Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Thoughts on Running “Horror on the Orient Express”

    I recently did something I’d been debating for a long time. I plunked down the $75. for the new edition of Chaosium’s classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, “Horror on the Orient Express.” I got one of their ‘damaged’ copies which saved quite a few precious pennies. And it’s in fine shape. Looked like it could have come right out of the delivery box at a store. A slight crinkling on the box near one corner is all that could be seen as ‘damage.’ And the box is a monster. It’s over-full, with a daunting amount of material to sift through.

    Here’s the thing, though. I’m not really a pre-made adventure guy. Since I started running roleplaying games when I was a lad, I’ve almost always written my own stories, and improvised the rest. I’ve read published adventures from companies, but usually to get ideas. I’ve played in some, but the best ones didn’t seem pre-made, because the game master (storyguide, DM, whatever) made it his own (I have, sadly, not had a female GM to the best of my knowledge/memory). Once, long ago, I ran the haunted house scenario from the Call of Cthulhu basic book, but I guess I re-worked it enough that the one player familiar with the scenario didn’t recognize it for what it was until the climax. So, I’m worried about the idea of running not just a published adventure, but an entire campaign. The reports I’m seeing on this game is that it takes a year or more to go through the whole thing (real time). That’s huge.

    The obvious thing to do, and what I likely would do, is to run a shorter published campaign or some adventures to get a handle on the process, and on how I would make them my own.  But there, I’m still running into my old problems. I’ve been bad about connecting with the gaming community in my area ever since I moved here 8 years ago. And I haven’t managed to do a good job of convincing my friends to try it (other than a brief, dramatically failed attempt a couple years ago). Yet, the draw of the hobby keeps me going; keeps me hoping and spit-balling.

    So, start small, huh?  OK.  This new version of the campaign has several side adventures that are scattered across time, going all the way back to ancient Rome.  One of the first is set in Victorian London.  That got me to thinking, maybe I could run that side adventure as a kind of preamble.  That’s a start, I guess.

    And, with a scenario set in the late 1800s that leads into the greater Orient Express campaign, it got me to thinking about connections.  One of the challenges that face a lot of RPG groups when a scenario or campaign begins is ‘why are we all together?’  But the Call of Cthulhu RPG takes place, typically, in a time when social groups were common; gentlemen’s clubs and the like.  That presents a solid way to join the characters together.  Add in a few bits, and it’s not too hard to have them be members of a group that’s large enough to use for replacement characters (should the nearly inevitable event of character death/madness happen).  A few more bits, and you could have a club with some ties or interests in the occult.  In the case of “Horror on the Orient Express” it even gives a link across the years between the events of the 1800s and the primary campaign in the 1920s.  And of course, Professor Smith, as another link between the eras, can be linked with the social club.

    Now, the 1890s and 1920s were hardly times of enlightenment.  Women (all women over 21) didn’t get the vote in England until 1928.  But, while that was the reality, and I don’t like to completely shy away from real life evils, making some things a bit more pleasant for potential female players is also a concern.  Since Call of Cthulhu typically favors more intellectual and artistic characters, and those people tend to be on the forefront of social progress, I got to thinking that making an element of the characters’ social club women’s suffrage would be interesting.  I think adding some era-grounded politics will help set the stage.  Especially since there are some red-herrings about communists and the like in the campaign.  Because I always like to dream bigger than I should, it also might work to help set the stage for a future campaign.  If “Horror on the Orient Express” turned out well, I’d love to follow it up with another London based campaign, “Tatters of the King.”  Again, I’m getting ahead of myself, but I love to plant seeds in one story that might bloom in a future story. So, even if I have no idea how this trip on the Orient Express might go or how it might end, I figure I’d try to drop in a few bits to introduce themes from “Tatters of the King.”

    I have no idea if I’ll eventually run this campaign or not.  No idea if it will go the distance, or if it will be successful enough to demand a follow-up.  For now, it’s just a lot of reading and dreaming.  

-Matthew J. Constantine

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: The Broken Cycle

    After his many misadventures in “The Hard Way Up,” John Grimes is given a mission nobody wants with a ship captained by a guy who really doesn’t want John around. But things go off the rails pretty quick, with John and a tough lady cop stuck together in a dilly of a pickle.

