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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.

Categories
Books Tabletop RPGs

Steam locomotives powered by burning mummies

My kiddo checked Claire Llewellyn’s The Big Book of Mummies (paid link) out of the library this week, and we’ve been reading it at bedtime.

Apart from being interesting in its own right, I was thrilled to find that it contained four fantastically gameable ideas — beyond the obvious, that is (mummies are cool, pyramids were full of traps, etc.).

Breeding animals to mummify

Ancient Egyptians mummified a shitload of animals:

Sacred animals were mummified on an almost unimaginable scale; in fact, some were bred specifically for mummification. Thousands upon thousands of corpses […] were buried in special animal cemeteries, located in sacred sites. […] A single cemetery in Egypt was found to contain more than a million embalmed ibises (birds), each in its individual pot.

My mind fixated first on “bred specifically for mummification,” which is creepy in a very Antiviral sort of way, and second on those million ibises.

Can you imagine a cemetery with a million bird-graves? What would happen if something brought them all back to life? What might it mean if they all went missing?

The Valley of the Golden Mummies

Indiana Jones and the Valley of the Golden Mummies:

Early investigation suggests the cemetery holds up to 10,000 mummies, many of them covered with golden masks. […] These mummies have lain untouched for over 2,000 years.

I know what the average party of murderhoboes would do with that information[1], and as a GM I think Barrowmaze would be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what horrors might await them there.

The walls have mummies

Catacombs are creepy enough, but bodies and bones stacked in little niches have nothing on this:

(Photo by Christopher Cormack)

What’s going on in that photo? This:

Underneath a church in Palermo, Sicily, is an underground cemetery containing about 6,000 mummies. The cemetery is a catacomb — a series of passages that are not only stacked with coffins and tombs, but where mummies hang from the walls.

Generations of monks have been interred there, along with doctors, lawyers, and other folks who were jazzed about getting preserved, dressed in their finest, and hung from the walls — and people used to bring their kids down there for picnics. Love it!

Mummy-powered locomotives

There’s a whole campaign in these two sentences:

During the 19th Century, the great stock of mummies in Egypt was used for fuel for the steam boilers of railway engines on the Cairo-Khartoum line! The ancient resins used as a coating on the mummies meant they burned extremely well.

What if mummies were the only thing that could power steam engines — the infrastructure of the world’s commerce? And what if they were running out?

Alternately, isn’t “You’re aboard a train that runs on mummies . . .” a delightful opener for a Call of Cthulhu (paid link) scenario?

Update: Over on G+. Jeff Sparks noted that mummy-powered trains were apparently not a real thing, dating back to Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. He also noted, and I completely agree, that this in no way diminishes its appeal as a plot hook. Thanks, Jeff!

I’m sure there are bigger, better books about mummies out there with even more juicy, gameable stuff in them, but I was excited to turn up four complete surprises in The Big Book of Mummies (paid link).

[1] Set phasers to “loot.”

Categories
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, Game Master’s Handbook, and Frightful Expeditions.

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 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 (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.

Categories
Comics Tabletop RPGs

Atomic Robo is really good

Atomic Robo is awesome. You can read all of it through that link, as webcomic; it’s also available in print (paid link). Written by Brian Clevinger, drawn by Scott Wegener, and colored by Ronda Pattison, Atomic Robo is an angst-free, punchy (and punch-filled), pulpy romp — a comic where “I punch it with SCIENCE!” makes perfect sense.

I love pulp, I love robots punching stuff — it’s a mystery to me why I didn’t check this out sooner. And seriously, that link? This isn’t a bargain-basement, I-can’t-draw-or-write-but-it’s-free-so-why-not affair — Atomic Robo is polished, professional, and just happens to be free.

Beautiful and well-written

(From the story “Pyramid Scheme,” which starts here)

I see a bit of Mike Mignola in Wegener’s artwork, which is a good thing, and the artwork and coloring complements Clevinger’s humor beautifully. I looked for a sample page that would sum up that humor and showcase some of the series’ appeal, while also not spoiling anything, and settled on this one (from the first story):

The rules the creators follow really come through, too. I mentioned #1, “No Angst,” but I also love #5: “The Main Robot Punches A Different Robot (Or Maybe A Monster).” If that’s not your jam, you know it right up front.

But Fate, there’s more!

There’s also a licensed RPG, powered by Fate Core and available in paperback (paid link) or PDF. It’s a standalone volume, including all of the Fate rules you need to play.

I read a few reviews, checked Amazon, and ordered a copy with same-day delivery so I could read it on a trip. It looks amazing, both on its own merits and as a take on Fate Core, and I can’t wait to tuck into it.