in the past and returns to tell their tale, it becomes unalterably true — that is how How It Happened. This creates marvelous incentives to do things like sacrifice yourself if things have gone badly, so that your screw-up doesn’t shape history — or, much more often, to be extremely careful about what you don’t see, so that you have a shot at changing it down the line. Information is a double-edged sword.

I could go on, but at some point I’d just be reproducing this delightfully brief chapter, so I’ll stop there.

I look at those features of Time Corps and see fodder for a sandbox campaign — or at least a sandbox-adjacent one, with lots of options for the players and real fallout based on what they do. You might look at those features and see the seeds of a mission-based, GM-driven campaign — something that looks a lot like an episodic TV show, for example. One of the strengths of Time Corps as a premise is that it’s a strong foundation for a variety of play and campaign styles.

The Time Corps setting on its own is a good enough reason to buy GURPS Time Travel (paid link). Doing a lot with a little is one of my favorite design goals, and this setting is bursting with possibilities.

[1] And yes, if an agent eats a meal before they leave, and then takes a dump in the past, guess what snaps forward to HQ?

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GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel is neat

I’ve got time travel gaming on the brain, and haven’t yet found a time travel RPG that hits exactly the vibe I’m after.

Epidiah Ravachol‘s Time & Temp (paid link) is at the top of my shortlist to play, with the excellent Timeworks setting from Fate Worlds: Worlds in Shadow (paid link) running a close second. But those both do specific things (nothing wrong with that!), and I’m after something more open-ended. It may become more specific as I think about it more, but for now loosey-goosey is good.

I want to pack my brain with interesting, RPG-oriented time travel stuff, and whenever I’m that mood the answer is usually GURPS. In this case, GURPS Time Travel (paid link), by Steve Jackson and John M. Ford.

Like GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), which I’ve written about on Yore, Time Travel is a toolkit.[1] It takes one huge enchilada of a topic and comes at it from several angles, teases out the best bits from each angle, and gives you the stuff you need to put it back together how you like.

The book provides a default campaign setting, and it’s a good one: Timepiece agents vs. Stopwatch agents, each group trying to ensure the survival of their own timeline, with lots of clever details. For example: Time travel “windows” are always about 8 months apart, so sometimes you need to go back too far and wait for your moment; and whether history can be changed depends on whether an agent observes it, so there are delightfully perverse incentives to walk away from problems so you can take another run at them later on.

In a (parallel) world . . .

One of those angles, dimensional travel/parallel worlds as an alternative to time travel, wasn’t even on my radar until I started looking into (and then bought) this book. It features many of the best bits of time travel — alternate worlds, ahistorical elements, fish out of water — without all the brain-burning paradoxes and temporal physics.

There’s a whole setting in Time Travel, Infinite Worlds, which delves into dimensional travel, and the topic gets quite a bit of attention in the book. It also got blown out into a much bigger book (which apparently also reprints some of what’s in this one), GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link). That one’s on the way, and I’m excited to read it.

TPS reports

One of the tools Time Travel offers is a form: one for time travel games, one for dimension-hopping games. Here’s the time travel version:

That’s just handy! It covers a host of common questions — the stuff everyone at the table will ask — while also rounding out some corners, establishing a solid baseline, and piquing the group’s interest.

It also makes me want to know more. What’s the Recency Effect? What’s a Temporal Snarl? Those both sound awesome! (And yes, they’re both covered in the book.)

I’m not sure what I’ll do with it yet, although that Fate bookmark peeking out the top isn’t an accident. I think Fate (paid link) would be a great fit for a time/dimension travel game, particularly since I can lean on what’s already in Timeworks.

Whatever I do with it, Time Travel (paid link) is a great starting point. It’s my favorite kind of GURPS book: the kind that fires my imagination, gives me new ideas to chew on, and provides the tools to implement them — all in a tidy package of reasonable length.[2]

It’s also dirt cheap, at least at the moment — I paid $6 for my copy, and it’s in fine shape.

[1] All of my favorite GURPS books are toolkits.

[2] Nope, leaving that one alone. Noooothing to see here.

Categories
GURPS Tabletop RPGs

A blast from the GURPS: Warehouse 23 and Illuminati

We moved to Seattle last year, and about 75% of my RPG collection went into storage when we got here. Shelf space went way down in the new place, so only about 250 gaming books made the cut to stay out and accessible.

Two of those were GURPS books, and I don’t even play GURPS — they made the cut because they’re two of the best gaming books I’ve ever read, full stop: GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link), by S. John Ross[1], and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), by Nigel D. Findley.

I rate both of these books a 10/10. I’ve read the shit out of them (just look at that cover wear![2]), and hauled them around the country on multiple moves, and they’ve been a well of gaming inspiration for years.

