Sunday, February 19, 2017

Guest Post: Daniel Sell

My recent post on Fighting Fantasy was prompted by the role-playing game Troika!, which incorporates some Fighting Fantasy game mechanics.  However, Troika is not a retroclone.  It includes interesting rules for initiative.  Also, a d66 is used to determine a character's background.  (Optionally, a background may be chosen.)  Example backgrounds include 'Sorcerer of the Academy of Doors', 'Poorly Made Dwarf', and 'Sceptical Lammasu'.  An “artless edition” of Troika is available on a pay-what-you-want basis at RPGNow.

Anyway, I asked author Daniel Sell to write a guest post about Troika.  I suggested he might want to address the creative decisions he made regarding the game.  What follows is his submission:

Troika is the inevitable hospice of a tired mind. Exhausted from having to opine and comprehend, the mind rests in a comfortable bed in a room full of doors and corridors and trap doors and other doors but no windows. From the vantage point of the bed it watches orderlies come and go with food and care; it does not know where they come from, where they go to, why they never see the same one twice, how they got here and if they will ever leave. This creates a purple haze of confusion, lavender smelling, old and comfortable but bewildering at once.  On the edge of sleep it imagines what happens beyond the doors by running its day dreams together. That is Troika.

It was built as a strongly worded objection to the vogue of transparency and usefulness. It still holds immediacy, since anyone can play the game in a matter of hours if they want. They just need to go limp and enjoy a state of comfortable confusion. The book doesn’t need to tell people that it expects them to decide what is happening for themselves since it offers few answers and the answers present are contradictory.

Planescape was a hundred times better when I was a child who only owned a box set and no context or rules. A single book hinted at places just beyond the horizon, a teasing joy in incomplete knowledge. But then you get older and realise you can just get up and walk, read all the books and know all the secrets, only to learn that they were banal, soggy-minded. The illusion was better and more useful than the words on paper telling you exactly how Lawful Good these allegedly complex but somehow easily and briefly explained people and places are. Information kills knowledge.

Troika will never tell the truth. It will tell many truths, all of which are true and exist and invalidate everything else. If you can comprehend the structure of a fantastic universe while having no clue about the basic functioning of our own then there is nothing fantastic about it. So to create that same complexity of feeling without actually going to the trouble of reinventing reality you just induce the sensations associated with it. I want to look up at the imaginary stars with the same wonder as the real ones.

That being said, the book of Troika is limited. The current state is several steps from where it should be, but it’s following a pneumatic process. The next time the book emerges it will be larger, offering more truth than what is currently provided. Multiple books, the artefact must be large to strengthen the polite bewilderment, where a reader can wander in and out having not followed the same path twice. Except for the core of the thing it should be thick and sweet like treacle.

The game couldn’t afford to be as strange as it wants to be without that tiny solid core. However that core still plays into the lavender cloud by sweeping away the default dungeons and dragons and it’s N. People coming into contact with it might be familiar with its fighting fantasy routes, have shared my upbringing, and experience the feeling of having come home to find all the furniture rearranged; there is familiarity but mostly disquiet. For others they will be out on their ear experiencing a world that equally could have been if things were different. They can be as lost as their characters are.

I’m lost in explaining things. Troika is named for specific reasons, everything in it is considered and concrete. None of it will be explained for fear of ruining the tingly tension, the spark that Planescape stamped out. What we have is just the beginning of an outpouring. Whether it’s loved or hated, rich or poor, it will unravel to completion. I hope people like it, but it is what it is and there’s nothing you or I can do to change that.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Inspiration: Gloriana and the Gargoyles

Usually, the back of a game's packaging presents selling points for the game:  component descriptions, flavor text, endorsements, etc.  Cyborg, published in 1978 by Excalibre Games, has crudely drawn comic panels (shown above).  Still, these panels give the prospective purchaser a very good idea of what he (or she) is getting.  The setting is post-apocalyptic.  The king is dead and the favored heir is Gloriana, a garment-challenged princess.  She must travel to the Holy City for her coronation; however, the king's evil sister, Aemulatio, wants the throne for herself.  In order to reach the Holy City, Gloriana and her allies must avoid Aemulatio and her minions.

Cyborg has the subtitle “The Ultimate Adventure” and describes itself as “Game Class – Sci Fi Character to Character Adventure Wargame.”  Even if we define 'adventure' as “pursuing a goal while fighting things,” Cyborg falls somewhat short of 'ultimate'.  Also, while some of the units are individuals, most represent multiple entities; as such, the phrase 'character to character' does not seem entirely accurate.  The cover boasts that the game has a “new design style.”  Units are represented by counters and have movement factors; this is not new.  When one unit attacks another, a die is rolled and a combat results table is consulted; this is also not new.  Perhaps the design style is new in that it was rushed and evidently incomplete.

