Tuesday, January 3, 2017

[The Expanse] Babylon's Ashes



Just finished Babylon's Ashes, the latest installment in James S. A. Corey's Expanse series. I consumed the first five books in the series over the course of a week at the end of October/beginning of November, so there was no way I was going to miss this one—even if I had to wait until after Christmas to make sure that I didn't buy something I was also getting as a gift.

No spoilers here; I'll just say that I loved the book, taking less than a day to read it. All your favorites are back, along with a few surprises, and Avasarala comes up with some choice new profanities. Definitely recommended, even in hardcover (after reading the first five books in digital format, I decided I could commit to hardcover from this point on in the series).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

[Ars Magica] Revised/Second Edition Available in PDF



So this happened last week: Atlas Games finally made a PDF of the much loved Revised/Second Edition of Ars Magica available for sale at Warehouse 23 (cost $15). Apparently a much loved copy of the physical rulebook was destroyed to make the scan: you can find some handwritten house-rules in the margins of pp. 40-41. There's also a small scanning artifact at the bottom of p. 35 (some text is distorted), but overall it's a perfectly usable scan. Would I love to get a POD version of this book? Yes, I would.

Why am I excited by this release? Because Ars Magica was my first introduction to serious campaign play. Back in 1994, my friend Mike Simpson launched the Deadfire Saga, the story of a bunch of misfit magi in a post-Order fourteenth century who come across anachronistic firearms. Hijinks ensued. We used the Third Edition version of the rules, the one from White Wolf that everyone likes to decry because of the True Reason mechanic (something that takes all of five seconds to excise, easily allowing folks to void any connection to the World of Darkness).

We were always hearing grumbling grognards complain about the liberties Third Edition took with the Revised Edition, lovingly referred to on the Berkeley Ars Magica mailing list as the OTE (or One True Edition). So I had long wanted to see just what the fuss was.

When I finally got a used copy of the rulebook, what I discovered was not the Holy Grail of Artes Magicae, but a perfectly wonderful version of the game that sat right in the sweet spot of mechanics and whimsy. The Fourth and Fifth Editions of Ars Magica are perfectly fine, but simulation of medieval reality to the point of generating mechanics for textual commentaries versus lab notes versus summae versus tractatus is not my thing. In Revised Edition, none of that has happened yet, and now Atlas has made sure that I can get an inexpensive copy of the Revised rules.

Maybe I'll run Revised Edition. At the very least I need to take the character creation rules for a test-drive here ...

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Brief Meditation on Marvel's Doctor Strange


Saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange last night in IMAX 3D. Totally worth the expense: this is the very rare film that makes effective use of 3D. In fact, I'd probably rate the film as one of my top three superhero picks, primarily because director Scott Derrickson actually connects the form of his film to its thematic content, playing games with sequentiality and time that gesture toward the ways that the comics page does the same. He doesn't make the valiant but doomed attempt to replicate the simultaneous spatiality of the comics page that we saw in Ang Lee's Hulk—instead Derrickson makes the linearity of cinema's temporal experience a means of exploring the plot's interest in immortality and causality.

Put another way, in Doctor Strange, this iconography:



Equals this iconography:



The bar has been raised for the filmic realization of comics, folks!

Friday, November 4, 2016

[Uncharted Worlds] James Holden



Right now I'm obsessed with two things: James S. A. Corey's Expanse setting (in both its novel and TV forms) and Sean Gomes's Uncharted Worlds RPG. And because I like to test out RPGs by seeing if they can replicate characters from other media, I thought I'd take a shot at using Uncharted Worlds to create James Holden, "the luckiest dipshit in the solar system" (episode 6, "Rock Bottom").

Unlike other RPGs in the Powered by the Apocalypse family, characters in Uncharted Worlds are not created using preestablished archetypal playbooks (e.g., the Gunlugger of Apocalypse World or the Spectre of Urban Shadows). Instead, UW characters are generated by combining two careers with a single origin and then selecting a combination of skills from those packages (three from the careers, one from the origin).

In Holden's case, his upbringing on a Montana farm would give him the Rustic origin. There are four skills associated with each origin (as well as with each career). The choices for Rustic characters are Hard Labor, Construction, Survival, and Chemistry. Hard Labor's description ("You can perform long grueling hours of physical labor with minimal rest") seems most suited to the Holden of the novels, so I'm going to select it. When I get around to selecting Holden's attributes, I will receive a +1 bonus to Holden's Physique stat.

On to careers. Holden's time serving as a First Lieutenant in the United Nations Navy makes Military an obvious choice here. Picking a second career is a bit harder: Holden could take Commercial or Industrial or Starfarer to reflect his time serving as XO on the Pur & Kleen ice-hauler Canterbury—all three seem thematically appropriate. He could also take Personality since that's what he becomes over the course of the series: the most notorious man in human space. But I think it's best to hold off on Personality (and the Fame skill that comes with it) until later in the notional Expanse campaign. Looking at the other three careers, I'm going to reject Commercial as too financial (Holden isn't anymore particularly adept at business than the rest of the crew) and Industrial as too much in Amos Burton's wheelhouse as the group mechanic. That leaves me with Starfarer, which seems perfect for Holden and his system-roving ways.