A. Bertram Chandler published “The Broken Cycle” eight years later than the stories in “The Hard Way Up,” and it’s clear tastes had changed a bit, or the author had become a bit more untethered. There is some strong language and some semi-graphic sex. Where earlier Grimes stories would have been solidly PG, this book roves into more R-rated territory. And the sexism is still there, even if it’s been tempered a bit by modernity.

    The story is fast paced and mostly unexpected. There was a point where I could tell there wasn’t much left of the book, and I had NO idea how things could possibly wrap up. Often, I had no idea where Chandler was taking me. One of the strengths of these Grimes stories is they read fast. That helps to gloss over some of the shortcomings. In the case of this book, there really isn’t much story or seemingly much point. It’s just some stuff that happens. It’s kind of like a filler episode from a TV series. I don’t feel like anything of note was advanced, but it’s still perfectly enjoyable to read it while waiting for a better story (hopefully) in the next book. Had the book been longer or less readable, with no more content, it might have become a grueling slog.

    I’m taking a break from John Grimes now that I’ve finished the first omnibus in which I found this. Baen published “To the Galactic Rim” a few years ago as the first part in their complete reprinting of Chandler’s Grimes stores. Fans of classic science fiction should go get these. While I didn’t love this particular book (I enjoyed it just fine), the omnibus in general is great stuff.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: The Hard Way Up

    The third book in A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes series, “The Hard Way Up” follows Grimes’ first foray into commanding a vessel of his own.  Across seven short stories, we’re treated to Grimes and his crew facing off against various Science Fictional dilemmas and foes.

    It’s classic Golden Age Science Fiction stuff.  Rocket ships, bug-eyed aliens, space dames, and Australians.  Interesting worlds and trouble with authority.  It’s solid entertainment.  This isn’t high art.  This isn’t going to change hearts and minds.  This is fun, adventurous fiction.  A great read.  It was written in the 60s and early 70s, so there is some of the typical sexism and I think a bit of racism; but not worse than usual from that time.  Otherwise, a great read.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dork Hero: Fibonacci

The Medieval mathematician Fibonacci (Leonardo Bonacci) was born in Pisa in 1170. He introduced the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to Europe. 

Thanks, dude.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tabletop Roleplaying Review: Eldritch Skies

    The first thing you’ve got to know is that chances are, you’ll be reading a newer edition of this book, and it’s meant to be for the “Savage Worlds” rule system. The blurb on the back says it’s for “Cinematic Unisystem,” and that all the rules are contained within, but I’m assuming this is an oversight from when the new edition was printed. You will need “Savage Worlds” if you wish to use the book as is. That said, I don’t think it would take much effort at all to convert this over to any number of game systems, and dropping out any mechanics, it would work just fine as an alternate universe sourcebook for “Call of Cthulhu.”

    That bit of bookkeeping out of the way, let me get on with it.  “Eldritch Skies” is a slightly pulpy Science Fiction game that uses H. P. Lovecraft’s writings as a basis.  It strips away a good deal of who and what came after Lovecraft, trying to stay only with what the man himself wrote (which still includes the creations of some others, like The King in Yellow and the Serpent People).  Lovecraft often read like Gothic horror, but the content was often more in line with Science Fiction, so this works surprisingly well.  The cosmic horror is still present, but it is not as gloomy.  Humanity’s place in the universe is tenuous and unassured, but it isn’t destined for some immediate, ugly end.  This might be a bit odd for many, more used to “Call of Cthulhu’s” darker, constant existential danger.  An “Eldritch Skies” series need not end with everyone dead or insane.  It could very well end up with folks in some pretty good places.  But the universe will still be a dangerous place, filled with extremely alien threats, and like all life forms, Humanity’s time will pass.

    In “Eldritch Skies,” the events of various Lovecraft stories, particularly ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ ‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ and ‘The Shadow Out of Time,’ and some others have happened. The governments of the world became aware of aliens and the forces of the so called Mythos. They became aware of Deep Ones, the Great Race, the Elder Things, and more.  And they began to explore the weird technologies, and weirder ‘magics.’  It didn’t take long for history to take a new path, culminating in the achievement of interstellar flight in 1996. The default time for this game is 2030.  Humanity has been in space for some time.  We’ve discovered some worlds, set up some colonies, made some enemies, and learned some new lessons.  We share the dark with the malevolent and the apathetic.  We scrounge resources and hunt down ancient artifacts to learn new sciences.  It’s a big, dark, weird universe, and it doesn’t care.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel; nobody waiting to rescue us or show us the way.  Some of the life out there doesn’t even seem to know we exist, and that might be the best possible situation.