GURPS Warehouse 23

You know the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? This is that warehouse.

Warehouse 23 postulates that magic, conspiracies, secret societies, space aliens, weird science, and cryptids are real, and that the government keeps as much of the related stuff as possible locked away in the titular warehouse. So one thing this book is, is that: a marvelous sourcebook of all that great stuff, each thing with its own write-up. And as that, it’s excellent.

But you could build an entire campaign around the warehouse. Where there’s a conspiracy (or conspiracies), there are secret masters; you can fight them. Or join them! Someone’s got to acquire all of those Secrets Humankind Was Not Meant to Know, after all.

Warehouse 23 also walks you through lots of possibilities for who owns the joint, how Illuminated your setting could be (and how that impacts the warehouse), and what all that means to a potential campaign. Those lenses make the warehouse malleable, and Ross excels at making all of its possible incarnations eminently gameable.

Back to the stuff, though — this isn’t just a fancy equipment book. That would be dull. It’s a book of stuff which makes that stuff matter.

Take the Ark of the Covenant, for example. It gets a half-page of history and legends, a half-page on the Grail Order, a half-page on its rumored powers, and a half-page on questing for it and how to use it in different ways — combine it with other artifacts in the book, twist it sideways and make it not a physical artifact at all, etc. The two-page entry for the grail could be teased into a campaign seed in its own right, and that’s just one of the dozens of artifacts in the book.

Context is king, and the context around all of the weird and wonderful goodies in the warehouse is what makes this such a treasure trove of ideas. A world where all of this stuff — much of which is insanely dangerous and/or world-altering — would be an amazing gaming setting.

Which brings us to GURPS Illuminati.

GURPS Illuminati

GURPS Illuminati takes the core idea that there exists a world-spanning conspiracy — the Illuminati — and bends the whole modern world around it. It’s the default setting for Warehouse 23, but each book works just fine without the other.

Like Warehouse, and in the best GURPS fashion, Illuminati is bursting with ideas — all clearly and engagingly presented — which can fuel conspiracy-driven games in any system. It’s laced wth dark humor — like the list of 50 Awful Things About the Illuminati, which opens with this gem:

Everything here is true, even the false things

From there, you get an element-by-element guide to running this sort of campaign: character types that work well, ways to build the power structure of your conspiracy of choice, mapping the web of lies, adjusting for other genres, and on and on. The amount of good stuff packed in here belies the book’s relatively modest size.

Need secret societies? They’re in here. Need potential allies for foes of the Illuminati (likely the PCs)? Yep, they’re in here too. Oddball sidebars about conspiracies within conspiracies? Yeppers. A whole section on how to introduce the Illuminati, and the true extent of their world-dominating evil, to as-yet-not-paranoid-enough PCs? You bet.

And like Warehouse 23, it’s wonderfully weird. I get ideas from every page, and I’ve returned to Illuminati many times over the years — often just to read for pleasure, but also to stir up my imagination for various games.

I consider GURPS Illuminati an essential toolkit for running any game that even dabbles in conspiracies, and doubly so for one set in the modern world. Use it whole cloth, mine it for parts, blend it with other stuff — it’ll support you no matter how you want to employ it.

Like peanut butter and tinfoil hats

It’s fun to write about gaming stuff that I love, and GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link) are flat-out amazing books. They earn my highest recommendation.

[1] As an aside, S. John Ross has a fantastic list of personal GURPS book ratings (one number for reading enjoyment, one for play); you can also see just the best ones. Plus the big list of RPG plots. And Risus (which I’ve gushed about on Yore). His entire site is basically a rabbit hole full of joyful exuberance — which, in a lot of ways, is what I want Yore to be.

[2] I’d forgotten that Teenage Martin decided, for reasons long forgotten, to use the front cover of GURPS Illuminati for target practice. I’m not sure if those are BB holes or stab wounds from testing out homemade Wolverine claws, but both options are about equally likely.

Categories
B/X D&D D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Small But Vicious Dog: B/X + WFRP + love

Thanks to a post by James Aulds over on G+, I got to enjoy reading Chris Hogan‘s mashup of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and B/X D&D (paid link), a free RPG called Small But Vicious Dog.

It’s a flavorful delight.

Rules needn’t be dull

SBVD presents fun, coherent rules that express the ethos of the game and the world, all in 36 pages. It’s everything I love about dirty British fantasy (which in turn is part of why the Fiend Folio [paid link] is my favorite monster book). Chris knows his B/X, and he knows his WFRP, and he groks them both.

By way of example

It’s easier to show than tell, so here are some of my favorite bits from SBVD.