The skills I select from Holden's Military and Starfarer careers are (from Military) Toughness and Authority and (from Starfarer) Weightless. Toughless lets Holden suffer two injuries of each severity level instead of one (necessary for our much beaten-on protagonist) while Authority reflects Holden's innate charisma, allowing him to convert even resistant NPCs to his latest righteous cause. With Weightless, Holden can ignore the Clumsy trait that otherwise comes with zero-gravity movement.

Time to distribute stats. UW has six stats (Mettle, Physique, Expertise, Influence, and Interface), and characters have an array of +2 / +1 / +1 / 0 / -1 to assign to these stats. Influence (personality and charisma) is the definite home for the +2 value. As the generic protagonist figure, Holden is generally an all-rounder, so I'm going to put the +1 values in his Mettle (courage, reflexes, discipline) and his Expertise (education, cleverness). Then I'm going to leverage Holden's Hard Labor skill to turn a 0 in Physique (strength, fitness, good lucks) into a +1. That leaves me with a -1 for Interface (technological aptitude, programming). Holden's not a total ignoramus with tech, but really he has Naomi, Amos, and Alex to handle all the beep-boop-beep stuff.

At this point, players select an advancement method from a career they wish to pursue. These are triggers that allow the group to check XP when set off by any character. For example, Starfarer's advancements include such triggers as "A passenger reaches a destination" or "A piloting maneuver causes a reversal." The expectation is that characters will start off looking to advance one of their beginning careers, but this is not mandatory—and that's good since I want Holden to pursue his "famous troublemaker" ambition right from the get-go. One of the Personality triggers is "A statement starts or ends a fight," and that seems ... appropriate for the man whose broadcast message on the destruction of the Cant begins an intersystem war.

The remaining steps of UW character creation focus on gear. Characters can add a workspace from one of their careers to a ship, station, or city (based on the scope of the campaign), and they can select  a package of personal assets (clothing, weapons, and other gear). I'm not going to bother with these steps at present.

Overall, I think UW does an excellent job of representing Holden in game terms. The other members of the Rocinante crew fit the system as well: Naomi is a Galactic Industrial Technocrat (i.e., a Belter engineer and coder); Amos, an Impoverished Scoundrel Industrial (a mechanic from the mean streets of future Baltimore); and Alex, a Colonial Military Starfarer (origin aside, the Martian pilot is the closest in skill set and archetype to Holden). Toss in Miller as a Crowded Academic Clandestine (Belter neo-noir detective), and you've got the main characters down cold.


Monday, October 3, 2016

2016: What a Year (and It's Still Not Over)



It's been a long time since I last updated this blog—nearly a year in fact! The Spring 2016 semester turned out to be just as labor-intensive as the Fall 2015 semester, and then my mother broke her right hip at the end of Finals Week. Summer 2016 was thus devoted to figuring out where my parents were going to be living (end result: in my house for 75% of the year) and then getting their stuff sold and/or packed for the move. I've only just been able to get back into the office, well over a month into what was supposed to be a research leave.

But ... my parents are settling in, my wife and kids and I are adjusting to the 50% increase in the size of our household, I'm starting to get work done, and I'm still gaming:

Barbarians of Lemuria

My Thursday night group is playing BoL whenever we don't have a sufficient quorum for Supers! Revised. The character I'm playing is a Mythic Edition update of Quaris the Fallen, the Legendary Edition character who was the subject of the very first post on this blog. It's a nice change to be playing a BoL hero instead of their opposition for once.

Supers! Revised

Our Supers! Revised GM (also the BoL GM) wasn't feeling the vibe with our Earthside campaign, so he retired it (along with Brute Squad, my duplicating brick hero, and a newer character, the arrogant Sasquatch geneticist Big Thought). The new campaign is set in outer space, and my new hero is a tribute to Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity Mesklinites:


"Legs," as his teammates call him, is a sentient millipede the size of a mastiff. His already substantial strength and toughness (he's a heavy-worlder) have been amplified by an ancient ritual, so all of his many limbs pack a powerful punch.

Uncharted Worlds

I've been doing a great deal of science fiction reading for the last several months, and my thoughts turned to SF gaming as a result (aided and abetted by the Supers! campaign). A little research into available, rules-lite SF TTRPGs turned up Sean Gomes's Uncharted Worlds, a Powered by the Apocalypse system that occupies (for me) a happy medium between traditional RPGs and the more thematic, story-driven games that epitomize the PbtA ludosphere. I was actually able to play in a G+ Hangouts game while I was closing up my parents' house at the end of August, a one-shot that ended with my shady astrophysicist activating an experimental hyperdrive and (with the aid of a roll of snake-eyes) killing the entire party in the process. Huzzah! I'm now thinking of how to go about running an UW campaign of my own ... I hope to post more along these lines soon!


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

RIP Steve Zieser



Just heard that RPG artist extraordinaire Steve Zieser passed away yesterday after his long fight with cancer. I didn't know Steve personally, although we followed one another on Google Plus and were clearly reading one another's posts. I love Steve's line-work, and one of the things that the Old School Renaissance will always have to its credit is that its preference for art in the Grand AD&D tradition gave Steve a platform to display his talents. Condolences to Steve's family and friends.