    I love this setting.  Lovecraft’s more Science Fiction side has often been my preferred, and those few authors who lean in that direction tend to make me happier.  I like space based Science Fiction where the aliens are really alien.  And I enjoy that while this game is dark, and there are dreadful dangers, it is not without joy or hope or excitement.  It is much more how I actually see the universe, empty of the divine, but open for those willing to reach.  And that’s a great place for roleplaying.  It’s the stuff of drama and character.

    Since first hearing about this book a few years back, my imagination has run wild.  It’s a setting I very much want to visit.  I’d love to play, but I’m much more likely to run something in it. There is so much potential, so much to explore.  And that it’s rooted in one of my favorite author’s work, but taking it in such a different direction than is normally done...That’s exciting.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Tabletop Roleplaying Review: Diaspora

    In spite of being into the hobby of Tabletop RPGs since I was a lad back in the 80s, and in spite of being a science fiction nerd, I have never played the grand old game of “Traveller,” not only one of the first commercially available rpgs, but THE Science Fiction game. It’s squarely set in the Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke/Niven side of things (less woo, more tech). I always meant to get around to trying it, but never did. Then a few years ago, I saw a review of “Diaspora” from VSCA Publishing. It grew out of a group’s enjoyment of Traveller, but hunger for a different style of play. They’ve used the Fate system, which I’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t used at all. Generally, it looked like a very group storytelling focused, harder Science Fiction game than is typical; and that made me curious.

    I’ve skimmed it a few times, reading a couple chapters several times over the years since I bought it. But this time around, I decided to get serious and really read it thoroughly. And that became a strange trip. Early on, reading about system creation and character creation, I kept thinking; “stop everything! I want to grab some friends and start playing this game right now.” But then, as I got into the ‘mini-game’ sections about melee, space, and social combat...my excitement kinda died, and reading the final section of the book was almost an afterthought.

    The system and character creation segments are great, and I very much want to use them in a game at some point. What makes it different from many games I’ve seen is that it’s such a group effort. The group, including the referee/game master/what have you, all take part in the creation of the setting you’re going to play in (a small collection of linked star systems called a ‘Cluster’).  Each person takes some ownership over a system, and as a table, you all make choices and forge the relationships between those star systems.  This is where tech levels and resources are figured out.  A player roles for certain numbers, but then interprets those numbers in whatever way makes sense.  There is a great little example, where they present a set of rolled statistics for a system, then show multiple variations on what that might mean.  You could easily have two players roll exactly the same numbers, but come up with completely different systems when they interpret what those numbers mean.  I like that a lot.

Then, with those systems as a background, you all create your characters. And part of character creation involves linking yours to another, so that while not every character has a direct connection to every other character, the group as a whole is linked in some way (like a chain).  I also really like that the characters don’t start out as low level schlubs who have to crawl and beg and fight to be able to gain enough power to do anything of note.  You’re playing characters that are important people, interesting people, shapers, doers, legend makers.  If you take the a skill at what they call ‘apex’ level (and you will take one at that), you’re not just good at something, you’re legendary.  You’re the neurosurgeon who was brought in when the president had a brain tumor.  You’re the actor who keeps winning the top award for performance in the 3D Vids.  You’re the barroom brawler who rose to be Zero-G boxing champion of the Antares system.  You’re the soft-spoken politician who swept the planet in a grassroots campaign of reform.  Essentially, you’re playing important people.  Not necessarily famous, but important to how the future of the cluster is shaped.

Then the game lost me.  Once it got past the creation of the setting and the characters, it gets into plug-in mini-games for determining various types of conflict.  I didn’t care for any of them, particularly, and I don’t care for the extremely ‘plugged-in’ feeling of them.  It’s almost like in a lot of older computer rpgs, where your party icon might be wandering around a large map, then you come across a monster and it zooms in to a little tactical map and do a totally different kind of game.  I didn’t like it in computer games.  I really don’t like it in a tabletop game.  Combat tends to be one of my least favorite parts of a game, because in a lot of systems it stalls the story.  These plug-in games seem to do that on another level.