Among the possibilities that the CRT discloses, there is “Defender Slain, Remove Defender Unit from Board.”  There is also “Defender Eaten,” “Defender Melted,” and “Defender Disintegrated” – all of which are no different than “Defender Slain” in game terms.  Also listed among the results is “Defender Blasted, Unit Hit by Exploding Bullets and Is Removed from Board,” but the actual CRT never yields this result.  Roads are indicated on the board, but they have no effect upon movement.  Several rivers are displayed; however, all but one have no game effect.

Although post-apocalyptic, the setting includes magic.  For instance, The Guardians of the Holy City can cast spells; so can Aemulatio's necromancers, Nootrac and Kcud.  (Read backwards for alleged humor.)  Casting a spell entails selecting a target unit and rolling on the appropriate chart for a random spell result.  The Guardians might disintegrate a unit or teleport a unit to the snake pits of Lacnar.  The necromancers might gain control over a unit or cause it to be “fooled by illusions.”

We learn that killing Gloriana isn't enough for Aemulatio.  Ideally, Aemulatio wants to sacrifice Gloriana “into the the volcano of IMMOLARE” (shown below).  According to the rules, “The game ends when the Princess is sacrificed or safely reaches the Holy City.”  Yet, “Should the Princess be sacrificed, Aemulatio may begin casting spells every turn...”  I guess this starts on the first turn after the game ends.  One might think that the game would end if Gloriana otherwise dies or if Aemulatio perishes.  One would be wrong.  It is unclear why Gloriana's protectors would proceed once her coronation was no longer possible.  It is equally unclear why Aemulatio's followers would continue after her demise given their entire motivation was to place her on the throne.

The game's unidentified designer is a student of Latin.  Aemulatio means “rivalry” and immolare translates as “sacrifice.”  The 'Spells' section of the rules states, “To add quality to your spell we suggest you utter some Latin before rolling.”  It's nice that a dead language is remembered after the apocalypse.

Despite its mechanical failings, it is possible to appreciate Cyborg for its outlandishness.  It is not difficult to get a Thundarr the Barbarian vibe from the game, even though Cyborg pre-dates that series by two years.  With better art, well thought out rules, less Latin, and multiple scenarios, perhaps Cyborg wouldn't languish in obscurity.  Perhaps more than providing inspiration itself, Cyborg is instructive in how it incorporates inspiration.  Among Aemulatio's cohorts, there are Gargoyles.  According to the rules, “Once every half millenium (sic) the Gargoyles hatch” and they strive to “protect the secret of their breeding grounds...”  This derives undoubtedly from the 1972 made for TV movie, Gargoyles.  The premise of the film is that every five hundred or six hundred years, gargoyles appear and attempt to conquer the world of men.  Obviously, they have been unsuccessful so far.  Since the gargoyles' last appearance, humanity has dismissed their existence.  Humans have to counter the gargoyle threat before the gargoyles grow into an invincible force.  Indeed, a gargoyles-versus-humans tactical scenario might have made for a better game than Cyborg.

Scale?  There's no scale.  Scales are for snakes, not maps!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Ideal Introduction to the Fast-Growing World of Role-Playing Games

Art by Duncan Smith

Steve Jackson – not to be confused with Steve Jackson – was co-author (with Ian Livingstone) of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the “solo gamebook” that launched the Fighting Fantasy line.  Among many other accomplishments, Jackson was responsible for Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game which incorporated the 'system' used in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.  (Henceforth in this post, FF shall refer to the Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Roll-Playing Game  book.)

Penguin Books, through its Puffin imprint, published FF in 1984 as a 240 page paperback.  From an American perspective, it may seem unusual to publish RPG rules in a paperback format, but in Britain it made sense to produce the rules in the same format as the gamebooks.  Corgi did the same thing with their edition of Tunnels & Trolls in 1986.

Although 240 pages, the bulk of the book is devoted to two sample adventures.  The rules section only encompasses about 58 pages and the font size is generous.  Still, the book accomplishes its goal of presenting a set of introductory RPG rules.  FF is intended for younger players, but it does not state the age of its demographic target.  However, in the introduction, Jackson writes:
Many of these role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, Traveller and Warhammer, are quite complicated, and their manufacturers recommend them for twelve-year-olds and over.  They refer constantly to charts and tables in the rules and require a lot of book-keeping by the players.  But the spirit of role-playing games is not so much the tremendous detail and statistics they go into (although there are 'walking-encyclopedia' types who revel in the complications of such games).  For most players, the real fun comes from the adventure itself.
Jackson engages the reader in an informal tone and deftly explains the rules of the game and the function of the GamesMaster.  As we can see on the Adventure Sheet reproduced below, there are three 'characteristics'.