The introduction:

Welcome to a fantasy world where the men are Baldrick, the dwarves are punk, and the dogs are small but vicious. Welcome to a world of bawds, grave robbers, excisemen and witchhunters; a place where “Blather”, “Flee!” and “Mime” are legitimate skill choices; and where all material on the insidious threat of Chaos is officially interchangeable between settings.

From the write-up on dwarves:

All dwarves are beersoaked beards on legs who stop mining only to fight, drink heavily and/or sing about mining. They consider everything they say and do to be SRS BZNZ and nurse a grudge like a Bretonnian nurtures a fine vintage wine. All perceived similarities between Dwarves and Yorkshiremen are coincidental.

It’s funny, but it’s also functional. I could play an SVBD dwarf character using only that description, and it would be a hoot. The game is excellent at combining concision with humor.

In SBVD, a character’s social status makes it harder for peasants to do anything against them:

Social position affects all dice rolls made directly against a particular character. […] Exactly how and why this works the way it does is something of a mystery: the consensus is that it’s rather difficult to beat the crap out of someone while you’re malnourished and/or busy doffing your cap. Either way, this rule prevents some dirty oiks with rusty knives and a plan from opportunistically assassinating the Kaiser.

This is a great example of a clever rule that’s also a fun read. The whole section on how social status runs less than a page, but it communicates a lot about the setting and the people in it, and the actual mechanics are excellent.

Lastly, here are items 4-9 from the list of stuff to keep in mind that closes out SBVD:

4. Everyone has an agenda, sometimes several.
5. It can always get worse, and generally should.
6. If in doubt, Chaos did it!
7. If it appears that Chaos didn’t do it, check harder.

Even if it never hits the table, Small But Vicious Dog is a fun read for fans of WFRP — or anyone interested in how to communicate RPG stuff clearly and briefly without it coming off as dry.

It also does some neat things to B/X D&D that could work well in other settings. For example, it immediately makes me think of the OSR setting Lesserton & Mor (paid link), which is criminally underrated (and which I should really post about sometime!) and shares some of the same dirty British fantasy feel.

Categories
D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Planescape makes a hell of a first impression

My copy of the Planescape Campaign Setting (paid link) arrived this past weekend, and I had a chance to spend some time looking through it. My first impression is that Planescape packs a punch.

What’s inside?

The guts are classic 1990s TSR: four saddle-stitched books, four poster maps/thingies, and — somewhat unusually — a GM’s screen.

The books are A Player’s Guide to the Planes, which is actually the introduction to to the setting for players and GMs; A DM Guide to the Planes, which is what it says on the tin; Sigil and Beyond, which is the introductory book writ large and aimed at GMs; and Monstrous Supplement, which covers iconic planar critters.

I love this approach. At 32 pages, the intro guide isn’t a burden — and it’s a great introduction to what makes the setting tick. (Birthright [paid link], another of my favorite TSR settings, takes this a step further: There’s a player-facing booklet for every major kingdom. You rule Medoere? Here’s the Medoere book. It’s marvelous.)

The other books are just as good, but do different things. I haven’t read much of them yet.

DiTerlizzi and Cook

Planescape has one designer, David Cook, and one interior artist, Tony DiTerlizzi. DiTerlizzi’s art is lovely and distinctive, and conveys the tone of the setting like no one else could. No surprise from the designer of the Basic D&D Expert Set (paid link; half of one of my favorite editions of D&D), Cook’s writing is clear, direct, and also fantastic at conveying tone.

One interior illustrator, one designer. Talk about unity of vision and purpose! And it shows. Planescape feels like one of those movies where you just can’t imagine anyone else in Role X: I get the strong impression Planescape without this specific creative team wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Here’s a taste of Tony:

And some Cook, clear and useful as ever:

It all comes together in a layout that’s both spare and evocative. When you have a great designer and illustrator on tap, layout needs to support without overshadowing. Dee Barnett and and Dawn Murin do standout work in this department:

There’s the love-it-or-hate-it planar cant to contend with, yes, but so far that’s not bothering me at all. I’m enjoying reading these books.

Sigil. Oh man, Sigil.

Sigil is awesome! It’s a big part of what attracted me to this setting.

From Sigil and Beyond:

Imagine a tire — no hubcap or wheel rim — lying on its side. Sigil would be built on the inside of the tire. All the streets and buildings would fill the curved interior. Meanwhile, on the outside, there’s nothing, see?

And that city-filled tire? It hovers above the top of an infinitely tall spire at the center of the Outlands, and the only way in or out is through portals — magical doorways to other planes, worlds, and everything in between.

From what I’ve seen of it so far, Sigil is one of the coolest fantasy cities ever created.