So I did what I find myself doing so often. I mentally edited things.  I started looking at it like a salad bar; take what I like and leave the rest.  There’s so much good stuff about ‘the table’ having control.  A lot of stuff encouraging group connection and determination.  The way system and character creation is done, you might not even have a game master when you sit down to the table.  And I could see the game master job changing hands multiple times during a campaign.  That’s kind of exciting.  I like when players and their characters are drivers of the story and plot.  But I don’t see myself running or getting together a group for Diaspora as it is.  I think it will be like some other games with interesting mechanics I’ve read.  It will inform how I run a different game.  It does make me interested in other Fate games, as the mechanics for that seem very easy and intuitive.  I’ve heard very good things about “Mindjammers,” and could see using some of the better elements of “Diaspora” with that or a game like it.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tabletop Roleplaying Review: RuneQuest 2nd Edition

    I cut my teeth on “Worlds of Wonder” from Chaosium, which used their Basic Roleplaying System. That’s the same core game mechanic (rules) as “Call of Cthulhu,” “Stormbringer,” and of course, “RuneQuest.”  And I know that I used to flip through the "RuneQuest" books when I was first starting out, looking for little ideas and variations I could use in my own games. But I don’t think I ever really embraced the game or its world, Glorantha.

    When I heard that the folks at Moon Design were working with Chaosium, including some of the original developers, to bring back the classic edition of the game, I figured I had to chip in, so I supported their Kickstarter campaign. My hardcover copy recently arrived and I’ve been picking through it for the last week.

The first thing I noticed is that this game is very much of its time. Now, I don’t mean that to be too harsh, but as I read through it, I was reminded of a lot of the things about early roleplaying games (rpgs) that were problematic or frustrating for me. Thankfully, the core mechanic of this game is fairly easy and intuitive. But explanations can get a bit obtuse, and frankly, the game is far, far more ‘crunchy’ than I enjoy. (Crunchy is a term applied to games with more complicated, often math heavy rules). There are still some pretty strong traces of strategy games and miniature combat rules floating through the book.  That’s fine for folks who are into that kind of thing, and the gods know, "D&D" is still sick with it.  But it’s not my thing, and I don’t feel like it’s as present in some of the other Basic Roleplaying System games ("Call of Cthulhu" being the one I’ve had the most experience with). I kept finding myself thinking; “well, I wouldn’t use that,” or “I’d cut that whole bit out.” Not that there’s anything wrong with modifying rules to fit your style, I just found myself doing more mental editing of these rules than I’ve done to any in a long time.

    The second thing that struck me about "RuneQuest" that I really didn’t remember from reading it as a lad is that it’s a Bronze Age game, not a Medieval game. It’s a very, very High Fantasy Bronze Age game.  Magic and gods are real, frequent, and important to everyday life. There are parts of it that feel almost like Tolkien’s “Silmarillion,” they’re so out there. And while there are obvious callbacks to Tolkien and European mythology, the setting has its own vibe going on. There are hints of Sumerian and Greek, bits of maybe Mesoamerican, and other stuff that’s just pure fantasy. In this High Fantasy/High Magic world, there are lots of different intelligent species, and things we’re not used to being intelligent that can talk and do other things. It’s certainly not my usual type of Fantasy setting, having more of Narnia than expected. But it could be interesting for a change of pace. It’s probably the closest to a "Dungeons & Dragons" game I’d likely run (well, maybe "Earthdawn"…). But at least it doesn’t have levels and alignments.

    Overall, "RuneQuest 2nd Edition" is a nice little look back at the early days of gaming, and a much better alternative to "D&D." But it’s also a reminder of how far games have come, and I don’t know how likely I am to ever run it. Too much number crunching, too much paperwork, and maybe a bit too much regimentation. Still, I find the Glorantha setting intriguing. It’s very much not the kind of Fantasy I tend to like, and very much not the sort I’d be inclined to run a game in. But it has enough of that ‘old school gaming’ vibe, without the terrible base mechanics of "D&D" (or "Rolemaster," or some of the others of the era). I don’t know. Maybe, if I had a group of friends who wanted something more in the vein of 70s rpgs...Maybe I’d give it a go. I’d still probably strip some of the more unwieldy bits.

-Matthew J. Constantine