Skill (1d6 + 6):  “...indicates an adventurer's own skills in a variety of areas: swordsmanship and general fighting abilities; problem-solving; strength; intelligence; etc.”

Stamina (2d6 + 12):  “...represents fitness, will to survive, determination and general constitution.”  Should an adventurer's Stamina fall to zero, the adventurer dies.

Luck (1d6 + 6):  This score acts as a 'saving throw' in FF.  When a GamesMaster requires an adventurer to “test for Luck,” 2d6 are rolled.  If the result is equal to or less than the Luck value, the test is successful.  Regardless of the result, the Luck value is reduced by one; subsequent tests therefore become more difficult.

Combat occurs as a sequence of Attack Rounds.  In an Attack Round, each opponent rolls 2d6 and adds the result to his or her Skill value.  The total is the opponent's Attack Strength.  The Attack Strengths of opponents are compared; the opponent with the lower Attack Strength sustains a loss of two points of Stamina.  Attack Rounds repeat until combat concludes.  Upon sustaining a combat injury, an adventurer can test for Luck to reduce the amount of damage.  A successful test means a loss of only one point of Stamina, but a failed test means the adventurer loses three Stamina points.  When inflicting a combat injury, an adventurer can also test for Luck to cause more damage.  If successful, the adventurer causes four Stamina to be lost; however, if the test is not successful, the adventurer inflicts a loss of only one Stamina.

As presented, the rules in FF are limited, but the selling point is that it's an introductory system.  Also, as Jackson implied, the spirit of the game lies not in the rules but in the adventure itself – a sentiment that actually applies to all role-playing games.

Fighting Fantasy character sheet

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Lantern in Combat

Domenico Angelo's The School of Fencing (1787) includes a section on how to confront an opponent who employs a “dark lanthorn” – a lantern with a panel that slides to block the light.  Evidently, footpads would equip themselves with a sword and lantern in order to commit their depredations.  According to Angelo, “there are severe punishments inflicted upon on those who are found sword in hand with a dark lanthorn...”  Reportedly, such a criminal would keep the lantern's panel closed, thereby maintaining darkness.  When the robber approached close enough to shine a beam of light into the victim's eyes, he would open the panel.  This would temporarily blind the victim, thereby facilitating the footpad's goal.

If such tactics were viable in the real world, why not apply them to dungeon delving?  Subterranean entities with sensitive eyesight might be particularly susceptible.  How would the mechanics work?  Perhaps, first of all, a successful 'attack' should be made on the part of the lantern wielder.

Starting with Moldvay's D&D and continuing with subsequent editions of 'basic', a 'Light' spell cast at a target's eyes would cause blindness for the duration of the spell (assuming the target fails a saving roll vs. Spells).  “In D&D BASIC rules,” the spell description states, “a blinded creature may not attack.”  This effect may be more severe than what a non-magical light would be expected to accomplish; yet it provides a precedent.  Edition 3.5 indicates that a “dazzled” character has an attack roll modifier (both melee and ranged) of -1.  Additionally, the Armor Class of a “blinded” character is detrimentally modified by 2 (and no Dexterity bonus is applied).  In fifth edition, attacks by a blind character “have disadvantage” while attacks against a blind character “have advantage.”  The fifth edition “condition” of blindness seems appropriate for our purpose.  But what about a saving throw?  For 'basic', like the 'Light' spell, a saving roll vs. Spells may be apt.  The 3.5E 'Sunburst' spell allows a Reflex save to avoid blindness whereas the same spell in 5E indicates a “Constitution saving throw.”  A blinded character is entitled to “another Constitution saving throw at the end of each of its turns” (to a maximum duration of 1 minute I suppose) in order to recover.  I am inclined to favor a Wisdom saving throw rather than Constitution, since Wisdom governs perception.

Depicted below is a lantern shield, a 'real world' weapon that incorporates a lantern for the purpose for blinding or dazzling an opponent.  It seems rather abundantly accessorized to be of much practical value, still they would not have been made if there was no demand for such things.  Seemingly, lantern shields were not intended for combat but rather intimidation.  Of course, in an elfgame, there is nothing to prevent a lantern shield from being a common piece of adventuring equipment.