Planescape says nein

I’ve been thinking about running Planescape as a gold-for-XP sandbox, which I knew ran a bit counter to its nature. That’s part of the appeal.

So one of the first sections I flipped to was “What’s the Point?” in Sigil and Beyond, which covers campaign themes and goals. I can’t recall another example of a gaming book saying “Don’t do that” to the exact idea I had in mind:

Part of me bristles, part of me agrees, and the rest of me is still turning Planescape over and seeing what clicks.

I see Cook’s point. I’ve heard Planescape described as TSR’s answer to their biggest rival in the 1990s, White Wolf, and the glove pretty much fits: evocative, boundary-pushing setting; factions that disagree about the nature of reality, and to which every PC likely belongs; intraparty conflict; marvelous artwork used well; etc. In that light, I’m not sure a gold-for-XP would work.

But a different sort of sandbox? Absolutely. Sigil is made for sandbox play. Everything I’ve read about it so far screams SANDBOX ME.

Whatever I wind up doing with it, Planescape (paid link) is shaping up to be one of my favorite TSR settings. I see what all the fuss is about, and I dig it.

Categories
D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Raiding the larder for Planescape sandbox ingredients

I’ve been noodling some more about running Planescape as a sandbox, and since my copy of the boxed set isn’t here yet I decided to pull stuff off my shelves that seemed like it might be a good fit.

Important safety tip, Egon

This is dangerous! This is how ideas collapse under their own weight! But I only have two speeds, OFF and TURBO ZOOM, so I can’t not think about it.

I’m not reading, or rereading, these before I dig into the Planescape core set (paid link), and if you’re thinking about running a PS sandbox I’m not suggesting that you do, either. But these are Cool Things, and they’re shaping my thinking, so here we are.

Calgon, take me away!

The stuff in that photo falls into two categories: things that seem like a good fit for a Planescape sandbox, and things I’ve used to good effect while co-GMing a Dresden Files sandbox with no session prep. Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • The Dresden Files RPG, Volume 1: Our Story (paid link): The city creation system in DFRPG is stellar, and while Sigil already exists and doesn’t need to be created, Dresden’s toolkit still sounds like a good match. It involves identifying themes, threats, locations, and faces (key NPCs), and then — and this is important! — using those ingredients before creating others. That’s awesome for sandbox play.
  • Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (paid link): I wrote about why Marlinko is awesome here on Yore, but the bits I’m thinking might mesh well with Sigil are the carousing rules and the Chaos Index. The latter is a simple way to track how the stuff the PCs and others are doing affects how weird the city of Marlinko is, which — based on my half-baked, haven’t-read-the-books-yet understanding of Sigil — sounds like it’d play nice with Planescape.
  • Fire on the Velvet Horizon (paid link): I really need to write about this monster book here sometime, but in brief it’s 1) weird as hell, 2) amazing, 3) strange in ways that make me think of Planescape. I like monsters that confound my players’ expectations, and that’s this book in a nutshell.
  • The Harrow Deck (paid link): This is basically a reskinned Tarot deck for Pathfinder, and it’s awesome for improv GMing. I draw a spread of cards, usually three, and either use them to come up with something specific or just keep them in front of me for those moments where I go “Uuuuuuuhhhhhhh what the fuck is going to happen now?” They go really well with the Story Cubes (below).
  • Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, issue #3 (paid link): Another thing I’ve written about here, but in this case just one thing from one issue: “The Heist.” PCs are always stealing shit, or hoping someone will pay them to steal shit, and this heist adventure toolkit is fantastic for dealing with that on the fly. It includes patrons, marks, heat, and loot, and rolling up a heist is stupidly easy. In a city full of factions, it seems like a good fit.
  • Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer: This tiny book is more or less solely responsible for making me wonder whether Dungeon World (paid link) might not be a better option for the style of game I have in mind. Either way, though, it includes a system-neutral job generator for planar freebooters which, like the Ur-Hadad heist generator, looks like it’d drop seamlessly into Sigil.
  • Red Tide (paid link): I own most (all?) of Kevin Crawford’s books, but Red Tide remains my favorite. It includes great systems for generating locations and other sandbox elements, it’s excellent imagination fuel, and the output is lean and mean — it makes stuff that’s actually useful in play. There’s nothing Planescape-y about it, but the guts line up pretty well.
  • Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link): I have umpty-doodle sets of these, and I love them. I use them when I’m winging things, and in Dresden they paired well with the Harrow Deck. I grab a random handful whenever I need to make or decide something I hadn’t thought about before, like NPCs in whom my players take a sudden interest. Not all the sets are perfect for this, but most of them are.

I’m probably forgetting a bunch of other stuff I shouldn’t be forgetting, but that’s what’s rattling around in my brain at the moment.